In 1990 I stood naked in front of the full-length mirror in my parents’ room and tried to see beyond the physical representation of myself. I remember it was a World Cup year because my father put his foot through the television screen when the Cameroon defender Emmanuel Kunde equalised against England.
I returned to the same mirror over and over, staring through it until I was just the imagination of myself escaping the present and no longer a boy in a bedroom shielding his ears. At times I was an imposter, running, jumping, and swimming with a body meant for someone else.
Now, on the day before my mother’s funeral, I try the trick again. I stare at my reflection in the chrome fuel cap of my rental car, but it doesn’t have the same effect.
Mum’s funeral is scheduled for 11am at the Oakwood Crematorium & Cemetery – an inexpensive, north-facing burial plot on uneven ground. Her doctor at the nursing home assured me she left this plane at peace, and I try hard to believe her.
One of Mum’s few pleasures was watching game-shows and programmes set in airports. She loved to bask in people experiencing that fleeting state of happiness as if she could photosynthesise it. ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ was her favourite; she had a system, she told me. She’d figured out the formula. Whenever contestants used their ‘phone a friend’ contingency she always fell silent. I would watch her from the floor and ask my general knowledge computer game why she looked sad. ‘Error’, it always answered. ‘If you’re real, please say something,’ I would ask.
You can never go home, the saying goes, and after university I took off. I will admit to doing that. It was an act that preceded thought. The problem with escaping is that you tend to forget what you’re running from.
As I pull over outside what was once my local corner shop, a hooded teen scrambles for the adjacent refuse alley. The plywood board over the front window reads ‘Reality Bites!’ in dripping white spray-paint. He’s got it all wrong. It’s the dreams that’ll get you, kid.
From the outside it seems our house hasn’t changed much beyond the patches of Fat Hen weeds forcing through the gravel drive like stepping stones. Beside the front porch sits a terracotta plant pot, underneath which I find the spare key, cold and blackened with grime.
Inside, I slip down the narrow corridor to the kitchen doorway where I would always be drawn by the fruits and spices of Mum’s experimental cooking. Marzipan doughnuts, marmite curry, mango and asparagus pie. Comfort foods, the type of food that shuts down the cerebrum bar the famished synapses of the pleasure centre. She had rules for eating, guidelines for maximum fulfillment.
It’s crucial that you’re seated to fully appreciate your food; you mustn’t have recently eaten garlic; a minimum of fifteen chews per mouthful. Small lingering bites; time taken is time saved.
The grey suit I packed isn’t the one she would have wanted me to wear. Funerals call for black. It’s a pre-requisite, expected, compulsory. Mum liked the black pin-stripe.
“I love this on you,” she said, “how could anyone not hire you?”
It was the end of summer. I had a token interview for a local paper route and Mum bought me the suit with Tesco Clubcard points she was saving for Christmas. I suppose she wanted to imbue me with a sense of occasion. She said, “Show ‘em what you got,” made fists with my hands and kissed them both.
After the interview, which consisted of a nod and a handshake, I went home in a hurry. In the kitchen, Mum was trimming my father’s buzz-cut with an electric razor. I flung my arms around her pregnant belly and told her I needed a new chain for my rusty BMX because I started work after school on Monday.
“You’re not doing it,” my father said.
“Dad, I get seven pounds. I’ll be rich.”
“You’re not do-ing it,” he repeated.
“Your father thinks you’re a little young,” Mum said.
“I’m thirteen,” I said, “I know how to get the bus to town and everything.”
“Ryan, that’s the end of it,” he said, almost in one elongated word. I was close enough to smell the lubricant on the steel shaver head; its hornets’ nest whine filled the room, and when I said Mum, Mum, Mum, the words were lost in the din.
The sound collapsed as the razor head cracked against the wall, and he was standing squared up to me with his chest puffed out. He was a man who inhabited a lot of space. He said, “When I say that’s the end of it, what does that mean?” I bit through the skin on my lip and ran to my room.
“Maybe next year, love,” I heard Mum call upstairs.
Years later she let slip that he owed the shop owner hundreds of pounds on lost bets.
Today, I really should be wearing the pin-stripe suit.
Greeting me in place of Mum’s cooking is a curious fog of cinnamon, cigarettes and body-odour. The stink comes from my father slouching over the table; whey-skinned; pronounced patches under his eyes like he’d caught a one-two punch. A thick crust of Richmond cigarette ash eclipses the china saucer in front of him. Weathered hinges from the neighbour’s swing squeal and scrape as a child launches from the ground.
“You look like I could use a drink,” he says and retrieves from under his chair a tumbler and near-empty bottle of supermarket whiskey. The one element of control Mum had was to disallow him to booze it up in the house. He must have habitually hidden his stash when he heard the key in the door.
