By five fifteen, the little boy has eaten all of his dinner. The three of us sit in silence, plates pushed back. Through the window I can see hot sun beating down onto the back lawn.
The boy asks, almost timidly, if Daddy will come and play in the garden. Daddy mulls this question over for a while. Eventually, with the air of one conferring a great honour, he pronounces: ‘After pudding.’
Nodding sagely, the child selects an apple from the fruit bowl.
‘But only,’ his father adds, ‘if you eat up all of your apple.’
The boy agrees. He loves fruit of all kinds, but apples are his favourite. I cut the one he’s picked up into segments and put them on his plate. He can’t quite deal with the pips yet.
‘Say thank you to Mummy.’
‘Thank you Mummy’ says the child indistinctly, mouth full.
At five seventeen, his father puts a hand on the boy’s arm and says, in a low chiding voice: ‘Aren’t you going to offer anyone else some of your pudding?’
Confusion. The boy stares blankly from his father to me, then back again.
‘Offer the plate to Mummy.’ Grubby hands hold the plate out. I shake my head, smiling thanks. The apple goes to Daddy, who takes a piece and snaps it up in two bites of his sharp teeth.
I think I can see what’s coming, but I don’t know if I can do anything about it. I might be wrong anyway. I hope I am wrong.
The boy eats quickly. He finishes his pudding and immediately makes for the door. At the last minute he stops, remembering, and turns back expectantly.
‘Will you play with me now, Daddy?’
There is a pause. The boy’s father replies. I see his mouth in slow motion as it frames the word no. I think of trees creaking before they fall and lorries jack-knifing on slippery roads. It is as though I am watching a sad film, one that I have seen many times before, but which never fails to affect me.
‘No,’ he repeats, and waits for the response.
‘You didn’t eat all of your apple.’
The boy runs to the table. He has to get back up onto his chair to check properly. The plate, of course, is empty. He looks up as if to say: more information required.
Daddy’s lips curve in a dead-eyed smile.
‘You didn’t eat all of the apple, did you? I ate some. So I can’t play with you.’
The tears come at twenty-two minutes past five, accompanied by an anguished howl of disappointment. Daddy winces at the sudden noise and takes the boy by both arms. The boy wriggles. There will be bruises. He will have to wear a long-sleeved t-shirt to nursery tomorrow, no matter how hot it is. Daddy holds him and says, ‘Calm down! Do you understand?’
At this point I always want to say, stop it. I want to say, he is only little. The boy suddenly cries out in horror. A dark stain appears on the front of his shorts and begins to spread. I smell fresh urine.
‘That’s filthy. Filthy! Go to your room and wait for me there.’
I don’t speak. I look down at the empty plate, the knife, the chopping board. I hear the door open and close. Footsteps go up the stairs. The crying recedes. It is half past five.
‘He’s got to learn.’ The boy’s father grabs another apple from the fruit bowl and bites down on it, chewing thoughtfully.
I get up. The knife comes with me. At five thirty-one I stab the knife into his left eye, using my free hand to hold the apple in his mouth. He struggles and tries to scream through his nose. It isn’t very loud.
The blade encounters resistance. I put some more weight behind it. I know that this man is stronger than me, and for a moment I wonder: why doesn’t he hit me, push me off? His arms flap all over the place. Random. Uncoordinated. Helpless. Then I hear a gristly, dropped-eggshell crunch. The knife goes in another couple of inches. The struggling stops.
I leave him sitting there with the apple still in his mouth. I go upstairs, taking care to shut the dining-room door behind me.
At thirty-three minutes past five I am sitting with my son on his bed. He looks so small. By twenty to six he has stopped crying. I clean him up and help him change into some dry clothes. It is still sunny outside.
My son holds my hand and says, ‘Will you play with me now?’
Yes, I say.
We go down the stairs, past the dining room, through the kitchen door and out into the garden. Picking up a plastic spade, he says: ‘Shall we dig to Australia?’
That’s a long way, I say. We’ll have to dig a very deep hole.