By Samuel Doyle
Art “9 to 5” By Penny Stuart
The treehouse in Stephen Hannigan’s back garden took him three months to build. Every weekend for a summer, he would trek out the back garden with a toolbox, a ghetto blaster, a handful of Bruce Springsteen CDs, and whatever wood he had just picked up from Woodie’sWoodies. Before getting to work, he would slather himself in a thick layer of factor 50 suncream, but would inevitably sweat right through it. In the evening, when his wife called him in for dinner, his skin would be glowing red and his t-shirt wringing wet. So, for an entire three months of his life, he would start the day looking like a boiled chicken and end it looking like a grilled lobster.
It all started right before the summer, when his kids saw something on an American TV programme about a treehouse, and became obsessed with the idea of having one. At every opportunity, they’d bring it up, and at every opportunity, Stephen Hannigan would shoot it down.
“Please, Dad, we’ll help you make it”, begged Liam, Stephens’ youngest, a six-year-old with a freckly head and an unbreakable will. Liam had a fish finger in his hand and was waving it at his dad imploringly, trying to make him see reason.
“You will in your hole help me make it, you. You can barely put together a bleedin’ Lego set”, Stephen retorted, laughing as he mopped up bean sauce off his plate with a slice of bread.
“Ah, go on, Dad, it can be our birthday present”, chipped in Ryan, Stephen’s 11-year-old who was a good-natured but shy kid who looked to be on the cusp of outgrowing his pudgy phase, which had lasted four years and, privately, had caused a good deal of concern to his mother.
“Yeah, and our Christmas present”, said Liam, who then squealed, and shot a hurt look at his older brother, who had just kicked him sharply under the table.
“Ryan, don’t kick your brother!” shouted Stephen, suddenly serious. Ryan slumped down into his chair and stared at his plate, picking at his waffles moodily. Stephen felt his wife’s hand on his shoulder and relaxed slightly. Lisa rubbed the back of her husband’s neck and felt some of his tension melt away. Stephen looked at his wife and felt his breathing return to normal. Lisa was two years older than Stephen and worked as a guidance counselor in a secondary school. She was patient and kind, and willing to put up with Stephen’s neuroticism. She was also messy and disorganised and had a knack for saying the most hurtful things when she was upset. She was a good mother, and Stephen was more or less a good dad, and together they seemed to be doing a decent job of raising their two boys.
After dinner, Lisa cleared the table, and Stephen did the dishes. He knew how much Ryan and Liam wanted a treehouse. It would be cool, and it would make the boys so happy. He imagined them playing in it, laughing and smiling, and telling the other kids on the road how cool their dad was for making it. Then he imagined them playfighting in the treehouse. Maybe Ryan shoves Liam a bit too hard, or maybe he falls off and breaks his neck. Maybe Ryan cuts his leg on a rusty nail sticking out of the wood and gets sepsis. Maybe the wood gets rotten from the rain, and the whole thing collapses in on top of them. Maybe one of their friends steals a box of matches and makes a campfire in the treehouse, and maybe the little shit lights the whole tree on fire with his sons in it, and maybe…
Stephen dropped the plate he was drying, and it smashed on the tiled floor. He cursed loudly and kicked the wooden panel of the press under the sink. Liam came running in from the living room, his bare feet slapping on the floor. “What happened, Dad?” his lovely freckly face looked scared. Stephen took a deep breath to calm himself, and the boy began to walk over to him. Stephen knew Liam was a sensitive boy, and he hated making him scared. He immediately felt guilty and wanted to comfort him, but a vision of shards of ceramic embedded in his son’s fleshy white feet flashed through his mind, and Stephen said in a small voice, “Stay there just a minute, son. Daddy’s after smashing a plate. Don’t come in here until I’ve swept up.” Liam nodded. “Good lad”, said Stephen. The boy turned back towards the living room, but couldn’t help noticing that his dad, too, was barefoot and didn’t seem to be particularly concerned about his own feet.
