It’s a muggy, August evening; the kind when the sun decides not to show but does its work anyway. The back garden is paved over and most of the slabs are cracked. There are three or four pots dotted around but the plants have died in the summer heat or choked in the dry, un-watered earth. Smoke escapes into the grey sky, the charred remnants of a disposable barbecue giving its last to the ozone layer. None of us are going to touch what’s left, that’s for damn sure.
We’re stooging around. Three of us smoke, two of us don’t; one of us is stoned, all of us drink; three of us are white, one is black; Mostafa, our host for the evening, is Afghani. It’s another “Justice League of Fathers” summer barbecue. There’s not much talk. We’re bonded by blood. None of it connects us. Not directly, anyway.
We met at a court ordered “Separated Parents Information Programme” – that’s a SPIP, to those in the know. All of us at various stages of legal acrimony in the desperate quest to see something of our kids, let alone be a father to them. Leon and Mostafa were already part of “The League” and I joined up for a bit after talking to them. Sure, I went on a few marches; signed a few petitions; made a few donations but I suppose that once things got a bit better for me I sort of lost interest. Bad, really. Lazy. That’s partly why I’m here this evening: to show a bit of commitment, to show my support.
We wait for Paul to finish his blunt and then make our way inside. We carry plastic chairs, three white and one tan, which we tuck underneath the kitchen table on our way through to the living room. It’s pretty bare: one old, stained armchair that smells of kebab meat; a two-seater sofa with foam showing from dog bites; two deck chairs. The only picture on the wall is a poster sized print of Mostafa sitting in the old armchair, his two kids on either side. Even though it’s a bit blurry you can see how happy he looks; it’s a lovely picture. Mostafa hasn’t seen either of them for five months now.
Despite the poster sized picture, the room is dominated by the TV. It’s wall mounted, 50 inches, HD and the screen is “so flat that it is curved”, so Mostafa tells us. It’s a big TV. We settle in, a few of us cracking beers, and get ready for the movie. We’re watching “Taken”, with Liam Neeson, for the third time in a row. We tried “Taken 2” a while back but it wasn’t the same. We all enjoyed “Finding Nemo”, though.
There’s a palpable sense of enjoyment in the air. We each snuggle down into our armchair, deckchair, whatever, and get ready for the familiar ride. All a bit buzzed, stomachs pretty full, we’re each looking forward to our favourite lines. The room stays silent throughout the opening ten minutes. We enjoy meeting Neeson’s gang of misanthropic former colleagues again and think his estranged relationship with Famke Jansen is just like the wreckage of our own personal lives. Again. Once the film gets cooking we relax into it and the comments come like some disjointed, DVD commentary: Neeson saving the pop star is “better than Costner”; his buying of the karaoke gear for his daughter makes him a “top man”; the step dad’s buying of a horse for her birthday, of course, makes him a “prick”. The film rolls into top gear and our talk rolls with it, digressing and meeting until it becomes impossible to tell the dialogues apart:
“Jean is marrying that travel agent in the summer.”
“I’m not comfortable with this.”
“He knows the world, sweetie.”
“Got an invite to the wedding? Ha, ha!”
“I’m very good at being invisible.”
“Now’s not the time for dick measuring.”
“I’ve got a trade...”
“Bigger than you, then.”
“...skills I have acquired over a very long career.”
“Freelance accountant? Leave it out!”
“...skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.”
“Back in court Monday.”
“Well, my brief’s just made me aware that the drug conviction won’t help.”
“That’s what happens when you sit behind a desk for too long: you forget things.”
“Sounds like he’s been very helpful...”
“...but that still won’t save you.”
“Ah, try not to take it personally mate.”
“It was all personal to me.”
“Daddy, you came for me!”
“I said I would.”
Daughter saved. Roll credits. Fade to black.
The familiar vacuum of DVD end: the summer light has faded now and we sit in the twilight of a darkened TV screen, stale wisps of cigarette smoke curling. Someone shifts and leather creaks; someone farts and someone sniggers. A light snaps on.
“Okay, with me. I have something to show all of you.” Mostafa stands up. He looks like he means business. I’m up and right behind him, halfway up the stairs before I think to ask where we’re going. Leon’s way ahead of me though. Still sitting in his deckchair he calls up.
“Mostafa, man, what is this?”
“Come,” says Mostafa. “With me, you see. Come!” He shouts. “You lazy bastards, with me!”
Grumbling and moaning, the others shuffle into life. Creaking and groaning they fall in line behind me and grudgingly file up the stairs. Mostafa leads us into his bedroom with a wide and mischievous grin. We follow him in and stare at what’s lying on the bed. I take a quick stock take of everyone’s faces. Paul’s jaw hangs open, glassy eyes wide; Al is registering abject confusion; Leon is horrified; God alone knows what I look like. Someone speaks, I don’t know who:
“What the bloody hell are those, Mostafa?”
