The Four of Us




ur daughter, Gail, went to university and in the early weeks drank much, partying hard.
While drunk she swallowed an offered pill and later staggered back to her room.
Finding no one around and herself far worse, she rang, but since I was fully engaged where I wasn’t supposed to be, my phone was off.
Gail left three, increasingly frantic, messages.

In desperation she tried her father who was away working.
She heard his voice, heard him call her “my baby” and, unable to tell the truth, blurted she missed him then wept.
“Right,” Doug replied, “I’ll drive up to take you out to breakfast.”
She said only “Oh daddy” and put down her phone.
The reason she was alive next day was that a room-mate got back and found her on the floor unconscious.

We cannot, yet, ask why Gail didn’t call an ambulance, though told my unresponsive mobile what she’d done and that she was petrified.
But she has long been skilled in hiding, hating her mess to be seen.
With our lovely daughter in intensive care, there have been hours to wonder.
The first surprise – a longing for my own mother, as though all was forgiven.
And would our small family find forgiveness, or even try for it?
Doug does not sit with me, does not sit with Gail. He can do nothing, where only skilled staff know what the critically ill require.
Far from seeming shaken that his collapsing child still tried to protect him my husband is keeping busy. He found plenty to do in collecting our things, finding accommodation up here, and now helping other families on the ward. At night he plans a holiday in the USA, the four of us going to the Grand Canyon, which Gail missed in her gap year because her travelling companion found herself pregnant.
Perhaps Doug escapes the self-doubt that unravels my gut, leaving glutinous liquid.
Sitting at Gail’s side, sometimes stroking her hair or hands, knowing she would object if conscious, there are memories and questions.
Was the promise that mothers should be available whenever needed at all times and in perpetuity?
Not that anyone else queries my phone being turned off.
And would an ambulance 25 minutes earlier have made enough difference?
An unreasonable steel heart- armour shuts Doug out.
Is guilt turning into a weapon against him?
And what comes back, metal sharp – “Of course there was nothing like that going on! I was there! If it was I’d have known.”
A reply to his only sister’s version of a perverted fake uncle around in their childhood. This, heard early in our marriage, was startling to one from a large family where none of us expected to concur about the past.
If Doug’s decidedness with his sister stuck, it also clarified – so it was not just me cornered by a determination to get agreement.

Another conversation with his sister years later.
She definitely saw me.
Our eyes met – astonishing she should be there, where for two years had been the “safest” meeting place.
Would she ring later to question me? Or take suspicion direct to Doug?
My sister-in-law had been polite for 23 years.

With me he barely went to church – she remained very Christian – which didn’t mean showing me charity or being likely to hesitate before interfering with” what God has joined” and no woman should put asunder.
Whatever it was she intimated on the phone Doug’s emphatic response was “No, don’t be melodramatic, of course we are fine! Though work keeps us both busy.”
An exchange to keep close – after all he has some small responsibility for not asking me, for not noticing.

Polished brown shoes, size 11, re-appear.
Shoes regularly seen. Our father, coming home from work, let us step on his feet for a big stride backwards, while he walked in as usual.
Whose shoes might I have been stepping in up the aisle, with father’s well shined black shoes at my side?
It was easy to assume they were my own.
But my feet took me to the man who thought his task was to look after me, to get busy doing what a husband should.
On first meeting he took care of me as I threw up.
Back then I, like our daughter, could be reckless with my body.
Doug was sturdy – promising an equilibrium I lacked – his apparent strength appealing when he looked reliable and love itself did not.

Desires of mine, occasionally for other girls, sometimes for the wildest boy who showed no interest, were too shaky a basis for any big decision, better to go with his firmness.
He wanted marriage. Time to settle down.
He wished to marry me.
My parents approved of him as upstanding and serious, rather more than they approved of their daughter.
What my body might want had not been central – none of our appetites got much of a look in and were not meant to be a compass. In our family, inherited notions of decency, established structures and convention ruled.

