One Day, Page 13David Nicholls
Dexter smiles and sniffs obediently but he hates this type of thing, gallows humour. It’s meant to show pluck, to lift the spirits, but he finds it boring and stupid. He would prefer the unsayable to be left unsaid. ‘How is Emma anyway?’
‘Very good, I think. She’s a fully qualified teacher now. Job interview today.’
‘Now there’s a profession.’ She turns her head to look at him. ‘Weren’t you going to be a teacher once? What happened there?’
He recognises the dig. ‘Didn’t suit me.’
‘No’ is all she says. There is a silence and he feels the day slip from his control once more. Dexter had been led to believe, by TV, by films, that the only up-side of sickness was that it brought people closer, that there would be an opening-up, an effortless understanding between them. But they have always been close, always been open, and their habitual understanding has instead been replaced by bitterness, resentment, a rage on both their parts at what is happening. Meetings that should be fond and comforting descend into bickering and recrimination. Eight hours ago he was telling complete strangers his most intimate secrets, and now he can’t talk to his mother. Something isn’t right.
‘So. I saw largin’ it last week,’ she says.
She is silent, so he’s forced to add, ‘What did you think?’
‘I think you’re very good. Very natural. You look very nice on the screen. As I’ve said before, I don’t care for the programme very much.’
‘Well it’s not really meant for people like you, is it?’
She bridles at the phrase, and turns her head imperiously. ‘What do you mean, people like me?’
Flustered, he continues, ‘I mean, it’s just a silly, late-night programme, that’s all. It’s post-pub—’
‘You mean I wasn’t drunk enough to enjoy it?’
‘I’m not a prude either, I don’t mind vulgarity, I just don’t understand why it’s suddenly necessary to humiliate people all the time—’
‘No-one’s humiliated, not really, it’s fun—’
‘You have competitions to find Britain’s ugliest girlfriend. You don’t think that’s humiliating?’
‘Not really, no—’
‘Asking men to send in photos of their ugly girlfriends . . .’
‘It’s fun, the whole point is the guys love them even though they’re . . . not conventionally attractive, that’s the whole point, it’s fun!’
‘You keep saying it’s fun, are you trying to convince me, or yourself?’
‘Let’s just not talk about it, shall we?’
‘And do you think they find it fun, the girlfriends, the “mingers”—’
‘Mum, I just introduce the bands, that’s all. I just ask pop stars about their exciting new video, that’s my job. It’s a means to an end.’
‘But to what end, Dexter? We always raised you to believe that you can do anything you wanted. I just didn’t think you’d want to do this.’
‘What do you want me to do?’
‘I don’t know; something good.’ Abruptly she places her left hand on her chest, and sits back in her chair.
After a moment, he speaks. ‘It is good. In its own terms.’ She sniffs. ‘It’s a silly programme, just entertainment, and of course I don’t like all of it, but it’s an experience, it’ll lead to other things. And actually I think I’m good at it, for what it’s worth. Plus I’m enjoying myself.’
She waits a moment, then says, ‘Well you must do it then, I suppose. You must do what you enjoy. And I know you’ll do other things in time, it’s just . . .’ and she takes his hand, without finishing the thought. Then she laughs, breathlessly, ‘I still don’t see why it’s necessary for you to pretend to be a cockney.’
‘It’s my man of the people voice,’ he says, and she smiles, a very slight smile, but one which he latches onto.
‘We shouldn’t argue,’ she says.
‘We’re not arguing, we’re discussing,’ he says, though he knows that they are arguing.
Her hand goes to her head. ‘I’m taking this morphine. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m saying.’
‘You haven’t said anything. I’m a little tired myself.’ The sun is bouncing off the paving slabs and he can actually feel the skin on his face and forearms burning, sizzling, like a vampire. He feels another wave of perspiration and nausea coming on. Stay calm, he tells himself. It’s just chemical.
‘Larging it, were you?’
‘A little.’ He rubs his temples to indicate soreness, says, without thinking, ‘Don’t suppose you’ve got any of that morphine going spare, have you?’
