FIRST CHAPTER: FAMILY DINNER
I was never really one to get enthusiastic about dinner time when the family was around. In fact, it felt as though we were entombed in some kind of groundhog-day experiment run by a group of indolent and impassive scientists eager to identify the effect of repetitive bickering on one’s intellect. Whether the men in coats would ever conclude anything from their dinner-time studies is anyone’s guess but the experience alone was enough to make you cringe, burrow and never want to return.
Jerome hasn’t been in the same room as us since he walked out for the last time about ten years ago. There’s a reason I can’t call him Dad — I never felt it suited his person. Perhaps we should have found a pseudonym, like Stormtrooper, for all the times he departed in a rage and landed up at the local pub. It’s ironic, though, as he’s agoraphobic so finding him drunk after a night in a pub is rather amusing let alone concerning.
Jerome’s hair hangs unevenly over his ears, uncut and unbrushed, his eyes still dark from years on alcohol abuse. He was always very tall, one of the many genes of his I never seemed to inherit. In school my friends used to call him The Big Friendly Giant after we spent a term reading one of Roald Dahl’s famous writings. I could never tell my friends about his drunken episodes or the time he sold the family’s holiday home to pay off a secret gambling debt no-one knew about at the time. Of course, you can’t share this with your friends and ruin the imagine of this lofty, friendly, human, they all know merely as Jerry.
Jerry wasn’t always the drunk he is today. I don’t remember what he was like when I was young but the stories told by his school mates during, what feels like, annual reminiscing events, makes me wonder what It’d have been like to meet the man from so long ago and understand what made him what he has become.
Jessica and I were born ten years apart. She’s got spunk, class and the looks — some say she’s the epitome of beauty and that she’s listed in the dictionary under the definition of perfection. You wouldn’t think she’s Jerry’s daughter, given her immaculately straight dark hair, although their eyes, green with a subtle tinge of light brown, identifies their unique — and only — connection. No-one wants to look like Jerry, let alone share in any of his characteristics. I don’t know when last I saw her in dark clothing — she seems to blossom in an aurora of fresh designer brands, often layered in pastel colours with just enough pigment to compliment her somewhat pale skin.
It felt like the first time we’ve been together for a dinner in this kind of space. Jessica was sitting opposite Jerry. I couldn’t help but think the dining room, with it’s white-washed walls, had a rather clinical smell to it. Almost as though the room had just been cleaned, in time for dinner, with the staff having no time remaining to allow the scrubbing chemicals to set and the smells to waft away.
I couldn’t help but notice a rather glossy look in Jessica’s eyes. She had been so young when Jerry took his last belongings that the only other time she became emotional was when Lola, the goldfish she received as a present one Christmas, was found floating along the top of her fish bowl.
Mother looked as though she’d seen the end of the world and then more. Her eyes seemed swolen and her hair, tied up in a bun, looked as though it hadn’t been washed in weeks. She starred across the table at Jerry as though she was waiting, with baited breath, to say something but when she turned to look at Jessica, sitting alongside her, they both starred at one another — like two cowboys on the verge of a battle waiting to see who draws first.
“Can’t we just have one dinner together where everyone just gets along,” I asked.
No-one even flinched. Jerry peered over into space. Mother and Jessica continued their little Western standoff. The lights were so bright I couldn’t even see who brought the food to the table. Perhaps it was there already when we got to the table, I don’t even know, I was just so stuck on the fact that we’re all together again with no explanation as to why.
“So, Jerry, what ever happened to your summer project — Gracy was her name. wasn’t it?”
Again, Jerry glanced at me with his eyes wide open. Almost as though he was livid I asked such a question. Gracy was his pride and glory when I was a kid. If he wasn’t at the pub, cementing his spot on the drinker’s hall-of-fame, he was home in the garage working on Gracy. She was an exquisite piece of art, and probably the only memory I have of my childhood with Jerry. Working on this 1950’s Volkswagen Beetle was his ultimate. He’d often tell stories of his Father, Peter, who inherited a German vehicle in the late 1940’s from an old German colleague allegedly associated to the Nazi ruling party. After the wild stories of Peter and his colleague, Klaus, he’d bring it back to the day he was given the outer shell of this very one we would always work on. We would spend months simply searching dump sites and scrap yards for parts like rear-view mirrors and bumpers. Colours never mattered. We’d spray it anyway. Why would he not want to talk about Gracy? Had he sold that too and given up a favourite past-time hobby? What would his father say about it? Should I even ask?
I couldn’t help but notice Mother continuously peering around her shoulder, as though she was checking to ensure she was still in the room. Almost, as if she didn’t continuously prowl around, she’d somehow just disappear into the ether. There was a rather odd reaction on each occasion as she raised her right frail hand to cover her mouth, almost like she was worried she’d cry out in sorrow if she peered around and noticed she’d being transported into some form of alternative universe.
“Why didn’t you tell them,” Mother enquired.
“I don’t recall you telling them either,” responded Jerry.
Mother peered over her shoulder once more. “I just don’t know anymore.”
“What have you done this time, Jerry?” I asked starring into Jerry’s dreary eyes. “You just couldn’t stay out of trouble, could ya!”
Jessica just sat there, perched in her chair with her posture as graceful as always. You could see she was wanting to say something, but she simply couldn’t bring herself to get involved. She was like that, though. She never wanted to participate in family feuds or get involved in other people’s business. Whenever a friend, or family member for that matter, were to ask for her opinion on something even remotely debatable she’d simply shrug it off and leave the decision to someone else.
“Dammit, Jerry, you shouldn’t even be here.” Mother was visibly angry that Jerry had dared show his face after all these years away. As if the last time he left wasn’t dramatic enough for everyone to overcome, we’d probably just land up having to endure that all over again.
Jerry looked on, he sat back in his chair, leaving his food to fend for itself. “I too have a say in this, you’re not the only one with a duty right now.”
I noticed his chair was a little crooked. The light from the ceiling was quite blinding, making everything really bright and hard to see.
“You don’t look comfortable in that chair, Jerry,” I said in a rather embracing manner. “Why don’t we get them to bring you another one that doesn’t look like it’ll break?”
Mother interrupted. “Jerry, you haven’t been around at all and now you want to just walk back in our lives as though nothing’s happened and demand your say?”
Jessica was now sitting upright. She never had her elbows on the table but she looked visibly traumatised by this conversation and clearly needed to jump in.
“I don’t think anyone is in a position to talk right now, so why don’t we eat our dinner and talk about this later again?”
She’s often quite smart, Jessica, and when she wants to; she can handle almost any situation. Jerry and Mother went silent.
“Yeh, let’s just enjoy our time together for a change,” I chipped in.
Something wasn’t right though — I could see Jess wanted to say more, she had to hold herself back which was quite unlike her usual antics. She leaned over and put her hand on Mother’s shoulder. “I got this,” she whispered, “we’ve got this.”