Carl bursts out of the church door, storms up to the nearest gravestone and kicks it repeatedly. Gripping the top of the stone he looks down the weathered face as each new strike lightens the leather across his toes.
“I wouldn’t let Father David catch you doing that.”
The man is sat on the bench, smoking, his face obscured in a swirl of grey. He’d been gardening in the churchyard a few moments early when the congregation had shuffled inside wearing reluctant clothing and, as they’d passed, he’d nodded politely at them. Carl had made sure to return the mock salute he’d received with a smile, even when everyone else in the group had acted like the man wasn’t there. Carl had been bought up better than that.
“I wasn’t… I was, cleaning my shoe. I didn’t mean to.” Carl brushes at dirt his trousers have collected from the gravestone so that he doesn’t have to look up. “Are you going to tell?”
“Why would I?” The man looks over and shrugs, “it’s not my gravestone.”
“But you work for Father David?”
“Father David? Ha ha, no.”
The man drags on his cigarette and pushes smoke out through his nose, “I’m an old friend of the family, that’s all. Just clearing the garden. Between you and me, I think Father David would prefer it if I was working some place else.”
The man is the same sort of age as Carl’s uncle and as familiar as someone who lives a few streets away but Carl can’t recall ever having met him before. He watches as the man continues to smoke and draws in his own breath sharply, imagining the bitter taste of burnt toast on his tongue.
The sound of scraping feet escapes the church walls and the man jabs a thumb over his shoulder, “Shouldn’t you, you know, be getting back in there? Sounds as though they’re about to start.”
Mom’s voice is a clenched whisper. “Don’t you dare show me up in here.”
“Mom said I need to stay out here until I’ve learnt how to behave.”
“Oh.” The man sits up and leans forward, “What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything!” Carl blurts out, “Danny said I hit him but I never did. I only pushed him a bit. He wasn’t really crying, I could tell.”
“Danny’s your brother?”
“Yes, he’s four. I was sitting by Mom first. He shoved in.”
When the man doesn’t reply, Carl adds, “I didn’t push him that hard, honest.”
“It sounds like Danny is the one who should be out here.”
Carl kicks at the grass. “I don’t even like coming to stupid church, anyway. It’s annoying.”
The man glances up and down the churchyard and then leans forward over his knees.
“I don’t like being here either.”
He rolls his eyes. “All that begging. All that singing. What a waste of time.”
Carl grins, “I only pretend to sing the words. Father David sings loud enough for all of us”
“Ha Ha. That he does.” The man takes a final drag from his cigarette, tosses the stub and grinds it into the dirt.
“Do you love your brother?” he asks.
“Stop it, Carl! Why is it always you?”
Carl doesn’t reply straight away but when he does it’s with a frown.
“Yes. Er… I like it when we play football and make camps but…”
“But?…” the man raises his eyebrows eagerly.
“He always gets me into trouble. Mom never listens to my side.”
The man nods. “My brothers are the same. Always running off to Father whenever I do the slightest thing wrong.”
He picks at a fingernail and adds, “I bet your dad takes Danny’s side too, doesn’t he?”
The front door slammed shut before the shouting had finished. Later, Carl heard Mom crying in the bathroom. When he got home from school the next day, Dad was in the bedroom stuffing clothes into a bin bag.
A lump forms in Carl’s throat. “My dad doesn’t live with us anymore.”
“He probably left because he hates Danny as much as you do.”
Carl winces and shakes his head slowly. He can feel the man staring at him.
“I’m sorry, son. It’s not your fault. Your mom and I…” his dad didn’t finish the sentence.
The man takes out another cigarette and lights it, the embers burn brightly deep within his jade-coloured eyes.
“You should ask your mom about it, she would know.”
Carl can feel his face reddening. “I don’t know. I… Sorry. I think I’d better go back in now.”
“Of course. You don’t want your mom getting worried.”
The man flashes him a smile and adds, “Maybe we can have another chat next week? You can let me know what your mom has to say.”
He leans back on the bench and lets the smoke cloud his face. “Give the stone another kick if you like. I won’t tell.”
Carl gets a rush of adrenaline as he looks down at the frayed leather across the front of his shoes.
“What have you done to them? Carl, they’re ruined.”
The stone bites into his toes and rattles the bones in his foot as he gives the gravestone one final kick.
“That-a-boy.” says the man without looking up.
As Carl heads back into church he watches the man hold out his cigarette and examines the tip, before adding, “I’d say it tastes more like singed hair than burnt toast.”
Established in 1973, Steve Campbell is a full-time designer and part-time writer. You can find his flash fiction and short stories in print or online at places such as: SickLitMagazine.com,AdHocFiction.com, twistedsisterlitmag.com, fixional.co, nationalflashfictionday.co.uk and standondog.com. He tweets at @standondog.