by Barbara Latham
e was dead and we were clearing the house.
I could still hear echoing refrains of his, “There will be no talk like that in this home!” And despite trying and living away there was no full escape from the power he had.
Though my sister , Georgina, failed to respond I persisted, “Did he believe it was up to him to settle what we could think? As well as telling us what we were allowed to say?”
Georgina’s attention remained with our father’s shirts. Any without holes she folded meticulously, doing up all the buttons. He wouldn’t see her efforts, and charity shops shook clothes to check them, however well folded.
Her unwillingness to engage was disconcerting.
Hadn’t we eventually become a team, when he tried to shut out more and more of what interested Georgina in her early teens?
He could declare what he wasn’t prepared to hear.
He sought control.
What chance had we to reply that we didn’t like him deciding what we could say?
Did we even think it?
Certainly not during those early years. We behaved as good daughters, trying not to provoke.
And we were fond of him.
He was ours, that man, with loud threats and some violence, whose house had finally been sold.
Some fear of him would not go, though he could do nothing now.
Even in our teens, he hadn’t been determined enough to lock his daughters in a cellar, so despite his determination to keep us at home, Georgina began getting out a window.
But did we discuss him back then?
Maybe but I have no memory of doing so.
Though, somewhere mid-teens, Georgina and I once agreed we would never be like our mother and pamper a man. (Both of us soon did.)
Our mother didn’t resort to rulers and leather straps or hard slaps, yet encouraged his role as man in a house of females. She flattered him while managing to make most of the decisions about us.
His bluster overlaid her quiet direction.
His continued, “You aren’t so big I can’t still put you across my knee,” was soon hollow.
He knew, as we did, that times were changing, and it would be assault if he took his hand to us as he’d done when we were young and with no notion we could complain to anyone.
I recalled the last time he went for Georgina – hadn’t it been for challenging when he insisted we were not to play with Edie?
We liked going next door to Edie’s place, where she helped herself and us to food from the fridge. She was allowed to make popcorn and a mess and we cooked a lot of frozen peas and ate ice cream.
Mostly Edie’s mother, who father called a “hussy,” was out and some teenager, more interested in magazines than three girls, was supposed to be in charge.
“We were luckier – our father cared, ” Georgina said. “And where is Edie now? I bet she didn’t keep studying as we did.”
If I was disappointed, my expectation of this return from abroad to clear the family home, and having longer with my sister, must have included sharing a view about our father.
I wanted to find more peace with our past and it felt like a rebuff that Georgina slid away from being my accomplice, though I had been hers when she climbed out the window.
“Celia, can’t you just accept he did what he could ? He felt responsible to keep us safe. It was his burden that we do well. Anyway, at home it was straightforward – in most houses limits exist, yet they go unnoticed. We recognised his. Besides you talked too glibly as a girl and now seem free to say anything about him in his house.”
“Free? As long as it’s possible to find what is worth saying. We aren’t exactly practised. How many honest conversations have we had?”
Georgina’s reply was irritated. She pointed out that, given our father had been dead almost a year, we were hardly likely to start much of a conversation with him.
Had Georgina, by staying near, found her way to forgiving as I had not? She obviously did not see my coming back, after years of living apart, as our being together in opposition to him.
Any assumption of a shared view annoyed her.
“For goodness sake, Celia, do you think you can catch all of what he gave? He wanted the best for us. He could be kind. What more do you want?”
“Some peace. His threats and power over us are dormant for months , then pop back to life.”
I didn’t add, what there was no way to tell anyone, that it was especially unnerving if the mess of all that humiliation with his punishments burst through during sex.
“Well, love for him is what comes back to me. And I don’t want to talk about this.”
“Now you sound just like him.”
“And you make our history into a gossip article, suitable for some magazine. Whatever went on isn’t neat and pat, Celia.”
Georgina moved to his desk, sorting papers and bank statements.
I went up to empty out the bathroom cabinet of aspirins and twenty-seven other pill bottles, most well out of date while he was still alive.
Certain I heard Georgina crying, I hurried down stairs and found her silent. Tears in her eyes were not dropping.
“Poor Dad,” she said and handed me a brown envelope with four smaller ones inside.
“Start with that one,” she said taking out a cream handwritten sheet.
I began to read through all the letters and they made no sense.
“Who is this? Who’s Sheila Lawson?” The writer was cross and Dad had kept her accusations.
“Finish them first. You’ll remember.”
But, unlike Georgina, I didn’t recall knowing anything.
She was only three years older, how had she been in on something from which I was excluded?
“Of course you were told when Dad was fired. How could you possibly miss it?”
There were images of tense exchanges and our father erupting too readily.
Was that when I turned seven and we stayed with a cross looking parrot and our aunt? We were told to talk to the bright bird and Georgina did. I looked at the beak, claws and mean eyes and wanted to go home, despite Dad’s sister giving us sweets and letting us watch TV when we wanted.
