I order a coffee from the woman behind the counter. Wooden tables have replaced the dirty yellow formica and ceramic tiles have been laid on top of lino of the 60s and 70s. I didn’t think the café, a favourite haunt of Mum and Auntie Annie’s, would still be here. I sit waiting and remember another table.
Teatime, Mother fried chops to go with mashed potatoes, which are usually lumpy with too much margarine, and tinned peas. I am doing my homework although how my brain works on this kind of food surprises me. I have taken over a part of the formica topped table in the middle of the kitchen which annoys her.
“Mary! Have you finished? The table wants setting.”
My mother, Audrey, wears an apron over a thick shapeless grey dress. The sort of dress which should have been prison regulation The apron is the only bright thing about her. I made it in needlework class with lots of help from Mrs Beale who said I wasn’t a natural needlewoman. I chose orange as it is a happy colour.
Mother doesn’t look happy. The bright orange apron tied over the awful dress, two spots of pink appear on her cheeks. A hand pushes unwashed hair back from her forehead as the other one turns the chops with a fish slice. Three chops. One for Daddy, one for Mummy and baby makes three. A little rhyme Daddy used to say. That’s who we are waiting for, Daddy. Neither of us says it out loud. The big hand of the kitchen clock moves in small jerks towards the six at the bottom, which makes it half past. He’s home at the latest by quarter past usually.
Mother arranges the table mats and the cruet set around my books. We exchange a look. Mine curious, hers daring me to ask. I don’t. She sits down and smokes a cigarette still pushing back her greasy hair.
“I like that apron on you, Mum.”
“Get away with you”. She looks cross but when she gets up to check the chops she bends down and kisses my head.
Mother always has things to do. Gilly’s mum reads stories to her. They spend hours reading after school. Sometimes her mum forgets to put the dinner on, so immersed in fairy tales they are; Arabian Nights and The Shoemaker and his Elves. Our dinner is always on time, 6.15pm sharp. When I came home from school Mother was already peeling spuds with her pink rubber gloves on. Strange that someone so set on hygiene should smoke so much. And in the kitchen too. Her index and ring fingers on her right hand are a rusty colour like her skin had leaked something poisonous.
Linda’s mum works in a shop so she goes there after school. She talks to the kids of the ladies who shop there. Her dad works away a lot, selling things. Linda and her mum are like sisters, they’re that close.
I look at my mum. Harassed that her routine has been disrupted, washing down bench tops that already gleam. She doesn’t go in for conversation, even with Daddy. They don’t talk or laugh or tell each other jokes. When I went to Gilly’s on the weekend her mum laughs and says. “Oh, stop Gerald! I’ll wet my knickers I will”
Mother waited until the big hand clicked into place, seven o’clock. Time to serve the chops. She laid three plates on the kitchen table. One for Daddy, one for Mummy and baby makes three. She didn’t recite the rhyme, only Daddy ever did that. Mother was silent, a busy silent. I imagined the room was filled with those speech bubbles with different comments written in them, with none of them attached to Mother’s lips. They just floated around, putting different ideas in my head.
Mother brought the blackened fry pan to the table and plonked each chop on a different plate. I look up, she looks down, her eyes still daring me to say something. I say nothing. Mother dumped and ladled the vegetables next to the chops and gave the nod to start eating.
She removed the orange apron and hung it up on the hook Daddy had screwed into the wall. She seemed to disappear into the drabness of her dress. Perhaps that’s why Daddy hadn’t come home, he couldn’t see her. But what about me? Surely he could see me.
I saw through the pale meat. I don’t think it will have much taste left now, I’d better eat it though, Mother went to a lot of trouble cooking and what with Daddy being late. My mind sorted through the possibilities. Had he been in an accident? We didn’t have a car but Daddy could have been mown down by a maniac who veered off the road and mounted the pavement. I stopped eating to consider this. I liked the word maniac, as I liked the word berserk but I didn’t like to think of my Daddy mown down.
Or he could have got into a fight with one of the customers who came into the printers where he worked. Daddy worked in the office which meant he wore a tie to work. I was very proud of this. I even learnt to tie his tie myself so I could help him in the mornings. Daddy pretended not to know how to tie his tie and I pretended not to know that he was pretending. I especially like the dark yellow tie with criss-cross patterns. Most of the children in my class, their daddy’s wear overalls to work. Some didn’t even have daddies, imagine that.
