As I reach out to open the car I pause.
I feel nothing.
I am aware of the cold air on my face, the chill of icy metal under my hand. In fact I am aware of every individual cell in my body and I know absolutely that there is not one which feels anything at all.
I hear noise. Traffic; the hum of engines and the soft hissing crunch of tyres on wet roads, the squeaks of windscreen wipers. A distant siren. People laughing, chatting; stories tumbling out amidst torrents of giggles. It is all as if filtered through cotton wool. I turn uncomprehendingly to look at these alien beings in a newly alien world.
When I start the ignition, music rings out; a jolly familiar tune from a decade ago, played so often over so many years that it sickens me to hear it. And even though it was a favourite, I will never want to hear it again after tonight. I reach over and turn the dial down to mute. The overwhelming roar of silence invades my head so that my ears ring.
Earlier, only a few hours ago though it seems like weeks, I manhandled the box of Christmas decorations down from the loft while the boys were out. I dusted down the lights, the wreath, the crib; Mary and Joseph and the tiny baby Jesus, whose halo was chipped years back when clumsy little hands played too roughly with him; the three whole sheep and the two-legged one who has to be propped up against a wall of the stable. The angel hair, the tinsel, the tiny Santas, reindeer, Christmas trees, stars; the huge red glitter-moulting baubles and a few tasteful glass ones, left over from the pre-children days when taste was still something we aspired to; the sugar-paper and cotton wool angel with doily wings made by a small boy when we'd given up all such aspirations. The rattan star with gold lights which spent every December propped in the skylight above the door, declaring to passers-by: “Happy people live here''. We love Christmas.
We loved Christmas.
In the city centre there are still people around. Couples arm in arm and loud, jolly groups wander on and off the roads, shoulders hunched against the cold, chins tucked into scarves, warm breath acting as heating, confident of their right to roam - the optimism of youth. And on the roads cars and vans edge through carefully, though one impatient motorist leans on the horn, only to be greeted with a shout of ribaldry. My heartbeat hurts as I edge forward to draw even with the van-driver, a weasly-looking man in a baseball cap who scowls back in response to my curious gaze. “Was it you?'' He is unfazed by my stare. He chews steadily, turns and roars off.
I think of ordinary things.
Because I had to leave suddenly I haven't taken the washing out of the machine. After all these hours it'll be creased beyond belief. Rather than take it all out and iron it, hoping to crush out the creases, I'll just run it through another cycle. And then there are the cards. Still on the kitchen table. Only those destined for America and Australia are already stamped and addressed. Everyone else might have to miss out on the card from the Millers this year. Christmas cards are such a nonsense anyway. “Hasn't time flown? It seems only yesterday we were wishing you a happy 2006! We really must get together in 2007!'' I am embarrassed by my own exclamation marks. I've been writing the same thing to the same people for years. I can barely even remember what some of them look like, or I've aged them in my head, probably inaccurately. Every year, as I write their names, it occurs to me that I couldn't care less whether I see these people in 2006, or 2007 or ever again. The people I really want to see I see every day.
An average December 1st.
Outside the house I turn off the ignition and sit for a moment, realising that the silence before hasn't been real silence. This is real silence, but even now I have an inkling that the silence will deepen over the coming days and weeks. And months and years. I turn to look at the house. Ablaze with light, every window a beacon, it mocks me. And yet it has still to afford a welcome. I check my watch. Tom will be home soon. Tom will need a welcome. Tom will still need a welcome.
I open the door and swing my legs out. They are heavy but I force them to convey me to the door, I coerce my hands into turning the key in the lock, cajole my body into the house. And then in the hall I stand and look around me at the normality I left behind - the boot-printed flyers for taxis and pizzas and exercise classes and decorators I should have picked up days ago are still on the mat; clothes are drying on the radiator, mud-encrusted wellies are strewn around, the recycling box hasn't been put away, and there are piles of things to go upstairs on the bottom step. And then there are the Christmas lights. Technicolor normality, as fake and lurid and off-key now as fifties comedy.
A faint bitter scent alerts me to the brisket I forgot about. I remove the neat smoking charcoal block from the oven and put it, still in its pan, in the back garden. I fan the back door open and shut for a while in a vain attempt to expel the smoke and sourness.
Looking around, I see what my life was like four hours ago. Just four hours ago.
Six hours ago I was in the bath when Josh called from the hall.
“Bye Mum! I'll be back before twelve!''
Now the clock shows ten past one and he isn't back. He won't be coming back. I know that, but at the same time I can't know it, because it is preposterous. It is all a horrible mistake. Everyone has been quite mistaken, and any minute now he'll walk through that door and say:
“Bloody Hell, Mum! What have you been incinerating this time?''
