One evening, long after dark, when I was 14 or 15, I came home to find my parents fighting in some kind of surrealist bardo like a
Harold Pinter play. It was a cold, windy night, and I don’t remember where I’d
been – at that age, probably a chess match or a friend’s house. I heard raised
voices and strange sounds from the garden as I approached, and I knew what I’d find
when I went inside – this was when things were at their worst between them, when I
used to lie awake at night listening to the rise and fall of their voices through the
floor of my bedroom, waiting for the tones to become harsher and the pauses longer.
Earlier that year, my father had driven my sister and I down to Dun Laoghaire pier
on a rainy Sunday to explain to us what he thought was happening.
"Mama and I
just don’t get on any more," he said.
"Neither of us are happy together,
and we want to live our lives differently."
He might as well have been speaking Klingon.
"I’m probably going to move out soon into a place of my own.”
don’t remember if he told us he loved us or not. Maybe he did. I remember not saying anything, and staring out at the dark grey sea and the light grey rain, not sure what I
felt. I understood the truth of what he was saying – we all felt like shit, and I knew my parents didn’t love each other any more, but I know I needed something more
from him. I needed him to break the silence for me, to force me to feel – maybe if
he’d said something that let me know he understood what it was like for me, then I
could have cried, or maybe there wasn’t anything he could have done. Really, I have
almost no memory of that day, or what he said. I don’t even remember if my sister
said anything, or if she cried for all three of us.
She was crying when I arrived home this time, though – she was in her bedroom
with the door closed, screaming "Stop it, stop it, stop it!" I closed the front door behind me, and the first thing I saw was my mother at the top of the stairs, struggling
with the latch of the landing window in her night-gown, crying. A curious numbness came
over me, as it always did when things went strange in my house, and I walked up the stairs
and helped my mother to unscrew the latch and push the window open. She was shaking while
she sobbed. I asked her what was going on, but she was totally incoherent, driven by an
I opened the door to my sister’s bedroom and asked her what was going on. She
said in a voice hoarse from crying, "Mama’s opening all the windows." I don’t remember if I hugged her, but I don’t think I did. I wish I had. I wish
I’d shown more love to her when we were younger, because I always did love her, even when I wanted to strangle her.
I left her room and walked towards my
parents’ bedroom, noticing as I went that the house was very cold and draughty. The
doors to all the rooms were open, and so were all the windows. I started to close them one
by one. At this point my mother came back upstairs and went back into their bedroom, and I followed her.
My father was lying face down on their king-size double bed in as convincing a
simulation of sleep as he was capable, considering the circumstances, and the fact that my
mother had pulled the duvet off and flung the bedroom windows wide open. He was wearing
dark blue pajamas. My mother was still crying, and he was ignoring her and staying very
still. It was a trick I used to pull on my babysitter when she would come upstairs to find
me with my light on when I was supposed to be asleep – to lie still and pretend to be
asleep even when it was obvious that I was awake. It was a childish thing. I didn’t
understand why my father was doing it, except that he didn’t want to interact in any
way with my mother’s emotions and craziness, not even to respond, not even to
acknowledge her ability to affect him. I might have wished he was stronger, but I could
She left the room again. I didn’t speak to my father, but crossed to the
windows and closed them. I followed her down the landing, closing the windows as I went.
Numb, restorer of order, pushing back the chaos, lucid dreamer. It just seemed to be my
natural role in the half-psychotic dream of my family: the silent closer of windows, repairing
what damage I could.
Eventually she calmed
down and spoke to me. He wouldn’t listen to her, she said, wouldn’t talk to her.
He wouldn’t say where he’d been. They’d lost the ability to tell each other
how they felt and what they needed, like two characters in a dream following different
storylines. All they could see was the madness of the other: his blank silence and lies;
her rage and sickness.
Finally all the windows were closed, and my mother and I sat downstairs on the sofa and talked. I made her a
cup of tea. I don’t think she even bothered to explain the fight to me, and it
probably wouldn’t have made any sense anyway. I remember we put the spare duvet into
a cover together, and made jokes about how silly it had all been. I always knew that
things were going to be okay when she was able to laugh at herself – "God, I
really do go over the top sometimes..."
When I went back upstairs, my dad had taken the bedcovers into the spare bedroom
– the brown one with the smoked mirror, that we thought was haunted by the ghost of
his grandfather. He’d locked the door.
No one ever spoke of that fight again. No one learned anything, because there was nothing to learn.