Flammable materials

Her little arms flop around my sides while I push her up and down with big breaths. I try to  imagine how it must feel; the heartbeat, the airway, the warmth, as womb like as possible since exiting the real thing.

In this moment, I know exactly what I’m doing. No doubts, no distractions, just the purity of looking after a helpless being that needs my care and protection.

Then you come in and I feel tension stab at my bubble. At least you can’t shout at me for not helping, but still it’s there; a flame waiting to spark.

It’s source is tiredness, the deep and withering kind. This is added to by frustration at being denied a life in order to care for another. Additional combustion comes from a sense of guilt about daring to feel that way.

All that’s needed are a few words.

What’s the matter?

Nothing!

And we’re off.

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Cause for celebration

The man waits with tender anticipation; his palms face down on the table. He wears a faint smile at the thought of what is to come but also at how things have come to be, the days, the years, turning everything mellow like a softening fruit.

A smell wafts in from the kitchen, interrupting his thought process. Its aroma is rich and glutinous yet it stirs his gut only modestly. This is not because it is unappealing, but because of its steady presence; a dish that has punctuated many occasions of his life like a shot of his favourite liqueur.

Voices echo out on the landing, then the front door opens and a whirlwind of bare limbs and smiling faces rushes into the hallway. The melee discard their belongings on the floor, fanning themselves against the heat and uttering gentle commands to the children hanging off their hips or clinging like ivy to their thighs.

Then they float down both sides of the table to land kisses on his cheeks. He receives them like marks of approval, a sign that he has accomplished what was required of him; as a father, a mentor and a protector.

They tell him of the trials and trivia of their day, while the children peer timidly round the table leg, murmuring for mummy to shift their attention back again. He smiles at both of these of things and takes a long drink from the glass of red wine that has been keeping him company until now. The alcohol floods his bloodstream and he feels his sense of contentment amplify.

More people arrive; husbands and cousins. They come to him with a handshake or a squeeze of the shoulder and congratulate him on his accumulated years. He avoids their eyes and politely deflects the reminder with a ‘thank you’, not wanting to be drawn inwards.

In a timely fashion, the food arrives to gasps of delight. Elbows bump and hands criss-cross one another to reach for platters of oily vegetables and glistening meats. He relishes in this ceremony, knowing that the goodness of the food is being shared amongst all who are dear to him, as it should, and always has been.

He holds this thought as the flavours, rich and comforting, sink into his belly and he savours the satisfaction as much on everyone else’s behalf as for himself.

A toast is made to his wife, the cook, and he hurriedly lifts his glass to cover up for his absent-mindedness. Her soft, green eyes dart about the table in a panic and he loves her then; always the observer, but so rarely the observed. He loves his daughters too, their sweet faces, buoyant with the promise of youth and the beginnings of family. He’s been good to them, he thinks. He’s provided. And now they are blossoming.

He tops up his glass and almost drains it again. Then he grins, forgetting what made him smile. Does it matter?

The conversation drifts around him now, detached and incoherent. Words are directed his way, but he scarcely engages in their meaning. He drinks again and the room becomes a little brighter.

Dessert arrives, and the guests tuck in just as enthusiastically as before. The dish is offered to him but he waves it away, frowning as though it is an absurd suggestion.

What cause really is there for all this celebration, he wonders, when age only brings about weariness and the inevitability of lost dreams? He looks around the table for recognition of this fact, but they are too cheerful, caught up in merriment or at least pretending to be.

The table rears up, it’s marks and callouses like reminders of the paths he’s taken and the ones that were cut short. From the depths, emerge woes he thought he had forgotten, while harsh words his father once said to him suddenly carry extraordinary weight.

He doesn’t know how long he has been sitting there until his wife speaks quietly into his ear. The guests are leaving now and he senses their vivacity funneling out of the door. He tries to say goodbye but it comes out like jumbled words uttered during sleep.

Then, he is left as he began, with only a glass to keep him company while the threads of his thoughts whirl about, too fractured and imperceptible to recall. Like the steady voice of his wife, bed becomes the only rational thing left in his head and he drags himself from the kitchen.

