The Return (Part 1 of 2)
They don’t want me back there. This much I know. This much I’m expecting. There’s nobody there who’ll be glad to see me. And, well, I don’t know if I’ll be glad to see them either.
I sit on the train, with Ty on my lap, watching the trees and houses whip by. There’s a rhythm to them that’s almost like a machine: a printing press churning out newspapers at high velocity, one of those street-sweeping trucks, water turning a turbine beneath a dam somewhere. The edges blur as they flik-flak past us. I hold Ty up to the window, let him see it all passing. “That little town is where we used to go for ice-cream, me and your gran and your grandad, and your Aunty Shawna. That little shop right there.” I tilt him so he can see it better, even though he’s too young to understand me.
“See those there, those are cows. Do you know what sound they make?”
He gurgles. He pats the glass with outstretched fingers.
The woman in the seat behind me smiles.
“They go moo,” I say. “Say it with me.”
“Mmmfooof,” he does his best.
“And what sound do those sheep over there make? The go baa. Are you ready to go baa?”
“Aaaaaa,” he makes a grating imitation.
And what noise are your gran and grandad going to make when they see you? When they see me? Those are the real questions when it comes to noise. How much noise is there going to be in the house I grew up in when I present myself at the door, with little Ty in hand, asking admittance, seeming to presume a welcome?
I don’t. Presume a welcome that is. It’ll either be as colourful as my departure, or it’ll be as frosty as a midwinter morning. I don’t expect anything else.
And yet. Here I am.
The train pulls into the station, and I half wish it wouldn’t. Would it be that bad if I just stayed on the train, and we just kept going, the two of us, and had a nice holiday by the seaside, went home without ever setting foot in Halidon?
I stand up anyway. I pull my bag from overhead, along with the pushchair. I unfold the chair and toss the bag over my shoulder. Ty’s a bit sleepy, he doesn’t make any fuss about being strapped into the chair, he’s not in the mood for fighting or kicking, he lets me tug his hat on over his ears but can’t be convinced to hold his arms out for his jersey.
“How old?” asks the woman who was sitting behind me.
“A year,” I say.
“He’s a darling. Yours?”
“Yeah. You can see it in the chubby cheeks.”
“He’s an angel.”
“He’s in angel-mode right now. He’ll switch to his demon setting later.”
“You wait,” she says what they all say, “give him twelve or thirteen years, and then you’ll see demon mode.”
Twelve or thirteen years. That seems like a lifetime. That’s such a great chunk out of my life. Who’s going to call me young after that? Is anyone going to look at me the way I was looked at a year and nine months ago that got me into this in the first place?
“Take care,” she says to me. Just a kindly stranger who means me no harm.
I smile and wave to her, stepping off the train.
I have memories of this station. I’ve sat on exactly those benches over there and waited for trains to come. I’ve been three, six, eight, nine, eleven, fifteen, waiting for those trains to come in, for somebody to get off, or for a selection of us to get on and go someplace. I recognise cracks in the concrete, and some graffiti over by a wall. I see a Greek-food stand that wasn’t there last time I was here; and a coffee stand that was.
I’m aware of the collection of people gathered here to welcome a friend or beloved, a family member maybe. People hurry off the train and into embraces and exclamations of pleasure. Except me, of course. There’s nobody waiting at the station for my welcome. I haven’t told them I’m coming. And anyway – there’d have been no-one here. If I’d called ahead they’d have told me not to come, they’d have told me the same things that made me cry eighteen months ago. I’d have had to cry all over again. I may still. “It’s for you, precious,” I whisper to uncomprehending Ty, “it’s so you can learn who you come from, and you don’t have to grow up without them.” And maybe you’ll melt those ugly, censorious hearts. Maybe you’ll bridge this canyon of a family gap.
A big ask, for a very little boy.
I recognise some faces. That’s awkward. Not exactly surprising, but still awkward. It’s a small to medium town, and I haven’t been gone that long. Why not remember a few people? But the memories are bleak ones: of uncomfortable, lonely years; followed by recriminations and all-out shunning. We don’t like your kind around here. Never mind that this kind grew up here, and has a bloodline thread all through town, that my great-great grandfather’s picture can be found in some of the old local papers.
