Family

© David Gilliver 1997

 Clunk. "Practice makes perfect," you think to yourself. You'd floored the accelerator through the gate, shot past the vegetable garden and at just the right moment slammed on the brake, sliding on the gravel to stop with the front bumper resting against the fence post. Killing the headlights, you count to three and mime his angry words as he yells.
 "Rebecca!"
 You grin as you get out of the car. Coming home wouldn't have been the same without doing that. As you'd sped past Martin's place, you had beeped the horn madly, not knowing if he was even home. You knew Mum and Dad would be home - they always are. Family. Where would you be without them?
 "Why do you insist on doing that!" You turn to look up at the balcony and squint at the silhouette standing in front of the floodlight.
 "Hi Dad."
 "It's just you? Where's the Yank?"
 How did he do that? On the voice of someone else, his words might seem vicious or harsh, but he gave them that mocking air that always endeared him to you. Sometimes in court, or even with clients, you can hear traces of him in your own voice. Hence your reputation.
 "Matt had some things to do before we leave."
 "When do you leave?"
 "Hang on Dad, let me come up and join you."
 You sprint up the stairs two at a time, and enter the house. There are only a handful of lights on, but you could make your way through this house blindfolded if you had to. You walk through the lounge and open the sliding glass door to the balcony. Greeting him with a kiss, you sit down in the other seat. You almost feel out of place here in these expensive clothes - Dad has always worn clothes long after they were in fashion and good condition.
 "Where's Mum?"
 "Oh, she's in town. A friend of hers is ill so she's gone to be with her. I don't expect her back here tonight."
 "Oh." Mum the saint was at it again, but still, he couldn't appreciate how that hit you. This time, you'd counted on her being here for you. "I was hoping to see her before I left."
 "So, when are you leaving?" he asks again.
 "We're supposed to be flying out at seven in the morning, so I'll be getting back to Matt's tonight."
 "I see. Would you care for a coffee?"
 "You know I don't drink coffee."
 "Ah, well, you might have become cultured since I last saw you."
 "No, that's what I'm going to America for."
 He laughs with delight. "Tea then?"
 "Yes Dad."
 He heads inside. You turn and take in the night view: the lights of distant homes speckled around the valley. It's great to just look up and see the night sky sparkling, instead of the dull and featureless glow that you've grown accustomed to. You used to think this life was all you needed, but for the moment, there's more to your world. Maybe in a few years time.
 As you sit in silence, a car turns off the main road in the distance. You can't see it, but there's the glow of headlights tracing a path through the trees.
 "There's a car coming up the road - that might be her," you call.
 "I doubt it. That's probably our neighbours, the Castaldi's."
 "Neighbours?"
 "They bought that land next door. Max finally decided he wasn't going to use it, and he needed the money to buy Bennett's Store."
 "Mr Bennett sold up?"
 "Yeah, when his wife died he lost it a bit. He decided to retire up the coast somewhere, I'm not sure where exactly."
 Every time you come home there seems to be another local stalwart whose life has fallen apart. You wonder who'll be next. Were things always changing like this when you grew up here? As a child, everything had been so safe and constant, and you can only wonder how many major dramas you'd missed because you'd seen them through your innocent eyes. What did they say? You don't know what you've got until you lose it?
