The Return (Part 2 of 2)
I wake up to a crisp dawn. I wake up beside the window I slept beside in childhood. My old room. My old wallpaper. There’s a rip in the carpet just like I remember. Condensation on the windows, and the sun coming in golden droplets through it. It feels as if the years got sucked into some kind of vortex, and now here I am, fifteen again, waking up and thinking how much I don’t want to go to school today.
Breakfast makes dinner last night look like a stroll in the park.
Mum is barely talking to me. She’s had all night to fret about what people are going to say about me. The phone rings while we’re eating and she talks in too high a voice, with a false jollity, and doesn’t mention me once. I surmise that she’s talking to Audrey Livingston from across the river. I can see the sigh on Dad’s face. I can see the way his mouth wrinkles when he sees me putting sugar on my cornflakes.
“So, you’re still doing that, then?”
“There’s the baby watching you.” He gestures at Ty.
Oh, so you notice him now? I say: “Would you like to feed him?”
“It’s all right.”
“I said I’m fine. That’s your responsibility over there.”
And your grandchild. “I’ve got food,” I say.
“Jar stuff, I imagine.”
“Jar stuff, yeah.”
“He sees that sugar. It’s about an example. Discipline. Responsibility.”
Mum sits down and looks sideways at me. She asks me what I’m going to be doing today.
Not spending it with you guys? Seemingly not. I tell them I’ll check out some of the local memories. Walk along the bridge, maybe drop by the local bakery, maybe take Ty to the playground.
“It’ll be very crowded.”
“We’ll be all right.”
“Yes. Yes. Well, a lot of people will be there. No doubt with questions.”
“They can ask.”
“Well? Is there a man? I suppose it’s going to be difficult finding one now. There’s a lot he’d have to be willing to accept. You know Roger’s mother still works in the supermarket?”
I shrug. Because why wouldn’t she?
“Just… you should be aware.”
“Does she hate me then?”
She gives me a look that just reads: what do you expect? She looks at my father as if for help: why is she making this so hard for us?
He rescues her with these words: “You’ll be catching the train, Marie, going back home tomorrow. Your mother and I, your sister, we are home.”
Home. There’s a complicated word. And as I walk through the small-to-medium town of Halidon, I can’t get my head around whether or not I’m there. So much is familiar: the river, the plaza, the old town hall clock; and there’s houses that I recognise, and small changes that I can pick up on. The old corner dairy unchanged, and so’s the local bakery. I stop there and grab a couple of currant buns. I don’t know how much Ty will eat, but I’ll give him a go.
The girl is someone from school.
“Marie Statton, right?”
“You went away” - almost as if she can’t remember the circumstances surrounding it - “a couple of years ago. We haven’t seen you since, right?”
“Nope. This is the grand return.”
“How’s it going?”
“Does it seem tiny? I don’t know… parochial…?”
“Yes and no. And yes. I don’t know what I’d thought.”
Her name’s Felicity. I remember now. And she says: “This is the kid?”
“This is him. Ty.”
“And he looks…” but the words mute on her lips. They fall on the ground unspoken.
Like his father.
There’s me in Ty, but there’s the rest of his gene pool as well.
“It’s good to see you,” she promises, maybe or maybe not meaning it.
In the street outside there’s been a car accident. It’s no big thing. Just a fender bender, but I recognise the two cars. I see George Dunford get out of one of them and go marching over to the door of the other. He drags Don Rufus out onto the street by his collar. And the two of them stare each other down.
Three years ago, there’d been a falling out not too different from this. They were both still in school and George was convinced Don had crashed into his dad’s fence. They’d faced off just like this in the hall, with the rest of us – all equally navy and off-white – standing and watching, craning, whispering, itching to see where it’d go. If it’d come to blows or not.
It came to pacing. To snatching at each other a couple of times. To words that are sure as all crap not allowed in school. And then it was broken up.
Here. Now. George shoving Don up against his own car. Fistfuls of collar in his fingers, his face red and glaring, nose to nose with Don. His language has only gotten more colourful over the years. He lets rip. He jabs his finger in the air, he all but gnashes his teeth. And the whole thing teeters on the edge of comical.
