‘The trouble with all that school stuff we were talking about before’ Joe begins, ‘I believe it’s all based on early childhood experiences, and as you pointed out at the beginning, even if you can change how you react later on it can still be there, in your subconscious, affecting everything you do, undermining your confidence. A lot of what Freud said has been discredited since, but I think that part holds true. I don’t envy you.’
He sits, hunched, looking about, I don’t know what’s coming next.
‘All the same’ he says, ‘it doesn’t seem enough, considering what came next. There has to be something else.’
‘I can’t tell – some childhood trauma? Something your parents did? Some other family member? Do you see what I’m getting at?’
‘But maybe that’s just how I was’ I shrug. ‘Maybe I was born that way.’
‘What? Thinking you were a useless prat and everything you did was probably wrong? Oh yes, children are born like that all the time.’
‘Maybe it was school then’ I say. ‘I think things were alright before I went to school.’
‘Do you remember anything from before you went to school?’
‘I know we lived on a farm. It was a little place out in the country. I don’t know exactly where. Apparently I was always running down the garden in all weathers with no clothes on. Justine says they used to call me nature boy. I remember there was a big garden. I used to come in freezing, covered in mud and scratches and grazes and bruises but I never complained about it – I just carried on. That’s what they told me. I don’t think anybody remembers much about that time do they?’
‘Just as well sometimes’ he says. He seems sort of angry – I’m not sure what about. I don’t know if I’ve said something wrong. I mean, they weren’t bad parents. Maybe I was just difficult. I don’t know. I don’t miss them at all – I know that. I feel terrible about that. I feel like I should miss them but I don’t. I miss my sisters.
‘Do you want to know about my sisters?’ I say, conversationally.
‘Er... yes, I do actually. Tell me.’ He looks relieved to change the subject. ‘They were quite a bit older than you weren’t they?’
‘My first memories of them they already seemed like adults to me. I suppose they were just teenagers but they seemed so... grown up. And they had all these really exciting friends round and all this amazing music was going on in the next room. They let me stay in with them sometimes if I was quiet. I loved that.’
‘And they helped look after you?’
‘When my dad was at work. I have this memory of the three of us on the sofa and I’m squashed in between them in my pyjamas, like a little puppy or something, and I can feel that fatty bit over Amelia’s hips through the horrible acrylic material she’s got on and I was just fiddling with it and making her giggle. She wasn’t fat – both of them were quite slim, but she was nice and soft too. And she had this really strong smell – I think my head was right up under her arm pit and I was so warm, and it was dark except for the gas fire and I remember thinking “I want to be here for ever”. I think I must have been about four.’
‘So they’d have been, what? In their mid teens?’
‘Describe them for me.’
This is good. I like talking about my sisters. ‘Well, Justine was the older one, about twelve when I was born. She was quite tall, nearly six foot I think, and she had very straight red hair and this very long, very serious sort of face and you’d think she was really going to give you a hard time and then she’d say something ridiculous and it was just hilarious. She was quite a serious person though. She wanted to go to university but changed her mind. I don’t know why. She was the one that looked after me most. Mum used to say she was the one that could be trusted. I think a lot of people were a bit scared of her but she was always good with me.
And then with Amelia, the younger one, she had this long dark hair, like mum, and really lovely dark eyes. I loved her eyes – they were almost black sometimes, the irises. I used to love watching her getting ready to go out, putting on her make-up and getting dressed. She was always going out and getting into trouble, having to phone dad to come and fetch her in the middle of the night. But she did look after me sometimes too. Nothing bad ever happened.’
‘What happened when they left home?’
‘Oh god, that was terrible. I was about ten I think when Amelia got married, and then Justine moved out soon after. It was just horrible. Mum said I made a terrible fuss about it. They were trying to get me to cheer up for ages.’
‘How did they do that, cheer you up I mean?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. They just, you know, told me to go out more, make some proper friends my own age...’
‘Which you did?’
‘Not really. I don’t really remember. It doesn’t matter...’
I can feel him watching me. I focus hard on the legs of the table – curved, shiny.
‘Just take it easy Gabriel’ he says. Joe has that worried look on his face again. I wish he wouldn’t. He sits and looks at me for quite a while.
‘Do you want to go on?’ he says quietly.
‘I don’t know’ I say. And I don’t. I don’t know anything. He lets me go.
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