“Hi Mum, Dad.”
“How are you feeling today?” Mum asks.
“Oh, not too bad; same old, same old, can’t complain. Well, I can but nobody listens.”
No reaction from Mum or Dad to that one. Hardly surprising, I suppose. Still, you’d have thought they might at least crack a smile.
“Well, the weather outside’s just terrible,” continues Mum, though in the manic tones and with the forced chirpiness of someone who doesn’t really believe it. It’s silly really, but it’s as if she’s afraid comments like that will draw down the wrath of some terrible Norse god of weather or something, so she keeps the tone nice and cheerful just to prove she doesn’t really mean to complain.
“We nearly got blown away under the umbrella on the way in – just like Mary Poppins, didn’t we Ray?” she asks Dad, and it sounds like it could have been awfully big adventure and she’s almost sad it didn’t actually happen. Still, it’s hard to argue with her strategy when she’s so patently not being hit by thunderbolts or whatever else is traditional for weather gods to hurl at those who displease them. Dad just nods slowly, keeping his eyes on mine and a slight smile on his face.
Dad always looks like that, there’s always a slight suggestion of a smile on his lips when he and Mum come to visit. I really like it: it’s like he and I are both sharing a little secret. He doesn’t tend to say that much, but that’s alright too because Mum more than makes up for his quietness. Mum’s always a nervous bundle of energy on their visits, which contrasts sharply with Dad’s sedate and calming presence but also somehow compliments it: Mum with her glistening eyes, nervous fidgeting in her chair and near-constant chatter, bringing me up-to-date with what’s happening back home and how my little sis Susie’s doing – that is when Susie’s not actually with them of course, as is the case today. She (Mum that is) frequently glances at Dad as if for his approval to carry on talking and, although he doesn’t often seem to acknowledge her, it’s as if she draws strength to continue.
Dad and I continue our staring match but he eventually breaks eye contact. (I’m a master at stare now and I always win, though Dad will keep on trying!)
“Anyway,” says Mum, “there’s been lots going on back at home recently, so let me fill you in.”
(Here we go…)
“First of all, the Hendersons next door are moving away. Can you believe it? I mean, they’ve been there nearly 18 years, known you since before you were born – you remember their son Philip used to baby sit you and Susie when you were little?”
“The neighbourhood’s just not going to be the same without them!”
“No, of course not: the Hendersons won’t be there.”
“They’re moving out to the Lake District, had enough of London life, they said. We can go and visit them when you feel up to it, Alex: you’ve never been up there but it’s beautiful countryside in the Lake District, clean fresh air, big hills to climb, tarns to swim in – you’ll love it!
“Well, they couldn’t have picked a better time to clear out anyway: yesterday afternoon after we got back from seeing you we found half the main road leading into The Crescent dug up, those dirty great machines everywhere – they’re like tanks – and workmen making a frightful racket with those electric drills of theirs.”
“Jackhammers,” says Dad, momentarily distracted by the need to correct Mum and thus affording me the opportunity to win another staring match.
“Yes, jackhammers,” says Mum. “So I went to ask them what they were doing and how long they thought they’d be there and they weren’t particularly communicative on the ‘why’ side of things but they said they’d probably be there two weeks. And they’re going to be working primarily late afternoons and evenings because the Eastern Avenue’s one of the main routes into London.
“Oh! The noise is just frightful – you can hardly hear yourself think! Poor Susie’s going to have to do her homework over at Sanjita’s house straight after school for the next two weeks if she’s going to be able to get anything done at all!”
“So…” But Mum’s not finished.
“And it’s not as if the heat’s let up either! Thirty-three degrees it’s supposed to hit today. Thirty-three! And add the noise to that in the evenings, the only time when it’s cooled down enough to be bearable and they ruin it with all that noise.”
The rumbling noise of Dad clearing his throat indicates he has something to say on this matter. He doesn’t often speak up, so I’m interested to hear what he has to say despite the near-terminal level of boredom this conversation has induced.
