‘What is it about your parents? You don’t seem awfully keen to talk about them.’
I shrug and look away ‘dunno’ I say. ‘They were alright.’ Joe looks sceptical. ‘Really, I mean it. They were alright.’
‘You got on alright with them.’
‘Well, you know. Parents...’
‘I do actually. I was one.’
‘Oh’ I say. I’m surprised because A, he looks about 21 and B, he says he’s gay. I realise though that the first is misleading, and anyway he could legally have a five year old at 21. I ask about the other thing.
He thinks about it for a while, then says ‘Hey, I’m the one supposed to be asking the questions around here’ then goes on to tell me that he didn’t really admit what he was, even to himself until he was about thirty, which answers both points really. I ask about his children. ‘Just the one’ he says, ‘Kirsty’.
She was ten when he died apparently – he’s not sure what of – some weird thing where he just didn’t seem to be able to fight off infections any more. He died of pneumonia. I want to ask him what happened but sense it’s not my place. I want to say that if he needs someone to talk to... but that seems wrong too. Instead I have a brainwave and ask if his guide had been helpful, and if he could still talk to them now if he needed to. He smiles warmly at me. ‘I’m ok now, if that’s what you mean. Thanks.’ He sits and thinks for a moment. Then he looks up. ‘Anyway’ he says abruptly. ‘Your folks. What did your dad do?’
‘Various things’ I say vaguely. ‘Mum was the breadwinner really. She worked as a receptionist and secretary for a few years then got a job running a nursing agency in Brighton later on.’
‘That’s quite unusual.’
‘How d’you mean?’
‘You know what I mean’ he says smiling. And I do. In some ways I respect them for it, my parents, not just doing the normal thing. Why do I feel weird about it?
‘It was alright.’
‘Fair enough. I wasn’t criticising.’
‘Mum was weird though. She just had to have things a certain way, sort of arbitrarily, unnecessarily difficult.’
I think for a moment. ‘Oh, I know – like she wouldn’t have a lock on the bathroom door, “in case there was an accident” she said, but then we had to keep the door closed all the time, “in case of visitors” or something, so we all had to knock on the door to see if anyone was in there, but if it was her in there she wouldn’t answer, so I was always barging in on her when I was little, getting told off for it.’
Joe smiles sympathetically at me. ‘Bit of an exhibitionist then, your mother?’
‘God no. Absolutely the opposite. She was too polite to shout she was on the loo, so if we needed to go, either we were going round the house checking to see where she was, or we were there outside the door for ages whispering “Are you in there mum? I’m going to come in.” and eventually you’d hear a little noise in there, toilet paper ripping along the perforations or something, and you’d know to come back later.’ I shake my head in wonder. Joe is chuckling. ‘We ended up peeing in the garden a lot of the time.’
I haven’t really thought about it much since I’ve been here. It all seems funny now, but it wasn’t at the time.
‘She was fucking mad’ I observe coolly. ‘She wouldn’t let my dad say things like “germination” or “pollination”. I remember once she had some friends round and he came in and said he’d had a good germination out in the greenhouse and she went berserk.’
Me and Joe are both having a good laugh by now.
‘Didn’t she know what the words meant?’ he asks.
‘I suppose so. I don’t know what she thought. She was just... barking.’
We sit and think about it for a while, giggling a little from time to time.
‘I don’t know why I keep saying “was”. It’s me that’s past tense isn’t it.’
‘Well... tenses are a little hard to pin down here – you could be future too.’
‘But right now we’re in each others past, aren’t we.’
He shrugs a little. ‘That’s the thing’ he says sadly.
I really want to ask him, if he does go back, if he’ll be able to change things, so Kirsty won’t have to have her dad die when she’s little, but I can’t find the right words.
‘Tell me what it felt like, to be there, in the house, with your family’ he says at the beginning of another session.
I think for quite a long time. ‘Like I was a nuisance? Like I was always in the way?’ I say finally.
‘In the way of what, do you think?’
‘Them getting on with life I suppose – stuff they needed to do – normal stuff.’
‘You felt that they didn’t want you around.’
‘Maybe they wanted someone easier, more normal.’
‘You’re talking as if you can just submit your requirements and take delivery of a child of your choice. It’s not like that.’
‘No, I know that, obviously, it’s just...’
‘Maybe I could have tried harder – been more, I don’t know, less individual – less awkward. It’s like, for instance, just before I... just before I ended up here we had this ridiculous fight because I didn’t want to drink instant coffee any more. I always said I’d rather have a glass of water. I didn’t mean it as a criticism but they always took it that way. I just didn’t like instant coffee.
Anyway, there was this old metal coffee pot in the larder. I think it was a present from Spain from somebody. Anyway mum said fresh coffee was too expensive so I said I’d pay the difference, but then she said she wouldn’t have me paying for food and drink all the while I lived in her house. Then she said she was worried the coffee pot might explode, so I ended up brewing up on a camping stove down in the Wendy house like it was some illegal drug fix or something. Then they found out what I was doing and took it away because they thought I might start a fire...’
