hollin clough

Hollin Clough
Susan day
Jen: Excuses
‘No excuses,’ says my father over the phone.
‘OK,’ I say, because there have been excuses.
‘Everyone,’ he says.
‘Even –?’
‘Even –,’ he says. ‘Fingers crossed.’
‘Fingers crossed,’ I agree, knowing that you cross your fingers to hope that nothing goes wrong, and also to cancel out a lie.
Next thing, he’s passed the phone to my sister. I didn’t even know she was there.
‘The thing is, Jen,’ she says, and I just know she’s going to be telling me something I’ve done wrong, or something I have to change about my life, and I’m nearly right, there’s something she wants me to do. ‘The thing is, God knows why, but Grampy Sid wants all the family there –’
‘I’m coming,’ I say. ‘I never said I wouldn’t.’
‘– including –’ she pauses longer than most people would for dramatic effect.
‘Yes, partners, children, Her, the whole lot,’ I say.
‘Troy,’ she says.
There’s another long pause. I sense my father waiting in the background, half in and half out of the door.
‘It’s OK,’ I say at last. ‘He won’t come. We’re not even sure where he lives these days.’
‘We have an address,’ she says. ‘We’re pretty sure it’s the latest one. But you’re right, if we just send him an invitation he could just tear it up. It needs a personal approach.’ Pause. I say nothing. ‘Grampy can’t do it, obviously, or NanaDot, they can’t travel that far, and –’
‘You want me to go round and see him,’ I say, to stop her running through the excuses of the entire family down to the new baby (‘and of course Xander would go if I asked him, but he’s still being fed on demand and I don’t think –’)
‘What about Honey?’
‘What about Nev?’
‘You’re nearer.’
‘I’m the other side of London. Assuming he’s still in Clapham.’
‘Catford. I’m not sure where that is, but you know Jen, the Underground will get you there in no time.’
‘Not to bloody Catford it won’t.’
‘Don’t phone first, just go and see him. Element of surprise.’
‘And when he’s not in?’
‘Wait. Or go back another day. It’s not till June. Stake it out, like a PI.’
‘A what?’
‘Don’t be thick Jen. Just do it. It’s for Sid and Dot after all. I’ll text you the address.’
‘OK then.’
‘And Skype me, why don’t you. You haven’t seen Xander yet.’
‘OK,’ I say, though I know it will not happen. I press the button to end the call and I wish things were as they should be with my sister. She’s a bossy cow and I hate her; and I hate myself for hating her when I used to love her, bossy cow or not. It never used to be like this. But things have changed and I haven’t seen her for months. I saw her some time in May last year, when she told me she was pregnant. After that, work and holidays – hers not mine – got in the way and by the time September came things were different and I had no wish to see her, no wish at all.
She is puzzled by my distance, I can tell, but she won’t ask me to explain. Just, on the rare occasions when we speak on the phone she is brisk with me, as if it doesn’t matter, and I am irritated. We miss each other, I think, but it is some previous version of each other that we miss.
Anyway. I have things to do this evening, before I head back tomorrow morning into the bedlam that is Year Four. And after I’ve finished planning my week, and cutting out display cards, and going over the online remedial reading programme for Yellow Group and making a set of written instructions for the Teaching Assistant (which she won’t even look at, so sure is she that she knows what to do) and I should write a referral for that little Domenika who seems to me to have multiple difficulties, so far unnoticed by any agency outside school – but did I bring her file home? Damn – so I have to do it tomorrow evening, when I was hoping I could get to the gym for an hour. Still when I’ve done all that, then and only then will I think about Troy, and my mission.
Midge: Family
Yes, I was hovering in the doorway as my daughter Beth spoke on the phone to my daughter Jenny. On this day, the day of the phone call, Beth had brought the baby, our new grandson, our first grandchild, down for the day and naturally I took them to see my wife’s parents. It was the first time they had seen him, and Sid especially was thrilled. Dot, though she held the baby and acquiesced in having her photograph taken with him, gave him back to Beth almost without looking at him. I had expected her to be more effusive, knowing how fond she always was of all her grandchildren.
When Sid and I went into the kitchen to make a pot of tea I asked if Dot was all right.
‘A bit quiet do you think?’ said Sid.
‘Just wondered,’ I said.
