Presents for the Children
The last part of the Wendy house that he made for his daughter’s birthday was the ladder, with left over wood that was loitering in the dusty loft of his work shed. He had so many girls that it seemed to be always one of their birthdays. He waved at a couple of them playing in the sandpit near the house and they ran inside, giggling. Once the idle discarded planks were startled into regimented lengths by his saw, he started twisting each solid rung between the side rails and roughly nailing them into their permanent position. His few other bespoke designs for the children looked on and cheered him from their seats among the cigarette butts in the shed’s shelving. He thudded the hammer down and stretched.
A prominent zebra wood mandolin for his son displayed itself brightly on a window ledge. He had made it to the soundtrack of the son’s drumming which irritated him from the upstairs window of the house as it always did, a feeling which he tried to bury under enforced joviality, creating a mirage of familial similarity in his mind. However sometimes he felt the boy deliberately didn’t try hard enough to maintain this illusion, and so he was made to endure the knowledge of the disconnect between them. He knew that he stayed in his room drumming and barely came outside specifically to punish him, unlike the girl, who was often around. His big hands dropped the bundle of remaining ladder rungs clattering onto the ledge as he examined the spirit level. These were soon disturbed by the boy’s cat, which sprung onto them from outside and crouched, suspiciously sniffing and twitching its ears and tail. A podgy wad of tabby fur squished over the grain of the wood as its soft chin rubbed against the freshly sanded edges. Sawdust scattered the floor. With his free hand he angrily pushed it away and it retreated to the other end of the ledge. Pausing, he ran his fist along the smooth resilient length of the next rung, knocking on it compulsively, and then glanced outside while rotating it in his hands.
The soon to be birthday girl sat absorbed by her pointed feet stretching out of her orange dress, facing away from the house, on the pinewood swing. As the swing was at the far end of the garden, it was her escape from that ramshackle cacophony of siblings that otherwise consumed her. The siblings, discourteous as ever, nevertheless noisily spilled out of the house back across the garden onto the undulating surface of the sandpit, threatening her retreat, and his own.
Once the ladder had endured an ultimate brutal sanding down, he hoisted its now emaciated frame outside to join the other constituents of the Wendy house, swearing as he almost tripped over some cans and bottles by the bins. This proved too much for the cat’s sensibilities (its ideology was one of intolerance for anything contradicting its policy that large objects should remain still at all times), and it indignantly skulked off and weaved away through next door’s flowerpots. As he passed, the orange dress caught his eye, flaring out and she swung. She ignored him despite his cheerful wink, sulkily scuffing her shoes in the dirt. It was disconcerting. Perhaps she sensed the great void of difference between them too? Perhaps she too thought him inadequate. His new ladder’s hooks caught on the bar inside the Wendy house and he went outside to breathe air free from the overwhelming smell of fresh paint, and to tell her that it was almost ready. She raised her eyebrows at him and pursed her lips into a fleeting smile, working on swivelling the swing around so that the ropes twisted together. He watched her gain speed as she unspun her way back to the swing’s original state of unravelled propriety.
In a way he dreaded the completion of these projects, which at least interspersed his dreary daily monotony with some hammering or sanding. But what about when it was completed and his daily life unravelled again into rage and hopelessness? At least he had these children. He went and got a can of beer and sat by his shed as the evening grew darker, watching them playing in the sandpit by the backdoor. Julie came outside when one of them started crying and reprimanded them for not playing nicely enough. She took the crier inside, frowning over at him and his beer can before disappearing into the house’s innards. She had been especially off with him lately, speaking only in taut sentences, eyeing him suspiciously and judgmentally. With a surge of anger he threw down the can and got up to go inside.
The photos of his children as babies stared accusingly at him in his empty kitchen. His girlfriend had put them up everywhere after the social services had taken each of them away, and they did nothing to help the biting resentment that gnawed at him. As he paced around the kitchen, kicking beer cans out of his way with every few steps, he could hear the next door children laughing through the wall.
It started to rain, and the Wendy house dripped and creaked by the low fence at the end of the garden. The girl in the orange dress eyed it over the top of the fence, its ramshackle façade covered in sticking out nails, and she shivered as she ran up the garden to her backdoor. She could see Aunt Julie illuminated in the brightly lit kitchen, watching her come up the garden from the window. But she could not see anything in the dark kitchen belonging to the man next door.