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Chris Barker
Sunday Dinner

Samantha watched the peeling paint shower like pale yellow snowflakes from the inside of her bedroom door as it vibrated from an intentional violence. She listened to him crash down the hallway on route to the front room. Then the sound of Metallica Live blasted through the walls and rattled the windows.


She thought, if I hear that terrible racket again, I’ll scream. 


She screamed anyway. 


But nobody heard her; nobody heard the butterfly.


That afternoon, she still believed that her father had not meant what he had done. Once the black cloud had lifted, as it always did, he would come to his senses and beg Mum’s forgiveness. She would be at Aunty Camilla’s, where she would stay for a few days until a sea breeze cleared the air and she limped sadly home. Chastened and full of remorse, he would say, ‘I am so sorry, Gabby, darling, it will never happen again’ and ‘Hey, Sam girl, here’s a twenty, go and buy yourself something.’ Normally when he was on the piss, she would sit on his knee and wrap her arms around his neck while he told her why the whole world was fucked; and when his rant was finally through, she would take his hand and lead him to his room where he lay on the bed while she stroked his head until he fell asleep.


That was the way it was.


Dad got pissed; he acted stupid; he slept it off.


This time, though, she feared that he had really shot off the rails, and his mind had splintered into a million jagged shards.


Imprisoned in her bedroom, Sam wondered if the chaos had begun the day that dad had been shipped out to Afghanistan, or perhaps it started when grandad took off around the world, or maybe it was her fault, and she had done something terribly, terribly wrong to provoke his anger? Did she spend too long at the beach, surfing when she should have helped him in the garage? But while she knew in her gut that a story doesn’t really have a certain start, only an arbitrary place to begin the telling, she felt that perhaps Grandma Grace had lit the match that started the fire when she had phoned last Saturday. 

<  2  >


Sam had rushed down the sun-starved hallway from her bedroom, narrowly avoiding a model aircraft that dad had left stranded on the floor for all and sundry to trip over, and into the front room where she picked up the telephone whose ring-ring, ring-ring still carried a promise. 


‘Hello,’ said Sam into the void.


‘Sam, my dear, is your dad there, please?’ said Grandma Grace.


‘Don’t call me Samantha, call me Sam.’


‘Sorry, Sam, can you call your dad.’


‘It’s for you, dad,’ she called.


When Charlie did not answer her summon, Sam ventured down the hallway and into the kitchen to gather him in. He was seated at the table, drinking tea and listening to the radio news. 


‘Hey, dad, grandma’s on the phone for you,’ she said. 


 He did not answer, appearing disinclined to abandon either his tea or the radio; until at last, in silence and with bad-tempered nonchalance, he stood up and headed down the hall towards the front room. Sam followed him until she could hear grandma’s calm but insistent voice. Dad’s eyes remained firmly fixed on the view through the window of the lush-green escarpment. 


‘For Christ’s sake, alright, I’ll do it,’ he said, ‘but don’t blame me if it all goes pear-shaped, which it will.’ 


She watched him slam the phone down and slump into his ancient, much-loved grey leather armchair as if he were the proverbial sack of potatoes. He was no longer the slim, athletic man of her early childhood. Middle age had bought an expansion of his waistline and long, grey hair, which he tied back into a ponytail.


Sam clambered up onto the fragile wing of the lounger and wound her arm around his stiffened shoulders.


‘Hey, dad, what’s happening?’ she said, her tone both tender and inquisitive.

<  3  >


He pushed her away with a gentle insistence, stood up, and grabbed the letter that lay hibernating on top of the imitation marble mantelpiece opposite him; a letter from his father, a letter with consequences, and perhaps strangest of all to Sam, a letter written by hand, on paper, and placed in an envelope, lending it gravitas and authenticity. 


‘Hey, what’s up, dad,’ said Sam. ‘Is grandma alright?’


‘She’s fine,’ he said, rolling his eyes.


‘Oh, come on, dad, tell me. Something’s up.’


‘Your grandma is bringing your bloody grandfather over to lunch on Sunday, worse luck.’


‘Wow, my grandad. I’ve never met him,’ exclaimed Sam.


‘He just took bloody pictures, you know,’ spat Charlie. ‘That’s a thousand and one ways to tell lies if you ask me. You know, all the time I was in Afghanistan, I never let on that the famous war photographer, Jack Wilson, was my father. Well, he’s not, as far as I’m concerned. And now, after years without so much as a phone call, he wants to see me again. What a friggin’ cheek, eh.’ 


