It was on a certain Wednesday evening in late June 1997, that life as I knew it came to an abrupt, rather screeching halt. My psychologist, Doctor Schriver, says that my tendency to conflate fantasy with reality, what he has decided to term my ‘post-traumatic delusions’, stem from that very day; he says that I haven’t allowed myself to truly appreciate what happened back then, and that, until I reconcile myself with objective facts, I’ll be forever locked away in my thirteen-year-old self. He’s wrong, though. I know what he wants me to think—who he wants me to blame. But it couldn’t be further from the truth. Mom was the glue that held us together. My father, on the other hand, was a complete palooka. There’s no exact synonym for palooka, in case you’re unfamiliar with the word; but if you’re the sort of person who walks around with your hands in your corduroy pockets, whistling some nondescript assemblage of notes off-key and, in between choruses, smiling inanely at people, you might well qualify as a genuine palooka.
I still remember it as though it were yesterday, that supper in midsummer, although, in truth, it’s more than fifteen years ago now. Mom had made bangers, mash, and mushy peas, and the four of us were sitting in quiet respect of our victuals. It had always been my favourite meal, and I was eating the potato with the most parsimonious of forkfuls possible, such that the pleasure could be extended for that much longer; the two sausages I had not yet dared rupture—a special treat to be left for later; the legumes, however, the least enjoyable component of the dish, were afforded no such honour and had been dispensed with summarily. Indeed, I was just on the point of cutting myself a thin wedge of the good pork, when my father broke our collective silence. This in itself was out of the ordinary. My father rarely gave his larynx much in the way of a workout, and, when he did, the product was usually monosyllabic.
“Penelope,” he addressed Mom, and he took a measured sip of his orange juice. It was strange for him to call my mother anything other than ‘Pen’.
“Douglas,” she volleyed back, and I at once anticipated trouble in our little suburban Eden.
“Penelope,” and then the words flowed out rather more quickly, “I’ve been having an affair with my secretary, Miss Goodall. I want to move out of here and live with her from now on. Okay?”
My mom helped herself to a large heap of the mash from her plate and then began cleaning her gums of any residual potato which had failed to make the passage south. “But the supper is good?”
He frowned at her in confusion. “I, you know, I don’t think you’ve heard me right, Pen. What I said was…”
“I heard you fine, Douglas. I just wanted to make sure that everything else was okay?”
“Everything else?” My dad scratched his scalp—he suffered from chronic psoriasis, and he always made a point of avoiding stressful situations, lest the dreaded itchiness made a surprise sortie.
“Yes, well, the dinner, of course, dear. I’d hate for that also to be unsatisfactory.”
“Just tell me you like the food, Douglas.”
“It’s Doug, Pen.”
“The food, Douglas.”
My father stared down at his plate like a defeated general. I glanced over at my sister, Agatha, but she didn’t even seem to be listening, either that or she didn’t care. But I knew something had to be done to remedy the situation.
I at once stuffed a banger into my mouth and proudly declared while chewing, “Mum, they’re dynamite sausages.”
My intervention didn’t have the desired effect. My mother regarded me with a rather mournful expression, while my father looked like he wanted to throttle me. He rested his fingertips together and continued with the prepared monologue.
“Listen, Pen. I just wanted to say, you know, it’s got nothing to do with you. It’s all me, you understand? I’m all messed up inside. A man couldn’t want a perfect wife. You’ve done everything that I could ask of you. You cook all the meals; you get the kids ready for school, you clean the house. Everything.”
“…Wash the clothes, hang the clothes, iron the clothes; walk the dogs, wash the dogs; wash the dishes, dry the dishes, pack the dishes away; vacuum the floor, polish the floor…”
“The list could go on,” he enthused.
My mother’s eyes formed two narrow slits, just as an eagle does when it looks down from its high eyrie in the mountains for some helpless victim on the plains below. She allowed my father to continue.
“Lord knows how you do all of it, Pen. You’re a miracle worker. It’s just, you know, I can’t handle that perfect life anymore. I need something messier. It’s hard to explain.”
“You can explain, dear; we’ve got time.” She took a loud sip of her dry sauvignon blanc, the one sin which she allowed herself after a full day’s slaving about the house. “It’s only eight-thirty, and there’s still dessert to come.”
“I’m not hungry,” said Father.
