The man at the door knocked three times. Joseph could see him through the net curtain. A smudged outline, unmoving. Just a shadowed shoulders and head.
I’ll get it, Joseph said.
He hadn’t been expecting anyone. There were dead leaves beside the welcome mat. A pulse from the clock on the wall. For a moment he felt he’d rather do anything on earth than open that door but the feeling didn’t last. The man outside coughed and took a step back. The third knock had risen slightly. An upward inflection. A question posed to those inside.
The door creaked on its hinges as it opened. The man before him rubbed his hands together and looked at the ground.
I don’t know how to say this, he said, so I’m just going to come right out and say it.
The man had trouble lifting his gaze, some force pulling it toward the pavement at his feet.
I have reason to believe I’m your son.
The street smelled like unswept gutters. Like black slime caught in drains. It wasn’t night yet but it wasn’t light either, and the backlit streetlamps stood like gibbets in the half-dark. A quiet hung over them, nothing but a distant wash of traffic and the muted calls of birds. At that exact moment, the nearest streetlight flickered on.
Joseph did not have a son.
I drove out first thing this morning, the man explained, turning to point out his car. Figured today was as good as any.
The men considered the car together. A black hatchback. Newish yet nondescript. Tinted windows in the back. A rental perhaps. An air freshener hung from the rear-view mirror. A gurning smiley face crying tears of what might have been joy. The back window was cracked three inches and something moved inside.
Another streetlight flickered. Off, on, unsure.
Well, the man said.
Joseph looked at him. Thinning hair spiked optimistically atop his head. Canvas shoes and beige linen slacks. The sort of watch divers wore in glossy magazine adverts. He wasn’t old enough to be this man’s father. Gravity working below the eyes. Capillaries threading his cheeks and nose. He’d have put ten years between them at most.
The thing inside the car moved again.
I’m sorry, Joseph said, there must have been some mistake.
But the man shook his head, met Joseph’s eye for the first time.
The research had taken months, he explained. Part of a new television series. A whole team attached.
The man’s voice was reedy, hopeful in spite of himself.
Same company who worked on serial killers and plane crashes. They reckon there’s no such thing as a John Doe.
The sound of a laboured motor entered the street. An ice cream van, no music, festooned with amateur depictions of Mickey Mouse. Joseph waited for it to pass.
I understand, he said eventually, trying his best to look sympathetic. But I think there’s been some wires crossed.
The man took the news without reaction, linen trousers snapping quietly in the breeze. Suddenly he raised a finger to request a moment and retreated to his car. Whatever was inside ducked down when he opened the door and sat up again as soon as it was shut.
Here, the man said, returning with an armful of papers and a pair of reading glasses. You were born in sixty-two. Married in eighty-eight. Daughters… Three daughters?
Joseph was aware of someone moving in the hall behind him. He stepped outside and pulled the door. The ground wasn’t wet but still he wished he’d put his slippers on. A certain dampness on the doorstep. Cold seeping through the thin wool of his socks.
I don’t understand, he said.
You have three daughters, correct?
But the man wasn’t finished. He knew where Joseph worked, where he’d gone to school.
A breeze raised the hairs on Joseph’s arms. The sun had dipped below the horizon now, the clouds underlit as though the light were coming from within the earth itself.
The man seemed to take his silence as encouragement. The car’s window lowered a few inches more.
They found me in a phone box, the man started, folding his glasses up with one hand. Coldest night of the year. But it was a sturdy crib with plenty of blankets. And they don’t think I could have been there long. Two girls coming home from a disco heard me crying. They said I cried a lot as a child…
The man inched forward as he spoke. Opened his arms as though to beckon Joseph closer. As though to suggest they embrace. Joseph had nothing against the man, felt sorry for him in his creased clothes, his sense of preparation, but any pity was curdled by a sense of embarrassment. Then anger at having been made to feel embarrassed. Then something strangely like disgust.
They said my parents obviously wanted me to be found, the man said, closer now. It was a busy street. The pubs were emptying out.
Joseph’s toes hung over the edge of the doorstep.
Just because my parents couldn’t keep me didn’t mean they didn’t love me. The man spoke as though repeating something he’d been told a hundred times. He looked at Joseph and allowed himself to smile.
The breeze picked up, sending dead leaves dancing in the street.
I’m sorry, he said, arms raised, palms out. You’ve got the wrong man.
The stranger flipped through the documents in his grasp. Here, he said, brandishing a single sheet. Waving it like a white flag. Read this.
Joseph did not move.
Read it, the man said. It explains everything. All the answers are here.
But Joseph didn’t want answers. He didn’t want anything other than this man back in his car, the engine running, wheels turning, taillights spilling red over the road.
Read it, read it.
The man thrust the sheet toward Joseph, but Joseph dug his hands into his pocket. The paper flopped against weave of his shirt.
Just read it, the man pleaded. Please!
Joseph swallowed. The car’s window inched lower.
I’m going to have to ask that you leave.
The words came out different than he’d expected. Smaller, sharpened down to a point.
The man’s face crumpled. A building collapsing under its own weight.
