My parents always stood, side by side at the gate, waving us off. At first there was only me, driving my father's car, off to some night out in town while he strove to conceal his fear for his most prized possession. Then came my husband and our children, and still they were there at the gate, the ritual end to any of our visits, while we taught tiny hands to wave back. The car was full – babies and toddlers, and all we had accumulated during the visit; books, sweets, which we as children were never allowed, a new jumper for one of them (‘I saw it in the window – I couldn't resist it.') a bottle of wine for us. Each was a symbol of their love, unspoken, perhaps, in younger days; easier to make up that ground now.
I remember walking beside the high pram; the eldest, clinging to the handle, my arm almost wrenched out of its socket. You could leave a pram outside a shop in those days. Inside, there were biscuits in plastic lift-front tins on a rack, and you weighed them out into a bag. Sometimes, if any were broken, there was one for us. Instead my mother would take us on down the main street to the tiny newsagent's to choose a comic, while she bought her cigarettes.
Only my father waves from the gate. She is framed, skeletal even at this distance, in the doorway.
‘I won't come any further.'
‘Don't – it's too cold.'
What we really mean is that she couldn't walk the few yards anyway. The children wave, fighting for space on that side of the car. I raise my arm in farewell from the car window as we turn the corner.
‘How did you think she was looking?'
‘Not too bad'.
That's my husband all right, guarded and non-committal. He doesn't give me the comfort I need, now when I must have it.
‘I thought she was thinner.'
Does that really describe the bones almost palpable through the skin, the breathing audible throughout the house, the fading of the light that was her ? There was a lump on her neck I didn't like to mention.
I try to remember the last time they both waved us off. For years I had known the time would come when only one would be there – which one? I had tried to imagine how I would feel, and couldn't. Until now, that is, and I could never have imagined this. We leave the house full of people, my father almost submerged in his own front room by an assortment of relations, neighbours and friends. He doesn't follow us. We are both fuddled with tiredness since the funeral, and we don't look back towards the gate, since we know there is no-one there waving.
They say you should never go back. How could I not, with my father alone now, fending for himself? It's not too bad, the way eased by the writing of thank you letters and showing him how the oven works.
‘I thought he was looking well, didn't you?'
‘Under the circumstances.'
What does that mean? It seems to carry something with it. Is there something I don't see? And he does, with his parents still alive? I thought I had run the full gamut of human emotion, now that I have given birth and buried my mother. I can't find anything between the two extremes at the moment.
‘Tea, sugar, butter, bacon…' She always started her shopping lists like that. Was it something left over from a wartime childhood? My lists, when I manage to make them, begin with things like lentils and pop-tarts.
‘You can get everything now,' she used to say to me.
Yes, we have everything.
We collect my father from the mundanity of his Monday morning and go to a small coffee-shop in the town. He fusses over us dreadfully, making much of us choosing what we want, and insisting on paying. I cannot look him in the eye – it is as if he is buying our time. My sandwiches taste like sawdust, the salt-cellar damp so I can't even season them. I force them down past the lump in my throat, determined to enjoy them for his sake. The children have some mountainous sugary thing. I never buy them things like this. Their eyes are bright above poised spoons. I hate every minute of it. As we walk towards the town centre, we see the SeaCat going down the lough. It looks like something from a cruise brochure, the hills moving greengrey in the distance, the sea blue and choppy white. We all exclaim, effusive, to fill the emptiness which is a day of going back.
They went to Majorca once, nervous wrecks about the flight. But we got them aboard sustained by a mixture of faith, prayer and Bushmills whiskey. They had a ball, hired a car, saw all the sights , the caves of Drach and Valdemossa. My mother kept a journal, and they talked of it for weeks after they came home.
‘But I'd still rather be in a field of County Down daisies,' she told me later.
He's on his own now. Our walk down the High Street is punctuated with ‘Hello's and ‘Good afternoon's, not all of his courtesies answered. All the shops have changed. The newsagent's is now a sprawling treasure trove; inside, we go our separate paths to favourite sections.
‘I sometimes come in here to get out of the rain,' he whispers to me.
This I cannot fathom. He has a warm coat and an umbrella, a car and central heating at home. Why here, like old people you read about cluttering up the library?
‘Your mother liked this shop.'
The past is his only frame of reference now, and he is trying to force me to do the same, to abandon my present to identify with him, the only common ground. So I must live in older days too, endlessly dredging and sifting through my memory, against my will and the pull of the present, searching for the images which pose in my mind as the pictures of happier times. I cannot exorcise her death while these visions remain. They are there for my father too – he talks of nothing else. No sense of present or future. He calls me from my browsing to show me something in a glossy Irish hardback.
‘Do you remember that? Inch Strand . County Kerry , 1962.'
Of course I remember. The picture is with me, as safe as in any album. 1962 – I was seven. My mother sat on a rug with the babies, while my sister and I ran free on the sand.
I move away, taking a surreptitious glance. He is more stooped than I care to see. Still immaculately turned out, as if every day was a Court day. Very alone, with his memories of Inch and Banna, West Cork and Achill , and only the memories to smile at. No future, the door closed on happiness. Only looking backwards, re-living the good times in order to negate the bad. Going back.