UKArchive ID: 33288sirat
Originally published on August 1, 2014 in Fiction
My entry for the current challenge in the Prose Challenge Forum: an unreliable narrator. I gave this story a fairly substantial rewrite in response to reader comments that have since been lost when we changed from one comment system to another.
Carol was there to meet me at the station. I don’t know why but I always expect her to be younger than she really is – a teenager in trendy clothes and lots of makeup. I suppose it’s because I haven’t seen all that much of her since she grew up, since her mother and I went our separate ways. You get a certain picture fixed in your mind, don’t you? Her clothes were pretty drab this time by her old standards, especially considering it was summer and this was the seaside. A kind of lightweight business suit, I suppose you would call it, beige colour, elegant tailored look to the skirt, a bit of heel to the shoes – very respectable but not right for my little Carol. And her expression – misery covered-up with a false smile.
She gave me a long hug but she didn’t actually say anything at first. I was the one who spoke. “You look great, Carol. Absolutely the young executive.”
“I don’t feel great, Dad. But I’m glad you’re here.”
We never said very much when we were together. Her mother was the exact opposite, at least when I first knew her. Small-talk all the time like a running tap, but Carol and I didn’t need it. When people are comfortable with one another they don’t, do they? We walked to her car, another Fiesta, a silver one this time. I remembered she used to have one that was dark blue before, and a different body shape. Nice new-car smell inside. I could tell that the problem wasn’t money, I didn’t need to ask her about that.
“Would you like to have lunch before we go to the hotel?” A hotel. Not a B&B. We wouldn’t have done it like that when we were here before. When we were a family. Not back then. What year would it have been?
“That café that you used to like.”
She drove to a narrow road just outside the town leading down towards the sea across a bit of grassy scrubland. I had completely forgotten about it but I remembered it now. It ended in a car park near the cliff top where the coastal walk with the benches and picnic tables began. There was a small café there where we had eaten a few times in the evenings when the sun was setting. It was a beautiful spot at that time of day, but wasted on her mother and me. All the nastiness and the stony silences.
It was around midday now. A few people out with their dogs and some older slow-moving couples, but not many. A bit too far from the centre for the holiday crowd. More the retirement-home and sheltered-accommodation belt.
We sat exactly where we had before. We had the outdoor tables to ourselves this time, probably because it was a bit breezy. They were on a pleasant decked patio, with a view down to the pebbly beach and the sea. I wondered what Carol would order. Fish and chips it would have been in the old days, no question. “Fish and chips twice,” I heard her say when the waitress came, and I nodded and smiled. People don’t change all that much. Not really. Not inside.
“Funny that you should want to meet up here. Do you remember when we came here on holiday? I think you were about ten or eleven.”
“I’m not likely to forget that holiday, am I?”
“No, I suppose not. How is your mother these days?”
“Much the same.”
“Her new marriage is working out then?”
“Well, it’s not exactly new any more, is it? Yes, they’re okay I think. I’ve just been to see her actually.”
“You went to your mother first?”
“Well, it’s what wives are supposed to do, isn’t it? Run back to Mummy.”
“So you and Richard…”
“Yes. It’s over between me and Richard.”
“After only… three years.”
“Not even that. Two years and ten months.”
“And you’re sure that it’s really over?”
She nodded. The waitress came back with cutlery and the tea things on a tray and started arranging them on the table. Carol waited until she had gone.
“Absolutely sure. I couldn’t be more sure.”
I didn’t say anything. I knew that she wanted to tell me about it and that she would in her own time.
“Everybody thought he was so sweet and charming, didn’t they? Wouldn’t say boo to a goose. Well he wasn’t like that. That was the public face. Richard was two different people. You only ever saw the nice one.” As she spoke she unbuttoned her jacket and hung it carefully on the back of the empty seat beside her. Then she rolled up the sleeve of her white blouse.
“My god! You’re not telling me Richard did that?”
