Here, we’re continuing on with the modern-day Phil pending chapter series which will be worked into the earlier sections of the novel during the editing and rewriting phase. You’ll see here that I’m continuing to work on Claire, to give her some depth while creating some empathy for her around her lack of support for Phil’s boyhood dreams. This is another of my verbally rough-and-tumble, super-crude chapters. However, I’d like you to bear in mind that old saying ‘many a serious thing is said in jest’ and that, once I get to the end of the novel, many of these “comedic”, verbal sparring episodes will have a much deeper meaning. Also, please note, that I’m having some technical difficulty moving my files into these posts, so you might come across the odd break in a line where there’s not meant to be one or a paragraph which should be indented, but isn’t. I’ve tried to catch these small errors, but I may have missed a few!
Phil pondered Justine’s thoughts on universal choreography, the divine moving around of people into their destinies. He realised she’d eventually concluded that Bertie and Greg had turned out to be the choreographers behind her marriage to Anthony Winterbourne. And yet he couldn’t help but think that some universal force existed, and that said power was a wicked jokester at its core.
Drumming his fingers on the open manuscript, Phil realised it wasn’t the time nor the place to be crude. But he was crude, for Christ’s sake, and considering he was in every time and place as it pertained to him, it was the time and the place to be obscene – if he were to be himself which, of course, he was. And I mean seriously, life was crude. No matter what, you couldn’t escape the sheer vulgarity of being alive.
It didn’t matter who you were, your efforts and accomplishments were regularly interrupted by bodily urges and physical functions of the worst or best degree. Crowns and caviar, iPhones and champagne, deeds to high rises and keys to the Ferrari had to be set down at some point or other throughout the day to deal with what your body was producing which, in Phil’s books – and in Chaucer’s – and in Shakespeare’s – was hair-raisingly hilarious. Well, it would be hair-raising but, judging by James and Nico’s electric grooming instruments labelled “OFF LIMITS”, Claire’s waxing trips to the salon, and his balding head, there wasn’t much body hair left at 17 Sorely Lane to raise.
But Chaucer? Shakespeare?
Those guys had it right, Phil thought. The pair of them embraced the beautiful indecency of human life. And so, the minute that thought hit, Phil gave himself permission to drift into the recent past, to the device debacle which had gone down in 17 Sorely Lane. Go for it, Phil, he thought. Tangent oncoming.
As mix-ups do, it all began benignly enough.
The JaNiMesCo Vegan Supper Club was running what they called a Moonlight Special to celebrate the harvest moon. Card tables with burlap tablecloths and soy-wax candles were dotted throughout the back garden in preparation for the event. James, with Phil on standby, was zigzagging white string lights back and forth between the trees which lined the garden walls to form an ‘awning of illumination’ as he was calling it. And just when Phil believed that they were done, James hauled out the rented cutlery and had Phil set the tables whilst he set up the sound system and tripods for the cameras.
“What do you need all that for?” Phil asked.
“For the photographs,” James said. “For social media. We’re hoping to get some silhouette shots against the harvest moon. It’s going to be brilliant, Dad. Just you wait and see. Nico’s come up with a ton of quotes which we can superimpose on the images.”
Not you fucking too, Phil thought, recalling Vic’s Vicspirations.
“Will you be serving power bowls?” Phil asked instead.
James, who was on top of a step ladder, stopped what he was doing and looked down at Phil. “Those are for breakfast, Dad,” he explained. “Not for our Moonlight Special. Tonight’s highlight is the souffle.”
“Don’t you need eggs for that?”
“No. Nico’s using egg replacer. You just mix it with water and you’re good to go. You don’t need to beat it, but Nico always beats it anyway – to work up a good froth, you know.”
No, I don’t know, Phil replied in silence as James hooked some lights through the branches of his current tree. And I wish you wouldn’t use the phrase ‘beat it’ when referring to our food.
“The tablescapes aren’t done yet, Dad,” James said just when Phil thought he’d finished. “I need you to go into the kitchen and bring out the wine glasses – after that, the plates – then the acorn bowls and autumn leaves which you’ll be scattering around the place settings.”
“Ay-ay, Captain,” Phil muttered, lumbering back to the kitchen where Nico was whizzing up what seemed to be a vast amount of white liquid in a vintage baking bowl.
“Hey, Dad,” Nico said, looking up from the hand-held device pulsing the mix. “Would you like to have a go at this whilst I make the salad?”
“I would,” replied Phil. “But your brother has put me on tablescapes.”
“Brilliant,” Nico said. “But come here for a sec.”
Phil nipped over to the counter and looked at the mixer, watching as it frothed up the liquid.
“It’s great, don’t you think?” asked Nico as Phil turned to survey the floor for the crate containing the wine glasses, picking it up when he found it. “We ordered it on Amazon.”
“Whose Visa card did you use?” Phil questioned, raising an eyebrow.
“Mum’s,” answered Nico.
“Which is as good as mine seeing as I’m the one who has to pay her Visa off.”
