“Listen close, Dougie,” his father says as he opens the boot and throws his bags in. He turns to his son, grabbing the boy’s wrist and turning it palm-side up. From his pocket, he pulls a biro and scratches out an address on Douglas’s hand, angular scrawl taking up nearly the entirety of his small palm. “This is the address where I’ll be staying. Write as often as you like, and I’ll make sure I write back. Now stop your crying, I’ll only be gone for a little bit.”
With a final sniffle, Douglas wipes the back of his other hand against his eyes and nods, squaring his shoulders and lifting his chin. His father smiles fondly at him and cups the back of his head to pull him into a hug. “That’s my brave boy. Keep your chin up, Dougie. I’m counting on you while I’m gone.”
Douglas nods against his father’s chest and they separate. He stands in the driveway, watching until he can’t hear the car engine anymore and then heads into the house. He’s careful not to use the hand with the address on it, lest it become smudged. In his room, he carefully copies the numbers and letters in his best handwriting in the cover of his schoolbook, where he knows it won’t get lost and then heads downstairs with the rest of the family. He’s the man of the house now, and there’s lots to do.
Three weeks later, and Douglas thinks he must’ve written about a hundred letters to his father. Every time he puts one in the post, he remembers something he wanted to say and has to write another letter. He’s got the address memorized now, but he still copies it from his book, just to be safe. He hasn’t gotten any back yet, but it’s a long way to Bristol and the post is slow.
It’s a gorgeous spring day as he runs home from his cricket match. He knows his mother won’t be best pleased with the grass stain up the side of his trousers, but they’ve won the match and he’s broken his personal record for runs. He slams through the front door, drops his kit in the entry way and clatters through the sitting room to the kitchen, bursting with excitement.
“Mum, mum,” he shouts. “Guess what? We had the most brilliant match, and Mr. Darrowby says…” His voice trails off as he skids to a stop, nearly crashing into his mother who is standing beside the phone.
There’s a look he’s never seen on her face before, and he’s instantly terrified. “Yes,” she says “I understand.” A pause. “No, that’s…I mean, I’ve got five children and I can’t just…” Another pause, and a sharp inhalation. “Well, if I must. I’ll do my best….Yes, just one minute.” She flutters around the desk where the phone is and finds a pen but there’s not a single scrap of paper to be found. Squeezing the phone between her ear and her shoulder, she poises to write on her hand. “Go ahead,” she says.
She has what Douglas knows is her serious “I’m listening very carefully” face on, and presses the pen so hard into her hand the flesh turns white. Douglas can see that it isn’t working. Her hands are wet from doing the washing up and she’s starting to get frustrated.
“Just a min—“ she says to the person on the other end, but Douglas doesn’t let her get any further. He just stands in front of her and gives her his hand, palm up. His mother gives him a grateful smile that’s a bit wan around the edges but sincere. It’s another address, and a phone number. Douglas stands as still as he’s able and when she releases his hand he runs to his room to grab his notebook. He copies the address as best he can into the cover of his book, just under the other one, but he can’t make out one of the words.
Douglas finds his mother sitting in the kitchen, a blank look on her face. “Here, Mum,” he says. “I copied the address for you. But I couldn’t read one of the words. I think it starts with an M?”
“Mortuary,” his mother replies absently. “It says mortuary.”
“Mortuary,” Douglas repeats. “What’s a mord--, mortuary?”
His mother’s face turns as white as their dishes and Douglas is sure for a second that she’s going to fall out of her chair. But the moment passes, and she takes a deep breath. “A place that takes care of people who’ve died.”
Douglas’s eyebrows furrow in confusion. “Dead people? But why are they calling here?”
He’s pulled into his mother’s arms. “Don’t ask any questions right now, Dougie. Please just don’t. I’m going to need you to be brave, but you can’t ask any questions, all right? Can you be brave for me?”
Douglas nods, and tucks his face into his mother’s shoulder, wrapping his arms around her neck.
“Thank you, my boy,” she says. They stay like that for a moment, and then she tells him to go gather his brother and sisters for a family meeting.
“We can’t have a family meeting,” he protests. “Da isn’t here!”
His mother makes a funny face, like Douglas just punched her in the stomach, and he’s instantly apologetic. “I’m sorry, Mum. I’ll go get them,” and he marries action to word.
Looking back, he doesn’t remember much of the days that follow. He knows his mother sits them down around the kitchen table. That she tells them their father’s passed away and won’t be coming home. He remembers her being gone for several days, taking the youngest two with her and leaving him and his sister with Aunt Ruth. Then, a blur of faces, mostly in dark colors, calling him “Dougie” and telling him to be brave and giving him hugs when all he wants is to be left alone to climb his thinking tree. A vision of his father, looking nothing like the man he knows. And the whole time, the only thing he can think is “I’m counting on you, Dougie” in his father’s voice.
Douglas watches as his mother slowly slips away from them, spending long hours locked in her room. She won’t answer any of the questions Douglas asks her, barely acknowledges him when he comes to bring her trays and then take them away again, eating barely enough to sustain a mouse. He learns that the only way things get done is if he makes sure they’re done.
He starts to take a certain satisfaction when things go well in the house: youngest children fed, on time to school, doing their homework. He becomes the de facto parent, forging his mother’s signature on slips to school, keeping his siblings in line, protecting them from schoolyard bullies who taunt the “No-one’s-sons.”
And through it all, he never complains, never talks to anyone. He is Douglas Richardson, son of George Richardson, and he promised he’d be brave. He looks himself in the mirror every day, squares his shoulders, raises his chin and hears “I’m counting on you” in his father’s voice. When it all gets too much, he climbs his thinking tree, as high as he can go and watches the clouds go by. And in those rare moments of peace, he imagines the silent world of the sky, where no one asks anything of you and you aren’t tethered to anything and he dreams.