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Photo credit: “Hand Touching Glass” by homegets.com
The flat hands of horse–chestnut leaves palm the road. Scattered like bones under high branches, the nubs are exposed knuckles. Clara forgot how small the roads were. After the expanse of New York highways, the twists of suburban Hampshire are tiny.
The house is at the end, on the corner, facing the bluff of the park. Tired hands used to peel her from the climbing frame there, insistent on going home. It was not a destination that appealed, even then. The silence was dusty. Her voice wasn’t welcome under those tall ceilings. And now, treading her way back, excuses and delays run out. He is dying, after all.
A gust gathers, the wind pressing her coat, sticking to the damp patch on her back. It’s silly, to be frightened of your parents. Brown leaves dance in circles on driveways, scuttling under cars as she walks past, as if embarrassed at their show of emotion. They will come back out to play once she is gone. The houses are bigger at this end of the street, some of them gated with locks, shiny hulks of cars brooding behind them. Dad would be disappointed at such displays of wealth.
The hedges begin to diminish, the houses shunting closer to the pavement, more apologetic, the windows draped in self-effacing nets.
There it is. The same metal fence with sharp points, the redundant square of lawn; even the apple tree looks the same size. Some difference nags at her, like the game where you look away and someone takes something from the tray but you can’t tell what it is.
It will be her who answers the door. There are ways of doing things. Clara hears the bell echo in the hallway. Perhaps they’ll have a sherry in the front room, like the Gaulton’s do. The door swings out.
“Ah.” It’s dad.
“Hi.” They said he couldn’t walk. She’d pictured him in the spare room, hooked up to wires. “How are you?” She winces at her own question. Her arms start to lift, hands reaching. A hug is surely acceptable this time.
“Oh, you know.” He ignores her gesture, turns. As he walks she sees the change. A lurch, one leg drooping behind the other. He goes into the kitchen. No “aperitiv” then, as mum called it. There’s a large bulge under his shirt. That must be the place. Where he’s being eaten alive.
“I made some sandwiches.” Mum is flamboyant next to the cooker, a bright apron around her stoicism. She wouldn’t let something like impending widowhood affect her appearance. Looks like ham and cucumber, cut into careful triangles and laid onto a two-tier tray, as if Clara is a visiting priest, someone from the rotary.
“I got lunch at the airport.” A slobbering bowl of noodles, the bite of ginger and chili still warming her mouth.
“You know I always get a meal ready.” A reproach already.
“They look lovely.” Dad takes a napkin and rests it on his plate. Reaches over.
“You shouldn’t be stretching that wound.” Mum slaps his hand away, delivers the sandwich directly to his mouth. Clara looks away as he is fed.
“Garden looks nice.” This patch of green had always been mum’s terrain. Dad was permitted to mow the lawn but not do the edges; he always fudged up the borders. It looks sparse, lots of clipped branches.
“Well, it’s pruning time. Not for looking at.” There’s something more severe than Clara remembers, more merciless in the stunted growth. Perhaps the arrival of growths and tumours, the bacteria that leached into the open places while he was in hospital, made her more severe.
A liquid sound behind her. She imagines her mother clasping a cup around the edge as she tips it up to his lips.
“You can still see the holes in the lawn from the swing.” Anything rather than turn around. Admit that his illness is not the only reason for her presence.
“I told your father that was a waste of money. You hardly used the thing. Ruined the grass.”
Clara loved the swing. All morning she’d loitered impatiently by the kitchen window, looking out for the van. It hadn’t disappointed – a huge thing, blue-walled, the delivery man even wearing a hat. Then hours of waiting. Dad filled the base with cement instead of water (no point in doing half a job) and buried it beneath the lawn, digging out careful holes so you couldn’t see where the base lay beneath the turf.
Once it was ready to be used, she lay her belly over the bright square of plastic and turned and turned. When her toes could barely touch the ground anymore, she lifted them up. The grass blurred into water, the chains groaning behind her back as her hair whipped around and around. It was important to get up straight away so you could feel the rush of nausea swoop all the way down to your toes. Head light, she tottered as far as she could go before letting gravity pull her into the damp grass. For hours she repeated it until mum caught her having fun.
“You’ll break it,” she said. Placed her on the swing, pushed her like she was a little girl, told her that was how you played. After that, she’d barely touched it.
The rushing of the tap; it should be safe to turn around. Her mother is wiping his mouth, dusting the fallen crumbs on the table. It must be bad, if he’s letting her do that.
“Is there anything I can do?” Clara sits at the table, tries to join in, her coat still on. Her reasons for coming seem selfish.
