Authors: Araminta Hall
He came with a cry. ‘Fuck,’ he shouted, ‘fuck, where did you learn to do that?’ But he was laughing as well as he rolled off. He sat up and then he said it again and this time the word sounded different. Alice sat up and saw the condom shredded in his hands.
I know I’m not perfect, my goodness no one needs tell me that. But I have tried my best, really I have, and yet all the evidence would suggest that I’ve failed pretty spectacularly. She should have told her years ago; in fact it never should have been something that needed telling, it should have simply been part of her knowledge, like the fact that I like marmalade for breakfast or that summer comes after spring. But I have known for years that my daughter is not going to; she’s not going to do anything much more than function. I don’t really blame her; I don’t think I gave her much of a start in life or much to hang on to in the way of understanding about love and relationships. In my defence I would say I found it very hard after Howie died to be properly present in anything, which I do realise is a poor excuse, but is at least true. I know she hates me and thinks I’m ridiculous and stuffy and maybe she’s right, but I do care, if only I could find the right words.
I decided to tell Dot this morning because it’s her fourteenth birthday today. I don’t know why it suddenly seems the right thing to do, but I think she’s started wondering about things like who you are and where you’re from and I don’t want her to waste time wondering about things that should be obvious. Goodness, we all have a hard enough time working the rest out, we don’t need to start off on a losing foot. I sat on my bed, dressed and ready, waiting to hear her get up. When I heard her on the stairs I opened my door and asked her to come in for a minute. Of course she was surprised enough by this request not to question me. I know they both think I’m ridiculous about my things, but I have to keep them safe. Possessions are not just materials stuck together to make something, they hold time in their structure, meaning in their make-up. We are the guardians of their knowledge and without them we might as well all crumple up and accept the dust swirling around our feet. I appreciate this is an outdated concept in our disposable society, but I don’t see life getting any easier by virtue of the fact that we can throw everything away. And besides, when you understand all of this, you realise that you are only a guardian in life, which somehow makes things easier, or at least it has for me. What you do and how you behave matters because that is what carries our history, we are what makes up the human race and that is a responsibility worth taking seriously.
Dot looked out of place in my room in her jeans and T-shirt, her hair tangled, so I smiled to put her at ease.
‘Sit down,’ I said, but then she went to my bed and was about to sit on the lace and I had to shout at her to stop and so we got off on the wrong foot. It’s just that the lace was my mother’s veil on her wedding day and her mother’s before that and mine. I had hoped it would one day be Alice’s but I think we all know that’s never going to happen. So I’m keeping it for Dot, although chances are she’ll never wear it either, even if she does get married.
I didn’t know how to begin and so I launched straight in. ‘It really should be your mother who tells you about all of this, but I can’t see a day when she might and so I’m going to.’ I hoped Dot understands that she must not repeat this conversation to Alice, she certainly nodded in a very serious way that made me want to sit next to her and soften the blow with a steady arm around her shoulders. But we are all made a certain way and I am too old to break my mould. ‘Your father ran off with another woman, plain and simple.’ I regretted the use of the words ‘plain and simple’ as they left my mouth, but I sat as still as I could, only allowing myself to adjust the brooch which always sits at my neck.
Dot looked at me for a while, her little face crumpling with the effort it was taking to absorb the information. ‘Who,’ she said finally.
‘A woman called Silver Sharpe. She was the barmaid at the Hare and Hounds for a while. Frightfully common.’
‘But …’ She needed me to help her but my mind felt as if someone had whitewashed it. ‘But why?’
I shrugged and then I said something stupid like, ‘Men are very flighty, they pretty much always let you down.’
‘Really?’ asked Dot. ‘Grandpa didn’t.’
‘Well, I suppose he did. If he hadn’t been stupid enough to go out in that storm he wouldn’t have been hit by the boom and, well …’ I knew I had to stop even as I was saying the words because a strange rage was building in my chest when I hadn’t even known that I was angry. ‘Anyway, Dot, this isn’t about Grandpa. I wanted you to know that your father left and there’s no point fretting about him.’