I watch my mother, her blank face. I’ve heard people say about wiping the smile off their faces. Mother had wiped hers off forever. Her eyes stared straight ahead as she chewed each piece of meat many times before swallowing it. Even the gristle. Sometimes I’d watch her in the mornings when I was tying Daddy’s tie, in the reflection of the mirror on the wardrobe. Standing there looking like she wanted to say something, to join in but she always walks away silently, as if she had never been there at all.
Where was my Daddy? I wanted to yell out the question burning a hole in my brain but I had a feeling Mother didn’t know either. I couldn’t read the expression on her face as she didn’t hold with expressions, but I could feel the disappointment.
Aliens. Maybe Daddy had been taken by aliens. That would be it. Daddy was interesting enough to be taken by aliens, for their experiments. He read books, not magazines like mother. “Mary, would you look at all these books!” My Daddy would stand in the good room, sweeping his arm like an actor in a play. He’d nod and tap a finger on the side of his nose. “That’s the secret, pumpkin. Broaden your horizons. The pen is mightier than the sword.”
He’d pick me up and twirl me around the room. I liked that. It made me feel dizzy and loved at the same time. I didn’t know what horizons were apart from that line you watched between the sea and the sky, when you didn’t want to be sea-sick. And as for pens being mightier than swords I wasn’t sure that could be right. All those bic biros Daddy bought home from work and I’d seen a real sword on the telly, rusty but looking mightier than an old biro, especially one that leaked in your top pocket. And you wouldn’t lose a sword down the back of the couch.
But Rory Baxter said aliens didn’t exist, his brother Martin said so. Anyway I didn’t want aliens to take my Dad. What about the time difference. Half an hour for them could be like a hundred years for us. And I couldn’t see me living until one hundred and eight. Well, maybe if I gave up ice cream and played more sport. No. It wasn’t aliens.
“Eat your dinner Mary. Don’t let it go cold.”
My mother’s voice finally hooks up to one of those speech bubbles. I look into her eyes, her eyes were grey like mine. It was like seeing a sadder, older me staring back.
Later, as we wash the dishes; Mother washing, me wiping because I miss bits, I look at her again. A tear escapes down my cheek and I feel my lips start to wobble.
“Don’t you give me one of your soppy looks, Mary Shaunessy. I don’t know any more than you do.”
“But couldn’t you go down to Preston’s, see if he had to work late?”
“The Prince Alfred, I shouldn’t wonder.” Mother’s lips tightened, pursing like the rubber thing we push our tea towels into.
“Oh you will, will ya? I’ve never chased after a man in my life, my girl. I don’t suggest you do either.”
“Mother. It’s important.”
She put her hands on my shoulders and attempted a kind face.
“This is grown-up stuff, Mary. Don’t you be worrying about it.”
But I did worry about it. Daddy didn’t come home that night, or the next. I even went into the police station on my way home from school. Constable Reed, who was on the front desk, wrote down stuff, the particulars, but he had an odd look about him. Half-arsed Daddy would have said.
The days dragged by as if they had drawn to a stop altogether. I didn’t mention it to Gilly or Linda at school, they had been my best friends since start of primary but I felt ashamed. I wasn’t good enough for my Daddy to come home and I didn’t want to talk about it. About three weeks later as I crept into the house after school, I heard voices from the good room.
“Oh, Josie. What am I gonna do?”
“Audrey, I could skin him. My own brother. Going off with that Annie Taylor. Shameful it is.”
Annie Taylor? Aunt Annie. She wasn’t my real auntie, like Auntie Josie, but she had been friends with mum for years. They went to see films and had coffee in town sometimes. During the school holidays she dragged me along. Auntie Annie had a little girl, about seven, Rita. She always had a snotty nose and she never said a word. What would my Dad be doing with Auntie Annie? I dropped my satchel to the floor. It made a thump noise.
“Mary? Is that you?” I couldn’t speak.
“Oh bloody hell, Audrey! Do you think she heard me? God, I’m sorry.”
Mum came through to the hallway where I stood, at the bottom of the stairs. I had turned on the waterworks as my Dad would have said, if he’d been here. If he’d been here I wouldn’t be crying though.
