first published in the Fish Anthology in 2006
You make sense of things, don’t you? If you didn’t you’d go mad. You leave home fifteen minutes late and you just miss being in a crash where three people die and there’s ambulances and flashing blue lights and a crowd of onlookers hoping to see bone and the road is blocked and you think: ‘That could have been me,’ and you think: ‘somebody up there’s watching over me.’ But you don’t mean it, not really. What you really mean is: ‘I’m going to be late now.’ What you really ask yourself is: ‘I wonder if I can do a U-turn and cut through Teddington?’
If you did think about who might be watching over you, you might think of God, though frankly you doubt he’s taking a serious interest. Or it might be the ghost of your dead father who’s watching over you, which makes more sense – or it would if you believed in ghosts, which you don’t. But you’d never ever think it would be your mother-in-law; your still-living, Mondeo-driving, hip-replaced, Marks and Spencer-shopping, briskly-widowed, bridge-playing mother-in-law.
You used to like the fact that she was always busy, your mother-in-law; that she didn’t interfere (hah! how hollow that sounds now); that she only expected the whole family to eat together at
Christmas and Easter, and then cooked fish for the fish-eater and lentil bake for the vegan and lactose-free for the one with the dairy intolerance and that it all seemed to emerge from an ancient Baby Belling and that she never, ever needed any help. You liked it that she kept phone calls to thirty seconds of essential business:
“When do you want me to come over? ……OK. Do you want me to give Lulu and Trixi dinner? Shall I stay the night? ……You’ll be home by midnight? Good, I’ll drive home……..No really, it’s fine; I prefer my own bed.”
You liked it that she preferred her own bed, that she never complained about the state of the toilet when she did occasionally stay the night, never criticised you for naming her two granddaughters Lulu and Trixi, even though you now feel terrible about giving them names that mean they have trouble at school, even though when you take them to the park and, in your oh-so-tired-please-just-give-me-a-break-and-get-over-here-now voice, you call out: ‘Lulu………..Trixi…………’, dog-walkers turn their heads looking for two King Charles Spaniels and are disappointed when they see two small humans running in your direction, so eager, so ready to hurl their rag-doll bodies at you as if they really loved you; as if you didn’t and never could hurt. As if you deserved them.
You like it that your mother-in-law is still a school governor and secretary of the Esher Bowls Association and the Surrey Bridge Club and the North Downs Golf League and that she is never at home, so that you never feel guilty that she might be feeling lonely or unhappy; that the very idea of her sitting at home in front of a fire with a cat on her lap is as improbable as the Queen riding a skateboard. She’s busy, busy, busy.
You like it that she never mentions Jane because you never want to hear Jane’s name again. You won’t have any photos of her in the house, even though you know that you’re supposed to for Lulu and Trixi’s sakes; you’re even supposed to tell them that their mother still loves them, but you can’t, so you say nothing at all, and it seems like a conspiracy: you, Jane’s mother and Jane’s children, all pretending that Jane never existed. All keeping busy, busy, busy.
You like it that people feel sorry for you for not having any life of your own. You like the way they look at you with something like approval in the check-out queue at Tesco’s, even when Lulu and Trixi are so sticky that they can lift the little tubes of Smarties clean off the counter merely by brushing their fingers on them. You like it that people do not seem to mind that you are unshaven and that you have a stain that could be anything really on your trousers and that you smell slightly stale, slightly of unchanged bedding and damp sheds. They would not like you if you did not have the girls’ sticky fingers
now dangling from your neck, now tugging at your pullover. The girls are your talisman, your explanation; your living forgiveness.
You like it that being a hopeless father is in some way acceptable when being a hopeless mother is not. You like it that this is your victory – a victory of sorts – over Jane. You like it because you’re not sure you’d have been any good at being happy anyway, and this way you don’t need to stop and think about whether you are happy or sad; you just have to cope. You have to go to work and sometimes leave early when one of the girls has to go to the doctors or to a friend’s birthday party. You are quite often the only Dad who delivers his child to the party and later collects her and sometimes one of the mothers will look at you distantly, her eyes telling you that she realises that you must once have been a man and might once have been something to desire; something to laugh with and at and taste and smell and touch and feel; but now you are only to be pitied, like a dolphin in a tank.
