The Empty Heart Overflows

By Andy Goss

Backing out of the driveway, Jak checked left and right. Nothing coming, nothing parked. He twisted round; no movement. This was, Jak thought, perhaps illegal. He had thought of reversing into the drive instead, so that he could come out forwards, but of course only remembered when it was too late. Next time.

Driving to work, Jak noted the familiar and the unfamiliar. In the years he had lived here much had changed. This suburb had always attracted migrant families; the newsagent had a wall of papers in more languages and scripts than Jak had ever realised existed, and at the shopping centre there were three distinctly different delicatessens. In the miasma of anonymous ethnicities, Jak felt almost invisible. Even the deli staff had no idea of the history of the wrinkled sausage he bought every Saturday. Only the proprietor knew anything about the stock, or about Jak. Their eyes never met, no hint of recognition.

After Helen left him Jak had thought of moving. The girls had made their own lives, he could live where he liked. But whenever he walked into a shop, or sat in a park, he felt again as he had felt back in those days before they got out. Vulnerable. Hunted. Things he preferred not to think about. But when you live alone the thoughts come to you unbidden. A year and a half of desperate debate against voices that would drift across his mind like wisps of smoke, whispering quiet poisons. Oh what winds he had conjured up to scatter them! What storms, tempests of the will! Yet when all was calm, into his tranquillity they would seep, again and yet again, like the dragon that calmly grows back ten heads for every one cut off.

His employers liked him, or  what he did for them. He was an attentive  listener, a methodical planner, content to apply whatever methodology was mandated though experience had taught him that one must invent one’s own unique parallel approach to every problem, so that for appearance sake the forms could be filled and the boxes ticked while ensuring that the job was actually done to everyone’s satisfaction. It meant more work, but it brought praise, promotion, and respect. Jak liked respect.

By the time Jak walked back to the car park the sun had dropped down behind the screen of trees by the highway, setting them black against the clear pale sky. It was like home, he thought, in autumn. The low light, that cold incandescence burning in the black haze of branches. Behind them lay the highway that would take him home; home now, not then.

There was a van by the kerb, two houses down from his own. He had not seen it before, but it was parked where he had noticed a car last week. An old car with tinted windows. Today it was a white, unmarked van with silvered windows. Jak drove on and glanced inside. The cab seemed empty. He would go shopping.

He bought milk and bread, oil, cling-wrap from the supermarket but for coffee he  preferred the small delicatessen. As Jak walked away he felt that the proprietor, who never served him, had looked at him, had ‘shot him a glance’ as they say, though it was hard to tell behind the thick lenses. Had someone been asking about him? He turned quickly, as if having forgotten some purchase, but nobody stopped, swerved aside or even paused.

He drove back. Yes, the van was still there, but at this time of day whoever it was might just be visiting or dropping off children from school. He made dinner, turning on his computer while it cooked, sifting the news.

Jak ate, no wine tonight. He had never been psychic, when Helen nearly died giving birth to Sofia he sat oblivious outside the operating theatre reading a book. Perhaps he could phone Sofia. He had no excuse, just hello how are you I miss you have you heard from your mother there is a van outside I am afraid there is nowhere left to hide I am sorry please forgive me it is hard to explain but you must understand how things were back then.

What would she remember of their escape? He had come home in the middle of the night. He and Helen had talked for hours. Argued, perhaps; cried, certainly. The next night they had driven off across a field to a track, and then a road, and down to the holiday cove, not much more than half an hour of winding through the moonlit hills to the estuary.

Back in the days when it seemed the old regime would reform and survive they had bought that wonderful house, not far inland from the little shack on the sea’s edge that they had treasured all their married life. The coast was beautiful in the summer. But it was then late autumn and cold mists hung over the water. They had waited for hours in the shack, shivering. The black rubber dinghy needed three trips to ferry them all to the ship and the girls arrived wet with spray, frozen, whimpering softly, holding tight to Helen.

Jak recalled, almost fondly, standing on the bridge of the ship as it crept out beyond the islands and into deep water. International water. It had taken much organising. They were not refugees; he had arranged passports, visas, new identities, and money. He had known even then that this was to be the high point of his life, that the future would be one of anonymity and carefully nurtured obscurity.

There had been something agreeable, heady, about being a citizen of the world. But the girls needed to go to school, and Helen wanted to put down roots, quite literally to grow things.