‘Did he love me?’ she asked and the question was heartbreaking. I wish conversations were easier; I wish they were set in stone and there were rules and manners we had to follow like in the old days. I wish they didn’t lead you into so many dangerous moments that make you want to run screaming in the other direction.
‘Oh goodness, Dot, he certainly did. I used to watch him with you and he was always so proud. He used to carry you round the village on his shoulders.’ At least I hope I said that – I’m sure I did.
‘So why did he leave then?’
And that is a question I’ve often asked myself because I am not lying, he really did adore her. But by God it must have been hard to live with Alice. By the end I wanted to shake her myself. She was so bloody passive with him, so locked into her own world that it wasn’t any wonder he looked for something elsewhere. Although I couldn’t say any of that to Dot, so had to make do with a cop out along the lines of, ‘I don’t know. Really I don’t.’
‘How old was I?’
‘He left on your second birthday. He said he was going out to buy some extra balloons and he never came back. We thought he might have had an accident or something, but in the end Charles Wheeler came round and told me what had happened.’
‘I know, it was a poor excuse.’ The whole conversation had become unbearable by then. It was reminding me of the terrible weeks after he left, when Alice stayed in bed and got so thin I became convinced that one day I would take Dot in for her visit and there would be nothing there. The doctor couldn’t find anything wrong with her; where’s the pain, he kept asking her like a stupid fool, when any idiot could have looked into her eyes and seen she was dying of a broken heart. If Sandra hadn’t stepped in I don’t know what might have happened.
‘What did he look like?’ she asked.
‘Oh well, he was very handsome.’ I was on safer ground then and I reasoned it might help to give her a sense of how her mother could have been so fooled by him. If she was fooled that is; with a sense of perspective I have come to regard their relationship more like a train in one of those old films chugging along down the track to the inevitability of the broken bridge. ‘He had what I would describe as Roman features, if you know what I mean.’ She shook her head. ‘His nose was very straight and his lips were full, but he was often very pale. His hair was brown and he wore it long, to his shoulders. They made a very handsome pair, your mother and him.’
She sat quite still after this, looking not at me but at the carpet and I was filled with a sudden fear that actually I had been quite wrong about telling her. I know almost nothing about children really. It took Howie and me ten years to have Alice, in a time before tests and scans, just lots of silent tears and grim recriminations. Then when she finally came I found her too hard to love; it all just felt so bloody dangerous. So Howie did the important stuff, like cuddles and stories at bedtime and filling the Christmas stocking and I locked myself tighter and tighter. She was nine when he died and all I could do was pray that he’d done enough because it was too late by then for me to start.
But while I was thinking all of this Dot stood up. ‘Well, thanks, Grandma, are you coming down to breakfast?’
‘In a minute, dear,’ I answered and only when she’d left the room did I realise that I hadn’t even told her his name. I wanted to run after her, but it felt too late by then.
After Tony left and Alice had got up again I would stand at my bedroom window and watch them in the garden sometimes and my heart would pump with pride at my daughter. She loved Dot so completely and purely; I could stare at them for hours making daisy chains or playing hide and seek, reading books, painting. Of course I hadn’t realised then that this was the easy part for Alice, that she was capable of love but not of all the responsibility that went with it.
Which is funny because I think I’m the other way around. I never found it hard to feed Alice correctly or brush the knots out of her hair or teach her times tables. It was all the other things that stuck so in my throat. I have looked for answers in my own past and found it too bleak to really make sense of. I have no clear picture of my parents; in fact the predominant memory that I have of my mother is the back of her head. She was a great beauty, just like Alice, who looks so like her I sometimes travel back through time when I catch sight of my daughter unexpectedly. She was always entertaining and we would be brought in to say goodnight to her, in this very house, by a succession of nannies. My brother Jack and I would stand there, meek and quiet, until she turned her dazzling gaze on to us. Then she would make a great fuss, drawing us on to her lap and asking the assembled company if they had ever seen more perfect children and of course everyone would agree with her because she was one of those people whom others wanted to please. She would kiss the tops of our heads and tell us to run along now and we would be taken out of the room and it was like shutting the door on Christmas, every night.
