A fly-on-the-wall observer of our household would see nothing wrong.
They’d see a family who has time-travelled from the 1950s. A young wife at home with a preschooler and two babies; a granny who hovers solicitously around her daughter and oldest grandchild; a husband who is polite and calm and doesn’t shout. A large dog that slobbers, and spends all his time between back yard and mud room.
The perfect family, even with slobbery dog, the observer would conclude.
But here’s the catch. My husband is not polite and calm by nature. He kicks electrical appliances when they fail, and shouts when he treads on Lego bricks in his bare feet. A month ago, he was experimenting nightly in the kitchen after becoming addicted to the Food Network Channel, and the air turned indigo as he tried to out-curse Gordon Ramsay.
He does none of this now. He is silent, detached, an observer himself.
I don’t like the new version of Oliver one bit.
Although you’d think this Oliver would be an improvement on the old model, he isn’t. He’s an automaton, with his studied manners. He pauses before he replies to anything I say, as if I’ve said something so stupid that he had to stop and count to ten.
His forays into the kitchen take place in silence, as if he is not creating with culinary pleasure but conducting a serious lab experiment; my efforts to compliment his cooking are met with shrugs, grunts, or monosyllables. After a pause, of course.
I want the old Oliver back so much.
Why did I send that bloody email to his sister? I can only think that I’ve watched too many episodes of Oprah or Ricki Lake in my past. Families, it seems, do not always need reuniting thirty years down the line.
“Can’t we talk about what’s happened?” I asked him one night.
That slight pause before he spoke.
“But we need to talk!”
“Everything’s fine, Libby.”
They’re not fine, at least not from where I am. They’re very far from fine. But how can you make something right between two people when the other person won’t admit there is something wrong?
Meanwhile, to Jack, I have to pretend there is nothing wrong. It’s very difficult, when your four-year-old repeatedly asks you why you have red eyes, not to answer “Because your father is a cold bastard” but so far I have managed to refrain.
Now that Kate’s gone home, I have no one to talk to. Maggie is on vacation, and as for talking to my mother, forget it. I know what she would say, and it would be along the lines of It Being My Own Fault and I Shouldn’t Do Things That Upset My Better Half. She’s spent her entire married life appeasing my father, so I wouldn’t expect anything more.
She made a Lightning McQueen cake for Jack’s fourth birthday on Sunday, and we all pretended to be a happy family around the dining room table. I hadn’t arranged a party, but promised Jack we would have one in the garden when the weather is better and Mummy isn’t as tired.
When we’d had some cake and Jack had opened his presents — thank goodness for internet shopping and express delivery — Oliver excused himself.
“Going to the office,” he said.
“But it’s Sunday,” I said. “It’s Jack’s birthday.”
He looked at me for a few seconds. I shrivelled inside. Then he left the house.
“Where’s Daddy gone?” Jack demanded.
“To work, sweetheart,” I said, bending over one of the twins so that Jack couldn’t see my face as I blinked back tears.
Tears, I’ve found, are never far away.
“It’s my birthday! Daddies shouldn’t go to work on birthdays!”
Jack was right, of course. Daddies shouldn’t do that.
Outrage surged inside me, which had the welcome effect of banishing the ever-ready tears. It was one thing to punish me, but another thing entirely to punish Jack by abandoning his birthday tea before we’d had second helpings of cake.
George started to howl for his dinner, and Beth joined in. I carried them into the living room, plonked them in their bouncy chairs, and sat on the floor between the two of them with my back against the sofa, stuffing a bottle in each mouth.
In the slurping, hiccuping peace that followed, I could hear Mum tidying up in the kitchen and talking to Jack, who was still luxuriating in his whinge-fest.
“I didn’t want Daddy to go to work today.”
“I’m sure you didn’t. But sometimes grown-ups don’t want things either.”
“You mean Daddy didn’t want to go to work?”
Clattering as a cupboard opened and dishes were put away.
“Hmm. Now that’s a tricky one. No, I think if Daddy didn’t want to go to work, he wouldn’t. What do you think?”
Goodness. Now there was a turn up for the books: my mother, badmouthing Oliver, and in her grandson’s presence?
No doubt some earnest couples-counselling guru would frown upon this, and tell me I should not encourage such blatant side-taking, but sod it. I need all the moral support I can get.
It occurred to me that I might not be giving Mum a fair chance by not confiding in her. She’s different from the demanding woman who arrived a month ago, but she’s not how she is with Dad either. She’s…well, I guess this is who my mother really is.
I heard her telling Jack to go and draw a nice picture for Mummy with his new crayons, and a second later, she came into the living room and sat down on the sofa behind me.
I leaned further back against the sofa.
“Are you comfy down there on the floor?” she asked.
I felt her stroking my hair, and imagined that I was six years old again. I remembered stroking my hair like that one day in 1986 after I came home from school, crying, and telling her that Cheryl Stokes had said I smelled bad, and it wasn’t true, was it?
How could it be? Mum said. I make you have a bath every night. “Which is more than can be said for Cheryl Stokes’s slovenly mother,” she added under her breath.
Not being familiar with the word “slovenly”, I thought she’d said “heavenly”, and for a long time after that thought that Cheryl Stokes’s mother was married to God, which made complete sense to my six-year-old logic, because Cheryl Stokes didn’t seem to have a father.
“Mum?” I asked now. “What happened to Cheryl, from the big Stokes family that used to live up the road from us?”
“Married twice, divorced twice. I see her every now and then in Sainsbury’s. She’s got three children. Maybe more.”
I sighed. “Like her heavenly mother.”
“Never mind. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, did it? Her mother was just the same.”
I thought some more, my eyes closed. About my battle with Patsy Traynor, my fierce protection of Jack against Caroline’s devil-child. It’s what Mum would have done. This apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree either.
“Do we all turn into our mothers?” I asked. “Are you like Grandma? Oliver’s not a bit like his mother. He must be like his…” I trailed off and sobbed.
The hand on my head faltered a little before it carried on stroking.
“I know you meant well,” Mum said. “Sometimes it’s hard for other people to forgive good intentions, though.”
“He’d kept a birthday card from his dad since he was six!” I burst out. “And a stuffed tiger! You don’t do that if you want to forget about someone! Why would you keep that stuff otherwise?”
George finished his bottle. I lifted him out of the chair and passed him across to Mum to be winded. She put him over one shoulder and patted his back.
“You might keep it,” she said, not looking at me, “if it represents something good. Like the only good thing you can remember about that person.”
George burped. Beth started to fuss, and I realised that I’d let the bottle slide from her mouth.
“What are you getting at?” I said at last. “Do you know something about Oliver that I don’t?”
Mum shook her head. “I’ve probably said too much already.”
She put George back in his chair and bounced it gently with her foot.
“Speak to Sandra,” she said.
Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #52 – Life: A series of hellos and goodbyes
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