Michael visits his father’s study alone after school, while his mother drinks Liebfraumilch in the kitchen. He sits on the squashy vinyl cushion of the high stool and plays with the drawing board. A thick ruler presses down on the drawings, kept in place by heavy steel weights on cables, which he zips up and down. If a drawing is left on the board he recites his father’s immaculate labelling, ”Front Elevation, French Windows, Catslide Roof.”
The room smells of ink, Old Spice and pipe smoke. Professional pencils, metal claws furled, wait to grip lead and create. Michael holds to his cheek white rubbers that don’t dry up like those at school, but remain waxy and cool. On the desk, at the level of his nose, an acrid pipe reclines in a heavy glass ashtray next to a tin of tobacco, a box of Ship matches and a bundle of white pipe cleaners held together by a paper band. He whispers the labels, “Quink, Helix, Faber-Castell, Staedtler Mars Pan-Technico, Player’s Whisky Ready Rubbed.”
One Sunday morning he enters the study and stands by the desk. His father perches at the drawing board, the leather elbow patch of his brown cardigan leans on the plans for a new shopping centre. His other hand holds a pen, poised above the paper like a surgeon’s scalpel.
Michael looks out of the window, hoping his father will ask him to open the desk drawer, where there is a yellow tin of Parkinson’s Old Fashioned English Humbugs. He wants to prise the lid with a penny and dig into the welded sweets with his fingers.
He stares across the desk, through the window, past the patio and down to the elm trees, where burning leaves belch billows of smoke. A stillness drifts into his heart, revealing the end of this world and a future in which one day his father will die. Michael cries for grief to come and for his own death.
His father speaks. “Fancy a humbug Michael?”