On Almost any Day

The kind people of Sombreville nailed a bronze plate with Dad’s name to the new church building. A ribbon was cut, Dad’s hand was shook and the heavy oak doors to the hollow church swung open with a lazy creak. An elderly gentleman with raisin-like skin motioned for dad to step inside. With the other hand, he patted his own head, taking great care not to disturb the arrangement of thinning grey hair that rested on his shiny scalp. A small crowd of The Almighty’s followers gathered outside, passing judgment, wondering if this new pastor will be better than the last. Men with skinny legs and big bellies stroked their beards and puffed their pipes. Woman in colourful dresses smiled from underneath proud hats. Those were the days when rural churches were stark, yellow constructions, standing bare amidst dying cornfields. Men were men and were damned if they were to be anything else. Women were more familiar with the inside of a kitchen than the chittery-chattery of the modern-day housewife. Sundays were reserved for the word of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, except for those of a darker complexion, who were not allowed under a church roof, or any public roof. Blacks laboured in the fields and worked the jobs that no pair of white hands would.

It had only been three months since we moved to this dry, abandoned stretch of earth. Mother pasted a pale smile on her face as Dad emerged from the car. He had been away most of the day, visiting the sick and the elderly, performing his pastoral duties. He embraced mother with all the love and intention that was expected from a church-going man. Mother responded in a similar fashion, paying Dad the respect that she ought to. Her smile fell as her cheek pressed in Dad’s neck, that familiar vacant expression washing over her like ice water. I stood watching from under the fig tree in our small back yard. Soon, Dad will summon me and I, too, will greet him with a fresh smile.

The wine at dinner instilled some colour into Mother’s cheeks and her voice chimed with more warmth. Smoke whirled above her head as she stared through the small window in our box kitchen, thoughtlessly balancing a cigarette between her fingers. Boiled cabbage and cinnamon pumpkin mixed in the stale air with the smell of tobacco. Dad puffed smoke into his glass before every sip. His fat lips embraced the rim as if the last trickle of whiskey were about to turn to dust in the bottom of his glass, yet the bottle between him and us stood almost full.

There was no “Amen” after dinner, no bowing of the heads and no Psalm 23. There was only a very polite “thank you for dinner,” and an almost urgent “have another glass of wine.” When Mother said, “no more,” Dad simply poured another for her. Conversation lifted as the white and amber liquids lowered in their respective bottles.

My estranged parents flirted cautiously from opposite ends of the table. Dad crept his hand over the faded tablecloth like a drunken mouse in a maze, working his way through the green patterns of vine leaf and grape. He paused his hand in front of Mother’s. After a few hesitant seconds her fingers crawled in under his palm. He focussed on her. She shrugged, as if trying to hide under her own shoulders. They seemed like strangers meeting for the first time. Perhaps they were.

I cleared the table and put the dishes into the sink. The plates rarely needed to be scraped and there was never enough left in the pots for a second helping. Over the slow flow of the tap I could hear dad murmuring. The words were not clear, but I knew what he was saying, or at least what he was thinking. He had Mother by both hands, his eyes wide and glazed, with a glint of love, or lust, for Mother.

Mother’s cold hands and arms folded around me, my own hands in hot water, trying to wash away the last memories of the evening. I felt her lips press on my cheek before a shy, apologetic “goodnight” fell from them. She took a deep breath and then sighed, as if trying to suck the words back through her teeth. “Goodnight,” she said again.

Another “goodnight” echoed down the hallway. Mother followed it. I heard their bedroom door shut. I cleared the ashtray and the empty bottles from the table. There was still wine left in Mother’s glass. Dad never left for bed without his.

Shy streaks of moonlight pierced through the trees and into my room. I watched the shadows play on my walls and dance over my bed. Through the thin asbestos walls I heard my father’s grunts and my mother’s moans. Sleep never came easy on such nights. Sleep never came.

Not long after the sun stabbed its cruel beams through the windows did I hear Dad pull out of the driveway. I listened to the red old Datsun, puff-puff-puff, as it idled while Dad closed the gates behind him. Then, Dad was gone.

In the kitchen, the kettle whistled. No sugar. Only a little bit of milk. Strong, the way Mother likes it in the morning. I took the coffee to her room. She held out a bruised arm to take it. “I’ll just put it down,” I said. “And bring a cold cloth for your eye.” She tried to smile, or say “thank you,” but she couldn’t.