And I'll say:
“Oi you, less lip! I've been here slaving over a hot stove while you've been swanning about with your mates. You don't know how lucky you are, having a mum who still cooks every evening and makes spare for all the waifs and strays you bring home.''
And he'll say:
“Cooking? Is that what it's called?''
And I'll try not to smile and I'll say:
“Watch it, you! You're not too big to put over my lap, you know!''
And he'll come over, all six foot of him, and he'll hold me like a wrestler and ruffle my hair really, really hard so it actually hurts and he'll say through a smile:
“I'd like to see you try.''
And then he'll kiss the top of my head and let me go, and he'll amble into the kitchen.
“Well, I suppose Chef Josh had better take over. As usual. Where's the tin opener then?''
And I'll look at him and be unable not to smile because he's such a loveable big old lummox and because he still, after nineteen years on this earth, hasn't learned to brush his own long, brown, wavy, beautiful hair.
And he'll wave me away with French chef gestures and I'll pick up my paper and a glass of wine and I'll go and sit in that sofa over there and put on my glasses while he tells me about the gig he's just been to, about how brilliant it was and how many encores the band came on for and where he and Kit went for a drink afterwards. Probably to the Shakespeare, because they show the football highlights there and he'll have missed the match. And we'll have a good old chat.
Except we won't, I tell myself, because he never even made it to the hall, because some evil fucker in a white van didn't make allowances for the fact that there was a big gig on and crowds of people, kids, my kid, were all heading in the same direction, in the rain, their hoods up, and some of them wandered into the road. And this vile, vile thing leant on his horn and accelerated and ran over my boy. So I know Josh won't be preparing beans on toast any time in the future because I've just seen his still perfect body laid out in the ridiculously and pretentiously named Chapel of Rest at the hospital. As if he's just having a little lie-down as he did when he was a toddler, and he'll get up in his own good time and stretch and clench his toes and come to find me.
Although stranger things have happened. You hear about it. All I saw was a big maroon bruise on his side. No blood, no gore. He was just a little pale.
No. He's not coming back.
But Tom is. I must ready the house for Tom. Things must be normal. Seem normal. Tom's probably bidding Sophie a long, long, long goodbye, his arms clenched around her waist and his lips superglued to hers. And before long he'll come in shamefacedly, waiting for the taunts from his big brother:
“Tom and Sophie sitting in a tree, B-O-N-K-I-N-G.''
To which Tom says:
“Oh bugger off, Josh''
And I say:
“Leave him alone, you horrible thing. Just because you haven't the moral fibre to commit to one girl.''
And Josh laughs and says:
“One day, Mum. One day. Don't rush me. For the moment, it wouldn't be fair to the laydeez.''
And then I hit him with a tea-towel or whatever comes to hand.
And while all this is happening Tom skulks upstairs to think about Sophie and listen to his music.
But we won't be teasing Tom when he gets in. I'm not sure what we'll be saying. And I'm fairly sure that by the time Tom finally goes to bed, he'll feel that he'd give anything in the world, even his signed Nickelback CDs, his Cup Final programme or his Diesel leather jacket, to get a load of abuse from his big brother.
There's no point thinking about it. I can't plan anything. God knows I can't plan anything. Or he would if I believed in him. Oh, I wish I believed in him. I'll know what to say to Tom when he gets here.
I go and fetch the laundry out of the machine. Every item is crinkled and wound as taut as rope and after I've pulled out two pairs of men's jeans and a rugby shirt I decide I can't face it and I push everything back in and turn the dial to set the machine going again. I wait for the click which sets the cycle in motion and then I move away.
Standing in the middle of my domestic haven I think that I will never feel again, but I must. I must for my other son. I must because his father is halfway around the world changing a new baby's nappies and cannot help, and I am all my son has left. And he is all I have left. So I must go with him to football matches which I can't stand. I'll learn to love football, because if he goes alone he will remember that his brother isn't there to go with him, and if he goes with friends he will be reminded that his brother should have been there. I can't go with him to clubs, but I will pick him up outside them, even if I have to see him so drunk that he vomits in the car, because I don't want him to stumble in the street. In the past I have tactfully taken to my bed when the boys are out together, knowing that I won't like seeing them slack and shiny-lipped with drink, realising that I'll turn into that pursed-lipped judgmental harridan who lurks inside me, conveniently forgetting that in my youth I drank until I could no longer move.
And here they are - the first stirrings of guilt lap at me. In the weeks and months to come I will find many things to reproach myself with. So will Tom. I must be strong.
I stiffen suddenly as I hear the key turn in the lock. I look to the door as my younger boy shuffles in.
“Hi Mum.'' he waves, embarrassed to have a mother, and then his demeanour changes. “What's the matter?''
I didn't even know I was crying.
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