After dinner Jak slipped out of the back door. The van had gone. It was, perhaps, just a van after all. But if not? Surely the government, but why would they watch him? They would tap his phone, open his mail, but not send a van  and watchers; that cost money. Did they think he was a terrorist? What he had done had been done in uniform, on direct, if flexible, orders from people you kept on good terms with if you wanted to see your children grow up. There always have to be sacrifices for the good of …

There had been flags, marching bands, speeches, praise, promotion, respect for authority. Jak liked respect. They had given him a medal. He had kept it, until the day Helen left him. He had gone down to the beach, spent the afternoon getting drunk, and in the moonlight walked to the point, whirled the heavy, jagged thing by its bloody ribbon, sent it spinning and fluttering far out into the grinding surf.

It could be the old republic. What might they want; his money, his support? In some ways the idea was attractive. To be in action again, power, vengeance, get it right this time and erase the errors of the past. But it did not work like that in real life. By now the story would be a part of history, with a monument and a day of remembrance with flowers and processions of children. Anyhow, the republic had been so monstrous only monsters would dream of its resurrection.

Am I a monster? Was that what drove Helen away? The clinging scent of evil? She said he had become cold, lifeless, not the man she had married. Which was true. At work his nickname was ‘Mister Grey’. His hair was grey, he seemed to choose grey clothes as a matter of course. Even his car was grey. Looking around the room, there was no colour in it, he had taken down the pictures and put away the vases. There was an old monochrome photograph of himself in uniform. And one each of the girls from their school days. He had put them in silver frames, and set them on the mantelpiece.

The fireplace had been boarded up long before they had moved in. But the hearth was still there, well proportioned and tiled in warm red, with a sort of fleur de lys pattern in cream here and there. Jak remembered the fireplaces of his life. Childhood and wood-fires in the country with his English grandmother. Crumpets and honey, his sister playing the piano by lamplight. The dancing shadows on the Christmas tree.  Christmas had been his grandmother’s special creation, a day of good will and trust. Warmth and security in the midst of cold and darkness. An illusion, as it turned out.

Later came university and the city; coal fires in narrow grates. Earnest discussions of politics and religion with cold coffee and stale biscuits. Then family life, the country again and big log fires in that fairytale mansion looking down the valley towards the sunset. After that for a while there had been camp-fires in draughty ruins. And the last two nights at home. In spite of the tension somehow idyllic. They had built up the fire and sat by it until the last minute, then left it burning to keep smoke rising from the chimney.

Jak stood up and examined the fireplace. The cladding was thin, and seemed to be fastened with six screws. Jak went out to the shed and selected a few tools. He had not so much as hung a picture in a decade. Screwdriver, drill, saw, claw hammer. He was armed again. He felt good, strong, real.

The screws came out easily, but the cladding was stuck with old paint. He drilled a hole near the top left corner of the cladding and sawed out enough to get one hand  through. Then he pulled, and the cladding peeled away. Surprisingly, the grate was still there.

Jak returned the tools to the shed, and poked around in the corner. There had been some old fire irons under the house when they had moved in. He had cleaned and stored them. Still there. Now for wood. There was a brick barbecue in the garden. It had not been used since Helen left, but it had been stocked up for that summer that never came.

To build a fire. Paper and small stuff, a cone-shaped stack, fire begets fire. Pine cones would help. There were some, somewhere. Years ago Sofia had painted them with silver paint and glitter for Christmas. They had sat in a bowl on the mantelpiece until he put them away with the vases.

Had it been a Christmas as Christmas should be, as his grandmother had shown him? Had any Christmas approached that ideal since they had escaped? Jak could remember the laughter, the presents, the hugs, candles, cakes and puddings. And the tree, naturally. The girls decorated the tree.

How many fathers kill themselves at Christmas, unable to bear the guilt and loathing? Why do people need to desecrate the holiest temples of the soul? Why had he desecrated the holiest temples of his own soul? Steeped in horror he would sit and watch the days of joy unfold from behind a screen of armoured silence. Helen and the girls worked together to make the festival complete. Jak knew that they were doing it in part for him, to bring back some of the life that was seeping away. He did what he could to make it work, he bought surprise presents, like sacrifices to a vengeful god, and sang them the songs his grandmother had sung. He sang them well, brought out the warmth and happiness in them briefly driving his memories away to lurk in the shadows. Every year on the twelfth day he cut up and burnt the tree. Why? the girls asked. For luck, he told them. For absolution, he told himself.