 Which begs the question - was leaving it the same as losing it? Do you still belong in this place, or did you ever belong here? You know you used to think you did. When you were growing up here, you never fully appreciated the power of a home, but now it seems like the last safe and mystical place on earth.
 Your father returns with two coffee mugs: his coffee in one and your tea in the other. You smile - practicality wins over tradition yet again.
 "Thanks Dad."
 He resumes his seat and sips his drink. Should you tell him tonight? Or should you wait until Mum is here too? But how long will it be before you're back here again? Yep, you've screwed up the timing on this one, but you'll hold Matt responsible for that.
 "Dad."
 "Yes?"
 "I'm engaged."
 He looks up at you, a question on his face. As you search the reaction, his face breaks into a broad grin. He quietly shakes his head in delight. He puts down his coffee and holds his arms wide, and you take his embrace, holding him tight.
 "That's wonderful." If asked, you probably wouldn't admit it, but you had feared his reaction. Why? You saw Martin following his heart and seen how Dad reacted to that. For all of his humour and mirth, he can be a hard man when he wants to be. But he's always treated you as the favourite: whilst you had spent those years at Uni, Martin had been slugging it out at home, trying to win Dad's respect without compromising his own ambitions - not a particularly easy task. And in the end.... well, you saw what happened there.
 But that's not your concern. That's between Martin and Dad, and at least Martin's got Jane to fall back on now. The war finished long ago, but it's been an uneasy truce. You're praying for some sort of real peace between them before the wedding, whenever that will be. You'd like to be able to have a photo taken with them all around you and know that the smiles aren't forced.
 Your father touches the fingers on each hand together, as he often does. Whenever he does that, you think of peace. Why? Was it the simple symmetry of the action? Is he trying to calm himself, or is it nothing more than a mannerism? You can picture your father lying in an open coffin, his eyes closed and his fingers touching together. You don't know where that image comes from, it's not drawn from bitterness. It's an image that frightens you.
 "Dad?"
 He blinks and turns to you.
 "Sorry Rebecca; I was thinking."
 "About what?"
 "How beautiful you will look in your wedding dress."
 "Dad." You don't blush, but go close.
 "No, I'm just kidding - I was thinking how lucky I am to be finally getting rid of you from under my feet."
 Feigning shock, you throw the cushion at him. He laughs as he puts a hand up to block it. As it drops to the floor, you fall quiet, both smiling. He sips his coffee.
 "Dad, I just wanted to thank you."
 "For what?"
 "For being there for me. You and Mum saved my sanity sometimes, and I just want to tell you how much I appreciate it."
 "That's what parents are for - you don't have to thank me."
 "I know, but... well sometimes I was pretty hard to put up with."
 He laughs. "You could say that - you were a bit of a handful sometimes."
 "Only sometimes?"
 "I refuse to say anything further for fear it may incriminate me."
 You laugh. "Dad, can you tell Mum when you see her? Tell her how much I appreciate you guys."
 "Yes, I'll pass it on."
 "I wish she'd been here tonight."
 "So do I."
 You look at your watch and you're startled at the time. What time had you left home? You thought it had been six but... no, it's way too late for that to be right. As you get to your feet, you can see he's puzzled by your movement.
 "Dad I should be moving, I didn't realise it was this late."
 "Oh." His dismay is plain to see, as he puts down his cup and stands. "Thanks for coming up to say goodbye. Enjoy yourself over there."
 You smile.
 "I will. Goodbye Dad." You kiss him on the cheek. "I love you guys."
 "We know. Goodbye Rebecca." You skip down the stairs and hear him offer his farewell behind you. "Take care!"