I do my best to keep a distance, to keep my head turned a little way away, so that my face is hidden behind my hair. A changed haircut, a bit more makeup, but I’m not exactly unrecognisable. I stop to grab a latte, drink it standing up, re-familiarise myself with the landscape, the street layout. I try and fail to feel at home.
And since there’s nobody coming to collect me, and I can’t really afford a taxi, I set off walking towards my destination.
A destination of memories.
This is the house I grew up in. My parents bought it before I was born. My father lived a block away, and my mother on a farm about a mile out of town. There really is a long history here, a pedigree. I have a bit of Halidon still in my blood. It’s not something I’m sure I want, but it’s there all the same. And the house: I do have fond memories of this. It’s a big old airy villa, painted white, with a wrap-around veranda and rose bushes growing all the way around. The door is painted yellow, and has red-stained, full length windows in bubbly glass. There are two large cacti in big, glazed pots out front. A sheepskin on the clear-varnished planks. A pink cardigan carelessly left lying over the wicker chair.
I can look up at the window that was once my bedroom. I can almost see myself sitting there, curled up in the window seat, looking out at the road. I don’t know exactly what I was looking for. I’d duck my head if I saw one of the kids from school. Don’t draw attention to yourself, that was the advice Mum gave me.
And I’d followed it until I didn’t.
I walk up to the door, pushchair folded, Ty in my arms. I take a deep breath. Because here goes nothing, and I ring the doorbell.
“Marie.” She looks at me as if trying to decide what to do next. She could slam the door in my face, and I get the impression that she might be debating within herself whether or not she should do that. I want to believe that there’s a part of her that’s thrilled with the fact of this happening. I can’t see that part, and it doesn’t make any sound. But I want to believe in it.
There’s movement from further down the hall. Dad? Shawna?
“I thought I’d come see you,” I said.
“You didn’t call.”
“Who says you would have answered?”
She wants to scold, but isn’t sure what to say, how to begin this dressing down that she wants, or feels obliged, to deliver. Have the neighbours seen that I’m here and that I’m carrying the evidence in my arms? She lets her eyes stray to windows along the street.
“I have someone here I want you to meet,” I say.
“This is Ty. Short for Tyrone.”
“Ty. This is your grandmother.”
“Why are you here, Marie?”
I swallow. There are tears prickling at my eyes. A hard-buried hope that this might have gone better is dashed. If Mum’s like this, Dad’ll be worse. And is it a gigantic mistake-and-a-half to bring Ty here and expose him to it? Well, done is done. Here I am. I bundle up my courage. I say: “I had to come. It isn’t right for Ty not to know his family. To grow up without them. Whatever we grownups have against each other, it shouldn’t get in the way of him knowing where he came from.”
Words like that might sway her. Might.
“Is Dad in?”
“I want Ty to meet him as well. And Shawna.”
The pause is dangerously long. I don’t know if I can keep it together if she closes the door without a word. She doesn’t. Not quite. She says, “You’d better come in then.” There’s no warmth in the invitation, but it’s an invitation all the same. I can feel my hands shaking a little bit when I step across the threshold.
Dinner is challenging.
Mum makes a bit of a point of how I showed up unexpectedly, and so the dinner that was already in the oven is not really enough for one more, and there’s nothing for a one-year-old, because after all I didn’t warn them, and she’ll have to see how many clean sheets there are. At least she assumes we’ll be staying.
Dad is stiff. He stares for a long time when he sees me, framed in the hallway and looking intimidating. He’s like a board when we hug. And he shakes his head when he thinks I’ve turned fully away.
Shawna hasn’t quit being perfect. She sits in her chair with her hair pulled back in a sparkling headband, with cherub earrings winking in her ears. She’s sixteen now, and she maintains that flawlessness she’s always had. Her face is perfect – it might as well not be a teenager’s, there’s no trace of acne, there’s nothing awkward there, nothing out of place. She’s trim and pretty and confident. I can imagine that she’s still effortlessly popular, still dancing through life with the whole thing figured out.
