Aaron ran, arms stretched wide. An airplane, climbing along the runway. Up, darting straight through the clouds. His wings now drum-sticks, rattling across the xylophone gate. Next, a prisoner. Pinned against the bars. He looked down, begging the help of a passing train below. Strong arms grabbed his armpits, and he giggled as he was lifted onto shoulders. A pilot.
Christopher shuffled Aaron along his shoulder blades, holing little converse-clad feet against his chest to settle his excitement. He nudged Aaron’s knee with his chin, nodding towards the stadium in-front of them. Smiling, he heard gleeful giggles from above. The crowd bottlenecked, and he spotted Frank Gorgie in the folds. They greeted each other with a nod. Frank’s son had come two months early. Christopher watched Frank pulling his eldest son, Jack, through the crowd. He tightened his grip around Aaron’s feet.
They reached the door, and Christopher swung Aaron down from his shoulders. Aaron watched the crowd behind him. He saw Sarah from his class, and pointed his tongue at her. She blew a raspberry back, grinning. Christopher steered Aaron inside, offering him their tickets to hold.
“Like Willy Wonka!” gasped Aaron, “I’m gonna to be a chocolate-factory owner.”
“Eh?” laughed Christopher, “thought you were goin’ to be a fireman?”
Aaron held the tickets tightly in one hand, and Christopher held the other. They reached the lounge. Aaron ran to the biscuit table, helping himself to a chocolate bourbon. Christopher gently batted his son’s hand away when he reached for another.
Joe sat in a chair by the window. He was pushing sixty-five, but he still held a strong hairline and a firm jaw. He winked at Aaron, passing him a biscuit from his jacket-pocket. He stood up, enveloping Christopher’s hand, and then whisked Aaron into the air. Aaron squealed giddily.
“How’s Jackie?” Joe asked, settling himself back into the chair.
“No bad,” Christopher smiled, “had her scan ‘n that, couple weeks ago. Any time now, really.”
“Send her ma love,” Joe nodded. He produced a custard cream from his pocket, and dunked it into his tea.
“Mam said to tell yi ‘no more than two’,” Christopher grinned, interrupting the bite.
Joe frowned, settling the rest of the biscuit onto the saucer. Joe McLaughlin was a big name in Leith. He served himself at The Crown. He’d once held off the McCusker brothers with what some called a chair and others named just a fist. It was once said that the people of Leith wouldn’t pick a fight with Joe’s shadow. And it was also said, that the only person Joe McLaughlin was frightened of, was his wife.
The three made their way up the stairs and sat together on the green, plastic chairs. Aaron nudged Christopher, pointing at the tiny heads in the seats opposite. The stand was a threadbare jumper, with people filing in, sewing up the gaps. Christopher saw Frank coming up the stairs and nodded again. Joe stood up, taking Frank’s hand.
“Good ti see ye son,” Joe said seriously, shaking Frank’s hand firmly, “how’s Jenny?”
“Getting there, Joe,” Frank smiled, appreciatively. “what about you? How’re you doing?”
Joe nodded, locking his other hand over their handshake in reply. He released their hands, and steered Frank gently along the row.
Aaron and Jack high-fived as they passed each other. The loudspeaker sounded the players’ entrance. Everyone stood, clapping. Christopher lifted jack up to see. The three boys stood, watching the players, cheering together.
“What happens when you die?” asked Aaron. He was playing with a Thomas the Tank Engine train set, running his finger along the track and gently pushing the train into the station.
Christopher froze. He looked at Jackie beside him. She placed her hand over his, unblinking.
“Well,” she knelt down beside her son, taking a toy tree and moving it inline with the track, “it’s like going to sleep. Only, instead of waking up, you just keep sleeping.”
“Do you still have dreams?” asked Aaron.
Jackie tucked a loose strand of hair behind his ear. He moved another tree alongside hers.
“I hope so,” she smiled. Aaron shrugged, his polo-shaped mouth stretching into a yawn.
“You tired there, wee man,” asked Christopher, clearing his throat.
“No!” Aaron jumped up, “I was testing my mouth, see.” He showed off both rows of baby teeth. Jackie laughed, shaking her head.
“Di we need to involve Mr. Snark?” smirked Christopher.
“No…” Aaron grinned, sneaking behind Jackie. Christopher lifted a newspaper from the shelf.
“He’s comin’,” Christopher laughed, opening the paper at the centre and ducking behind it.
“No!” squealed Aaron.