“Dessert, Mom!” I tried to change the topic. “That’s great! What did you make?”
“Brandy pudding,” my mom answered swiftly, before beckoning my father to carry on with a firm bow of her brow.
It wasn’t he who was next to talk, however—if only that had been the sole cause of our domestic calamity that evening! But no, an even greater tempest was stirring to my right-hand side; for out of the blue my sister, Agatha, burst into life.
“I have something I’ve wanted to tell you two for a while,” she began, “and today seems as good a day as any.”
I was tempted to argue to the contrary that, given Father’s sudden revelation, it was perhaps the worst occasion imaginable to toss further wood into the hearth, but I knew that such an effort on my part would have been futile—Agatha had long grown out of the habit of allowing my voice to make any impression in her head, ever since those two round globules on her chest had started expanding outwards.
“I’ve known for a few years now. I just didn’t want to cause any fuss. But seeing as how Douglas has decided to spill the beans on this little love tryst of his…”
“It’s Dad, for goodness sake! Stop calling me Douglas all the time.”
“Whatever you say, Atticus,” Agatha raised her chin obstinately.
“Any further lip and you can go to bed, Agatha.”
“Oh no, not until we’ve all licked our plates clean, Douglas,” corrected my mom. “I won’t have our daughter going to bed hungry. No, we’d better hear her out. Family conversation time should not be inhibited. Dinner is the one occasion every day when we all come together and can share how we feel. Go on, Agatha. You go right ahead.”
Agatha gave my father a wicked grin, understood that he had no more authority than a myopic, three-legged dachshund, and reclined back against the splat of her chair with an air of satisfaction. “Well, as I say, I’ve known for a couple of years. But you never want to tell your parents these kinds of things. Well, anyway, what I wanted to say is that, that I’m gay.”
To call my father displeased would have been akin to calling a honey badger a poor choice of partner for a romantic evening out to the movies.
“What did you say?”
He was holding his fork so tightly that little sapphire blue veins which I had never before seen were popping up all over his forearm.
“More mash, dear?” my mom insisted.
“What? How can you think of food at a time like this?” he bellowed.
“Douglas, do you have any idea how horridly stodgy mash potato gets when it cools? Either you eat it hot, or it goes to waste. And I’m not prepared to throw away all this good food.”
Being something of an expert on all things spud-like, I was on the brink of confirming her diagnosis, but my father’s stern glare would have melted the courage of an Andalusian matador, and I did the correct thing and left my lips in the locked position.
“Gay?” his mouth quivered. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means, Dougy,” said Mom, “that our clever daughter doesn’t want to make the same mistake her mother did.”
“But—gay? How is it possible? I mean, we brought her up properly, didn’t we? She ate healthy food always, no takeaways, with all those added hormones; and she’s always played proper outdoor sports at school, in the fresh air.”
“Well, actually,” interjected Agatha, “I met Jennifer during an interhouse volleyball game. She was wearing these tight little white shorts which she borrowed from her younger brother, Keith—and, oh my God, she was so gorgeous! Mom, if you’d seen her that afternoon, all hot and sweaty, you’d understand. I know you would!”
“That’s very romantic,” my mom topped her glass up to the brim. “Don’t you think that’s adorable, Douglas?”
“Jennifer—that’s, that’s a girl’s name?”
“Oh, stop being so conservative, Douglas.”
“Conservative?” He scratched his scalp.
“We’re a modern, liberal home, aren’t we? Lesbianism, adultery—we don’t discriminate here!”
“Thanks, Mom,” beamed Agatha.
“What you do with your body is your choice, Agatha. And your daddy has no right to judge you, not when he’s off fornicating with that little blonde crumpet at his work, and I’m slaving away at home, doing all the chores to make his life easy. More mash, Dougy?
Amidst this dramatic exchange, I was suddenly assailed by a strange feeling of unease and discomfort. Turning from my father to sister to mother, for the very first time in my life I felt like a complete outsider. I had to find a way to reingratiate myself into the tribe, and I knew just how I was going to do it.
“Mom,” I said with not a little gravitas, “I also have a secret.”
“No, you don’t, Barty.”
It was true. There were no great mysteries about me, sadly. But I wouldn’t let go so easily.
“But I do too!”