“Not many ways to cool down either. Water company’s still moaning about drought too, hosepipe ban on, telling us not to take baths, cut down on the showers. What do you think it’s doing to our garden, eh? You mark my words, they’ll be telling us not to flush the toilets next or better still, ask if it’s not too much trouble for us all to stop drinking for a few weeks.
“Honestly, it’s just ridiculous: a company in any other industry and they’d be embarrassed about it. But not this lot, no: they prefer to try and make us think it’s somehow our fault and that we’re all being selfish by using the water we’re paying them to provide…”
“Are they offering to reduce our water bills, given the fact that they aren’t providing the service that we’re paying them to? Of course not! Instead, they’re squandering all that money on adverts telling us how they’re updating their pipes to save 50 billion litres of water every other minute and we should be grateful and patient. Why are the current pipes so damn bad at keeping the water in them then? That’s what I want to know. Sounds like negligence to me. And with something as important as people’s water supply. We need it to live, for God’s sake.
“You’d think the Government would step in and do something about it, wouldn’t you. And they have: but only to throw its weight behind water companies!
“It’s just poor management: it deserves to be punished, not rewarded! Their only job is to get water to everyone who can pay for it. That’s all! Christ! With the amount it rains in this country you’d never think it possible a couple of weeks of good weather could leave us on the brink of desertification. F the reservoirs are running low, why didn’t they have bigger reservoirs or some sort of back-up plan? The Government should be fining them, not helping them.”
“Ray, please just drop it.”
“I bet the Board of Directors haven’t drained the water from their private pools yet. Worthless gits.”
Which last comment at any other time would have me in a fit of the giggles. That was a pretty long speech from Dad these days, and he hardly ever uses that kind of language in front of Susie and me. I think he’s so funny when he goes off on a rant like that: he doesn’t actually mean half of what he says but he gets so worked up about things! Mum doesn’t like him doing it at the nest of times, however, and she’s been a bit highly strung lately what with everything that’s happened. The slightest thing’s likely to set her off. And this looks like being another one…
“Oh, Ray!” she scolds, and her eyes are really brimming now. “Why do you always have to go too far?”
For a second, there’s a flash of Dad’s old defiance in his face before he simply turns his head away from her and steels himself for the inevitable. They’ve never argued much, Mum and Dad, when they do, it’s always over stupid things, little misunderstandings. They’re always quick to make up, though.
“You really shouldn’t talk like that in front of Alex, she doesn’t need that sort of thing.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry,” says Dad simply. I’m surprised at the level of emotion in his now soft voice. I’d expected his apology to be perfunctory, simply to ward off the tears.
Turning again to me, he says “Listen, sweetie, I may as well tell you: I’m afraid I’m going to have to go back to work next week so I won’t be able to visit quite so often from now on. I’ll still be here weekends – and evenings with your sister if I’m not back too late – and of course your Mum will carry on coming as before.
“Just you two girls, eh?” he says, with a wink and one of those cringe-worthy attempts at what they must presume to be ‘cool’ or ‘young’ humour.
Still, I already know I’ll miss seeing quite so much of him as I’ve gotten used to, and I know it’ll be harder on Mum. I look at her now and I see that she’s taking those deep, shuddering breaths that always precede one of her sobbing fits. I wish she wouldn’t, it’s so depressing – and after she’s just told Dad off for raising his voice a little too!
Mum lets out her latest breath with a deep sigh, but the tears still start to stream slowly and steadily down her face and it breaks my heart because there’s nothing I can say or do to comfort her and that’s all she wants from me.
Dad folds Mum in his arms and she turns her face into his chest as silent sobs wrack her body. For a long time, they sit like that, Dad just holding Mum tightly in his arms and gazing out the window, not offering any words of encouragement, just holding her as if he can protect her from all the world. Something so tender in it. And that’s effectively it for today, I guess. Another visit from Mum and Dad that ends in tears.
They always do.