Mum spent a lot of time at Grandad’s house that summer; she always sighed before she went. Sometimes, she’d be half-out of the door, car keys in hand, and I’d make a coffee and she’d sit down again. As if she’d never intended to go.
It’s difficult, she’d say. The summer light would glow off her rings.
It’s just so difficult.
Then she’d leave, sighing, and I’d stay home with Dad and wait. It never occurred to me to start making dinner, or anything like that.
I was home from university for the summer and had nobody to hang out with, so I felt that I had my own problems. My school friends were all useful people, doing useful degrees, so they had placements to attend and people to work for. I was at the end of my second year of studying Japanese, at a university five hours’ away. I hated it. It turned out that the exclamations that I received from strangers when I told them what mad thing I studied were not sufficient to sustain my interest in a whole four-year degree.
So, I walked down to the park everyday that summer, thinking about how I should develop a love for manga, to match the passion of my classmates.
I got a job at a deli, and berated myself for not yet being into anime.
Such were my problems.
Mum went to Grandad’s every evening after work and I was full of disdain for her inability to free herself from the yoke of unpaid female labour. As if she could shed him, just like that.
That summer was the hottest one that anyone could remember. Even hotter than some scorcher in the seventies. People joked about global warming, but I thought, why not enjoy it? The sunshine made me itch for the beach, for a road-trip with my besties, but alas, no, they were all in places like Coventry. You can’t go out on a lilo alone. Dangerous, but also sad. I had FOMO for things that weren’t even happening.
I spent the evenings watching TV with my parents.
At the end of July, we went to a wedding. The bride was the daughter of a family friend. The reception, in a church hall, a few miles away. We drove there in Dad’s van, the windows down, and parked in a pub car park. I could see the bride’s pre-school cousins streaming into the hall, except they were now all teens and young adults. Crispy curly hair, flash sunglasses, spaghetti straps pulling. They greeted me in the past tense, as someone from memory. My parent’s friends did the same — oh, their eyes said, we didn’t know you’d be back? My hometown was small, rural: by leaving, I’d snapped a thread.
The canapés took too long to come out. I followed my parents around, tried to join in their conversations with the groom’s second cousin, and the woman who’d run the hair salon in town since November.
‘You’ve met Jill before, surely?’ Mum whispered over her shoulder, as Jill shimmied away. ‘It’s her who suggested these highlights, to blend in my grey?’
I put my accent back on a bit, having become hard to understand. Warm Prosecco, cocktail sausages with mustard dip. My continued existence seemed to confuse people, like some kind of lame prank. I reintroduced myself to people who’d recently forgotten me, thinking: I’m a real person, elsewhere. It had only been two years. Speeches and then cake. No-one had any idea what I was talking about.
I sat alone at the bar with my drink.
The disco flashed, the guests slurred and blurred, sweaty. My chiffon stuck to me. Mum was talking to family in the corner. Great aunts, perhaps? Second cousins?
The great-grandchildren of past friends were still friends here, so maybe the titles were honorary. Then my mother was crying. Mascara streams under her eyes. But, she was always so composed? A barb ran through me, something shocking, unpleasant. Her face collapsed, chin crumpled, hair mussed. I walked towards her, as if into a dark cave-mouth. What was inside? My Dad intercepted me, drunk enough, sweating plenty, and circled me out into the car park.
‘It is what it is, Jess. She has to talk to them. Get it out sometimes — it’s good for her. She needs it.’
‘But, who are they?’
‘They’re her school friends, love. They remember her Dad — I mean, they remember how he was before I knew her, even. He relies on her so much now. She has to get it out.’
But, what about Grandad, I was about to ask, when a ruddy man flung his arm around Dad. Dad’s accent grew thicker. I scoffed and shifted my feet. I drank more but I couldn’t stop thinking. Little chasms of darkness opening up all around me. At midnight, we got a cab — the van could stay until morning. My thighs stuck to the taxi’s leather seats.
