He’d been dead a long while now of course, your dad. But that didn’t stop you thinking about him.
Looking at the photo, it was easy to bring him back. Easy to remember him. Crisp cream trousers, with a neat, stylish pleat. Cool white shirt, long sleeved. Braces and belt. Black leather. Brown sandals with a big thick buckle and clean white socks somehow. A cigarette always in his hand, wrapped between yellow-stained fingers, a permanent feature. That would get him in the end, those cigarettes, but he never knew it then that day when the photograph ws taken, his hair slicked back, all glossy and black, and only just greying at the sides. A beaming, cheeky grin, sparkling eyes, alive and grey. That was your dad, all of this.
It was easy to remember him, standing beside you in the photo like that, smiling like a film star, so glamorous and good looking. That was the way he seemed. The way he always seemed. Then and now.
And you. What were you then? Must have been about seven, or thereabouts. A few teeth missing, but smiling just the same, on the verge of uncontrollable laughter. The grin just the same as your father’s. Cheeky and slightly lopsided, only without the teeth.
Small and skinny. Hair brown like your mother’s, the only thing you seem to have inherited from her. And always wanting the dark, black, shiny, lustrous hair of your father. There’s a stain on your dress. Pink and floral, with a dirty great big grass stain on it, right in the middle, which annoyed your mother so much, you remember now.
That day, so clear in your memory. That summer, when you were seven or thereabouts. Long and hot and lost. That day on a picnic, with your parents, by the river, you can remember it all, every detail, like it was yesterday. Why is that?
It was dad’s idea to go. These things were always his idea, it seemed. Days out, trips to the cinema. Fun and games. For some reason, you only remember him ever organising such things, the fun things, the chaotic things, the enjoyable things. That’s the way memory works though. Memory’s discretion. It’s careless. Irrefutable. Deceptive.
Mum. She took you to school, to the doctors or the dentists. She scolded and pulled you in from the street when you were in the middle of a game. Calling you in to eat or to go to bed. It wasn’t fair, memory, that much was true. But that was how it was, that was how it seemed, the way it was all remembered. Perhaps only half right, half wrong. Who knows. The way you remembered it, became the truth.
And so the truth was, that it was dad who always seemed to have something planned. Like a picnic on a hot summers day, by the river. That was dad. So that day, that’s what you had all done. Squashed yourselves in the car, with it’s scorching roof and chrome shining wheels, and set off. Just like that. That was dad.
Mum made the sandwiches. Which again wasn’t fair. Remembering it like that. But what could you do? That’s how you remember it.
He drove fast, with all the windows open, the air ruffling everyone’s hair, including your mother’s. She had a thing about her hair, did your mother. It always had to be perfect for some reason, as if she were to be judged by it or something.
But that day, in the car, whisking along in the hot summer sun, she didn’t seem to mind.
Something else, something more important, more distracting, must have been on her mind, for her not to have bothered about her hair.
Dad was noisy, rambling on about the wonderful day we had ahead of us. Of boats and ducks, and ice cream. Corned beef sandwiches (his favourite) and lemonade. And it all sounded so exciting that you were eager to get there and impatient.
“Are we there yet? When will we be there? Can I row the boat, dad? Will you show me how?”
“Not yet. Not long. Yes, of course you can.”
Your mum was silent, her arm drooped over the side of the car, out of the window. She seemed almost relaxed. Her face was very still. Neither sad not happy. Just still. But you could see her looking at you in the mirror. Not scolding or encouraging. Just a sort of blank stare, like she didn’t know you or something. It quietened you down. Made you well behaved. Just in case.
Just in case it slipped away and the car was turned round and you all went home. She wouldn’t do this of course, but that’s what that stare did to you nonetheless. It made you hold your breath to stop things from going wrong.
And then you were there. You can see mum sitting on the bank, reading. The picnic rug set up, under a big, green-leafed tree, shady and cool, just right for sitting under and reading. You shouted at her now and then from the boat.
“Look, mum! Look, I’m doing it! I’m rowing! I’m rowing the boat! I’m rowing the boat!” All giggles and excitement.
