A Better World for Connie

Connie empties a container of crayons onto the kitchen table and rushes to another newly-remembered hiding place, frantic with industry. Her footsteps return, arms stretching up towards the ceiling, triumphantly brandishing glue sticks and plastic scissors. “Our world has to be the best one, Daddy,” she tells him for the hundredth time since he got home from work. “It needs all the countries and all the animals, even the hot places, Daddy, and the polar bears.” Dennis drags his fingernails across his forehead and collects dry skin beneath his fingertips, before scattering it onto the linoleum floor. He presses his eyelids together as hard as he can, briefly imagining that they might never open again. Connie fights her way through the doorframe with a heap of old newspapers cuddled to her chest, pinned by the soft patch beneath her chin. He walks over to help. “Are you sure we need this much, Connie? How big has this world got to be? Like a football?” She looks at him, baffled. “It needs to be almost as big as the real world…” she sighs and sweeps frizzy brown hair away from her eyes. “I told you, Daddy. Our one has to be proper. You can help me, can’t you?” He wants to smile, but doesn’t. I’m on your team. “Of course I can help. You’re right, it needs to be just like the real world,” he says. She raises her eyebrows and lifts her shoulders in agreement. “We’ll take all the newspapers and old magazines we can find, and one of those big balloons we bought for your birthday party, and we’ll do papier-mâché until our world is so big, it needs Mummy and Daddy to carry it.” From nowhere, a smile pops onto her face. Dennis’s shoulders flinch. They begin ripping up the paper, and Connie talks about school and her teacher. Mrs Gallagher draws silly faces on the blackboard. She gives the whole class the giggles when she reads poems about a badly-behaved toddler. The children compete to sing the loudest when she plays the piano in assembly. Connie told Mrs Gallagher that her daddy can play the piano too, but he doesn’t do it anymore. Mrs Gallagher says playing the piano is her favourite thing and she feels like the luckiest woman in the world because she gets to do it every day. Dennis has heard her play. The worst kind of amateur. But better than nothing. Connie slaps her hands together in messy applause for Dennis as he blows up a balloon at the first attempt. She shows him how much glue to use, the strips of paper feel like thin slices of raw meat. They take turns sticking them on, first covering up the number five on the balloon. It’s almost Connie’s birthday and she can’t wait to turn six. She was born on New Year’s Day. Her mum, Rebecca, says the same thing each year: “It’s just like you to let other people be part of your special day. You’re so good at sharing, Connie. Not many people are so kind.” Connie shrinks and blushes every time. Agony. After letting the glue dry and set for two days, they squirt blue and green paint onto old saucers and dig the paintbrushes out from the cupboard below the kitchen sink. Connie borrows an inflatable globe from a girl in her class and places it beside the breadbin. Dennis shows her where Manchester is and she’s astonished – it’s not even labelled. The world is big. Her world is tiny. She clamps her front teeth around her bottom lip and the colour fades from her cheeks. Dennis takes the globe and does keepy-uppy with it, bouncing it off the cupboards and balancing it on his foot. She laughs. “The black lines around the countries, Daddy… Are they big walls?” “No, not normally. Sometimes, but usually not.” “So… Is everyone allowed to choose what country to live in?” “Yes, most of the time.” “So… I can live wherever I want? I don’t have to live in Manchester-in-England-in-the-United-Kingdom?” “No, you don’t have to live here,” he says. I’m holding her back like a choke-chain. “Where would you like to live?” She points to Iceland and looks up at him. They both grin. “Or… what about here?” “I think you need special permission to live there,” he says. “Some countries are worried about running out of space, so they don’t let many new people in. Only people who can do an important job, like a nurse or a police officer.” Connie says she wants to be a teacher, and Dennis tells her that’s an excellent choice. Countries always want more teachers. She breathes deeply, vindicated. Bumps pop up on Dennis’s arms. Connie helps him rub them away, dark hair gets matted with green paint. They laugh again. They leave Connie’s world to dry overnight. The next day they pop the balloon with a knitting needle and extract it through a hole at the top, before covering the hole with papier-mâché. Connie can’t wait for the patch to dry before applying a thick layer of white paint and proudly gluing a plastic polar bear onto it. Then she carefully places animal figures onto the surface, and Dennis holds them in place until the superglue dries. He worries that the world will crack, it feels brittle like dried mud. When it’s finished, Connie dances around the flat, throwing herself onto her knees in front of the model and swooning, star-struck. Rebecca wraps her arms around Dennis and tells him he’s a wonderful dad. He tenses and sucks his stomach in. They have sex that night, slow and fluent. Before falling asleep, she whispers, “I never dreamt I could be so happy.” Dennis lies awake for an hour, before heading downstairs to sit at the kitchen table again. He picks up a pouch of photographs lying beside the toaster. His sister has just returned from Sweden. She saw the Northern Lights. She went zorbing. “Ticking things off my bucket list,” she told him. One photo shows her standing atop a mountain, tight-fitting sportswear displaying her toned stomach. Dennis hasn’t been abroad in almost a decade, since Rebecca proposed to him at knifepoint in Central Park. She’d had Will You Marry Me? engraved along the edge of a switchblade and held it to his throat, grinning. They both laughed. She took his tears as assent. I never do anything. * * * * *