Before Nico had a chance to defend his mother, Phil hurried back to the garden with the crate.
Fast-forward to the end of the night when James was folding up the burlap tablecloths and Nico was doing the washing up. Claire called for Phil from her lair. Going upstairs, Phil entered Claire’s study to find her on her knees, rummaging through her crafting supplies.
“This is a little bit embarrassing, Phil,” she said frantically. “But something I ordered from Amazon a few weeks ago seems to have gone missing.”
“Why’s that embarrassing, Claire?” Phil looked confused.
“For the life of me, I can’t think where it’s gone. I mean I’d taken it out of its packaging, but it was still in the outer cardboard box it was posted in. I was keeping it up here with my supplies for the vision boards. Jesus, Phil, I need to find it.”
“I still don’t understand why you’d be embarrassed.”
Claire stopped rummaging and looked up at him with puppy-dog eyes. “Well, um, I’m not sure you’re going to like this Phil, but – as you’re aware – things have been a little – well – you could say – dry – in the bedroom lately and in one of the books I’ve been reading – well – it said that I should perhaps – um – well – you know – try – Phil? – Phil? – Where are you going?”
Phil was hurrying down the stairs and bursting into the kitchen where Nico was up to his elbows in suds. “Nico—Nico—Nico,” he panted. “That thing you were using to pulse the egg replacer? Where did you get it? This is important. I need to know!”
“I already told you,” Nico replied. “I got it on Amazon.”
“When?” Phil could feel his heartbeat accelerating. “For Christ’s sake – WHEN?”
“I dunno, Dad. A couple of weeks ago maybe. Why does it matter?”
“Who opened the box when it arrived?”
“Jeez, Dad. Calm down. Mum must have because I found it up in her study. It was still in the box along with her glue guns. I figured it had arrived when I was out, and she forgot to tell me. You know how absentminded she’s been lately with all her commitments. Dad? – Dad? – Hey! – Where are you going?”
And Phil was running back up the stairs, back into Claire’s lair.
“Claire—Claire—Claire—” Phil, his breathing haywire, grabbed onto the doorframe.
“I know, Phil,” Claire said. “I’m so sorry. I should’ve told you –”
“Claire,” Phil interrupted, catching his breath. “The fact that you’re using a vibrator as a Phil-replacer is the least of my concerns right now. The pressing question is –” Christ – He could barely get the words out. “The pressing question is – WHEN DID YOU LAST USE IT???”
“God, Phil – no – just no. I don’t have to tell you that!”
“Oh, but you do,” Phil said. “You bloody well do.”
Anger flashed in Claire’s eyes. “You know what, Phil?” she shouted. “When you talk to me like that – like a dictator to his perceived subordinate – it’s no wonder I don’t feel like receiving you anymore!”
“Receiving me?” Phil fired back. “Is that what you call it? Receiving me? Great, Claire. Fucking great! So, it’s tits-up okay for you to RECEIVE a mechanical device which cost you – what? – fifteen pounds? – and comes in bright purple?”
“What?” Claire screamed. “How the hell would you know what colour it is?!”
“I’m going to ask you one last time,” Phil said, smouldering, “when was the last time you used it?”
“Really, Phil? Really? You want to go there?”
“You’re damn right I want to go there!”
“I used it this morning.”
“It’s a full moon – that’s what I expected,” snapped Phil. “And did you wash it after you used it?
“What the fuck kind of question is that?”
“A damn good one,” Phil returned. “So, did you wash it?”.
“For your information, no, I did not. Kaz was calling me so I left that job for later.”
“Oh, I get it,” Phil seethed. “So Kaz’ newlywed emergencies come before cleaning up your toys? What was it you used to tell the boys? Clean up after yourselves? Wasn’t that it?”
And because the universe is strategic, before Claire could defend herself any further, enter Nico, with the bright purple culprit in hand.
The blood drained from Claire’s face.
“God, Mum. What’s the matter? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Nico said.
“Where did you get that?” Claire choked out the words.
“Amazon! Why do I keep getting asked that?” said Nico, confused.
And – there it was – the icing on the cake: James at the door.
“What’s all the ruckus about?” James asked.
“You tell me,” said Nico, rolling his eyes. “I just came to put the pulser back.”
“That’s not the pulser,” said James. “I’ve never seen that.”
“What do you mean it’s not the pulser? You told me you’d ordered it on Amazon.”
“I know, but it never arrived. I thought you knew that.”
“How could I have known that if you never told me?” said Nico.
“Well, I thought I did. It must’ve slipped my mind.”
“The communication in this family sucks,” snapped Nico, raising the device, and jabbing it forward. “So, what is this then if it isn’t the pulser?”
“That,” said Phil, “is the device which, very unfortunately for everyone who smacked their lips over the ‘je-ne-sais-quoi’ in the souffle this evening, was used to beat the egg-replacer. And if you don’t read me correctly, allow me to rephrase so you have something to tuck in your brains for when you’ve been married for a gazillion years. That, boys, is a state-of-the-art vibrator disguised as a thing-a-ma-gig.”
