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“I need to get some cigarettes,” Dad called out. ”I'm going to the cafe. Where are my keys?”

“Bring back some milk,” mom replied from her knitting. It was Sunday. I was sitting on the couch waiting for the magic hour when the TV test pattern switched to programmes. Bored, I used my pencil to drum a rhythm on the wooden arms of the chair. 

“Stop that racket,” Mom snapped.

Dad returned to the room, keys in hand, caught the exchange. “Why don't you come for a ride with me?”

I clambered into our old Corolla, delighted to be on the front seat. Hands on the dashboard, I sat tall, so I could see as we drove. 

But this wasn't the way to the cafe. Instead, he headed out of town.

“Where are we going?”

“To a shop.”

A short while later, he pulled into a dirt road, stopping by a roadside shanty. People sat outside the hut, on crude wooden benches. Children played in the dirt, chickens scratched at hard soil. Ours were the only white faces. 

“Lock the door, and stay in the car,” he said. 

I didn't argue, and dropped low in the seat, peering over the dashboard.

He returned a short while later with a bottle in a brown paper bag. 

“Don’t tell your mother.” We drove home in silence. He didn’t need to say it.  I already knew this was something I couldn’t tell, the first of many secrets. Childhood dies by degrees. 

I dropped my satchel in the school yard, contents sprawling across the paving. Keith, an older boy I knew vaguely, stopped to help me scoop them up. “Thanks,” I said in surprise. 

“No worries. If we’re going to be family, we should help each other,” he spoke with a smile. 

“What?” I asked his retreating figure. I wanted to follow him, ask what he meant, but the school bell rang. I ran to class too scared of my maths teacher to be late. 

The house was quiet when I came home from school. Dumping my satchel on the floral bedcover, I went to the kitchen for a drink of water and to raid the fridge. Through the kitchen window, I saw, Mom and Dad in the garden, angry stiff bodies, voices raised, but too far away to hear the words. Hunger forgotten, I went into my room, closed the door. 

Mom took us into town to run errands and pay bills. The last stop was an apartment building. We climbed the stairs to the second floor. “Why are we here?”

“There’s someone I need to see. Watch your brother, and wait here in the corridor where I can see you. I won’t be long.” 

I watched as Mom walked up to a door, and knocked firmly. I didn’t see who opened it. I caught snatches of angry words, “… who… ? What are you …?”’

“…stay away….”

I strained to hear, but the altercation was over, and Mom walked back towards us. I looked at her face, and decided not to ask questions. “Don’t tell your father we were here.” But I already knew that. It was only years later that I realised what had happened. Childhood dies by degrees.

Mom was in hospital – cancer, they’d said. She didn’t look like Mom lying in that hospital bed. On the way home, he stopped at a mall.  ”Here’s some money. Buy ice cream for you and your brother. I’ll meet you back here at the car.”

“Where are you going Dad?”

“I’m just going to meet a friend in the bar. I won’t be long. Here’s the car keys in case you get back before I do. Wait in the car.”

“Why can’t we go with you?”

 “You’re too young. You have to be over eighteen.”

We sat on a wooden bench outside the mall, cones in hand. In the African sun, it’s a challenge to eat ice cream before it melts, but we did our best. I took tissues from my pocket, handed my brother one to clean his fingers, wiped my own sticky fingers with another. 

“Is mom going to be alright?”

“Of course, she is. She’ll be home in no time, you’ll see.” I could lie well – I’d had good teachers. Ben squirmed on the seat.

“Dad will be waiting for us. Should we go back to the car?” But the car was empty, as I’d expected. I opened the doors, and Ben clambered onto the back seat. 

“When’s dad coming?”

“Soon. Let’s play i-spy. I spy with my little eye something beginning with s.”

We’d been through most of the letters of the alphabet, but there was still no sign of Dad. “I wanna go home.” 

“You wait here, I’ll go look for him.”

“Dad said you can’t go in there. You’re only twelve.”’

“It’ll be okay. I look older.” 

The wooden slatted doors parted, sticky to my touch.  Dingy yellow light spilled onto the floor. A long wooden bar stretched across the room, a sour, stale odour filled the air. Two men bulged over bar stools. One turned, bearded, slack-jawed limp-limbed, glared at me. “What you doin’ here? Meisiekind?”

Bar Prop Two gave me a long slow look, his eyes running the length of my body. I’d spent ages shortening my school skirt to barely within uniform regulations, but now it was too short. I tugged at the hem, eager to hide my legs from his gaze.  Ice cream curdled in my stomach. I felt dirty

“Wanna dance?”’ he grabbed my arm. 

“Hey that’s my daughter!”

“What’s she doing in here then?”

“Come on,” Dad grabbed me by the arm. “I told you to wait in the car.”

“We’ve been waiting for ages. We want to go home. I’ve got homework to do, and Ben is tired.”

“Sorry pet. I didn’t realise how late it was.”

The car weaved its way home, and he settled on the couch with a fresh bottle. I made scrambled eggs and toast for me and Ben. Later I read him a story, and settled him in bed. Dad was asleep on the couch. I pulled a blanket over him, and crawled into my bed. Childhood dies by degrees. 

We’d been married three years when he came to live with us – too ill now to hold down a job. His liver was shot, and they’d told him if he didn’t sober up, he wouldn’t see the year out. But it didn’t stop him – he simply grew better at hiding it.  I dreaded the ring of my phone, and the news it might bring: The hospital bouts; the rushing to a doctor for stitches because he’d fallen down the stairs; having to fetch him when the bartender had confiscated his keys; the knowing look of the liquor-store owners. My nerves were guitar-string taut. How long would it be before they snapped?

He’d been released from hospital again, and was supposed to be home resting. Driving home from work, I recognised his car in the parking lot, right outside the bar. Incandescent with range I pulled in beside it, and charged into the bar. “What are you doing in here?” I demanded. 

“I needed a drink.”

“That’s how it starts every time. I’ve had enough. If you want to kill yourself, carry on, but I’m done. I’m not watching anymore.” I stormed out, limbs shaking, hands trembling too much to open the car door. I swore, rested my head on the car roof, trying to breathe, waiting to feel calm enough to drive. 

The storm at his funeral was the one raging in me, but the African sun shone bright and mocking. Why couldn’t he have stopped for me? For us? Weren’t we worth living for? I wept angry tears. A blazing ball of anger burned within, threatening to consume me. He’d never fought for us. I’d failed too - I hadn’t been able to stop him. I’d spoken angry words and never taken them back. I was too angry to say I loved him the last time I saw him. 

He’d never laid a hand on us, he’d provided for us, but he’d put us through hell: the drinking, rehab, broken promises and affairs. As they lowered the coffin into the grave, the storm stilled, and relief surged through me.  It was finished.

A few nights later, I woke up sweat-drenched, sheets-clenched from a nightmare. I turned on the lights, and it flashed before my eyes again. He’d been alive. And I cried tears of relief as I realised it was only a nightmare. 

Life is a venture lived forward, but best understood looking back. A recovering alcoholic friend once told me that alcoholics drink to fill a void. If you don’t fix the void, you’ll never stop drinking.  Childhood dies by degrees. 

I gaze at the killers aligned in front of me. One by one, I bin them, glass shattering. They may have killed my childhood, but they won’t be killing me.  


Denice is a freelance writer, who has a patchwork of jobs on Academic Research Projects. She lives in England with her husband, and kowtows to the six cats, who are their furry children. Follow her on twitter @denicepenrose or through her blog:


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