Somehow I seem bigger. Not taller or fatter or larger or grander, but bigger. It’s like I’ve outgrown the place; as if I’ve taken a bite from Alice’s chocolate gateaux and my head is suddenly sticking out of the chimney stack; I’m Gulliver waking up in Lilliput: everything is smaller than I remember it, the memories scaled down.
I’m standing on the main road, the car is parked in a lay-by near the woods at the far end of the village; inside, Ralph is keeping Carol company. If I look to my left I can see the misty grey waters of the estuary creeping slowly across the familiar pockmarked pebble beach, leaving a trail of foaming scum in its wake. On the roadside, the Victorian red brick of Brunel’s infamous Atmospheric Pumping Station (infamous because he never actually managed to get the thing to work) invades the skyline much as it always did: a little out of place among the surroundings, a little out of time… a little like me. I never could understand why old Isambard chose here of all places to build his ill-fated creation – it’s rather like erecting a huge glossy, steel and cement multiplex in the middle of Stonehenge; as if a slice of the future has burrowed its way into the past.
Starcross: the seagulls sing to me as I hug my coat to my chest; in the distance I can see the old pier, rotting away, an ugly brown behemoth clinging to life with a sort of stubborn desperation, a few rowing boats tethered to its glossy wooden beams, one or two of them overturned, half-forgotten about. This is the place I call home: the place I tell people I came from whenever I’m asked.
Why am I here? What am I doing here? These questions are probably a little too fundamental for the likes of me and are best forgotten as I make the slow descent down the hill towards my parents’ house, past The Anchor on the right, where my father drinks – used to drink, past the little grocers-shop-cum-post-office that sells – used to sell – wood and fire-lighters for the long winter nights. I stop for a moment and peer through its windows: tins of baked beans, polythene bags full of muddy potatoes, family-sized boxes of safety matches: nothing much has changed here. I pass the tiny train station: little more than a glorified waiting room, really – apart from the main Exeter to Plymouth road that surrounds the village, Starcross’ only connection to the outside world. Nothing much has changed here, either.
Hidden under a tree on the corner of Shelton Street is the house that me and a kid named Brian used to fire air rifle pellets at from the railway track. We’d lie undercover in the long grass and aim for the metallic door of its garage; there was always a satisfying clang when the pellets hit their target, leaving a small dent in the paint work and a peanut-sized area of exposed metal. As I pass slowly by the house I can see the scars left by our teenage hi-jinks, they are partially covered by several layers of paint put there after I left but they’re there nevertheless. I count them: there are 32 in all. This is the village of Starcross: one road… a crappy little shop… three pubs… a wooden pier… old Brunel’s pumping station… and 32 pellet wounds in a garage door put there by me and my mate Brian long, long ago.
As if in a dream I find myself standing across the street from my parents’ house. Strangely enough I’m feeling completely calm and in control: I remain where I am for a while and look at the house for far too long, teasing myself, tempting myself to walk the twenty or so paces that separates me from my past. As I do this I’m struck by the realisation that I’ve finally got what I really wanted – because deep down I always suspected that this is how it would end: there was never any need for Marie to storm off to her mother’s like she did – I know that now; likewise Carol’s clumsy attempts at blackmail or whatever scam she was attempting to pull were also surplus to requirements, the phone calls from my mother and my responses to them were all just a part of this little game of keeping up appearances that I’ve been playing with myself since she first got in touch with me, what was it… fourteen days ago? I guess I knew right from the start that I’d be standing here sooner or later, I just didn’t want others to know that I knew – I just didn’t want those closest to me to see that I’d be ready to cave in quite so easily after all the things that I’ve said. This is what I’m thinking as I stand in the silver light and breathe in the same air that I used to breathe in when I was a child; the colours and textures and smells that surround me somehow make my senses feel at home: they recognise something here that they have long ago forgotten about.