But Dad, he started.
Joseph stepped inside and closed the door.
The three girls sat on the same sofa, faces illuminated in the blue glow of the screen. Joseph had always thought it a blessing his daughters were so close. No serious fighting, no petty rivalry. But occasionally something unnerving stirred within their manner. A certain hostility. As though in their closeness they’d sworn against outside interference. Carried whole dimensions of themselves locked within unspoken code.
The girls watched a show about freak occurrences in the weather. Something they liked to do.
So what, Poppy asked, he’s after money or something?
Lilly giggled. Our priceless heirlooms.
Poppy laughed and Daisy too. The TV showed a tornado out of season, sheet lightning and hailstones.
Joseph turned to his wife.
Maybe he’s just lonely, she said with a shrug. People cut off from society get to forming all sorts of ideas. You hear about it on the news.
Joseph thought of the way the man had looked at him. The way he’d done his hair and looped his laces. Imagined the man standing in the mirror in whatever house he had come from, brushing his eyebrows flat with wet thumbs, lips moving silently in self-encouragement.
Did he look like you? Daisy grinned, eyes still on the TV.
His wife put her hand on his wrist. There’s a slice of cake out there with your name on it, she said. I’ll get it for you.
Joseph only had dessert on Wednesdays. One of the rules he’d set for himself. Arbitrary but steadfast. He found that way he enjoyed things more. Coffee only on odd days of the month. Wine on Fridays and Saturdays and the occasional Sunday lunch. A little waiting could be a good thing.
Not that the weekend hadn’t been a challenge. Watching Lilly blow out her candles, his wife cutting great hunks of sponge. Chocolate cake with cherry jam. Double helpings for everyone but him. In-laws tutting as he waved the plate away. Poppy trying to feed him a slice by hand. But Joseph had blocked it all out. Clamped his jaw, closed his eyes, held a picture of Wednesday evening in his mind. A night in his chair. Cake and his best coffee in peace, what could be better than that?
Joseph was steadfast in his convictions. Deny yourself to love yourself. Life was all about appreciating the simple things.
Maybe it was a set-up, Poppy offered. A diversion. A distraction burglary.
Joseph checked for the watch on his wrist. Sprang to his feet to pat himself down. Wallet, keys, mobile phone. The girls laughed in unison. All tangled together on the same sofa. He sometimes thought of them as a single entity. Some three-headed creature with three brains and three mouths and a single heart buried somewhere deep out of view.
The television showed a presenter bent horizontal by hurricane winds. A woman in a plastic cape and hood.
Leaving the room, Joseph checked the latch on every downstairs window, the locks on the doors. Opening and closing them again, just to be sure. The security light came on as he went out into the garden, catching the dew on the lawn so the whole thing shone. It needed cutting, he noticed. The security light was motion sensored, the beam as white and cold as a mortuary lamp. Joseph always felt like he was being watched in the garden. A stage for the neighbours who overlooked them on three sides. He checked the back gate, trying to see around his own shadow, smelling woodchip and creosote and things decaying in the earth.
He knew the light would go off if he stayed still long enough.
Daddy, Lilly called from the patio. There’s somebody at the door.
The woman wore a black coat, black jeans and black boots, dark mascara and silver earrings which hung from her head like flails. She looked at Joseph with such righteous fury it took all his composure not to slam the door and hide.
How dare you, she began. If you had any idea of the journey he’s been on…
The woman was not alone. Off in the shadows, just outside the hemisphere of the streetlamp’s yellow light, lingered an entire crew of people. Media people with cameras and wires and microphones on great lengths of pole.
Years, the woman was saying. He’s been searching for years.
Joseph could only nod, trying to understand. The front lawn needed cutting too.
Years leading to this. Long-Lost Relatives. The pilot episode.
I’m sorry, he said. Who are you?
The woman’s eyes glowed like a poked fire. Who am I? Who am I?
Lights coming on in surrounding houses. Curtains twitching. Doors cracked discrete. The camera crew geared up and ready. Just waiting for the word.
I’m the face of this whole operation. I’m on the TV.
Joseph didn’t doubt it, but he’d never seen her face in his life. But, he asked, where were you earlier?
The woman almost smiled.
You really think, she said, considering the personal, intimate matter at hand, we go charging with a full crew the first time around? Our audience want reality after all.
Joseph blinked. You were in the back of the car.
Some of us, she said. Only some of us.
He started to explain himself but found he could only stutter half words. Something flew above their heads. A bird, a bat, some shadowed winged thing.
I’m sorry, Joseph repeated. I don’t understand.
What was there to understand? The woman didn’t see it as complicated. Sometime previously, a long time ago now, he had done something. Something for which they were attaching no blame, but something which had immeasurable consequences nonetheless. They were there to offer an opportunity of reconciliation, all these years down the line.
Joseph could only shake his head. But that wasn’t me, he said. You’ve got the wrong man.
The smile flickered across the woman’s face again.
You were born in sixty-two. Married in eighty-eight. You have three daughters and a wife.
You went to university but dropped out. You’ve worked at the same company all your life.
