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A Family Reunion

by Cymro 

Posted: 05 January 2006
Word Count: 1887

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The Aunt’s story

My nephew drowned when he was nine years old. I found out when my brother left a message for me on my answerphone, filling me in on the barest of details, not even mentioning when or where the funeral was to be held. I learnt a few more details from the papers in the following days, but it didn’t feel like I was reading about my own family. The school photo of Tom they used in the paper of course looked like him, but already had that veneer of tragedy and distance over it. The news put me in a dilemma. For the past ten years I had seen my brother very infrequently, and we did not get on at all well. I was therefore not entirely sure in what role I had been cast. Was I to play the supportive, compassionate sister to a brother I barely knew any more? A brother who hadn’t been there for me in the past. So, I was surprised as any when I found myself picking up the phone to call him. The conversation was of course awkward. I was thrown off balance immediately, by my brother picking up the phone almost as soon as I had finished dialling the unfamiliar number. Had he been sat by the phone? I couldn’t imagine he would have been waiting for my call.

‘David, it’s Annie’. I was going to add, ‘Your sister’, but thought that it might sound sarcastic; it almost certainly would have been. I could already feel my throat tense and barbed.
‘I just wanted to call to say how dreadfully sorry I was to hear about Tom’. It had taken me hours to come up with this line. I forced it out of my mouth and it landed far from him, lame and insincere.
‘Thank you. How are you?’ His voice was the same flat, formal tone as ever.
‘I’m… How are you?’
‘I’m going mad, I think. We all are’. He laughed. ‘Ruth hasn’t stopped crying and Lou spends the entire time walking around the house. It’s as if she’s looking for him.’

I couldn’t imagine how Ruth would cope. She was a nervy, neurotic woman at the best of times. Curiously, it was my niece, Lou, who I felt most sorry for. I liked Lou. She was a strange, bright and serious child. The humourlessness so annoying in my brother was somehow appealing in his daughter. I had only met her a handful of times, but I had enjoyed her company. Her imaginative, serious chatter filled the awkward silences in the conversation of the adults. She seemed to pick up on the tension between me and my brother and tried to put us at our ease. I suppose it was thinking of Lou which inspired my next question, which fell out of my mouth without my brain being asked for approval.

‘Would getting away help? You’re can come and stay with me for a while if…if you like’. My face became hot; it was somewhat inappropriate to invite someone whose son had just drowned for a holiday by the sea. Still, being by the sea is healing, I think. It was one of the reasons I had moved here when my husband left me. There was a pause and my stomach dropped as I realised that he was going to accept.

‘I know we can’t stay here. It’s terrible. Everything…it’s all him in this house. I can’t bear it. I need… I need not to be here for a while’.
‘Well, of course you’re very welcome to come. I’d love to see you’. If he was going to accept, I may as well sound gracious about it. Except I didn’t sound gracious, I sounded my usual arid self.

The family, three quarters of what they had been, arrived the next day at one. I had spent the morning pinballing around the house, trying to get things in order. I was finding it difficult to concentrate; I was edgy and angry. Angry with myself for being stupid enough to invite them to stay and angry with my brother for accepting. Good God, I hadn’t even been invited to the funeral! Yet here I was playing host to three people I barely knew and their grief. After I had flapped around the house like a trapped bird for as long as I could bear it, I stood in the living room, staring out of the open window. I could see the winding coast road and would have been able to see my brother snaking his way around the headland, but I couldn’t remember what car he drove. I loved this view, loved tracing a path across the lawn, past the White Eagle and onwards and downwards, over the black rocks and across the slick sand to the sea. I had lived in this house for ten years and still didn’t feel I had taken the view in completely and would never possess it all. For the first year of living here all I did was stare out of this window, willing my husband to suddenly appear on the beach, smiling. I imagined him running across the lawn, where I’d meet him amazed; he’d kiss me and explain that it had all been a mistake and he was back and wouldn’t be going away again. What ridiculous, girlish drivel.

A large silver 4x4 was winding around the coast road and I somehow knew it must be my brother. My heart started to spasm and I contemplated having a quick gin to calm myself. I restrained myself – greeting everyone smelling of booze would probably just serve to confirm their worst suspicions of me. I dashed to the kitchen, flicked the switch on the coffee machine and let myself out of the kitchen door and into the lane. The silver car was nearing my house, giving me the first glimpse of my brother I’d had for some time.

I breezed through the greetings like an idiot, grinning manically, feigning pleasure to see them one minute, the next minute gurning and nodding with seriousness to show I recognised their loss. I ushered them into the living room, taking their coats and piling their luggage next to the dining table. They had a lot of luggage, I noticed warily. I served coffee in my best china; pearly pink cups rimmed with a silver stripe, with orange juice for Lou. We all sat and looked at each other.

