Short Fiction

THE BLOCK

We sit down at the folding table in the kitchen and my father pours Yorkshire tea from a peach coloured teapot. He pushes a jar of honey towards me to sweeten the tea and I wonder if he really welcomes these visits, or sees them as an intrusion.

The house was in darkness when I arrived, and I was already turning away with a mixture of relief and disappointment when he opened the door.

We drink the tea while he talks about a stone piece he is making for the courtyard of an old textile mill, now a Museum of Local Life.

‘Let’s walk up to my studio and take a look, shall we?’ It’s unexpected, but I nod in agreement. He pulls on a black wool hat and adds, ‘Better wrap up warm.’

The studio is a sombre 19th century factory split into different units. A few figures in overalls and wellies stand outside the fruit and veg depot opposite, smoking and chatting on their break. There is a strong smell of onions. My father turns his key in the lock of the main door and I follow him into the pitch-black hallway. He fumbles for the light switch and unlocks a second door, before the light flickers on to reveal peeling pea-green paint and scrawls of graffiti.

‘In here,’ says my father, ‘I’m on the ground floor. Much easier for getting my stone delivered.

Shelves are cluttered with old tins of paint, varnish and bags of plaster. Broken picture frames lean against the unevenly whitewashed walls. A table in the centre is littered with tools and next to it on the rough wooden floor sits a large block of stone, about the same height as my father.

‘It’s a lot bigger than your old studio,’ I say.

‘The other place was getting expensive and they reckoned I was making too much mess.’ He sounds indignant.

I smile. Half an inch of yellow dust covers every surface and a thick ridge surrounds the stone itself, where he has trodden small pieces he’s chipped away into a fine dust on his journey round and round the sculpture.

I walk over to the window and look out. The depot workers have finished their break. One of them climbs onto a forklift truck, adjusts his ear protectors and starts moving crates from the loading bay into the warehouse.

‘Nice view, eh?,’ says my father, picking up a chisel and lump hammer from the table. ‘It gives me motivation to carry on when I start to flag.’

He strikes the head of the chisel with a few staccato taps, sending small chunks of stone flying into the air. I stand behind him, out of range, and he glances round and asks, ‘What kind of chisel is this?’

I reply automatically, ‘Claw chisel.’

He nods and continues tapping away, removing slivers of rock. The stone has a warm tone, a mixture of soft grey and yellow with the dust a dull gold underfoot. ‘You have to be careful with this stone,’ he says, ‘It flakes easily. Break a chunk off and it could wreck the whole thing.’

‘Couldn’t you have picked something easier to work with?’

‘It’s local stone; I went down the quarry to chose it. You hear the sound it makes when I tap it, how it travels right through? You can tell it’s good stone with no flaws inside. And I like the colour of it.’ He holds a piece under the tap in the sink. It turns ochre in his hands and he smiles and puts it back on the table.

‘That’s what you’d get if you polished and waxed it,’ he says. ‘Not that I’m going to though. I like the rough texture’

Cylindrical forms are taking shape in the stone. I study the mass of photos and sketches pinned to the wall. ‘That’s old bobbins and shuttles from the Mill,’ he says indicating the photos. ‘They still use similar stuff in modern textile factories. I suppose some basic tools are hard to improve on.’

I sit on the wooden stool and watch him chipping away at the stone, just as I used to when I was a child, before he left. In his rough, swollen hands the chisel moves quickly and surely across the surface of the stone, like a pen on paper

He works, and I watch him. The silence between us has relaxed.

Once he told me how girls would watch him carving in the yard at college in London and chat him up. That’s where he met my mother, with her sixties mini skirt and bobbed blonde hair.

He must know she’s dead, but I never mention her and he never asks. I wonder if he only remembers me when my postcards drop through his letterbox. That’s how it was the day he walked out, bag slung over his shoulder, without looking up at my bedroom window where I stood pressed against the glass.

On my eighteenth birthday a card arrived with his address written on the back.  My mother said she wouldn’t blame me if I didn’t reply, which I took to mean she would blame me if I did. Visits to my father were conducted with secrecy, even after I left home. And then she died, quite suddenly – if you can call six months of cancer sudden – and I stopped seeing my father altogether. It felt like a worse betrayal after she had died than when she was living.

‘You know Mums dead,’ I say abruptly,

His tapping stops for a moment.

‘Your auntie told me.’

‘I thought you might have come to the funeral.’

‘Did you?’ He gives a short laugh, working at the stone again, and shakes his head. ‘I hadn’t seen her for fifteen years. She hated me.’

‘I don’t think she hated you.’

‘You never told her you came to see me, did you?’

‘No.’ I look away.

‘Well then,’ he says, ‘Better to leave it alone. Anyway, that was a year ago. I can’t imagine you’ve driven all this way to ask me that.’

‘I know Mum’s version of things.’ I keep my tone off-hand, wary of his reaction. ‘Why you left. Why you never tried to see me. But I’ve never heard it from you.’

He glances up but doesn’t reply and I watch him switch to a flat chisel and begin to smooth the rough edges away. After a while, he puts the hammer down and takes the tobacco pouch out of his pocket.  He runs his hands through his thick greasy muddle of hair.

‘I got fed up with the arguments. I couldn’t change. Not for your mother, not for anyone.’

‘You could have seen me.’

‘She told me to stay away and I felt I owed her that.’ He licks his cigarette paper and rolls it together. ‘I’m not trying to justify the choices I made. All I can tell you is this: you aren’t doomed to make the same mistakes as your parents.’

He stands to gather up his tools, sticking the cigarette behind his ear. ‘We should probably be getting back if you’re driving home tonight. You can stay on the sofa if you want. I’m afraid the spare bedroom is full of junk.’

‘No, I need to get back. I’ve got work in the morning.’

He hesitates, still holding the hammer and chisel. ‘Why don’t you add a few marks of your own, before you go? You always wanted to, when you were a little girl.’

‘You never let me.’ I look at him for a moment before taking the tools, heavy and unfamiliar in my hands.

‘I should have,’ he says.

Holding the chisel at a forty-five degree angle, I strike it with the hammer. Rock flakes away from the surface of the block. ‘Follow this curve,’ says my father, leaning over my shoulder. ‘You need to hit a bit harder.’ My movements are so jerky after his that I start to smile in spite of myself. With each tap I feel the knot inside me slowly relaxing.

‘Don’t you get lonely being here all day?’ I ask.

‘I don’t mind it,’ he says, shrugging, ‘But I’ve been thinking of getting a pup. A mate of mine from the pub has a litter. What do you think?’

‘I think you should.’ I put the tools down and brush myself off. ‘How’s that?’

‘Not bad,’ says my father, rubbing his fingers over the stone.

We walk towards the door and he pauses, pulling his old hat on and smiling. ‘Maybe I will get that pup,’ he says. ‘The little one will like that, when you come to visit.”

I stare at him. I’m barely showing, and in my jumper and winter coat I thought no one could tell.

There’s a slight question in his voice and I smile back and kiss his cold cheek.

‘Yes, we will.’ He opens the door and we step outside into the quiet night.

Alyson Stoneman

First published in Leap Anthology, Laundrette Books