I got lost on my way to the house, the sudden tangle of residential streets, which I should have recognised but which had confused me with their familiarity, had proved to be the most stressful part of the whole journey. After I pulled up outside, I stayed for a minute in the car. Lilac-coloured cloud hung low over the slanted roofs; tinged by the sunset, the orange of the brick seeming to glow all molten and terrifying. It was strange to think that I had spent the whole day driving home, where there were people in the world stepping out of the chilly cylinders of planes who had crossed thousands and thousands of miles. My hands had been sweating on that final tour through the backstreets, and the moisture from my hand prints was now diffusing on the steering wheel in front of me. I watched a girl walking a dog, going in and out of doorways, collecting catalogues from the whole street. I wondered whether she was saving, what location she was imagining, what future.
He was still there in the hallway. A sentry standing watch over my mother’s life. The peak of his cap flush against his forehead; it had always struck me as pointlessly uncomfortable. Hello Dad. I had brought my own key, but I had rung the bell anyway before letting myself inside. Because, well, you never know. There have been other men. I met one of them once, a man by the name of Eric, thick with beer fat, and with bloodhound eyes and a droopy moustache, which seemed to accentuate his essential dogness. He spent most of his time nodding and wincing, as though any moment, he expected me to punch him in the face. When all he really wanted was for me to scratch him behind his ears. Who’s screwing my Mum? You are. You are!
I don’t know how it ended between them. Maybe he had got sick of comparing himself to this picture in the hallway. I tried to remember if it had been there the last time I had come here, or whether it was brought out at this time of year. I thought of Eric the bloodhound, trying to live up to the dead hero, and in the end deciding to run away and hunt for another bone.
Mum came through from the living room, peering around the doorframe from the living room. She put her arms around me, kissed me on the cheek. I tried not to be struck by how reduced she felt in my arms, how slight. I realised that I hadn’t allowed myself to relax into the hug, that in my own way I was stiff, regimental. My father’s son.
‘You’re here.’ She disengaged herself from me, and stepped along the hallway, talking over her shoulder. ‘It took longer than I thought.’
‘Traffic wasn’t great. I stopped off somewhere on the way.’
‘Well, that’s good. You need to be rested for a drive. I’m happier if your late if you’re being careful.’ We were walking into the kitchen, which still smelled of rice steam. ‘I’ve eaten, I’m afraid which is very rude of me.’
It only occurred to me as I took my seat at the narrow dinner table with its tablecloth decorated with herbs and tomatoes, and Mum began frying up egg noodles and strips of chicken, that she had doubted whether I would come at all. I remembered one Christmas when I was supposed to catch a train here, but had decided, at the last minute- through the prism of a hangover, and the agreement of a woman whose presence had sort of blown the whole relationship with Caitlin- that it would be better for both of us if I didn’t come. She had gone to the station to meet me, she explained, quite vividly, in the later phone call.
She placed the plate down in front of me— peppers, chicken, the steam of it— and poured us both a glass of white wine from the fridge. The next day we would drive the route out towards the army cemetery. Another road trip. The sycamore woods would spiral their seed pods down from the hills, and the villages and towns would look washed out and decrepit, and children would gaze out at us from rusted playgrounds, and dogs would be off the lead. We would stand by the grave side, and although I imagined that there was plenty that both of us would like to have said, we would both be silent. We would imagine my father, standing up on the wet turf of an island that neither of us would ever visit, running a few yards towards the machine gun fire, which all of a sudden become more relevant than he had time to anticipate. It would be twenty years since the day. Mum had come to my bedside to wake me up, to tell me about it. I hadn’t been able to understand why she hadn’t left me until the morning- it was my over-riding memory. Not the shock, the ruined look in her eyes, or the fact that she slept the night on the single bed with me. It was her timing. Perhaps she thought that the night time was better for bad news.
She started talking about the supermarket where she had bought the chicken. I wasn’t sure how we had arrived at this for a topic of conversation.
‘Did you ever think?’ I said.
Something was up. She knew it: you could tell by the way her eyes had retracted. ‘What?’
‘That he wanted it this way. You, me, sitting here like this. That it was all some kind of dream for him.’
‘That he wanted it what way?’ Her voice had chilled. She took another sip from her wine. I thought of all the times I had hurt this woman, and it occurred to me quite coldly, what should have been obvious for many years: the it wasn’t my father’s death that stopped her living, moving on, growing.
‘To die in battle.’ I had my mouth full of food; I expected her to tell me off. ‘The hero’s dream.’
‘No. I don’t think that.’ I can’t really explain the way that she looked at me. Shocked awake, only she had been asleep for years. I guess it was then I realised that I hadn’t so much provoked her, as pointed out something about myself. ‘I can’t believe that you would even think that.’
The shock had subsided, and, as was usually the case, she was able to process my mistakes and fallibility quite rationally, without hysteria. ‘Have you always felt that way? That it was some kind of … betrayal. Because, really, that wasn’t what happened.’
It took me a while to answer.
‘Some people don’t want to die,’ I said.
‘He didn’t want to die.’
‘Some people don’t take the risk. Some people…’
I felt like I was asking her to explain some childish injustice. About how grief had been with me for longer than I had been without it, that I should have understood it better than anyone. Something shifted in her eyes, and when she spoke again, her voice was lower, warmer, and it seemed to echo from a time long before: a night, when she hadn’t been able to bear to be alone.
‘I was sorry, James,’ she said. ‘To hear about your friend…’
Words © Daniel Bennett