The Father’s Story

I was surprised to find myself in my sister’s house, drinking coffee out of our mother’s ugly china. How had we got here? The preceding days hadn’t existed for me. I’d lived as if unconscious, calm, still, but with something lurking beneath the surface that I couldn’t face, something my brain couldn’t bear to learn, saving myself by burying this painful yawning away. Occasionally I’d get a glimpse of it, a flash like a fish in a stream, but I’d push it down. My wife, usually so reserved and inhibited, exploded. Something fractured inside her and all the blackness that I’d suppressed came flowing out of her. She became violently obsessive about the most trivial things, cleaning and tidying madly, frenzied and focussed. She kept herself busy at all costs, to try and fill the unfillable. We existed in this state of madness for… I don’t know how long; my wife raging and crying, me trying to feel nothing and shutting myself down. And I’m ashamed to say that I barely even acknowledged the effect it was having on our daughter. She seemed to be by turns her mother’s daughter and then mine; a flurry of activities one moment, then still and mute the next.

I hadn’t spoken properly to my sister for years. We hated each other as children, merely tolerated each other as adults. When her husband died ten years ago, it’s as if she just severed the flimsy link between us and floated off. I tried to reach her, but she seemed to resent me for having a family, she became angry at the world, blaming me, blaming her husband and destroying herself in the process. In a time of need, when she needed her family most, she shut down and pushed everyone away and unfortunately, I didn’t fight to stop her. I was wrong, but it became easier to stop calling her. Of course, when Tom died I called her straight away, left her a message. I thought she might have come to see me, but she didn’t. And so I was surprised when she invited us to stay.

I sat watching Annie and Ruth shakily drinking their coffee, Lou quietly sipping her juice. Lou had been quiet for the whole of the long car journey, but as she sat on the lumpy brown sofa, I could see her forehead start to furrow deeply. She started to pull down hard on her blonde plaits as if she was trying to pull her hair out and started to cry.

‘I want him to come home. I want Tom.’ I couldn’t bear it. I felt like I was going to rupture. Before I knew it I was on my feet, grabbing her hand for from her hair.
‘Let’s go for a walk.’ I led her from the room, through the filthy kitchen and outside. It was better to be outside. No house could contain us. We walked across the lawn and down towards the sea, my one hand clutching Lou’s, my other hand empty. On the beach I sat on a rock and stared out to sea. Lou sat beside me.

‘I don’t think I will ever be happy again,’ she said. I couldn’t say anything to her. She stood up and walked towards the sea, her blue shoes pitting the sand. And then she stopped.

Annie again

I watched them go, and then turned to Ruth, with nothing to say. Her hands were gripping her knees, bone and veins pressing hard against her skin. I noticed how well presented she was, her nails polished, hair neat. Strange. When my husband died I couldn’t bring myself to eat, let alone give myself a manicure. I was unable to engage with anything or anyone in those days and it struck me that David was the same.

Ruth stood, and started fussing with the coffee cups, arranging them on the tray and neatly nesting the teaspoons. I stared, like someone watching an unfamiliar ritual. The next moment I heard something. The blood rushed to my face and started pumping hard in my ears. I was shuddering and thought I was falling over. Lou was screaming wildly, howling. Through the window I could see David carrying her across the lawn, his face a drained mask, Lou’s beetroot. Ruth and I ran from the house.

‘What is it? What’s the matter?’ she screamed at David, now frozen on the lawn.
‘She thought she saw Tom. On the beach. She thought she saw Tom’
‘I did see Tom. He’s here!’

Instinctively and ridiculously I looked towards the beach to see if he was there, which of course he wasn’t. All I could see was the same elusive view, bleak and beautiful, incapable of returning the dead to those who grieved for them.

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Comments by other Members

gkay at 12:28 on 05 January 2006  Report this post
Another fine piece, James.

Some of the images are very evocative, especially the apology landing far from him, the fact that the house could not contain them and the final sentence of the piece as well.

I would suggest developing the theme contained in the final sentence within the text. I know you have done this within the aunt's narrative but I felt it could have been extended. On the other hand, I've got a tendency to belabour a theme so maybe it's best left alone.

Nice work


Cymro at 07:44 on 06 January 2006  Report this post
Thanks Guy - appreciate you taking the time to comment on another of my postings! I note that you've posted another piece of work...it's on my to do list to read on comment on yours when I get a moment!

I think you are right about developing the theme of the final sentence within the story. At the moment, perhaps, it seems a little bit tagged on to the end... It's that fine balance of how to work a theme without belabouring it (good word, by the way!).

Thanks for your comments!



should be 'to read [bold]and[/bold] comment...' Doh!


...and check out my dodgy formatting. I'm not doing well today!

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