Parents work mainly in simplifications. Ask a question and you’ll receive precisely enough information to shut you up. As you get older, the questions become more complex as do the answers. A system of gradual revelation. Television took gradual out of the equation. Somewhere in Gloucester a three-year-old watches Titanic and asks, “Daddy, what are they doing in the back of that car?” In Austin, Texas, a seven-year-old watches an episode of CSI, “Mommy, what’s auto-erotic asphyxiation?” In Brighton a ten-year-old – me – watches an episode of Quantum Leap and then asks the question, “Mum, what does rape mean?”
The accepted parental answers are: You see, when a boy loves a girl… When a boy has no one else to love… When a boy hurts a girl…
Simplifications are all parents think we can handle. Simplifications lead to me seeing Richard West hitting Stacy Nichols on the arm in a deserted stairwell; to me running into my first year class of middle-school and yelling out, “Mr. Lockley! Mr. Lockley! Richard’s raping Stacy on the staircase.”
Maybe parents do it for their own benefit too. One day I asked my mother, “Why doesn’t Dad live with us anymore?” The whole truth flashed through her eyes, her pain was synthesised into tears: one part heartbreak to two parts oblivion. I can’t imagine how she could have put that into words. My bite-sized truth for the day:
“Because he decided he didn’t love me anymore. But he still loves you boys very very much.”
For a time, that was enough.
Time brought with it another realisation, namely, that everyone around me knew more about my family than I did. The memory of that first conversation swayed me from revisiting the subject with Julie, as my mother was known to everyone else. Instead, I went to the other side. Every so often, my two brothers and I got carted off to stay with our father for the weekend. He lived with his new wife in the city of Southampton, around an hour-and-a-half or so away by car. The last conversation of each trip was well rehearsed now. It usually went something like this:
“Don’t forget what we talked about now.”
“We won’t Dad.”
“You know I love you boys, right?”
“It broke my heart to have to leave you, you know that?”
“If I could change it, I would. I really wanted to work things out with your mother, but she wouldn’t take me back.”
With my newfound curiosity, I broke from the vocal choreography.
“Why didn’t she?” I asked.
“Because she decided she didn’t love me anymore. But I still love you boys very much, you know that, right?”
The simplification wall: it was a national conspiracy. At thirteen, it was no longer enough.
So here I sit, in my front-room, watching Philip Marlowe solve another baffling case while nocturnal rain flings itself against the large windows either side of me. It didn’t take a sleuth to see that someone was taking me for a patsy, so now I had my own mystery to solve. Interviewing witnesses was my first port of call. Lee, aged 16, relation: brother. He claimed to know nothing, I believed him. Stuart, aged 19, relation: brother. Pleaded “no comment” on the grounds of “leave me alone Ross, I’m working, and shut the door!”
There was nothing to it, I had to go straight to the source to crack this one.
For ages we watched everything on television in black and white, there was something beautiful about it. We’d been given a colour set the year before, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it yet… The old films recaptured that magic. Someone told me that dogs see only in monochrome. That must be nice.
Across from me, on the other piece of the settee, she sits. My mum was the type of person you shouldn’t show old photos of to others. Awkwardness always followed, complete with pauses. “Oh, is that her, she looks so…” Common adjectives included: happy, thin or pretty. The mid-sentence realisation usually dawned that they were implying that the opposite was now true. I always envied the photographer, to have seen the woman in the picture, to have witnessed that beaming smile. It wasn’t the same woman sitting in our hand-me-down crème leather settee in the nondescript council-house methodically munching on a bag of Jelly Babies. The woman with her feet tucked under our hand-me-down table which handily coordinated with her hand-me-down life. A room full of things passed on when the people who once cherished them found something better. The table and settee were as happy as furniture could be. The furniture was cared for, the table stacked with piles of catalogues in which the nightwear section had now replaced the toy section as my favourite. The furniture didn’t need to take tablets twice a day just to cope with its life, it didn’t need to stay strong for anyone, hiding its sadness in the shroud of midnight when everyone else was supposed to be asleep. Her sniffs glided through the walls during those silent nights like ghosts of the past chilling the air, unable to move on. Trapped.
I think spirals are the saddest pattern. They long to be circles, complete, but somewhere along the way they get lost. They watch helplessly as they miss their target, forced to continue on, knowing that they’ll never escape until that moment they reach the dead end. Nowhere to go. The ceiling above me is filled with hundreds of them, textured lost souls, painted white.
Marlowe fades from the screen, replaced by black. I subtly glance at her from the corner of my eye. It’s time to wrap up this mystery. I go with a nonchalant opener, chemically formulated to put my source at ease, “Do you want a cup of tea Mum?”
Damn. This dame’s a wise head. She’s clammed up before I can tighten the screws. She thumbs around the circle of her wedding ring, still there on her finger twelve years after their marriage spiralled down the drain. I see an opening.
“How come you still wear that ring?” I ask.
She traces the contours of the gold band as she replies. “It won’t come off. My finger’s bigger now than it was before so I got to get it cut and I just haven’t found the time.”
This is the part where the gum-shoe leans over the table, raising his voice and inflecting it with urgency. I don’t have a table nearby, so the arm-rest will have to do. I only manage a minor rise in volume. “Do you ever miss him?”
A thoughtful pause. “I think I miss the man I married sometimes, less so the man I was married to. When he went off the first time-”
“The first time?”
“Yes.” Flickers of light begin to reflect from the corners of her eyes. Every shred of empathy in me tells me to retreat, but I’ve come too far. “Just after Stuart was born. He got… involved… with my best friend. He begged my forgiveness so I gave him another chance.”
On the TV, the gongs sound for News at Ten. Her hands are placed stoically in the lap of her purple skirt, but she always sits a little awkwardly, too far reclined, it can’t be healthy. The reflecting light follows a trail down her cheeks now, flushed red beneath her fading brown and grey hair which is tidily cropped, but un-styled. I once heard that Andy Thornton’s mother spends sixty quid on her hair-cuts, we’re lucky to get a tenth of that in our budget. I have to turn away, I’m not one for scenes like this. I count the Royal Doulton collector’s plates which are spaced out on the wooden rack hanging above the fireplace. Twenty-two plates from a collection of thirty remain. Three were lost in the tragic indoor-football massacre of two years ago. The rest, victims of stray projectiles. She had to find a new arrangement every single time, to make it look like there was always meant to be that many plates on the five rows of the rack. After the shock though, she never complained. We’d break her prized possessions with alarming frequency, and she never held it against us. I don’t usually feel so bad about it as I do now.
“Then when I was pregnant with you the signs started again: late nights at work, being overly attentive to me, putting his socks in the washing basket rather than on the floor… he admitted it eventually.”
She starts brushing imperceptible bits from her dark blue top. “Mum, why do people do stuff like that?”
“Sometimes weakness, or unhappiness, or sometimes there just isn’t a reason. Not everyone gets to live happily ever after.”
Maybe one day The Little Mermaid realises she gave up her entire identity for a guy who could barely choose between her and the brunette. Cinderella’s marriage will likely be ruined by class inequality and love based on a one-night-stand. Belle doesn’t realise that she’s the poster child of domestic violence. Convinced that love can tame the Beast, she endures his violent outbursts and imprisonment. Happy endings in glorious Technicolor.
Is this my legacy? The sum of my father and all his sins? Will people be waiting to see which one of his boys doesn’t fall far from the philanderer tree? I go over and give Mum a hug like I used to when I was little. All of a sudden, I miss simplicity.
[Names and locations have been changed]