After Jack died there were of course no more parties, not that I saw much more than the back of Mother’s head still. Except then it was in bed, with her face turned to the wall and the curtains perpetually drawn. I would glimpse her from the door as I tiptoed past being shushed by whoever was with me. I don’t think I was surprised when Father told me that she’d died, she’d been desperate to join Jack for the whole of the six months that she’d been without him. Which was quite a shock in the end, that she’d cared that much about either of us. Well, I suppose she really only cared that much about Jack, because if she’d cared as much about me she never would have left me alone.
Was I right to tell Dot that story? I am so confused by this world I find it hard to remember who I am sometimes. It would be impossible to make Dot, or even Alice, appreciate the changes I have witnessed. I was born into a world of manners and rules at the end of a great war in which brave men fought against a clearly defined evil. Now ideas whip around the world at the touch of a button so that information has become so scrambled it is often hard to know who is right or wrong. Men still fight, but our wars seem remote and unfathomable. Governments appear corrupt and the press is laughable. Sometimes I feel so alone and adrift I fear I may fall over.
When Alice was much younger and it was just the two of us alone in this house I would lie awake every night with my heart pounding as if it was running a marathon, imagining dying and leaving Alice all alone. I was filled with terrors of her shouting for me, of eventually coming to find me and my body being cold and unresponsive. Of her having to negotiate her way out of the house and to our nearest neighbours. Because I knew that if she didn’t leave no one would miss us and come looking.
About the only thing that could comfort me on those long night-time voyages was the thought that one day she would grow up and get married and fill this house with children. I actually looked forward to arguments over furnishings and eventually moving into the turret and getting annoyed by noise. But that has never happened; it wouldn’t even have happened if she had created another family instead of just having Dot. Her surroundings are yet another thing that she fails to notice; if I asked her to describe this house she might find it hard, even though she rarely leaves it from day to day. We occupy our generations singly. We are all single.
When Alice told Tony that she was pregnant his first feeling was that of defeat. In the time since their fake holiday he’d known that he had to break it off. But, Christ, she was gorgeous and she quite clearly adored him and, well, he didn’t think he loved her as such, but she was funny and sweet and far from the worst person to spend time with. In the end though she had become like all women, full of questions and need and such desperation to be loved you sometimes hated them. You can never give women enough, his older brother Matt had told him once as they’d sat on their back step coughing on their father’s purloined fags, they’re like sodding oceans, there’s always more. Tony hadn’t known what he’d meant at the time, but he did now.
Tony was not going to be like his old man, who was nothing more than a drunk and a waster. He’d grown up watching his mother work two jobs, one to bring in the money and one to take care of them all. They’d all known that she’d longed for a daughter, presumably as her anchor against the sea of testosterone which surrounded her, or maybe simply not to see her husband’s face everywhere she looked. She had loved her sons, probably still did, but she was always tired and often she found it easier to pretend she hadn’t heard than to answer. Now Tony was going to be a dad and he was going to do it right. So he got down on one knee and asked Alice to marry him and she was so happy he felt sure that he’d done the right thing, he thought he probably did love her, he thought everything would be OK.
Alice said they could live on love, she’d eat cheese on toast for the rest of her life and never want anything ever again, but that was just irritating. You could not live on love because love, in Tony’s experience, rarely survived poverty and Tony was poor. Besides, the thought of Alice on the Cartertown estate or even in some shitty studio flat was absurd. She basically had no idea what she was talking about, which made him feel as if he couldn’t breathe properly. We have to talk to your mother, he said finally, when he realised that she was never going to come to the right conclusion on her own. She’s not going to be involved in this, Alice had answered. For God’s sake, Alice, he’d said, we’re getting married and having a baby, you’re going to have to introduce us sometime. He knew he was probably a disappointment to most parents, but still it hurt that Alice should feel this so keenly.