Binny in Trouble
From the New Notebook
We have been unpacking the last few boxes of things from our old house. It is four years since they were packed. Mum remembers that Granny did it when Dad died and we had to move. Granny is dead now too.
There are a lot of dead people in my family.
How sad that looks, written down. I tried it on my friends, first Gareth and then Clare.
Gareth said, “There are a lot of dead people in everyone’s families. There are more live ones in your family than mine.”
A short arguing calculation proved that he was right. Gareth is an only child and he does not count his wicked stepmother as family because she is
allergic to dogs, although otherwise not wicked at all.
Clare was just as unsympathetic. She said, “Old people are meant to be dead.”
“Dad wasn’t really old. Not ancient old, like Granny.”
“If we are going to start moaning about fathers,” said Clare, “get ready to get over yourself because I will win.”
Clare’s father disappeared when she was six weeks old, remarking (as he dumped two children and one small unprofitable farm on Clare’s mother) (but took the family car) that he could do without the stress. Clare says he owes her twelve birthday presents, thirteen Christmas presents, thirteen Easter eggs, eight good excuses for missing school sports day, and fifteen parents’ evenings. So she is right, she will win, and anyway, I was not moaning. I was just trying out what I had written in my notebook against real life. I said this to Clare, and she replied, “There shouldn’t be any difference,” and I couldn’t be bothered to explain to her that she was wrong.
But I didn’t mean to sound sad when I wrote about my family. We are not sad.
* * *
Not even about money.
I wish we had more money.
Before my father died my family didn’t have to worry about money. Or anyway, we thought we didn’t. But we were wrong, and so we went bankrupt, Mum and
Clem and James and me, but not Dad, he died just in time. What I mean is, if you have to die, it’s better to do it before you go bankrupt. And have to sell your family bookshop and your house and lose your dog Max and go and live in dingy little flats where the damp gives you coughs and there is no outside space and all the people you thought were your friends turn out not to care much about you after all.
And you turn out not to care much about them. You haven’t time. You hang on tight and forget a lot of things.
We forgot the boxes. They were at Granny’s house for ages. Then we moved here, to Cornwall, and the boxes came with us but they still didn’t get unpacked. That was because we were too busy getting rid of the ten thousand bags of junk and ten million spiders left behind by Aunty Violet, whose house this used to be.
It wasn’t box-time then, either. Just when we had it possible to live here without something making you scream or falling down on you, an autumn gale swept in from the sea and blew great holes in the roof.
When you have a roof, you don’t think about it. But when you don’t have a roof, when you go up the stairs in your house and see your bedroom and your soggy wallpaper and your school shoes filled with rain, and sky over your head, proper sky, real sky with clouds and airplanes, a lot of sky, then you think about roofs.
The roof only took a few hours to blow off, but it took
months to get back on again. When it was on, but the scaffolding was still there, I climbed up and I leaned right over the new tiles and I pushed and pulled as hard as I could. I was checking that nothing was loose. Pete, the builder who had done the tiling, saw me and came up and grabbed me by my jacket and he made me put an orange hard hat on and he didn’t let go until he got me on the ground. Then he shouted a lot, and he said he would tell my mother and he did.
So I was officially told off and made to promise not to do it again. It wasn’t a very good telling off, not good enough for Pete, because Mum admitted she’d been wondering about doing the same thing herself.
“At least now we know it’s solid,” she said, hugging me, and Clem and James were also pleased to hear how tightly our new roof was stuck on.
“It didn’t move, even a tiny bit?” asked James.
“Of course it flipping didn’t move even a tiny bit!” said Pete. “Don’t you trust me?”
“Oh yes,” said James, and Mum and Clem agreed, “Oh yes, oh yes,” and then Clem asked how high I’d managed to reach, and Mum wanted to know if I’d tried in more than one place, and if I’d seen any cracks.
“Well, thank you very much!” said Pete, and he stalked off in a huff.
(My writing has gone wandering away. It has left
the boxes, still unpacked, and ended up on the roof of our house.)
So back to the boxes.
One of them was very heavy. It was full of great big albums. The largest, labeled “Clemency’s First Year,” was stuffed with photos and excited comments like: First taste of APPLE!!!! and HOW did Clemency get RIGHT to the end of her cot??? (There were four of these: spring, summer, autumn, and winter.) I just got one album, half full, and poor old James had a completely empty-except-for-the-first-page scrapbook. He was not happy about this and wanted Mum to sit down and write four more volumes instantly.
