Before I could ascend to your kingdom, you gave me the tour of the basement, a converted games room for which your dad had bought himself a decommissioned slot machine, a grim slab of buttons that formerly coughed up change on shag carpet in the local airport and now smelled perennially of pine. It took real coins, but you could lift them up out of the tray soon after you deposited them, the insides had been hollowed, reconfigured, and ochre lights sent tired warning signals as they chugged around its perimeter.
Your dad was in the living room, having his breakdown, so you said, and we were to take the stairs in silence, breathe in, this way, follow your angular cat. I remembered the door in the yellow hallway, the cloth of smoke, that slow cape, the room where your dad failed to freelance. He was a photographer, chemicals, specifications, I could take my work experience with him, could help him edit the school portraits, you said, enrich the kids’ faces, transfigure their haircuts if it was editorial work I wanted, unravel their skin – but not tonight, another time, he was high, there were deadlines.
I nodded in the basement light, a thick orange glaze that fell as liquid, while the slot machine chirped and droned and chimed in the night. I longed to be upstairs, where I had heard that the hamsters wrangled in their cages and that your clothes lay as scree, stiffly on the floor, where you were limitless, you said, where you were free. Down here, you had hung a row of cardboard bats on the topmost beams that sliced across the basement ceiling, and you proudly showed me their corrugated bodies, bobbing on updrafts above us, those happy, guileless, docile silhouettes.
After appreciating them in silence, it seemed entirely fitting to hear footsteps, and soon they obediently sounded. They were heavy and groaning, and gave way to your dad. He stumbled on bare feet across the boards and onto the linoleum before us. He was, I thought, appropriately, even clichédly, depraved. He looked down to you, down through you, with pitching eyes, as if through driving sleet. Seven pound missing, he said, tapping the slot machine’s chest. His vowels were flat but they came dragged out. Seven pound missing, he repeated: gone.
You were unsteady, a piece of wheat. You wavered. From the corner of the room I saw the photographer’s assistant, emerging slowly; he’d been upstairs with the opiates, and came down into the basement now to scratch his head. The assistant frowned, a strange one, hang on, and gripped the machine, his enormous hands, shook it down, rocked it, those great amorphous hands, and the loose coins, burnished and bluish and golden, came flowing out of the tract like gemstones.
You were rattled, spectral. I stayed the night. In the morning I dried the dishes for your dad. He was beleaguered, uneven, and slid the bowls out soundlessly. Vapour rose off the water, winding upwards, and all I could think of was the light spilling out into the basement, that boiling sepia. We had stood in the photographer’s lair, watched him slap the slot machine’s flanks, say Just like a woman, and laugh, and drift back upstairs to the smoke-filled room to erase the moles on children’s faces. Now, in the pastel morning, your dad could hardly face the water in the bowl. Our love of you, his delicate son, was not much comfort to any of us.
Jack Barker-Clark is a writer from West Yorkshire. His fiction has appeared or will shortly appear in 3:AM Magazine, Litro, New Critique, and elsewhere. He is the winner of the 2021 Fish Publishing Flash Fiction Prize. A portfolio of his work can be found at www.jackbarker-clark.co.uk.