Short Story: ‘A Father’s Return’ by Caroline L. Barron

Finding her pet rabbit Liza murdered in the barn was the second worse thing that had ever happened to 14-year-old Harriet. When she saw the hutch lying on its side in the barn like a dead animal, she panicked. She wanted to run and search every corner, but it was like that dream where you’re at the starting blocks, the gun goes off and your legs won’t move. Eventually, a dark trail of blood lead her to the hole in the wall her father used to say said he’d fix. There was poor Liza, half way out – her head strung to her ruby throat by a mere thread. Harriet felt like she was in a scene from Evil Dead.

So now, the first worse thing that had ever happened to Harriet and her rabbit’s death were forever linked. He’d given Liza to her when he’d abandoned them. Now, Liza was dead. The whole thing felt shocking and achy like chewing tinfoil. But still, the first thing she did – after gathering up Liza into the bread bag her mum handed her, and placing her in the chest freezer next to the frozen peas and vanilla ice-cream – was phone her father.

*

Harriet’s eyes were fixed on her father’s polished brogues, rocking and shuffling on the forest floor, as Liza lay cobbled together and half frozen in the hole they’d dug. His feet mirrored the rhythm of his fingers pressing the trumpet’s valves. She couldn’t take her eyes off his ridiculous shoes, thinking perhaps they were the source of her mood. They shouldn’t be here. They shouldn’t be here. She jammed her hands deeper into her puffer jacket pockets, anchoring her fingers to the small yellow notebook she was never without; dark eyes darting between the grave, the shoes, the grave.

The rumpled edge of a two-day-old Band-Aid curling under her fingertips flushed Harriet’s face with embarrassment. She’d been pinching the soft flesh at the base of her right thumb with her left thumb and forefinger each time her mind threatened to return to the barn. By the second day she’d broken the skin.

Harriet looked at her father, his smooth cheeks puffing in and out like important bellows. He doesn’t get it. Not. One. Bit. The notes of the German mourning song chimed through the forest and through her. She can’t believe it, not this song. She grasped the front of her thighs through her jacket pockets as if to hold herself up. The words had a life of their own, making familiar shapes in Harriet’s mouth: “In battle…my comrade, none better…in life eternal we’ll meet again…walk once more as one”. How many times had she accompanied her father to this song, as if by forcing her to sing it every day she’d suddenly be able to hear the difference between an F and an F-sharp. F for fight, F for flight. She could barely keep her feet planted to the ground. F for fuck-wit. F for forget it. F for forever.

It seemed like forever since her father left her and her mum, admitting the auburn hairs found on the shoulder of his conductor’s tuxedo belonged to glamorous Celia Hammond, section head of second violins. And yet, one phone call and he’d come home. She tried to focus on the forlorn-sounding notes, but her mind panned out past the trees of the forest, to her mother. She knew exactly where her mum would be standing – at the kitchen window, pretending not to listen.

*

Jeanette didn’t often bother with rubber gloves, but this was the second time this week she’d pulled them on. She blinked hard as she tried not to think of the macabre events of a week ago, her yellow-gloved hands helping Harriet scoop up the mangled rabbit. God knows where Harriet gets her strength.

As Jeanette raised her eyes, looking out the window towards the barn, the sun made a brief appearance between grey clouds. Grateful for the warmth, she hummed as she rinsed the morning’s breakfast dishes, left over milk and muesli swirling through the water like smoke.

Robert’s trumpet hole-punched the air. Oh for God’s sake, she thought. What’s he up to? Jeanette paused, waiting for the sickening ache that usually came when she thought of him. Nothing. She could admit it now, the affair had blindsided her; Robert was many things but, until three years ago, he’d never been disloyal.

Her heart felt wrung-out like a dish-cloth. She hadn’t even liked the rabbit at first – some twisted symbol of placation from that bastard when he’d left. But, Jeanette had become fond of Liza and the way she nuzzled into your hand when she knew you had food. Funny old Liza, just like her Harriet – it took time, but once they trusted you, you got all of them.

Her eyes were drawn to the jagged hole in the barn wall. Damn you Robert, she thought. Jeanette wrenched the plug from the sink, and rinsed away the suds with a blast of cold water.

*

Robert watched Harriet throw a handful of wet dirt onto Liza’s bloodied, white fur. It was all he could do to keep playing. When was he going to tell her? As he reached the dreaded final notes, Harriet’s face crumpled like cellophane. Don’t cry, please don’t cry, Robert thought. I won’t know what to do if you cry. His trumpet dangled from his right hand, and with his left he reached out as if to comfort her, instead glanced at his watch. He had forty minutes. It was hard to believe nine years ago he and Jeanette had thought this forest romantic, that it would inspire his music and Band-Aid their splintering love. Before long he was making excuses and spending four nights out of seven at the city apartment that came with his conductor’s salary.

He wanted to comfort Harriet, but the three years he’d been away loomed canyon-like between them. Time had stolen his sweet little girl and replaced her with this sullen teen in a scruffy jacket and worn out Converse sneakers. Does she even wash her hair? He shook his head to refocus. I’ve come all this way, I’ve just got to come out with it.

