An extract from Iron Man by Lynne Bryan, published by Salt, winner of the 2022 East Anglian Book of the Year Award
You let yourself into your home. You can see the light on in the kitchen and can already picture the scene. The table will be laid and the kids will be waiting. Lynne will be sat on the bench at the far end of the table facing the door. Then just past the curve in the bench will be Mandy. And there will be the empty space for you. Your wife will be making the gravy. The plates will be warming in the oven. And with any luck Dorothy, your mother-in-law, will have been and gone.
You listen. You can hear voices. But not Dorothy’s? No, definitely not Dorothy’s. This is good. You get on with the woman well enough but you don’t like her standing over you and watching you eat. You make your way down the hall, glancing at yourself in the mirror. You look shattered. It’s been a long week. You hang over one crutch and slide open the glass-panelled door to the kitchen. I’m back, you say to the cloud of cooking smells. Just going to give myself a wash.
Hi Dad, says Mandy.
Don’t be long, Don, your wife says. It’s nearly ready. Liver and onions.
Liver and onions, you say. I know. Mmm. Just what I fancy.
You make your way to the bathroom. You lean your sticks against the wall and fill the sink with water. It is lukewarm. The boiler will have just been switched on, heating up gradually for the kids’ Friday night baths. You splash your face and rub soap over your hands, building a lather. You stare at the window in front of you; it looks out into the car porch. There is nothing much to see because the glass is misty and bobbled, and it is dark too. Winter is drawing in. You always hate this time of year. Your birthday is early October and then it is all downhill. All downhill even though your youngest was born on the 29th. Party. Smiles. Hard. You can’t find the face for it. Then bonfire night. You bloody loathe bonfire night.
You dry yourself. You’ll be going to The Liberal Club later. This will be necessary. There’s a match on and you’re team captain. You’ll be playing the Oadby lot and that’s ok because they’re a fair bunch, competitive but they stay away from the tricks, none of that whispering as you’re about to throw, no threatening to trip you up. A cripple for a captain; must be a crap team; must be desperate: you’ve had that from some in the league – you could name names – and the best thing is to throw arrows as straight as – one hundred and eighty! – that shows them, that shuts their traps up.
You jiggle your throwing arm. You rotate your shoulders. You hear your bones creak and your muscles gnaw. They’ll loosen. It just takes a while after work to get them to relax.
That’s the wife. You better get a shifty on. She can be irritable in the evening. She gets tired easily, is usually curled on the sofa by nine.
One step, two, three, four. Out of the bathroom, into the hall, to the kitchen. It isn’t far. This is a small bungalow. In the future estate agents will call it ‘compact’. A compact residence. Single-storey but with a large garden, garage, car-port, sheds. It’s much better and more suitable than your childhood home and your first home when you were newly married. You like it here. You feel as if you’ve moved up in the world. Money is still really tight but you never imagined that you’d do it, that you’d have all this: a home, kids, a wife, a car-port and a car.
You open the sliding door.
Come on, Dad, says Mandy. We’re starving.
You close the door and prop your crutches against the wall, click your iron, and bending from the knees you ease onto the bench. Your youngest smiles at you. She has an open face, pretty eyelashes and the Bryan curly hair. You like her sunny nature and she’s showing a bent for sports too, is good at running and ball games.
How was school? you ask.
Don’t know, she says.
You don’t know?
Course I know, she says. It was boring.
Always boring, you say. Bet it wasn’t boring for Lynne.
Your eldest is reading at the table. She looks up.
Put that away, Lynne, you say. Now’s not the time.
Lynne tucks her comic behind her back.
Cheer up, it might never happen, you say.
Don’t touch the plates, they’re hot, your wife then says as she uses her oven gloves to lift a pile from the breakfast bar, bringing them over to the table. She divvies the plates out. Her expression is tight. You know it well enough. It tells you she hasn’t had a moment to spare. You glance at the chunky over-locker sandwiched between the breakfast bar and the bench. A pair of pants lies trapped under the sewing foot; this will either be a pair she needs to finish off tonight or the pair she’ll start on tomorrow. There are cardboard boxes stacked next to the machine.
All done for today? you ask.
Just, she says. The thread kept snapping. I think the thing needs servicing. The tension’s not right.
She pulls the saucepan of mash off the bar and gives it to Lynne.
Serve yourself, she says. Don’t make a mess.