“I will, I will,” said Mum, “or you can have a giant bag of Mexican Barbecue Fries. They were on sale. Go and look in the cupboard!”
As well as the albums there were boxes of storybooks from when we were little, and from when Mum and Dad were little too, and there was Dad’s old brown bag.
How strange to see that bag, so familiar and so forgotten. I knew every mark and scuff on the leather, but I had never looked inside. Dad never went out of the house without it. The handle was shaped from years and years of being held in the grip of his right hand.
“Are we going to open it?” asked Clem.
Mum said she would rather not just then, but that Clem and I could if we liked. We nearly didn’t; it had been shut for so long. We looked at it for ages before we undid the buckle. It felt so wrong. I wondered if Clem felt as I did, that perhaps in the bag would be something to help us understand why he had left so suddenly and unhelpfully, like someone walking out in the middle of a conversation.
There is a book called The Railway Children that we found when we were unpacking the boxes and in it there is a family with a father who goes away. The eldest girl, who is called Bobby, doesn’t know where he’s gone, and she says IS HE DEAD? but he’s not. He’s in prison.
Dad went bankrupt. Do you get put in prison for that?
There is a stupid thought that I used to let myself think. It begins, What If . . . ?
I didn’t go to Dad’s funeral. Clem and James did, but not me. I can’t remember one thing about it, but I have been told that at the last minute I went out with our next-door neighbor instead. I have been told that she heroically took me to McDonald’s, which she chose because she supposed the staff there were used to children behaving terribly. And so they were and so I did, and when the staff heard why we were there, and where we really should have been, the heroic neighbor was given free coffee and tissues and I was given unlimited
access to the ice-cream machine, the M&M’s dispenser, and the tap that squirts tomato sauce.
I missed the funeral, but it still happened. I know that. I know how unreasonable it is to think, What If . . . ? I hardly ever do it anymore. But what if Dad is in prison, not dead? Then we really shouldn’t look inside his bag.
I was thinking this when Clem, who had been very quiet, said “Well,” and sighed and began undoing the buckle.
What had Dad been thinking of, when he closed his bag for the last time?
He had been thinking about us.
* * *
Dad died the week before Clem’s birthday. I don’t think she had one that year, not one that we noticed, anyway. But Dad had not forgotten. The first thing we saw when we looked inside his bag was a little package with a label, a birthday present for Clem. It was all wrapped up with a birthday card for when she was thirteen. A silvery charm bracelet with three charms: music notes and a silver flute and a C for Clem with the C a crescent moon and a crystal like a star. Always on birthdays Dad used to buy extra presents for non birthday people and they were in the bag too. An engine driver’s hat for James, and a very loud whistle to blow when the train was ready to leave the station (because when he was three James was obsessed with trains).
A thick blue notebook for me with silver writing in French on the cover under a silver sketch from Dad’s favorite book, The Little Prince. The card with it said, “With love from Daddy. Never stop writing!”
In the picture on the cover the Little Prince is leaving his very small planet with a flock of birds to help him fly. He is leaving his rose and his sheep and his active volcano. Dad used to call me his active volcano sometimes, and once I asked him, “And is Clem the rose? And James the sheep?”
But he had said, no. He said I was the rose and the sheep and the active volcano, all mixed up together. “The whole story,” he said, “and the birds are your words.”
* * *
I don’t know how I could stop writing. I write all the time. But I have never had a book to write in as beautiful as this one. The paper is very smooth and creamy, and there is silver elastic that snaps round when it is closed to keep the words safe. The writing on the cover says, “L’essential est invisible pour les yeux.”
One day I will find out what that means.
* * *
There was a pencil from our bookshop to go with the notebook, one of the pencils Dad used to give away free.
After the presents I didn’t want to look anymore and neither did Clem. We didn’t know what to do with the
bag. It seemed it should go in an important place, but there aren’t really any important places in our house. It’s too small. So in the end we put it back in the box. Mum said, “I think we’ll leave it for a while.”
I know why.
To see his writing, and the pencil from the bookshop.
It felt like he might step through the door.