The Laryngitis Game

Daddy was a bank manager, a small local branch, just Daddy and four uniformed girls in our little town, the kind that raiders in the mid-seventies hit for an easy rob. Whenever another bank robbery came on the news it terrified us, I‘d have nightmares and my young sister would wet the bed. The fear would pass after Daddy told us ‘they’ had been caught.

We had a nice house, our own rooms, a big garden. Daddy was great for building landscapey things, ponds and rockery’s and the like. Then Mammy would get bored with whatever the thing was, so Daddy would demolish it and build another, better one.

After school we used to go to the bank car park to wait for Daddy. My older brother kept a key to the passenger door in his pencil box. We kept our boredom at bay imagining innocent passers-by as potential robbers and ‘shooting’ them from the slightly open – and of course ‘bullet proof’ – smoke windows of our parents Hunter car.

Mammy worked in textiles, a local factory in Gorgonstown, with 659 employees. She travelled all over the world buying the raw materials, doing deals and trades in countries you’d normally only read about or see on TV. We were proud but hated her being away so often. We went wild when she was away, but as she neared home there was a routine in us: a production line of cleaning, polishing, tidying before she arrived, always with odd little presents from wherever.

We often played ‘laryngitis game’ on Fridays, my brother, my little sister and me, but only if Mammy was away. We would take it in turns to get a ‘doss day’ off school. Daddy was soft; we could twist him. We loved Gorgonstown, had great fun making up stories of where it got its name, for visiting cousins from England. Daddy chastised us for ‘terrifying the shit out of them’. Daddy was a terror for cursing. Daddy even used his bad language in the bank. I went in one time with my savings book after school – just like any regular customer – and I heard the ‘f’ word from him to a customer at the counter. You didn’t normally see Daddy at the counter, he was much too important for that. The man was a rough, farmer type who must have had loads of money in the bank for Daddy to be out talking to him. Daddy saw me and winked. I put in 75p I’d earned from a ‘bob-a-job’ and the girl who served me recognized me, I heard her say to another girl: ‘Image of him, isn’t he!’

Mammy used to give Daddy a hard time about his double chin, telling him there were exercises he could do to get rid of it. Sometimes his picture was in the paper after he – well, the bank in fact – had sponsored a sports day or some such, and he was taken presenting the prizes. Mammy kept a scrapbook of Daddy in the newspapers.  

Anyway, as I’ve said we always managed to fool him with our laryngitis game. ‘Christ, ye would get it now just when ye’re mother is gone away,’ he would say. Like any child we each loved having the house to ourselves. One of us could get away with it of course, but all three of us! There was one such day. ‘Ah come on now, come on,’ Daddy’d said, ‘Jesus, how could ye all get it so fast.’ We laughed at that years later but on the day itself there was anger among us over the breakfast table, the stupidity of it, I mean we could’ve decided beforehand, flipped a coin even.

Daddy’s warnings about being at home alone were always in our heads: to be careful cooking, to answer the phone but not the door unless we knew who was there. There were several phone calls from him during the day and always just after three o’clock when the bank closed.

Once Mammy had to go on business to America and she took in her holidays first and we all went. She was with us for the first week, and the second week Daddy took us to Disneyland. That was great fun but it wasn’t like we were a family there without Mammy. We enjoyed it though, knowing the money they’d spent, still have the photos shared out among the three of us.

We had Disneyland without Mammy and the next year we had life without Daddy for good. He left us for a girl in the bank. He told us with Mammy by his side one Sunday after lunch. He was gone before nightfall. My image is him and Mammy holding hands while telling us. I never saw the unlocking.

My father got a transfer to the city. He’d been a devious bastard, worked out his own and the girl’s transfers before even telling Mammy. I couldn’t hold money any more; went into the bank one last time and drew out my all: £86.40 including interest. I kept my head down, mumbled what I wanted, never said ‘thank you’. I didn’t want to know which one of the girls he had gone with – they were nameless things in uniforms anyway.  

I bought my first packet of cigarettes from the money. Up to then I was an O.P. smoker – other peoples, other pupils in fact, at my school, you know what I mean. That day I could offer around. The packet was gone before I knew it. I bought another.  

Daddy stopped being Daddy – we referred to him by his Christian name, Spenser. Mammy stayed home, sought less responsibility in the textile company for a behind-a-desk job with no travelling connected to it. She changed; became a dull Mammy, no more nice presents from far off places, no reunions. It was different, difficult even – although I hate to admit that – having her home all the time.

We stayed on in our little town although attitudes changed to us. I wished for Mammy to move us on, go to another town, we could tell kids in schools there that our father was dead or something. But Mammy’s company was in Gorgonstown and in Gorgonstown we stayed. We never got another Friday off for our laryngitis game either. Mammy wasn’t foolable.  