Not in this family 

Gayle held the pot to her abdomen as she stood in the middle of the front garden.

“How about here, Sophie? What do you think?”

Sophie contorted her mouth and looked down at the gravel space that was plugged with tufts of grass. Then she shrugged.

“Okay.”

“I think this is a good spot,” added Gayle. “It’ll get plenty of light.” She bent down slowly, her hands trembling a little under the weight. She set the plant down and then straightened up. Only then did she realise she had broken a sweat across her forehead.

“Mum,” uttered Jane, by her side. “You should’ve just let me…”

Gayle hissed and backhanded the air as if preventing the words from ever arriving. Jane shrunk and Gayle returned her attention to Sophie.

“You must remember to water it everyday, especially when it’s hot. Then, one day it will grow into a bright, yellow sunflower.”

“Say thank you, Grandma,” murmured Jane.

“Thank you,” replied Sophie, twisting on the ball of her foot and breaking into a grin.

Gayle looked at her fresh, sun-blushed face and then to the gap in her lower front teeth, which Sophie tongued habitually as if it was the source of some new and delightful flavour.

Gayle smiled back, feeling satisfied. It seemed the spirit had merely skipped a generation.

“Well, it should brighten things up a bit,” said Jane, with a sigh.

Her gaze wandered upwards to the gritty facade of the new house and suddenly, Gayle wanted to tell her how it was so much more. How the flower was a symbol of hope, of a new beginning and soon, how it would be something to remember her by once the thing growing inside her took hold.

But she didn’t, of course. It wasn’t the way. Not in this family. She could only give her doe-eyed daughter a hard look as she turned to her, side on.

“Cup of tea?” asked Jane.

“Thought you’d never ask.”

Strength in numbers

I had the opportunity to spend this Christmas in Italy with my partner’s family. It was one of the last traditional events I had yet to experience over there and I hoped that taking part might enable me to experience a little more of what Italian culture was all about.

After a spectacular flight across the sun-blushed peaks of the Swiss Alps, I landed at Malpensa airport and successfully made my way to meet Veronica at the local train station outside of Lake Como.

As is the custom whenever I visit, we went for a quick aperitivo at her dad’s bar, then it was time to head to the family’s apartment for dinner. Soon after arriving, however, I began to notice a tendency for all members of the family to outwardly express an opinion on everyone else’s business. It’s not the first time I’ve witnessed this and as I discovered, it wasn’t only confined to the Mulas household.

On reflection, it seemed to me that this (admittedly irritating aspect) came down to that most well-known feature of any Italian home; the dinner table. Throughout my stay, every lunch and dinner was eaten around the table with just about every member of the family in attendance from two to 65 years-old. And it was here that anything and everything was discussed, whether it was what to have for dinner the next evening, the best route to take to town or what a certain child should or shouldn’t be doing. No one was safe.

I’m a fairly independent person and am used to making my own decisions, so I initially found this a challenge. Even just getting out of the door was often delayed by an impromptu debate on what we ought to be wearing and if it was this place we were going, shouldn’t we go another day or take so and so with us. Nevertheless, as the days passed, I began to see a deeper reasoning to this approach and I found myself thinking back to something her dad once said.

A few years ago, I went to the wedding of Veronica’s oldest sister in a village near Rome. On the way home, we were sitting in the airport with her parents, waiting for our respective flights. The news was showing on a big screen, flashing up the usual ominous world events and I mentioned how nice it was to have been away from all that. Her dad gave a dismissive wave at the television and said something that stayed with me; “all that matters is that you stick together.”

The notion of the family unit was central to virtually every activity that took place within the home. When the table needed to be laid, everyone helped out, if a child started crying, others were ready to offer a hand or some advice. Inevitably, this attitude spreads out to neighbours and other relatives who, like long lost friends, would stop and chat in the street or the hallway or simply turn up, unannounced.

Not only that, but this group mentality puts everyone on an equal footing, including children who, from day one, are initiated (kicking and screaming) into the etiquette of Italian social life. This was apparent when we went to dinner at a friend’s. Naturally, the evening took place around a large table with a family of six. Everyone helped out with the preparation and, perhaps most crucially of all, every opinion was listened to, including the children’s.

