ON THAT FIRST CHILLY DAY OF DECEMBER it was fortunate that dinner had been started early.
The slam of the door told me all I needed to know. He would not be in any mood to wait for his food. I hurried into the kitchen and began serving roast beef onto his plate beside steaming green vegetables.
He’s home, I thought. He’s the same. He just needs his space. He’ll tell me when he’s ready. He’ll tell me, won’t he? Oh, Simon, why won’t you tell me what’s wrong?
Carrying the plate in one hand and a small earthenware vase in the other, I set his place, ready for him. I hadn’t dared to ask him for extra money this morning, to buy some flowers for the house. So a clutch of noxious wild daisies was all I could find for the centrepiece, but it didn’t seem to matter, anyway. He wasn’t paying attention to the table and he hadn’t noticed that the hallway vase was empty. He was vacant and unstaring and moving like a robot, his soft grey eyes unseeing, just as things had been for weeks. So I stood quietly as he entered the room, and while I didn’t actually expect much, I had hoped for a glance, or a smile, perhaps a warm greeting.
Why won’t you talk to me? I feel so useless!
For three months we had been married, and yet for weeks, he had ceased speaking to me in more than a grunt. And he was terribly worried. I had heard him pacing the floor, had heard him whispering in late-night phone conversations, heard books fly off the desk, seen the holes punched into the doors. The stench of anxiety sweat swam off him at all times of the day.
He was angry and furious and something was terribly, terribly wrong. But I knew my place. The women did not interfere in the men’s business dealings. They bit their tongue until they tasted metal, and their lips stayed closed until invited to speak.
I, Ana, quietly excused myself from the kitchen and left him to his meal.
I HAD BEEN BORN THE ONLY CHILD of older parents, and I had grown up in a house where my mother wailed for a son.
"A SON," she howled, "would have made my life complete! What good is a daughter? How can a daughter ever provide for me in my old age?" She would scowl at me with obvious contempt, and damn me for daring to be born a useless girl.
My father was as indifferent as my mother was cruel. A girl was no use to him, and nor was the useless wife who never produced another child.
I’m not useful. I’m only a girl.
Our small cottage didn’t offer much in the way of adventure, to a child whose life revolved around serving others. The backyard was tiny and bore nothing but dry, wispy weeds, and beyond the bottom fence was a stinking, festering ditch. We had a rose bush near the front door, and I inhaled its luscious scent any time it dared to force out a lonely bloom. My mother would find out, of course, order me out with the secateurs, and I would feel a moment of sorrow for severing it from its mother plant. Once indoors, the delicate beauty of the apricot flower faded fast, finally ending in a puddle of cast petals on our kitchen table. It was as if even a rose became sad once it was dragged into this pitiful home.
I’m sorry, rose. I’m sorry you had to die. You were lovely. Honestly, you were.
We only had two rooms, really. The smaller one held my parents’ bed and the stale, old smell of long-unwashed bedding. The sitting room had the kitchen along its far wall. I slept in a tiny lean-to containing the laundry area, attached to the house at the side. It gave me some refuge from the tedium of my parents’ living area, and it was everything I needed, anyway. Within that little room I could be anyone. In it I imagined that its walls insulated me from the universe, and its faint soap aroma was a safe harbour from reality.
My father had traded in firewood. When I was little I would watch for him from the front doorstep, hoping against hope for some affection, some refuge from the barked orders of my mother. Her grotesque, oversized form rarely moved from her favourite chair; from the moment I could walk I was handed a broom, or a serving spoon, or a scrubbing brush, while she dozed on and off in a book or a newspaper. We must have had the cleanest front doorstep in the land, with me forever hovering out there and waiting for Father’s return.
As I grew older his return grew less predictable. He would be hours late, or hours early, stumbling and exhaling the putrid fumes of whichever drink he had decided on that day. My mother’s wails fell on deaf ears. He was neither lucid enough to understand nor stupid enough to get within arms’ reach of her massive frame. At his reappearance I had learned to check certain things - particularly, whether he had remembered his cart, his axe, his tool bag. I would ply him with hot coffee at the front step, hoping my mother couldn’t hear him stumbling about, then send him back off to retrieve the forgotten items.
Don’t go in, Father. Just wait here for me, I’ll bring you some coffee. Father, where have you gone now? Get off the street. Here, sit down on the step, drink this.
His descent into oblivion had other repercussions. While he slept off his many stupors, the remnants of our house began to decay with neglect. I did what I could, with what little I could find. Patched roof, taped windows, glued furniture. I was not a natural in the handiworks department, had not been born a son, and had not been gifted with the talents of my father’s calloused hands. I did my best. It was usually enough, for the moment.
As for eating, that was another matter. His purse usually arrived home empty, and I would often wonder how long the food in our kitchen could last. It became harder and harder for me to keep it stocked. Father didn’t care, having little interest in food, but my mother certainly did, and there are only so many times that a girl can give up her dinner for a hugely fat and ungrateful mother.
It’s all the dinner there is, Mother. There isn’t any more. I’m sorry, Mother. I haven’t any coins today. He’s sleeping, mother, please don’t wake him! We’ll have bacon tomorrow. I’ll buy it for your dinner. Tomorrow.
Some days he had actually come home with the hand-cart full of firewood. Those were fortunate days, for although he’d done nothing about selling them and providing some precious cash, at least I had something to sell. I knocked door-to-door while he snored in the stinking front room, restless, moaning and shouting in his drunken haze. I could usually sell the wood in a couple of hours, but it annoyed me to return after school and find that cart piled high near the front door.
Of course, this was still better than seeing an empty cart. That usually meant he had sold the wood already, and drunk its proceeds. It also meant there would be no money for groceries that day, and I would tally yet another inventory of what little remained in our kitchen cupboard.
Eventually, of course, things scraped closer to the bone. I began adding household possessions to the pile of wood as I went door-to-door. Perhaps the neighbours really did need another frypan; perhaps they just felt sorry for the small girl selling anything she could live without. On some days, my black braided hair felt like I was dragging a noose, weighing me down as I trudged the dusty streets and hoped that the next household might just buy the tired clothes I’d outgrown. My worn-out shoes and ragged socks hid exhausted feet which barely carried the stick-thin and fair-skinned child. It was fortunate, perhaps, that I had no thought of the future, beyond whether we would eat tomorrow. No thought of the years ahead. I could not have conceived that things might get worse. That some day there would be nothing left to sell, nothing left to eat, and nothing left to do but go hungry and stare at the barren walls of our tiny cottage. And fortunately, I did not see such a day. We clung to existence, just.
My father drowned his sorrows at earlier and earlier hours, and one day while walking, tripped over a low wall and broke open his skull on the road below, never to draw breath or alcohol again. I should have been upset. I should have been heartbroken. Perhaps the only part of me which ached was that I had never had a father who cared about me, and now, I never would.
Would I have been useful if I were a boy? Would I, Father? Would you have taught me to cut firewood, how to build a chair? I’d have tried very hard, Father. I’d have done my best to make you proud.
The neighbours arranged his burial, fed us for the first week, humoured my mother with her incessant and helpless wailing, patted me kindly on the head and slipped a few coins into my hand. But before long, we were alone. And now, the firewood did not arrive unsold at the door. I continued with the cart, devoid of wood, but the customers soon dried up, having no interest in shabby, useless items.
The rose no longer bloomed, no longer blessed me with its captivating perfume.
My mother lived another six months, probably just to complain about having had her heart broken. And in the end it was her heart which gave way, shortly before my twelfth birthday. With little left other than the clothes on my back, I went to live in my uncle’s house.