Just Past Three in the Morning (15)
Battle-lines were drawn. It was obvious as soon as I walked in the door. I felt an overwhelming urge, in fact, to turn around and walk right back out the other way. Dad was sitting in his preferred chair, his head down, his fingers fiddling around on the remote, though the TV was off. He had a scowl on his face that would have scared away wild animals. And Mum, moving around in the kitchen, everything done with exaggerated effort, with an occasional sigh, with pots put down harder on surfaces than necessary.
Shelley had obviously made a run for her room. Her book still there, turned over and left lying on the table, a half-empty glass on the table next to the couch.
Well, this was going to be fun, then.
I drew a breath. “Hi, guys!”
Dad looked up, he grunted and nodded.
Mum turned around. Her face was flushed and flustered. She painted on a quick, insincere smile. “Hi, dear. Come on in.”
“You want some help with..?”
“No, it's fine. Sit down.”
Dad looked up again. “All right at your place?”
“Good then.” He didn't seem much in the mood for talking.
A curt, dismissive “Fine.”
Oh, good then. I was worried you two were fighting again.
This had the potential to be a long night. And I tried. I made attempts at conversation. Penny was having some success with her photography course, enjoying it even more than she had imagined she would. She had a camera in her hands all the time, always taking photos, then loading them up on Photoshop and playing around with them. She'd gone arty and atmospheric, really finding the artist in herself. She'd told me I was going to model for her – some sort of Victorian theme. Me, that is, a model.
“Believe that?” I said to Dad.
“Penny's a good girl.”
“She never could do anything wrong for you guys.”
“A good girl.” But his mind was elsewhere.
“Shelley in?” I could hear her music upstairs.
“I should go say hi to her.”
“She'll come down when she's hungry.”
She's not a spaniel, Dad. And she's not ten years old.
She was lying on her bed, her feet crossed behind her, reading something on her phone. She didn't look up when I opened the door, but seemed glad to see me when I spoke. “They're impossible,” she said as she swung into a cross-legged pose – the same grace about her as Penny always had when she did that. Maybe it's just me who can't do it.
“What is it this time?”
“Sounds like them.”
“No. I mean it. Dad woke up in a foul mood because he couldn't find the shirt he wanted to wear. Mum says its still on the line. It rained last night, so Dad says how stupid, should have been in the dryer. Mum says we don't have money to throw around and the sun's out. And now she's taped over one of his shows and he won't just let me download it, I tried, I told him I could. But no, that's not the point. And why is he always lounging around the house, she says, when there's that fence that's about to fall down, and all those weeds? Works hard all day. So does she. Now she's making dinner by herself, not like anyone ever helps her out.”
“Me too. But it's him. Why won't he do it?”
“They must have something better to fight about.”
“They do. I'm sure of it. But they fight about all this instead.”
“Dinner's going to suck tonight isn't it?”
“You okay, Shelley?”
“I'm used to it. You remember. You haven't been gone that long.”
“Well, they took less time getting over it before.” This sort of all-dayer, the extended sulking, that seemed to me to be getting out of hand. And poor Shelley. I could sympathise. And at least I'd been old and employed enough to make my escape.
“Oh,” she said, remembering: “Don't mention Aunty Chrystal.”
It came out in trickles over dinner.
Mum called us down before I could get the answer out of Shelley. That could wait. I was prepared to take her advice on faith, meantime.
We ate a frosty meal. The four of us each at our station at the table, passing roast meat and vegetables around, cobs of corn, cheese-grilled tomatoes. “This is great,” I told Mum, “I miss this stuff. A roast for one, especially in my oven – just never happens.”
“Glad you appreciate it.”
A sharp look from Dad.
A glance shared between me and Shelley.
Acres of silence to follow it, just the sounds of chewing and cutting, a glass being replaced on a coaster every so often.
“I got some extra hours next week at work.” I offered that up to the silence.
“Good for you,” Mum said.
“I work hard enough,” Dad addressed her directly, not looking at me.
A warning glance: her to him. Him: snarling back down at his dinner.
Mum said to me: “Your Aunt Chrystal is back in town. Do you remember Aunt Chrystal?”
“She wasn't a baby, Maddy.”
Mum ignored him. “You haven't seen her in a few years.”
“Ten.” Dad muttered.
“She had her reasons.”
I would have preferred just to shrink down into the floor and disappear for a while. Since that wasn't an option: “I remember her.”
“We're going to catch up. Us girls. You'll have to come with us.”
Not at the house then. Dad had never really been fond of Mum's sister. But this seemed like something more.
“Are you free on the 23rd?”
“I can make it.”
A half-snort from Dad. He looked away from Mum's glare.
I picked the plates up and took them into the kitchen for a few moments of respite. The armed stand-off was nuts. I wanted to shake the both of them. I wanted to tell them they were acting like children. Upsetting Shelley. Didn't they think?”
And in the lounge: hushed voices, sharp words passing between them.
A quiet pudding, all eyes flickering around the table, soaking up the hostility. Rice pudding, cooked with apricots and cinnamon.
“We have this a lot, don't we?” from Dad.
“It's Shelley's favourite.”
“She was nine, Maddy.”
Shelley looked as if she was about to volunteer that she did still like it, but thought better of that and just returned to eating instead.
“Aunt Chrystal,” Mum said. “She'll have some fantastic stories to tell you about her trip.”
“And the fantastic bill.”
Ignoring him: “She spent time in Africa. Wildlife Safari tour. It's the kind of thing she always used to talk about when we were kids. She had an amazing time with the tour group. They were a great bunch of people, some of them were just your age, some were pretty ancient, but she got along with all of them. I'll show you the photos when we've finished eating.”
Dad said, “Do you plan on telling her?”
“About the divorce.”
My heart froze around the D word. But Mum said quickly: “Your Aunt. Things didn't work out with her husband.”
“She knows that Geoff.”
“There's something wrong when a woman goes through that many husbands, and its not with the men.”
“You don't know what he was like.” To me: “They had a good three years, but in the end... I really hoped it would work for her. But... she's quite upset about it.”
“Upset enough for Africa.”
“She deserved that trip.”
“On his dime.”
“On her share.”
“She didn't do a thing to deserve-”
“Leave her alone!”
They remembered us. The frost settled over our dinner table again. Silence flowing around us – a cold, treacle river. And this time it elongated, passing empty plates and glasses. Until I got up again and took them into the kitchen. The clatter, the running taps: all better than the prickly chill in the other room.
“Sorry,” Mum said later.
Dad as well, separately.
I cornered Shelley before I left. “How long have they been this bad?”
“It's not all the time.”
“But this is no once-off.”
“They've really stepped things up a notch.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Do you need me back here?”
“It wouldn't help.”
No. Probably not. But were they forgetting she was still just a kid? “Call me, okay. If things get out of hand. I hadn't realised things were such a mess here.”
“Just Mum and Dad. Just Mum and Dad – on steroids.”