I push open the gate to my parents’ house, which is sky blue like it always was, and walk slowly up the cement pathway through a clutch of sleeping rhododendrons, their petals blackened by the cold, salty winds. At last something different: the door to the house is no longer red, someone has painted it green – or perhaps I am seeing things in negative. The old windows that used to freeze over in winter have now been replaced by the streamlined angles of modern double glazing, there is a satellite dish anchored beneath the roof guttering. I take a deep breath and ring the doorbell, which plays a cute little tune like this:
I wait: Inside the house there is movement. Through the closed curtains of the front window I see a silhouette climbing wearily to its feet. For no particular reason I look at my watch: it’s now 8:13 p.m. – not, it must be conceded, a particularly hospitable time for a person to be calling unannounced on somebody they haven’t seen for two decades. I can almost see the expression on my mother’s face as she hears the doorbell and stares over at my father, wondering who on earth it could be at this time of night.
I hear the soft pad of footsteps moving towards the front door; I stand stock still as the person at the other side of this panel of wood fumbles with the lock. Then the door swings slowly open and I’m standing face to face with a little old lady with white hair and horn-rimmed glasses. She looks like Peter Parker’s Aunt May. “…Yes?” she asks warily.
It’s the voice that does it, because visually this person is nothing like the woman I used to know, it’s the unmistakable voice: a hint of Devon, a smidgen of some dialect or other that she picked up from some TV programme years ago and imagined that it made her sound better, more sophisticated. It’s her all right. So this is what twenty years can do to you: one wouldn’t have thought it possible that old Father Time could be quite so brutal with his hammer and chisel. My mother must be 65 now – when I last saw her she was a 45-year-old woman struggling to hold off the onset of middle-age; she had dark brown hair then (dyed), and her skin, I remember, seemed surprisingly free of wrinkles for a woman of her age, she wore make-up and lipstick and expensive (by Starcross standards, presumably) perfume to enhance the illusion of youth. Now she looks like my granny – like her mother: she looks like an old woman.
“…Yes?” she asks again.
And now I realise that she doesn’t recognise me, and I’m struck by the tragedy of the whole thing. She doesn’t know who I am: she cannot identify the features of the child that she carried in her belly for nine long months. If this were a movie or a book or something I’d probably be crying right now. Instead, I simply return her blank gaze.
“It’s me…” I say simply.
Now the little old lady is staring at me wide-eyed and suddenly breaking down and sobbing like she did on that phone message last night. The tears are dribbling down her cheeks and her glasses are steaming up. She removes them and wipes them on the sleeve of her cardigan and she says: “John… my god… look at you…”
And this is exactly what she does: she stands there on the doorstep looking at me, occasionally shaking her head sadly, until I begin to get a little self-conscious and I’m thinking to myself: surely I can’t look as bad as that? Finally she makes an effort to compose herself and even offers the briefest flicker of a smile: “You’d better come in…” she says. “…I’m glad you came…” As she finishes the sentence, she holds her arms out towards me – in order to hug me, I suppose – but without thinking I take a step or two backwards and pull away from her and for a moment it looks like someone has just jabbed her through the heart with a meat skewer. Then she reluctantly turns away from me and beckons with her little old wrinkled hand for me to follow her: she’s wearing a gold wedding ring that is too big for her finger. From somewhere else in the house I hear a male voice call out: “Who is it, Susie?”
My parents’ house – the house that I was brought up in – has a fairly straightforward layout: it was built during the late Georgian era and like many of the houses in Starcross was designed for functionality rather than comfort. On the ground floor there is a corridor which leads on to a living room, a kitchen and a small toilet; upstairs there are two bedrooms – one large and one small – and a bathroom. I follow the little old lady, my eyes drawn towards things that weren’t here before: fitted carpets and radiators and pictures on the walls, a cordless telephone, a notice board made of cork. I can’t explain it but these minor changes seem to both hearten and dismay.
