When my daughter, Tabatha, first spoke, I was ecstatic, so was my wife. I was getting worried as she’d hit that age, and every day that passed and she didn’t speak was one more day of anxiety.
Fast forward three and a half years and it was my job to explain to Tabatha what had happened to her mother. I’d left it for a few days, not knowing how to explain it. I’d been psyching myself up, but I couldn’t do that to her. I couldn’t tell her her mother was gone.
On a quiet evening, I was sat with her, watching TV and she said, “can Erica stay?”
“Who?” I asked.
She pointed to her right, to the empty space on the floor next to her. It was a reflection of my own childhood and a tingle of fear crept up my back like wayward hands going for the throat. I smiled back at her, and phoned the only person I knew that could help.
My sister, Tammy, wasn’t loved by my mother. I didn’t understand that at the time. My father had been in a car accident. He was driving back from work late. I remember the days before that, mum and dad arguing, her asking if he could do less hours. He said he needed to do them, that there was no one else who could.
My dad loved Tammy, even more than me, I think. He didn’t like that she slept on the floor next to my bed, but mum insisted.
“I’m not getting that thing a bed,” my mum said once, so loud I could hear it through the floor. I cupped my hands over Tammy’s ears and whispered to her that everything would be fine.
He’d fallen asleep, and drifted off the motorway. They speculated he woke when he hit the rumble strips on the side of the hard shoulder. There were sixty feet of skid marks that weaved from left to right, until his vehicle lost all momentum instantly. We didn’t see dad after that. Mum didn’t tell us to start with. I guess she thought knowing the truth would somehow make life worse. But we couldn’t heal, we couldn’t move on. Mum took it out on Tammy.
“Make your sister behave,” she’d say.
“I don’t want to see her in this house,” she demanded.
“Keep her in your room, she disgusts me.”
Without dad there to defend her, and me only thirteen years old, I kept quiet. I’d known about her anger.
It didn’t take me long to figure out dad wasn’t coming back. The rumours spread quickly at school, within days children were asking what it was like to not have a dad. I told them he was coming back, though they just laughed. Then they stopped teasing, and a teacher explained to me what had happened. I was numb. He was on a work trip, my mother said, he’d be back.
I felt like an idiot. I was thirteen, and didn’t know what death was. It reminded me of when I was in year 10, and thunder growled above the school field. We began to run inside before my friend Darren said there was nothing to worry about, it was only clouds bumping together. We laughed at him like they laughed at me. I didn’t understand how hurtful it must have been to him, though this was about my dad. My sister was the only person who showed any sign of sympathy, because we shared it.
Tammy was upset. She told me she felt so lonely. She asked if she wished hard enough, would he come back. I told her that it wasn’t possible.
“It doesn’t work like that,” I said.
I could see the tears well up in her eyes.
“Maybe though, if you try real hard,” I said, and she smiled. That was all I wanted, a smile, selfishly though, as I could worry less about her, and concentrate on my own grief.
Mum screamed one morning, and thumped up the stairs. Tammy jumped off the bed, she didn’t want mum to catch her sleeping on the mattress, she had to sleep on the floor. She shuffled under the bed with practise.
“Who did this?” mum blasted, pushing her way into the room so hard, I thought the door would fly off the hinges.
She dangled a bloody carcass of our pet rabbit, Peter. I remember how its eyes were still open in fright. Its white fur spotted with flecks of blood.
“I didn’t do it, I swear!” I said.
“Who was it then?” she said quieter. A vein throbbed on her forehead, as if it were the thing demanding answers, “was it your sister? WHERE IS IT?”
“It was me! It was me!” I said, not wanting her to hurt Tammy.
I shut my eyes and braced myself, feeling my body grow stiff. The tension almost shattered me. When I opened my eyes, mum was gone. Moments later, Tammy edged herself out from under the bed, her eyes red from tears.
“I’m not mad,” I said, “why did you do it?”
“It wasn’t me; it was Bobby.”
“He’s my friend.”
I looked around the room, seeing no one there.
“Is he here now?”
She was now kneeling on the makeshift bed next to mine. She nodded.
“Where is he?”
She pointed to the closet.
I hopped off the bed and made my way over.
“I need to talk to him, is that okay?”
“No! He doesn’t like other people, only me.”
The cupboard had those slatted wooden doors, so I tried to peer in, to see if any eyes shined back at me.
“If he’s in there, how did he kill Peter?”
“We were downstairs. He didn’t mean to,” Tammy pleaded, “he tried to hug him, and Peter started kicking. He was only trying to calm him.”
I wanted to tell Tammy that Bobby wasn’t real. That it must have been her that did it. I couldn’t do that to her so soon after losing dad.
“I think it’s best you stay up here, I’ll go talk to mum,” I said.