That night, Stephen lay in bed, thinking. The inherent danger of his kids playing in a wooden structure suspended several feet above the ground was, of course, immediately evident to him. Images of splinters, broken legs, fractured skulls, crutches, wheelchairs, and small burnt bodies all played in his mind, in a horrible slideshow of paternal anxiety. Still, he felt he had a duty to prove himself to his sons as a cool dad, to make them happy and proud. But if he was to give this idea any serious consideration, Stephen needed a guarantee that it would be perfectly safe. There could be no rusty nails or sharp edges, no dodgy planks or rotten branches. As he lay awake beside his sleeping wife, a clear, bright image formed itself in his mind. The perfect treehouse. A fortress of security and stability, where his children could play in complete safety, far from the perils of the outside world, far from paedophiles lurking at the school gates, far from crazy, coked-up joyriders speeding through housing estates, far from choppy beaches with insidious undercurrents. And so he decided – the boys were to have a treehouse – but only if Stephen made it himself. No matter how long it would take, he would take do it properly – he’d buy all the best equipment, draw up plans, secure every piece in place, sand down any rough edges, and test it for stability. Only then would he proudly present it to his sons. They would then walk (not run) up the perfectly sturdy steps to the treehouse and smile down at him. With this image in his mind, Stephen finally fell asleep.
The next day he got up, made the kid’s lunches, then drove – very carefully – to the office. Stephen worked for the civil service and had done so for the past fourteen years. When he finished college, he immediately applied for the role, and very soon settled into the predictable, mundane, and never overly strenuous position of Clerical Officer in the Office of the Revenue Commissioners. He had always been grateful for the reliability and stability of the job, and now he was grateful for the spare few minutes he had after completing one task and before beginning the next. In these brief snatches of free time, Stephen would find himself on the internet, watching middle-aged American men in flannel shirts explain the finer points of treehouse building. He would obsessively scribble down notes, making sure every step and every eventuality was accounted for. After two weeks of this, he felt ready and decided he would share the news at the dinner table. That evening when Stephen parked the car in the driveway and walked into the house, he felt like he had tickets to Disneyland in his back pocket.
Dinner that night was pasta bake, and Stephen frantically helped Lisa set the table, anxious to get everyone seated so he could break the news.
“Boys, I know you two have been talking a lot about getting a treehouse in the back garden”. At these words, Ryan and Liam’s faces lit up, and they instantly forgot about their steaming plate of food. They stared up at him with such anticipation that Stephen was reminded of the way a dog stares at a ball in your hand, willing you to throw it. He cocked his arm back, and, with a smile, threw them the ball. “Well, I’ve decided to go for it. I’ll go to Woodies on Saturday morning and get started right away”, but Stephen’s second sentence was muffled by the mass of swarming boychildren who thrust themselves onto his lap and hugged him violently, laughing and whooping with joy. He jostled his head free from the tangle of football jerseys and freckly limbs which threatened to suffocate him and looked over to see Lisa’s reaction. She smiled at him, then looked away and returned to her dinner.
That Saturday, Stephen worked on the treehouse from ten in the morning to six in the evening. Then he wolfed down his dinner (coddle), took a roasting hot shower, collapsed on the bed, and began snoring softly – a low, rolling snore like a pregnant golden retriever or a very small domestic motorboat. That night, Lisa woke abruptly. She squinted at the green LED clock. 03:17. She turned over and reached out for her husband. His side of the bed was warm, but he wasn’t there. She heard a rattling noise in the back garden and sat up. She pulled back the curtain and looked out the window. She could make out the silver-blue form of the garden shed, the angular outline of the patio furniture, and the heavy, twisted limbs of the ash tree, swaying in the breeze. The shed door swung open, and out walked her husband, using his phone as a light. He locked the shed, then started back towards the house. When he was halfway across the garden, he stopped for a moment, then turned around and walked back to the shed. He tried the door, checking it was locked. Apparently satisfied, he walked back inside. Lisa drew the curtain and settled back into bed. She heard her husband creak up the stairs and tiptoe into the bedroom. She waited a few seconds and then asked –
“What were you doing?”
Stephen flinched. “Jaysus Christ, Lisa, I thought you were asleep.”
“I was. What were you doing down there?”
“Just went down for a drink of water.”
“From the shed?”
Lisa turned on the bedside light and looked her husband in the face.
“I saw you in the shed, ye weirdo. What were you doing?”
Stephen opened his mouth, then closed it again. He shifted around in the bed. Then he pressed his fingers to his forehead and sighed.
“I just remembered that I had left the tools out beside the tree, and I was worried that the kids would find them and hurt themselves”.