Telling this now it all seems so ridiculous. Maybe I should have just let it go, for a quiet life, as dad used to say, but I couldn’t. I don’t know why. I just couldn’t.
‘Whenever mum made herself a coffee she’d make one for me too and then announce “Oh I’m so sorry. I forgot you won’t drink our coffee any more” and pour it down the sink.’
‘Sounds like something of a power struggle going on’ says Joe, clearly amused at my petty drama.
‘It’s not funny.’
‘I know.’ He looks around the room, for inspiration I suppose.
‘Maybe if I could just have...’
‘I don’t know – just given in – let them have it their way.’
‘Why do you think they were so intent on stopping you working out your own way? I mean, you don’t seem to have been a bad kid. You weren’t taking drugs or doing anything dangerous. You were never rude or even particularly naughty from what I can see. You were creative, busy, intelligent... You did well enough at school, up until you’re A levels anyway. What do you think was going on?’
‘I don’t know. I just think.... I just think I was too... different. Maybe if I’d just been more...’
‘Maybe if you’d just been someone else?’
‘Maybe... You know what I mean.’
‘No. Sorry Gabriel, but no. The trouble seems to be they didn’t want you, and it doesn’t matter how hard you try Gabriel, you’ll never be someone else – not and stay sane. Look...’ he leans forward and takes my hands in his. Oddly enough this doesn’t feel uncomfortable.
‘When you have children, you have them for better or for worse. There should be vows at the christening except that’d be too late. It should be on the bedstead, on the condom packet, over the damn pub door.
If you have sex, even if you use contraception, you have to take responsibility for the child that may result, and you can’t just look at it later and say “This is not quite what I had in mind.”
It seems to me you think it’s your fault that you were not the type of boy your parents wanted, or even that it’s your fault you were born at all, but it’s not. When you have a child you have to go with what comes along, make the most of it, as it is. Teach it, play with it, guide it, protect it by all means, but it’s not a little custom-made mini version of yourself, or a do-it-yourself buddy. And it’s not up to the child to make everything alright for you – to give your life meaning. It’s not there for the parent’s benefit.’ He sits back, hooks his thumbs in his pockets. ‘Or not any more anyway. It used to make economic sense to have children simply so you could look forward to a relatively comfortable old age, but not any more. Now it’s a choice people make and have to take responsibility for, and yes, even when it’s an accident. I hate these absent fathers who won’t even pay maintenance more than almost anyone. Like I say the adult must accept responsibility that there may be a child, or I guess pay for an abortion at any rate.’
‘Mum would never have done that.’
‘But she’d bring a child into the world and then make it apologise for its very existence? Think about it Gabriel – I’m not convinced you owe them anything.’
‘I’m not just here to blame other people for what happened’ I say, very quietly. I’m close to tears again. ‘I’m really not just saying it’s everyone else’s fault.’ I rummage around in my pockets trying to find a tissue. Joe picks up the box and hands me one.
‘I never said you were’ he says.
‘I know you can’t do that’ I say, too loudly now. I try to lower my voice. ‘You can’t just blame your upbringing or whatever... It’s just... I just can’t stand it being all my fault... everything... They can’t blame me for everything can they?’
‘Of course not.’
‘But it does seem like that.’
Joe nods, mulling it over.
I wipe my eyes and blow my nose and hide the evidence in my pocket. (Can’t have the others seeing me like this.)
He puts the tissues next to me and we sit in silence a while longer. It’s getting late.
‘The thing is Joe, I’m not a child any more. I should be able to...’
‘Gabriel, that’s irrelevant and you know it is. Children don’t just become adults, wham, like that, on their sixteenth birthday, or their eighteenth or twenty-first or their fiftieth for that matter. The way you are as a child – the way you were with your parents all those years... It stays with you your whole life. It might work for you or it might not or you may be able to change parts of it if you really try, but what happens when you’re a child... You can’t just alter that by force of will, because you think you aught to or because you think it’s about time. Most adults never do and teenagers certainly can’t be expected to. It’s never the children’s fault or even fifty-fifty.’
‘But what’s the point blaming them? What are they going to do about it?’
‘In your parents’ case, I suspect, nothing. Unfortunately I don’t think you can expect anything much of them Gabriel. I doubt they’ll be prepared to really think about it and they certainly won’t admit to anything. I’m afraid it becomes your unavoidable responsibility as an adult to make the best of it and try not to make the same mistakes with your own kids. That’s probably the best you can do.’
‘So I can blame my parents all I like but I still have to take responsibility for sorting out the mess myself.’
‘That’s about it, yes.’
Oddly enough that makes me feel a lot better. Strange.
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