Looking Out of Broken Windows, by Dan Powell
artwork by Kirsty Greenwood

Mum called to say Dad was having a baby with someone else. He’d come home from work that night, told her what he’d been up to and packed his bags. Glad of the excuse to get out of Manchester, I jumped on the last train home. I arrived a little after midnight to find all the windows dark. My door key turned in the lock but the door wouldn’t open. I shoved it with my palm, then my shoulder, but still it wouldn’t budge. I thumped hard on the door, imagining Mum’s body sprawled on the other side.

‘Mum. Mum. Open up. Mum.’

The anxiety in my voice surprised me, made me thump harder.

‘Mum. Mum. Can you hear me?’

I had my fist ready to batter the door again when she appeared, wrapped in a duvet.

‘Amy, what are you doing? You’ll wake the street.’

‘The door wouldn’t open.’

She looked at me for a second, her eyebrow raised in that way she knows I hate, then, without a word, shut the door in my face.

‘Nope. Fine,’ she said, opening it again.

‘I was worried you’d done something silly.’

‘I was sleeping. Or trying to.’

She shuffled into the living room and dropped onto the sofa, huddling under the duvet. I sat beside her and she laid her head on my shoulder. I could feel her shaking.

‘Oh, Mum,’ I said, stroking her hair.

With the curtains closed, I didn’t notice the windows until the next morning.

*

A web of cracks ran across the inner panes of every double glazed unit in the house. Dad’s mobile kept going to voice mail so I made Mum breakfast then set about finding someone to fix the windows. I picked the last name from the Yellow Pages, Zappa Glass.

‘You the homeowner?’ The voice on the other end was a gravel strewn, throaty rumble.

‘It’s my parents’ house,’ I said.

We agreed a time later that day and, turning to replace the receiver in its base, I found Mum, in her pyjamas, watching me.

‘Who’re you calling?’

‘Just a glazier.’

‘A what?’

‘Someone to fix the windows.’

She walked to the bay window of the front room, inspected the glass.

‘What’s wrong with them?’

‘They’re all broken. What happened last night?’

‘What are you talking about?’ She turned to face me, her confusion hardening into concern.

‘The windows, Mum. The inside panes of the double-glazing, they’re cracked. All of them.’

She followed a fracture line in the centre pane of the bay with her finger. I could see she didn’t see it though. For her, the glass remained smooth and hard and unbroken.

‘Don’t be silly, love,’ she said. She leaned in, kissed my cheek. ‘So nice to have you home. I’m going for a bath.’

I didn’t move, just stared at the cracks. Her footsteps up the stairs and across the landing were replaced, in time, with the banging of pipes and the rush of water.

*

The glazier’s ancient Transit was the colour of rust, the words I Will Try To Fix You running in faded paint under the Zappa Glass logo. He wore dirty blue overalls with the logo embroidered on the left breast, the top buttons open, a thick tangle of dark chest hair bursting through the gap. The hair upon his head sprouted long and thick like fur and a dense beard filled his face, alert dark eyes peering out as if over a hedge. He clamped a chewed pencil in the fierce vice of his teeth, the end splintered, its charcoal vein exposed.

‘You called about your windows?’ he said around the pencil, the bass rumble of his voice felt as much as heard.

He wrapped a calloused hand around my own, his handshake like a hug.

‘Mike Zappa, Zappa Glass. I see the problem’s as you said.’

He nodded to the bay window. In the stark early morning sun, the whole and unbroken outer panes reflected their shattered twins.

‘Amy, who is that?’

Mum stood on the stairs in her robe, her hair wrapped in a towel. Before I could answer, the glazier stepped round me with surprising grace and crossed the hall to meet Mum coming down. She stopped a step or two from the bottom of the stairs and pulled her robe tighter about herself.

‘Mike Zappa,’ he said, taking her hand. His furry arms sprouted from the rolled sleeves of his overalls, his large feet were heavily booted, tufts of hair burst up from his open collar and his muscles rippled as he moved. With his beard and hair these things worked to create the impression of not a man so much as a bear in clothes. ‘And this must be your sister?’

Mum giggled as he kissed the back of her hand, his fat lips puckered and pink within the grizzle of his beard.

‘This is my mum. It’s her house. Mum, Mr Zappa’s going to fix the windows.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with the windows.’