And she’d look up and wave every time, then her head would fall once more, and her eyes skim the page to find her place, until you gave up trying to attract her attention, and just had fun in the boat with dad.
“Pull them together at the same time. Sit in the middle. That’s nearly it.”
You were too short of course, and your legs kept sliding about, and the oars kept slipping out of your hands and you were getting wet and laughing, and the ducks knew better than to come too close, staying by the banks where the bread was, where the picnickers were.
Until hunger got the better of you both, and the warm, warm sun, meant that the pleasures of ice-cream and lemonade were just too much to resist. So dad steered the boat back to the river bank, and you sat on the blanket, under the cool tree, while mum sorted out the food.
Which tasted so good, even though the lemonade was warm and the corned beef was sweating. Sitting on that rug, under that big tree, with your dress wet and your dad’s face flushed and your mum smiling at you both. Watching the ducks come closer and closer, warily, and laughing at the way they seemed to cackle and grumble to themselves. Sitting there, that hot, hot day, is one of the best things you can remember. Especially now he’s dead. Now that this is all there is.
After lunch, mum and dad went for a walk and left you with the ducks and the promise of an ice-cream when they got back.
You watched them go off. Not arm in arm like you’d seen some people do. Just beside each other, talking. Their heads tilting from side to side when they spoke. Your dad sometimes looking at the ground or straight at her with this sad look in his eyes for some reason. They were always the same together, or so it seemed. Talking and talking and making each other sad. Until they could talk no more.
That was how it went. Never arguments. Never bust ups and raised voices. Just this talking, just their heads down, just those sad looks in the eyes. Then silence.
The ducks were more interesting to you. The way they waddled and squawked. Perhaps you could catch one, maybe?
Which is how you got the grass stain. Stumbling after them. They were faster than you thought, and in the water before you got anywhere near them.
You drank the last of the lemonade, after the unsuccessful stalk and then lay in the grass, on your belly, peering at your mother and father as they got closer and closer. Neither of them looked particularly happy. You watched them through the swaying, green-bladed curtain of grass, until all that could be seen were your father’s sandals and his clean white socks.
It was your idea. You were the one who insisted on the photo. The camera was new and still an object of fascination and fun. You were never allowed to touch it, which made the thing all the more intriguing and special.
It was beside you in the basket as you watched them approach, and you’d been dying to touch it all the time they were away, but had somehow managed to resist. But as they drew nearer and nearer, the urge became to strong and you jumped up with it in hand, begging and pestering for a photo to be take. Nagging incessantly, until you mum relented and the button was pressed.
She must have noticed your dress at that moment, her annoyed look alerting you to the fact that you had dirtied it, that this ugly stain was there. She became really upset by it. Your lovely dress, stained and ruined.
“Grass stains don’t come out. Ruined. That lovely dress. I don’t know why I bother, really I don’t.”
But when she said it she wasn’t looking at you. She was looking at dad instead. And his head was down again, his eyes glazed and heavy, making you feel guilty.
“It’s not his fault. I’m sorry mum. Sorry about the dress. It’s my fault”
And she looked at you then, as if she’d forgotten you were there. She seemed confused, but she said nothing. Just sighed very slightly and got in the car, and off you set again, back home.
Whatever happened on that walk, it had been enough to put paid to the day and spoil the picnic. You never learned what it was about. But things were never the same after that. No trick of memory there.
It was that way. Things never really the same again, not really. And perhaps it wasn’t because something had changed, but more that you had started to become aware of things, to notice changes. Who knows.
That photo. That was the start of it. The start of things changing somehow. In some uncertain way.
It was a nice photo. You both looked happy and were smiling. But the significance of it suggested something different to the smiles. There was more to it than smiles, you realised, without ever quite knowing what it was exactly.
You can feel her watching you now. Watching you stare at the photo. Your back is turned, but you know she’s doing it. That unmistakable feeling of someone watching you, it penetrates somewhere, somehow.
And when you turn around, there she is indeed. Your mother’s face. Your mother’s eyes. She appears to be staring at you. Thinking God knows what.
It was difficult to tell. Her eyes were glazed over these days. Vacant, staring off into the distance more, than anything else. Impenetrable, as if she was mesmerised.