Mum dozed, sated.
For the next few weeks, I went to work and came home again. I watched looping Netflix streams and got chilly out in the garden, darkness not being enough of a reason to get up. I felt blank, like a block of lard.
Mum’s face was together again. She sighed often and went out. Dad was in a summer squash league.
I yearned for a way into my life.
Who knew, maybe anime?
One evening, an opportunity. Dad was chopping onions for spaghetti bolognese. I peeled mushrooms beside him. We chatted about his day, the insanely beautiful weather. Eventually, I asked.
‘Dad, what is it about Grandad that upsets Mum so much?’
He put down the knife. His bowed head cast shadows.
‘It’s complicated, sweetheart. Mum—,’ he said, and stopped. ‘When she was younger, Grandad wasn’t like he is now. He was always kind to you, growing up?’ I nodded. ‘Well, he wasn’t always like that. I’d go and pick her up, back when we were courting, and I’d hear shouting and crying, from all the way down the street.
He’d always be bellowing, knocking things over — once, your Mum was running so fast, she smacked straight into me on the garden path.
‘He was a tyrant.’
He ran his thick hand over his chin.
‘I once heard him call her mother a word I’ll never repeat — but I know your Mum remembers it.’ He picked up the knife again, sliced the onion straight through. ‘Your Grandmother was always so sweet.’
I coughed. Was that it? I knew that family from TV dramas, or Eastenders. Surely, every family had its moments? I peeled the rest of the mushrooms, but nothing. Such a fuss. All those tears at the wedding.
I lay in the park for two hours after my shift the next day. The sun was Caribbean on the back of my legs. So many non-problems. Mum was just looking after her elderly father, who was sometimes a bit shouty. Big whoop.
Not everyone is nice all the time.
And how could there be a problem with the weather, when I could wear short shorts for forty days in a row and not be cold?
I swallowed, jerked upright. Ten twenty-three, mid-morning light.
I ran my tongue over my teeth, assumed an expression of wakeful competence. Of complacent ease.
‘Honey,’ she said, and stopped. ‘Did I wake you?’
I coughed. ‘No, I’m just doing the dishes.’
‘Jess, I need a favour. Tonight’s meeting has been moved an hour forward, so I won’t have time to pop up to Grandad’s. Could you nip over there for me?’
Eye roll. You never want to go, Mum. Why would I?
‘I’m at the deli until six,’ I said, totally apologetic. ‘Isn’t that a bit late?
‘What time are you starting?’
I cringed. ‘Midday.’
‘Could you head over there now?’
What could I say? I was already up, apparently. I reached for my denim shorts. She sounded so grateful, pathetically so.
‘I don’t like him to spend all day alone…’
Her voice trailed off.
Do you still run crying from his house, I wondered, sniffing my armpit, clipping my bra.
Would you still go there if you did?
I brushed my hair, shaking my head.
Twenty minutes later, I knocked and went in.
‘Grandad,’ I shouted. ‘It’s me. Jess.’
A noise of reply from upstairs.
I dropped my bag and made us both coffee. I slept so much that summer, to no avail. My head like soup. I carried both cups up the stairs. Windows all shut — the air musty and thick. I was relieved every second that he was out of sight. We’d never spent time alone together. What would we talk about?
It’s remiss of me, Grandad, but I just can’t get into anime…
‘Grandad, are you up? I made coffee.’
All the doors off the landing were shut. I put the cups down on the windowsill.
‘Grandad?’ I asked, knocking on his bedroom door. ‘Can I come in?’
‘Go away,’ he shouted, from the bathroom. ‘Leave me in peace.’
‘I don’t want you here. Leave! Where’s Dawny, for Christ’s sake? Where’s my fucking daughter?’
I went cold.
‘Grandad, it’s me, Jess,’ I shouted. The corner of the console table jutted me in the back. A tear dropped and I smacked it. ‘Mum’s at work. She can’t come today.’