She watched in astonishment as he folded the letter into a square and ripped it into shreds, which fell to the floor like confetti, with its intention maliciously inverted. 


‘Stuff him,’ he said. ‘He can go to Hell.’ 


An inquisitive fourteen-year-old with flaming-red hair and a face full of freckles, Sam went in search of her mother and found her in the kitchen washing the dishes. 


‘So, mum, what is it with grandad Jack coming over for dinner on Sunday? I mean, what’s he like?’ she said.


 Gabby carried on cleaning the pots and pans.


‘Mum!’ prompted Sam.


‘I don’t know,’ said Gabby wearily. ‘I’ve never met him.’

<  4  >


‘But why have we never met him before?’


 Gabby put down her dishcloth as Sam waited with eager anticipation. 


‘Sam, love, it’s best left alone. When you stick your fingers in a fire, they get burned.’ 


Sam was not to be deterred. 


‘I’d don’t get it. Why isn’t dad pleased,’ she said. ‘I mean, it is his father and stuff, so what’s going on?’


‘Hmm,’ murmured Gabby. ‘I am not getting through to you, am I, Sam? Look, darling, families are complicated. You see, there is bad blood between dad and Jack.’


‘Yeah, I got that, but how come?’ said Sam, undaunted by motherly obfuscation.


‘You really should ask you your dad that,’ said Gabby.


‘But what’s the big secret?” 


Sam waited patiently while Gabby marshalled her words. 


‘Jack is getting old, and he is not well,’ said Gabby. ‘He wants to see your dad and make up, you see, after all that happened. He’s hoping for a second chance. Of course, dad’s not happy about it, but Grandma Grace has asked him to walk that extra mile. She wants him to let bygones be by bygones, and if anyone can work your dad around on anything at all, it’s Grace.’ 


 ‘Oh, but grandad is family isn’t he, and I am sooo excited,’ exclaimed Sam.


‘I don’t want your dad to be upset, that’s all,’ whispered Gabby, ‘because we all know what that can mean, don’t we?’ 


Sam knew that her mum wanted to lay down the burden of explanation, but it was too late to turn back the tide of her curiosity.


‘But why is he so against it?’ she said. ‘I mean, how come gran has to make him meet Grandad?’

<  5  >


 ‘You see love,’ said Gabby. ‘Dad was still quite young when Jack left the family, and I think he is still angry about it. That’s all I know.’ 


The following Sunday, when the bell chimed, Sam ran down the hallway to open the door. At 5 feet 3 inches, Grace was the shortest member of the family, and Sam was able to gaze over her short, gray head towards a tall, striking man with silver hair and wrinkles that ran like desert tracks across his suntanned face.


‘Hi there, kids,’ said Grace, her face lit up by a joyful smile.


‘Hello, gran,’ chimed Sam and her younger brother, Alex, who had crept up behind her.


Grace leant forward and hugged each of her grandchildren with her characteristic warmth. 


‘So, pet, this is your grandad Jack,’ she said. 


Jack held out his hand for Sam to shake. 


Sam, though, was not one to engage in foolish formalities and stepped forward to wrap her arms around his torso for an elongated hug.


‘Hey, Grandad,’ she said as she stepped back from the embrace. ‘It’s awesome that you are here. I want to hear everything about you.’


‘I’m very happy to be here,’ he said. ‘Very happy indeed. And I can’t wait to hear all about you, my dear.’ 


The lightness of spirit that enveloped them was abruptly displaced by anxiety as a grim-faced Charlie strode down the hallway towards Jack as if he were an armed intruder with evil intent. 


‘Good to see you, Charlie,’ said Jack, holding out his ceremonial hand. ‘Thank you so much for welcoming me into your home. It means a great deal to me and.’


‘Don’t thank me, thank mum,’ grunted Charlie, studiously ignoring the outstretched hand. 


 He paused as if his next move was touch and go. 

<  6  >


‘I guess you had better come in then,’ he said.


Gabby had lavished her time and attention on cooking Sunday dinner, Anglo-style, meaning roast chicken with potatoes, honey-glazed carrots, Brussels sprouts, and green peas accompanied by apple sauce and rivers of thick meaty gravy. 


‘Hey, mum, you’ve brought a new vase,’ said Sam.


‘Yes, from Dawson’s in town, isn’t it wonderful?’


