The Gathering Storm

I awake to the sound of church bells; distant; discordant; dull.

I go to the window. The service is over. Guests are decanting themselves into cars, and I can see only the edges of hats, or heads tipped forward, or the faint pink blurs of hands. I’m comforted by the thought that if I cannot see the congregation, then the congregation cannot see me.

I go back to bed, and wait for the telephone to ring. It takes three minutes and fourteen seconds. I pick up the receiver, and listen to the snuffles and the sniffles, and the gathering of herself as she prepares to say my name. I can picture her in the pungent little box on the market square, keeping the door open with the heel of her shoe.

But it’s not her – it’s the crackle and the spit of static, and then an operator’s voice emerges. It’s a reverse charge call, would I like to go ahead? I say ‘yes’, and the crackle plateaus into the sound of several voices. For a moment, I consider hanging up. Then I hear her telling them “hush”, and out of the silence comes that shrill, indignant voice.

Michael? Michael. You’re awake, at last.’ There’s a pause, a man in the background says – ‘I’ll see you back at the club, Margaret’. Another says – ‘I’ll wait at the bus shelter. Don’t be too long.’

And then mother – ‘Don’t let me keep you from a drink, Reggie.’ She gives a quick, flirtatious laugh, then a tut and a ‘huh-huh’, then a sigh. I can picture her shaking her head.

Michael, I lost my purse. Can you believe it? On a day like today and I’ve lost my purse.’ Her voice breaks slightly, and I look outside, where the dark clouds of a storm are gathering like a headache. I think of how stuffy it must be in the phone box. I picture her gloved hand wrenching at the frilled collar of her blouse, her leatherette handbag swaying from her elbow. Open, as ever.

Oh, say something, Michael. Please.’

I realise then that I haven’t spoken. I blink; a few flakes of sleep dislodge. ‘Well, ma, at least it didn’t rain.’

She sighs in relief. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Thank God the storm held out.’ She inhales sharply; sips back her emotions.

I swirl my tongue around my mouth in an attempt to create saliva. ‘You’ll have a drink on me, ma, won’t you?’

She exhales just as sharp, and the first bloom of guilt unfolds in my stomach. ‘You won’t even come for the wake, Michael?’ Her voice goes a little higher, perched on the precipice of unbridled sobbing.

I gulp, and cast about on the bedside table for my glass of water. Empty. I consider asking her to hold – it’d give her time to collect herself. Yes, good idea.

But she goes on. ‘Do you know how difficult it is to have a hundred people ask you why your son isn’t there? They came up with a hundred different ways to ask me that question. I would have killed to have come up with just one convincing answer.’

There’s a long gap, I hear a lorry go past. ‘Perhaps it would have been better if I–.’

Sorry, Michael, what was that?’

Perhaps it would have been better if I hadn’t come home.’

Well it would have made more sense to them if you hadn’t. Imagine that – our boy came all the way over but he couldn’t make it a quarter of a mile further to the church.’

You knew I wouldn’t be going, ma. I only came back for your sake – I couldn’t have faced all those people.’

And you think I could?’

You’re that kind of person, ma. Affable.’

She laughs, and her tone softens. ‘I don’t know what that means, but I’ll take it as a compliment.’

I pinch at my cheek – suppressing a smile. ‘Sociable. Friendly. Knows how to work a crowd.’

Reggie calls her name from outside the box, and she tells him ‘just a minute’. His voice comes closer, ’til it seems as though he’s inside the box as well. He says – ‘What are you wasting your time for? If he says he ain’t coming, he ain’t coming.’ Reginald Willis, the voice of reason.

Oh, go back inside, Reggie, I don’t want a scene in the middle of town.’

Not enough of a scene to be in a phone box with make-up all down your face?’

God, Reggie, is it that bad?’

What did you say?’ The words whip from my mother’s mouth.

You heard what I said,’ says Reggie.

I hear my mother protest, and then the receiver is slammed down.

*

I awake again, hours later, to the starting of engines. Two or three of them, one by one. Headlamps floodlight the room, as the cars are reversed out of the drive in turn. They illuminate a tray on top of the drawers, opposite the bed. The lights reflect off a pool of liquid in a bowl, but my body says it’s still time for sleep. I listen as the last car disappears down the road. The front door closes, and all is silent. I slide out of bed and reach for my dressing gown. Outside the clouds are still gathering; heavier than earlier, but not yet split open. The air smells dry; the air smells still.

*

I find my mother sitting by the radio in the dining room, staring down at a bowl of soup.

You can’t eat either, then?’

She jolts slightly, then reaches for the radio. She turns it off, and pushes out the chair opposite with her leg. I sit down and look at her – her hair in curlers, her face wiped away. She is herself again, the self that lives for most of her life unseen.

What a performance, Michael. All of it. I feel just the same as I do after a party. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as that feeling when all of your guests have gone home.’

I laugh and I ask – ‘Me included?’

She looks up at me, her expression blank. ‘Yes, Michael. You included.’