“How are you, Dad?” I ask.
“My wife died.”
He downs the contents of the glass and judders into a hacking cough. I think about getting him some water, I think about rubbing his back. I think lots of things. He asks me how the hell I think he feels, and I sit across from him and say I’m sorry.
I notice his hands. Scraped, jagged, mottled, permanently engraved with working-class graft. He glances around, trying to remember his hiding places for alcohol. I stop scraping my split thumbnail across my thigh before it draws attention. He’s careful not to clink his glass against the table as he sets it down.
We watch a spider scuttle across the table and come to a stop at the glass. My father takes a lingering draw from a Richmond cigarette, blows the smoke inside and imprisons the spider underneath it.
“Your brother asleep?” he says.
“I wanted to see you first.”
“You shouldn’t keep him up.”
The swing outside picks up a steady rhythm.
“If he’s tired tomorrow he won’t stay still. Don’t want him freaking out in front of everyone.” He stubs out his cigarette and pats his shirt pocket in search of another.
“I won’t keep him awake.”
“God dammit, where are they?”
“He doesn’t freak out, Dad.”
“I just had ‘em,” he says.
“Dad, Max doesn’t freak out.”
His tendency to marginalise Max’s illness seems to grant a sort of buffer between coping and despair, a margin of error. The swing’s frame yawns as the neighbour’s child reaches a fleeting apex. It’s all downhill from there, kid.
“Right here they were,” he says, “bastards always disappear when I need ‘em most.” “Mummy,” my brother Max wails from the bedroom. Mum had chicken pox during the pregnancy and he was born with autism. His mental acuity will never reach adolescence. In that regard it’s tough to discern how he’s different from the rest of us.
“Shall I go?” I ask my father for both our sakes. He looks about ready to tip his bartender. I see my opening for a jab.
“Whatever you’re looking for,” I say, nudging the bottle, “you won’t find it at the bottom.”
“Not before I get there, anyway.”
“Mummy,” Max wails again.
“Hey, Ryan?” He finds the cigarettes under his chair and smacks the pack against his palm. “She left three messages for you last week.” I free the spider from custody and it weaves an uncertain path back the way it came. I follow its example.
Ivory paint flakes off the banister into my hand as I skirt the sunken floorboards on the stairs. The family photographs hung parallel are a forged pageantry.
Max had been waiting. He jumps out from the bottom bunk and hugs me with unexpected force. He asks for a story and I read a pop-up book about fire engines twice through.
“Do you know what a secret is?” I ask him.
“I got lots of those that all my friends tell me I’m really good at.”
“Has Dad been drinking while I was away?”
“You were away a long time like those people in space.”
“That’s right, I was.”
“Mum says you went away because you were sad,” he says. There’s a loose wire in Max’s conversation. He forgets what he’s said if you stay silent for a few seconds. I’m not proud of this tactic, but what is it they say about needs must? He asks me for apple juice.
“Maybe in the morning, Maximillion,”
“Ok, Ryan-a-million. I’ll have some tomorrow, Ryan-a-million.”
“Time for sleep. Big day tomorrow.”
“Big, massive, huge day. The biggest day in the world. I’m really good at sleeping.”
“I know you are, buddy. Lights out.”
Max is good at sleeping. I abandon the top bunk to get some air. Outside, a group of women garble the lyrics to a song played on a mobile phone; their crowing and clattering heels echo into the distance. A man in a torn shirt strides past wringing a hammer between his hands. Parked nearby are three police vans and an ambulance with a paramedic asleep at the wheel. I walk further.
The shaft of light from a lamppost highlights a condemned building where shadows of moths decorate the walls. I walk past it in the road because I can. Leering billboards make promises of whiter smiles and cars on affordable finance plans. A slight figure occupies the window on the tenth floor of a block of flats, and I wave to it. It was an action that preceded thought. The shape hauls the window down and retreats into the room, which goes dark. A torch is aimed at my face from the passenger seat of a police car as it coasts by. I turn back.
On the corner of my street, two policemen bundle the hammer guy into the back of their car; one of the women bends over her stilettos, heaving at the drain.
Mum insisted that our kitchen door should never be closed, saying something about it being the focal point of a home. But the door is shut, like there’s been a correction now that she’s gone, and behind it is a muffled sound of despair. My conscience nudges me inside.
My father sits facing the door, a lethargic silhouette against the glow from the neighbour’s security lamp. He’s writhing or undulating or crying. I flick the light.
His trousers are bunched at his ankles. A blonde with an Ouroboros tattoo on her nape sits astride him, her tie-dye dress hitched up waist height. From the drool daubed across his neck he looks to have passed out at some point. I’m already applying hindsight to these next moments and congratulating myself on doing the right thing. But in my experience, presence of mind is a hard thing to come by.
