Moving day. My daughter hovers in the hallway.
I presume you’re not thinking of taking all of this with you, I say, picking up a suitcase with a duvet rolled on top.
Wait, she says. Just stop. I was going to drive half of this round the tip first. And these bags are for charity. We don’t have to leave until lunch, do we?
I place it back: the duvet flumps out of its spiral. I can see her wanting to move it, but while I stand there she won’t do a thing.
As I sit with my coffee in the front room, I hear them whispering.
He’s just tired, Michelle. He took the day off, so he wants to get on.
Yes, but why does he have to be such a pain? We’re only going to be an hour, then we can set off.
You know he gets like this. February time.
It’s not an excuse –
Then the door slams and I hear the car reverse out – too fast, which means it’s Michelle behind the wheel. Assuming the whole world will stop for her.
Then Michael floats in, sorry as you like.
Steve, he says, can we look up in the attic to see if the Lego is up there?
Half-term, without the means to occupy himself. Reverting to child’s toys already – he’s only thirteen. His mother babies him; he hasn’t got a hope in hell of growing up while she picks his clothes and winces every time he mentions wanting to go out with the other lads.
I don’t reply but put down the newspaper and give him a look, and up we go to rummage around. It doesn’t take long, actually, to find the bag with the old toys in, because the attic’s empty now all of Michelle’s junk is out of there. Why she’s decided to take everything, I don’t know.
Michael shuffles downstairs with the Lego, wanting me to play with him: can’t entertain himself. Though it’s cold out the sun is shining: why not go out for a walk, see what’s what in town? But it’s as if there’s a string still attaching him to this place – to me, though I’m not even his dad.
Last week, it was. I went to tell Michelle her tea was ready. She was sat on the floor with her clothes all round her, folding things up and putting them into little piles.
I’ll leave some bits here, she said.
As you wish, girl – we expected you’d continue to use this place like a hotel!
I went down and poured some wine; we were celebrating her new job and flat. What she’d always wanted – to get out of here.
Five minutes passed, and Michael bellowed her name up the stairs, traipsing back with a helpless look on his face. Pleased to be the Good Child, scoring one final point off his troublesome half-sister. Anyone could see he didn’t want her to go.
Don’t let it get cold, I said, and we started eating – politely, taking tiny forkfuls and sipping the wine and exchanging all these looks.
With a piece of carrot held to his mouth, Michael froze, then pushed back his chair in this exaggerated way so he wouldn’t make a noise, and tiptoed to the open door, craning upwards. Sure enough, Michelle could be heard coming to the top of the stairs.
We’ve started without you!
Oh, thanks a lot, she yelled, and Michael sat down again, his smug look intensifying as we pretended not to hear her bedroom door slamming shut. He was still holding the carrot on his fork. I don’t hold with much by way of disciplining children, because of how my dad used to lay into me and my brothers, but sometimes I think Michael’s father should have given him a smack or two at some formative age. It might have quashed his propensity to be insufferable.
She can suit herself, I said. It’s delicious, Janet.
When we’d cleared away and cling-filmed Michelle’s portion, I went up there. I didn’t knock, just barged in – only she hadn’t moved, she was still sat on the floor with her clothes around her in the little piles. She wasn’t even crying.
What’s going on?
Actually I think I’ll go up in the attic, she said, and get down my stuff.
Your dinner, Michelle; Janet made it specially – the least you could do is –
Sorry, Dad. I’ll apologise to her. I’m sure Michael will eat mine.
That’s not the point. (Sometimes I hear myself speaking as if I’m just made of these phrases. And I think Michelle is the one person who sees through that. But one day she’ll see how it is. If she has children. If she has to keep a job.)
So can I get the ladder out?
I’ll do it, I said.
You go downstairs and have your tea, Father. I’m perfectly capable.
What’s this sudden desire to get at all your old tat? You can’t possibly fit it into your new place, can you?
She shrugged her shoulders, and looked at me.
But that’s not an answer to anything. It doesn’t explain why she’s in such a tearing hurry to get out from under our noses. She’s so bored by everything my wife and I say and do. Michael is a child to her – but she can’t see that she’s still one too. Hasn’t ever had a boyfriend, as far as I can tell, and not likely to any time soon when she insists on being so icy and offish with everyone. And thinking that makes me feel angry, because no one’s cleverer than Michelle: always top in her class, always rolling her eyes at the rubbish Michael watches on television. And who do these lads think they are, exactly, scorning my girl – Clara’s girl.
He gets like this. February time. I’m stood on the landing, hearing Michael clattering Lego pieces onto the laminate floor, and suddenly have to grip the banister thinking about where it is we’re all going. Not even caring about the fact my wife – Clara, I mean – is dead, or that one day my daughter will die, and Janet and Michael too; but only the fact that it’s awaiting me too, that what I am, and where I am – and what I think about all this – won’t exist. Won’t be anything. Won’t know of anything.