“What are you fucking blind, you useless prick?”
“Me? Watch where you’re driving.”
“You worthless sack-”
“Anytime buddy, anytime-”
“How’s about right now, then?”
No punches rain. Fists just hover. George shakes him. Don snarls back.
And then its broken up.
It’s someone I don’t know. A middle-aged man who gets in-between them and sees them both off, each to his own car, a gentle shove to get George into his seat. While a small crowd gathers, backing the stranger, taking the wind out of the younger men’s sails. Done and dusted.
So why are my hands shaking? What is this feeling that courses through me, as if time hasn’t moved at all. As if we’re back in the hallway, in the sea of uniforms, as if I’m shrunken up against the lockers, half curious to see where this is going to go, half afraid that suddenly I’ll be noticed again and turned on. I’ll have the wrong look on my face, say the wrong words, laugh at the wrong moment. Invisible. That’d been the thing to be. If only I’d stayed that way.
But then I wouldn’t have Ty.
Who knows where I’d be, or what things I have or wouldn’t have.
“Marie, you slut!” The faces wide with smiles, with mocking. It’s half condemnatory, half congratulatory.
“When ya going to pop, girl?”
“Is it going to look like the stray dog down the road there?”
Memories. Horrible memories.
“I told you she wasn’t the goody good she’s pretending to be.”
“Yeah, but why her? Why would anyone do her?”
I go home mid-afternoon. I tell Mum and Dad I’ve got a headache and I retire to my room. At dinnertime I tell them I’ve still got it and request to be left to sleep.
Nobody seems to mind.
I sit in the chair in the corner and jiggle Ty on my knee. I sing his favourite song and take another shot at the clapping game I’m teaching him.
Like primary school. The first years. Before my status as pariah became really set in stone. What was the name of her anyway, the dark-haired girl who’d sit in the long grass with me and play these games, who had a little unicorn hairclip? When I was six or seven we’d been sort of friends. She’d moved away. There’d been no-one to replace her.
Shawna ducks her head in. “Hey, Marie.”
I look up, weary.
She slides in. “You not really sick?”
“Them? In there?”
“I’m sorry. I’m tired. I just couldn’t…”
“Did you think it’d be different?”
“How long have you known them?”
“Hey. I grew up under them too.” As if she has all the answers and has always had them. She’s never deferred to seniority. She’s never had reason to.
Shawna doesn’t stay home at night. She takes after me in this one way: crawling out of her bedroom window and jumping down onto the lawn without making a sound. She has a shiny jacket over her jeans, a cap on her head, her hair loose. I can see a figure standing in the shadow of a tree at far end of the garden. A male figure, definitely waiting for her. And I watch her run up to him, take a dive at him, leap onto his hips, with her legs wrapping his thighs. I’ve always been convinced that that sort of stunt only works in the movies, if you try to pull it off in real life, in real time, the pair of you just end up flat on your faces. Well, apparently not, because Shawna executes it flawlessly. She throws her arms around whoever this is and buries her face in the side of his head.
As they walk away he reaches for her hand.
She walks with such a light step. Like there’s not so much as a care in her head. She could be floating. There could literally be little springs on her feet. But maybe I’d looked like that once. Once. Twice actually. Before the whole thing came crashing down around me, and my feet became suddenly weighted with lead.
That’s why I wait until I see her climb home. I walk into her room quietly, without knocking.
Her eyes adjust, squinting to be sure its me.
“Yeah. It could have been Mum.”
“Wasn’t,” she says with studied nonchalance.
“And that was?” I gesture loosely outdoors.
I narrow my eyes.
“Who’s new? Here?”
“The Coppers family. His dad’s a teacher.”
“And you and him…?”
“I know. And totally. But we use protection.”
“Well, so did I.”
“No. The real stuff.”
“You’re on the pill?”
“Shit yeah. I mean condoms break, don’t they? You’d know.”