“Shut up, Son.” My father was rubbing his temples. He was starting to look rather unwell; I supposed that was on account of the news re his daughter’s extracurricular activities.
“That maths test last week,” I began. “I told you I got eighty percent. Well, actually, I got fifty-three.”
“Some secret,” Agatha chided me.
“And it’s not really a secret, Barty,” smiled my mom. “I found the exam paper in your wastepaper basket—scrunched up and stained, but quite legible in fact.”
“You’d make a great criminal, Bartholomew,” said Agatha. “That’s really clever thinking.”
“Clever thinking,” my mom mused, and she removed the metal pin which was keeping her hair raised in a bun. “This family is full of such clever thinking. I suppose it was also ‘clever thinking’ to leave your cell phone downstairs last Friday night, Agatha? The sort of messages I read on that horrible little device…”
“Mom!” my sister rocketed to her feet. “Oh my God! That’s my property! You have no right looking at my phone! I can’t believe this!”
“Sit down, Agatha, darling. And a mother assumes certain rights, whether or not they seem agreeable to her children.”
“You couldn’t have!”
“Sit, down. Good. And, let me tell you, I was shocked by the spiteful things that nasty girlfriend of yours is saying about our family. I don’t mind what sexual orientation you choose for yourself, Agatha, but that girl’s trying to tear you away from your home. She wants you all to herself. She’s a toxic influence. Girl or boy—I won’t allow that to happen. That ‘friendship’ is officially over.”
“What? You can’t do that to me!”
“I’m afraid I can, darling.”
“No, you can’t! I’m fifteen years old—and I can choose to be with whoever I want!”
“You think so, Agatha?”
“Guess what, Mom? Jen says I can stay with her and her mom if I don’t like it here anymore.”
“I know. I’ve read what that little genius has to say.”
“Well, then, you know it’s true. And there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”
“Let’s not get too ahead of ourselves, Agatha.”
“Hang on,” Father was gradually recovering his equilibrium and leapt into the fray once more. “You’re saying you knew that Agatha was thinking of running off and staying with some, some…”
“Lesbian, Dad,” Agatha rolled her eyes. “This is the twentieth century. It’s not so shocking.”
My father ignored her. “How could you keep such a thing from me, Pen? We’re married, aren’t we? Where’s the trust?”
“That’s a good question, Douglas.”
“Don’t get rhetorical with me, Pen. This is our daughter we’re talking about. We have a job to look after her.”
“To tell you the truth, Douglas, in normal circumstances I would most certainly have confided in you, but ever since I’d learned about your little fling at work, I’ve been somewhat less inclined to share anything with you.”
“…You knew about it?”
Agatha, meanwhile, wasn’t looking in top condition: she had lost all colour in her cheeks, and she had a pained expression across her brow.
“Mom, I’m not feeling too good.”
“It’s okay, darling,” my mom consoled her. “It will all be over soon.”
“What are you talking about, Pen?” asked my father. “And how did you find out about Louise?”
My mom supplied the details. “Two weeks ago, I was coming to your office to bring you a surprise lunch. You recall it was your birthday?”
“Oh god!” he sunk his face into the basin provided by his palms.
“Your favourite dish, Douglas—shepherd’s pie! Some flowers as well. Maybe even a hug and a kiss? Well, you can imagine the fright I got when I glanced through the Venetian blinds and saw you and that little whore splayed all over your desk, twisted around each other like a pretzel. What a pleasant surprise. Of course, I didn’t say anything. Part of me wanted to trust you. I believed it was just a one-off. I’m sure a lot of marriages have them. Hell, we’ve been married for seventeen years.”
“Pen,” my dad was slouching forward and clutching his stomach. “What’s going on?”
“Let me finish, Douglas. You know I don’t like being interrupted. And try some wine, it eases the pain.”
She shifted over the bottle of white before continuing. “But, surprise, the next day, lunchtime, I’m standing outside your office window, and it’s the same thing all over again. And my God, the kind of things the two of you were shouting. Such passion! Why my name even came into the conversation a few times! How can you compare me to a twenty-two year old, Douglas?”
“Pen, I think we need to go to the hospital. Agatha isn’t looking too good.”