“And you couldn’t put them away tomorrow morning?”
“I wanted to do it before I forgot. You know what I’m like”.
Lisa laughed. She knew exactly what he was like. She opened her mouth to say something, then decided against it. Instead, she turned off the light and reached over to her husband. She took his hand and rubbed it gently.
After a few weekends, the planks of wood nailed into the massive ash tree began to loosely resemble a treehouse. Ryan and Liam, (who had been temporarily disheartened by the realisation that treehouses – not least perfect ones – take considerable time to build, especially when their sole builder is an obsessive and meticulous worker) grew once again excited when they saw that the skeleton of their future fortress was starting to take shape. One Sunday afternoon in July, the boys were hanging around the back garden, alternating between watching their dad work and racing a remote-control car up and down the side passage. It was the hottest day of the year so far, but Stephen (despite the fact that he was dripping like a rotisserie chicken, and had to pause every five minutes to mop stinging, suncream sweat from his eyes), lay flat on his back on the wooden platform like some kind of suburban DIY Michelangelo. He was utterly focused, paying no heed to the boys’ chatter, nor the sweltering heat – even the blare of his beloved Springsteen album was background noise to him now. He had painstakingly measured and cut a plank of wood to fit snugly between two branches, and was now holding it perfectly in place with one hand, while he slowly reached for his hammer with the other. Just then, he heard a crash and felt something smash into the base of the tree. He dropped the plank on his face and roared out a string of exotic and vulgar words, which echoed through the housing estate. The boys were terrified by the shouting but were privately enthralled by this unexpected masterclass in advanced cursing. They exchanged a brief look of scandalous glee, then watched their dad scramble furiously and drop out of the tree like a flustered, fumbling sloth awoken by a howler monkey.
“What in god’s name was that?”, Stephen roared. His face was bright red, and his drenched t-shirt clung to his body.
The boys looked guiltily at each other. Then Ryan held up the remote control.
“Ye pair of eejits. I told yous not to be playing in the back garden when I’m working!”
The boys avoided their dad’s seething gaze.
For a few seconds, they said nothing, and then Liam, who had always been the braver one, offered a feeble – “Sorry, Dad”, which was immediately echoed by his older brother.
“Gowan. Get out of my sight”.
The boys scurried away, while Stephen shook his head and cursed under his breath. As he made his way back to his workstation, he saw the remote control car at the base of the tree. He knelt down and picked it up. It was completely mangled – the plastic windscreen was shattered, two tyres were hanging off, and the bonnet was crumpled. The roof, too, was caved in, and Stephen peered inside, where two little plastic figurines were smashed to bits. He threw the miniature car down, horrified, as if he had just spotted a tarantula inside. He covered the wrecked toy with a spare plank of wood and set himself up again on the wooden platform. He continued working but couldn’t concentrate – whenever he’d close his eyes to wipe away the sweat, he’d see the plastic car with the shattered figurines trapped inside. He packed away his tools, locked the shed door, double-checked that he locked the shed door, then picked up the ruined race car and threw it in the bin. He went inside and ate his dinner in silence. That night it took him two and a half hours to fall asleep.
By the first weekend in August, Stephen Hannigan’s treehouse appeared, to the untrained eye, to be more or less complete. Any neighbours with a view over the Hannigans’ back garden would have seen a neat, wooden cabin about ten feet off the ground, nestled into the sturdy limbs of the massive ash tree. One neighbour even felt compelled to pop his head over the fence and congratulate Stephen on his craftsmanship. “Fair play to you, Stephen. That’s a fine-looking treehouse. Sure, if I hadn’t seen you build it, I’d have thought it grew there”. This was Seán Whelan, a retired soldier, and a self-proclaimed ‘banter merchant’. Stephen, who also fancied himself a ‘good man for the banter’, decided to whip out an old classic in response – “Ah, sure, it’d look perfect to a blind man on a galloping horse”. Seán Whelan let out a wheezy laugh then returned to whatever he had been doing – probably day drinking or crossword puzzles, or both.