‘I’ll be the judge of that.’ Mike Zappa led Mum off the stairs, began to guide her down the hall to the kitchen. “Why don’t you stick the kettle on and let me worry about the windows.’

I waited for Mum to argue but she just nodded and smiled and asked him how he liked his tea.

‘Milky and sweet, like my women,’ he said, his laugh a landslide.

Mum giggled back and trotted into the kitchen. His tongue flickered to his lips as he turned to me and grinned. ‘Take me to your windows.’

I showed him to the patio units, where he stood unmoving for a moment before opening his arms out wide. He sucked in a lengthy breath and held it. His arms seemed to measure the span of the doors exactly, and then, slowly, he brought his hands together, exhaling in a long loud burst.

‘They’re all like this?’ He ran a fingertip back and forth over one of the cracks.

‘Just the interior panes.’

‘And your Mum doesn’t see anything wrong with them?’

I nodded.

Beginning at the top of the sliding door, he traced the largest crack running down the otherwise smooth surface with his thick index finger, the action leaving him in a crouch.

‘As I thought.’ He looked up from his squatting position, as if preparing to pounce. ‘It’s a good thing you called me.’

He sprang up from the base of the patio windows and raced upstairs. I followed and found him stretched over the bathroom sink, his gut resting on the edge, tapping a finger against the cracked pane in the unit above the sink.

‘Exactly as I thought.’

‘I’m sorry, what?’

He turned from the window, his wild grin bright within the black of his beard.

‘The spontaneous, simultaneous and specific nature of the damage, the fact you and I see it and your mother doesn’t, all points to one thing.’ Mike Zappa paused. With the mauled pencil he jotted something on a scrap of paper pulled from the pocket of his shirt, folded the paper and stuffed it away again. ‘A textbook case of the metaphorical breaking of literal windows.’ He sucked air through his teeth in that way tradesmen do. ‘Fixing this type of damage, to this number of windows, well, sorry love, that’s going to cost.’ He stuffed the pencil back in his mouth, gnawing the end and nodding to himself. ‘Yes, yes, yes. Going to take something special to fix this.’

‘I’m sorry, a metaphorical what?’ I started to say, but he was already on the move again.

‘I should think that tea your mother promised is ready.’

*

Downstairs he measured the kitchen windows.

‘Here you go.’ Mum held Dad’s World’s Greatest Lover mug out for him. He snapped his measuring tape back into its casing and took the mug from her, his hands brushing hers. He read the words on the mug with a grin then swigged his tea.

‘Ahhhhhhhhh.’ He wiped his beard with the back of his hand. ‘Perfect splash that.’

I swear Mum blushed.

‘May I ask how old these units are?’

‘They were put in just after we moved in. I was pregnant, so that’d be almost twenty years ago now.’

‘Windows that age, it’s a good idea to have remedial work done from time to time to ensure longevity,’ Mike Zappa said. ‘Don’t worry. I’ll make it so these windows last another twenty years.’ He winked at Mum.

‘My adulterous husband’s paying so you go right ahead, Mr Zappa.’ Mum was batting her lashes.

‘Shouldn’t you be getting dressed?’ I widened my eyes at her but she ignored me.

‘I’m talking to Mr Zappa.’ She moved closer to him, pushed her chest forward, her cleavage rising within her robe, her skin still damp from her shower.

Mike Zappa ran his eyes over Mum’s chest. ‘Please, call me Mike.’

‘Jennifer.’

‘Lovely name,’ he said and she giggled again.

Mum got out the biscuits and Mike Zappa crunched his way through half a packet of custard creams before getting up to finish measuring the rest of the windows. He said he’d be in touch in a day or so with a quote.

‘Be seeing you Jennifer,’ he called to Mum, turning and winking from the garden gate.

I watched her cheeks flush and she waved, a girlish flick of a thing.

‘Bloody hell, Mum.’

‘What?’

I left her watching Mike Zappa’s van scream up the road.

*

I called another glazier for a second opinion, this time picking the most mundane sounding firm, Smith and Son. A thin man with thick glasses came out that afternoon but was quickly irritated. As far as he could see there was nothing wrong with the windows.