Nico dropped the device as if it were a hot potato.
“Used this morning – and – not washed after usage!” Phil finished off.
“That,” said Nico. “Is disgusting. You two are disgusting!”
“Me?” protested Phil. “Why me?”
“For getting mum to use that on you,” James replied. “There are other ways, Dad. Other ways with things that wouldn’t run the risk of being mistaken for a bloody battery-operated whisk!”
“I’m sorry, lad.” Phil could feel his temper rising. “I don’t know what the hell you’re on about. Claire?” Phil turned to his wife. “What the hell is he talking about?”
“Forget it, Dad,” huffed James, rolling his eyes.
“No,” said Phil. “No, I won’t forget it. I won’t bloody forget it! There’s nothing I hate more than people baiting me with secret information then whisking it away.”
“Really, Phil?” said Claire. “You’re going to use your dad-puns now?”
“I’m not into mind games, James,” bellowed Phil, ignoring Claire’s quip. “If you were brave enough to bring it up, be brave enough to say it. Be a man for Christ’s sake. Spit it out.”
“I don’t know, James,” Nico interjected. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Don’t you listen to your brother on this one, James,” Phil commanded. “Come on. Spit it out. What other ways are you referring to?”
“I’m referring to strap-ons,” said James sharply, staring his father in the eye.
“What the hell are those?” Phil asked, confused.
“God, James,” Nico said, exasperated. “I told you not to go there!”
“Shut up, Nico,” James ordered, “I’m talking to Dad man-to-man.” He paused to beat his chest Tarzan-style. “So, Dad, if you’re man enough
to ask it, you should be man enough to hear the answer. A strap-on is a dildo with a harness which your partner can wear for anal sex.”
“James,” Claire shouted. “That’s enough!”
“Tell that to Dad,” James rebutted. “He bloody asked. And I’m telling the both of you, a strap-on would never be mistaken for a kitchen tool!”
Phil was furious. But Phil’s fury, as red-hot as it was, didn’t stop the mad hallucination of Tony Flyboy in nothing but his chef’s hat, donning the monstrosity, kneeling down and angling his razzmatazz appendage over the heirloom mixing bowl to swivel the champagne into his potatoes. As livid as Phil was, at least he had the wherewithal to know that it was apropos to label ‘sexual energy’ as the energy source for JaNiMesCo’s Harvest Moon Event and Kaz’ bloody hen night.
“Dad!” James yelled. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Abandoning Tony Flyboy, Phil switched his glare from James to Nico, then back to James. “For your information,” he growled. “I have never engaged in anal sex – in – my – life –”
“You’re missing out then,” James muttered so he couldn’t be heard.
“Come again,” shrieked Phil.
“I thought Mum said to stop with the puns,” scoffed Nico.
“Your dad has got a point,” Claire offered. “With his haemorrhoids, that sort of sexual activity would be clear out of the question. He’d end up
in the hospital.”
“I – said,” Phil growled in a scarier voice than before, “come – again – as – in – what – did – you – say – James? WHAT DID YOU SAY?”
“I said you’re missing out if you haven’t experienced anal sex.”
“Said like a true man!” declared Nico.
“Oh, really?” bellowed Phil. “And I suppose you have?”
“Come on, James,” Nico urged. “Man-to-man, remember?”
“Shut the fuck up, Nico,” James retaliated, looking Phil in the eye, and saying, “As a matter of fact, I have. I’m enlightened, Dad, not a stick in the mud like you.”
“Not a good expression to use, James!” Nico exclaimed, gasping. “Not good at all!”
“I don’t believe in boring!” Now James was up in arms. “I don’t believe in sticking with one person for the rest of my life! I don’t believe in marriage! I believe in sexual experimentation and sexual freedom! I believe in physical liberation from old, outdated rules drawn up by prudes.”
“You believe in promiscuity, you mean?”
“Do you even hear yourself, Dad?” James was shouting now. “Promiscuity? That word is so old-fashioned, so outdated. It reeks of negative connotations. Sexually open. Non-exclusive. Those are the expressions you should be using. Because – guess what? There’s nothing negative at all with sexually revelling in the little bit of time we have with as many people as possible.”
“As many people as possible?” Phil was beetroot-red now, heartrate crazy-dangerous in overdrive. “As – many – people – as – possible?
That’s not revelry! That’s bloody addiction!”
“Well,” said James, a little sadly. “Call it what you will, but it’s a damn sight better than this.” He swept his hand between his mother and father. “And this.” He gestured to the makeshift eggbeater on the floor. “Nico and I aren’t fools. We see what happens when the love dries up. Which is why Nico and I are NEVER getting married.”
“A-fucking right,” Nico seconded. “The pair of you have seen to that!”
“Nico!” Claire shouted. “Have some respect!”