You could probably watch her and scrutinise her without her being aware of it. The same way you would maybe look at a statue. View it at every angle, in every nook and cranny without disturbing it. Without violating it. Yes, that stare now was like stone. Just this lifeless thing. As if she were just waiting for it to happen and cared about nothing other than that.
God and you’ve seen this gaze perhaps a thousand times before, so why ponder it now? No need to think of it or look at any longer than necessary. And anyway, it was time to make the lunch. Time to go through the routine again. You give a slight sigh, just at the thought of it, but you don’t look at her again. At that rigid face, that empty stare.
“She thinks I haven’t noticed it lately. That I haven’t noticed that she’s doing that more often now. Staring at those old photos. Photos of her father. Remembering him. And why? I’ve no idea why. Why now. She thinks I don’t notice it. But I do.
She thinks I notice nothing, because I’m old and decrepit and not up to anything. That I’m not able to see what she’s doing. She really must think I’m senile or something. Yes, that’s what she thinks. That’s what she thinks.
But I’m not. True my mind does wander sometimes these days. More and more frequently in fact. I know this. But I know I’m doing it. That’s not old. That’s not senile. That’s just bored. True, it catches me out once in a while. At night mostly. Getting up too early, still dark or the middle of the night. Forgetting to turn off the cooker sometimes.
Who hasn’t ever done that once? And if you answer the door, when it’s the telephone that’s ringing. Is that senile? Or is it just deafness? Or just being afraid of new things? Just being old? She should think about that from time to time. Stop thinking that I’m stupid and passed it and just someone sitting around waiting for it to happen. I know that’s what she thinks, I can see it on her face. The way she thinks is not fair. It’s too easy. Shows she hasn’t really thought at all. Or else she’s lazy or simply doesn’t care anymore. Either way it’s not fair. Judging me this way.
Still, maybe it works to my advantage. It allows me to watch her. Watch her the way she watches me.
It’s curious though, the way she’s remembering her father more and more these days. And quietly too. not in an open way. Not in conversation or reminiscing. Just quietly. Keeping her thoughts to herself, as if she doesn’t really want to share them. Or as if she thinks it’s me. That I don’t want to remember him. Or that I can’t remember him. Or that I don’t care to. Whatever.
Maybe she’s right in that respect. Maybe I don’t.
She was always close to her father. Closer than she ever was to me. But in spite of that, this brooding recently. It makes me uneasy. The nostalgia of it. As if she’s thinking about dying. About me dying. That she’ll soon be the only one of us left. Why does she have to be doing that? Be thinking that? I don’t want to be thinking of it. All that morbidness. As if things are already over. That none of this is anything more than a waste of time. That it’s all been over a long time already.
And since when? Since he died? Is that what’s she’s thinking? Ach! I don’t know anymore. I just wish she’d stop it. I don’t want to be thinking any of this. It’s made me shudder just then, just thinking of it. And maybe it’s because she doesn’t really like me after all. Not just less than she ever liked him. But simply not at all. Maybe she wishes I’d gone first?
Does she I wonder? Does she? Does she?
But I shouldn’t upset myself like this. I shouldn’t do it. Maybe it all means nothing. Just looking at an old picture of her father. Remembering him. Maybe wishing he were still here. There’s nothing wrong with that. Loving someone even after they’re long gone. But will she do the same for me when my turn comes? Will she I wonder? Will she?………
I just can’t shake the thought. I’m shaking with it. It won’t go away. Terrible thing to think so it is. I have to stop it. I really have to stop it. It’s no good to think like this, and shiver and shudder at it all.
“What is it mum? Are you cold? Mum? Mum are you cold?”
Fussing around again. Fussing around. And what for? She’s just like her father. Always thought that. It’s always true……
“Mum? Mum? Ach, you know what? Bugger it. Freeze if you want!”
Damn it she’s so frustrating when she’s like this. I can’t handle her much longer. I can’t I really can’t. When she’s in this kind of mood, what are you supposed to do? Remain patient? Christ, you’ve been patient for years already now. Am I to try not to become resentful? She is your mum after all. But you are becoming resentful.