The last notable instance was during a visit to an aunt and uncle’s house. Their son, a reedy man with a grungy biker look, had not long come out of rehab and was now living in an annex at the back of the house. He struck me as a gentle yet melancholy soul who had clearly lost a large part of his life, but with a supportive family network around him, it seemed to me that he couldn’t be in a better place to rebuild his life. I wondered how he might have turned out if he was shoved into a one-bed flat somewhere across town or bunched together with other recovering addicts.

With such loving and devoted family around you, there’s little you can’t get through, even if it does mean having to put up with everyone’s point of view in the meantime. It certainly brought out an affection for my nearest and dearest when I returned home and I hope to hold onto that impression, even without the addition of an enormous dinner table.

Muriel

The grandfather clock had long since stopped, but now I missed it’s ticking.

On summer visits it had kept a stern watch over us, while we stuffed toasted cheese and biscuits into our mouths. I wondered now if it had simply been counting down towards the inevitable, a faithful minion to the God of time.

I turned my head slowly, letting my eyes fall on the pictures. As sure as her familial stories, the faces stared back; Dad at Bunesson, Muriel as a girl guide and the fallen film-star sister, beauty preserved before her marriage to alcohol.

I waited for a trembling finger to rise and the breathless stories to come. But only silence pervaded.

In her chair, the cushion sagged with an invisible weight.

For my great-aunt who passed away last month, aged 95. 

Q+A

How’s your dad?
He’s telling me how good he feels, before I’ve even got in the door. He’s saying how he’s been out in the garden digging up the Gunnera. He’s saying how he has a few aches and pains, but nothing too serious and then he’s patting my mum on the back when she tells him to stop talking about himself all the time.

How’s your dad?
He’s playing us another track by Iggy Pop as he drives us to the restaurant. He’s turning it up loud and we’re sitting there, giving in.

How’s your dad?
He’s making me laugh. He’s coming out with things that would earn anyone else a slap. He’s saying he can’t help it. My mum is rolling her eyes, but even she’s smiling.

How’s your dad? He’s telling this woman that he should have gone months ago. He’s saying how important it is to count your blessings and how grateful he is to still be able to get around. He’s telling her he’s got tumours everywhere. He’s not stopping.

How’s your dad?
He’s in pain all of a sudden. He’s asking if we can go and we are waving to the waitress for the bill. He’s pacing around now, over to the fire exit and back, trying to take his mind off of it. The waitress isn’t coming.

How’s your dad?
He’s lying down. We had to go to the emergency pharmacist to get him some Diazepam. We’re in the kitchen drinking herbal tea and mum’s trying to hide the red rings around her eyes.

How’s your dad?
He’s complaining that the eggs my mum cooked aren’t right. He’s refusing to eat. He’s in one of those moods.

How’s your dad?
He’s sitting in the old cane chair in the garage. Smoke is wafting around him. He’s making one of his lists that never gets done.

How’s your dad?
He’s going on a shamanic journey with the next door neighbour. He met his spirit guide who came to him in the form of a crow. He’s hoping to meet again for some kind of conversation. He’s moving to the next level.

How’s your dad?
He’s dressed up for a party nextdoor. He’s wearing the orange and blue trousers that he wore to see Iggy. He reckons the chemo is working.

How’s your dad?
He’s talking about the blackbirds again. He thinks it’s the same one that always comes up the garden path to greet him. He reckons the bees are on his wavelength too.

How’s your dad?
He’s spent the day on the sofa. He’s talking quietly with his eyes closed and grunting as he moves the hot water bottle round to a new ache. He’s nodded off.

How’s your dad?
He’s feeling weak. His face has turned yellow. He’s in these pyjamas that show off his stick-thin legs. He’s discussing personal arrangements with the nurse. He’s holding my hand very tight.

How’s your dad?
He’s alright now.

I wrote bits of this while my dad was ill. It’s just over a year ago that he passed away, so I thought I would put it out there.