Your eldest carefully scoops out some mash and drops it onto her plate, then gives the spoon to Mandy. Your youngest draws the saucepan closer, dabs the spoon inside. Your wife stands next to you with the frying pan. The smell coming off it is rich, dark, heady.
I love Friday nights, you say.
Your wife jabs a fork in a thick chunk of liver.
This one? she asks.
Yes, and if there’s any left after you’ve done the rounds then I’ll have that too.
You look at the clock. It’s a quarter past six. It is perfect. You like it when everything is on time, when you don’t have to rush, when everything is just as it should be. Your wife is telling you about her day as you take the saucepan from Mandy and help yourself to mash. She does this a lot. Not that it’s particularly interesting, what she gets up to, but it helps her, you think, to list the chores she’s ticked off her list, the number of knickers and pinnies she’s stitched for M&S, what needs to be done for tomorrow, what Dorothy said, that kind of thing. You watch her as you chew your meat. She is serving Lynne, spooning gravy from the pan.
Boot scraper, she says. I asked Dorothy because I’m sure there’s one in the workshed. It’s a big chunk of stone with a black metal sort of ridge stuck into it which you can scrape your boots on.
What? you say. You must have switched off at some point because you haven’t a clue what she’s on about.
Your wife gives herself some liver, sits at the table and pushes the pan over to you.
Lynne’s in a play, Mandy explains.
A play? you say, as you empty the pan onto your plate.
There’s a little more meat and some juices and you squash the potatoes with the back of your fork so the juices run over them. Lovely.
What play? you say, looking at your eldest.
Lynne is picking the onion out from her gravy. She pushes the slices to the side of her plate. Her face is more locked-in than Mandy’s, it’s becoming less girlish. She’s not sporty although she’s the right size and shape for the track. She’ll run about in the fields and she’ll walk to the canal and Cook’s Lane and do a bit of fishing with the net but most of her energy seems to be spent on brain work, reading and thinking about stuff and writing that stuff down. Her teachers say she’s clever. Mr Lee, the headmaster at All Saints, calls her into his office a lot to check through her workbooks; she’s already on Workbook Number Six. She’s started to write stories and poems as well. Poems! There was one about a darkie. It was printed in the school magazine alongside the photo that inspired it. The photo might’ve been from the Sunny Smiles book. You don’t really know. All you know is that her new teacher is encouraging her. Mr Davies. Mr fantastic Davies. You suspect he has something to do with the play and the boot scraper too.
Jesus. Your chest suddenly starts to fizz. You know about pantomimes and about songs. You love a bit of singing: The Old Rugged Cross, My Old Man, Comin’ Thro’ the Rye. But plays and poetry. The posh stuff. This Mr Davies is not you; he’s educated, a professional, enthusiastic, no cripple…
Eat your onions, you snap.
Lynne drops her fork. It clatters against her plate and as she tries to retrieve it her fingers dob in the gravy.
Don’t make a mess, Lynne, your wife says. Do what Dad tells you. Eat everything up or you’ll be hungry. There’s no pudding.
Oh, says Mandy. Why? I wanted pudding.
End of the week, your wife then says.
Wages are in my pocket, you tell her.
Thank you, she says.
She pushes a hand at her hair. It’s falling out of shape. The heat from the cooking’s done that. It’s made her sweaty too; her nose and cheeks shine. But she’s wearing that nice green dress, the one that suits her figure. She picks at her food. She is trying hard not to have that miserable look about her, the look that you can’t be doing with. When you met her there was no misery; she was a laugh and a cut above, her father a builder with his own yard and worksheds. And, most important, she didn’t seem to care about your disability. She was sort of wild, trying to escape from something: family secrets, unspoken stuff about her background: Roy, Dorothy, Nellie. It seemed to suit her being with you, but now you’ve built all this together you sense she’s getting restless. It’s coming out strange. She takes the kids to the am-dram place in town. She’s added the Observer to the paper order and has bought an entire set of Encyclopaedia Britannica from a man who came knocking at the door; she signed up to a payment plan and she’s never signed up to one of those before. She matches her curtains to her carpets. She arranges all the holidays: you’ve been to Jersey and she’s even mentioned France. It’s not like she’s demanding; it’s just you can feel her straining; you know she wants more, and you are finding this hard to deal with because you are happy, perfectly happy. And then, worse, her dissatisfaction is making your kids want more too.
So, what’s this play? you ask, because you need to get it over and done with.