Christopher emerged slowly from the top. He wore Jackie’s glasses right at the tip of his nose, crossing his eyes to look through them.
“Did somebody call for snarking?” asked Christopher, twisting his voice into a squeak.
Aaron let out a peal of giggles as Jackie and ‘Mr. Snark’ pinned him down, blowing raspberries on his stomach. Christopher paused for a second.
“I’ll gi’e you a 3 second head-start,” he whispered, tickling Aaron under the chin.
Squealing gleefully, Aaron scuttled upstairs to bed. Christopher waited for three honest seconds, and followed after his son. Jackie leant back against the couch. She felt three taps wriggle inside her domed stomach. She ran a finger across it, touching a foot or an elbow. Christopher came back downstairs, watching his wife from the doorway. She looked up at him, smiling.
“D’ya think we should be talking to him about things like that?” Christopher asked, worry clouding his ginger brow.
“Things like what?” yawned Jackie. She patted the floor beside her, and Christopher joined her on the carpet, resting his hand on the bump.
“Y’know, death,” Christopher shrugged. The baby kicked again.
“Hiccups?” he asked.
“She’s restless,” smiled Jackie, leaning her cheek on his shoulder. “We shouldn’t lie to him, Chris.”
“I ken, I ken,” Christopher nodded, pausing, “think he liked Mark a lot.”
The TV flickered in the background. Two presenters chattered on a bubblegum-coloured set.
“He was a good man,” said Jackie, firmly. She wrapped her arm across her stomach and tightened it around her husband’s. They sat, entwined together, long after he’d stopped crying.
On the day of the funeral, Joe rose early and went for a walk. The crisp air nipped him as he made his way down Easter Road. His toe brushed against a broken Buckfast bottle. He reached the Water of Leith, and settled himself onto a rock. He watched two ducks fishing, lighting himself a cigarette.
He took a long drag.
“Sorry, son,” he exhaled.
Mrs. McLaughlin stood by the window. Her knee twinged as she leant forwards.
“How’s Jackie doing?” she asked her husband, “did you tell Chris I was askin’ fir her?”
Joe grumbled distractedly, flexing his newspaper.
“Are yi listenin’ to me?” Alice turned around to scold him. She cut an imposing statue. Despite her years, she remained tall. Her only vice, a bad knee, caused her to lean slightly to the right giving her the nickname ‘Granny Pisa’. But in a scheme like theirs, notoriety was not only commonplace, but necessary. She spotted Jenny Gorgie walking past.
“Jenny!” Alice knocked on the glass. Jenny waved, her smile empty.
“It’s a sin, that,” Alice whispered, watching Jenny wave down a bus, “did y’ see Frank yesterday?”
Joe didn’t reply. Alice turned to him, frowning. The newspaper was spread over Joe’s knee like an inky blanket. She read the name: Mark McLaughlin.
“Just wish he’d told me,” Joe sniffed. The soot from the newspaper left a thin trail of black in his beard. He sniffed deeper. Alice put her hand on his shoulder, gripping the ridge of his collar bone. He placed his hand on top, tapping it. Clearing his throat, he closed the paper.
Christopher watched Frank ring the doorbell. He recognised the grey, Berghaus jacket and Frank’s slightly stooped shoulders. He edged back.
“Da-ad, It’s that way!” Aaron whined, tugging at his Dad’s sleeve.
“Hush a wee sec there, mate,” whispered Christopher, pulling his son back. He placed his index finger to his lips. Aaron rolled his eyes but complied.
Frank stood on the steps, waiting. He patted down his jacket and slicked his hair back with saliva, like an out of work T-bird. Christopher watched as Sophie Greenock opened the door. She was wearing a nightie. From the distance, Christopher couldn’t tell if it were patterned or stained. She held her youngest, Alfie, against her hip. A purple rabbit rested between his head and her shoulder. Frank shifted; one hand in his jeans pocket, the other in his beard. Sophie stepped aside, watching as Frank slipped himself inside.
Sophie and Mark got together in high school. Sophie was popular and rude. It suited her, she thought, to be seen with the son of a big man of Leith. For his part, Mark attempted to uphold her vision. He was at once revered, envied, and universally hated by his classmates. But to Christopher, he was just Mark. Plaid shirt, frightened of moths, never learned to ride a bike, Mark.
Sophie made to close the door. Christopher stepped forward, and they locked eyes. An empty street except for the blocked drain between them. He remembered when he’d told her about Mark. They were in ASDA, by the milk fridges. Mark was lactose intolerant. Christopher knew he’d have enjoyed the irony.