“Respect, Mum?” Nico fired straight back. “Respect? Thanks to you, half the fucking town has your DNA in them tonight! I can’t even believe it. Christ, this family is fucked.”
“Only me and you apparently,” James offered.
“Harvest moon,” Phil muttered as he paced with his reflection in Gemma Redmond’s office. “Harvest-bloody-moon. Wasn’t that the night of all nights? The night the Heath had eaten food prepared with Claire’s battery-operated friend with benefits” – which, Phil carried on in thought, made robotic brothels seem quite logical. I mean, seriously, if you’re going to go the way of instrumental pleasure, why not have the whole damn package: body, voice, and all?
Looking through the wall into the Polaroid Room, Phil wished he could let the family showdown on the Harvest Moon night go, but truth be told, he couldn’t. It was the Owens’ all-time family row in which shots were fired, insults hurled, and blows slung low. There, in the dull orange light of the moon, he, Claire and the boys had verbally duked it out until they were hoarse and gasping for air.
“What kind of family talks like this?” Claire had cried from the floor.
“A half-fucked family,” shouted James, immediately moving beside Nico.
“Enough!” bellowed Phil. “Stop talking like that – NOW!”
“Why?” came James. “Because you can’t hear the truth?”
“Your version of the truth, James, is hardly the truth,” Phil rebutted vehemently. “Your truth is the truth of a spoiled man-child who’s turned the family home into the set of a TV cooking show which never stops airing and it’s perpetually raining berries and granola and I’m tripping over wires and tripods until the COWS come home. Yes, boys, you heard me right. Until the COWS come home!”
“You know what your problem is, Dad?” said Nico, coming to James’ defense.
“Oh, I dunno,” Phil replied. “You lot, maybe?”
“Your problem,” Nico continued frostily, sidestepping the quip, “is that you don’t respect our art. You don’t respect our creative process – and what we’re sharing with the world at large.”
“Art?” Phil echoed with a sniff. “That’s what you’re spending all my money on then? Art? Mess in the kitchen 24/7? God-knows-what dropped or sprinkled or sprayed all over the table whilst you hover over it with your cameras and mobile phones? So, you can do what? Show your fucking tablescapes and power bowls whizzed up with Old-Man-Purple down there” – Phil cocked his head toward the wand on the floor, instantly aware that ‘cocking his head’ was a behavioural pun, a pun unspoken in the spur of the moment – “to clog the cyber highway up with a ton of images that are already out there? I’m sorry, lads, but that’s not art. If you didn’t know it already, what you’re producing is food porn!”
“Better than body porn, don’t you think?”
Oh good. James had got his tongue back.
“I don’t know, James,” Nico said, deciding to weigh in, “body porn is art too.”
“Not in my books,” Phil retaliated.
“Yeah, right, Dad,” Nico continued. “You tell that to the people that make it.”
“And –” James’ tongue was wagging again. “Just like everyone else and their uncle, you consume it so, if it’s not art in your books, then you’re consuming rubbish then?”
“You are what you eat,” said Nico.
“Just – a – second. Just – a – second.” (That was Claire.)
“Here we go – here we go,” huffed Phil with an eye-roll as Claire pulled herself up from the floor, figuratively foaming at the mouth and ready to jump in. “Here we bloody go. Enter Claire.” He turned to his wife who was narrowing her eyes and baring her teeth. “Enter you.”
“What do they mean by ‘you consume it’, Phil?” Claire growled. “Do you consume pornography? Because if that’s the case, how dare you? Here, in our home, when you know how I feel about the patriarchy’s perpetuation of negative sexual stereotypes of women? How fucking dare you? Those women have so much plastic on them and in them, they’re not even real!”
“Really, Claire,” Phil shot back, nudging Mr. Purple with the toe of his shoe. “You’re going to stand there and lecture me about plastic?”
“I’m pretty sure that’s silicone, Dad,” Nico interjected.
“Well, I’m pretty sure those women have silicone in them too!” fired Claire. “But what does it matter, Phil? Plastic? Silicone? Surgeries? Whatever! Those women are not doing the rest of us a favour!”
“Well, they are if they’re from bloody 1970!” yelled Phil.
“God, Dad,” James said with a pain-struck look on his face. “You’re into old-school? That’s vile. Those women were old enough to be our granny! Your mother! Think of that for a sec. To each his own, I suppose. But – God – what a horror show.”
“I can’t believe I’m hearing this,” Claire cried, shaking her head.
“Yeah, well, I couldn’t believe what I heard three weeks ago either,” shouted Phil. “You imagine my surprise when I came home to find Tony ‘the chef’ Flyboy humping the stairs under the boys’ school portraits to one of my favourite songs of all time! And here you are with the audacity to tell me the women in porn aren’t real! They’re real, Claire, with hearts and souls and problems and dreams – just like everybody else. They’re real. And if you don’t think they are, then neither was Tony Flyboy! Because if I took your stance, I’d be standing here saying he’s not real. What kind of ordinary man can live up to Tony’s oiled-up abs? Certainly not a police officer who’s working day and night to pay for this house!”