The new bank manager was a surly, hot-shit kind of fellow, and it was him that came to our school to present our sports prizes. Even though I’d won third place in Track & Field, I mitched from school the day of the prize giving. I went to the river where Daddy used to take us fishing, but I didn’t fish, just hung around for a few hours and smoked; even amused my mind considering a hoax bomb scare call to the local bank.

My father had left in January and it was the Easter holidays before we saw him next. Mammy sent us to his new nest. He’d done as Mammy had pestered and had worked off the double chin. He was wearing a hair wig too, which looked ridiculous. My brother passed a direct remark on the wig to him. It might have hurt him, I don’t know. But he had hurt us, hadn’t he? So I started too, being sullen and difficult.

She was away. Our father spoke about her a lot, had a ‘don’t you see how good this is for me’ attitude about him; blaze, fickle. The smell of her was in the place. I sneaked into their bedroom and slit their duvet down the middle. My brother spilled yoghurt all over her couch, and put whiskey in her budgie’s water tank. My sister started to cry on the bus home, said that it was bad – the things we’d done, that it was our father’s house too. I lent my sister my Walkman but she didn’t like Wings or Led Zeppelin, wanted to listen to Abba, but I had no Abba, they weren’t cool any more. She cried more. I whispered to my brother my fear of our father, Spenser, making the girl pregnant, the stigma of a step-bastard? He shut me up, for our sister’s sake.  

It was tough on Mammy when we got home that day. She collected us from the station in the Hunter car that we’d thought was so cool when Daddy bought it, but it had dated quickly. We were all silent. Eventually she asked if ‘Daddy was well’?

          About a weekend or two later a handyman went into our attic to fix a leak. While he was down having tea with Mammy, my brother went up. Although I was terrified of heights, he dared me to follow. There was lots of junk up there, or so it seemed. In a chest-like box were old photographs, ticket stubs for classical music recitals, weird looking clothes, a receipt for accommodation in a seaside B&B, a race card from Punchestown twenty years earlier. Mammy raged at us. Her voice broke up and she started to cry. We had exposed her relics of her time with Spenser before us.

There was one other holiday: in a caravan in Kerry that same summer. Spenser came for a weekend, slept alone in a tent outside. I refused to talk directly to him. He played with my sister a lot, and the brother warmed a bit too I think. Mammy went for long – very long  – walks on the beach, and spent time painting – a hobby she had just taken up – on the sand hills. We never saw the work. It went straight into the attic when we got home. I played a game of tennis with Spenser, but it was silent tennis, I stayed stone-faced, concentrated, wanting to win; but he did. There were subtle moves by all us children to patch things, get Daddy back, but by Sunday evening he was gone.

Spenser sent pocket money ’til each of us turned seventeen. I spent all mine on cassettes and cigarettes. Mammy got money from him for us too. I took less and less interest in school, and left early to get a trade in the buildings, specialising in carpentry. She wanted me to visit him again then. I refused. I still knew nothing of Spenser’s woman, except her Christian name as mentioned by my sister who had become close to them. My brother went the odd time too, but I hated hearing any details.

My brother went to college, financed by Spenser, and when my sister finished school she studied languages and worked for a while as an au-pair. Now she is in a bank, but not the same one as Spenser retired from. He had two other daughters. My sister sees them as sisters, even baby-sat when they were younger. Me, I’m doing well with my carpentry, though things are tougher than they were a few years ago. I live with my girlfriend and we have a baby too. I’m doing well.

I haven’t seen Spenser since I was eighteen, at my grandmother’s – his mother’s – funeral. Mammy started playing Bridge and met a nice man there. She lives with him now in the same house in Gorgonstown. We are all happy for her; he’s a man with heart, goes fishing and has taught her to fish too. They’ve made their bed in my old room. We sleep in my sister’s old room now when we visit. What was Mammy’s and Daddy’s room is a nothing room now, full of junk.

Spenser got cancer of the throat a few years ago. He had this attachment thing fitted to enable him to speak. Now he’s dead. The funeral is today. I seek my first sight of his partner. She doesn’t resemble any of the girls in the old bank. I suppose I expected a blue uniformed ageless witch. Her smile sickens me. I think I’m making her nervous, am trying hard not to laugh. I hand my daughter to my girlfriend, pray the baby won’t throw a tantrum.

I look at my father in the box and feel a slight guilt for playing the laryngitis game on him, on Fridays, all those years ago.

Noel King

Noel King was born and lives in Tralee, Co Kerry. He has published more than a thousand poems, haiku or short stories in magazines and journals in thirty-eight countries. His poetry collections are: Prophesying the Past, (2010), The Stern Wave (2013) and Sons(2015). A short story collection, The Key Signature & Other Stories will be published in 2016.