Too close to its flame and it catches light, burns spontaneously, a moth seized mid-flight or euphoric Icarus plunging earthward. Too far and you will never feel its warmth, simply never know.
This night begets a crescent moon: grey, luminescent and stickered against the sky. It hurls me backwards. Remember: before I could wrap my lips around its syllables, or even understand the endless repetition of lunar cycles, it came forth cheekily as “croissant”. Early moments, those, when I was still naming the world experimentally and exponentially. Sentimental first years spent looking upward, while my ancestors looked down in admiration and fear.
Within the fragmented images of childhood my great grandmother’s face lingers. Though she passed in and out like Haley’s comet, an afterimage has burned its shape on the retina of my existence, my very soul. With passing decades it loses colour and aspect.
Car ride, adult voices, streets – so many they formed a random maze, then flats, garden, white brick fences, straight path, screen door, bell. Stairs, turning at right angles: twice, three times? Definitely to the right and going up. Of that I’m sure. Muffled words in foreign tongues, the sounds of home (and anger rising to a fever pitch, occasionally) waft through walls, lingering in those half-empty corridors. All is sound, all new. When was the first time? How many visits?
Afternoons fly by at the table, or circling round it, while the one who binds us – who guaranteed this family’s flight from danger – entertains the last reminders of her own history. Antique ladies in moth-balled dresses seem to occupy the most vocal space, chattering and tittering as tea and innumerable plates, sweet and savoury, crowd the flat surface, appearing almost as if by sleight of hand.
Our matriarch towers over me, beaming. Barely five foot, her aproned form is impossibly large in spirit and space. At times my adoring love is tinged with fear or apprehension, maybe a bit of both: who has smuggled a daughter on cattle trains, huddled in doorways as bombs descended, eluded Nazis and charted a course from death. Who returned to discover no one, nothing but absence.
We are here, somehow.
I am her ending.
Of course, these legends will be served out piecemeal.
But for me she beams, and mostly through food. Hard, wrapped lollies cascade from her tired, liver-spotted hands to mine, an endless stream of sugared nourishment her own diabetes forbids her from enjoying (though she does sometimes anyway, because life is too short – too short – so very short).
— Eat, eat! What would you like? To take home? Please, more!
A life of hunger changes you. And I, too, hunger for her attention, her smile, her embrace.
I flutter between the grey skirts of her ankle-length dress, hiding from these guests whose presence I loathe. In partial camouflage, ducking and weaving beneath the opaque fabric, I feel the scratchy grit of stockings against my hands. She smiles, I think.
“Ladies, going shopping?” I ask, head popping out turtle-ready, with all the innocence a three-year-old can muster. To the chair I rush, its seat high enough that I need both hands to climb up.
They: stunned silence. Her: wide eyes, shock, hand covering the urge to laugh. She rushes to her bedroom to release a bottled chortle. That this – this little boy – could be the cause of so much delight. Who knew?
She never laughs.
I never knew.
But love – ah, it is neither blind nor unconditional nor free. It metastasises until one night you’re at home (the primary residence on the tax declarations, rather than the apartment with the second mortgage or the holiday home you’ve been to once – and then only in solitude – since her fingers settled on your slowly-balding scalp and withdrew as if they had come within inches of some radioactive wasteland), together, when your eyes – hers and yours – settle on the eight-inch non-serrated Wusthof blade. For a moment, to the uninitiated it seems…
There is no doubt that from the moment she came home (deliberately?) early to find you playing Twister with the Canadian au pair, sans children or plastic mat, you have never been more in and out of sync at once. Killer timing, you might have quipped, but you didn’t.
Reaching for the knife, she grips its hilt and plunges the blade into a waiting tomato, allowing its messy viscera to erupt freely onto the wooden block. Another cut, rough, makes four smudged wedges.
The fridge beeps twice; a toilet flushes on the second floor.
You exhale. “Should I get an onion?”
“I’m making salad.”
“I know. I thought…”
“…Why? Fine. Just… The bread.”