She doesn’t even bother to look at him. Time passes. Recently he has noticed idiocy creeping up on him. His resolve to keep his head on straight, his feet on the ground, is failing and he has observed, quite objectively, that he is becoming more thoughtless, selfish, making more and more stupid remarks. He has tried to do something about this but it almost feels out of his control now, like pattern baldness. Why not just give in and be an idiot? Stop caring. Time passes and he notices that grass and weeds have started to push their way through the surface of the tennis court. The place is falling apart already.
Eventually she speaks.
‘I’m telling you now, your father’s cooking lunch. Tinned stew. Be warned. At least Cassie should be back in time for dinner. You are staying the night, I suppose?’
He could stay the night, he thinks. Here is an opportunity to make amends. ‘Actually, no,’ he says.
She half turns her head.
‘I’ve got tickets for Jurassic Park tonight. The premiere actually. Lady Di is going! Not with me, I hasten to add,’ and as he speaks the voice he hears is of someone he despises. ‘I can’t skip it, it’s a work thing, it was arranged ages ago.’ His mother’s eyes narrow, almost imperceptibly, and in mitigation he quickly tells a lie. ‘I’m taking Emma, you see. I’d skip it, but she really wants to go.’
‘Oh. Well.’ And there’s a silence.
‘The life you lead,’ she says levelly.
Silence once more.
‘Dexter, you’ll have to excuse me, but I’m afraid the morning has taken it out of me. I’m going to need to go to sleep upstairs for a while.’
‘I’m going to need some help.’
Anxiously, he looks around for his sister, or father, as if they had some kind of qualification that he doesn’t possess, but they’re nowhere to be seen. His mother’s hands are on the arms of the chair now, straining uselessly, and he realises that he must do this. Lightly, without conviction, he loops his arm under hers and helps her up. ‘Do you want me to . . . ?’
‘No, I’m fine getting indoors, I just need help with the stairs.’
They walk across the patio, his hand just touching the fabric of the blue summer dress that hangs loosely off her like a hospital gown. Her slowness is maddening, an affront to him. ‘How is Cassie?’ he asks, to fill the time.
‘Oh fine. I think she enjoys bossing me around a little too much, but she’s very attentive. Eat this, take these, sleep now. Strict but fair, that’s your sister. It’s revenge for not buying her that pony.’
So if Cassie’s so good at this, he wonders, where is she when she’s needed? They are inside, at the bottom of the staircase. He had never realised there were so many stairs.
‘How do I? . . .’
‘It’s best if you just lift me. I’m not heavy, not these days.’
I am not up to this. I am not capable. I thought I would be, but I’m not. Some part of me is missing, and I cannot do this.
‘Does it hurt anywhere? I mean is there anywhere I should? . . .’
‘Don’t worry about that.’ She removes her sunhat and settles her headscarf. He takes a firmer hold of her below her shoulder blade, the fingers of his hand aligning with the grooves of her ribs, then bends at the knee, feels t
he back of her legs beneath her dress against his forearm, smooth and cool, and when he thinks she is ready he lifts, scooping her up and feeling her body loosen in his arms. She exhales deeply, and her breath is sweet and hot on his face. Either she is heavier than he expected or he is weaker than he thought, and he bumps her shoulder against the stair post, then readjusts, turning sideways as he starts to climb the stairs. Her head rests against his shoulder, the headscarf slippery against his face. It feels like a parody of a stock situation, the husband carrying the bride over the threshold perhaps, and several light-hearted remarks run through his head, none of which will make this any easier. As they reach the landing, she obliges instead – ‘My hero,’ she says, looking up at him, and they both smile.
He kicks open the door to the dark room, and lays her on the bed.
‘Can I get you anything?’
‘Are you due anything? Medicine or . . .’
‘No, I’m fine.’
‘Dry martini with a twist?’
‘Oh yes please.’
‘Do you want to get under the covers?’
‘Just that blanket, please.’
‘Please. But leave the window open.’