“Need to get him into bed.” He stands and leans, his weight lurching to one side. Mum lifts one arm up, flops it over her shoulders. “He wanted to be up for when you arrived.” He hasn’t spoken to her, looked at her. She’s never been able to figure out which one of them decided it would be a good idea to have a child.
“Let me help.” Clara rushes around, takes his other arm and hoists it over her shoulder. There’s a popping sound. Dad groans.
“Oh, for goodness sake.” Her shove pushes Clara against the doorframe. “You haven’t been here.” She scoops his body into her arms – he’s so small – and carries him into what used to be the playroom. The place they would shut her when she was too loud.
There’s always washing up. Clara gathers the things to be done, places them next to the sink. There’s a bright pink spot on her arm where she’d collided with the door. She dithers over the plate with the sandwiches on – would it be bad if she cleared it away? It would be a nice gesture to eat one.
The bread is that spongy white stuff, the ham those curled thin slices she’s forgotten you could buy – she and Robin have been veggie for over two years now. It still smells nice. Just one bite, Robin wouldn’t know. It’s a bit slimy, the flavour sets off something at the back of her tongue, and she devours the whole thing. Halfway through the second, she remembers the book dad read to her when she was little and makes it to the bin just in time to spit the rest out.
“You don’t have to eat them.” Mum is accusing in the doorway.
“It’s not that.” But she can’t explain, not now. Instead, she makes her apologies through the cleansing of spoons and knives, the practised speech in her head ticking over. She could tell them over dinner.
Playground calls like seabirds come through the open window as she dries and puts away. Mum is being busy somewhere else.
“I’ve put your things in your room.” She’s back, fussing over Clara’s coat, putting it in the hall.
“You didn’t have to do that.” Why won’t she sit still? “Look, let’s have a cup of tea, a sit down.”
“In a minute, I just wanted to water the plants while your dad’s asleep.” She bustles out again.
Clara puts the things away, opening and shutting drawers, trying to remember where everything is supposed to go. Robin never puts things in the same drawer twice. Last week she ended up opening a packet of pasta with a bread knife when she couldn’t find the scissors. It brings a sudden smile, their kitchen. It’s so light, the opposite walls yellow and orange, a stack of the leaflets that get stuck through the letterbox in a heap on the counter. They go through them together, choosing menus and services they’ll never order. A double serving of General Tsao’s chicken and a declawing service for their imaginary cat. They still mock each other’s accents, after three years.
“Tea?” Mum’s questions always make her feel guilty.
“Lovely.” Make her feel useful, then talking might be easier.
The spoon clatters in the special pot they have for discarded teabags. Something to show they’re grown-ups. Back home, the leftover coffee gets chucked into the compactor with the rest. Robin, as a kid, thought there was a hungry monster chomping at all their leftovers who lived under the sink. She’d lean over and talk to it as she fed cereal down the hole.
“It makes me think of home.” Wrong word. “I mean, where I live in New York, we have this disposal system, everything gets churned up.” There’s still this need, to share things with her.
“Sure, you have all sorts of fancy things.” Mum pours in a careful cloud of milk.
“You will visit, won’t you?” Robin has asked this question so many times.
“Never could get on with planes.” Now it would come, that same story. “Went to Greece once with your Aunt Georgie. Next thing we knew it was bumping all over the place.” She laughs, her hands imitating the bounce of the wings.
“And the woman next to you was sick in your lap.” How many times has she heard it?
“Sorry if I bore you.” A tray is brought out, a box of Family Circle. She chooses one of each and fans them out on a plate.
“It’s not always like that. I thought you’d like to come.” Guilt is a lowly form of bribery. “There’s people I’d like you to meet.” It’s a start, at least she’s mentioned someone.
“We have quite enough to deal with here at the moment.” The back of her head as she walks out of the room signals the end of the conversation.
They waste the rest of the afternoon in front of Agatha Christie mysteries, the plate of biscuits between them a reconciliation. Mum goes to bed at five, leaving Clara to eat a tin of tuna and baked beans mixed together for dinner.
That night, a beeping in the dark. A flashing light, pulsing red. Clara is still lost in dreams of the subway – a train just at the bottom of the stairs but she can’t get there before the door closes – when mum knocks on the door. It opens without a pause, the shadow of her small in the dark.
“What’s up?” She’s asking a retreating back.
“I’ll call the hospital, give them the readouts, you stay with him.” Clara is ushered into the playroom. It’s depressingly similar to her suspicions. A raised bed, wires, machines that have silenced but keep their pulsing light show. The enormity of his trip to the door to greet her – why had he done that?