The exact opposite of me, really.
But at least she seems happy enough to see me. At least she cooed over the baby and wanted to know about him. I’ve exchanged a few emails and Facebook messages with her over the last eighteen months, so the divide here isn’t quite as bad, isn’t as chilling.
“So, Marie,” Mum passes over the carrots. “Have you found a job?”
“It’s hard…” I start to explain.
“Well. With a baby.”
“Yes. I have, part-time, at the local library.”
“Good of them to give you time off.”
Dad: “No doubt an awkward conversation.”
In 1950. “Not really.”
“Well, people must ask.”
Not like that. “I told them I have a baby boy. There’s childcare…”
“Everywhere. These days. I’m sure there is.”
“It’s… good. They’re all really nice.”
“I’m sure.” He digs into his steak.
Shawna breaks the agony: “When did you get in?”
“A few hours ago.”
“You run into anyone?”
Dad’s face sets. “You will soon,” and his expression is like a rockface. It’s so full of closed-off reproach.
Big mistake. Oh yeah, big, big, big mistake. What the hell was I thinking?
And there’s Ty. Because I can live with all this. I’m a big girl, I can take it. But what guts me the most is that they both ignore him. They’ve taken quick turns at holding him, but they haven’t paid much attention. Their one and only grandchild, met for the first time and they’re not all over him, they’re not clicking photo after photo. I expected hostility. Fine. I’ve thickened up my skin since I was that girl. But I’m not ready for this indifference to Ty. I really thought until pretty much right now that they’d melt in his eyes, that they wouldn’t be able to get enough of him.
Mum is saying: “You will run into people. What are you going to say to them?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I’m going to say: ‘this is my son, Tyrone. You may only remember him as a scandalous bump, but he’s changed a bit’.”
“Excuse me,” Mum puts her knife and fork down and bolts for the kitchen.
Dad gives a me a deadly look: see what you’ve gone and done now.
Shawna I can talk to.
“Yeah, you were the topic of gossip. Sure, you were.”
She shrugs. “What of it?”
“I wasn’t the best sister to have at the time.”
“No worse than usual.”
Ow. The sting in that one’s real. I don’t know how to answer, and I’m afraid of bursting into tears. They’ve been embarrassed by me for a long time: no news flash there, but hearing it in words, and hearing Shawna come out with it. That’s different. That’s… painful.
She cocks her head.
“I never hurt anyone,” I protest.
“No. You were just a bit weird.”
“So, what do I say when everyone at school’s making fun of you, and imitating you and so forth? What am I supposed to do with that?”
“Not my fault,” I say, feeling myself diminish. God only knows I’d tried to make them like me. Tried and tried and tried over as many years as I can remember. Every effort just an opportunity for ridicule.
Shawna’s still young. She’s not quite sure if she’s said something really unforgiveable. She’s not quite sure if she cares. She says, as if it changes the subject: “And then you got pregnant.”
“I was already eighteen. It wasn’t that bad.”
“Here? In Backwardsville?”
“I can’t have been the only girl in town bonking someone?”
“No. Just the unlucky one.”
The unlucky one. That sums me up all in one big mass of self-pity. It’s worse in a way here with Shawna, talking to her like this. The offhand honesty is harder than Mum and Dad’s reserve. But I’m in the deep end. “Are they ever going to forgive me?”
“I suppose so. But you know Mum: ‘we’re decent people. We’re a decent family.’” And she had the impression spot on.
“I feel like I’ve stepped back in time like a hundred years.”
“You have. Trust me. I’m dying to get out.”
“Patience young Skywalker.”
“See. You make yourself incomprehensible.”
Star Wars jokes? Incomprehensible? Maybe I really have forgotten what it’s like around here.
“How long you staying?”
“Just the weekend. I have work on Monday.”
“At least you got a job. Imagine if you’d come back here unemployed.”
“Imagine,” I shudder.
“Hey, it’s good to have you back,” and there’s warmth. For all that she’s been hard to hear this evening, she’s been good to hear as well. There’s something so unfathomable about family.
“Goodnight,” I say.
Picture credit: author's own work