My Father & Other Strangers

My Father & Other Strangers
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 His new wife seemed odd at first. She looked vaguely surprised about ordinary things, such as the question ‘How are you?’ or ‘What time is it?’ She would look at you then from very far away, as if you weren’t really being serious, as if you couldn’t possibly be talking to her.

I was in Ireland with friends when I heard. We had been going up a river the best part of a morning, barely speaking to one another for sheer enjoyment, slow around the deep dark tree roots, the water icy cold when you reached into it for stones or to shift branches out of the way. We finally stopped for beers on the hillside overlooking the white house with the low hanging roof ledges, just before 11, and I got a text as we moved into an area of mobile phone reception.

I had not heard from him in over three years, and he did not even say it was him.

 

*

 

Now, Kate and I were sitting in a stone kitchen in eastern France, talking to his new wife. Kate eyed her steadily and asked: “So you’re English? Or are you French?”

-“English.”

-“Really? You have a strong accent.”

-“Kate.”

-“What? I want to know. It’s not a big deal, is it?” Kate looked Eve up and down. She was walking around the kitchen, opening and closing the fridge and cupboard doors without end. She ignored my sister, or rather, she seemed preoccupied with other things.

-“Do you mind?”

-“Of course not. No dear.” Eve stretched out the table cloth with her palms, evening out the kinks in the plastic, then turned suddenly to go out into the garden.

-“Did you see that?! She just totally, like, blanked me! How can she…it’s…I mean, really…who is she?”

Kate lit a cigarette. She had not asked if she could smoke inside or if there was an ashtray. After a while she got up and stood beside the garden door, flicking the ash onto the gravel path outside.

Eve came back inside and it was not clear why she’d gone. She held nothing in her hands and she did not say what she’d done. I got the sense she had simply stood outside, under one of the trees at the back of the house, looking at the medieval wall at the edge of the garden.

She suddenly rushed up to us, making a strange noise. She smelled very clean. “My dear children, let’s be friends! I don’t want to argue with you. I can’t bear this pressure…”

 

*

 

We went upstairs in the afternoon. I could hear Kate’s breathing change. She breathed as if she’d caught a wild animal and did not quite know what to do with it.

Father looked preoccupied, but very weak and he said little. He had never been one to start talking, although once he’d started sometimes it was better to walk out. His blonde hair had faded and his chest moved only a little when he breathed. It was difficult to stay with him, much as we’d talked about it before.

He coughed a lot in the evening. Kate could not stand it. Eve would come through the hallway, going to and from her bedroom.

He felt very sick after midnight. He threw up in a white and blue bucket that I held up. I don’t know where the others were in the house.

Later, he asked me: “Are you alone?”

-“No, Kate is here, and Eve.”

He did not change his expression, but I sensed that I had not answered his question. “Are you alone?” he asked me again.

-“No, I have someone father…”

He looked at me again, and it seemed as though he’d say more.

 

*

 

Mother was her usual impenetrable, cheery self when she came for the funeral. She kissed Eve on both cheeks and spoke of time passing, oh how time is cruel and so on.

Kate looked at them, sitting in the living room, talking to each other about train times. “But…you know each other”, she said suddenly, “it’s obvious.”

-“Yes darling”, Eve smiled.

Again Kate said: “you know each other”, quite as if she hadn’t said it already.

-“Your mother, father and I went to the same school in England”, Eve said, “we grew up together.” Kate looked at me and shook her head slowly. “We were always in love with your dad…” Eve smiled. Mother frowned at her.

Kate’s shock spread. She didn’t look at anybody at first, but then she hit a window ledge. “And then you, you…!” She didn’t finish the sentence, turned on her heel and walked out of the room. Mother frowned at the door. Eve smiled bitterly and lay her hand on my mother’s. I imagined she’d talk to Kate when she’d come back in, not realising how little chance she had of meeting her at anything like halfway.

I took it all in. I looked at my fingernails, knowing that this looked ugly, though no-one cared to look at me. I was completely quiet, filled with the same sort of perverse pride my father excelled at. I had just his sense of having seen about enough now, thank you very much.

An attitude, a way of being, that could estrange the dearest things.

About Andre van Loon

Andre van Loon was born in the Netherlands and grew up there and in Scotland, before moving to the bright lights of London - he's a writer and literary critic for The Spectator, The Daily Telegraph, Review31, The Berlin Review of Books & others.

Andre van Loon was born in the Netherlands and grew up there and in Scotland, before moving to the bright lights of London - he's a writer and literary critic for The Spectator, The Daily Telegraph, Review31, The Berlin Review of Books & others.

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