My niece was bewildered by the plastic key sets she received from elderly relatives for her 21st Birthday.
“What is all this?” she asked.
“They’re symbolic keys. It means you’re old enough to have a key to your own place.”
“Oh? 21? I’ve had a key for years.”
Her expression said I would have preferred money.
My expression agreed, you’re not wrong there.
At the weekend, Arnie, Ray and Mimi go off with reluctant husband to their swimming and Dad and I set off to the estate agent to get the key to his new flat. He’s old enough to have a key to his own place. As we get in the car, my heart is light. The oldest child is leaving home. Sure, there will be washing, cooking and back for the holidays, but I am not too anxious. My hope is that Dad makes lots of new friends and remembers to take all his drugs. Perhaps he’ll find a nice girlfriend?
It’s the lovely estate agent Katy again. She greets us as faamily, tells us how wonderful the flat is and produces piles of paperwork that Dad must sign a billion times. He declares loudly that there is too much and I whisper back, “it’s normal.” Even louder he says that the deposit seems very high, much higher than he thought, and I hiss, “It’s what we agreed,” and Katy shrugs. “Oh, that’s standard.”
I remember that while I have rented perhaps ten different properties since I was nineteen this is Dad’s first time. He left his parents home in his early twenties and went straight into his own property. It only cost the price of a button or something. Times have changed.
I watch him scrawl his name on the endless forms next to the crosses. I can do Dad’s signature. When we were kids, he thought it was funny to get us to sign his cheques. I spent many a happy hour improving my forgery.
“Ok, now the money,” smiles Katy but not before she’s offered to move in with Dad.
“I’ve got my cheque book,” says Dad.
“We don’t take cheques,” says Katy as though Arnie has offered her one of his pre-chewed bogies. I think her being my step-mother is looking unlikely. Then she says brightly, “how about a card?”
“I don’t have a card.”
My Dad is a dinosaur. I can hear husband’s gentle and encouraging voice in my head and he is saying: you idiot.
The first bank I drive to is shut. The next one is shut. It’s Saturday. Most banks are shut. I do what I should have done twenty minutes ago and google it. There is one open about thirty minutes away. Dad says, “Why does everything go wrong?” and I think ah, so this is where I get my quick-to-dishearten spirit from.
I pull up on the double yellow next to the side door of the only bank open on a Saturday. Dad struggles out the car into the road. I text husband who, while a hands-on father, is only hands-on with all three children for a limited period. “Sorry darling. Had to go to bank.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I realise Dad has not crossed the road to the bank. Instead, he is wandering in the other direction towards the high street, where the streets are paved with chewing gum and you are some kind of wuss if your dog is not a massive illegal breed.
“Dad,” I holler. I can’t leave the car because I’ll get a ticket. The traffic wardens are on commission round here. “This way.” I gesture wildly. I parked right outside the bank. Why has he not gone into the bank? Is it merely a symbolic bank?
He doesn’t hear. I shout. I shout again. People are looking at me. Finally, I leave the car and run towards him, clenching madly, and shout from there. He stops in the middle of the road. He cups his hand to his ear. “Wha-at?” A line of cars rev furiously behind him. The hooting commences. I imagine the massive illegal dogs in the back of the cars frothing.
He comes back and tells me he doesn’t see so good. “Why don’t you wear your glasses then?”
“Oh yeah,” he says. So he sets off, once again, to the bank that I had parked next to.
When he comes out, he is as smug as if he has produced a rabbit from a hat. He has just found out something amazing: The bank gives you money! It’s not just buttons.
“I’ve got £500,” he shouts.
“Eh,” I can hardly speak for my frothing. “You need £700.”
“Big S owes me £200,” he says.
I groan. I don’t trust Big S. And the reason I don’t is because Dad has told me repeatedly that this he is untrustworthy.
For fucks sake.
We haven’t got Big S’s number, naturally, so we have to ring up Big S’s friend first. When we eventually get through, Big S tells Dad he’s got flu but if we go and meet him, (twenty minutes in the other direction) he’ll have the money. Its all him doing us a favour.
“What are we going to do?” says Dad, a man in despair. “It’s all going wrong. I’m going to lose this flat, aren’t I?”
Husband texts me. “When you coming home?” I want to text back: ‘stop being Asda-dad’, but I write: ‘Nearly done.’
We are NOT going to lose the flat. I drive to the meeting point. I tell myself this is normal and this is standard. Sneezing, Big S hands over the money and I feel it would be churlish to check the notes in front of him. Not with all the flu germs on. Not with his dog looking at me like that. Husband will kill me if I get killed.
Finally, we go back to the estate agency to see what Katy does next. The money is handed over. Big fluey S has done us proud. We shake hands. We get the key. The key to the door. The nest is emptying. Out in the big wide world, we are 21 again.