“Excuse me,” said Nico. “Mum? What’s Dad talking about?”
“I’m talking about the night your mum shooed us all out of the house three weeks ago for Kaz’ hen night, the night when mum and her gal pals all made vision boards. But – guess fucking what – surprise! I came home to find their vision boards tossed aside with them all clucking at the bottom of the stairs whilst the chef who’d prepared the gourmet meal for the evening was cockadoodledoing his way down our new runner in a thong, all glossed up in my olive oil infused with sage! The only thing missing from that spectacle of spectacles were turkey basters!”
“Exhibit A,” Claire cried. “Mansplainer mansplaining!”
“Okay, Claire,” said Phil, catching his breath. “I apologise. Go ahead. Speak.”
“Said he from his throne with a wave of his sceptre,” Claire spat.
“Mum?” James looked at Claire. “Really? Is what Dad is saying true?”
“Yeah it is,” Phil answered on Claire’s behalf. “Where did the cooking stripper change afterwards, Claire? In one of the boy’s rooms? Or in the family bathroom?”
“It was a bit of fun,” said Claire stonily. “A performance. And it just happened to be here in our home. I didn’t even organise it for Christ’s sake. Irene Saunders did. The whole thing took me by surprise. The vision boards were finished, and we’d had our meal. And it was Irene who stood up and shocked us all with the announcement that the chef she’d hired was also an exotic dancer. By that time, we’d all had so much to drink, we were crazy-tipsy, as hyped up as could be and well – yes – we had such fun.”
“Irene Saunders set that up?” asked Phil, softening slightly. “Pete’s wife?”
“Jesus, Phil,” said Claire. “You know me. I like a bit of fun, but I wouldn’t have had a stripper here at the house, or at least I would never have set that up. I had no clue you’d seen us.”
“Oh, I did,” said Phil. “But I left.”
“Well then,” said Nico. “That would explain why I found the olive oil at the back of the bathroom cupboard. I wondered how it had ended up there.”
“Right then,” came Claire. “So where does that leave us?”
As Phil sank back down in Detective Redmond’s chair and hung his head in his hands, he wished that the Owens’ family drama on that particular night had ended there. Closing his eyes, he could see the whole debacle playing out on screen – but, Christ, it was his life at 17 Sorely Lane – a real-life farce with profound, excruciating undertones of broken boyhood dreams.
The memory stayed to haunt him.
“How empty you must be, Dad,” James said in a low voice, “to criticise the work that Nico and I do. To have no understanding that we love it, that we lose ourselves in our creations, that when we’re experimenting with food the way we do, we forget what time it is. So, go ahead, call it food porn if you want. But we’re more than happy to make it. Do you hear me, Dad? Nico and I are more than happy. And what are you? Miserable – most of the time. I mean, what do you want for us anyway? Because I would’ve thought that most parents would want nothing more than for their grown children to be healthy and happy, passionate about something, contributing to the planet.”
“And paying the bills,” Phil grumped. “Preferably in a flat elsewhere.”
“If we’d gone to university,” James said, “you would’ve been paying the bills just like you are now. You would’ve been paying the bills so we could do what you want us to do. So, it seems then that the sacrifice is fine so long as you’re sacrificing for what you want, for what sounds good on paper or to your friends at the station. But it’s not okay if you’re sacrificing for what we want. Perhaps if you gave us a chance and actually supported us – verbally, emotionally – we’d surpass your expectations and give you something to be far more proud of than if we’d followed your life plan for us and gone to university.”
As reasonable and heartfelt as James’ speech was, Phil wasn’t about to turn all wibbly-wobbly docile just yet.
“It’s all social media with you lot,” he said, smouldering and tossing a look at Claire to let her know that she was now in the mix with their sons. “It’s an illusion. The bunch of you are perpetuating a goddamn illusion which makes people living a real life feel bad.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” James asked with a death-stare thrown in.
“It means – where is the mess?” Phil replied. “Like why aren’t you posting this, what we’re having right now? Why aren’t you posting photographs of the kitchen when the counters are heaped sky-high with dirty dishes? Why aren’t you presenting life as it really is? Gritty? True?”
“For the same reason why the film crew isn’t deviating from the scene in the movie to film themselves. For the same reason novelists aren’t writing about themselves writing, why painters aren’t painting themselves painting –”
“That’s not true, James,” said Claire, jumping to Phil’s defense. “The doors to backstage have been open for a while now and besides, lots of painters have painted themselves painting. And I for one, am part of the new movement which, to be honest, is a revival of an old movement.”
“What movement?” asked Nico.
“Transparency – honesty – letting people see the ‘real me’ behind the ‘curated me’.”
“The curated you?” Phil scoffed. “I can barely wrap my mind around the fact that we’re curating tablescapes, let alone curating ourselves as individuals!”
“I don’t think the word ‘ourselves’ belongs in that take, Dad,” said Nico. “As far as I can see, you are definitely not curated.”