She tried but our bedroom smelt, of disuse probably, and made me cry.
“Of course you knew, after that explosion over Edie, Mother explained. You must have been nearly nine and she told both of us how he had lost his job by standing up for himself and the truth , and was in a panic. He said we must learn not to thoughtlessly challenge authority. He feared I didn’t realise the consequences of rebellion.”
I recalled something different of the time Mother came up to our bedroom. It was the only occasion she intervened with discipline.
At least I think that is the case. And in my mind it was after that he stopped smacking our bare bottoms and only took a ruler to our legs a few more years.
What stays unmistakable and uncomfortably vivid is Dad taking off his belt and telling Georgina to take down her pants.
The moment of her panic stays.
“I can’t, I can’t,” she screamed clutching at her knickers.
She had just started growing pubic hair. I noticed once and she was furious with my curiosity.
Mother came between Georgina and our father, telling us to go. “Go to your room!”
We ran. I’m sure we ran together but it’s possible we didn’t.
What did we do while we waited?
Though some of the context is fuzzy ,I do recall we were not allowed dinner that night yet mother sat with us and talked.
The fact of it was what remained. There were few enough attempts to account for anything.
But whatever Mother may have said it didn’t connect me to events Georgina apparently understood.
“You always thought everything was just about you – and being younger you somehow were to be protected by me as well as our parents.”
Georgina knew details of the car accident. But perhaps she’d asked about it as an adult. I hadn’t.
Our father was in the front passenger seat of a company car, while someone more important drove.
Georgina thought it was a long Mercedes and they were only jarred as a small car hit them, towards the back on Dad’s side.
But the firm sued for damage to an expensive Mercedes and for delay in getting to a crucial meeting which lost the company a deal, or so they said.
Our father signed the required statement, written for him, before he heard about the other driver – that Eric James Lawson, aged 41, married and father of four girls, had died.
He had to decide to risk his job or let the statement pass.
He talked to his manager who sounded sympathetic, when he confided that his statement wasn’t quite right.
But the senior man driving claimed any misgiving showed disloyalty.
Dad, who failed to get decent work for years, soon heard his supposed words were never used since the case was settled by the other party.
The letters we had in our hands were written twenty-three years later.
The writer, Sheila, having been ten at the time of the accident, sought all the papers after the death of her long widowed mother.
She found my father’s statement and his home address had not changed.
She wrote to ask if he knew why his view of the accident was so different from others.
How could he swear the car was within the 30mph limit when those on foot saw them speeding?
Whatever answer Sheila got, she wrote again that her kind father, Eric, was going less than a quarter of a mile to the garage, for a neighbour, a distraught young mother. It was her broken car and he hadn’t realised he’d be uninsured. Apparently she hadn’t told him the clutch was faulty.
If my father’s vehicle had not been going extremely fast, the impact could never have been sufficient to kill Eric, who only bunny hopped forward, as he put the neighbour’s car in gear, ready to move.
Sheila wrote that her mother settled out of court from a small life insurance, despite the police urging against it. They said the Mercedes must have been reckless.
But the young widow was beside herself to lose a good man, to be left with four small children and no income, and could not face a court case where her generous husband was being blamed.
The final letter was long and seemed to be from a different person, though the handwriting was the same.
It was a reply to something sent by our mother.
Georgina, looking at the date, said our mother must have already given up on chemotherapy by then.
Sheila’s last pages brimmed with gratitude. Until then she had been trapped in anger towards our father, she wrote.
If he was being driven she assumed him rich, with a chauffeur.
For years she’d imagined finding his car and taking a hammer to it.
Or just leaning on it, with nonchalant admiration, as he turned up, then asking a question or two.
She pictured the car dark blue, sleek and with metal trim. More like a film Studebaker.
“How fast does it go?” she’d enquire.
“How often do you enjoy such speed?”
He would be fat and full of himself, in expensive clothes and she’d puncture his complacency, forcing him to witness what he’d done to her mother and sisters.
Hearing what happened to our father in such detail broke that old spell and Sheila could accept there was nothing at all for her to put right.
It didn’t please, as much as she might have expected, to learn that the man responsible had a stroke soon after the accident and could no longer work or play golf.
Sheila wondered what my mother had said to that man’s resentful wife, when she came across her pushing him in a wheelchair, and he who had been such a smart dresser, was wearing baggy old clothes, stained with food from messy eating.
But surely that version could not be true, if the one thing I now recalled with certainty was our father’s lingering bitterness that the man who got him fired did extremely well.
“Maybe he had a stroke later,” Georgina replied.
“More likely it’s yet another of Mother’s fabricated comfort stories. Did she believe them herself?”
“You just can’t let things go can you?”
Had both Sheila Lawson and Georgina found a picture of events which enabled them to forgive?
And my sister, after ripping up the letters, kissed her fingers before reaching forward to touch them, so gently, on our parents’ framed wedding photo.