Saturday 22 February 2014

Family Friend: short story

Family Friend

It was twenty years ago that Jeanette moved in to our family home. It happened slowly and secretively, like when you are outside in winter and suddenly you realise it’s pitch black. The light fades without you even noticing. 

I remember one morning when I was thirteen, getting my breakfast ready before school, I saw Jeanette sitting at the table in one of Mam’s t-shirts.

‘Morning’, she said.

I mumbled a reply and carried on buttering my toast. I tried not to look at her. The t-shirt was so small that I could see a strip of her knickers peeking out at the top of her legs, which were sprawled across one of the chairs. She was reading a newspaper and kept glancing up at me. Although I was used to her coming round for cups of tea with Mam, I still felt uncomfortable in her presence. She was different, not like the other women I had met, which consisted mainly of aunts and teachers. She had short, dark curls and wore loose fitting clothes. As I gathered my school books and got ready to leave she tried to make conversation.

‘Another day in school? Bet you can’t wait to get it over with! I used to have to wear a uniform like that, absolutely hated it. Although you’re lucky, you get to wear trousers, I had to wear this skirt up to here with long socks. Awful. And to make it worse I had the hairiest legs.’ 

She must have been embarrassed because she took a large sip of tea and choked on it. I didn’t know what to say. I thought it was strange that she was there, in the morning, sitting at our dining table. I wondered where Mam was, and whether Jeanette had her own bed. 

On my way to school I was followed by a feeling. I couldn’t stop thinking about what I had seen that morning. There was movement in my belly, like being excited, or sick, but more sludgy and foreign. I passed the houses that I saw every day without really looking, the route was so familiar that my eyes would glaze over in a sort of trance. I was on my own, as usual, so my thoughts dripped uninterrupted, tapping my skull.

When I got home, Dad was in his armchair. Dad worked at the docks shifting parts for the ships which were built there. He was a short, robust man with a bald head and a forehead which made a shelf over his eyes. His skin was like a pig’s; thick and tight with light hairs bristling their way out. He never missed a day of work, so when the shipping company began to cut down his hours he became even more difficult to be around. Whenever I got home from school I would turn the key as slowly as possible so as not to wake him. If I was lucky, he would be asleep in his armchair, snoring in animal bursts. The TV was always on, a tiny window of black and white shadows which never held my attention for long. On that day, he was wide awake wearing a scowl. I noticed he had started smoking again. He had his back to me so I didn’t say hello. Big spirals of smoke seeped like gas from his chair and I held my breath.

‘Paul? Is that you, boy?’

He turned around to face me.

‘You been in school?’

‘Yes, Dad.’

‘Where are your sisters?’

‘I dunno. They walk a different way to me.’

‘They better not be loitering.’

I fiddled with the zip on my coat. I wasn’t often in Dad’s part of the house for long. It was technically the basement, so it was always dark, and smelt stale because he ate his dinner down there. Mam would usually clean it but they had been fighting so the room grew dust and its own particular stench. 

‘Come and tell me when dinner’s ready. And get that bloody woman to shut up, will you. I can hear her from down here, she’s been cackling away all afternoon.’

That meant Jeanette had stayed. Dad always referred to her as ‘that bloody woman’. Once I heard her call him ‘that oaf’, so I figured it was a fair exchange.

As I walked up the stairs I could hear voices in the kitchen merging with the clanging of pans. I never thought of Mam as a talkative woman until Jeanette started coming over. Mam always seemed quite shy, even in front of me and my sisters, but now she would hoot and howl like the women outside The Four Crosses. 

‘Oh, hiya Paul! Do you want a cup of tea? A biscuit? Food’ll be ready soon, mind. Come in and take your coat off.’

I walked into the kitchen which was more like a steam room. Jeanette was at the stove stirring a large pot of soup and Mam was sat at the table opening a bottle of wine. Her face was shiny and red and I felt like I was intruding, they were both smiling at each other. 

‘Hi Paul, how was school? Sorry, what a stupid question, I used to hate it when people asked me that. It was like, duh! Of course school was boring!’

I looked at a spot just above Jeanette’s head and said it was fine, thanks. I could never look in her eyes. At least she was fully dressed now.

‘Paul? I need to tell you something. Jeanette’s going to be staying here for a few days, the builders are doing up her porch. I hope you don’t mind. She’s a much better cook than me, so I’m sure you won’t!’