“I’m authentic, that’s what I am, lads. As is. 250 pounds of ordinary. Good to fucking go.”
“You can’t wrap your mind around anything but yourself these days, Dad,” boomed James, incensed that his mum’s defense of his dad had fallen on deaf ears. “All I ever hear you do is complain about other people: Vic, Serge, Mum, Nico and me. And you know what they say? If you have a problem with too many people – well – it’s pretty damn likely you’re the problem!”
“Yep,” huffed Phil. “That’s me. One big problem with a regular paycheque. Here. I’ve got a joke for you lot. What do you call an investor with a bad attitude?” Phil paused and glared at his family. “I’ll tell you what! An investor who’s pissed with himself because he made a bad investment, a fucking lifelong investment which” – and he gave Mr. Purple a dramatic little kick – “hasn’t bloody paid off!”
The instant that flew out his mouth, Phil knew he’d fired the night’s most lethal shot. And that he had because Nico, James and Claire were, turning white and breathing steam.
“You are NOT the only one who’s invested in our family,” Claire whispered with her teeth bared.
“You invested money, Phil, but you didn’t invest time. I invested both and –”
“Whoo-hoo-hoo, Claire,” taunted Phil, doing a cruel, impromptu pirouette. “Forgive me for not noticing how benevolent you look this evening in your fluffy wings and golden halo. How fucking generous of you to take a break from paradise and grace us with your presence tonight. And with Mr. Purple, your battery-operated sidekick nonetheless which – and correct me if I’m wrong – you purchased with your sea salts from the Holy Land on credit – MINE! But isn’t that the way, my friends? Isn’t – that – the – way?”
“What – are – you – talking – about?” James interrupted.
“Human Irony 101,” Phil half-shrieked, doing a second pirouette. “Praise-eliciting do-gooders shining from the inside out, dishing out their charitable wares funded by the heavyweight earners, bloody-fucking-ball-breaking velociraptors overseeing the modern-day sloggers whilst polluting the environment.”
Phil paused to take a breath in case he died from overdosing on words.
“But it’s okay, my friends,” he continued, panting. “Because the poison-spewing factory has paid for the construction of the cancer ward. That’s how it fucking works! The velociraptors make the world go ‘round! The bad guys always fund the good. And here in this house? I’m the pudgy troll with hypertension and a migraine messing up the inspiration-space with vision-damning vibe. But hey, Human Irony 101, my friends: troll though I may be, I keep the money pumping in. I fund the beauty regime, the crafting supplies, the vision boards, the granola art and whatever the fuck you made last week. What was that, lads? A zucchini cheesecake without the cheese?”
Nico clapped a slow, obnoxious clap.
“Well you’ve got the dinosaur analogy down pat,” James sneered.
“Shut up! Shut up, all of you!” Claire shouted, bringing her fist down on the desk.
Phil and the boys turned toward her.
She was crying; her charcoal-grey mascara was scribbled on her cheeks. “And don’t you dare wave your invisible sceptre and tell me I can speak, Phil,” she bellowed. “Because I’m going to speak whether it wounds your ego or not, whether it hurts or not.”
The men fell silent.
“This, what’s happening here right now?” Claire continued, smearing the mascara with the back of her hand as she swiped away a tear. “This isn’t about now, boys. It’s about the past. It’s a recycled argument that your father has already had.”
Okay. So, the men didn’t fall silent because Phil decided to – again – speak up.
“The argument I had with you, you mean, Claire?” Phil asked, without an ounce of sympathy. “The argument in which you told me that you would not support me taking leave from my policing for a while so I could write a screenplay for TV?”
“What?” James and Nico said in unison, also breaking their five-second silence.
“Let’s talk about that in front of the boys, shall we, Claire?” Phil continued. “Let’s talk about how you stopped me from doing something I always wanted to do because it wasn’t practical and it wasn’t the right time and – oh yes – what was that other reason you gave? – oh right – that I didn’t have the talent.”
“Jesus, Mum,” Nico interrupted. “You said that?”
“Your father is paraphrasing to make me look bad,” Claire answered, sniffling. “I did not say he didn’t have the talent. I said that I could not afford to carry the financial weight of this family with my income and that we could not afford for him to take a break. I said that we needed to save money for your university costs and for our retirement.”
“But we’re not at university,” Nico said quietly. “And Dad isn’t retired.”
“But you are,” said James. “You’re retired – at fifty.”
“I had to retire,” Claire retaliated. “Or I was going to break.”
“Break?” Nico asked. “From what? From us?”
“Seems fucking so,” huffed Phil, still without empathy.
“It’s not fair, Phil” Claire protested, smearing another line on her face. “You can’t place all the blame on me. You can’t weigh me down with all the baggage from your childhood, from your parents. You came into our marriage, already talked-out of your dream.”
“And where was the encouragement, Claire? That’s what I’d like to know!”
“By the time you sought it out, I was too tired to coddle.”