I enter the kitchen, which has linoleum tiles that never used to be here and a grubby little gas cooker that did, on which a pan of stew or broth or something is bubbling away. On the sill beneath the solitary kitchen window I notice a large collection of pill bottles and medicines – there are dozens of bottles of all shapes, sizes and colours; they look like part of a display in a medieval apothecary’s cabinet. The room smells… I don’t know… of cabbage or something… but then, come to think of it, so does the rest of the house.
My mother turns and looks at me again, as if she’s trying to check that she didn’t make some kind of mistake earlier on: she’s still not entirely convinced that the heavy-set middle-aged stranger standing in her kitchen is really her son. It would have helped, no doubt, if I could have waved a card at her like people from the gas board do when they visit; maybe I should have brought my passport or driving license with me. “Do you want a cup of tea?” she asks. “Or coffee? …if that’s what you want.”
Brandy would be better… or vodka… or absinthe… or methylated spirits… “No… no thanks…” I reply awkwardly. “I’m all right…”
“Susie!” calls the same male voice as before.
My mother seems a little flustered by the sound. She starts mouthing some words over at me that I don’t understand. While she doing this she starts to look a little like Les Dawsen talking to Roy Barraclough in the laundrette.
I can’t understand you: these are the words that I mouth back at her. I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.
“It’s all right, love,” my mother suddenly raises the level of her voice and aims it heavenwards. “I’ll be up in a minute.”
So what now? I’m standing in the kitchen with a little old lady who used to be my mother. Almost half of my life has gone by since we last set eyes on each other, and a third of hers. I’ve got white hair in my eyebrows and a belly like Giant Haystacks. She’s got bosoms that have dropped down below waist level and she’s started wearing old people’s clothes (Why do old people do this? Will I one day end up wearing old people’s clothes, too? Do you reach a certain age and get ambushed at gunpoint and taken to a secret place and forced to pick out a flat cap and a pair of brown baggy nylon trousers from a great butter mountain of old people clothing?). I can’t deny that over the years I’ve played this current scene out in my mind on more than one occasion; I’ve even had dreams about what it would be like to seek out this forgotten part of my past and find out what would happen. It was never like this, but then it was never going to be, was it?
I open my mouth to speak but before I can begin my mother is raising a finger to her lips and shushing me. I instantly grasp the implications of her action: she doesn’t want me to speak because she doesn’t want my father to hear the sound of my voice, which means that all the phone calls, all the things she said about him changing and suchlike, about how he wanted to see me, are a load of bollocks. The long and short of it is that she hasn’t told him that she’s been in contact with me. Now everything’s suddenly falling into place: it’s the sort of game that she used to play when I was younger. She’s mediating; she’s playing peacemaker. Doubtless she would have warned him if I’d have made things easier for her by setting a date for this meeting, she’d have tried to ease him around slowly to the idea, she may even have been successful. But now she can’t: I’ve cooked her goose and she doesn’t know what she should do next.
I move closer to her, which kind of unnerves me for a moment because she smells just like my mother used to. “Listen,” I whisper. “I’ll go if you like … you can tell him it was a Jehovah’s Witness or something.
“No… no… don’t…” my mother murmurs gently, appearing – I think – quietly thrilled by my unexpected act of complicity, as if she believes that the gulf that separates us has suddenly significantly decreased. “Just wait here – let me have a word with him.”
But I don’t wait here. In fact, as soon as the little old lady has reached the top of the stairs I’m standing in the corridor at the foot of the stairs, my ears peeled. I hear voices: faint because she must have shut the door to the bedroom. I hear the mumble of her voice first: jittery, trying to keep as steady as possible. Then there’s a short silence followed by a grunt of surprise from the male voice: a ‘what?’ or a ‘huh?’. Now it’s her voice again: calm, reassuring: explaining things patiently, soothingly. Another silence. More talking from the male voice, gradually rising in timbre. Then my mother’s voice cuts in and both voices are speaking at the same time, Then another silence. Finally, I hear the bedroom door begin to open and I quickly retreat back to the kitchen.
My mother comes down the stairs like a little old lady, taking three times as long as she used to do to do this. She enters the kitchen looking pale and shaken. “Do you want to see him then?” she asks.
