‘Dad?’ middle asked. His voice was drowned by the harsh sound of leaves as he kicked through the dry piles on the pavement, dropped by the huge horse chestnut tree that loomed over the corner of the busy road and shaded them as they turned into the quieter side-street.
‘Mmm?’ the dad replied. He wasn’t really listening. He was remembering conkers. All the years of scrabbling for the choicest picks beneath this very tree and in the cemetery a couple of streets from their house. The boys had never really taken to conkers yet each autumn the dad had collected them by the bag-full.
‘Dad?’ middle said again. He kicked the last pile of leaves as they emerged from the shade of the horse chestnut. He’d kicked as hard as he could and leaves flew into the air and spiralled back to the black tarmac of the road and the cracked, grey slabs of the pavement. The dad’s boots crunched them as he walked.
‘Yeah?’ he said. He glanced back to youngest who had paused to examine a pile that middle had somehow missed. He was rummaging in its depths.
‘How was your con this weekend?’ middle asked.
‘Fine,’ the dad replied. It was a terse reply. Middle could seize terse replies like a Shaolin monk catching an arrow.
‘How many did you sell?’ he asked in his mock-exasperated voice. This was the voice he used when he wanted to sound not angry but disappointed and yet, very generously, still willing to offer safe advice. He spoke in a sort of forgiving sigh that happened to contain words, a method the dad was sure middle had copied from Granny and Granddad.
‘Enough,’ the dad grunted. Middle was good at fielding grunts as well.
‘So, not many then?’
Cons were comic conventions at which the dad had decided to try his luck at selling some of his books. At first the boys had been very excited and had argued about who would get to accompany him into these geek-mystique-filled venues. That weekend the dad had gone solo; not for the first or last time.
‘Enough,’ the dad repeated. He watched as the youngest fished something out of the pile of leaves then yelped, screwed up his face, threw whatever it was down and vigorously wiped his fingers on his school trousers. The dad grimaced, not wanting to know what it was and at the same time reassuring himself that by the end of the day whatever it was will have been covered with whatever else youngest was likely to pick up, get dirty fingers and then wipe said fingers on his trousers. The dad had to agree with the mum: boys really were gross.
Youngest rose to his feet and jogged to catch up as the dad turned away.
Middle wasn’t giving up. ‘How many is enough?’
‘Not as many as I’d like and not as few as I’d been afraid of.’
‘What’s the fear level set at?’
‘So you sold one?’
‘No. And more than three, before you ask.’
Middle smirked and then ran at another pile of leaves that the wind had drifted against a garden wall.
‘Mind your shoes,’ the dad called out. Youngest caught up and reached out his hand to the dad. The dad remembered the gross thing in the leaves and, as casually as he could (which wasn’t very) he put his hand in his pocket. Youngest shrugged and skipped over to try to run with middle but the older boy easily out-paced him. He ran between parked cars, and out across the road, causing the dad to choke on his instantaneous shouting. Middle circled back when he heard the dad’s spluttered outbursts on road safety and returned with a crash and splash of more leaves.
‘You didn’t even look!’ the dad hissed, trying not to shout anymore and grinning stupidly at a couple of mums on the opposite path.
‘I did,’ said middle. He was hurt at the accusation but breathing hard, giving away the little bit of panic he was trying to hide.
‘You didn’t,’ the dad said again. ‘You need to be more careful.’
Youngest re-joined them. He hadn’t crossed the road at all. ‘What would you do if he’d got run over?’ he asked.
‘Have a cheaper Christmas,’ the dad replied.
Middle put on his best how-could-you-say-such-a-thing face that he thought made him look like his mum but actually made him look like a puffer fish in a Simpsons cartoon. ‘I did look.’
Middle again did his best to look affronted and hurled an accusation right back at the dad. ‘And you didn’t sell more than three books.’
‘Yes I did.’
‘How many then?’
‘Twelve.’ The dad tried to sound casual. He failed.
Middle nodded thoughtfully. ‘That’s not bad.’
The dad nodded. Youngest looked up at them both and reached out his hand again but the dad kept his firmly in his pocket.
‘Not amazing though is it?’ middle pointed out
‘Not amazing, no,’ the dad agreed. He tried not to agree reluctantly but he just couldn’t help it.
‘So how many would mean you’d have sold what you liked?’ middle asked. He didn’t want to let the dad off the hook and he also didn’t want to the dad to go back to the whole running-into-the-road thing.
The dad sighed, his breath adding to the harsh scrape and crunch of the dried leaves. ‘I don’t know, about twenty?’ He tried again to sound casual. This morning’s school run was turning into a list of failures, however.
‘Have you ever sold that many?’ youngest asked.
‘Yes,’ the dad said, a little too defensively.
‘How many times?’ middle asked.
‘Once,’ the dad admitted.
Middle smirked and youngest held out his hand one last time. The dad took his own hand from his pocket and met the youngest’s.
‘You know what you need to do,’ said youngest.
‘What’s that then?’ the dad asked.
‘Just write better books. Or just generally, you know, writer better.’
The dad’s voice took on its robotic monotone that booted up whenever he realised criticism was either on its way or had arrived out of nowhere like an eleven-year-old crashing through piles of dried leaves. ‘That’s probably true. Thank you for the advice.’
‘Anytime,’ said middle. He cocked his head, smiled savagely and pointed sagely with a wagging finger, before repeating himself. ‘Just write better books.’
The dad sighed, nodded and barely noticed as youngest’s hand fell away when his little friends appeared.