‘You always do us proud,’ said Grace as she eased herself into an upright wooden dining chair with the support of Jack’s outstretched hand. ‘I’ve got a touch of backache,’ she said by way of explanation. ‘But no worries, it’s only temporary; I’ll be right as rain soon.’ 


She turned to address Jack.


‘Sit down, love,’ she said, beckoning him to take the seat beside her. 


When everyone was seated at the table, Charlie carved the roast, and then Gabby passed around the chicken-laden plates.


‘My, doesn’t this smell champion,’ said Grace. ‘Thank you so much, Gabby.’


‘You’re welcome,’ said Gabby. ‘We want you all to have a wonderful time, don’t we, Charlie?’


He nodded and grunted slightly.


Grace moved to fill the void. 


‘So, how’s your week been, Gabby?’


‘Oh, same old, same old,’ said Gabby. ‘Shopping, tidying, cleaning. The usual stuff. Oh, but I did buy a new blender, it’s fantastic, I’ll show it to you later.’


Charlie glanced up from his plate. 


‘And how much did that cost?’ he said.


‘We needed it, Charlie,’ said Gabby.’ The old one’s broken.’ 


Alex was drumming his feet on the floor anxiously, without rhythm.


‘I’m hungry,’ he said.

<  7  >


‘Shall we say, Grace,’ said Gabby. 


‘Must we? said Charlie.


‘For what we are about to receive, may the Lord makes us truly thankful. Now, please enjoy,’ said Gabby.


‘Well, I’ll be buggered,’ said Charlie, who had not participated in the ceremonials.’ Have you joined the army of Christ, Jack?


‘Isn’t it wonderful to all be together as a family?’ said Grace


Charlie stared across the table at his father.


‘So, what do you say, Jack? Weren’t you the guy always said, dumb arse Christians, war killed off the God dream for me good and proper.’


‘When in Rome,’ said Jack.


‘It’s a bloody shocker seeing the world’s number one atheist up for God, that’s all,’ said Charlie. ‘And if war didn’t kill off God for you, it certainly did for me.’


‘A prayer can give us hope,’ said Gabby.


‘Well, Christ, something has to,’ said Charlie, ‘because bugger all else does.’


‘Oh, come on now, Charlie,’ said Grace, her tone one of modest reproach. ‘It’s Sunday dinner.’


‘Alright, alright. Welcome everyone,’ said Charlie grudgingly. 


After a momentary pause, he turned towards Jack and raised his glass.


 ‘Cheers, old man,’


Jack’s weary face lit up with a hundred candles of hope.


‘Thank you, son,’ he said. ‘That means the world to me.’


‘We’ll have less of the son, thank you, but otherwise, enjoy your dinner.’


Grace smiled at Charlie and mouthed a silent, ‘thank you love’ before continuing with a more audible: ‘So how’s your week been, Charlie?’


‘I’ve bust a gut in the garage this week,’ he said. ‘But if I weren’t busy, there’d be no food on the table, and we wouldn’t be up for no new blenders either.’

<  8  >


‘Good onya pet, you always were a hard worker,’ she said


‘I learned it all in that B & B of yours,’ said Charlie. 


A broad smile illuminated his face. 


‘You were a right slave driver, mum.’ 


‘Ah, all for your own good, bonny lad,’ she said laughing.


‘Did you work in grandma’s guesthouse, dad?’ said Alex.


‘Can you pass the apple sauce please, Sam,’ said Charlie


Alex tugged at his father’s sleeve. ‘Dad?’


‘All the time, son. When I was a kid. Someone had to do the bloody work while others were gallivantin’ around the world.’


‘What’s gallivanting?’ said Alex.


‘Less talk, more dinner, Alex,’ said Charlie. ‘Pass the apple sauce, please, Sam.’


‘Your dad was a good lad, Alex. He always helped me out,’ said Grace.


Charlie topped up everybody’s wine from the bottle of Merlot that lay strategically close to his right hand, then glanced across the table towards Gabby.


‘Will you go to church this evening, love,’ he asked.


‘Oh yes, probably, if I have the time,’ she said.


‘Oh, you should,’ he said. ‘If you want to. What time’s the service?’


‘6:30,’ she said.


‘Can I go to the beach later, dad,’ said Sam. 


‘Sure,’ said Charlie. ‘My beacon must go surfing.’


Charlie gulped down his wine, opened another bottle, and filled his glass.


