By Victoria Fleming (15), Gorey Community School, Co Wexford
Strawberries. Hundreds of them. All ripe, red, and ready to be picked. The seemingly endless rows of plants extend back into the horizon, disappearing into the light of the setting sun.
Strawberries had always reminded him of his mother. Every day after school, he’d run into her arms, she’d scoop him up and he’d bury his face into her long, fiery-red hair. And every time the same strong, sweet smell of strawberries would fill his nostrils. It was calming to him. Often times he would fall asleep, breathing in that smell, soothing and reassuring him that he was safe.
“How’s that ice-cream, Noah? Still happy that you chose strawberry sauce instead of chocolate?” The boy’s father looked over his shoulder, allowing his eyes to slip away from the road for just a moment, he turned back around, a smile on his face, as they passed the strawberry field.
James Noah Larson was a heavy man, particularly around the stomach. Years of drinking had rewarded him with what many would describe as a “beer belly”, but it had decreased considerably in size since he had given up alcohol altogether. He still had quite a substantial amount of hair left on his head (considering the bald patch and his receding hairline), and a pair of green eyes, which Noah, his son, had inherited. For as long as he could remember, Noah had never seen any life within his father’s emerald-like eyes. They had always been so dull, so lifeless, so apathetic. But on this particular occasion, the 10-year-old noted, James’ eyes were bright and full of life, something he had noticed since his father had completely excluded drink from his life.
“Definitely. Strawberry’s always been my favourite,” he replied with a smile, chomping down on his ice-cream cone. His legs swung up and down as his big, doll-like eyes drifted to the car window, taking in the green blurs that were fields.
The father smiled to himself, turning the steering wheel. The old 2004 sedan passed through a small estate and pulled into the car park of a small shop. “What’re we doing here, Daddy?” Noah asked as James stepped out of the car. The young boy copied his father, stepping outside and breathing in the cold, night air. He wrapped his small arms around himself, attempting to keep any sort of warmth.
“You, little buddy,” James reached into the back pocket of his jeans, retrieving his wallet, “are going to pick out a toy for yourself. Anything you like, how does that sound?”
“Brilliant,” Noah grinned from ear to ear, taking a €10 note from his father and running into the store.
James, however, stayed outside, leaning against the car with a smile, delighted that he had made his son happy. He had never really made an effort with his son – for most of Noah’s life James had either been drunk or just not present, and it was only when Laura kicked him out of the house did he realise that he needed to sort things out.
Making promises had never worked in the past – both he and Laura, his wife at the time, knew that the man could never keep a promise. But after seeing how heartbroken his child was while he was being shoved out of the front door, James made a promise to himself. He promised that he’d sober up for both his sake and Noah’s, but he also promised that he wouldn’t break that promise. He couldn’t screw up again, not if he wanted to be a part of his son’s life.
He reached into his back pocket once more, pulling out a packet of cigarettes. He placed the cancer stick between his lips and set the end of it alight with his lighter. He inhaled the smoke, closing his eyes as he felt his cravings subside.
Once he opened his eyes again he looked down at his car. The dent in the front of it made his heart stop and he shut his eyes once more, trying his very best to shut out the horrible memory. But the flashbacks wouldn’t stop.
His hands on the steering wheel. His foot slammed down on the pedal. Cars honking their horns at his terrible, terrible driving in frustration, but he didn’t notice. Looking back at his son for too long, talking to him as if they were merely sitting at a table – not as if he was controlling a speeding vehicle. And then the tree appeared out of nowhere, it seemed. The impact was horrendous, sending a shock down his spine. Noah, crying and screaming in the back of the car.
James clenched his fists, his knuckles turning white. He tried to control his breathing. He couldn’t have a panic attack, he just couldn’t. He was there to spend time with his son, not panic about things that had happened in the past.
He placed the cigarette in his mouth again, inhaling deeply this time, feeling his anxiety melt away. Good, that was good. Remain calm, he told himself.
Inside the store Noah roamed around, trying his best to decide what he should get. There were so many toys that he wanted, yet he could only pick one. He looked down at the €10 and ran things over in his mind, attempting to calculate how much each thing would cost.
After some time, he happened upon the books aisle. He began looking through the children’s books and found one he already owned. He smiled to himself, picking the book up and running his hand over the cover. Noah didn’t have the fondest memories of his father, but one of the very few good ones he had involved that very book.
It was late at night and Noah couldn’t sleep. His mother had fallen ill and, while she was usually the one to read Noah a bedtime story, it was now his father’s turn. It was most likely the only time Noah had seen his father sober that year, but it was most definitely the highlight of his relationship with his father. The two curled up under the covers and, after much begging, James agreed to make silly voices for the different characters in the book.
That, right there, was the best memory the young boy had of his father. It wasn’t much but, compared to what he had seen in his short time on this planet, it meant the world to him.
To him it was a sign. A sign that maybe, just maybe, he could have a normal life, the kind of life that his classmates had. And that, that one small thing, that was all he needed to help him through the rough times, when his father would come home drunk, stumbling and shouting at his mother, barely able to stand by himself. Just that one memory.
“Noah, let’s go Buddy, c’mon,” Noah spun around, seeing his father standing there, scratching his beard, something he did when he was anxious. It was always obvious to Noah when his father was bothered by something, and the 10-year-old hated when his father was upset. That always meant he was more likely to reach for drink.
“I want to get this,” he held up the book to his father, eyes wide, itching to know if he recognised it.
“Don’t . . . don’t you already own this?” he scratched his beard once more, eyebrows furrowed as he examined the cover. Noah smiled to himself. So he remembered.
“Yes, but I lost my copy of it in the move,” he took the book back, wrapping his arms around it.
“Alright. C’mon and we’ll go pay for it.” And that they did. To the tills, out of the shop and they were back in the car, on the road once more. Noah looked through the book with a wide smile, turning the pages carefully so as not to damage it at all.
Finally, they pulled into the driveway of Noah’s house. He jumped out of the car, wrapping his arms around his father, stopping James dead in his tracks. “Thank you for today, Dad.”
James didn’t know how to react. He had never been in a situation like this, despite having a son for 10 years. “No problem, little man,” he smiled, feeling his eyes water up.
Noah broke away from the hug once he heard the slow creak of the front door opening, and saw the porch light turn on in the corner of his eye. He turned, seeing his mother’s silhouette in the doorway and ran up the driveway, up the front steps, and into her arms. He buried his head in her mass of red hair, breathing in that smell that was so familiar to him. Strawberries.