These could apply to lots of—
You’ve owned three dogs and two cats. Your last car was a left-hand drive. You went to St. Stephen’s comprehensive. Your parents were Margaret and William.
Bill, Joseph said suddenly, molars pressed tight. Only his grandmother called him William.
William’s brother died during childhood. An accident? A fairground ride?
Stop, Joseph said.
We’ve been tracking you down for years. The team, they’ve—
Stop, Joseph repeated.
The girls were still on the sofa when Joseph went back inside. The blinds were shut, the television off. The only sound in the room that of the clock on the wall. The laboured chug of the second hand.
His wife returned with a slice of cake and unconvincing smile. He took both gratefully, and he ate the cake with his fingers, sure not to leave a single crumb.
The girls breathed in concert. In silence, they watched him chew.
Why don’t you go brush your teeth, his wife suggested when he had finished, hand resting on his. Get ready for bed?
Joseph swallowed. He did as he was told, leaving his plate right there on the arm of the chair.
Several of the bulbs in the bathroom lights had blown. The remainder cast strange shadows over his face. The mirror was smudged, flecked with toothpaste, and as he brushed his teeth he studied himself. He didn’t have a son. He didn’t. He had three daughters, a wife, parents named Margaret and Bill.
Joseph looked at himself in the mirror. He stared at his own head.
Another face appeared beside his own. His wife with that same smile. She hovered, waiting as he spat and rinsed and spat again, trying to meet his eye in the glass. But Joseph remained focused on his own gaze. Eyes bloodshot tired and yellow-white. There were voices on the street, a wordless murmur, a gathered public at some unnamed event. Joseph went to the window, paused a moment, then pulled it closed.
Back at the mirror, he looked at himself again. His wife still there at his side.
You know, she said softly, if you did have a son. That would be alright.
Joseph didn’t put the light on when he made his way downstairs. Hoping the others were asleep, negotiating the floorboards he knew by heart. It was dark in the kitchen but not completely, a moonglow glaze across the surfaces, a phosphorescence radiating through the blinds.
A white box on the table. Unadorned, a perfect cube.
It was Thursday now but who would tell?
Joseph took a knife from the cupboard, but the sponge was too stale to neatly slice. Crumbling under the slightest pressure. The whole thing ready to fall apart.
Joseph pulled up a chair. Better to eat straight from the box.
The house murmured to itself in its quiet. The fridge fluttered like some bird was trapped within. A tap dripping, a clock ticking, the forlorn wail of a siren in the night. Without slices, Joseph lost track of how much cake he was eating. He ate until there wasn’t much left at all.
A tap at the window. Gentle at first, a small pebble or single finger, then another sound. Louder, duller. Then more. Sounds emanating from the other room. Sounds from all around, thuds on every window and wall. Flat palm thuds with no inflection. Not questions now but demands.
An outside audience grown restless. Taking the story into their own hands.
It was dark when Joseph stepped onto the street. Dark, then suddenly light. Footfall across the asphalt. The whoosh of sliding doors. A crowd around him, three walls closing in.
The presenter emerged through the throng, eyes closed and surrounded by squires, nameless people armed with fine powders and radiant gels. Behind her a team in formation, cameras pulled on tumbrel trailers, floodlights and headsets, clip-on microphones.
So? the presenter asked as she reached him, her face a brilliant sheen. What have you decided to do?
The spectators waited around them. A silent people with lights and torches, wishing for the situation to resolve itself. Joseph said he hadn’t decided anything, but the presenter interrupted. Reminded him he was not the only soul involved.
They could still shoot the scene, she said. A second meeting to make up for the first. All he’d have to do was go back inside, act casual when he answered the door. Pretend he had no clue who the man knocking might be. As though he’d never seen him in his life.
Joseph nodded along.
And don’t look at the car, she said.
Don’t look at the car.
Don’t look at the windows in the back. Forget you even know about us.
And after that, Joseph asked, you’ll leave?
The presenter smiled. After that, the rest is up to you.
There was a chill in the air, the dark heavy with the breath of the gathered crowd. Joseph wiped at his mouth and looked at them. The crowd looked back.
The man was around the corner, the woman explained. Sitting in his parked car. She’d explain the situation and get the scene rolling. They’d have it in the can in half an hour or less.
The faces of the spectators had no expression to speak of but carried a certain energy. A sense of expectation. A will to see things through. Joseph began to feel he had no option but do as they wished. Act casual, pretend he had no clue.
So he returned inside. Closed the door and took a seat, listened to the clock on the wall. The living room was eerie in its stillness. The furniture dormant but alive. The time on Joseph’s watch was almost identical to that of the clock. A second out, maybe two, barely a difference at all.
The knock was identical to the first occasion.
One, two. Three?
Joseph roused himself. Swallowed, remembered to breathe. Opened the door and took in the man before him, there again in the same slacks and shirt, the same look in his eye, and Joseph tried to smile, tried to open his mouth to speak, but as hard as he tried he could not act naturally, for the car behind the man was occupied, and the stranger was not a stranger anymore.