That night Mum and I ate pizza in front of the TV, watching some reality show tragedy play out. We finished the only bottle of wine in the house quickly so I grabbed my coat and headed out for more. The off licence was just round the block in the small row of shops down from my old primary school. I bought the cheapest Shiraz they had and a bar of Dairy Milk. The plan was to put on a DVD, relax and forget about Dad and the windows and everything.

Back at the house, again the front door refused to open. I pushed, shouldered, even kicked at it, but the door remained firmly closed. I knew the back door would likely be unlocked so I nipped round the side. The light from the kitchen projected the window fractures onto the brick paved patio. The handle of the back door turned, but the door stayed jammed in the frame. Giving up, I tapped the glass to get Mum’s attention.

‘What’re you playing at?’

‘I couldn’t open the front door again. This one either.’

I waited for the raised eyebrow.

‘Call that nice Mr Zappa, perhaps he knows what’s going on,’ she said instead.

*

I called the next morning and explained about the doors. Mike Zappa offered to consult a friend in the trade.

‘He works with ideas of wood, conceptual timber, that sort of thing. If there’s a problem with your doors, he’ll sort you out.’ He sounded like he was chewing on the pencil as he spoke. ‘You the only one experiencing the problem with the doors?’

‘Yes.’

He sucked air in through his teeth.

‘I’ll see what he says. As for your windows, you’ve two options. You can employ what we in the trade call the metaphorical fix, where we, the qualified professionals, engage in repairs just as we would a literal, physical problem, only with metaphorical materials. These are considerably more expensive than more readily available literal ones of course.’

‘And option two?’

‘I could do a bodge job and replace the damaged panes with new standard ones, but that’d be false economy. They’d only go again a few weeks down the line. Metaphorically broken windows need to be fixed right to have the job last.’

The line crackled with the rustling of paper and a scratching sound.

‘Fifteen hundred quid should cover a proper job. Half up front for materials and whatnot.’

‘That seems a lot to fix damage you say doesn’t really exist.’

Another suck of air, this one much bigger.

‘Don’t misunderstand me, metaphorical damage is very real. We have to manufacture most of the materials ourselves; each batch is job specific. We’re talking materials reinforced with meaning, materials that won’t buckle under scrutiny, that can withstand criticism.’

More rustling of paper, more scratching.

‘The cheapest I could start for is five hundred, take it or leave it.’

‘I’ll have to check with my parents, it’s their house after all.’

‘No drama.’ I swear I heard him grin. ‘Call soon though, work’s always coming in. You don’t want to be stuck once we’re busy elsewhere.’

*

I called Dad at work.

‘Now’s not a good time.’

‘It never is. When are you coming home?’

‘I’m not.’

We both listened to silence while I waited for him to explain.

‘I’m missing classes,’ I said, buckling.

‘So go back to Manchester.’

‘I’m not sure Mum can be left.’

‘She can. I left her.’

‘Why?’

‘I’ve met someone, she’s having a baby.’

‘I meant why are you doing that? Why are you starting all over again? Why now?’

‘Ask your mother.’

‘She won’t talk about it.’

‘There you go then.’

‘What?’

‘Let her be. Go back to Manchester. She’ll sort herself out, she’ll have to.’

‘Jesus, Dad, that’s a bit harsh.’

‘Yes, it is, but there you go.’

‘There’s a problem with the house too.’

‘What problem?’

I told him about the windows and Mike Zappa.

‘I don’t know what to do with it all Dad. It sounds like bullshit. Just not sure whether it’s Mum’s or the glazier’s.’

‘Nice try.’

‘Pardon?’

‘As a reason for getting me home, I have to say it’s inventive.’

‘She’s flirting with him. It’s very sad.’

‘I’m sure it is. Good for her.’

Laughing, he put the phone down.

*

Over a thrown together dinner of pasta and chicken I tried again with Mum.

‘They’re broken, all of them.’ I pointed to the cracks through the two large panes of the unit over the kitchen sink.

‘Love, there’s nothing wrong with them.’

I topped up our wine glasses.

‘Why did Dad leave?’

‘Ask him.’

‘He told me to ask you.’

‘There you are then.’

She took a swig of wine and smiled.

‘Jesus, you two are as bad as each other. Call yourself bloody adults.’

Mum didn’t say anything.

‘Alright. Forget it. None of my business. You two sort it out. Just tell me what you’re going to do about the windows.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with the windows.’

