Once reprieved, Lucy returned home in a disgruntled flurry of cursing and frigidity. Mum was out and she had no keys and so was forced to sit out on the front step, waiting for something to happen. It was a sunny day but sitting on the step still angered her because she was not in the mood for sunshine and bird song and blue skies. She felt like a naughty child sat there, punished by the façade of her own house. It was arid and the heat seemed to stick her tongue to her throat and grill her waiting skin.
Despite her general sense of anticipation, she was not prepared for the arrival of her next door neighbours. Their sudden presence on her side of the path was particularly startling as she had begun to doze and so jumped at their existence as if she’d been caught napping on some sort of guard duty.
She stood when she caught sight of them although she was not sure whether this was defence or courtesy and folded her arms across her body. They did not wrap comfortably across her (effing lump) but gave her an air of casual menace. You could probably still see where the handcuffs had been.
“I wanted to say sorry,” Mr Waters said, holding his son steady with one arm.
Her instinct was to retreat, questioning immediately what sort of device this was; some sort of trap that could force yet more ugliness out of her. They made such a perfect coupling, the man and the child, wearing twinned expressions of concern. The concern was so stretched that she couldn’t help deciding that it was yet another trimming from a library of pretty dustsheets.
“Very sorry,” he continued, twitching his fingers nervously about his mouth. “For everything and… well… yes… I think all this – well, Jasmine wouldn’t have wanted it to hang over us like this…” His voice was a paper aeroplane that stumbled and swerved mid-air. Now it plummeted and crashed on the paving slab between them.
She nodded slowly.
She took the apology and turned it over in her hands. She was afraid of finding it to be insincere; a false reassurance that there was to be no more animosity. She was warming to the idea of reconciliation; of shedding several layers of skin and stepping from them anew. There was no particular reason for this other than that she had grown sick of being angry over the past week and did not have the energy to continue singing the same old rage songs. She’d been singing them for too many years – never letting go of the lyrics even when, had she been honest enough, she would have realised they no longer suited her.
Anger did not flatter her.
Unfortunately it clung to her; she was stubborn and the way she tackled fury was the same. It was steadfast and unswaying and she would let many happier alternatives fall by the wayside in order to continue to hold up her gun in indignation. Under the pretence of pride, she often failed to notice that she was not merely holding a gun but pointing it back at herself.
Her impassioned disapproval – and her insistence that she could not relinquish this disapproval – was like the act of tying her own shoelaces together. She had not noticed it until she’d tried to move. Having spent three years convincing herself that she was no longer riled she was not prepared for the trip wires she’d buried by her toes.
She’d never cleared up the mess, she’d only sat upon it, and the week she’d just stormed through was testimony to this. She still hoarded her grudges like they were the lollipops of her childhood afternoons and the bitterness had swollen under her neglectful eyes so that it had had nowhere to go but to explode. She had allowed it to erupt and to poison everything and the truth was that she was tired of being venomous. Carrying anger was like carrying paper, she decided, in pieces you could forget that it existed but when heaped together the weight became almost unbearable.
“Are you OK?” The boy – was it David? – asked her and she stared at her toes, abashed. Perhaps she looked cold or devastated or something because he had shuffled back a few centimetres so that a little more of the paving stood between them. “I’m sorry if you’re angry about him saying sorry,” he added, stroking the raw edges of his T shirt. “I was the one who said that we should say sorry to you – it’s my fault.”
So Mr Waters’ apology was only grudging then? Lucy noted; it was a suggestion that his son had made and so naturally he played the part that the boy had written for him. Because fathers like him cared about the offspring they’d created.
You ungrateful little eff. She told herself vehemently. You are not going to throw yet another effing opportunity back. You’ve done that too many times before.
“No, no. It’s not your fault; you haven’t done anything wrong.” You’re just making me see things clear again, she thought, things that aren’t so nice to look at. “I’m sorry too, I guess. I – I – yeah... I’m sorry.” She was not entirely sure what she was apologising for because there were so many sins she felt she ought to atone and nobody had bothered to nail down one particular crime. Everyone was simply ‘sorry’ and momentarily satisfied by the flabby vagueness of the statement. No formal accusation had been made and so she could not really tell whether the root of this encounter was to tackle the swearing, or the argument, or the death, or the arrest… it simply played out before her, perhaps sensing that all parties found it necessary.
“Thanks,” she told the boy in another unplaced gesture of banality. She ducked her head to the man who’d called her illiterate and allowed a small slice of humility to fall from it.
Then the man and the child helped each other back to the gate and in that moment of wrenching fragility she felt that, although the two houses were conjoined, they could not have been more separate.
“Mum never really visited the garage” Lucy told Emma as she fed herself some sort of cheap potato-based snacks that hardly counted as crisps.