Everyone smiled and laughed, and Sam felt that they were a proper family.


‘It’s so very good to be here,’ said Jack warmly. 

<  9  >


 Gabby reached out her hand and touched him tenderly on the arm. 


’ You’re most welcome,’ she said.


 After dinner, Jack jumped to his feet with an athleticism that belied his years and sickness.


‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he announced. ‘May I present the Grandma Grace awards for the very best grandchildren in the known universe.’


He reached inside his jacket and pulled out two golden envelopes, which he waved in flamboyant imitation of the Oscar ceremony.


‘And the coveted prizes go to,’ he paused for a moment to heighten the drama. ‘Sam and Alex Wilson.’


With a swooping bow, Jack handed each of the youngsters a gilded envelope.


‘Show off,’ muttered Charlie.


Sam and Alex ripped open their envelopes with unbridled enthusiasm and were rewarded with handwritten notes that instructed them to ‘check-out’ the veranda.


Alex leapt to his feet and bounced away like a puppy chasing a ball of wool. Sam followed him out the door, walking slowly, with intentional cool. When she finally caught up with her brother, he was standing on the veranda with his mouth open, and his pupils inflated like helium balloons.


‘Whoa! Too much,’ he shouted.


Propped against the railings stood a red Fender Stratocaster and a twin reverb amp. He bent down and slid his hand over the smooth instrument to confirm that his vision was real. Then he lifted the leather strap over his head and brushed his fingers across the strings.


‘Super awesome!’ he exclaimed.


‘Brilliant, Alex,’ said Sam. ‘But where’s mine?’


She peered across the veranda with her expectations all fired up until she spotted the shortboard leaning against the wall of the house. No way! A Feisty Girl! Yeah! She was totally stoked and overflowing with bounce.

<  10  >


‘Happy?’ said Grace.


‘It totally rocks, thanks so much,’ exclaimed Sam. ‘This is the best present ever.’


Alex made a beeline for Jack.


‘Will you help me fix it up, please, grandad?’


‘Settle down now,’ said mum. ‘There’s washing up to do.’


‘Grandad?’ said Alex.


‘That’s all we need,’ muttered Charlie, and stomped off down the hallway.


‘I’m going to see if Gabby needs help,’ said Grace.


She touched Jack on his forearm.


‘You sit tight and rest like you were told to.’


Alex plugged the fender into the amp and strummed a few chords on his new guitar.


‘Thanks so much, grandad,’ he said.


‘You’re welcome, Alex. It’s a joy for me to see you enjoy it.’


‘Grandad, how come you’ve never been around?’


Alex looked stunned by his own question, and so he hit another chord. Jack let the sound drift away before leaning forward and touching Alex on his shoulder.


‘Too long, I know,’ he said. ‘Can I say sorry for that, Alex? Can I try to do better now?’


After they cleared the table and washed the dishes, the family sat together in the living room. They were all drinking post-lunch tea and coffee, except for Charlie, who had poured himself a large Jack Daniels.


‘Charlie, darling, we need to talk about your father,’ said Grace. 


Charlie pulled on a granite mask and glared at Jack.


‘OK, mate,’ said Charlie. ‘Let’s talk. What the bloody hell are you doing here?’ 


Jack remained silent as he clenched his fists.

<  11  >


‘You know, lovey,’ said Grace. ‘We really do need to talk.’


‘Bullshit,’ said Charlie, his flaying right arm sending his whisky flying.


Franke stood up.


‘I’m off to the surf now,’ she said.


‘No, you’re not,’ said Charlie. ‘You’re staying here with the rest of us my girl.’


‘But dad, I’ve got to try out my new board, and you said I could,’ she protested. 


‘You’re not going, Sam. Full stop. No arguments. Surf’s no good anyways,’ he said.


‘How do you know? Like, since when were you king of the surf?


‘That’s enough of your lip, young lady. Sit down. You aren’t going anywhere,’ he said as he poured himself another drink. 


‘Oh, come on, Charlie, why not let her go?’ said Jack. ‘It’s fine by us. There’s not much happening here for the youngsters. And the light will be gone soon.’


Charlie’s whisky-crazed cobalt eyes deepened.


‘Really, and there’s me thinking this was a glorious family reunion,’ he said. ‘The return of the prodigal father. A bit bloody late in the day but. So please, don’t tell me how to run my family, right? It’s not like you’re a bloody expert, is it, mate?’