That was an understatement. The customary expression of sarcastic indifference was nowhere to be seen, and with every passing moment her eyes seemed to be growing larger and rounder and whiter—the operator who had once manned the controls behind those portals having now vacated the premises; what’s more, there was a stone-like rigidity to her jaw which I had never before marked, and her cheekbones were raised so high that they almost touched her temples. And then all at once her whole body, from her shoulders down to her toes, began to be seized by strong, unyielding convulsions. I myself was starting to feel a little bit under the weather, but I put that down to the stress of the situation.
“All of which brings me to the point of this evening’s supper, Douglas,” Mom continued. “And I must say, the three of you chose the perfect evening to tell me about your secrets because I have a little secret of my own to which I must confess tonight. And I know for certain that not one of you have guessed what this one is! God, it’s so good that we can get these things out in the open! A healthy family unit cannot function amid these kinds of deception. We all need a fresh start. No more lies and secrets in this house; from now on we’re going to stick together.”
My father’s sallow eyes permitted her the opportunity to explain, and that she did. “Arsenic, Douglas! I’ve been adding a rare, unique condiment to our nightly platters for the last three days.”
“Are you mad, woman!” Father tried to raise himself from his chair, but to no avail; his limbs were now also wobbling uncontrollably.
“I’m furious!” my mom declared. “At first I put only the most meagre of pinches into our lasagne on Monday night, but there were practically no results to see: Barty got a little sick the next morning—but that was after three whole helpings. So I decided to up the dosage for my chicken biryani last night. But, as we all recall, that was a complete disaster! In my haste, I added far too much masala to the meat, and it turned out to be entirely inedible.”
Agatha had expanded her growing list of symptoms by proceeding to puke all over Mom’s Afghan rug, not without the usual admonishment; I might add—that woman was immaculate about cleanliness right unto the bitter end. I always respected her for that kind of consistency.
“Well, tonight there were going to be no mistakes. I made the family favourite, bangers and mash, and I doused those potatoes with enough poison to down a bull elephant—which is all in the way of saying, Douglas, dear, that it would be totally pointless to make our way to the emergency room, seeing that in approximately,” and she unrolled her jersey to inspect her wristwatch, “five minutes, I expect us all to be deceased, at around ten past the hour, give or take a few minutes either side.”
Her right hand shook a little as she raised the glass once more to her lips, but she was doing a fine job of suppressing the effects of the arsenic. I was feeling less chipper, though. I had only eaten about a quarter of the mash, but my stomach felt like a wrecking ball was crashing into now this corner, now that, not to mention the sensation of butcher knives being stabbed into my skull and a tightening, quivering feeling in the calves—in summary, most unpleasant.
“Aren’t you going to finish your dinner, Barty?” she lectured me. I guess I’ve always been something of a conformist, and even then it was difficult to deliberately disobey a parental injunction, but somehow I managed to convey to her satisfaction my overwhelming reluctance to die at that particular point in my life.
My sister by then had already passed out and was frothing away on the floor like a defective cappuccino machine, and what little energy my father had left in him was employed in his final words: “Pen—tell you the truth—your mash was always a little dry for my liking.”
As his mouth winced in agony, my mom turned her head slowly to me. “Can you believe this man, Barty? He never appreciates anything I do around here.”
I’ve always been glad that the last thing I ever said to Mom was to tell her that her mash potato was the best in the entire world, and that Father was just plain spiteful on account of his dying and all, and that she ought not to take it too seriously.
It had the desired effect. A permanent smile was etched across her cheeks for the rest of the night, right until the ambulance arrived and the paramedics covered the three bodies with those dull grey blankets of theirs. All the doctors made a proper fuss of me in the hospital, and I was exempt from school for a whole month while an appropriate foster home was found for me.
These days when my friends at the asylum learn about my family history and start asking me questions, they’re often quite surprised to hear me standing up for my mom.
“But she massacred your entire family, Mew!” they’ll say. “What the hell!”
“On the contrary,” I object, “she was just trying her best to keep us all together. And, at the end of the day, I’m the one who let her down.”
Hamish Filmer grew up in Simon’s Town, South Africa, studying Classical Philology at the University of Cape Town. Hamish resides in The Hague, where he lives with his wife, Ksenia, and two sons, Konstantin and Alexander. He has had short stories published in Empty Nest (KY Story), The Cardiff Review, Type/Cast, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and The Quill Magazine (forthcoming). http://hamishfilmer.weebly.com/writing.html