Toad and Toad Hall, says Mandy.
Let Lynne talk, you say.
Your eldest swallows some onion. She grimaces and then says: Wind in the Willows. It’s Wind in the Willows. Not Toad and Toad Hall. And I’m playing Mole.
Scrape, scrabble, scratch, she says.
And what’s that when it’s at home? you say.
It’s my line. Scrape, scrabble, scratch.
That’s why we need the boot scraper, says your wife.
Ah, you say.
You pause and cut your remaining liver into strips. You don’t quite know what they’re on about and you don’t know if this is because you’re thick or because they’re not explaining things very well.
A mole with a boot scraper? you ask. One of those furry things that can’t see and it has a boot scraper?
That’s right, Lynne then says.
Ah, you say.
It’s our Christmas play. Mum doesn’t have to make a costume, I can be in all black, but we need a boot scraper.
Right, you say.
Mr Davies can collect it from here, if we’ve got one. He’ll collect it. He’s got a list of things he needs. A horn. A step-ladder. A boot scraper.
You stare at your eldest child. She suddenly seems quite different, her face as open as Mandy’s. She is excited.
Please Lynne, eat your food, your wife says.
Silence. Your wife forks mash into her mouth and looks across at you and you hold her gaze, not allowing her to lower her eyes. You’re not an idiot; you heard it all right. Mr flash Davies can collect the boot scraper from here? No, you won’t have it. Your home is your home and you don’t want anybody crossing the threshold who isn’t anybody you properly know. This is your home and this is your wife and these are your kids. Your wife knows what you’re thinking. She isn’t thick. And this is the trouble. She’s straining, pulling from you because she isn’t thick and she’s given you two kids who aren’t thick either and though this makes you proud you’re sensing your kids will never be what you want them to be, they will not stay close, same as your wife will not stay close.
I want some water, you say to your wife, your voice irritable, snappy. Water or tea. My throat’s clagging.
Lynne, please, says your wife, and your eldest springs up and you watch your wife and your children, this tea table, this room, the sliding door, your crutches, the breakfast bar, the bench and carpet, all of it, all that you have, all that you’ll ever want, you watch it through the fizz rising up in your chest, filling your neck, your head. Impossible fury. What is it? That saying? Those words? Red mist.
Your eldest has a cup and is running to the sink with it.
Red fucking mist.
She fills the cup with water and brings it to the table.
Red mist between you and them, blurring. You try to smile at the girl, try to be kind. But you can’t see her properly. The serious one. She’ll ask for a Concise Oxford Dictionary for her eighteenth, for chrissake. You don’t know this yet, but you sense it. You can feel it. Words. Education. Mr frigging Davies. Taking her away from you. Education. Ambition. Want more. Want more. Want more. Taking them all.
The girl places the cup on the table and as she spins on her heels, wanting to escape you and your bad energy, nearly knocks your sticks flying. Except you’re there, instinctive, grabbing them quick before they smash against the sliding door, bounce off and hit the floor.
Lynne hesitates, then she spins again, round in a circle, before scurrying to her place at the table.
You shake your head. Red mist wanting to blow. You broaden your hand and still the crutches. You press them flat against the wall. Counting to ten. You clench your lips tight to stop the expletives from bursting out of your mouth and peppering the lot of them, your family, yours.
Don, your wife warns, quietly, barely a squeak.
When your crutches get nicked at work – which they do often by some twat, some joker – it’s as if a part of you has been ripped from you. What’s the matter, Don? It’s just a laugh, Don. Cruel. So many cruel shits who just don’t understand. You can not be made to feel vulnerable. Your family should know this. Your family should be on your side.
The sticks warm against the palm of your hand. Your lips clench. Unclench. Breathe. Red mist puffs out. Dragon mist. Calm yourself. Calm.
Do I need to say what I’m going to say? you then ask your kids.
No answer. Silence.
Be careful, you say. I can’t have my sticks knocked over. I can’t have them damaged. If they’re damaged then I don’t have another pair and that means I won’t get out, I can’t do anything, walk anywhere, and so I’ll lose my job and we’ll lose this house and you won’t have anything nice, no comics or books, no games, no TV. Understand? Now finish your bloody tea.
Your kids do as they’re told and your wife gets up and helps settle your sticks properly against the wall as you take a sip of water. One stick slides and she shoots out her hand to rescue it. You sip your water. You finish your meal. It no longer tastes so good.