 After she's gone, Dad glows with the memory of her visit. He walks back through the house to the telephone in the lounge and almost hums as he dials.
 "Hello, I was hoping I could speak with Rowena?" His face falls. "Oh... could you pass on a message then? Could you tell her that Rebecca is engaged? Yes, thank you, I'm sorry to have disturbed you. Goodbye."


 You stand at the top of the stairs, looking around for some sign of life - they must have heard you arrive. You fold your black leather jacket over your arm, and slip the boots off.
 You rub your hands together. They're cold, but not cold enough that you can't feel anything. You love riding at this time of year, that time somewhere warm between summer and winter. There's just that feel of togetherness that comes from it. Is it the power of the bike roaring under you or is it the wind tickling your ears? Whatever it is, it's some sort of heaven.
 "Mum? Dad?" you call.
 "Out here," comes his voice. You follow its sound towards the lounge area, which you find empty. Then you spy your father's hand on the armrest of one of the chairs out on the balcony. You walk out to join him.
 "Hi Dad."
 "Hi Martin. Like a drink?"
 He holds up a small glass. On the table beside him, there are two empty coffee cups and a bottle of his favourite whiskey. You hesitate before taking a seat.
 "No thanks Dad."
 "What brings you up here?"
 "Oh, I don't know. Jane's at a hen's night."
 "The boys don't go out anymore?"
 "I didn't feel like it tonight."
 "It's good to have a quiet night now and then."
 "Yeah, it is. Where's Mum?"
 "In town. She's looking after a friend who's ill."
 "Oh." If you'd known that, you wouldn't have come. Whatever everyone might pretend these days, the truth is that you still think twice before returning.
 "You've just missed Rebecca actually."
 "Yeah?" Rebecca only lives two hours away, but that doesn't mean she visits often.
 "She came with good news. She's engaged."
 "Engaged? To Matt?"
 "Who else?"
 You laugh at yourself. What a stupid reaction.
 "I just wasn't expecting it, that's all."
 "No... well... I don't think I was either."
 It surprised him? Dad would have seen something like that coming wouldn't he? Or had he been expecting Matt to ask his permission first? That was hardly Matt's style.
 "Isn't Rebecca going to America soon?"
 "She flies out in the morning."
 "In the morning? She's cutting it fine, coming up here tonight."
 Dad says nothing. This was just the sort of scene you wanted to avoid. With Mum here, you'd at least have someone trying to hold the conversation together. It always tore her up to see you arguing with him. Dad speaks quietly.
 "Your mother wants to see the world some day. We were going to do it when we first got married, but then you kids came along and our priorities changed."
 When did you last hear him talk like this? He's famous for quietly keeping to himself, following his own plans and living his own life. The occasional bold decision - like the one that resulted in building this place and moving the family out of town - usually comes as a surprise, but they rarely draw criticism. To have him speaking about the things he regretted was unheard of. Who knows - you might hear an apology from him yet.
 You have no plans to see the world. It's not that you don't want to do it - it's just that you've never considered it. Anyway, it was more Jane's style to want to pursue something so exotic and now, well, all your plans are on hold indefinitely.
 "Dad..." you start, but fade. How do you say it? How do you go from all those years of being the quiet one, coping with everything by yourself, and then to suddenly let all that privacy go? You did it with Jane, but she seemed to understand you. She never pushed for you to tell her things, she knew she was trusted enough that you would tell her. You'd always found talking to her easy. It had taken too long, but you trust her now.
 You shake your head. You think of standing up, going to the rail, turning your back to him and blurting it out. You nearly do, but that sort of drama isn't in you.
 "Dad, Jane's pregnant."
 Dad says nothing. It's like he hasn't heard. You think of repeating it, but Dad is looking away. If he'd misheard, he'd be asking you to repeat it. You take the moment to stand and go to the rail.
 Who cares what he says? Look at that view, feel all of that space in front of you. Feel the freedom of it. If he says anything that hurts, that road is there to escape down - you've done that before. So why did you return this time?
 God knows. So what's Dad going to say? Tonight he seems to be in a good mood, without that abrasive edge that you always seemed to strike, but still, there's something amiss - it's not like him to be silent this long. Did Rebecca's news really surprise him that much?
 "Are you sure you don't want that drink?"
 "No thanks Dad." Not until you feel comfortable here, not until you feel comfortable with him. He's not helping.
 "It's a big step."
 Goddamn it Dad, don't put on that "older-and-wiser" act now. Can't he see you really mean this? Why can't he step down from his little pedestal for a few moments and talk to you as a person, not as your father? Mum can do it, that's why you're so much closer to her than to him. No matter how much you try to show him that you want to understand him, he puts on that father act and says all those things that he thinks parents are supposed to say. He's always acting a role - why can't he say what he means? What scares you is the thought that you know him as well as Mum does, and he puts on an act like this for her too.
 You wish she was here now, at least you'd get some plain talking out of her. You might not like it, but at least you'd know how she felt about it. He can be such an evasive bugger.
 "You kids..." The words vanish. "Before I married your mother, we both lived at home. We didn't even live together until we got married, let alone start a family. Now here you are."
 "What Dad? Say it." He's out of touch.
 "Do you think you should be doing this now? Wouldn't it have been better to get married first, like your sister?"
 "Like her? Why do I always have to be like her?" You expected something like this didn't you? "Is it because you don't want me ending up like Phillip?" It's a cruel taunt and you know it. Your father turns away, holding himself back and regaining his composure.
 He turns to face you again, but you're already moving through the house. A shout follows: "That's it, run away again!" You don't turn as you scoop up your boots and go down the stairs.
 That's why you came - sometimes you want to be respected for the things you do and the decisions you make. Sometimes that sort of approval means something to you, and sometimes it hurts when you don't get it. After everything that had happened between the pair of you, you thought that this time he might be able to look at it from your viewpoint.
 You try to ignore the tears as you pull on the helmet. "You're not winning this time Dad. You're not winning."


