We were on the back seat of my uncle’s Ford Cortina. Outside there was a storm and my Dad had run inside the hospital to see if Nanny Cuckoo was awake. It was a strange hospital, very quiet. No flashing ambulances, no orderlies running about like they did on the telly. Nanny Cuckoo had been awake when we’d seen her the week before and I’d sat on her bed and asked about her eye and when she was coming home and we talked about school. We ate loads of grapes and my Granddad insisted on driving us back. It was a quiet journey.
Now I was telling my Mum about my day at school. She’d asked me but she was worried about something else. I could tell that much.
“Here’s your Dad”.
I glanced outside and saw my Dad and his brother running towards us. They clambered breathlessly into the front of the car.
“Nana’s not up to visitors today mate. We’re just, you know, going to drive home and we’ll sort something out. Ok?”
My Dad was turned towards us from the front seat and trying to address each of us at the same time. I was upset; I wanted to see my nana. We drove home, the windscreen wipers struggling all the way with the weather.
Dad was gone all the next day. He’d left pretty early even though he didn’t work Saturdays. Mum didn’t seem to know where he was, just out. But he’d left a present for me and one for my sister. My sister had a doll and I had a sticker book.
I didn’t know anything about football except it was what my friends now did at playtime. We didn’t play superheroes or Top Trumps anymore, all my mates played with a bright orange ball initialled GB that belonged to Graham Broad who hated losing. I used to read comics in the corner instead. I liked Hulk and The Fantastic Four best because they were on telly and I could read the speech bubbles in the voices I knew they had.
Occasionally the ball would ping its way towards me and I’d try to join in but I was rubbish.
If it was raining and we had to stay inside then football still dominated proceedings – all the boys bar me had a sticker book and spoke dementedly of swapsies and gots and needs.
Now I had a sticker book with loads of teams in it and ten packets of stickers to start me off. When I’d finished putting all the stickers in, my Mum sat us down on the sofa and said she had something to tell us. I knew what she was going to say because she was crying. It was the first time I’d ever seen her upset. People only cried on telly when people died.
It was my first dead person and it was Nanny Cuckoo. She was called Alice really and had gained this nickname because of a ritual conducted between us when I was a toddler. We'd visit her flat and I'd knock on the door and she'd call out Cuckoo. I'd call Cuckoo back before being let in. My Nan who looked after me at weekends and gave me 10p to spend on sweets every time she came to visit. My Nan who said “Presently” instead of “In a minute” and who had a plastic chair in her bath. I cried for as long as it takes a seven year old to cry themselves to sleep.
We didn’t see my Dad till the next day and we didn’t get the chance to say goodbye. We had a couple of days after the weekend off school and then when we went to school on the Wednesday my mum spoke to my teacher, Miss Hope.
I’d been quiet, quieter than normal. I could see the teacher and my mum looking at me in that way that parents sometimes look at children when they’re ill.
I had my sticker book and my swapsies in my little Gola bag ready for playtime. Graham Broad had forgotten to bring his football and so the two of us and some other boys formed a circle like Chinese gamblers did in films. The names being read in solemn incantation as the swapsies were announced.
Joe Jordan. Ray Wilkins. Bristol City. John Wile.
A mumbling chorus of declarations from the marketplace.
Got. Got. Need. Need.
My eyes stung as I looked down at my stickers and realised I was speaking the mantra too.
Got. Got. Need. Need. Need.