The marriage wasn’t unsatisfactory; it was, according to my aunt, what you should expect.
Marriage and the family must last but you “couldn’t rely on one person to give you everything,” she said.
It took years before any reading of my body and heart increased in volume sufficiently to drum out voices which had once sounded like my own.
The lover, also married, came way down the line.
Long before that was a moment of choice, after tense disagreement over the timing of a major incident in our shared life.
Doug was adamant – pitting himself against my sense of things – there was no question of it being anything other than a mistake on my part.
Having gone next day for proof, and found it, what held me back?
There was an urge to insist he listen yet something else was stronger.
Was there power in knowing how faulty he could be?
In the early years of marriage his doggedness led, but with children there was a shift into taking responsibility and trying to see what I could despite uncertainties – believing that Doug noticed less because he clung to what suited him. A man not as open to suggestion or dreaming as I had always been.
Had I forced him to face he was wrong might things have changed?

Another image comes – a horse races by. I would have to be riding one alongside to be that close and able to keep up with sleek, beautifully groomed and now sweaty flanks – in this dream image of a previous night.
Gail, in her early teens, went miles to help in stables in exchange for a few rides.
My mind constructs meanings. If Doug holds to fixed notions and keeps busy, I sit with our child shaping story lines which are dubious to others.
Doug may criticise my “overactive imagination”, yet credited me with seeing a way through one domain which baffled him. Weeping small children were left to me and Doug was readily impressed. His “sensitive” wife a soft compliment to his “good sense.”
He is kind and wants that to be enough – with distress sorted by effort, and he puts in plenty of that.
Though not fluid, he is seen by all as generous. When it comes to his time he certainly isn’t tightly wrapped inside himself, but I’d prefer a different balance – less willingness to help anyone and more capacity to consider others.
And himself – his tone of concern can sound phoney, since it covers a complex, unacknowledged range of reactions.

At worst Doug is pig-headed and inflexible, and once having decided that becomes THE way to see events.
Yet I still cannot comprehend how it’s possible to convince yourself that what you say is going on IS the only thing happening.
For me there is perpetual concern over what I might not have noticed, with shocks over where blinkers had prevented understanding. Doug, who sees less of what is under his nose, assumes trying to please is sufficient.
He drives our son and whatever male friend to every concert they wish to attend and, if they hold hands, does he even notice?
Doug says I am imagining, or “It’s just a phase. He’ll come right.”
Did he not ask anything after his sister saw me and rang because it might be “just a phase”?
The version which suits me is that my becoming more separate and confident appealed less – my needing him had been the turn on.
Perhaps I took for granted, as our sexual engagement reduced, that the rest of his desire went, not into love, but to keeping upright.
Possibly I’m wrong.

He didn’t sniff sex in the air when it was obvious with our daughter.
Gail spun him lines to swallow as she kissed the top of his seated head. She remained his “girl” and innocent. Why disillusion him?
There was a need to share worry but other mothers who had their eyes open, their senses on alert, were more use.
I accepted Doug’s limits and that he used his considerable ability to make money for the family. At work he is not sentimental. Only at home.
Our teenage children found plenty of fault in me too, and called Doug “a sweet innocent”, glad he assumed “they were on track” simply because he said they were. Other days it annoyed that a father of some intelligence could put it aside and appear thoughtless.
But why, even in extremis, could Gail not admit to what she’d done? Not to him.
Was she afraid, as maybe I have been, that if his pretty picture of the family shattered, all there has been between him and usmight be destroyed?
Yet he is the one ploughing on, doing, while Gail is just coming round.
Last night I finally asked Doug “Once she is out of intensive care might it be the marriage and family on life support?”
“Don’t be ridiculous! How can you think that? You have never mattered more – the four of us have shown how we care and you’ve been amazing. I’m sorry if you feel let down, but I just cannot sit looking at pain, where I cannot do anything.”

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