‘It gets her down,’ he said. ‘You know, pills for this and pills for that, and the pills make her feel sick, so there are pills for that, and then she gets constipated – don’t tell her I told you – and there’s pills for that, and of course –’ He tried and failed to rip open a packet of biscuits. I took them from him. – ‘of course, by the time you’re our age you know you’re not going to get better, you know what the end of it is going to be.’
‘Well, but –’ I said.
‘She misses the grandchildren,’ he said. ‘Every day, she wonders when she’s going to see them again.’
‘Beth’s here,’ I said. I too thought it was a long time since we had seen the others. ‘And the baby.’
‘I’d lay any money,’ he said, ‘if you was to be able to get it out of her, what she’s feeling right now, it would be, she’s never going to see this baby grow up, never even see him start school, learn to walk even. That’s what it will be.’
‘Surely –’ I began to protest and thought better of it when I reflected that he could be right.
‘But,’ he said. He straightened up. He could still stand straight as long as he didn’t try to move his legs. ‘I have an idea,’ he said. ‘A party. In the summer. Dot’s birthday. Something to look forward to, like a promise. Get us through the winter.’ We both looked through the kitchen window at the colourless garden under a low colourless sky. ‘What do you think?’ he said.
I could not tell him what I thought. What I thought was that it was a terrible idea. I thought the prospect of it would probably cause Dot nothing but worry, the organisation of it would cause bad feeling between various members of the family each of whom would believe they were doing all the work and no one else was pulling their weight. I have to be honest here and say that I thought as well that it would probably be me that picked up much of the burden, and I felt I had, as always, enough to contend with.
We took the tea in and the phone rang. It was my wife – Glenys I suppose I should call her – wondering how soon we would be home. When I went back into the room Sid, unable to contain his idea, was telling Beth all about it. The baby was lying on the rug, concentrating hard on the light bulb. Dot was listening but saying nothing. I thought that maybe she would be able to talk him out of it when we had gone.
‘We should invite everyone,’ he said, ‘the whole family, no one left out. Can you organise that Beth my love?’
She had her phone out already and was tapping in a list.
‘Midge and my mother,’ she said. ‘Elaine and Keith. Nev. Me and Dan. Jen, and her boyfriend. Baby of course. Tricky and James and their plus ones. That makes – fourteen. Plus baby, plus you two. For NanaDot’s birthday.’ She was nearly as excited as Sid was.
‘Honey and Ashley, don’t forget,’ said Sid. ‘We’ll have it at the campsite. Like old times.’
‘Troy,’ said Dot.
Beth looked at me. I imagine she had the same feeling as I did. Alarm, a slightly baffled alarm. Why now?
‘No need to look like that,’ said Dot. ‘I loved that boy. He was a grandchild to us, for the time he was here, and even after. I would love to see him again.’ She does not add, Before I die, but she doesn’t need to.
‘Fine,’ said Beth, and tapped briefly on her phone.
Then she and I and baby Xander went back to Glenys and I phoned Jenny and spoke to her until Beth took over.
They are impressive young women, my daughters. Look at Jenny, down there in the badlands of the East End, even-handedly showering enlightenment and literacy on her clamouring, multi-faith, multi-lingual crew of eight-year-olds; Jenny with her boyfriend – nice enough chap, as far as I know – her new flat, her gym membership, her weekends away, her troops of friends; her busy life, so busy that she has not been to see us since early last summer.
Look at Beth, eight days after giving birth and still high on adrenalin, driving by herself all the way from Leeds. Listen to her telling me how she is going to train this baby to play by himself while she does some of her work from home.
‘Is that possible?’ I said.
‘Just until he’s old enough for daycare,’ she said. ‘With internet and email there’s practically no part of conveyancing I can’t do from home.’
‘I meant, is it possible to train a baby?’
‘We’re all trained aren’t we. It’s just a matter of being aware of our objectives and our methods.’ Her brown eyes – brown like mine – shone with purpose and confidence. She had given birth, hadn’t she, and could therefore meet any challenge. She was a woman, wasn’t she, and hers was the world and everything that’s in it.
‘But –’ I said. What did I know?
Look at her quickly and competently changing his nappy, cleaning his little bottom with tidy swift strokes, snapping the poppers back together without once going wrong. She has no need (which is just as well) of a mother to show her how to do it.
‘Before I go back,’ she said, ‘and while he’s awake and clean, I’ll just walk round to Elaine’s. She’d like to see him.’
‘She’d love it,’ I said. ‘I’ll come with you.’
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