Stephen returned to work and thought to himself that although the treehouse per se was pretty much finished, there was still a lot to be desired in terms of safety. There was a staircase to put up (until now he had been using a rickety rope ladder to access the site), a fireproof tarp to be fitted over the roof, and everything still needed to be sanded, varnished, rainproofed, and rotproofed. Ryan and Liam had grown impatient – they could see the treehouse in the garden but were still forbidden to access it. They also found themselves increasingly restless and bored on the weekends – where Stephen used to take his sons to the park to play hurling, or down to the beach for a swim. He was now spending all his time in the back garden, measuring, sawing, hammering, listening to the same five albums – and progressively losing layers of skin.
One evening after a shower, he saw himself in the mirror and was taken aback. His face was an angry, blotchy red, and his beard was unruly. What had, for the last decade or so, been the soft blurry flesh of his happily married upper body, had become noticeably tauter and leaner. He could even make out a shadow of muscle in his stomach, and his arms had some kind of identifiable shape. He felt a thrilling wave of manliness flow through him and promised himself that after the treehouse was done, he would stay in shape. He began fantasizing about what he would do with Lisa when she came upstairs. Then he spotted a worrisome freckle on his forehead, and his brief sense of virility was replaced by a frenzied flurry of hypochondria. He convinced himself that he had skin cancer and would die shortly. Death, for Stephen, had always been the greatest motivator, so he dried himself off, threw on his clothes, and went back to work on the treehouse with renewed fervour.
And so he continued in much the same way for three weekends until, at the end of August, he was forced to admit that he had done everything in his power to make the treehouse as safe as possible. Lisa knew this and offered to take the boys to the park to get them out of the house while their father applied the finishing touches to their wooden fortress. She stepped into the back garden to say goodbye and found herself admiring her husband’s hard work. It really looked great, like something out of a kids’ picture book.
“Well done, Stephen.”
“Thanks”, he smiled.
They kissed, and then Lisa turned back towards the house. Stephen listened for their car pulling out of the driveway, then began to unload the wood mulch from the shed. He had bought five massive plastic bags of the stuff, and he poured a thick layer of it into a loose circle around the base of the tree, then got a spade and packed it into place. He pressed into it with his hands. It was soft and forgiving, and he imagined that if one of the boys were to fall on it, they’d be pretty much ok. He wiped his mucky hands on his work shorts, then gathered up the plastic bags and threw them in the bin around the side. When he walked back into the back garden, he saw the treehouse come into view. It was like seeing it for the first time. He tried to imagine how Ryan and Liam would feel when they came home and were finally allowed to play in it. He went into the kitchen and sent a text to his wife –
‘all done here -bring the boys back whenever ur ready’
Three seconds later, this text appeared on Lisa’s phone, which buzzed and lit up on the seat beside her. She ignored it and kept driving.
Back at home, Stephen did up a tray with a plate of biscuits and two glasses of lemonade. Carefully, he climbed the stairs up to the treehouse and set the tray down on the little wooden table.
Ten minutes later, Lisa was almost at the turn-off for the park. The boys were laughing in the back of the car. She looked at them in the rear-view mirror and smiled.
Stephen took a long, hot shower, then filled the sink with water and began to shave. When he was almost finished, his phone buzzed –
‘On way home now x’
He quickly towel-dried his face, threw back on his clothes, and rushed downstairs. He downed a glass of water and sat out in the back garden, waiting to see the boys’ faces when he told them they could enter the treehouse. They would run and hug him, then make a beeline for the fortress. Then Stephen and Lisa would watch on, smiling as the boys played. Lisa would be proud of him for making them so happy. The boys would be proud of him too. But most importantly, thought Stephen, they would be safe.
As Stephen sat down on the patio chair, Lisa had just turned onto the stretch of road that links the village to their housing estate. She was about two miles away from the house, which was a two-minute drive if you drove fast, or a three-minute drive if you were a careful parent with kids in the back of the car. Lisa was a careful parent, and she did have kids in the back of the car. She wasn’t driving fast. In fact, the car wasn’t moving at all. Now the car was upside down, and the boys weren’t laughing.
Back at home, Stephen stared at his perfect treehouse and reflected on his months of work. He sat there for several minutes with his eyes closed, smiling. Any minute now, he thought to himself.
Samuel Doyle is a student from Dublin currently studying in Lyon, France. He has always loved reading, citing Raymond Carver and John Irving as his favourite authors. He has been writing short stories for about a year, this is his first published piece.