“Last Thursday,” he’d said, empty.
“Oh,” she’d kept her head bowed, tracing a stain on her trouser leg, “how?”
“OD,” Mark spat.
“Oh,” she’d simply said again. He noticed a green bruise on the inner fold of her elbow.
Christopher pushed past her, throwing the milk back into the fridge. He heard it explode behind him.
Seeing Sophie now, the same anger hit him. But he felt a nip at his sleeve as Aaron tiredly slipped under his armpit. Sophie shuffled Alfie onto her waist. Without looking away, she slowly closed the door.
Aaron climbed further, inch by inch. Almost at the peak, he made to lay the flag. The first, Scottish boy in history to climb Everest. A hero. But suddenly, Everest was a volcano. It erupted, lava flowing everywhere. The mountain’s grumble filling the air. Aaron fled.
“What the hell’s goin’ on?” shouted Joe, emerging from a pile of cuddly toys.
From behind Joe’s chair, came Aaron’s giggling.
“Just trying to have a blasted sleep,” grumbled Joe, “Jackie! The wee man’s up tae no good, again,” he called out.
“Oi!” Aaron jumped up from his hiding spot, “you’re no s’posed to grass us in, Grandpa!” His bottom lip stuck out with a wet glisten.
“Aha!” grinned Joe, pulling Aaron over his shoulder and tickling him, “gotcha!”
From the kitchen came a metallic crash. Joe and Aaron were a freeze-frame.
“Jackie?” Joe called, breaking the silence like a sledgehammer.
“Where the fuck’s Ward 9?” bellowed Christopher. His words hit the receptionist like a punch, and the man moved back a little to avoid another.
“Chris!” called Alice, spinning round the corner, “Chris, it’s fine, son. It’s all fine.”
Alice put her arm round her son’s back, pulling him into her. She caught the receptionist’s eye in apology. Aaron sat in one of the green, cushioned chairs. He liked that his legs didn’t reach the floor and his shadow could ride a rollercoaster on the white wall in front of him. No hands.
“They’re fine,” grinned Alice, “Come on,” she carted her son through to the ward.
Joe waited with Aaron, obediently raising his arms as the rollercoaster gained pace. Christopher let his mam tow him towards Jackie. He closed his eyes against the same white walls that led him to Mark. Alice steered him firmly away from their pull towards his wife.
Jackie lay exhausted, a thick gaze of sweat hanging around her forehead. She held the baby close.
“Alice,” she whispered, and kissed the baby’s brow.
Alice passed her son to Jackie. He held his arms out, and Jackie floated baby Alice into them. She was rusty and quiet. Alice held Jackie’s hand.
“Can I take her ti see Dad?” Christopher asked, in a trance.
Jackie kissed him, nodding, squeezing her mother in law’s hand. Christopher lifted his daughter gently, nestling her in his arm’s crook. He walked towards the reception to find the rest of his family.
“This is Alice,” he knelt beside Aaron, “see, she looks like yer Gran.” Aaron peeled back the towel slightly, sniffing.
“She looks like a prawn,” he blinked, “but I do like prawns.” He nodded definitively, mind made up.
Joe didn’t look up, his mind filled with his granddaughter. Clumsily, he clapped his hand round Christopher’s arm.
“Take fucking good care of her,” he cracked, squeezing five fingers around his son’s arm.
Aaron giggled at the swearword. Christopher lowered his daughter into Joe’s arms, pulling Aaron onto his shoulders. They walked towards the ward.
Aaron wriggled to get down, running ahead to walk with Joe and Alice. He pointed out things to his sister, conducting an open-top bus-tour of Ward 9. Christopher spotted Frank Gorgie sitting in the waiting room. Jenny stood beside him. Seeing Christopher, Frank leapt forward, swaggering over to congratulate him.
Christopher took one swing, and knocked Frank to the floor. A tooth fell beside him. Jenny screamed, silently. Christopher knelt beside Frank, calmly. He took Frank’s collar in his fist, pulling his bones towards his chest. Frank wheezed, and Christopher saw the blood make a river though his greying beard. He smelt it.
“Take fucking good care of her,” he said. Dropping Frank, Christopher followed Joe into the ward, softly closing the door behind him. He felt Aaron’s hand in his, his dad’s on his back. He breathed. The three boys stood, watching the girls, always together.