The following day, Dennis arrives home after work to find Connie crouched next to her model of the world, hot grief sucking her into the carpet. Tears have left straight lines running down her face like streaks of sugar glaze. She sniffs harshly. “Daddy. Can. You. Help. Me. Again. Please?” she says. “Connie… what’s the matter?” At first, she struggles to speak. He cuddles her, she’s molten and damp. She tells him she visited her friend Adam after school: His mother is one of Rebecca’s former work colleagues, an extravagantly friendly woman with blond ringlets and huge green eyes. Auntie Nick, as Connie calls her, has helped Adam make a world using her yoga ball. “It’s much bigger than our world, Daddy,” she says. “It’s even big enough to label Manchester.” Dennis holds her in his arms and begins singing the songs from her favourite film, but she’s too upset to sing along. Distress has exhausted her, and she falls asleep while still wearing her school uniform. He lies on the floor beside her bed, and when she wakes, he helps her put her pyjamas on and they brush their teeth together. “I love you, Connie, you’re a wonderful, wonderful girl,” he says. She drops back into sleep, and Dennis props himself up against her bedroom door. A hotness crawls up his lungs and he imagines the two sides of his throat fusing together. I should’ve gone through with it before she was born. He casts his mind back seven years, standing on the railway bridge at Heaton Chapel. He envisions himself lunging off, gripping the power lines like a gymnast on the bars, transforming into a cloud of dust, whipping between the arches and thinning out, vanishing forever. * * * * *

During work the next day, Dennis has an idea. I can rescue the school project. Save the world. He flips through the directory until he finds an advert for a zorb hire company in Macclesfield. During his lunch break he marches out of the call centre and walks up Whitworth Street until he reaches the phone box opposite Sackville Gardens. Nobody picks up at first, but he tries again twenty minutes later and a woman answers. He collects the zorb – and an air pump – that evening. When Rebecca’s car pulls away from the curb and heads towards the school the next day, Dennis calls in sick and begins a frantic morning of errands. He picks up glue paste and paint from a stationery wholesaler on an industrial estate and manages to find a huge bucket of plastic animals in a charity shop on the high street. There are at least twenty polar bears. He imagines Connie’s face when she sees them. Exquisite. Taking the stairs two at a time, he races up to the flat and stabs the key into the lock. He carries the limp zorb and its pump into the living room, buzzing with excitement. After removing the cap from the valve, he plugs in the air pump – it’s loud and powerful, the ball fills quickly. When it’s fully inflated, Dennis sits on the sofa and stares at it. Ridiculous. Perfect. After lunch he descends the stairs and opens the storage room in the cellar, humming a freshly-remembered tune. The room is almost half the size of the flat and there’s a lot of open space, even with the push chair, baby bed and Christmas decorations. He opens a couple of boxes, looking for potential papier-mâché material, until he finds the old music magazines. Albie McGregor grins gormlessly from the cover of BeatTHAT! magazine, black hair slicked back. The headline stretches across his open shirt, covering his scrawny chest. Dennis’s gaze drifts towards the corner of the room. He walks across and tentatively removes the cover from his old keyboard, sits on the stool and flicks the power switch. What’s stopping me? He flexes his fingers, a mannerism from another time. He thinks about the hours he spent like this in the loft at his parents’ house, in stale practice rooms at summer schools in Cologne and Liège. He rests the fingers of his left hand over a C7 chord, but something buckles before he can convince himself to press them down. Why can’t I let myself? His mind settles on an imperfect image of the acceptance letter he ripped up when he was nineteen. A full scholarship for the Manhattan School of Music. An echoed euphoria curdles to shame again. The blank hush of the cellar scratches through his eardrums like broken glass. He walks back upstairs and deflates the zorb before driving to back Macclesfield to return it. When he arrives home again, Rebecca is making spaghetti while Connie plays with the bucket of plastic animals. She runs over to hug Dennis as he enters the room, thanking him for all the polar bears. Rebecca smiles at them. Excruciating. The next week, Dennis and Connie very carefully carry their world down to the car and set off towards her school. She glares at it on the passenger seat next to her. “So… what about with a boat, Daddy?” she asks, looking at him in the rear-view mirror. “If I wanted to go to this country, I’d just sail there. Nobody would find out, would they?” “Sometimes they’d find out, sometimes not. But it’s a long way to go in a boat, and the sea can be very dangerous, Connie. I don’t think it would be a good idea.” “So… do people do it? Get in a boat?” “Sometimes.” Connie nods. She traces her finger across the oceans until they arrive outside her school. They carry the world into her classroom together, four hands placed below the equator. The sleek surface feels cool, like thick glass. Dennis compliments the other kids’ projects, and their parents compliment Connie’s. It’s a nice school. When the bell rings, Dennis follows the other parents through the corridor and out into the bright morning. He strides past his car and keeps going, through the gates and down the hill towards the train station. A man shouts at him as he crosses the road, but Dennis doesn’t notice. He imagines Connie in her boat, thick hair scrambling in the wind as she sails past oil tankers and freight ships, blistering contempt in her eyes. It really is that easy, my daughter. Don’t listen to me. Just get in your boat, and go.

Matty Bannond is a writer from Manchester, UK. He is thirty-two years old and lives in Germany. His short stories have appeared in Open Pen magazine and the Cabinet of Heed, as well as on the Obliterati Press website and in the Audio Arcadia anthology An Eclectic Mix Volume 7. Alongside writing fiction, he plays the tenor saxophone in a six-piece jazz and funk band. He is currently working on a novel.

He tweets at @mattybannond and his website address is www.mattybannond.com.