With this, they erupted into cackles, just like Dad said. They looked like they were floating around the kitchen, they must have been drunk. Jeanette turned the radio on and started moving her head from side to side and stirring to the beat. I got that same feeling I had on the way to school, like my stomach was beating instead of my heart.

After that, things changed. I don’t know what happened to Jeanette’s porch, perhaps it was never fixed. Either way, there was a lot more laughing and wine drinking. Jeanette was always there. I asked Mam whether she had a job, she said yes, she was a writer, although I never saw her write anything. Only read the newspaper and drink cups of tea in the kitchen all day. Mam was a nurse and did a lot of night shifts, so Jeanette would make dinner sometimes. Mam was right, she was a good cook, she would make noodles and curries with foreign vegetables. Dad would always grumble when I took his plate down to him, he’d say, ‘that bloody woman and her spices, she’s in Cardiff not Calcutta.’ 

Slowly, surely, the house became Mam’s and Jeanette’s. Posters began appearing on the walls, of temples in India and sunsets behind mountains. Mam started dressing differently, her clothes became looser and more colourful. Me and my sisters saw less and less of her. I even had to cook for everyone once, while Mam and Jeanette went on a walking trip. Dad refused to do anything, he said he was a working man, and that all I did was sit at a desk all day, so I should make dinner. I said why can’t my sisters do it but I could see his blood simmering in his head so I shut up. I made baked beans and scrambled eggs, all burnt. The whole house smelt charred, and I spent at least half an hour scrubbing the pans. We all sat around the table for a change, me, my sisters and Dad. We didn’t say much. As we chewed in a silence broken only by slurps of tea, we heard something slam outside, and voices, distorted. I had finished my plate so I got up and looked out the window.

There was an eight o’clock film over everything, an opaque blue, obscuring any detail. I could make out two figures directly below, to the left of the streetlight. They were locked together, kissing, stroking, then my chest seized up and I tried to breathe but something was lodged, in my throat, in my mouth, a nauseating panic. I recognised the car, it was Mam’s. Behind me, I heard Dad clear his throat.

‘What you looking at?’

‘Nothing’, I said, closing the curtains, shutting my eyelids.

But it wasn’t nothing. We heard the front door open and footsteps up the stairs. I saw Dad’s defeated expression as he left the room, and for the first time in my life I saw him as a tiny man, tormented and gnarled, riddled with spite and trapped in his basement. He had never looked so helpless to me, and when Mam and Jeanette walked in with their rucksacks and cold-bitten cheeks I could barely stay to say hello. That night I tried all the usual tricks to get to sleep; I hugged my knees and counted to a hundred, but nothing could distract me from those figures in the dark. Images came to me, uninvited, of legs entwined and knickers strewn on the floor, laughing faces, wine stains. I was alone in a house of women. Dad had deserted me, he used to ruffle my hair and coax me into playing football but now he stewed downstairs. All I had were my sisters, who were a year apart and much younger than me, and my Mam, but she had a new friend now. I was so quiet that I could have melted into the wallpaper, I watched life unfurl but there was nothing looking back.

I can’t say for sure whether I was ever happy, but during Jeanette’s stay I sank into a crippling stupor where I could barely speak. Each minute of her presence and each word she spoke became a part of the mud in my stomach, the dirty feeling I had become used to. When she touched Mam I turned away, when Mam said her name, I would tense up. This pattern went on, and down and down, for a whole year. I could not help but think that Mam wished she’d never had kids, then her and Jeanette could move away somewhere and Dad could fester undisturbed.

One day, a Sunday, I walked downstairs and Mam was crying at the kitchen table. She was wearing an old dressing gown, the flannel material looked like moss. Everything seemed to sag, her hair, her posture, and I resisted the urge to go and put my arm around her, it was too late for that sort of thing, she had become contaminated to me. Besides, she never touched me anymore. I stood at the doorway, silent. I watched. After a few minutes of listening to her punctured wails, I turned around and went back to my bedroom. I had fantasised about Jeanette leaving, and the whole family reuniting, Dad would move back upstairs and would start work again, Mam would make us picnics like she used to, we would even go on holiday to Cornwall, maybe in the Summer, I would be nicer to my sisters, we could play together again, I could bring friends home from school and no one would ask who my Mam’s friend was and why she lived with us. In reality, her absence only added to the sense of deflation that spread through the house, through the air vents, out the taps. Things were never the same again.

The last time I saw Jeanette was at Mam’s funeral. She sat directly behind me, her sobs outweighed mine. I still couldn't look in her eyes.

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