I tried the handle of the bathroom door, surreptitious. Locked.
Something smashed. He groaned — a noise of despair.
‘Grandad, what was that?’ My throat was thick. ‘Let me in!’
‘I can’t,’ he said. ‘I’ll get blood on the handle.’
I practically fainted. He groaned again, a thud to the floor. I shivered and came to my senses. I ran downstairs, called an ambulance, then Mum. She swore in a way I’d never heard. The ambulance came and whisked them both away. She left me there to lock up. I had work in less than an hour. I sat on his stairs and cried.
That hadn’t been nothing.
I locked the house, still sobbing, and headed down the hill to work.
He makes her cry too, I thought. In a different way.
Maybe not everything is a non-problem.
Maybe some things hurt.
I served ham and cheese all day, as if everything was normal. I walked home, the evening sun burning my retinas, scorching my parting, the backs of my hands. Mum looked awful when I walked in. Dark circles, burnt cheeks. He was staying in overnight, she said. They’d checked him over: a funny turn and a cut hand seemed to be the extent of it.
‘It was your Gran’s cotton wool jar that smashed,’ Mum said, rueful. ‘The one that she’d been given by her Mum — your Great-Grandmother — when she married him.’
She burst into tears. Dropped her head into her hands. Mum was a pit of darkness. I stumbled forward, hugged her like she was a child. I seemed to enlarge as she shrank in my grip. Her tears as fat as my own.
My mother, who never cried.
The next day, the sun was violent. All the grass dead in the park. The canal three inches deep, no more, and there were dead things on the bottom of it. My forehead was ham-pink in the mirror at work. The air so thick — my spine and legs were heavy with something dark and sticky, something curdled in the heat. So many things that I’d never bothered to see.
I went with Mum to get Grandad from the hospital. An old, sick man sat in the front seat, Mum driving. The verges were roasted and brittle. Twigs like his fingers.
Grandad — a small man, a tyrant — complaining about the nurses, all foreign.
Mum wet-eyed, despairing, staring at the road, nodding along.
She had to do this everyday.
The black hole inside me swelled up so big that I practically fainted.
We got him into his chair.
‘Thank God I’m home,’ he said. ‘Shame neither of you ever learnt how to make a proper cup of tea, though. No thanks to your mother, eh, Dawny? She was a waste of space,’ he muttered. A barb straight through us. Swear words, redacted. He’d never been like this with me. My teenage Mum ran out of the house, too ashamed to talk to my Dad. I touched her shoulder. She looked at me like she never had. Black holes in her eyes too.
I went upstairs and saw the two coffees there, waiting.
Milk curdled in the catastrophic heat.
A child made those, two days before.
I took them downstairs and washed them up in the sink. I found a dustpan and brush for the blood-edged glass.
I began to look around me a little more after that.
I read blogposts, the IPCC report, the UN forecasts. I returned to university, though it was different to the club-nights-and-skipped-lectures hiatus that it had been before. I called Mum sometimes, when I knew she’d be at Grandad’s, so she had an excuse to leave, if she wanted it. I went to a climate emergency meeting, and then another. I began showing up to the planning meetings in people’s houses. I got my head around oat milk, and almond. I changed my degree and replaced the block of lard inside me with something thinner, sharper.
Often, I was scared of it.
No future was my future, just like the past was my mother’s.
Some things were not nothing.
Greta. When the meetings finished, I gathered up the dirty cups. I washed up the cups in the sink.
Lyndsay Wheble’s work has appeared in The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Litro, Spoonfeed, Belle Ombre, the Oxford Writers’ Circle’s Love with a Twist anthology, on BBC radio, and elsewhere. She won the Reflex Fiction Prize Summer 2018 and has shortlisted for the HISSAC and Yeovil Prizes. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Oxford Brookes. This story was first broadcast on BBC Radio Bristol, 23rd September 2021.