In the weeks following my father’s death it felt as though I was forced to grow up. It was my job, no it was my duty, to look after Tammy, and to keep mum away from her. It wasn’t her fault dad was dead.
When I got downstairs, mum sat at the dining table with a glass of red wine. Peter lay in the centre of the table.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” she asked calmly.
“I don’t know, mum.”
“It wasn’t you, was it,” she stated.
“Yes, it was.”
“Stop lying for her.”
“I can tell when you’re lying, I’m your mother.”
I hung my head.
“Please don’t hurt her,” I pleaded.
“What use would that do? I don’t know what you did, but your dad…” she trailed off.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Killing an animal is serious. It shows there’s something wrong with her. Don’t you see that?”
I shook my head.
“Jesus, it’s not hard!”
She picked up Peter and shook him. I could see she saw the grimace I pulled.
“Killing animals is wrong.”
I should’ve kept my mouth shut, but it was my duty, to protect Tammy.
“We eat meat every day.”
I saw her face go red with anger. She didn’t explode. She didn’t say anything, but for, “You should go to school.”
“We have rabbit, can’t let that go to waste.”
I went to school without eating.
Over the next few days I smelled something odd in my bedroom. First it smelt sweet, then it disappeared, then the next day, rotten.
Tammy was playing on the floor when I approached the closet. Though the wooden slats I smelt it. It was coming from in there. I reached for the handle.
“Don’t go in there, Bobby won’t like it,” Tammy said.
“Can’t you smell that?”
“Yeah-huh,” she replied.
“Bobby wanted to play with Peter.”
“Bobby doesn’t know that.”
I pulled the closet door open and flies flew out. I shielded my face.
“No!” Tammy pleaded.
There was nothing in there, except for the decomposing corpse of Peter rabbit. I heaved.
“Get me a bag!”
“Bobby says to leave it, he’s telling him he’s sorry.”
“BOBBY ISN’T REAL!” I shouted, and as soon as I did, I regretted it.
Tammy stood up and ran out of the room.
Luckily, it was Thursday, and mum had already put the bins to the curb. When I heard mum go to bed, I gave myself a half an hour, before I crept downstairs and outside, placing Peter into the bin.
“Goodbye buddy,” I said, and for the first time in weeks, felt myself begin to cry. Then I thought about dad, and all the grief I’d been storing up flowed out. It was one of those silent cries, where you don’t want anyone else to know.
I stopped when I turned to go back to the house. The light was still on in my room. I could see Tammy stare out, watching me, I didn’t want her to see that. Next to her, a silhouette, around a foot taller than her.
When I returned to the bedroom, Tammy was already tucked up. I didn’t undress when I got into bed. I was scared.
“I saw Bobby,” I said, with the covers pulled up over my head.
“Yes, you did,” Tammy replied, “I told you he’s real.”
I realised I had no place to be arguing with her.
“Where is he now?” I asked.
“He said he didn’t want to go back in the closet.”
I felt my breathing quicken as a fright I didn’t know possible began to take hold.
“Where is he, Tammy?”
“He’s under your bed.”
I felt myself hyperventilate. A hand touched my shoulder. I pulled back the covers to reveal Tammy’s smiling face next to mine.
“Don’t worry, he likes you.”
I didn’t see Bobby up close then. Tammy said he was shy, and I was happy about that. I put it down to a hallucination, a trick of the light, lack of sleep, stress, grief, the list was endless.
It was rare to see mum without a glass of wine after the rabbit incident. I’m sure she was grieving the loss of our dad, but that was the tipping point. I think he was the only thing keeping the family together, and with her irrational hatred of my sister, she was gone, lost in the alcohol.
Mum no longer picked me up from football practice, so I stopped going. I wasn’t too bothered. There was a divide between me and the other players after dad’s death. They treated me as the kid without a father, and instead of giving me support, they kept me away with jokes and jibes.
On the day it all changed, I knew something was wrong. The front door was open wide. I could see it from down the street. I walked normally, then quicker, then quicker again as something inside me knew.
It was odd, the house felt so cold. It was as if all the life inside had been snuffed out.
“Who are you?” I asked the man who stood in the living room.
He was around six feet tall, wearing a black sweater, black gloves and a balaclava that covered his face. A rucksack sat on the floor next to him.
“I didn’t do it,” he said, his voice wavering, “I swear!”
He pushed past me, sending me tumbling to the floor. I didn’t see where he went. My eyes were concentrated on the trail of blood that ran to the kitchen. I didn’t want to get up at first. I knew if I did, I’d follow the tracks and find out what it was.
“Mum?” I shouted, hoping to hear her respond.
“Tammy?” I shouted again.
I heard crying. I pushed myself to my feet, feeling my legs give way, as the anxiety of the situation took hold. I remember my heart thumping so hard in my chest it was as if it spoke to me, saying uh oh, uh oh, uh oh, as I approached the kitchen.