“Just a sec – just a sec,” James interjected. “I’m so confused. What do you mean? Baggage from Dad’s childhood? And writing for TV? Dad?” James turned to his father. “What does Mum mean?”
“Yeah,” seconded Nico. “You’ve lost us.”
“This is a conversation from 1973,” Claire murmured. “And from 1985. And from 1999. It’s an old conversation that keeps going around in circles.”
“Dad?” James and Nico said in sync.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Phil replied, clamming up.
“You never do,” said Claire. “And until you do, you’ll never break free of this cycle.”
“Yeah, well, I can’t afford to break free of this cycle right now,” Phil said woe-is-me-ishly. “I’ve got to work in the morning. But don’t mind me. You lot get on with whatever you need to get on with to survive me, your old stick in the mud, your disgruntled investor who’s gasping for air. Put your oxygen masks on first. Save yourselves before you try saving me.”
If I’m even worth saving, he continued in thought as he sulked off to bed.
Of course, now, with the manuscript open on Redmond’s desk behind him, with visions of Anthony destroying Justine’s writing and memories of his own parents thwarting his dream, Phil realised he too was guilty of the same crime: the stunting of others’ creative growth. And yet, in the throes of his own misery, he’d been too blind to see it.
With rounded shoulders, Phil returned to the desk and slumped down in the plush, swivel chair which, to be honest, didn’t seem that luxurious anymore. Donning his headphones, he scrolled through his mobile to The National’s ‘About Today’. That had been the song he’d listened to on the night of the Harvest Moon after he’d tumbled into his king-sized bed without his queen who was recovering in the house somewhere or in some virtual space in the world wide web of tangled heartstrings.
And what had his queen said when she’d shown up tear-stained at the bedroom door?
She’d murmured, “You’re so far gone, Phil, you don’t even remember what I was going through in 1999. You don’t even remember why I wasn’t supportive of your idea. So, I’m sorry if you’ve kept the pain of that hidden for all these years. But 1999? Don’t even get me started. Because I don’t think I can go there and get lost in that again, but you know I’m going to go there anyway.”
“It’s fine, Claire.”
But it hadn’t been.
“She would’ve been twenty this year,” Claire whispered. “Our little girl would’ve been twenty, Phil. If I hadn’t lost her. And I still miss her. What was it you used to say to me in private? You used to ask me how I could possibly miss someone who’d never had time to grow into a person to be missed. That’s what you used to say. And I know you. You were only telling me what you had to tell yourself to keep on going. Because – I know – Phil – please – turn around when I’m talking to you.”
But as Phil lost himself in ‘About Today’, he remembered that he hadn’t turned around. He’d kept in the fetal position with his back to Claire.
“You’re going to hear this whether you want to not, Phil.”
Voiceless and too pained to reply, Phil hung onto the lyrics of ‘About Today’ for dear life.
“I forgive you for what you said to me all those years ago,” Claire continued to Phil’s back. “I forgive you because I realise you were only doing what your parents had taught you to do – to numb the pain. You see, I was mourning the loss of our little girl’s wonderful life, the life I’d built up in my mind. I was grieving the possibility I’d already imagined. It was as if I’d submitted myself to some mad, maternal infatuation of that tiny soul spinning within me.”
‘About Today’ kept playing over Claire’s voice.
“But you, Phil?” Claire kept on. “You weren’t only struggling with the loss of our daughter.” Phil pulled his knees closer to his chest and buried his head in the blankets.
“You were losing a second chance with your sister,” said Claire.
“And you know, Phil,” Claire barely whispered now.
She was on the periphery of the song, on the outside of the drums and the electric guitar, floating in a memory of a pool of blood on the bathroom floor. The only way Phil could watch it play out was if he turned it into a picture flickering on screen – any screen – so long as he witnessed it from a safe distance, even if that distance were in his mind. So, The National sang slowly about a painful day.
And that night, Phil still heard Claire’s voice – from beyond the music which he was clinging onto. She was quieter, easier to take, if he heard her through headphones, on the outskirts of the sadness of others. Hurt was more manageable if Phil felt it in someone else’s song, if he nursed it in another man’s music.
“And you know, Phil,” Claire repeated.
God, Claire, please, don’t say it—
“I know you don’t want to hear this, Phil, but –”
That’s right, Phil (and for a second, Phil didn’t know where he was anymore, if he were in Redmond’s office, in the bed on Harvest Moon night, or in 1999 with Claire on the bathroom floor). Let this singer or that writer or this painter or that videographer express human pain for you. That’s right, mate. Let the artist expose the human soul to resonate with you and keep you company for a little while. Let someone else take the risk. That’s right, son. Cry in disguise, lad – the artwork of others is safe, but your own stuff’s so raw, it’ll kill you.
“I know this is painful to hear –”
And there was a girl running beside him in the sand, her long hair strung out and her pink silk belt flying. She was stopping – turning – kneeling – pressing his fingers into the handle of the kite.
