Wales Arts Review is proud to present another original short story from Rhian Elizabeth in her new fiction, Our Cardboard Binoculars.
I’d lost count of how many people my father had been. For a long time I knew who he was. His name was Tom Jones and he wrote this song for my mother called ‘With These Hands’ and when we didn’t see him, which was all the time because he was busy flying around the world in his private jet making women take their knickers off with just his eyes, she would play that record so we could hear him instead. When I asked her why I’d never seen him, she would say to me…
‘Because your father was a bastard, Jackson Jones.’
Then one day when she was in work I found the record around the back of the settee and would you believe it, there he was on the cover. I finally had a face to go with the voice. Tom Jones. My father. It was a bit weird really, because he wasn’t like me at all- not what I expected. Me and my father, we had the same surname, but we looked so different. Tom Jones had curly black hair and mine was blond, and his eyes were dark and mine were green and when I thought about it, none of the girls in my class at school had ever thrown their knickers at me. This one girl, called Laura Evans, she had once thrown her HB pencil at me, and the tip got caught in the skin on the bridge of my nose and dangled there for a good ten seconds and made me bleed and I’ve still got the scar, but there were never any knickers, not one single pair.
So I got a bit older and I learned how to use the Yellow Pages and I went through it looking for Tom Jones and trust me, when you live in Wales, there are a fuck load of Tom Joneses to get through. But I managed to narrow my search down a bit. There were twenty seven Tom Joneses in Cwmdu, the village where we live, and I rang them all one by one, twisting the white cord of the phone around each of my fingers asking them, my name is Jackson Jones and are you my father? Some of them were quite rude to me. They hung up on me and one Tom Jones, he even told me to piss off. I was shocked to find out when I got even older that Tom Jones was this famous Welsh singer who had sold millions of records and that one part was true though, lots of women had thrown their knickers at him… but he definitely wasn’t my father.
My father was lots of other men. I got to meet those. They had faces and cars and everything. One of them took me and my mother on holiday in a caravan but none of them stayed around for very long. It made me a bit angry, so I decided there was only one thing for it. I had to kill every man in Wales. If not every man in Wales then at least every man in Cwmdu. It was actually Morgan Davies’ idea. Morgan Davies was my best friend and we lived on the same street, twenty-six doors apart. He didn’t know his father either and he said that we needed to teach them both a lesson for leaving us because leaving your kids isn’t a nice thing to do. It sort of made sense.
He wasn’t dressed like a murderer when he knocked for me on Friday night. I say Friday night but it was really Saturday morning, three am. He was dressed like normal Morgan Davies, baggy denim jeans and a black Adidas hoodie sagging over the top, brown sauce stain on the chest that had been there forever, as if his mother had bought it from the shop like that. He was wearing gloves, too, these girly ones that I remembered him wearing last winter when it snowed and I told him then he looked like a poof, like I told him again on Friday night. They were glowing under the street light. It was like he’d dipped his hands in some radioactive paint or something. They buzzed a bright pink colour and he had a pair for me in his pocket as well, yellow ones that were just as bright and poofy. ‘I’m not wearing those,’ I told him.
But he said I had to. We didn’t want to get any of the stuff on our hands, did we? So I put them on and I looked really, really stupid. Morgan Davies had gone and made us a pair of binoculars each- two cardboard toilet roll tubes stuck together with Sellotape. He hadn’t bothered to colour them in with a black felt or anything to make them seem real, so we looked like the stupidest criminals ever… a couple of kids playing cops and robbers in poofy gloves. Well, two robbers and no cops.
The main road was dead quiet when we walked down it. We’d left our mothers in our houses fast asleep in bed and there was literally no one around, no people and no cars, just a swarm of buzzing gnats that were taking part in some kind of late night disco under the street lights we passed. The middle of summer and still warm despite being so late and I won’t lie, I was sweating walking up that road. Morgan Davies said he could feel a storm coming on but I didn’t believe him. He was always saying stuff like that, like he was some kind of mystical native Indian chief who could talk to the wind and the trees and the elements. We were sweating and talking quiet and heading for Park Street and when we got there we hid behind a big yellow metal skip in the road. We put our cardboard binoculars up to our eyes but there was nothing to see. There were no lights on behind any of the curtains of the windows on that terraced street. And the windows that mattered the most, the windows of old man Jenkins’ house, they were black, too. As black as the sky that had no stars in it.
Old man Jenkins – in his nineties and always in the local paper proudly cradling something in his crumpled arms, a marrow like it’s a massive, fat green fish he’s reeled out of the soil in his back garden. His garden was the reason we were in that street so late. Morgan Davies jumped the wall first and I went over after him. It wasn’t a high wall so it was easy enough. I couldn’t make out my feet below me and Morgan Davies, he was just a shadow leading us down old man Jenkins’ flat garden path. All I could see was his hands. They were like two pink apparitions or spirits hovering and moving in mid-air and my own hands also burned like nuclear ghosts. But Morgan Davies had a torch in his hoodie pocket and when we got inside old man Jenkins’ greenhouse he shone it around the pots and plants and soil and bulging green shoots and flowers, the rays bouncing around the glass walls like laser beams. He started searching and moving things about – watering cans swimming with dirty, leafy water, and heavy tubs of earth and mud caked tools that were messily arranged on wooden shelves. The scraping of metal hurt my ears and I was sure old man Jenkins would wake up, but Morgan Davies said nah, he was as deaf as a post.
