There is a church that stands on High Street that will always signify disaster. When Adam has grown up, he will dream of it again in times of sorrow or abandonment: a lonely spire, tapering into the pale light of Autumn. His grandmother, who would drop him off at his father’s flat on the weekends, taught him the word: steeple. The sound of it made him dizzy — steep, steep, steeple — and he began to notice them across the Brueghel landscapes of the city, rising up out of the far places where dreams go. At its very peak, where the building tapered to nothing, there was a metal rooster, always swinging to face the wind. He worried vaguely for the man who had to put it there. In nightmares he saw him fall.
They walked across a park to get to his father’s flat, kicking and shuffling through the fallen leaves, a chill wind in the bare branches. It was a small dark flat, full of stale air from the blow heaters. Adam breathed in the smell of pipe tobacco and wool as his father pulled his face into the folds of his jumper. His father had found a lizard on a trip to the outback and brought it home to keep in a fish tank with eucalyptus cuttings, sand, light and heat from an electric lamp: a little cube of desert trapped under glass.
Adam has a photograph from early that year, or perhaps the year before – at any rate his parents are still together in it. People do not look as he remembers them. He never ceases to be surprised at the way everyone looks. There is the dog, the beagle that would have to be taken away. There is his mother, crouching next to it, her hair dark and straggling – her black eyes betraying the malignant depression that is devouring her. And his father standing behind her with his pipe and his look of an English gentleman: saturnine and thin-wristed. The black and white image is oversaturated with unhappiness. There is Adam and his brother James. Can you believe they looked like that? That seventies hair. Those tracksuits! They are so little, and already you can make out the eddy of distress in James’s eye. Later, it will become a tempest that will just about kill him.
Adam’s father traps insects for the lizard. He crouches in front of the tank, face pale in the fluorescent light. It is a strange, exquisite creature, covered in tiny rhinoceros horns, in thorns. It is as rare as a unicorn, his father says. It lifts its head, as if drawn up by an invisible set of pullies, and its eyes, which are small and black as caviar, blink mechanically. The unicorns were all washed away in the flood, according to the Irish song on his record player. Whenever he plays it, they feel the tragedy. They want to cry for the poor, foolish unicorns as they are floated away. His father feeds the lizard flies and fusses with the light, the element, trying to make a perfect desert for his lizard inside its glass cube, inside his flat with its unpacked boxes all over the floor. Autumn glare cold in the windows.
And then they go fly kites, his father standing at the edge of the oval as Adam runs. The kite behind him flips on its string, nosedives into the mud. Next time he holds the kite and his father runs, Adam throws it up, and the kite does two little loops then a bigger one, and then in an instant leaps into the blue. It weaves high above them, the string in his father’s hand taut and thrumming, as if it were a fish fighting him up there. Can I Dad, can I? Ooh, can I? Adam leaps up again and again, trying to grab his father’s hand. But his father doesn’t notice him. He’s up there with the kite at the end of that long, vanishing curve. He lets the line reel out higher and higher until the kite is just a tiny eye fluttering its lids in the wind. Then the string runs out. Why must the string always run out? Adam wants the kite to go so high it will dip its wings into the sky itself. Then when they bring it down, he will feel the mystery of its flight thrill through his hands when he touches it, like electricity.
His father holds his arms up, for the last inch of altitude. Then at last he bends to place the reel in Adam’s hands. Don’t let go, he says. But the kite is so heavy, so hungry for height. He feels vertigo in his fingers, the same quake he feels at the top of the tower in the park. Afraid not of falling but of his power to step over the edge. Even at three – especially at three – you can know this. The kite feels heavy as a whale trying to dive. But he holds on, the string singing in his fingers.
He won’t forget the nights his parents used to fight. When the silence in them exploded, and Adam had to hold himself together because the holders themselves were breaking. Her screaming and his cold, inaudible murmurs, and then she’d take the car and drive, and Adam would run to the window to watch the headlights swing out of the driveway. Not crying because fright had shocked him empty. She had gone and might never return. The house lights blazed on although the house itself was empty without her. All his toys on the floor and the lights blazing and nobody home. His father a ghost, a chill in his office. In dreams he would return and wander that empty house, cold to the bone, one bright empty room after another and in the windows, a darkness absolute and terrifying.
A trial separation. Heavy, adult, dead words. She spent her days in bed, the curtains drawn, and Adam kept away from her room at the end of the house, as if from a forbidden cave. She went to hospital, no one told him why, but he felt the dread in his belly at night. He saw her leaning on a broom and weeping in the kitchen. She never noticed him standing there. He knew he was to blame, but didn’t know how he should change.
The lizard died. Adam and James came to visit one day, and the fishtank was dark and empty. James wanted to bury it, so they did: They held a ceremony standing in the tiny courtyard where they made a grave under a miniature lemon tree. With characteristic precision, their father sculpted a tiny, perfect cross. It was winter by then and blustery even in the courtyard, and they shivered in their duffle coats, James’s brow furrowed in earnest sorrow as their father ‘said a few words.’
Later they went to fly the kite. As Adam held the string, an enormous, complicated thought rose in him like a great balloon. His hands opened and the kite flew away. It raced away over the houses, it went higher and higher. His father roared. How the sky was full of tears! How the world was full of roaring! And the kite flew away over the Brueghel landscape of the city, whirling upwards until it had vanished in the clouds.