“But I was going to call her Richie. And you know, Phil. You know that was the only name we could’ve possibly given our little girl. Richie – Phil – Richie.”
Phil hugged his knees to his chest as tightly as he could. He longed to stay like that in the fetal position forever where he could be carried and protected away from the glare. But the whole world was bleeding into a pool on the bathroom floor until he stared at his own red reflection. And the TV always had to be on – he knew why – because he couldn’t bare to look at his own image in the turned-off screen. The stories of others were his hiding place.
“I was going to call her Richie.”
There. She’d said it.
“But I already had,” he whispered.
The song was ending – in Redmond’s office and in the memory.
Claire was saying that she’d loved teaching nursery school because she got to nurture all the little girls who she’d wished she’d had. Then she went on to quote Robert Fulgham’s ‘All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten’, saying that everyone had to hold hands and stick together.
But as the ambulance workers took Richie’s body out on the stretcher in 1973 and dealt with his and Claire’s stillborn daughter Richie’s body on the bathroom floor in 1999, Phil echoed Robert Fulgham in thought: ‘Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.’
As Phil sat there in silence with his hands on the open manuscript, he saw everything so clearly. If Claire hadn’t been dealing with her own deep grief, he would’ve been freer to deal with his. If he’d done what Richie had always encouraged him to do, he would’ve kept her close. But if is a funny word, he thought. If. At best, it was a word imbibed with potential, givens eligible to become dids. But at worst. Oh God. At worst, it was a word of opportunities lost and relationships that got away or, by way of anything at all, were never meant to be. If Richie had lived, she’d be in her sixties now – or turning twenty. But of course, that was another life – a life that had never happened.
Phil tapped on the Instagram icon and located Claire’s account.
There she was in her middle-age glory, fifty-year old queen of the selfie both with and without filters. As Phil scanned through hundreds of Claires in liberated poses, in Bohemian dresses and bikinis, he could hardly believe that he was her husband.
Just like Vic had, she had a series of little bubbles at the top. Panning through them, Phil landed on the one labelled ‘Emotional Transparency’. Tapping on the bubble, he was surprised to see Claire lying on her back in Philadelphus Park, filming her makeup-less, tear-stained face from above. There she was, unfiltered and more beautiful than he’d ever seen her, with her hair fanned out to reveal the silver streaks that were usually hidden. She was talking through her tears about how she’d just watched artist Marina Abramović staring into fellow artist and former lover Ulay’s eyes in the 2010 MoMA exhibit ‘The Artist is Present’, and how this piece of living art where reality and art collide moved her to no end.
“They ended their relationship in 1988,” she murmured to her viewers. “They walked toward each other on the Great Wall of China and said goodbye that way – on camera—on show. Their break-up was the amalgamation of life and art. And then, that opening night in 2010 in MoMA, Ulay took his minute before her, and looked into her eyes with all that history that they’d shared, knowing they’d been done for years but not in memory, not in the locking of their eyes. I don’t even know why it resonates so much but I can’t stop crying. Am I crying because they ended? Or because I love what Marina did? I feel it. I’m crying because I feel it. I feel this and I need to expose its effect on me.”
Phil felt a pang in his chest and tapped to access the next emotionally transparent moment.
Claire was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, wiping away the steam to reveal herself in her bathrobe with her hair like a bundle of string on her shoulder. “So, this is me,” she was saying. “This is me before anything, before make-up and coffee and tension. I need to see myself as I am every morning before Claire Owens, wife, and mother, happens.”
Phil watched the series of stories in which Claire emoted anger, fear, exhaustion, sadness but spoke in broad terms without giving anything personal away. He watched her funnel her emotion through modern-day soliloquies on issues as they pertained to human beings in general, never articulating the specific trigger which had caused the feelings on display.
That worried Phil.
What if the 6547 people listening to her stories thought he was the instigator for his wife’s distress? What if they assumed that he’d made her angry, fearful, exhausted, and sad? What if they believed he’d left her emotionally bereft, so she had no choice but to don her rose quartz beads and weep alone on the windblown grass? Christ. What if the people 6547 people watching her concluded that the Owens family was a mess? That people thought that they were so dysfunctional, they’d squeezed the life out of Claire, giving her no option other than to find herself in bits and pieces in virtual crowds in cyber space?
“I’m not on board with you doing that.”
“Doing what, Phil?”
“Getting all emotional for the whole world to see.”
“It’s not like I’m being specific or sharing private things about our family,” she retaliated.
“You don’t have to be specific,” he replied exasperated. “Because if you were happy and fulfilled with us, you wouldn’t be crying in the first place.”
“I need somewhere to put it, Phil – the emotion. I need to purge it, put it in some place.”
“Yeah, well, on-line isn’t the place to put it.”
“Yes, it is,” she cried. “Because then other people can relate. I’m not specific for a reason. I’m not specific so they can relate. Pain is pain. Tears are tears. Hunger for love is hunger for love. Point blank. Everybody feels these things. I don’t need to give the details of my story.”