I felt like I was standing deep in the heart of a rainforest. Some plants were taller than me. Thin and green they snaked and twisted and twirled from the shelves until they touched the glass roof. I was sure that if that roof wasn’t there to stop them they would have climbed all the way up to the sky itself. It was warm as anything in there and I was sweating even worse than I was on the walk up. My hands under my gloves were getting greasy and clammy and the smell of wet dirt and roots and leaves, of earth, that kind of outdoor smell, made me feel sick. Morgan Davies pulled a tomato, plump and red and perfectly round like a snooker ball, off one of the leaves and when he popped it in his mouth with his teeth, I heard it squelch and split. I didn’t know how he could eat. My heart was beating so loud I thought even deaf as a post old man Jenkins would hear it up in his bedroom.
I was really glad when Morgan Davies found what he was looking for. The yellow beam of his torch illuminated a red topped bottle with a skull and crossbones label on the front. He picked it up with his pink gloved hands and shook it at me.
‘Old man Jenkins uses this stuff to stop the cats getting to his vegetables. Remember all those posters people put up?’
I thought about my posters then, the posters I made when I was looking for my father. I stuck them up around the village and Morgan Davies helped me. There wasn’t a lamppost left untouched on the streets of Cwmdu. I printed them off on the computer myself. A4 paper and big, bold Comic Sans font. And I remember exactly what the posters said. They said… ‘Hi, Dad. It’s me. My name is Jackson Jones. You had me 14 years ago and I’m not that angry. If you want to find me you can find me on Cwmdu Road, number 76’. So you can’t go saying I didn’t give him a chance. The Yellow Pages, and the posters. It’s not like I wanted to kill my father, but like Morgan Davies said, over and over again… leaving your kids isn’t a nice thing to do.
But in old man Jenkins’ greenhouse Morgan Davies wasn’t on about those posters anyway. He was on about the posters of all those missing cats. They were on lampposts too, and in the shop window on the main road. Some of them were proper professional posters like I had made on my computer but a lot of them were just notices scribbled on postcards and pieces of paper. Every week there seemed to be a new missing cat in the village. The notices would say stuff like…much loved family pet lost since 3 weeks… reward of £200 if found. Ones like that. And then they started to find these dead cats all over the place. They were in the gutters and on the pavements, like bin bags blown in a storm. Fur and blood and flopping tongues and popped out eyeballs, and cat brains and eye juice. They found some cats in the lake and people started to talk and they were saying that it was old man Jenkins’ who had done it, to try to destroy the evidence.
‘Jenkins puts this poison down on his garden,’ Morgan Davies said in the greenhouse, ‘and the poor little cats come and lick it up like it’s tasty, sweet milk, just like our fathers will.’
Morgan Davies grinned then, and he looked a bit creepy in the eerie light of his torch. He thought it up all by himself. He didn’t need any help from me. In fact, I had no input whatsoever in our murder plan. His mother worked in the bakery on the main road and before he came out of his house that Friday night, he had taken her keys off the hook in the kitchen. We were going to break in and use old man Jenkins’ poison to poison all the men in the village because if our fathers lived in the village, they were sure to eat there. Everyone else did. The bakery was famous for its delicious cakes and corned beef pasties, and freshly baked bread that had won awards for being the nicest in Wales. And Saturday mornings were the busiest mornings of the week, busy with people queuing up for sliced cobs and chocolate éclairs and packs of four corned beef pasties for a pound. I’d eaten many an éclair there myself and I won’t lie, they were lush.
Morgan Davies had the keys in his hoodie pocket which was massive enough to fit his torch and binoculars in as well, and now the bottle of old man Jenkins’ cat and father killer was stuffed in there, too. We left the greenhouse and the garden. Back down the dead roads. Morgan Davies opened the door of the bakery, the keys like a jangling tambourine in his fluffy pink fist, and no alarm sounded. No alarm, I thought, because what criminal would steal cakes and loaves of bread? Proper criminals with proper binoculars stole tellies and money and mobile phones.
The massive display counter inside was empty. It was a glass abyss of nothingness but by the morning when my father, and Morgan Davies’ father, got to the front of the queue, it would be crammed full of beautiful cakes, cakes with strawberries neatly placed on top of cream and pastry, and chocolate éclairs, and baguettes with mouths flopping with lettuce and cheese and chicken mayo filling, and those crusty loaves which tasted so prize-winningly good. They would be spoiled for choice, our fathers would, and they would take a while to decide what they wanted but when they did, when they sunk their teeth into their pasties and their cakes, they would choke to death, eyeballs popping out like them cats’, and they would deserve it, because leaving your kids isn’t a nice thing to do.