‘See you later then.’
He smiles tightly at her, but she is already lying on her side with her back to him, and he steps out of the room, pulling the door loosely closed. One day quite soon, probably within the year, he will walk out of a room and never see her again, and this thought is so hard to conceive of that he shoves it away violently, concentrating instead on himself: his hangover, how tired he feels, how the pain throbs in his temples as he trots down the stairs.
The large, untidy kitchen is empty so he crosses to the fridge, which is almost empty too. A wilted celery heart, a chicken carcass, opened cans and economy ham all indicate that his father has taken over the domestic duties. In the fridge door is an opened bottle of white wine. He takes the bottle out and swigs from it, taking four, five gulps of the sweet liquid before he hears father’s footsteps in the hall. He replaces the bottle, wipes his mouth with the back of the hand just as his father enters, carrying two plastic bags from the village supermarket.
‘Where’s your mother?’
‘Tired. I carried her upstairs for a lie-down.’ Dexter wants him to know that he is brave and mature, but his father seems unimpressed.
‘I see. Did you chat?’
‘A little. Just about this and that.’ His voice sounds strange in his own head, booming and slurred and self-conscious. Drunk. Can his father tell, he wonders? ‘We’ll talk more when she wakes up.’ He opens the fridge door again, and pretends to see the wine for the first time. ‘Mind if I?’ He takes it, empties the dregs into a glass then heads out past his father. ‘I’m just going to be in my room for a bit.’
‘What for?’ scowls his father.
‘I’m looking for something. Old books.’
‘Don’t you want lunch? Little food with your wine perhaps?’
Dexter glances at the shopping bag at his father’s feet, splitting from the weight of all the tins. ‘Maybe later,’ he says, already out of the room.
On the landing, he notices the door of his parents’ room has swung open, and silently he steps inside once again. The curtains move in the afternoon breeze, and the sunlight comes and goes on her sleeping form beneath an old blanket, the dirty soles of her feet visible, toes curled up tight. The smell that he remembers from his childhood, of expensive lotions and mysterious powders, has been replaced with a vegetable odour that he would rather not think about. A hospital smell has invaded his childhood home. He closes her door, and pads to the bathroom.
As he pees, he checks in the medicine cabinet: his father’s copious sleeping pills tell of night fears, and there’s an old bottle of his mother’s valium dated March 1989, long superseded by more potent medication. He shakes out two of each and slips them into his wallet, then a third valium, which he swallows with water from the hand basin’s tap, just to take the edge off.
His old bedroom is used for storage now, and he has to squeeze past an old chesterfield, tea chest and cardboard boxes. On the walls, a few dog-eared family snapshots, and his own black and white prints of shells and leaves that he took as a teenager, imperfectly fixed and fading now. Like a child sent to his room he lies on the old double bed, hands behind his head. He had always imagined that some sort of emotional mental equipment was meant to arrive, when he was forty-five, say, or fifty, a kind of kit that would enable him to deal with the impending loss of a parent. If he were only in possession of this equipment, he would be just fine. He would be noble and selfless, wise and philosophical. Perhaps he might even have kids of his own, and would presumably possess the maturity that comes with fatherhood, the understanding of life as a process.
But he isn’t forty-five, he is twenty-eight years old. His mother is forty-nine. There has been some terrible mistake, the timing is out, and how can he possibly be expected to deal with this, the sight of his extraordinary mother diminishing like this? It isn’t fair on him, not with so many other distractions. He is a busy young man on the edge of a successful career. Expressed in its frankest terms, he has better things to do. He feels another sudden urge to cry, but he hasn’t cried for fifteen years, so he puts this down to the chemicals and decides to sleep a little. He balances the glass of wine on a packing case by the side of the bed, and rolls onto his side. Being a decent human being will require effort and energy. A little rest, then he will apologise and show how much he loves her.