I wait for her mouth to crease, for this to turn into a joke, but her expression doesn’t change. Her eyes are dried out and red. I shift in my seat. ‘The plane is at five, ma,’ I say, a little quieter. ‘You’ll be asleep when I’m gone.’

She reaches out for my hand, and squeezes it to a point that surprises me – even now her strength belies her age, her stature, her incredible susceptibility to pain. ‘Then I’ll enjoy this feeling again when I wake up. But a few hours on, I’ll start pining for the next party, and I’ll be wondering why I ever wanted my guests to leave.’ At last, she starts crying. Her grip loosens as she gulps and sobs, and I wrap my hand around hers and turn the radio back on.

After a few minutes the tide goes out, and she pulls away to wipe at her face.

Where’s Reginald?’

He’s still at the social club. They’re having a lock-in. Don’t give me those eyebrows, Michael. What use is he here, in that state?’

He sounded in that state already, this afternoon.’

She shakes her head softly. ‘He said I was making myself upset for no reason.’ She pauses, and tentatively opens her mouth. She looks up at me. ‘He likes you, you know. He said he respects you for having the gall not to show up. He said he likes that you stayed true to yourself, no matter what we all thought about it.’

Christ, that’s quite a statement for him, ma.’

She laughs. ‘I’m translating a bit, of course.’

I straighten my back and sit up in my seat. ‘Well, it means a lot if he meant that.’

She gives me a wry look; a glint in her eye.

What?’

Pleasant talk.’

I furrow my brow.

I know you don’t agree. Everyday you tell me.’

That doesn’t mean I’ll stay in bed for your wedding as well.’

She chuckles, and pulls the tray toward her. ‘All this talking; it’s given me an appetite. Go get yours – else it’ll go warm up there.’

I smile and pat her shoulder, and go upstairs to fetch my tray. We eat as we listen to the midnight news. We tut at the same stories I’m sure we’ve heard for years – someone’s been charged with planting a bomb, some other country wants independence. It was as if I’d never left.

And then the last item. An awful fire going on in some old spinster’s house. The meal is over, and the mood seems to go sombre again, as if our mundane ending is on a par with the significant news of the day. We exchange glances, but say nothing awhile. We let the mood breathe.

Then, at last, she says – ‘I would have given anything to swap places with you today.’

Oh, ma.’

To lie in bed all morning. To let it go on in my absence. What difference does it make for all of us to sit and listen to words that we only believe in that moment? To gawp at a body and secretly think thank God it isn’t ours. Even me. Thank God it’s him, and not me.’ Her eyes fill with tears. ‘Or you. Oh God, isn’t that awful?’

A feeling falls within me, like squash poured into water. ‘Poor Daniel,’ I say. But my tone is flat. I wince. I try to make up for it by shaking my head, but it feels automatic.

You don’t have to feel sorry for him.’ She pauses. ‘You don’t have to say anything.’

I can’t do it very well. All the pretending and the politeness.’

I know. I guess a selfish part of me thought, well, if you can’t do it for him, then do it for me.’

Did da come?’

She closes her eyes. ‘No. And he didn’t reply, either. Reggie’s furious with him. But for the most part, I’m glad. I couldn’t have faced a reunion today, on top of everything else.’

We all get our parting shots, don’t we?’

What do you mean by that?’

Well I roll into town, but don’t go to the service. Da refuses even to acknowledge it. And you. Well, ma, you–’

She nods her head and says – ‘You were always the favourite, Michael. And Daniel. Well.’ She clasps her hands together, as though she might pray. ‘He made it so hard to even be second best.’

I think of the hand-me-downs and the offcuts. I think of when I moved out. I think of how I didn’t come home for ages. I think of how often I would listen to the gathering storm of Daniel down the wire. Daniel’s latest heartbreak, Daniel’s latest mischief, Daniel’s latest P45.

I was so jealous of him, ma. What do I do with that, now?

Don’t wrack yourself about it, Michael. If nothing else, we’ll all maybe find some peace.’

But did you really have to put me up in his room?’

She looks down at her hands. ‘It’s the only bedroom with a ’phone.’ She smiles. ‘He insisted on it.’

And he got it. Because he asked for it.’

He got it because he was second best.’ She fixes me with her decided look, and the doubt in my mind clicks out of place. ‘Besides. Your room is Reggie’s now.’

I laugh. I laugh for the wasted years, the jealousy, the old-fashioned ways of my mother. She could never have put him in Daniel’s room. Reginald would have taken it as a sleight.

He’ll be back any minute.’ Her eyes gloss over, and she glances down the dining table to the place where Daniel used to sit.

I get up, and begin to clear away the bowls and the trays. I say my goodbyes, I bat away any offer of hers to stay up all night to see me off. I sleep soundly for a couple of hours in Daniel’s old bed, and awake as the favoured child; the one who had been gifted with life.

As I drive past the church on the way to the airport, I look up at the steeple – just in time to see the storm finally break.

Beren Reid | June 2017

Photo by Anandu Vinod on Unsplash

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