Jack remained silent while Charlie turned to stare at Grace. 


‘I was stupid enough to let you talk me round,’ he said. ‘But don’t expect me to fall at the Messiah’s feet. I am not that bleedin’ desperate. I mean, what the hell are you up to? I can’t believe you’ve taken him back. Have you got no pride left?’ 


‘You know,’ she said.


‘And really, why is that any of our business?’ 


Sam watched the runaway Charlie express roll on undaunted, his super-blue gaze super-charged with anger. 

<  12  >


‘I mean, sticking by folks isn’t exactly his way, now is it?’ he said. ‘Sticking it to ’em more like. The man pissed off and left us high and dry. And he’s famous for Christ’s sake for click, clicking while that girl burnt to death. It makes me sick.’


Jack closed his eyes and pulled himself upright.


‘Maybe you could calm down for a moment, Charlie,’ he said. ‘And then we can talk.’


Charlie pointed his finger at Jack as if it were a Browning Hi-power pistol. 


‘Fuck your condescension. Fuck your cancer. And fuck you!’ he shouted.


He wobbled to his feet like a newborn calf to stage a grand exit, though no one was fooled about his condition as he swayed and faltered his way out of the door, slamming it behind him.


 Gabby wrapped her arms around a nervous Alex, who was seated next to her.


‘Don’t worry, love. Dad’s not feeling himself today,’ she said.


Sam appeared in the doorway of Charlie’s garage, at the rear of their home, searching for some meaning to it all. Dad was sitting in an old armchair, smoking a ciggy, and drinking from a whisky bottle. He looked up at her for a second and then turned his gaze away. She slid into the garage and surveyed him from a distance as if he were an escaped tiger. 


‘What the hell do you want?’ he said.


‘Why are you so mad at grandad?’ she whispered calmly. ‘I think he’s really trying.’


‘For heaven’s sake, can you give it a rest?’ 


‘I want to understand, dad,’ she said.


‘It’s very simple,’ he grunted. ‘I’ve no time for the bastard, and I never will. And now he wants to cosy up to my family as if he’s always been there for us. Over my dead body, believe me.’ 

<  13  >


‘I think he just wants to be your dad,’ she said. 


 Charlie raised his bottle to his lips and took another drink. 


‘He was never any kind of dad to me,’ he said, his anger growing, his defences hardening. ‘Shall I tell you what kind of father he was? He pissed off when I was a kid and never came to visit. And all the time I was in Afghanistan, he never said, ‘how you going, mate?’ He just wanted to be a famous journalist. All that man cares about is himself.’


‘I’m sure he loves you, dad,’ she said. ‘And grandma says he’s dying.’


‘That man couldn’t love anyone, believe me,’ he spat. ‘But it looks like he’s conned you like he cons everyone else before he sells them down the river.’ 


Charlie pushed himself up from his chair, his eyes dimmed by a milky sheen.


He steadied himself and then wobbled towards the pit, where he picked up a red oblong can from the floor. 


‘You know what made him famous? He watched the Taliban douse a young girl in petrol and set her alight for wanting an education. And you know what he did? He stood there and took pictures. Then he went and interviewed the Taliban. How sick is that? And all the time me and my mates were fighting in the mountains. He doesn’t give a toss about me,’ he said. ‘Do you reckon he really cares about you?’ 


He staggered back towards her until he was right up in her face, where he unscrewed the lid of the petrol can and poured its contents over the floor around their feet. He pulled out a lighter from his pocket and flicked on the flame. 


‘What you reckon? Shall we show him, mate?’ 


‘Oh my God, dad, don’t. Please don’t,’ cried Sam, her legs turning to jelly. 

<  14  >


‘Well then, get the hell out of here,’ he said. 


He slid the lighter back into his pocket. 


‘I told you to leave me the fuck alone, so why don’t you just do that.’ 


Sam belted out of the garage and across the yard into the house, where she took refuge in her bedroom. It was not long before Charlie barged into her room without so much as a knock or a call. He was still carrying the petrol can and the lighter.


‘Where’s Jack?’ he demanded.


‘Dunno,’ she said.


‘Fucking guitars and surfboards, for God’s sake,’ he mumbled. ‘I’ll sort the bastard out, no worries,’ he said.


‘Dad, you’re not going to do anything stupid, are you?’


He took the key from inside the door and stepped into the hallway. 


He turned the key, and she was locked in.

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