I’m sitting in our bedroom. From the floor below I hear the steady swirling of the dishwasher. The garbage disposal has been broken for over a week and as the two are plumbed together, one will leak into the other, filling the sink with rancid water or flooding the kitchen floor, depending on which way the tide is flowing. Earlier it was the floor that suffered, prompting my wife to switch the dishwasher on in the hope it might alleviate the flooding.
I haven’t been downstairs to see if her plan worked. I daren’t.
This should be my quiet place, my home away from home. The only sounds coming from this room are the whir of the MacBook, the clatter of my typing, With the lights out and the MacBook shut it’s very dark. There are lights on the power strips but they’re obscured by the bed. The only sources of illumination are the stars and planets glued to the ceiling, that glow when I switch off our lamp.
It’s easy to forget that this is the room in which my wife grew up. It’s easy to forget she was ever anything other than the person she is now. It’s also easy to go on at length about her like some love struck simpleton. It’s the kind of post no sane human wants to read: love notes are personal and should be kept private, to be dug up only by far-future generations wanting to know what it was like to love in the past.
Still, I crossed a great distance to be with her. I hope you’ll allow me this indulgence.
It’s a strange room, partially painted, used for storage and full of remnants of a past to which I wasn’t party. The two closets are labelled ‘Paradox’ and ‘Confusion’. There’s a faceless, naked woman drawn on the wall opposite, her nudity hidden by a stack of shoe boxes. A large, broken mirror juts out from behind a dresser topped with a half-dozen empty lamps. A lot of things here are broken, or marked, or half-finished.
There are lots more drawings less conspicuous than the faceless lady, drawn in crayon, marker and biro beneath shelves, in crawl spaces under desks, on the side of heirloom chairs. They’re the work of children let loose like a natural disaster, to scrawl on and scour every surface, destroying everything in their path.
And children aren’t a hurricane, that’s the problem. They need love, stability and a firm hand to guide them. They need attention.
Yesterday morning my youngest niece was left alone downstairs, crying for her aunt and uncle. I asked her what was wrong; she told me her mother had told her to get dressed, had buckled one of her shoes and left her to do the other, but she didn’t know how. She needed my help to thread the strap through the buckle and tighten it for her.
This morning she went through the same rigmarole, crying that she couldn’t do up her shoes because this time she had them on the wrong feet. Her mother was present; I didn’t help out because I was busy making breakfast for my nephew, who was having difficulty finding the open box of cereal and fetching milk from the fridge.
Often I feel like I’m a parent to children who aren’t mine.
We worry about our oldest niece, who’s having difficulty at school. For some reason–probably dyslexia–she has problems reading. It helps to have an adult with her, to help with the words she can’t read. When she recognises the start or end of a word she’ll hazard a guess as to what it is, and run with it even if the sentence doesn’t make sense. Reading is hard work for her.
For Christmas we’ve bought her a book–and a set of Jelly Belly scented nail polishes to off-set any disappointment she might have about getting books at Christmas. It’s The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson, not a book I’ve ever read but one from an author I’ve heard nothing but good things about. It’s perhaps a little old for her–and that’s without taking any learning problems she might have into account–but my wife’s planning on sitting with her to read the book through chapter by chapter. She loves reading, and though my niece is having trouble with her words, it’s evident that no matter how it frustrates her, she’d love to read, too.
They’ll surmount this problem together, I hope.
Meanwhile the children’s mother, well, I shouldn’t say much about her as if I do my words will come out harsh. I have little positive to say about her, and what little I do stems from the stories I’ve been told of a girl who helped look after her younger sisters while their mother worked fingers to the bone to put food on the table.
But this story ended long before my time. Whoever my sister-in-law once was, she’s now frustrating at best, selfishly malicious at worst. Playing father to three children is bad enough; I don’t want to add a fully-grown daughter with the affectations of a teenager into the mix.
And perhaps I’m unfair. She’s had a difficult life made even harder by having to raise three kids on her own. My wife sometimes finds her in tears and she stubbornly refuses to tell her what’s wrong. We can hazard guesses–her huband’s an asshole who’s making their divorce difficult out of spite–but she’ll never tell us what’s troubling her, only what the boys she works with think of her, how their girlfriends are jealous because they know she can have any man she wants, and so on, and so fucking on.
I’ve run out of sympathy, I wanted to feel bad for her and wanted us to be friends, but a day after a drunken speech in which I said I really, really did want to like her, she abused all the faith I’d put in her. I’m fed up of it. We’ve been cleaning her messes since I arrived without a word of appreciation, with her ever lifting a finger to help. We started off civil, now we’re not on speaking terms. I doubt she realises how furious I am at her for the way she behaves but I find it difficult to restrain my rage when another appliance is broken, another child cries.
This room–our room, the room my wife was raised in, the room our oldest niece will one day move into–holds so many memories. There are love hearts on the walls names long since scribbled out, and embarrassing shrines to equally embarrassing pop bands, and a thousand recollections belonging to someone I think I know, who I barely know at all.
And this house, which holds even more memories and tells even more stories, is too small for all of us to live in. You wouldn’t know it from the size, but there’s not enough room for both of our families.
My wife tells me she used to be different. She tells me her isn’t the girl she grew with, who cared for her, whom she loved, who loved her back.
I can only hope things will get better once we move away from this place. I’d hate to imagine things could get worse.