Grandma never interferes, but lately you’ve begun to notice that she’s changed the course of days in ways you too often fail to notice. Like Saturday three weeks ago when you were going to knock the girls’ bedroom wall through so they wouldn’t be afraid of the night, but she came unannounced and took you all to Brighton to see ‘Holiday on Ice’ and wouldn’t take no for an answer when you said you couldn’t (she’d already bought you a ticket), and when you got home a carpenter had
been in and put in little glass panels above the girls’ doors and grandma smiled and said:
“There, that’s better, isn’t it?” and though you expected to see a look of victory in her eyes all you saw was a sadness, and she turned quickly away and left.
And then there was last Wednesday when she let herself in when you weren’t even out of bed and you heard her heavy, slightly awkward tread on the stairs (the hip replacement makes her tilt, like a toy robot) her self-conscious voice singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Trixi and when you came down to the kitchen you saw that she had given Trixi a present and a card from you, too, and Trixi gave you a hug and asked you what the present was and you said:
“Open it up and you’ll find out. It’s a surprise,” and even though you tried so hard not to show your uncertainty, your defeat at having forgotten your motherless daughter’s birthday, Trixi could see that you did not know what she would find inside the metallic purple paper, and she looked more hurt than you had ever seen before, an old hurt; old eyes in her baby face; her eyes, her hurt like the hurt in your father’s eyes when you left him for the last time, both of you knowing.
And how was it that Grandma knew to come to the house the other day, arriving only fifteen minutes after Courts Furnishers had delivered nineteen Parker-Knoll reclining chairs, fifteen of which you’d had to put in the garden because there was no room in the house for them. How was she able to organise for them all to be collected later that afternoon and get the credit agreement cancelled, the one on which someone had forged your signature?
How did she know to call an ambulance when she wasn’t even in the house last Friday when you had a little accident and cut your chin while shaving? And it wasn’t just your chin you’d cut, but your arm and the top of your thigh and also the top of your hand. There and there and there.
And how did grandma know that you were pushing Lulu down under the water in the bath on Saturday morning, (you’d wanted to make sure she was clean all over, not sticky just for once, and yes you’d got angry with her, angry for always being sticky, angry for just for a moment; for just a moment too long); it was grandma who made you realise just in time that your daughter’s body had gone limp in the water, so that you brought her pale body up to the surface and shook her, and it was just like shaking a broken lily flower, and you were frightened then. Suddenly you weren’t angry with Lulu lily flower at all, and you hugged her and cried on her and she gasped back into life and you saw what you’d done and you turned around and saw
that grandma wasn’t there at all. She wasn’t even in the house. Not physically. That’s what they say: not physically.
And then you start to look for her, and you realise that she is always there: you saw her twice on last night’s evening news: there she was heaving sacks of grain from the back of a lorry in Dafur; you could only see her shape, really, but the hip-replacement wobble made you certain; and there she was tending a wound in a hospital in Baghdad, so that you called Lulu in to see, but she only looked at you, not at the TV; looked at your pointing finger, at your nodding head. She had dark rims around her eyes. Like father like daughter.
And then you see her this morning. This time she really is in the house, grandma, but to make certain you walk up to her and go to touch her on the arm, but she flinches as your fingers brush the striped acrylic of her blouse, as if you and she are playing a game of tag. As if you are ‘it’. She gives the girls some porridge and wraps up their sandwiches for them and then she looks at you, looks straight at you and it is as if she is looking at you for the first time, and you know what her silence means. Then she’s gone. They’re all gone.
Driving around the M25, trying to concentrate on the seventy mile per hour road that is slipping away from you, each car hurling along at perfect speed and distance from the other, each lane as
miraculous and alien as a ring of Saturn, you see that her face is behind every steering wheel.
And now, up ahead, there is a car with three people in it who are dead, and you wonder why grandma wasn’t watching over them. And then you know. Now you know. Now you know. You know who was watching over you all along, who was watching over you all. And you wonder how you will ever make sense of things again.