“What was that?”
Oh, finally a response!
“I was asking if you were cold mum? Youu’re shivering. Are you cold then?”
“Cold? No. Was I shivering? Really?”
“I’m okay, Susan. Iâ’m okay.”
Susan. She does that sometimes. As if she needs to say it out loud from time to time, so she can keep on remembering it. You get the tray from the table and lift it on to her knee. The mug filled with tea. Two slices of toast, a boiled egg, a chocolate digestive. This is lunch. This is always lunch. Don’t bother trying anything else. Nothing else works. Nothing else is acceptable. Like a three year old child you just give up on. As long as they eat. You tolerate it at some point.
Anything to avoid more effort. Wasted effort.
“Here mum. Here’s your lunch. Can you take the tray on your lap then? Or do you want to eat it at the table maybe, with me?”
“No. No here thank you. I want it here.”
She sounds a bit cheeky a bit indolent, but there’s no point thinking about it. Just drink your coffee. No fuss. Just as long as there’s no fuss. That’s all you want really.
Every day is just the same now though. Looking after her. This is the day. The whole day. Looking after mum. Endless cups of tea and soft boiled eggs and digestive biscuits and day time television. On and on and on. It’s just never going to stop, is it?
Is it ever going to stop? When will a day come that will be different from the rest?
It’s like she’s a child. That’s what she is. You have to watch everything. Every single detail. Keep an eye on her. On all the small, relentless, boring , stupid, mindless, never, ever, ever ending bloody details. Making beds. Soiled linen never spoken about. Cooking breakfasts and boiling eggs. How many cups of tea?
Mindless slow walks. Even slower conversation. resentment. Then guilt. She’s your mother after all. This is the deal. This was always going to be the deal. She looked after you when you were young and now it’s your turn. What did you expect? There’s nothing you can do about it. Get angry if you like. Become resentful if you want. But what does it matter? This is it.
She slurps her tea and it annoys you. She ruffles her newspaper and this annoys you. Her shuffling walk on the carpet in the night annoys you. Everything about her annoys you. But so what. This is it. Ignore it. Accept it. What did you ever expect anyway?
Geez! And you shouldn’t think like this. But what can you do then? You’re 36 years old. 36 bloody years old and you feel useless. And these four walls are all you see some days. Life’s just stopped. Waiting here with her. And remembering things because that’s all there is some days.
Nothing else happening save for the past. No future out there that you can imagine. Just day upon day of repetitive, monotonous tasks. No more picnics in the sun these days. Nothing but sitting around waiting. Sitting around getting old with her.
Shit, you were even boring yourself lately. This was the time when you should be out there no? Out there in the world, all things settled and achieved and fulfilled. The time when you enjoyed all the things you had built up. Had set out to achieve. That was the way it was supposed to be, no? Things should be so full of promise now, more than at any time. Houses, jobs, a marriage even. Kids maybe. The whole thing. Exploring the world maybe. Being with friends your own age. People who are your life. The life you made yourself. Confidence and success. That was what was supposed to be here now. Not this. Not staring at fours walls alone like some hopeless prisoner. Stuck on the ninth floor of some soulless building knowing no-one. Doing nothing. A prison indeed this place. That’s what it is.
And the worst of it is what? It’s that you don’t even expect anything else anymore. None of those dreams were meant to be. That’s it. Forget it. What;s the point in wanting something you cannot have? At your age, you either have them, or you give up wanting them completely. That’s the way it goes. That’s the way it is.
It’s easy to blame her of course. To use her as an excuse. That having her around was all that was holding you back. Looking after her just too much of your life. That was what you sometimes told yourself. If it got too bad. The resentment and the anger. Sometimes that was the way you preferred to look at it. To offload it on to her.
That it was her lack of enthusiasm, her lack of interest in life, the fact that she had always seemed satisfied, never stretching for more, not like your dad. That it was her. Her lack of curiosity as to the possibilities, to the idea that possibilities even existed even. That it was this that had somehow held you back. Smothered you. Depressed you. Held you back and kept you down. It was so easy to think like this. Because it couldn’t be put to the test now could it? There never was a life without her there. She was your mother.