I do know. The hard way. Of course. It’s like nothing blows her off balance. I want to be the big sister, doling out the sage, seasoned advice; but how can I be? Given where I’ve ended up and how I’ve gotten here? And learn from my mistakes? Whatever Ty is, he’s not a mistake. Or a regret? And if the condom had to break to bring him here, to make him real, then it was meant to happen, and it was wonderful that it happened.
Shawna huddles up on her bed. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” And I sit down on the edge. It feels weird. These sister moments were never part of our sibling relationship. Can we really start now? “Hey, this guy, this Ethan, he’s all right with you…?”
“I mean, he acts like a gentleman, right? I mean I know… what you’re both doing… but he’s nice, right?”
“And he never… he never gets aggressive?”
“Because if he does, if he ever did…”
“Kick him in the balls. Punch him twice in the face. Then run.”
“I was going to say you should dump him.”
“That too. Marie, sis, older sibling: I can take care of myself, okay? I’m good at it, and I always have been.”
“And you’re not me.”
“I don’t know if I’m going to be coming back here too soon.”
“Don’t blame you. I’ll visit you.”
“I want to hang out with Ty some more anyway. I’m a fucking aunty! If you believe that.” Her face takes another twist, a sideways slide: “And yes, I did always use language like that, I just never used it when you were around to hear.”
“Good to know.” I’m just so totally out of things to say.
The train really can’t come fast enough. I’ve packed long before I’m ready.
A couple more years. I’ll be older and tougher. Ty will have more to say for himself. Shawna will be older, she’ll be some real back-up. So then. Then, we’ll try this again. It’ll be different next time.
But this time, I’m a coward. There’s no two ways about it. I know I should hang out with Mum and Dad some more, try and try and try again to make it work, to make them like me, and love Ty. But I’m out of strength for that fight. I take the pushchair, the blanket, my last few threads of sanity, and I head out the door.
It’s inevitable, I guess, that I’m going to run into him.
“I heard. I was coming around to see you.”
“Sorry.” That’s the full amount I can get out of my mouth.
“This is him?”
“I would have married you, you know?”
“I proposed. I was going to do the right thing. But you, you wouldn’t have any of me. Why should I send him money?”
“I’m not asking for it.”
“I loved you. You don’t think I did but I did. I really did. You realise that you just threw it back in my face?”
And here’s why. It’s the darkness that comes over him when he says things like that. There’s a neediness that’s coupled with threat. Always has been. But he was the only boy who ever looked at me twice. Or indeed, once. Loneliness called out to that. Come on, don’t go away. Come on down to the park with me. And then to his bedroom with him the next night. Awkward. Uncomfortable. Only part of me wanting to be there. But if not this guy then who, ever?
“We just had a couple of nights. We were experimenting.”
I hurt him. But he’d have hurt me, hurt us. I could have taken that ring, I could have let him put it on my finger. A family of sorts. But I know that darkness would have welled up from inside him sooner or later, and I know it would have cost us, I know we would have paid for that almost-family life. Sooner or later.
Because: I was scared of him. Even snuggling up. Even taking off my clothes. He creeped me out, but I pushed that down, because I was alone with a boy, and for the first time there was somebody who approved of me, somebody who wanted me.
“I’m sorry, Roger.”
“You’re not coming back to live, are you?”
And he doesn’t ask to hold Ty, and he doesn’t look at him more than briefly. What I feel most amidst the turmoil of feelings I’ve got going on in my head right now: just relief. I think I had a lucky escape. No had been a good word back then; it’s the right word now.
“Take care,” I say to Roger.
“Yeah, you too.”
The train is a sanctuary. The flik-flak of passing fence posts, passing trees, is hypnotic. I curl up in here, trying to let the past two days wash off me. I hold Ty in my lap and I point out the window, showing him the cows, the sheep, the horses. A few strangers smile at our conversation: more warmth in that than in the faces of his grandparents.
I will be back. Sorry, Halidon. But I will, and with Tyrone in tow. And I’ll face you all again. You’ll have had a few years to grow up by then. So maybe. In the meantime, I think this about sums it up: Good, and Riddance.
Picture credit: author's own work