IGNORING GRAVITY #31

Lily was peeling potatoes for dinner. Colcannon with pan-fried salmon fillets. She didn’t particularly like colcannon, but it was William’s favourite. She left the potatoes soaking in a pan of cold water then trimmed a Savoy cabbage, aiming the thick outer leaves at the compost bucket but missing more often than not. Should she force William to talk to her somehow? How? Why didn’t he want to listen to her? He used to. She rinsed the cabbage in so much cold water that she rinsed the sink and worktop too. As she mopped the floor, she wondered again how she’d got it so wrong last night.

Fighting Temeraire [photo: David Austin Roses]

Fighting Temeraire [photo: David Austin Roses]

William had returned home yesterday from Geneva a day early and in an ugly mood. She felt like she’d won a chance to talk to him so she conjured up his favourite fish stew with a tin of tomatoes, tuna [oily fish, good for everything and sustainably caught] and organic broccoli [folic acid, essential for a healthy foetus] on the side, followed by banana cake [yet more folic acid, what he didn’t know he couldn’t object to]. She hadn’t once mentioned the words ‘sex’, ‘pregnancy’ or ‘baby’ while they ate dinner and was proud of this because, after the encounter with the milkmaid and Lewis on Monday, they were the only three words in her head. It took an enormous effort to behave normally. But when she’d stroked his arm as they lay in bed and said ‘I missed you,’ he didn’t even put down his book. ‘I’m really tired,” he said, and turned onto his side away from her. Not too tired to watch the ten o’clock news though, not too tired to read, she’d wanted to say, hating herself for not confronting him.

Why is it always me who has to do what he wants?

She skinned the salmon fillet and left it to marinade in olive oil and lemon juice. That was William’s second-favourite dinner prepared. Next, the laundry. Except she didn’t feel like ironing William’s shirts now. She didn’t feel like doing anything for him. With her heart lightening at the thought of escape, she picked up her jacket and bag. She would talk to the one person who loved her unconditionally.

She headed to the allotment. Her father was tying up canes. It was a pretty typical scene repeated throughout Lily’s childhood. She remembered the first time he’d trusted her to plant out his baby cabbages, patting down the soil and watering them in with her own red watering can. She was good at this. And everything felt familiar now except for the silence. It took her a moment to work out what was missing: he wasn’t whistling. Throughout Lily’s childhood he always whistled, show tunes mostly and songs from film. ‘Moon River’ was a favourite, ‘I Talk to the Trees,’ and ‘June is Busting Out All Over’ which Lily had thought was about a lady with a large chest. But he hadn’t whistled since the funeral, it was as if he’d forgotten how.

“Now then,” he didn’t raise his head but seemed to know it was her and this made her feel warm inside. He was tying up the spaghetti-thin green shoots of runner beans, training them upwards towards the sun. But when he looked up, Lily was shocked to see his face so pale, grey even, and she was immediately furious with Rose. She must have confronted him about the adoption.

Typical Rose, she never stops to think that poor Dad is still grieving.

He straightened up and staggered slightly.

Lily took his arm. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” he said, reaching in his pocket and bringing out a foil strip of indigestion tablets. “I just stood up too quickly.” He popped out two tablets and chewed.

“Well I think you should go for a check-up, it could be your blood pressure.”

“I’m fine, I tell you. Stop fussing.”

“Dad, please go to the doctor. For me?”

His head jerked in what Lily took to be a small nod of agreement. They sat on the narrow wooden bench outside his shed. His hand shook as he opened his flask and poured tea, first into the lid then into the white plastic cup nestled inside. The tea steamed, the air was chilly despite the warmth of the sun. This was the moment to ask him, she thought.

He took a gulp of tea, rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand, and sat back. “Aah.”

How did you raise such a thing with your father, she wondered, about the mechanics of getting pregnant? About sex? How would Rose ask?

“When did you last see Rose?”

The sigh was out of Lily’s mouth before she could stop it. So he was more interested in Rose than in her. Lily hated tea from a flask, it tasted plasticky but she hadn’t wanted to offend by refusing and now she took her time swallowing. Did he know? If so, what did he know? Should she tell him or was it best coming from Rose? She decided not to mention the diaries at all. “I talked with her on the phone on Monday evening.”

“Monday?” Colour was creeping back into his ashen cheeks.

“Have you seen her then?”

He took another big swallow, he never waited for drinks to cool, preferring them straight from the kettle. “Yes. She came to see me yesterday, said you two found a diary in Mum’s wardrobe.”

Oh, thank goodness, he knows. “Diaries, yes we did. Dad, did Mum always write a diary?” She waited, willing him to answer, but hearing only silence.

He tossed the dregs from his mug over the weeds at his feet and stood up. “Lily, I don’t really want to talk now.” He screwed the lid back on the flask. “I’ve got three rows to sow with lettuce seed, the compost needs turning.”

“I’ll help,” she said, jumping up. She picked up the seed packet and rake. “Where do you want them?” She smiled but her mind was somersaulting. She wasn’t going to leave empty-handed, her father must have more diaries and Lily knew there would be some sort of record in the diaries, because her mother had taught her to do it when she was 11. ‘Be discreet,’ her Mum had counselled as she gave her a pink diary with a golden lock. ‘You only need a tiny question mark in the margin to show the date you’re due, and a ring around the date of each day you’re on. It’s a little code. No-one else needs to know what it means.’ If she could see the codes in her mother’s diaries, it would prove that her mother had regular periods.

She jumped up and followed him along the path beside a long thin strip of freshly turned soil. Halfway along he stopped suddenly and they collided. Off-balance, Lily stepped aside onto the fresh earth but he looked fixedly at her footprint so she stepped swiftly back onto the grassy path.

“So, how was Rose?”

He took a dibber from his pocket and sank to his knees at the beginning of the row.

She knelt beside him. It felt a bit like they were praying.

“Angry,” he said at last. He pushed the dibber into the soil with force, then gestured to her to put a seed in each hole.

Lily thought the holes were too deep for lettuce, she sowed her lettuce seeds in shallow drills in her back garden, but she did as he did; as she always had. “Well, it was a shock, of course she’s angry. But Rose is strong, she’ll get over it. After all, she’s not the only one with problems.” That was her big hint. Ask me now, please Dad.

He continued dibbing.

Just as she was wondering if he would ever speak again, he did, and he sounded so wistful her mouth went dry.

“It’s not the same without your mother. She made things nice, she knew how to make me forget work in the evenings. Now I can’t forget anything.” He shuffled sideways on his knees and dibbed again. “Even gardening doesn’t help.”

Lily had a sudden impulse to hug him but his body was all angles and elbows and it didn’t work. “Oh Dad, when you feel low you must come to dinner with us. William would love to see you.” She bit her lip at the lie.

More seeds were planted in silence, a more companionable silence this time. Lily so wanted to ask her father what to do about William, but that tight expression was back on his face so she concentrated on the lettuce seeds, knocking a little soil back into the hole before dropping in a seed and covering it with earth. Just being next to him was a comfort of sorts.
© Sandra Danby

…in IGNORING GRAVITY #32: Rose watches ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and identifies with Dorothy…

This is the 31st instalment of ‘Ignoring Gravity’ about identity detective Rose Haldane. To start reading from the beginning, please click on the category ‘My Novel: Ignoring Gravity’ in the right hand menu.