The fire took well enough without pine cones. With only a table lamp by the window he drew his chair near the hearth. It was almost like company. He imagined a dog, stretched out at his feet, or a cat lying on the back of the chair behind his head, purring. Trusting. He recalled on winter nights long ago, too many times, the splintering of door frames, warm air spilling out, screams, shots. Dogs barking, children crying. How he had hated those nameless children crying, as if in reproach, as if he, and not they, were at fault. As if they knew him.

Jak had joined the militia; someone had to take control, and for a while it worked. But from the republic protecting the people, to protecting the republic from the people, it had not taken long. There was no turning back, traitors were all around. It had seemed so real, the treason so palpable, so pervasive. Delirium.

Inevitably it unravelled, each militia band became a little dukedom. Raids, retaliations, retributions. Without the rule of law chaos prevails and the world will spiral into the abyss.

With the passing of the years dreams and memories had compounded and confused the facts, rumours and fantasies. Jak had hated those people his duke had sent him to rule over, hated both them and the thugs under his command for their lack of respect. Jak had once worked hard as a lawyer to deserve respect, had indeed been respected by colleagues and clients alike. These people were different. They despised him. They were incapable of loyalty to himself, his duke, or the republic. They were loyal only to each other and their outmoded, pagan culture.

Perhaps he had been ill. Certainly he was tired, at his wits’ end as to how to cope with these impossible people and his incompetent, rapacious troops. He could almost convince himself that it was their fault, those devious psychopaths in uniform; that what he had ordered done was a properly organised and public version of what they did when they kicked in cottage doors at night. Or was it the people, their defiance, their determination to ignore his authority and go about their lives as if he and the republic did not exist? He would make them pay attention. As it was Christmas, he would hold a feast, he would make them come. There would be a roasting ox, and beer. And a tree. Can a gift given in anger bring anything but sorrow?

Jak did not want to remember, or imagine, any further. He was used to blotting out sections of the past. Alcohol did not help; no, better to fill the mind with something else, don’t look back. You might turn into a pillar of salt. And have to look back for ever.

If there were candles or an oil lamp in the house he would light them and turn off the electricity. Stop the humming of the fridge. Sheep instead of the lawnmower. An old horse and a little cart. A spade, a rake and a hoe. Nights of true silence, when you can hear your ears creak. On such nights the past does not exist.

The phone rang. Jak ran to the study, turned on the light, and, blinking in the glare, picked up the handset.

‘Dad? It’s Annette!’

‘Wonderful! Wonderful! How are you? How is the job? Do you like London? It must have changed since I was there.’

‘I’m sure it has, Dad, but I’ve been seconded to The Hague now,  I’ve been busy moving in and setting up. This is the first chance I’ve had to phone you.’

‘Oh.’ Jak knew only one thing about The Hague. Annette, without prompting, had seized upon Law in Year Eleven and had pursued it vigorously ever since. She had her mother’s persistence and Jak’s logicality. He was proud of her, but found her intellect daunting. Much as he adored Annette he was more relaxed talking with Sofia, who was, like him, an impractical romantic, and would forgive him any sin.



‘I should not be telling you this, it is confidential, but you are my dad and there is not much to tell. I spotted your name, your old name, that is, on a list of people who might be investigated one day.’

‘My old name?’

‘Yes. Remember how I always brought your letters from the letterbox? Anyhow, there was an incident shortly before we left. It happened quite close to our home but I don’t know what happened. You are just ‘of interest’, not on an arrest list. I don’t want you to worry, but I thought you would like to know anyway.’

‘Thank you.’ Jak felt cold and weak. ‘It was so long ago, but it seems to get closer every day.’

‘Don’t worry too much, Dad, that whole era is so foggy, so Cold War, that I think the pollies won’t want it dug over. How’s Mum?’

‘Still has her trees and shrubs up on the mountain. When I last saw her she was brown and wind-blown and her eyes twinkled like they used to. She is better off without me. Sofia rang the other day. She is in love again. Are you in love, Annette?’

‘Maybe, I hope so, but it’s not easy in this job.  Find someone to hug, Dad, it really helps.’

‘Or get a cat.’

‘Oh Dad! You’re allergic to cats! I must go, give my love to whoever. Bye!’

‘Bye.’ Jak slowly replaced the handset. Yes, he was allergic to cats. One memory buried at least. He returned to the lounge. The fire was low, he would need more wood from the barbecue.

At the back door, Jak felt apprehensive. Someone might be waiting for him. With a silenced pistol, or a club. Or maybe chloroform. If some were content that his tale stayed buried, there would be others who might want to dig it up.

He opened the door and stepped into the darkness.


Image by Olivia Henry