I knocked back my wine then collected up the dirty plates, scraping the leftovers into a pile of half-eaten mush. ‘Fine. If there’s no problem then there’s no need for me to be here.’ I flicked the food into the bin, clattered the plates into the dishwasher.

‘I didn’t ask you to come home.’

‘You didn’t say the words but that’s exactly what you did.’

‘Well you can go now.’

Mum wasn’t angry as she said this. She stepped over to where I had started washing up the big pan and rested her head between my shoulders, her arms wrapped round my waist.

‘I’ll be okay,’ she said. ‘These things happen.’

‘These things happen?’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘These things do.’

*

I decided to hang around one more day before going home, just to be sure. By the time I woke on Friday morning Mum was already up and out of the house. I left Mike Zappa a message explaining we wouldn’t be bothering with the repairs then headed into town to do some shopping.

It was late afternoon by the time I got back. I could hear hushed voices and a tapping sound coming from upstairs.

‘Mum, you home?’ I called.

Sitting on the stairs to take off my shoes I saw the work boots: dark brown with heavy rubber soles, one upright, the other laying on its side. I heard someone laughing.

‘Mum?’ I called.

I climbed the stairs and crossed to her bedroom door. The noise had stopped. Before I could knock, the door opened to reveal a naked Mike Zappa, even more bear-like without clothes, holding a glutted and sagging condom over the end of his wilted penis.

‘Scuse me,’ he said and stepped lightly past me and into the bathroom, locking the door behind him.

I took a single step into my mother’s room. A musky, animal smell hung in the air. She lay, covered in the duvet, her face flushed.

‘Jesus, Mum.’

‘These things happen,’ she said and smiled the first real smile I had seen on her face since coming home.

Only then, struggling with the image of the shriveled cock and wrinkled condom dangling beneath the globed bulk of Mike Zappa’s belly, did I realise I had let myself in with my key and that the windows, all the windows, were no longer broken.

*

Mike Zappa came downstairs in his overalls as I was calling for a taxi to take me to the station. He sat on the stairs, his hair slicked back, a damp fur smell rising from him.

‘It appears the fix was easier than I thought,’ he said, pulling on his boots. ‘Don’t fret, they’ll be no charge for, shall we say, services rendered.’

I rolled my eyes and pointed with my free hand at the phone still ringing and ringing in my ear.

‘I’ll be off then,’ he said.

His van could still be heard screaming up the road when, finally, someone at the taxi firm picked up.

‘ABC, where to?’

I didn’t answer. The voice on the other end repeated the question but I remained at a loss.

*

Back in Manchester, I decided to surprise Rich. We’d been seeing each other since Freshers’ Week, had even spent Christmas together at his parents. He hadn’t met mine yet. I got myself buzzed into his hall of residence and knocked on his door. There was no answer so I checked the shared spaces of the living room and kitchen but no one had seen him since lunch. It was after five.

I tapped Whr r u? into my phone.

I got a can of Coke from the vending machine in the lobby of the Halls, drank it then called him.

‘I’m back, where are you?’

‘The library. Catching up on some work.’

‘Who are you and what have you done with my boyfriend?’

I thought I heard laughter in the background.

‘What was that?’

‘Nothing. Look, can I call you later?’

Again I heard laughter, quiet but definitely there, where he was. Filtered as it was through the phone, I couldn’t tell whether the laughter was quiet and close to Rich or loud but further away.

‘Is someone there with you?’

‘I’m in a library, there’s a lot of people here with me.’

I listened for the laugh, but it didn’t come again.

‘Look, I’ll be here a while. I’ll call you when I get out,’ Rich said and hung up.

I walked back to my shared house. The girls were getting ready to go clubbing. I said I needed an early night and went to my room to unpack. Once they left I stuck a frozen pizza on and took the remains of the wine they’d opened back up to my room. I finished the bottle, half-watching the end of Hollyoaks, my phone beside me. Then I slumped back on the bed.

I thought about checking the pizza. I thought about getting more wine. I thought about Mum and Dad. I tried to remember exactly what the laughter on the phone had sounded like. The ceiling, empty except for the light fitting, stared at me. Staring back, I watched cracks emerge from the plastic cup of the ceiling rose and spread across the magnolia expanse, reaching for where the walls met the ceiling.


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