So I go down and help the boy construct a marble run – all the time aware of the time: the fact the girls should be back by now. As I watch Michael building, keeping the colours together because he’s a bit that way inclined, obsessive, I start to feel angry, aware of my heart lumbering on in my chest – and I have this crazy wish to swap with him: to be Michael, only not Michael. To nick a motorbike and tear off somewhere, or steal some other man’s girl and give it to her on the kitchen floor.
Only, thinking that, I imagine our kitchen floor with the black and white tiles – which Janet is forever on her hands and knees cleaning – and then the girl turns into Janet on her hands and knees, which is a fairly distant memory of the time, quite soon after Clara died, when I realised I couldn’t do without her, Janet; without the strength of her haunches and the long arc of her back in front of me, and her breasts shaking; and afterwards I had to bury my face in her behind, and reach my hands around her belly and between her legs to shield her parts, to keep her safe. That woman isn’t the same Janet who is always on her hands and knees cleaning things – but I’m not the same, either – don’t think I’m not aware of that little fact. And actually, there are plenty of mornings now when my wife is very much after something; and though I want to oblige her, sometimes I am unable to. She takes me in her arms and there’s a sweetness that doesn’t exactly take away the sting, but only tells us that this is what we have to keep us going (for how long: a little while? From now on? Forever?). Sometimes her breathing will become jagged, and she cries in little choked gasps, and then I know she is thinking about Clara, that I would never have this problem if Clara was still in my bed.
I get up to make sandwiches. Really I want to leave the room with Michael in, because I start to feel the possibility of a house with only one girl in it – my girl, my Janet – and the sudden and surprising possibilities that might present. Tonight, even!
Maybe Michelle knows what she’s doing. Perhaps she really is an adult, after all. She can be single and sardonic if she wants, just as long as she is able to feel something of life, at least.
The weather has started; the wind chucks rain at the window, and the eucalyptus in the front is almost horizontal, and further, as if trying, and trying again to touch the ground, the way Michelle used to try to touch her toes when she was little.
The phone rings, and I hear Michael answer in his best voice – reciting the whole telephone number the way nobody does any more. Then he calls out:
Which he never calls me. Which means that something is either very wrong, or very right.
Bloody lucky, I say. How could you let her drive that way? You know what she’s like.
How can I let her? You’re the one taught her to drive like that, Steve: you’re the one she’s emulating.
The little queen. Well, she’s blown it – really blown it.
Someone will have to ring up the new work place. They’ll keep her on, won’t they?
Are you serious? Two months the doctor said. They don’t owe her anything – she hasn’t started yet. And that’s the flat gone, too.
I look across at Janet, then. I know I’m being a real so-and-so, but it’s as if there’s something in me. Even though my wife is there, concussed, but fine. My daughter is unconscious: in an enforced coma while they check it’s not something worse than the broken leg and bruises and cuts everywhere. Something to her brain. That’s the fear.
I suppose that means she’ll be stopping with us, then, Mum? Michael pulls this sort of grimace.
No one replies, because it’s such a stupid question.
At least she can help me with the marble run, he continues. I think when I learn to drive I’ll go to a driving school, Steve – thanks all the same!
I really want to clobber him one. Looking at his expectant face, everything written across it in a way that means you know he’s going to have an unhappy life. And for a second I wonder what he’s even doing here; why he’s talking to me – and the idea that he would come back, that he and even Janet would come back with me and Michelle to my and Clara’s house is just bizarre. There must be some sensible explanation for it, but I can’t see it.
Only I didn’t teach Clara to drive; she had lessons – so what happened to her was only my fault in that I had it coming to me.
In the room, in the bed, there is my baby looking like no one I know. A tube going in somewhere and her hair pulled off her face so she looks a real fright. Paler than death, a pulse moving behind her left eyelid.
I go up closer and put a hand on her forehead, but the skin feels like skin and doesn’t tell me a thing about my daughter, who is presumably in there somewhere.
You’ve done it this time, eh.
I don’t say the next thing, but I think it. I concentrate everything for a second on that twitching pulse, as though I could send the thought through all the outward junk straight in to my little girl.
Not so easy, is it. Not so easy to get away.
Only Clara managed it. I was even with Janet at the time, which is why I didn’t get the answerphone message. By the time I got there it had already happened, which in a way is good – because I’m not the sort of man to ask forgiveness at the last moment. For fear she wouldn’t give it. These are the things we live with, anyway.
I’ll never get you out of my hair now!
Outside, Michael is in tears, and Janet is kneeling under the chair to get something he’s dropped. This reminds me of something important, but I can’t get to it. All the way home I’m trying to remember, and it’s only when Janet pulls her jumper off at bedtime to reveal nipples sticking out through her nightie that it comes to me. Only one girl in the house – and even though it’s not the way I planned, I do it to her anyway.
Image credit: Craig Sunter