He wakes with a start and looks at his watch, then looks again. 6.26 p.m. He has slept for six hours, clearly impossible, but when he pulls open the curtains the sun is starting to dip in the sky. His head still hurts, his eyes are somehow gummed shut, there’s a metallic taste in his mouth, and he is parched and hungrier than he has ever been before. The glass of wine, when he reaches for it, is warm in his hand. He drinks half of it, then recoils – a fat bluebottle has found its way into the glass and buzzes against his lip. Dexter drops the glass, spilling the wine down his shirt and onto the bed. He stumbles to his feet.
In the bathroom, he splashes his face. The perspiration on the shirt has gone sour, taking on an unmistakeable alcoholic stench. A little queasily he paints himself with his father’s old roll-on deodorant. Downstairs he can hear pots and pans, the babble of the radio, family sounds. Bright; be bright and happy and polite, then go.
But as he passes his mother’s room he sees her sitting on the edge of the bed in profile, looking out across the fields as if she too has been waiting for him. Slowly she turns her head, but he hovers on the threshold like a child.
‘You’ve missed the whole day,’ she says quietly.
‘So I see. Feeling better?’
‘Oh well. Your father is a little angry with you, I’m afraid.’
‘No change there then.’ She smiles indulgently and, encouraged, he adds, ‘Everyone seems pissed-off with me at the moment.’
‘Poor little Dexter,’ she says and he wonders if she is being sarcastic. ‘Come and sit here.’ She smiles, places one hand on the bed next to her. ‘Next to me.’ Obediently he enters the room, and sits, so that their hips are touching. She knocks her head against his shoulder. ‘We’re not ourselves, are we? I’m certainly not myself, not anymore. And you’re not either. You don’t seem yourself. Not as I remember you.’
‘In what way?’
‘I mean . . . can I speak frankly?’
‘Do you have to?’
‘I think I do. It is my prerogative.’
‘Go on then.’
‘I think . . .’ She lifts her head from his shoulder. ‘I think that you have it in you to be a fine young man. Exceptional even. I have always thought that. Mothers are supposed to, aren’t they? But I don’t think you�
�re there yet. Not yet. I think you’ve got some way to go. That’s all.’
‘You mustn’t take this badly, but sometimes . . .’ She takes his hand in hers, rubbing the palm of it with her thumb. ‘Sometimes I worry that you’re not very nice anymore.’
They sit there for a while until eventually he says, ‘There’s nothing I can say to that.’
‘There’s nothing that you have to say.’
‘Are you angry with me?’
‘A little. But then I’m angry with pretty much everyone these days. Everyone who isn’t sick.’
‘I’m sorry, Mum. I am so, so sorry.’
She presses her thumb into the palm of his hand. ‘I know you are.’
‘I’ll stay. Tonight.’
‘No, not tonight. You’re busy. Come back and start again.’
He stands, holds her shoulders lightly, and presses his cheek against hers – he can hear her breathing in his ear, the warm, sweet breath – then he walks to the door.
‘Thank Emma for me,’ she says. ‘For the books.’
‘Send her my love. When you see her tonight.’
‘Yes. You’re seeing her tonight.’
He remembers his lie. ‘Yes, yes I will. And I’m sorry if I haven’t been very . . . very good today.’
‘Well. I suppose there’s always the next time,’ she says, and smiles.
Dexter takes the stairs at a run, counting on the momentum to hold him together, but his father is in the hallway reading the local newspaper, or pretending to. Once again, it’s as if he has been waiting for him, a sentry on duty, the arresting officer.
‘I overslept,’ says Dexter, to his father’s back.
He turns a page of the newspaper. ‘Yes, I know.’
‘Why didn’t you wake me, Dad?’
‘There didn’t seem much point. Also I tend to think that I shouldn’t have to.’ He turns another page. ‘You’re not fourteen years old, Dexter.’
‘But it means I’ve got to go now!’
‘Well, if you’ve got to go . . .’ The sentence peters out. He can see Cassie in the living room, also pretending to read, her face flush with condemnation and self-righteousness. Get out of here now, just go, because this is all about to break. He places one hand on the hall table for his keys, but it comes up empty.