I couldn’t quite make out who it was through the rain-drenched window, but someone was talking to mum. A man, I thought, noting the deep, disparate tone that reverberated through the thin walls of the conservatory. Though I was surprised and, being worn down by the long, monotonous summer, strangely intrigued by this, I remained lying in the leather sofa, hunkered down as if drowning in its vast mass. It was cold, and I shuddered slightly as the voices crept closer to the window. Tiny splits of light fell on my arms, warming them slightly before what I assumed to be the huge, absurd body of the man came and blotted it all out.
The exaggerative figures blurred into view. Dark, monotonous clouds. Mum’s face became distorted and absent like a damaged statue, and the voices continued, the mouths stalled in time through the illusory frame of patterned glass.
The nights began to get colder – those abstract summer nights where all sounds are flushed out, the skeletal branches of trees and the rustling leaves stagnate; everything that does move gains an odd sense of intensity jarring against the general weightlessness of it all.
I learned that the man’s name was Brad. I can’t remember how, but it comes forcefully into my mind like a body floating to the surface of a pool. One day he must have, seeing my moping, aimless face slanted out on the old, rose-embroidered cushions, wandered over and introduced himself. Surely I looked so exaggeratively depressed that my illness looked like an imitation, impossible to take pity on or even to notice other than as an affectation. Not that Brad should have felt sorry for me. It was another kind of ignorance, however, to try to warm himself to me when I was so clearly more of an obstacle than anything else.
Brad was not a bad person. He was the first unambiguous source of affection forced upon my mother by a set of bewildered relatives frightened of how deeply grief could manifest itself. They just wanted her back, and I couldn’t begrudge them that. I wanted it too.
I got lost in reading long novels, things that I felt I had an obligation to get through. I sat in the conservatory for a few hours each morning, and then retreated to my room for the rest of the day. I had a huge tub of sweets leftover from my birthday earlier in the year, and I often sat for hours gnawing on the ends of lollipop sticks, becoming increasingly disgusted by their fractured texture in my mouth, occasionally sucking warm, viscous saliva up or else spewing it on my unwashed fingers.
I felt as if I was ageing rapidly; every time I tried to find something to occupy myself with, my anxiety increased to the point where I felt inept and powerless. I began to hate the man downstairs. His blatant, joyous exclamations as he barged through the house slamming the doors irked me more than I could articulate, more than I could truly account for.
I talked to mum less and less often until her spectral, noiseless presence receded even further. It was as if she didn’t exist. She came into my room as I was staring at the ceiling, gently caressing the legs of my wooden desk from my incongruous, laughable position on the floor. I slowly tapped my index finger against it, smoother than a drop of rain. She looked terrified, but in a repressed way, like a character in a movie just before letting out an excessive scream.
‘Hi,’ I said.
She didn’t move; her hand clung to the doorframe.
It seemed an unusually long time before she answered. I was certain that the more I said, the more stunted she would be, so I lay still, amusedly watching the quivering of her lip below the eyes that had been emptied of life.
‘Hello Clara,’ she murmured. I’ve worried… I’ve been worried about you.’
‘I can’t see why you should be. I’m just enjoying my youth, like the guy in The Graduate.’ I was sure that she had never seen the film. ‘I like staying inside like this,’ I added, preparing an exaggerated smile that curved like a bow. ‘It gives me time to think.’
We had several similar conversations in the ensuing weeks, either hunched around the circular, lemon-yellow kitchen table, or with me lying on my bedroom floor again so that the memories become one memory, like the image of that man who always lingered around our dull house.
I stopped pretending that Brad was the source of my pain, but this absence only made things worse. I had never been so angry before, or so convinced by my self-disgust. I spent the days filling in parts of job applications, or doing parts of drawings, or writing a few paragraphs and then slowly combing through, looking for the rare thing that I didn’t want to delete forever. The real, tangible world only appeared in a fractured halve, and, though I knew it resided somewhere, the rest seemed clouded and distant. I felt like I was being dragged down into a body of water slowly and heavily, the few inky blots of shoreline vanishing on an unstable horizon – some place I had never been.
As I left the house one evening, I sensed that they were both watching me through the winding corridors, tracking me as if through the narrow frame of a periscope.
I stared down into the translucent stream that ran past our garden, stepping over the shifting, impossibly light stones as the water flushed through them. A white foam pulsed through the steeper areas, and even the clearer ones became tainted with the crimson sky that was slowly branching out over everything. The trees went dark and flattened like the set of a play. My whole life was artificial then.
When Brad died last year, my distorted, cavernous portrait of grief was complete. I knew now what it was like for someone to go quickly, unexpectedly. We had to wait a long time for the test results to come back. But then it was almost instantaneous.
Mum would often aimlessly saunter around the kitchen, mechanically clasping a saucepan or some strange utensil that I had never seen before, the darkening grey sky seeping through the windows like a steady reminder of the loss. Mournful, toxic smoke. The plain, anaesthetic white of the room would not drown it out.
And, of course, I felt rather sad too – sad that I could have no real claim to this grief, and merely waded through it as an observer, a ghost at the very sombre and undramatic feast.
One night I almost yelled at her as she tentatively laid out his knife and fork on the hardwood table. I thought she must have been trying to piss me off: it was so odd to betray a kind of forgetfulness in the face of such suffering.
I understand her more now, looking at the sullen, hopeless face, the eyes like reflections of deep, shadowy graves. Her impulses are like my own but weathered, harder to reconcile with a body that keeps highlighting signs of its own decay.
I know intimately how grief comes as a numb, indistinct pain, like being healed from a wound that you cannot remember the source of. The cleanliness of everything becomes suspect and almost ridiculous.
I pick up a shining, fat tomato from the fruit bowl, crushing it slowly so I can feel my own agency over its gentle flesh. Night draws on and the cherry blossoms spiral down and vanish on the wet pavement. Mum cries, her elbows propping up her sunken head, broken columns in some ancient, long-forgotten city. I have never been so empty. I stare at her unseeing, obscured face for a while, and then at my own, distantly hovering in the indeterminate darkness of the window – and I cannot feel sad. This, after all, is what I always wanted.
by Joseph Bullock