“That’s the only one I can let you see in public. Richard was good at leaving no visible marks.”
I felt my heart racing. I could barely breathe. “This is insane. Richard did that to you?” She rolled her sleeve down again and retrieved her jacket. I wanted to take her in my arms but we were sitting on opposite sides of the table. I took her hand instead. “How long, sweetheart? How long has he been doing this?”
“The first time was… oh, what does it matter? Too long. I can’t believe that I let it happen. That I believed him when he said how sorry he was, how much he loved me, how he was going to change. How he needed just one more chance. I feel like I’ve been living in a cliché. You never think it can happen to you, do you?”
My head was swimming. “The police, Carol. You’ve got to go to the police. I’ll go with you. You can’t let him get away with this…”
“No, Dad. That’s not what I want. That’s not why I’m here.” She started to pour the tea and I noticed that her hand was trembling. “There is a reason why I wanted to meet here. In this town.”
Thoughts raced through my head. What on earth could she mean? What was she talking about?
“Because this was where we had our final row? Where we finally broke up?”
“Something like that. Do you still take one sugar?” I nodded and she put the sugar in and pushed the cup across to me. “I had a long talk with Mum. Probably the most serious talk I’ve ever had with her. She talked about that holiday, and that night in the bed-and-breakfast. About the row you two had. All I really heard was shouting. A few bangs and clatters. Then crying. And then I heard her screaming at you to go. Screaming like she really meant it.”
There was a long pause.
“Do you think we learn how to relate to one another from our parents? Like… following a model?”
It seemed a very abstract question after what she had just told me. I think I stammered when I replied. “I… suppose so…”
“Because that’s what Mum thinks. She thinks her relationship with you was the model I followed when it came to relating to men. To having a husband of my own. Do you think that might be true?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The waitress re-appeared. This time there were two plates on her tray. We waited in silence while she put one in front of each of us and started back towards the entrance. “What exactly did your mother say about me?” I didn’t want it to sound angry but I think it did. It came out in a sort of breathy growl.
She didn’t reply straight away. She started to cut up a piece of fish and load it on to her fork with a chip below it. She dipped the assembly into the tartare sauce. “I think you know what she said.” She raised the fork to her mouth and started to eat. She seemed so matter-of-fact, despite the tremble in her hand.
“That’s outrageous.” I seemed to have lost control of my voice. I was almost whimpering now, in a gruff undertone.
“That was pretty much how I reacted too when she told me. I didn’t want to hear it. I told her she was a liar and walked out. Then I started thinking about it. The two of you often threw things around when you had rows. Broke plates, that kind of thing. But some of the sounds that night were more like… flesh hitting flesh. And afterwards, when you had gone and I went into Mum’s room, she was putting on makeup. Quite heavy foundation makeup. That was an odd thing to be doing immediately after a big row, don’t you think?”
“That was a trick! Don’t you see? To make you think I’d hit her. To make you hate me. Isn’t it obvious?”
“She never tried to make me hate you. She always defended you. Said there were faults on both sides, that I must never stop loving you just because she had. That kind of thing. Then when I went to see her a couple of days ago, her story changed.” She was preparing another forkful as she spoke. Calmly, carefully. “For a whole day I thought she was lying.”
I couldn’t take any more. I stood up, my entire body shaking, and walked away, up the narrow track to the road. A bus came along and I flagged it down. It stopped for me and I got on without even looking where it was going.
A gentler man than me has never walked this earth. I could no more hit a woman than I could saw off my own leg. I might have shouted and I might have broken a few dishes – we both did, back then when it was all going wrong – but there isn’t a single violent impulse in my whole body. And now that evil woman has poisoned Carol’s mind against me. Why did she ever go near her mother? why didn’t she come to me first? She was always a Daddy’s girl. She was always closer to me. And now that bitch of a woman has destroyed everything. Taken away the one good relationship in my entire life. Every time I think about it I feel like… oh, never mind.
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