No, I don’t. I’m realising this is I stand in my mother’s cabbagey kitchen; I’m realising this more than ever. “Okay,” I nod.
“Just give him a few minutes to get himself ready,” says my mother.
We remain in the kitchen. My mother puts the kettle on and tries her hardest to avoid my eyes. To fill in the silence she asks: “How are you? What are you up to these days”
I say: “Fine, thanks. Things are okay… how about you?” This response is probably better than: crap actually, I’m thirty-eight and I’ve just lost my job and my girlfriend of six years has pissed off back to her mother’s place because of you.
She says: “Oh… you know… not too bad… considering…”
And then I ask, because I feel I have to: “How is he?”
And she shakes her head sadly and says: “Not good… I had to call the doctor in last night… they’ve have had to increase the drugs, you know…”
And I say: “Right…”
Then, inexplicably, my mother asks: “How’s London?”
And I’m struck by the sheer inanity of the question and half tempted to be nasty. But I don’t – instead I reply: “Fine.”
Am I now expected to inquire as to the health of Starcross? “This place doesn’t change.” I say.
And she replies, genuinely surprised: “Really? …We had new windows put in last March, you know.”
And I say: “No… no… I mean Starcross… Starcross doesn’t change much.”
“No… I suppose it doesn’t.”
The kettle boils and my mother makes me a cup of tea, oblivious, although perhaps understandably oblivious, to the fact that I’ve already told her I don’t want one. She reaches up to the cupboard above the kettle (Let’s see: that’ll be teabags… powdered milk… sugar… coffee… Oxo cubes… salt and pepper…) and pulls out a bag of sugar.
“Hmm… not for me, thanks,” I say, and she turns to look at me, really shocked, it seems, that I’m not taking sugar these days, as if that omission from my diet represents everything that has changed about the world since our paths last crossed.
Then, before she has the opportunity to hand me my sugarless tea, there are three sharp raps on the ceiling above me.
“He’s ready,” my mother announces nervously.
My mother leads the way, her movements in slow motion, her big, fat arse inches away from my face as I stand behind her on the staircase. I can hear my father breathing: a great coughy, wheezy, sick type of breathing; a bit like the way that those old geezers you find sitting alone in the corners of pubs sucking on pipes tend to breathe. Actually, this is a surprise: not so much the breathing but the fact that my father appears to be lying in bed in my room, that is, the room that used to be my bedroom before I withdrew my tenancy. As if she is reading my mind my mother whispers: “We had to put him in there – he was keeping me awake all night with his coughing.”
I pause for the briefest of moments at the entrance to my old bedroom. My father’s bed is partly hidden by the door; I cannot see his face but I can see the small hillock made by his feet under the bedclothes. I go into my old room.
My father lies flat on his back, his head propped up by pillows. At the side of the bed is a stack of dog-eared paperbacks; fixed to the wall opposite where he is lying is a small TV set, giving the place the look of a cheap hotel room; on the shelves where I used to store my own meagre possessions (Spiderman annuals, Matchbox cars, Airfix models) are more bottles of medicine, including, alarmingly, a small canister of… what… oxygen? …with a face mask attached to it. That same cabbage smell again.
My father stares at me. I stare at him. Neither of us says a word. Surprisingly, he looks hardly any different to how he used to: he’s a wee bit thinner, perhaps, and his face seems to have lost a little elasticity; even his hair is more or less the same as it was, a few grey strands here and there but nothing too remarkable. Unlike my mother, the years seem to have been kind to him, externally at least. We stay like this for a long time: the exaggerated rise and fall of his breathing the only sound in the room. Then he starts to speak.
First of all the words won’t come out and all I can do is stand and watch as he takes in a mouthful of air and tries to clear the grit out of his throat. He splutters a little, and then coughs, and then coughs some more. Then, finally, the words are released into the room: “Get the fuck… cough… cough… out of my house!!” he yells.