Mum didn’t have a problem with buying Lucy ‘junk food’ providing that she didn’t have to touch it herself.
Unfortunately she only stretched the budget to the oddities of the supermarket isles. “When you decide that you want to eat decent food, I’m happy to fork out for you,” she’d say. “Until then I refuse to fund more than this.” The problem with this philosophy was that the cheapest things also happened to be the unhealthiest. Mum had not cottoned on to that yet. Lucy swallowed, unsure as to what exactly she’d just consumed and offered the packet to the girl beside her.
Emma shook the packet away and Lucy didn’t push the matter although Emma was kind of skinny in a boring sort of way. Emma’s skinniness was the kind that would be healthy enough to be enviable if she didn’t look so unhappy about everything. No matter what her features resembled, Emma never quite managed to look like she was anything other than drowned.
Lucy returned her tongue to its initial purpose, staring hard at the girl it was aimed at:
“Mum never went there, she said it wasn’t her type of place but I think she was just trying to deny what she knew was probably the truth. She didn’t want to walk in on my dad and see him breaking the law. She carefully avoided the issue because she, like, wasn’t sufficiently emotionally protected to withstand the truth. Dad had always assured her it was, like, decent, clean work and she’d let those words run her on repeat. Look where it got her.” She forbade herself from continuing to eat because she felt like the words would not fall so true if they were spat out between mouthfuls. “I think we all spend a great deal of time lying to ourselves, one way or another. Giving it up makes you a lot less miserable about it.” She loathed herself for saying it when her own honesty was as patchy as October fog. The hypocriticalness of it rivalled the idea of her giving a lecture on health foods but she knew that it was the truest thing she’d ever said.
Both she and her mother suffered the same affliction of truth avoidance. Suffered was the wrong word because it did not cause them pain; it was a habit that helped them to sidle past the less-than-pleasant truths in their lives and permitted them to masquerade their way through what could have been seen, by the sentimental and theatrical, as torturous.
It was the same way that they performed their relationship – they lived a skin-deep, face-value life in which no big questions were asked in case they shattered the illusion. They had long since given up on any honesty policies they might have held and it had been even longer since Lucy had seen Mum as someone to take problems to. The only things that could be shared were menial things. She’d been Dad’s disciple and then she’d ruled herself; Mum’s guidance had not mattered for years and so neither had her honesty.
“Really,” Emma said sceptically. “Do you always talk like you’re giving motivational speeches?
“I know I’m shit at talking to people, OK?” she fired back. “But I don’t believe you’re under any obligation to keep reminding me about it.”
“Sorry,” Emma replied and Lucy was surprised to note the absolute terror that lay beneath the dry words. She supposed that she was not the only one who struggled with talking.
“I’m just saying things that I feel like should be said before you turn out like me because-”
“I’M NOT GOING TO TURN OUT LIKE YOU! OK? You keep forgetting that we’re different people who’ve experienced different things and that your response was to smash things up and mine is not. You seem to have got it into your head that we are one and the same because we’re both shamefully arrogant. That’s it – that’s the one similarity. Arrogance.” The terror exploded and it was brutal like all terror was. “And please give up with this idea you’ve adopted that we are therefore kindred spirits because of this arrogance because arrogant people never accept being made to equal anyone else. If you’ve learnt one thing from your life, I’d have thought it would be that.”
“Yeah. I get it.” Lucy turned away, wondering why she ever supposed that things would be easy to save or that they would even want saving. After all, had she ever accepted any efforts to save her? Had she not stormed out of the classroom when her teacher told her that she was a wordsmith not a drop out? Did she not still consume herself with sullen lies? She’d wanted to be saved but had been incapable of letting anyone else save her. “Arrogance forces you to reject the idea that anyone can ever help you, doesn’t it?”
Emma stood and departed without so much as a goodbye and Lucy knew therefore that she was right.
That evening she ate some of Mum’s mushroom casserole, which was not as bad as it looked, and decided to fill in a few of the blanks. She expounded the incident with the boy-next-door and the angry finger and then ran on into the argument that followed it. By the time her throat started to feel hoarse she had barely completed a fraction of the crossword she was embarking upon but she felt like something pivotal had shifted.
Then Mum began to explain things about Dad that had never been explained and they both decided that their anger at the other would need to be fleeting if it was to be of any use. It had to exist because for it not to exist would not be great enough tribute to the magnitude of what had been said. For it not to exist would mean that nothing had been solved and the issue of carelessness would have only been added to. It had to pass quickly because, had it lingered, they would only have wound themselves into a web of hypocrisy. Sinners cannot place above other sinners. Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone, Lucy remembered and although she hadn’t much interest in holiness she felt for the first time that there was a sense of logic to religion that she’d never found before.