That was the problem. Face it. You had given yourself an excuse and left it at that. Like mother like daughter. Face the truth. Face it, face it…..
….I remember that day quite well, that day in the photo.
Oh and it’s really is a long time ago now. Such a long time ago. He’d bought the car that week. That very week. That picnic trip was the first time out in it for us all together. A special trip. But I couldn’t enjoy it. Couldn’t believe he’d done it. Gone and bought that car like that. He always did these things. He just never seemed to understand it all. To believe that life couldn’t be lived like that. Not when you had no money. Not with extravagances you simply couldn’t afford. He would never accept that. Just laugh it off like it was me that was mad. But this was one piece of irresponsibility too far.
His world! It was a dream so it was. A fantasy, where everything just came true somehow. Where it all came right in the end. It was childlike his belief in that. His enthusiasm for that idea. That notion of the way the world worked. Considerations such as money, such as how a car was to be paid for. Realities like that, they bored him. Simply bored him. They never existed in his world. His world wasn’t about things like that. It was about cars and such things. About fun. Everything was always okay, just as long as you were having fun. Having the time of your life. No matter if you couldn’t afford it. No matter if you caused worry. He ignored that. Left that to me to sort out.
So food appeared on the table and he probably never even thought about where it came from. And more to the point, he probably didn’t even care. The clothes were washed and ironed as if they had done this themselves. Susan learned to read, just like that, as if by some miracle. As if it was the most natural thing in the world. Bills got paid and he never even knew they had appeared in the first place. That was the kind of man he was. No senility there. No tricks of old age in that. The plain old truth. He lived his life. He had his fun and the practicalities were for anyone else that cared to deal with them.
They were for me. That’s where she differs from him. I’d always thought she was like him. That she would always be like him in the end. But there she is. Still here. Taking care of responsibilities. Like me in the end after all. Maybe she would have been better off if she had been like him. I don’t know.
Maybe it’s just my turn? I’ve had my worry. I’ve had my penny pinching and my scrimping and scraping. Getting older before everyone else from the worry of it all. I stopped laughing while I was still young. I was too young to stop laughing. I got bored with it. Stifled with it, frustrated with it. But I never let it show. I just got on with it. Faced it. That was the way it had worked out. The way it happens. So I lost my temper more easily, was less liked, less fun to be around. Was it really my fault?
No wonder she loved him more. Maybe even still does. Who wouldn’t? All that enthusiasm. Those smiles. That curiosity of his. Who wouldn’t prefer that? I loved it too. I’d even been the same way too once. Before I married him, before all this. But bills have to be paid and someone has to pay them. Things keep going and someone has to be responsible.
But the car had almost been too much for you. The last straw. It had to go, you simply couldn’t afford it. Of course you liked it. Of course it was fun. You just simply couldn’t afford it, that was all. And all this was said that day, that day in the photo. God I was angry. And I had spoiled everything apparently. Had made him angry. That quiet, sad looking way he had. Always spoiling the fun, wasn’t I? What was wrong with me?
Oh he was a crazy one alright. A sulking, moody child. But I’d never been angrier with him than I was that day. Because this wasn’t just childishness anymore. Or over enthusiasm. Childishness was careless and innocent. But this had been more than that. This had been selfish and adult.
But the car stayed. Somehow it stayed. Somehow you paid for it again. Just like everything else. It kept the struggles there, the worries there. But just for you. All those small irresponsibilities mounting up. All those things end in days like this. In endless days getting old. Sitting in some concrete box, high up in the city with no one you know around you. This is how you end your days.
Yes, I remember that day well, so I do. That was the day I started to get tired of it all. To understand where it was going to lead me. That was the day even, when I maybe caught a glimpse of all of this before me. I don’t know anymore. But it was the first day I started to feel old. That much I do know. Susan was about seven then, so that meant I must have been 37. Just 37 and that was that already. Feeling old. Going grey and feeling tired of it all. And giving up the future right then.
And there she is, Susan. The same age almost as I was then, and I can see it in her eyes too, the same feeling I had that day. That day in the photo. The photo she stares at so much.