Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Renée and the whole weight of everything

An extract from Peril by Ruby Barnes
They tell me nothing can be done. I had already sensed it. I’ve long expected the return of my old enemy.
In the dusty corners of my mind there’s a vague recollection of mum and dad having a particular argument. It would have been before I started school. The exact words elude me, so I’ll fill in the blanks.
‘Not now, Andy. For Christ’s sake, not now of all times!’
Dad says nothing for a while but his silence is like a great wet towel, laid upon us. I’m in my bedroom, kneeling on the bed and listening hard through the wall. I hear a wardrobe door opening, the clatter of coat-hanger hooks and then two clicks. He’s going on another trip and that brings a smile. Presents, he always brings me presents after a trip.
‘For pity’s sake!’
And then comes dad’s voice, impossibly deep and deliberate compared to mum’s shrieking. Not that her shrieking alarms me, it’s commonplace in our house.
‘Linda, we both know it would be better if I went. Better for all of us.’
‘Run away then. Go on. Leave the whole weight of everything on me.’
The last phrase is verbatim. For a long time I imagined mum was lying on the bed, underneath something heavy, and she needed dad’s help to get the heavy thing off her. Like the way people were tortured, in olden times, by placing heavy stones on their chest until they betrayed their king or confessed to witchcraft or died. I had to endure my own personal torture before realising the whole weight of everything was actually me.
‘Your father’s gone on a trip.’
‘He’ll bring me the swing-ball this time. I know he will. He always knows what I want. I love daddy. And you mummy. But daddy brings me stuff.’
‘Yes sweetheart. I don’t know about the swing-ball. It’s not the season.’
‘What does season mean?’
It was a season of sickness that fell upon me like Autumn. First a chill and a damp feeling in morning’s first breath. Then, like the leaves, my hair began to fall. A common nightmare for children and adults alike is their hair comes out in clumps when they brush it. For me it’s a memory. My flaxen strands were all over the house.
‘Mummy, what’s happening to my hair?’
‘Don’t worry sweetheart. Our bodies change. Look at James next door, his teeth are falling out. Doesn’t that look funny? But he’ll grow new teeth and you’ll grow new hair.’
My body changed. The little fat tummy dad used to pat and say ‘chocoholic, just like your mother’. My tummy vanished as if dad had taken it with him. My appetite for chocolate and just about everything else left me for good. Perhaps the trigger for hunger had been surgically removed, along with the tumour, from my four-year-old stomach.
In teenage and adult years I was often mistaken for anorexic and then later, when the trend in popular disorders changed, bulimic. Even today, eating remains a mechanical task I can easily neglect.
Dad did visit me in the hospital. I think he did. That’s the way I remember it anyway. Mum maintains he didn’t, he was too busy chasing young skirt, enjoying his new-found freedom. She remained bitter about him up to her death last year. Had I ever managed to persuade her to visit a psychiatrist, I think she would have finally articulated the thoughts that had buried her motherly love. Dad left because of me. She lost her youth and beauty because of me. It was all my fault. Then she’d have seen it wasn’t, and we might have had peace with each other.
When I came home from hospital, dad wasn’t there. But he did visit and he did bring the swing-ball and set it up in my bedroom, much to mum’s disapproval. I watched him bat the thing around like a maniac and laughed for the first time since he had left.
The next year I started in school and the whole weight of everything placed itself on my shoulders like a greatcoat.
‘My mum says you had cancer.’ It was Tim Steele in the playground. An over-energetic lad was Tim, these days probably diagnosable with some anachronisable syndrome.
Most of the other kids looked at me like I was a leper, but I carried on skipping and chasing with the two girls who lived in my street. They knew it wasn’t catching. Tim caught up with me after school the next day, just the two of us in an alleyway between brick classrooms.
‘Renée? What kind of a name is that? Your dad foreign, is he? My mum says he lives in another country.’
Tim seemed to have more information about my family circumstances than I did. I said nothing but didn’t run away.
‘Mum says they cut it out in the hospital.’ He pointed at my stomach. In hindsight, I’m not sure Mrs Steele had my best interests at heart. ‘D’you have a scar? Can I see?’
For the first, but not the last time, I unwisely bared myself. The girls’ uniform was a grey jumper with a white blouse and I also had on a vest. I pulled the whole caboodle up and over my face.
‘Those are called nipples,’ Tim said, the tip of his cold finger touching on my chest. ‘I don’t see a scar.’
‘There.’ I put a hand down and pointed to the one-inch line to the right of my belly-button.
‘There? Does it still hurt? Can I touch it?’
‘It was a bit sore for a while but not now.’
He ran the pad of his thumb over the smooth scar. I lowered my clothes and he gave me a smile. Then he punched me in the stomach and ran off.
‘That’s what boys do when they like a girl,’ mum explained after I had run home crying. ‘The more they like you the more they try to hurt you.’