The question only hangs in the air because Mostafa is relishing the moment, displaying a flair for drama that I didn’t know he possessed. I look at his face and am surprised to see that it is glowing with pride.
“These,” he says, gesturing grandly. “These are the outfits that we shall each wear when we march on the Town Hall.”
We look again at the bed. It’s really hard to discern what we’re looking at but we look again, nevertheless. See-through plastic bags, like you get your suit back from the dry cleaners in; bright, day-glow green fur and .... eyes, wide, staring and cartoonish.
“We will be the Teenaged Mutant Turtles,” Mostafa declares. “Also Ninjas,” he adds.
We all start talking at once. Somewhere amongst the general abuse the answers come. Mostafa has been canvassing support for the next court hearing in his never-ending sequence of court hearings; his endless mission to obtain a defined contact order to see his kids. This mission has led him down some very peculiar avenues. Quite literally as he has been knocking on doors, locally, and asking for support.
“I have petition in backing of my claim,” he beams at us. “Many people sign.”
“How many?” Leon asks.
I catch Paul’s eye. We hold for a moment before he looks down, shifts his feet, looks back, looks away again. Leon opens his mouth. Closes it again.
“We march on the fifteenth, same day as protests against library closures, more numbers that way, I take the petition and hand to the Mayor at the end. Good for the League, it will raise our profile. Good for me, raise profile for contact order. Maybe get press involved!”
I look at the suits dubiously.
“You sure about that?” I ask. “I mean, where did you get these from?”
“E-Bay,” he beams. “Job lot of remainders for twenty quid. No one buys the XXL size.”
“My days,” Leon , through his teeth. “none of us is ninjas and we all pretty far from bein’ teenaged...”
“Or turtles,” says Paul. “None of us are morbidly obese turtles.”
We laugh a bit at this but soon stop. Mostafa looks crestfallen. Well, of course he does: he’s done the petition; he’s synced the march with the library demo; he’s ordered the costumes, those bloody awful costumes. But lifts his head and the light is back in his eyes.
“Neeson.” He says.
“You don’t like the teen ninjutsu turtles? Fine. We will wear Liam Neeson costume from “Taken”. It is perfect.”
“Mostafa, man, what are you sayin’?” asks Leon.
“It is so simple,” Mostafa replies. “Black leather jackets, brown slacks and tan brogues. It is a classic look, completely Neeson.”
“This is mental,” says Paul. “You want us to march on the Town Hall dressed like shop dummies from Marks and Spencer? I think I preferred the Turtles. Come on lads, back me up,” he turns to us, turns back. “Mostafa, we all love you mate, but this is madness.”
“I’m in.” It’s the first thing Al has said in thirty minutes. Eyes, like steel, meet Mostafa’s, unblinking. The two men stare at each other across a Sesame Street swamp. “Neeson, man. It’s a tough look. I’m in. I’m here for you.” Al says. Mostafa nods his head, doesn’t say anything, doesn’t break eye contact.
“Yeh to the march, no to the Neeson; I’ll style it out myself.” Leon steps forward. “Can’t let my brother down when he need me, can I?” Mostafa’s eyes are filling. It’s hard to watch, my skin is starting to crawl off my bones.
“Thank you,” Mostafa whispers. “Thank you so much, you have no idea what this...”
“Oh bollocks!” interrupts Paul. “I ain’t seen one of my kids in three years. And they shouldn’t be closing those fucking libraries anyway. Alright, alright; but at least let me sort out some decent masks. If we’re going to do this then we might as well do it with some class; there’s gotta be some quality Liam Neeson masks on the internet, right? Probably latex...”
“I ain’t wearin’ a Liam Neeson mask,” interrupts Leon. “Trust me, blood, I just ain’t.”
“Don’t matter if you’re Liam Neeson or Peppa Pig,” hisses Al. “Just matters that you’re there.” Then he looks at me, right at me. “How about you?” he asks. “You’re pretty quiet. What’s it gonna be?”
All eyes turn on me. The adrenaline jolts as my fight or flight kicks in but there’s no way out here. This is the no win situation. It’s all I can do just to stall and buy time. This knowledge doesn’t make me feel any better as I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and prepare to deliver the lie.
Cameron Dunham has previously had his work published in Dream Catcher magazine, Banbury and Fictive Dream. He is also a performing musician and actor on the London fringe scene. He is a reular contributor of theatre reviews to the Remotegoat site and also works in a London comprehensive school.