“Oh, Mary! I’m sorry. I know it’s hard and that you miss your Daddy but I’m sure he’ll get in touch with you love. You know he loves you. It’s me he has the problem with.”
She put her cheek on my cheek. I could feel a flame burn under my skin. Mother took me up to my bed and put me under the covers, fully dressed. I slept for hours and when I woke up she didn’t make me eat my dinner. She made me cheese sandwiches which I love. She sat on my bed, quite suddenly, the look on her face as if she was as startled as I was to see her there. Her head bent, she struggled to speak, in panic and gasping for breath, like when you swim in the deep end and you can’t reach the side.
“My mother died the year I turned ten, ill for months, lying in her bed and us kids thinking she couldn’t be bothered. We weren’t told that she had cancer. One day she wasn’t there when I got home from school. My dad sat in his threadbare armchair by the fire and drank. Alcohol I mean, Mary. He was an alcoholic, do you know what that means?”
I nodded. I knew she was trying to make me feel better but it didn’t work like that. She’d had a hard life but it didn’t make things any easier for me knowing that. All the time she spoke I thought of my dad. Not in an accident or taken by aliens. In a seaside hotel maybe, with Auntie Annie and snotty Rita. Twirling Rita around so she felt dizzy and loved, letting her tie his tie when he wore one. I couldn’t feel anything, as if I was made of plastic. Auntie Annie with her bright tight clothing and her yellow hair, smelling of perfume and wearing pointy shoes.
We had a shoe box in which we put all the photos before putting them in albums, but no one got around to doing it. At home I spent all my time in those shoe boxes, looking for photos of my Dad, for a sign in his face that he planned to leave us. A wistful glance or a sad face. Ordinary family snaps, on the beach, at the shows and in the back yard. One day I came home from school and Mother wasn’t in the house. I panicked, running through to each room twice before I noticed the back door open. Mother stood over a pile of wood and grass, putting clothes on top. Dad’s clothes. We didn’t speak as she lit a match and threw it into the bottom of the pile. I had already rescued the dark yellow tie with the criss-cross pattern. I had it under my pillow. It made me dream of Dad so at least I got to see him sometimes.
A week or two later I received a postcard from the seaside, in my Dad’s writing. He didn’t say much, didn’t mention Auntie Annie or Rita. He told me about the big ships which sat on the horizon and the fish he’d caught. He finished by saying he’d be seeing me.
A few weeks after that he drove up, unannounced, in a car. Dad said it was an Austin, red with spots of rust. Excited and happy I jumped into his arms as Mother stood on the doorstep, smoking a cigarette.
“See you passed your test, Dennis.” Her eyes narrowed.
“Yes, Audrey. How else was I to see my little girl? You’ve been getting the money I sent?” Dad looked tired and pale. I wasn’t sure if Auntie Annie knew how to cook.
“Oh yes. I’ve been getting it. Make sure Mary’s not late for her dinner.” And with that the door slammed.
Dad shrugged and smiled at me. Picked me up and twirled me round but it didn’t feel the same. He took me for a drive in the country then to a cafe in the town where he bought me a chocolate shake and two jelly snakes.
“This is the café Mother and Auntie Annie used to come to.”
Dad reddened, his lips straightening into a thin line. “I know it’s difficult, Mary but you’ll understand one day.”
I nod but in my head I wished those aliens had taken him. It would have been easier that way. Nothing would ever be the same now. It hadn’t occurred to me that my Daddy would disappear one day and if he did that it would be because he had chosen another family to be in.
He only came to see me a couple times after that. A few years later my real Auntie Josie told Mum and me that Dad and Auntie Annie had had a baby. A boy, Dennis, after my dad. I finished high school and got a job in the city, left Mum the same as my Dad had. We were never close. Dad leaving hadn’t bridged that gap.
I see her now and then over the years and as I got older I understood how painful it had been for her, but Mum being Mum she just couldn’t show it.
I sit at the table with my coffee. The dregs cold, undrinkable. I still wait. The door opens and an icy draught blows in from the street.
“Mary, love. Are you okay?”
Yes, darling. I’m fine.” I look into the eyes of my husband. Ben and Jess stand behind him, obscured by the bunch of flowers they are holding, lilies. Orange; a happy colour.
“Mummy! Mummy! Can we have a milk shake?”
“Yes, kids. Then we’ll go to see Granny, hey?”