I saw Tammy first. She was standing, still in her nightgown, her hands over her mouth as if to keep out the scene she stared at in front of her. She saw me.
“He didn’t mean to hurt her; he was trying to protect her from the man.”
“Who, Tammy, who did this?”
“Bobby,” she said, and then burst into tears.
On the floor, a smashed glass leaked a puddle of claret wine and mixed with the blood that ran from my mother.
“Mum,” I said, running and slipping on the liquid.
“Phone for an ambulance!” I demanded, but Tammy stood frozen to the spot with fear.
I heard creaks from upstairs, and Tammy’s eyes met mine. I knew who it was.
I reached for the kitchen phone and called. I waited on the line and hugged my mother. I expected her body to get colder, but it didn’t. I placed my ear to her chest, hoping to hear a pulse. I didn’t cry. I felt numb.
They didn’t tell me what happened to my mother, only that she was brave and confronted an intruder, that I should be proud of her.
I was taken to live with my aunt and uncle. When I asked them where Tammy was, they were always nice. They said they only ever heard good things about her, but she had gone to stay with another family. When I asked why, they didn’t give me an answer. When I asked if I could talk to her, they said someday, but not today.
It was only when I turned twenty-four when I found her again. I moved out as soon as I could, aged seventeen. It wasn’t that my aunt and uncle weren’t nice people, they were, but it never felt like home. It always felt as if I were biding my time until I could get out. I’d tried so hard to find her, through Facebook and other family members. Those who did remember her, remembered her as a very young child and had no clue as to where she was.
When I finally saw her, I was sitting in a café, drinking coffee. She was outside. She walked hand in hand with a man I thought I recognised. I raced out and she spotted me instantly and greeted me with a powerful embrace. She introduced me to her boyfriend, Robert. He was older than her, around ten years. I thought it was good she had an older boyfriend. She needed someone who could be a quasi-father figure to her.
“Do I know you?” I said, as I took his hand.
“I don’t think we’ve met before,” he said, shaking his head.
We exchanged information and kept in touch.
I was anxious before she answered the phone, and when she did, she was too. I asked her how her day was, and she seemed preoccupied.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I knew you were going to phone, I told Robert. He’s looking at me in that way you used to look at me. Do you remember when we were kids and you let me sleep in your bed? You always made me feel so safe.”
“I do,” I replied.
We were both quiet for a moment.
“Spit it out,” she demanded.
“How’s she getting on?”
“She’s fine. But she mentioned something today that reminded me of you.”
“She’s got this friend.”
“That’s nice, it’s always good to have friends.”
“No, she’s not real.”
I sighed, remembering telling Tammy about Bobby.
“She says her name is Erica,” I continued.
“Is she happy?”
“So, what’s the problem?”
“I don’t want her to have to cope with grief with an imaginary friend.”
“Have you not told her what happened?”
I hadn’t, how could I? How could I tell my child what happened to her mother? I could barely face it myself.
“You really should, it would help so much.”
“I will do, but not just yet. What should I do in the meantime?”
“Play along. It worked for you.”
“It didn’t, I told you Bobby didn’t exist, but you insisted.”
She let out an anxious laugh.
“And you remember how that ended? When someone wants something so badly, but people don’t accept it, you cannot stop it, your anger only fuels it. What’s created isn’t wanted.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Oh, honey. I love you so much. You looked out for me much longer than you needed to.”
“What do you mean?”
“You and dad couldn’t let go, the love you felt for me was so consuming you forgot about it completely. Mum didn’t. She grieved, she let go. Why do you think it was so hard for her to see me around the house?”
The room began to spin, as a memory I knew I had, that I’d pushed away to the darkest reaches of my mind, tucked away under the bed and forgotten about, came to the surface.
“You remember, don’t you?” Tammy said with a melancholia in her voice.
And I did.
“You were in the bath.”
“It wasn’t dad’s fault. It was my heart.”
The whole thing flashed before my eyes. Dad running out of the bathroom screaming, mum asking what was wrong. Me, walking into the bathroom, to see Tammy’s body float face down in the bath. Dad telling me that everything was going to be okay, that Tammy was only going to hospital for the night, that she’d be back in the morning.
“You came back though. Dad and I greeted you at the door.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You and dad wanted me back so much.”
“I’m going to have to go now.”
“Please don’t,” I pleaded with Tammy.
“I have to, it’s time.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too, big brother.”
A static hiss took over the line and was replaced with a dial tone. Frantically, I punched in the number again. I waited to hear it ring, but instead I was greeted with, I’m sorry, this number is no longer in service.
I sat next to Tabatha, as she was saying how much fun she was going to have with Erica. She asked if she could stay for the weekend.
I took a deep breath and said, “I’m sorry, she can’t. I need to tell you something about your mummy.”
“When’s she coming home?” she asked.
“It’s about that.”