 With the sound of Martin's bike still reverberating through the house, Dad calls again. "Hello, I was hoping I could speak with Rowena Bingham. I just need to know when she'll be coming home." A pause. "Oh, I see. No, that's okay. I'm sorry to have disturbed you."
 Seconds after resting the receiver back in its cradle, it rings. He picks it up quickly. Rowena?
 A blurred voice comes down the line. A crowd with their ugly noise. A son's voice.
 "Hey, who's that hey?"
 "Phillip?"
 "Hey, Dad! How ya doin'?" Every syllable is slurred and the unattached laughter in the background stings. Another of his midnight calls.
 "What do you want Phillip?"
 "I don't want nothin' Dad. I just thought I'd ring ya up and say g'day."
 "Phillip, you're drunk. Call me back some other time."
 "Nah, I'm not drunk. I'm happy!" The voice sounds distant as Phillip turns to the others and shouts. "Hey, ain't we having a great time?"
 He ignores their cheering. "Phillip..."
 "Hey Dad, is Mum there?"
 "No she's not."
 "What? She's not? Where is she?" The slurring is like a scratch on his skin, a slowly tearing pain. Is this the son I raised? I don't deserve this, not now. Stop it son, don't do this, it's... it's embarrassing.
 "Dad, where's Mum? I want to talk to Mum."
 "She's in town. She's not here."
 "Fuck Dad, what's happened? Is she off fucking someone else or something?"
 A joke or not? Does it matter? The anger slices through him, he feels it across his stomach. Phillip, the firstborn son, the one who gave so much joy as a child, but now he feels like strangling him. If he could reach down that phone line he probably would. Quietly terminating the call, he places the receiver on the table. His hand absent mindedly reaches for his whiskey glass but it topples over, and he can only watch as the liquid silently sprints across the table.


 "Hello, I'm sorry to wake you. I just need to talk to Rowena... I need to know if she's coming home..." A voice begins to respond, but thin courtesy finally falls away. "Dammit woman! I don't have time to listen to you, she's my wife, I've loved her too long to let her go like this, I need her..."
 The feeling of battle evaporates, leaving him empty. He begins to feel the cold. "I need her."


 You walk back out to the balcony. Sensing movement, you spin to see the cat paused in the doorway. It watches you, and then casually looks away. You look too, but as you should have expected, there is nothing to see. It looks down to the floor, and with grace, precision and a single flick of its tail, walks outside.
 What a night. Your gaze sweeps up, like a child who has fallen and suddenly noticed the sky above. The moon is smiling down, big and white, and it is somehow comforting to be able to see the familiarity of it now. But there are things that need to be said - if only there was someone here to listen. You talk to the sky softly.
 "I don't understand you at all. I just don't know what you're doing to me. You're beyond me. All these years of trying to work you out, trying to make some sense of what you mean to me, and I think I'm going to have to give up on you." Listening to yourself, you don't quite understand your thoughts. "I think you've won this one. D'you hear that? You beat me. You win! Now give me back my life! Fuck!"
 Returning to your seat, you pick up the little whiskey glass and turn it in your hand, remembering that it was part of a wedding gift from her Uncle. Didn't he die last year? You rush to the balcony rail and angrily throw it at a rock. The tinkling of smashing glass whispers across the valley.
 It's crazy isn't it? You work for years, and you try to save a bit of the world for yourself. You have children, and you watch them grow up, making their own mistakes and learning from them. Then one announces she's getting married, and it catches you by surprise - you're not sure how you feel about it. You don't even want to think about it. Should it feel like this, like you're losing a piece of yourself?
 And then another one announces that there is a grandchild on the way. Why did the first have to be like this? When you were his age, a child born out of marriage was not a child to hold up to the world in delight. The baby would be cradled with much love, but also with a little shame.
 But times have changed and you've got to trust that things have changed for the best. If you don't, you're going to slip under, because a lot has changed, but that doesn't stop you from thinking that maybe some things have changed too quick.
 With your children making their own way, you must resign to the fact that your job is done. As children, you hoped they would grow up to be that person you always tried to be, and now they're going to do the same for their own children. Do you fear that? Do you fear that maybe you're going to see them bringing up their children in some new way, because they don't like the way they were raised by you? Will it be like some last slap in the face from them?
 No, it won't. You think of Phillip, the one you once hoped would set the example for the others, but instead he found the bottle and even now, after all these years, he's still hanging on tight. The nightmare that tears you down when you're climbing back on top, and tonight he's tearing you down just because he doesn't know what else he could be doing.
 You begin to laugh at the sheer absurdity of it, the sheer absurdity of yourself, but that laughter is brief and hollow. A grin flashes across your face but can't stay - it soon fades to the faintest of smiles, and then less than that. You turn and walk back to your seat. Sitting there with a heavy face, almost grim, you take a deep breath of the midnight air.


 At dawn, the house is quiet. The sun peers in a window and reaches for the untouched bed. Out on the balcony a restless man awakens from his threadbare sleep, his face streaked by tears. He stares out at the sun as it rises over a valley of silence and dew, one heavier than the other.
 What do you do when the one you've loved for all these years says she can't love you anymore? Is it stupid to fear that she never loved you? How can the centre of your life just stand up and walk away? Has all this been nothing more than an elaborate charade?
 Some things are earned and some things are stolen. And some days, you can't even tell which is which.


Feedback welcomed: david@lovetown.net

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