Camilla Gibb's latest novel, Sweetness in the Belly, is published by Vintage.

The levee was there but our wreck wouldn't go

The September my father returned from a three-year tour of duty he took up residence in the basement. He slept on the sagging brown couch, with only the grey fuzz of a channel that didn't exist for company, my mother delivering his meals on a white plastic tray.

Sometimes I stood at the top of the stairs hoping to hear him say something, but all he ever said was "Thank you, Jackie." It didn't matter whether she said: "Your mother called again," or "Why don't I ask Phil to come over," her brother, his best friend, or "maybe you could cut the grass," his answer was always and only ever "Thank you, Jackie."

It broke her heart. Her name was not Jackie.

When I took down the white plastic tray one morning because she could not bear to any longer he called me Jackie too. My name was not Jackie either, it was Daniel and I was nine years old, and although I was confused and felt my chin trembling, I sat down beside him, sinking into the brown sofa and watched him suck spoonfuls of cereal and milk, slurp coffee, and stare at the fuzz on the television screen.

He basically looked like the father I remembered, just a bit grizzly from lack of shaving, and his eyebrows had gone and exploded white, but there was nothing otherwise familiar about him.

"I have to make a diorama of the first Thanksgiving for school," I told him. "I need an old shoebox." In fact, the assignment was broader – any episode in American history – but when I'd said I wanted to do the Vietnam War, Mrs Leonard had said it wasn't appropriate.

There was a lot of use of the word in those days. My Gran didn't think it was appropriate that I should be exposed to my father like this. It wasn't appropriate that I should talk about my father at school because Vets killed babies at My Lai and they were drug addicts suffering jungle fever which is nothing less than they deserved. It wasn't appropriate for my mother to mention anything about her husband at the university, where she was a secretary in the biology department. He'd been employed at Cornell too – grafting fruit trees on the experimental farm – though his former colleagues, apart from Larry, who wrote letters from Canada to which my father never responded, apparently denied any memory of him.

Everyone believed my father could have been granted an exemption, the exemption most of the fathers in the neighbourhood and his colleagues had been granted – at least those who didn't flee to Canada or maim themselves in some way or claim to be homosexuals or suddenly get religion and enter the ministry – but for whatever reason, my father made his inappropriate choice.

We had to erase him from our vocabulary if we were to survive outside the house, while inside the house, where he called us Jackie, Mom and I had been eradicated.

I approached the summer holidays with trepidation. I had no friends left, no plans, only my mute father in the basement, and a long wait until August when my mother had the month off work. As if to overcompensate, she splashed out on a new bike – bright shiny blue with a racing stripe – but the gesture only depressed me further with the awareness that I would have nothing but inanimate company for the interminable weeks ahead.

I woke early to the chatter of birds; the day stretched out long and blank white. I would creep down the stairs and poke my head into the basement on the off chance that my father was already awake. If he was sitting up on the sofa staring at the screen, I pulled the newspaper in off the porch, ignoring the dog shit invariably steaming there, then made cereal for both of us – thank you, Jackie – which we ate together in silence.

Then I would wash our dishes, hold my breath and flick the dog shit off the front porch with the broom into the bushes, prepare Mom's coffee, put an X through another day on the calendar and read the cartoons in the paper at the kitchen table. When my mother finally came down in her skirt and heels she'd say, variously: "Thanks for making my coffee. Is your Dad up? What are you going to get up to today? Why don't you ride your new bike over to the park? Why don't you go to the pool? Why don't you build a fort in the backyard? Why don't you...? Why don't you...?"

"Daniel, I can't have both my men moping about," she finally said one morning. "Could you at least try and make an effort?"

Another bird-chattering early morning and my head feels like it's stuffed with cotton wool. I open the front door to pull in the paper. The porch is shit-free, but in the half-light of five am the ground looks slick and purple.

I drop the paper on the kitchen table. Something's wrong: my hand is covered in red. I shake my whole arm, feeling squeamish. "Mom!" I shout. "Mom!"

"What? Daniel, what is it?" she cries out, thumping down the stairs in her nightgown. "Oh Christ, did you hurt yourself?"

I can only cry and shake my hand. She pulls me over to the sink, runs the cold tap, but the red doesn't wash off.

"What happened, Daniel? You're not cut or anything."

I lead her to the front hall and stammer: "You open the door."

Everything is red. The front porch, the bushes underneath the front windows, the lawn, the driveway. The back half of the old Volvo looks like it reversed into a slaughterhouse.

"Oh my God," she says, covering her mouth.

She doesn't go to work that day. She calls the police and we sit down at the kitchen table with two officers. They'll do a report, but she's going to have to pay a private company to clean it up.

"Have there been any other acts of vandalism?" one of them asks.

"Dog poo," I tell them. "Every morning on the front porch."

"Really Danny?" says my mother. "You never told me that. You should have told me that."

My chin begins to wobble.

"Mrs Clarkson, is there anything you can think of that would have motivated someone to do this?" asks the other officer.

"No," she says.

I turn and look at her.

The officers' eyes sweep over to the kitchen door.

"Is there any coffee?" my father asks. It is the first time he has emerged from the basement. These are the first words he has said other than: Thank you, Jackie. He is naked. He is painted red from his eyebrows to his ankles.

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