Sunday, February 26

After Dinner Veranda

THERE WAS the clatter of cutlery against crockery as Samantha walked down the hallway, up to the unlatched back door, and out on to the veranda. The cool of the house whimpered somewhat and there was thrown upon her the clammy late-spring evening. In the air that did not belong to the house but instead belonged outside was the smell of tobacco smoke. She had expected it and surreptitiously breathed it in deep, closing her eyes briefly. In the swing-chair next to the back door Samantha saw her mother’s father sitting there, rocking it on the balls of his feet.
‘Hello, Granddad.’
He, as if caught by a parent—dead many years—jumped to throw the cigarette away. He smiled yellowed teeth and rested back down—‘Hello, sugarplum.’
She walked over and sat beside him, upsetting the gentle swing he had enforced over the chair. Within moments, the pendulum returned.
‘Mum said you’d started smoking again.’
‘Hmm, yes.’
She pulled a cigarette out and put it between her lips.
He instinctively went to scold her but closed his mouth straight away and grinned.
Both of them looked out over the garden. Once more, after the hard winter, Samantha’s cousins’ toys littered the deep green; right now they were in the living room eating very quickly the chocolate that their granddad had bought them. Samantha enjoyed a cigarette after a meal. So far as she knew, there were three times to truly enjoy a cigarette: with coffee, after sex, and after a big meal. The meal had been good, had been big. She excused herself double portions and felt it sack in her stomach.
‘Your aunt makes some good chili, doesn’t she?’
‘She does. I could have had more—I could have had a whole other plateful—but I have to watch my figure.’
‘Don’t give me that female bullshit, Sam. You don’t give a damn about your figure. Since you were born you could put it away and not gain an ounce. Don’t start with that now.’ He laughed. ‘Your Nan was the same. She really liked her food. I remember … our first date … she nearly bankrupted me in that place, and it was expensive, too. I didn’t even want dessert but had it to keep up with her!’
Samantha laughed smoke out of her nostrils—‘Nan was always thin.’
His voice lowering in tone and volume in the repetition—‘That she was. That she was.’
Three months, the doctor said. Three was a good number. It was difficult to say and not to be rushed, otherwise the ‘th’ could be confused with a ‘f’ and it would sound like something else entirely. Also, the number 3 was a good shape, as if what had meant to decline was revived. It descended then sprang up again, to everyone’s surprise. Oh, how Samantha had sobbed when she heard the news. For once, three months sounded like a moment, no longer than the time it took to open a can of coke or check what was on t.v. She heard her mum making phone-calls because she always sat at the foot of the stairs when she did so, and she knew that her Granddad was telling his daughter to stop crying, because her mum would reply—‘Let me cry if I want to!’ Then after—‘He keeps saying how he’ll be with mum again and that’s all he really cares about.’
‘Have you given up on the church? Mum says you’ve given up on the church.’
No sooner had Samantha asked the question than she felt bad for it, as if she had strode too far. He turned to her, then away, crossed his brows and exhaled.
‘I just don’t go anymore. I haven’t given up on Christ or anything. I don’t think I could give up on Christ even if I wanted to. When you believe in something your whole life it is difficult to give up, you know. Kind of like smoking.’
The smoke that, visibly, left their lips, faded, disappeared, then reappeared bluish in the sunlight outside of the roof.
‘When did you start smoking, Sam?’
‘I have always wondered when. Why?’
‘It wasn’t peer pressure,’ she burped with her hand over her mouth, ‘but it was just something to do when I was sat alone in my room at night.’
‘I started smoking alone, too. I stole one of my father’s cigarettes one night and smoked it in my room. The next day I bought a whole pack. The shops weren’t so strict back then about how old you were.’
He had smoked it down to the filter. He stubbed it out.
‘Why did you start again?’
‘How much longer do I have, sugarplum? What’s the point in depriving myself of something I enjoy? I am going to die. That is certain and I still enjoy smoking so why shouldn’t I do it?’
Three months.
‘Mum’s really pissed off you started again.’
‘I’m a stubborn devil.’
She nodded, raising her eyebrows and closing her eyes. She was young but dressed as if she were older; it was her style that made her kind to the eyes. She was not overwhelming as so many women are. She was the sort of young woman who would look good next to a hospital bed.
‘Now,’ he started. Something froze him, though only momentarily, for he cleared his throat and did not meet her eyes, but went on—‘Now I just want to die.’
‘I do, Sam, I do. I am tired of all these tablets, each one contradicting the other, fighting the other. Then I wind up at the doctor’s again and he looks at me. He knows what’s going on.’ She stared at him but he did not look at her. ‘Life is tiresome and now I am ready for the end of it. It does not interest me anymore. The love that once lived with me is gone and I feel like I did when I used to wake up at a party after everyone had left.’ The family’s chatter from inside the house could be faintly heard. The chocolate had finally affected the children and they were screaming like savages in the living room. ‘Just like you said you could have another plate of chili, but you won’t. You’re full. As am I, with life. I am ready for the end, I really am, but it seems my body is fighting against it. I take these pills and it’s almost as if my body is fighting them and going “No, I want to do this on my own.” You know what I mean?’
Samantha nodded. While listening her throat had become phlegmy. It tasted distinctly of chili. It got coughed up an inch and then swallowed.
‘I’m in pain so much these days that I can’t stand it anymore. There is no pride left in me, neither. I can barely shit by myself. What sort of life are you living when you can’t shit by yourself?’
Neither of them were smoking anymore.
‘I miss Prue, as well,’ then added, ‘your Nan.’
Samantha knew who Prue was. It had always struck her as a wonderful name and, since she was a child, she had wanted to call her Prue instead of Nan—but when she had done so, she been told off by her mother. Prue had just laughed and put the tips of her fingers into Samantha’s pigtail.
‘Life just isn’t any fun without Prue.’ He leaned back in the swing-chair and got to rocking it with his feet. Its temporary stillness had not been noticed by either party.
Samantha did not know what to say or what to do, but Granddad did not notice because Samantha always behaved as if she did not know what to say or what to do.
The children’s toys on the deep green lawn shone, reflecting the last of day’s light from their shiny coloured surfaces.
The back door opened and Samantha’s mother stood there, drying her hands in a tea towel—“You two O.K.?’
They both nodded.
‘Got room for dessert?’
‘Always,’ said Granddad.
Samantha helped him to his feet and guided him, with linked arms, to the dining room.

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