“Harriet. Harriet, darling?” She shrugged his hand off her shoulder and turned to face him. He crouched down to her level – so she’d understand the gravity of what he had to say – but ended up staring at her crotch. He felt stupid. When did she get so tall? He rose to find her brown eyes fixed on his, a beautiful, young Jeanette.

“What?” said Harriet.

“I’ve got something I’ve been wanting to tell you. Trying to find the right moment…”

Harriet folded her arms, and kicked at a clump of dirt. “Well. What?” she said.

“You’re…the good news is, you’re going to be a big sister! Celia and I, we’re having a baby girl.”

Harriet looked as though he’d thrown her a medicine ball.

“You’re joking. You are absolutely joking,” she said.

“Isn’t it great?” Robert was dancing around in circles like an expectant Rumpelstiltskin.

For a moment Harriet didn’t move. She knelt down and tipped a handful of cold earth into the grave. And then another, and another. Robert looked on, her calmness unnerving. Within moments Liza was gone. As if she’d never existed. Harriet patted down the top of the grave and rose to her feet. Looking her father dead in the eye she said:

“Well you’d better be a better father to her than you’ve been to me, Dad. Not just ring her on her birthday and pretend you care about things when you don’t. And don’t you dare, don’t you dare buy her a stupid rabbit when you leave.”

Robert found himself leaning back, palms outward at chest height. “Harriet, stop it, you’re being sill…”

“Silly? Silly?” Harriet’s voice rose though the octaves. “And you know what else? You can stop coming back here whenever you feel like it – whenever there’s drama –play a stupid song on your stupid trumpet and think you’re the fucking hero. Well you’re not Dad. You’re just a bloody cliché.”

“Harriet. Language. That’s enough.” Robert threw down his trumpet and grabbed Harriet by the shoulders.

“If you were a film you’d be…you’d be…” Harriet stuttered in frustration, “…you’d be something by Michael Bay! Some crappy sentimental shit no one with half a brain could take seriously.”

Robert froze, his mouth opening and closing like a hooked fish. Moments later, Robert let out a great heave of laughter, infecting Harriet; two euphonic lines of the same score.

“That was funny, Harriet. Michael Bay. Very funny.” Robert took out his handkerchief and began wiping the dirt from his trumpet with his handkerchief. He was buoyed on by Harriet’s laughter: “You know as well as I do Bruce Willis is a legend in Armageddon.’

Harriet shook her head, still laughing: “Stop Dad, he was not!”

Their laughter trailed off like the end of a song leaving father and daughter standing side by side, breathing into the silence.

“So, that’s the real reason you came here then, the baby?” said Harriet quietly.

“No Harriet,” he said. “I wanted to be here for Liza, for you. For you darling.” He’s sure he means it.

Harriet shook off his arm and reached for the wooden cross she’d tied together with string. She pushed it into the ground. “Goodbye Liza,” she whispered.

Robert looked on, unsure of why he’d come.

*

Jeanette watched Harriet and Robert walk out of the forest into the field behind the house. A deliberate distance separated them and each was patched with dirt. Robert won’t like that, she thought. She groaned, willing him to at least take Harriet’s hand. It was always that way. Even when they were a family, he was always alone. She peeled off the gloves and tidied her hair, aware of the few remaining seconds before they reached the door.

“Hello Robert,” she said.

“Hi, Jeannie. You look well.”

Harriet crashed past them and ran upstairs. Jeanette watched the vertical line between Robert’s eyebrows furrow, and saw how his own daughter seemed to disturb him. People definitely get more like themselves as they get older, she thought. Even his hair sat perfectly to attention, three centimeters above his collar. She caught Robert’s gaze flicking around the kitchen looking for who knows what.

“Do you mind if I…” asked Robert.

Jeanette waved her hand okay and he laid his trumpet on the bench.

“Why are you here, Robert?” she said.

“I suppose I should just say it. Celia and I are having a baby girl.”

Jeanette felt the weight of the news, but also a sudden lightness, a release, like natural spring water pushing through the earth. “Another little girl. Oh you poor man,” Jeanette laughed as she opened her arms to him.

“Thanks Jeannie, thanks for that. I didn’t know how you’d react, I…”

“No, really. It’s great news. Cuppa?”

They settled in at the kitchen table and Jeanette poured the tea. Their conversation turned to Harriet.

“Is she holding up OK?” asked Robert.

“The usual teenage ups and downs, I suppose. She gets into these horrendous moods, then five minutes later she’s fizzing over her next film idea. But she’s good, you know, she got an A for her film script this term.”

“That’s great news.” He paused. “You know Jeannie, you’ve done a great job with her. You really have. I know I need to do better…”

“You’re fine. It’s fine. Now, Harriet’s birthday – I’ve been thinking, we could go halves in new laptop, a good one with editing software?” It felt good to be businesslike.

“Good idea, Jeannie, let’s do that,” said Robert.

*

Across the field, in the forest clearing, the sun dappled the mound of fresh dirt. Footprints marked a border around the grave – a muddled collage of Robert’s shuffling brogues and the clear outlines of Harriet’s sneakers. As the sun dragged itself towards the earth, a new set of prints trampled theirs. The animal’s clawed paws dug at the edges of the grave, its lithe brown and white body twisting excitedly at the familiar scent.

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