Sunday, August 28

Favourite Animals

It is the time of year when I return to my parents – or Home, if you will – for a break and, if I admit it, to be treated like a son again, spoiled and cared for. It is my birthday. I am a year older.
When I turned eighteen I did my shift at the pizza restaurant that employed me weekends and school holidays. It was eight till two. Back there in the kitchen, time escaped you; the solitary and inaccurate clock on the wall did little to enlighten one on the passing of the day outside, the angle of the sun, the drift of the afternoon, but I was used to working in kitchens, such was my fear of the public and inclination to hide away from interactions. My job was the pot-wash. ‘O, it’s your birthday?’ they would ask. As soon as I finished, my cousin picked me up and drove me back home. When my mum brought out a cake she had made in the shape of a guitar, I blew the candles out and went to my room and cried in deep gasps of silence. Birthdays were difficult enough without having to work.
Nowadays I book birthdays off.
My mother picked me up from C—r station and drove me the rest of the way, a most convoluted route to avoid the holiday-makers, and the lush countryside breezing past. ‘Am I talking too much?’ She asked me. ‘No,’ I told her. ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Yes, I’m sure. Continue.’ My brother’s fiancĂ©e and my niece were waiting when we returned. There was a lunch laid out, which we ate in the sun. Afterwards I went into the swimming pool to play with my niece. She is confident in the water and I pretend to be a shark. I am not one of the world’s most fearsome sharks and somehow manage to avoid every shipwreck in the history of sea disasters. All the other sharks swim past me most plump and satisfied. I sit down in a towel and get drunk with my parents. We drink until we are dizzy and then we eat dinner. The British Summer is spectacular when it occurs and is leapt upon by all and sundry with the greatest enthusiasm.
That was the Wednesday.
My birthday was the Thursday.
On the Friday the whole family visited. They came for the airshow, an annual tradition that I partake in without actually enjoying at all. I headed down to the beach around two o’clock with the planes droning in the sky; up in the heavens; the last sound someone heard before they died. I said hello to people and told them about my favourite animals at the zoo. I got a beer from the cool-bag and stood on the veranda of the beach hut, looking out, observing the colour of all before me. There were children running around. In the distance were scattered other families; their skin elevated above the colour of the sand and their swimming costumes pricked fluorescent as though the whole of Las Vegas were on vacation. Children swam in the sea. Its salty brown smothered them and they blasted it into the air reaching for fresh breaths. The smell of the sea was everywhere and the sea smells different everywhere you go. Later on we all came back to my parents’ and the children rushed for the swimming pool, the blue reaching up like dynamic rods all crystal in the splash. At first I stared enviously at the children playing in the water, ashamed of my own body. Finally, having had enough of beer and sweat, I disrobed and jumped in. So often I am on the outskirts of such affairs, family gatherings, looking in, smoking and avoiding much of the frivolities before me. It was good to be involved. I got into a game with the children. I was so flattered when one of them said my name! ‘They know my name!’ I thought. ‘I am not a complete stranger to them.’ I played with my second-cousin, M—e, performing synchronised jumps into a rubber ring. She asked me to rate her handstands out of ten; I told her how she could improve. She was so skinny and slight, laughing gleefully whenever her head emerged from the water. Then other second-cousins became involved. We set up another game. We played for a long time. Dinner was cooking on a large pan in the corner; frying garlic and onion, white wine, seafood. I emerged looking for a fresh beer. ‘I ain’t seen you in the pool like that for a long time,’ said my uncle. ‘I know,’ I said—‘It was good fun.’ It was unfamiliar for me to act so childish in front of my family, but I had enjoyed it thoroughly. What sort of man-child was I?
After dinner I was looking around the house for somewhere quiet to sit and be alone. I settled on a room that had only my cousin bottle-feeding her son. I reclined in the chair and we struck up a conversation. She spoke to me about all sorts, while I listened attentively and her infant suckled: the racist abuse she had suffered, a lack of belonging, fears about her children. Of course it did not happen immediately but slowly slowly go slowly did these subjects arise and we were left uninterrupted for a long time. Afterwards she hugged me and left in a car.
When everyone had gone my uncle decided to stay the night. (A few weeks ago he and I had had a heart-to-heart in my aunt’s garden with barbeque smoke drifting over us; speaking of love and loss and what happiness we could scrape from what we were left with. He was drunk now and talking most candidly about his former relationship with a woman that everyone in our family was most fond of. I could see that my mother was tired – not used to such hours – and wanted to retire, but his willingness to open up was keeping her awake. As I entered, he asked me—‘Have you ever been in love?’ Straight away I answered—‘Yes.’ And then, feeling somewhat foolish, added that it was my dog that died six years ago. ‘No, no, I’m serious,’ he said. ‘Yes, I’ve been in love,’ I confirmed. He continued. He opened up completely, talking about depression and anxiety. My parents were my parents and did not know what he was talking about. He talked and talked about his depression – and it was that – for an hour before my brother entered the room. He did not want another drink. My father was asleep. ‘That does not sound like anything other than depression,’ I told him. He did not want another drink. I saw him take another pill in the kitchen.

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