Morgan Davies knew where the kitchen was. It was round the back through some long, plastic curtains that tickled my face when I went through them. I just followed him and his gloves and his torch beam again. The kitchen was spacious and cool, not claustrophobic and hot like the greenhouse rainforest. It was dead dark and quiet in there, except for the drip, drip of a tap that echoed into the metal of the sink below. It smelled of freshly baked bread. The brown and white cobs were lined up on a counter, Morgan Davies shone his light on them. They were wrapped up ready for the morning rush and on the wall was a box labelled latex gloves and one, blue and limp, spewed out like a dead cockerel’s head but Morgan Davies was all set with his pink ones.
I watched him take things out of the fridge. He wasn’t being careful to be quiet. He peeled back the Clingfilm on plastic tubs which were full of sandwich filling and he shook old man Jenkins’ poison over them like he was a baker seasoning them with salt and pepper. Nothing was safe in the kitchen. He sprinkled everything he saw. The bread and the pasties and the cakes and the sausage rolls, and then he dared me to do it, too. He said to me…
‘What would your father like to eat the most?’
I had no idea. I didn’t even know his name. I just knew how much I loved those chocolate éclairs and I saw them there in the fridge all chocolaty and tasty looking. So Morgan Davies slid the tray out for me. The yellow light of the fridge lit up the whole kitchen much better than his torch did. He passed me old man Jenkins’ bottle of poison and so I did it. My luminous hands were shaking like mental. I tried to stop them because I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of Morgan Davies who was cool as anything, as cool as the kitchen fridge itself, but I couldn’t help it. I hadn’t even met my father and there I was, about to kill him.
We both shook that bottle around until there was nothing left in it. Morgan Davies locked the bakery up behind us with his mother’s tambourine keys and we walked down to the lake which was less than a minute away. I kept looking behind me but the sleepy streets of Cwmdu were comatose. Morgan Davies threw old man Jenkins’ bottle into the lake when we got there. He launched it so high and so far with a swing of his arm like a discus thrower that I didn’t see it land but I heard it splash into the blackness of the water. I imagined it bobbing like one of them dead cats had bobbed when old man Jenkins threw them in. And then we threw our gloves in but we could see them land, what with them being so bright and all. They didn’t sink, they floated, like four radiant lily pads on top of the lake. Morgan Davies said they would be at the bottom by the morning and even if they weren’t, no one would think anything strange about it anyway, to see two pairs of poofy gloves perched on the lake because there was loads of things at the bottom of that lake and on top and stuck between the rocks and the weeds. Car tyres and dead cats, and empty Coke bottles and beer cans and crisp packets and stuff like that. If anything, our gloves just made the lake look pretty.
That’s when the rain came. The sound of the thunder in the sky jolted us both as we stared at the lake and the island in the middle of it, and the geese that were sleeping in the bushes not bothered one bit by the grumbling sky, with white feathers that glowed as bright as our gloves. We dropped our cardboard binoculars to the ground and ran back home. We shot up the streets and across the roads like two burning comets. We ran so fast I think we got to the start of our street before the rain drops that left the clouds like Morgan Davies knew they would had hit the pavements. But they did hit the pavements, alright. The clouds were like a net heavy with water balloons and they dropped right on us in the street and exploded on top of the parked cars with big splashes of water and one by one they set off their alarms. We had to get inside before people on our street, especially our mothers, started waking up.
‘What about our cardboard binoculars?’ I asked Morgan Davies before he went.
He had been careful to wear poofy gloves for finger prints and for the spilling poison, but we had been lazy about our binoculars. He said he would go back to get them in the morning and he would throw them in the lake, too, and then I watched him run through the puddles twenty six doors down and disappear into his house.
We killed seventeen people according to the local paper. Some of the customers at the bakery had been lucky to get away with just their stomachs pumped at the hospital. The story took up the whole of the front page, not like old man Jenkins who only ever made the inside pages with his marrows. Old man Jenkins didn’t die. He didn’t go to the bakery that Saturday morning. Ten of the dead were men and seven of them were women, that’s including Morgan Davies’ mother. Now I’m making some new posters up on my computer in Comic Sans. I read the names of the men who died in the paper and none of them were Jones so I’m giving my father another chance. When I press the print button I’m thinking about those dead cats and those posters, and while I wait for mine to shoot out of the printer mouth I go downstairs and choose one of my mother’s records from around the back of the settee. I turn the volume right down on her record player, so that she doesn’t wake up. I don’t put on ‘With These Hands’, though. Instead my father sings to me, ever so quietly, something different and something a bit more cheerful… ‘What’s new pussy cat woah oh oh oh oh oh’. And I know he’s not my real father, but I wish he was because any father who has girls throw their knickers at them instead of their HB pencils, seems like quite a cool father to have.
original illustration by Dean Lewis