His face is lit red, orange, yellow, each colour peeling away his wrinkles, revealing the man she remembers. His eyes remain shut.
She approaches the bed, willing some movement from under the sheets. The flashing is too wild; it’s hard to make out the rise and fall of breathing. A twitch, nothing more. Perhaps he will wake one last time and mouth things that aren’t meant for her, and she won’t be able to remember.
Clara sits and touches one of his hands. It’s warm. After a while her arm gets tired so she shifts it onto the weight of the bed. Near his skin, but not touching it. Her reasons for coming seem selfish. Robin was so disappointed when this trip was clearly a solo mission. No, not that, perhaps more sneering, judging her weakness.
A sigh in the dark. There’s no time for this now. The red thing stops flashing, all that is left is a yellowish hum. He is so thin. Perhaps there were times when he sat here, like this, watching over her. She can’t remember any.
Only once did he read her a story. The BFG. Different voices for the characters, his face screwing up with concentration as he spooled each word from his mouth. It didn’t matter how jolly he was, how big his ears; there was one thing Clara asked, every night.
“Are there people that eat people?” At the end of each chapter, even if it was about dreams and “snozzcumbers” she wanted to know. Every time he’d smile, ruffle her hair, tell her to go to sleep.
Apart from that one night. He’d been late home, she was already in bed. His footsteps in the hall roused her.
“Are you coming to read me the story?” By now she knew he was tired of it. Something more like determination around his mouth, flicking ahead each time to see how many pages were left in the chapter. And she hadn’t been able to help it. The words had popped out, just before he was going to turn the light off.
“Are there people that eat people?”
“Yes, but they live in the middle of the jungle somewhere. Or maybe sometimes if people are desperate, if it’s the only way they can live.” It came out in a rush. Clara swallowed it down, nodded her head and clutched at her fluffy cat, for when the light went out.
After that her dreams were plagued with bearded men who gnawed at bones, feet still attached at the end. At the weekend, they’d had roast chicken, and she’d refused to have a bone on her plate, even though she usually loved having a leg, it made her feel important. Mum had spoken to dad in her tight little voice and they hadn’t read stories after that.
“Dad, I’m gay.” She drops the words by his hands. “The one time I kissed a boy we played skeletons in the closet and the thing in his trousers stuck into my leg, like a bone.” It seems absurd, her presence, this confession. Their dealings with each other have always been slight. He wouldn’t be interested in whom she shared her bed with, the grip of Robin’s hand on the back of her neck when she came. The words are for her. Now that they’ve been spoken, she’s glad of their silent reception. It has been said, at least.
“He’s going to have to go in.” Mum is back at the door, pulling a coat on.
“I’ll get dressed.” Clara stands, calmed by the need for action.
“You don’t have to come.”
“Give me a minute.” This can be something that unites them. Like those families on TV who congregate in hospital waiting rooms and discover hidden truths about each other.
“Don’t.” Mum’s face is in shadow, but there’s something in her tone. She must have heard.
“Wait for me.” Clara goes back to her room, pulls her jeans over the shorts she wears in bed, the material bunching up at the top of her thighs. T-shirt, jumper. The weight of her breasts is slack, but there’s no time for that. She cups an arm under them, pockets her phone, and rushes out of the door.
Two paramedics are sculling him down the hallway, the metal wheels clanking over the slate. Mum has a fully packed suitcase, her coat and shoes on. They must have known, been preparing for this. Clara walks behind, like a funeral procession already. What a morbid thing she is. Perhaps in the hospital she can make contact, touch the skin of mum’s hand.
“You’re not coming.” Mum turns, a solid figure in the doorway.
“Of course I am.” She shouldn’t have to assert her rights. “I’m his daughter.” It should be obvious.
“He wanted to see you. That’s done.” She closes the door and Clara is left stranded on the rug. Looking down, there is a patch of blue in one corner. When she was eight she dropped a bubblegum-flavoured Mr. Freeze on the floor and the stain wouldn’t come out.
About Sarah Tinsley
Sarah is a writer who lives in London. She enjoys writing about gender issues and looking outside her window for inspiration. She has an MA in Creative Writing from City University and won the Spread The Word Novel competition in 2020. She was long listed for the Primadonna Prize 2020 and won the International Segora Short Story prize in 2015. Her short fiction, reviews and blogs have been published on a variety of platforms and you can find her on @sarahertinsleyuk and http://sarahtinsley.com.
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