Years ago, before blazing summer descended into stilted autumn, you raised a simple warning. “Misery can only come,” a quote you recall almost verbatim, “from this compulsion for pluralisation, this constant yearning to expand beyond the singular.” That walk along the beach, barefoot, hands entwined, slowed to a halt. Her face distorted, eyes ground down to microscopic marbles.
Needless to say you have since, at her insistence, endeavoured to rid yourself of “this sickening, overbearing pomposity matching your narcissistic tendencies” (her words, the counsellor took them down on a yellow legal pad). Back then, in the way back before this, you could both share a wry smile.
Still, in spite of it (or because?), that night and the next were mathematical.
Still, you have come slowly uncoupled, satellites tenuously orbiting two teenage moons, their rotation falling apart.
“Kate,” you say.
She stops rifling through the cutlery draw, picks out the tongs she was looking for and eyes you, poker-faced. “What?”
Behind her you notice a wood-rimmed circular clock, bought together on a country day trip ages hence.
“I didn’t buy bread.”
It unwinds your life.
Ten minutes fiddling with the piano organ, its funny reverb and taffy keys is enough to satisfy a four-year-old (or five, perhaps). Bouncing out of the cramped, stuffy room I reappear in the living area, itself not much larger. It smells old and of the old. Musky, musty, historical fragrances mingle with pharmacy-bought perfumes and slow decay.
Afternoons are flipped through like the puzzle books featuring ghosts, skeletons and mysteries that condense car trips into flashing journeys.
Sometimes there are card games played with my great grandfather.
We are not mirrors. His hard, sniffing, coughing laugh. His dislike for spending. His distaste for personal hygiene and endless hoarding of food and medicines past their use-by date. His stubborn reluctance to firmly close clothing and shroud parts that should not – cannot – be unseen.
He does not read but makes lists and lists and lists of words in English. He is recompiling the dictionary again, creating his own translation. I never ask why.
When he speaks, rarely in English, I drown in the fermented mix of chicken fat, eggs, onion and garlic that follows him everywhere, returning for some second life. When he is spoken of, it is always of his constant failures or reputation as village fool: setting fire to a room by mistaking fly for nail and planting a lantern unsafely on the winged beast. Unwanted by any woman, even his mother reportedly issued a warning against marrying him.
He doesn’t like to let me win, I think. When I am old enough to beat him, our games seem to be forgotten, replaced by tense minutes staring at each other as the metal number on the mantelpiece beats its pendulum.
Later I will learn the truth, all the truths or most, some of which I only suspect. They will be denied with endless repetition until the tracks wear out.
Others facts become obvious with time and age, like the way when we walk together, me at four or five, him somewhere north of seventy, his eyes spend too long lingering on girls nearer my age than his. But this means nothing to me now.
We are not of the same mind, nor the same blood. I could laugh or cry, don’t know which.
Each birthday, until I protest hard enough, he feeds me money, retrieving bills secreted away under his mattress. Even after my great grandmother has faded from the world (take a guess what metastasised), these offerings for my love kept coming, as if more green might bring more love or make amends for who knew what.
In his new flat, reborn as a bachelor years later, all limits and constraints are gone. Barely an inch of space remains free; even the small dining table is lacquered in a patina of grease and dust. Small bugs land and, incapable of prying themselves free, become trapped and enmeshed in its surface, smudged beneath unwashed dinner plates and TV guides. The whirring fridge I open masochistically on each visit admits a bizarre lab of chemical destruction, a maniac’s self-created breeding ground for penicillin and a million other bacterial discoveries. Quarter-filled pots of indecipherable former meals stay and never leave.
I cannot bear to touch the piano organ, moved to its new location with its filthy keys.
This is his life after love has soured.
Later, much later, I start to think that they only remained together out of lust.
I wait for our time with him to end, endure these sordid hours until we might be free of him in this clock-less hellhole.
Enough arguments (I am not involved, though I gladly spectate) and the visits end. Soon, there can be no more.
The papers arrive two days later by registered mail.
I don’t need to open the yellow envelope to know what I’ll find there, but my fingers toy with the seam for a good twenty, forty minutes. An hour.
At the sink, I lean forward, tenderly holding the parcel by a corner, placing it to a match’s lit end.
I watch it wither up and surrender, smoke and ash.