“We’ve got to get him cleaned up before we start talking about bikes,” she said, trying to look stern, “Jack, upstairs with you – you need a bath - and I’ll get me scissors out when your hair’s clean.”
An hour later we stood back and looked at him – new jeans and a sweat-shirt over his own pants and tee-shirt, and he’d found a pair of trainers that’d stay on if he wore two pairs of socks. Maggie wasn’t that expert with the scissors, but I could take him to the barbers in a week or so when the heat had died down. What mattered for now was that he looked as different as we could make him. We had a sticky moment or two when I told him he had to call me Dad, but when I said it was only to keep him safe he said, “You mean it’s part of my disguise?” and I said yes – I wasn’t planning on being the kind of Dad he’d had so far. Then we made him up a bed in the box-room out of pillows and duvets, and I said I’d buy him a proper bed on Saturday.
I was busy making a stew – it ain’t often I get the time to cook, but I’m a bit of a Keith Floyd fan when I get the chance – when Den walked in the door.
“Who’s this?” he asked, jerking his head at Jack and heading for the sink to wash his hands. I elbowed him away from the sink – didn’t want him getting engine grease in my stew – and said, “Jack’s stopping with us for a bit – and we’re making out he’s my kid.”
“Fair enough,” said Den – he knows if I do something I’ll have a good reason, “Save the explanation till I’ve had a bath, will you?”
“Don’t take all day about it,” I told him, “I’ve just put the spuds on. Jack – say hello to your Uncle Den.”
“Uncle?” Jack squeaked, and shot out the back door into the yard.
“What’s up with him?” I said, standing there like a wally with the wooden spoon in my hand.
Maggie glared at me like I’d farted, “You and your stupid great gob! The poor kid’s had enough uncles as it is.”
The penny dropped with a clang you could’ve heard in London and I dashed outside but I was too late – Jack had unbolted the back gate and legged it. I didn’t even know which way he’d gone, and I wasted time dithering, but then I ran down to the garages at the end. There was no sign of him there, so I ran back up the alley to the other end and saw him disappearing round the next corner. I yelled, “Jack!” and belted after him, and round that corner I saw a grey sweatshirt. I raced to catch him up, but when I grabbed the shirt and swung him round it was the wrong kid. I had to back off in a hurry with his mum screaming blue murder.
I must have gone up and down the street a dozen times, looking in the corner shop and the chippy and even sticking my head through the plastic strip curtain of the bookies’. By that time I was wishing Maggie’d left Jack in his pyjamas and dinosaur slippers, cos half the kids in the neighbourhood were wearing jeans and grey sweatshirts – even the girls – and I couldn’t find Jack anywhere. I was out of breath, partly through running round in circles but mostly through panic, cos if anything happened to Jack now it was my own stupid bloody fault. I should’ve known what the word ‘uncle’ meant to the poor kid – I could’ve picked on a hundred different ways to introduce Den and I had to choose that one. Cursing myself for all kinds of a wanker I started walking again, trying to think which way I would’ve gone when I was his age, but I hadn’t known Brighton that long and I had no idea where to look next.