‘Does daddy try to hurt you?’
‘Your father has hurt me, sweetheart, and I’m not sure it’ll ever get better.’
She was being melodramatic, I realise now. At the time I thought the noises I had heard, the quiet whimpers and the mysterious rhythmic thumping that used to come from my parents room when dad had lived there, must have been dad punching mum repeatedly in the stomach.
Tim Steele and I became school-friends. He sat next to me on my table in class. His mother may have had the loosest tongue in Cheshire, but Tim never shared what we talked about. It was through talking to Tim I came to realise dad had left because of me. I donned the whole weight of everything without question. Mum didn’t do much to alleviate the misconception.
 It suited her to blame the failed marriage on my cancer rather than on her relationship with dad.
When I reached my teens dad began to talk to me in earnest. He had moved to Ireland and I was visiting him in Waterford when he first broached the subject, in a café on the quay.
‘You do know why your mother and I split up, don’t you?’
I had been trying to elicit some disclosure from him but now he was about to tell me to my face I was the cause I baulked.
‘I don’t really want to talk about it, dad. At least, not now. Maybe when I’m older.’
‘You are older, Renée. Listen, your mother and I were having problems before you got sick. You mustn’t think we split up because of your cancer.’
‘I don’t. Don’t be silly, dad.’ But I was crying into my milkshake.
‘I know it looks like I did a terrible thing, leaving you at that time.’
‘Yep.’ I could hardly speak without totally losing it.
‘You’ll find out for yourself, not all relationships are forever. Your mother and I, well, we reached the end of our respective tethers long before then.’
I looked out of the café window at the old-fashioned high masts and furled sails at their moorings. It was Waterford’s turn to host the Tall Ships Race. We were there for dad, he had an interest in sailing.
‘You mean your relationship had run its course? What, before I was born? So why did you have me at all, then?’
It was worse than I thought. My painful existence had been unwanted from the start. Why hadn’t mum had the unborn me removed like a tumour?
‘No, no. We began to drift apart a couple of years after you were born, when I started to travel with the job. Some things went on. I’m not proud of my behaviour, but your mother was no angel.’
It sounded like I was about to get a full and sordid confession but I managed to halt it with a raised teenage hand.
‘It’s unfortunate we came to a crisis point just when you were diagnosed.’
‘Unfortunate? UNFORTUNATE?’
The few other customers in the shop looked around at us. They saw a father enduring a tantrum from his teenage daughter. I saw a bastard that had abandoned me in my hour of mortal need.
‘Please, Renée. I’m trying to explain.’
I could only nod.
‘I think I made a mistake in going when I did.’
‘You think you should have stayed with us?’
‘I should have taken you with me. No, that wouldn’t have worked. Your mother would never have….’
He was confused about how he would have rewritten history.
‘Listen, dad. I haven’t had a bad childhood. I hardly remember the cancer. I missed you when you weren’t there but that made our times together even more special. I have friends at school that have lived through terrible divorces. For what it’s worth, I think you did the right thing.’
‘You’re probably right. You’ve a wise old head on young shoulders, Renée.’
It’s what comes of carrying the whole weight of everything.
‘Did you never think of getting back with mum at all?’
‘No. We still had some feelings for each other but, well, no.’
I had blurry recollections of mum and dad having stomach-punching sessions, post-separation, on one or two occasions, such as at Christmas time. It made me shudder. At thirteen, sex was lurking menacingly in the shadows.
‘Sorry, Renée. The point I want to make is this. I didn’t leave because of you. I didn’t leave because of your cancer. I left because your mother and I didn’t want to live together any more, under any circumstances.’
I put my hand over his and forced a smile. Even through the lens of puberty, I knew my mother could be difficult. And I knew there had been an Uncle Jim and, later, an Uncle Pat, neither of which were blood relatives.
But dad seemed under the illusion he had taken the burden from my shoulders and thereby healed any damage. His motivation for our little chat may have had an element of selfishness.
Years later a psychiatrist explained to me the lasting damage that had made my character ‘needy’, as she called it. An ancient peasant becomes bent and stiff from years of pulling his primitive plough through the unyielding soil, but if you retire that plough then the peasant remains bent and stiff. Then, in order to make sense of his stature, knowledge of the plough is required. Even then the peasant might never fully regain his posture. ‘Needy’ is also the word Ger uses from time to time when I say we don’t see enough of each other. I haven’t told Ger about my personal plough.


The above is an extract from Peril.

If you've enjoyed reading Ruby's blog then please sign up to Ruby's News for freebies, advance review copies of upcoming novels and occasional updates. Thanks!

1 comment:

  1. Loved this! I love the voice, the narrative. Wonderful storytelling. I look forward to more.