You fall into a sort of altered state when you see things you can’t explain. Like the mirror, the image in front of me reflected a reality I couldn’t frame. I was half-awake, or trying to articulate a dream only half remembered. I lay on the linoleum as it was the only thing left to do. She left. The hooker left. There must have been advanced payment but perhaps she wasn’t what I presumed her to be.
The grief came, and it too escaped before I could stop it.
I start to pull his trousers up. Max can’t see him slumped in a chair, flaccid from head-to-toe. This is the person upon whom Max has to depend. Coins from his pockets fall. I wonder if hookers give change.
“Where did she go?” he says, unmoved.
“Took her money and left,” I say. “Want her back so she can get you off?”
“You made her go, Ryan.”
“She had no business being here.”
“She loved you more than I could and you made her quit waiting,” he says. “Where the hell have you been?”
We are both on the ground now − him leaning against the counter, me on my knees in the middle of the room. I’d been waiting for this confrontation, but I’m still unprepared.
“My father was a real asshole, Ryan, a fire and brimstone Catholic.”
He goes on. He was beaten as a child as he battled against a strict religious doctrine and always lost. “Like sticking two fingers up to God and getting slapped by the devil,” he says.
I can see he’s fading. He says, “I did what I thought best for you and Max but failed,” and crumples into pieces onto the floor. I didn’t so much as throw a jab.
Back in my bunk, I dream about the funeral. A four-gun salute takes aim and a chef wearing Michelin star epaulettes hands me a folded tablecloth. One of the gunmen removes a hip-flask from his breast pocket, downs the contents, breaks rank and points the barrel towards me. The casket stirs. The gunmen make up the brass section of a philharmonic playing Dance Macabre and my father moves his aim to the coffin that shakes and threatens to throw open the lid and I’m here but I’m distant now; I’m watching from a blast shelter through safety goggles dreading the mushroom cloud and my finger is on the button that reads ‘push me’ and I stay silent for a few seconds until the explosion forgets its purpose but it doesn’t; my father stands next to me saying ‘out of sight’ in a whisper and I see her: Mum stands in the open and I think of monochrome photos of the fallout where the trees are analogous to the dirt and I say stop but a red button must be pushed and he counts 10, 9, 8, 7, there’s time, I can save her but a red button must be pushed − 6, 5, 4 − she struggles with the weight of a silver serving tray carrying my father who eats warm banana mince pies and I know I should be out there with her, bearing the load, but I can’t cope, I’m still the child and I can’t deal with it so I leave the blast shelter and run so hard but I go nowhere, I’m sinking through the earth then crash through wood into a coffin, lined with deluxe ivory padding, that shakes − 3, 2 − and next to me is Mum smiling, vomiting up dozens of white pills − 1, 0 − everything turns black and I can hear the war planes outside but it’s all moving too fast to fix a point and I can’t bear to be involved; I’m temporarily Switzerland and this is what it’s like to be alone.
Max has to slouch to fasten my tie in the morning, doing so with intense concentration. I bought a clip-on but dismissed it. Then I changed my mind and thought of how absurd it was that I was making the funeral about my choice of tie. If Mum were there she’d be the first to insist on not faking it with a clip-on. She will be there, of course − the sole attendee not on the guest list.
“Are we going to a party?” Max asks. I don’t know what to say that would make sense to both of us, and I need to check on Dad.
Instead of lying prone on the floor as I expect, he’s showered and dressed and standing in front of the bedroom mirror.
“You used to do this,” he says, “watch yourself for hours.”
“There’s coffee made.”
“You were trying to bulk up, weren’t you? Take me down.”
“That’s not what I was doing, Dad.”
“Help Max,” he says, “let’s get this over with.”
Let’s get this over with, I think, and struggle to disagree.
Max has dressed himself. I didn’t know he could do that. He asks if it’s his birthday but I don’t know that, either. I play the odds and tell him it’s not. We go downstairs for coffee and apple juice.
“Are you still sad?” he says.
“I am today.”
“I lost my army man outside and cried and there was a rock that was black and shiny and then I was okay.”
“You don’t miss your army man?” I ask.
“I didn’t play with it much, anyway.”
The car pulls up outside and I leave the spare key under the pot. In the doorway of a house across the street stands a woman wearing a white dressing-gown. A man comes from behind, drinking from a black mug and scanning a magazine as he joins her there. She cries. I think about how she’s trying to hijack my Mum’s death, muscling in on our loss so she can vent her own troubles. I think a lot of things.
I think a stranger has no right to grieve, no cause to say goodbye.