My mother comes to visit me every few weeks. There’s nothing unusual about that, except she lives in a nursing home she isn’t supposed to leave. She wraps what used to be my father’s long winter coat over her shoulders, pays one of the nurses to sneak her out, and climbs into the back seat of an idling car that waits outside.
“Why not the front?” I say.
“It’s a getaway, Peter. I can’t very well dilly-dally. We’d be caught.”
My mother uses a walker. There are two wheels in the front and two punctured tennis balls stuck onto the bottoms of the back legs. The man who drives her has to step out of the car and fold the walker to fit it into the trunk. He’s an older man, with cropped gray hair, blue eyes, and skin as white as wax paper. I’ve never met him, but his cream-colored sedan lingers in my driveway. When I open the front door of my house, my mother is hunched over with the top of her head perpendicular to my navel, as if she’s about to genuflect. The tail of her coat flaps in the wind, and she clasps the handles of her walker, gloveless. Her hands are tan and dry, with big blue veins winding around the knuckles, and they shake as she stands out in the cold.
“Jesus, Mum. Why don’t you call before?”
She rears the walker over the last step and into the house, and I push up against the door to let her pass.
“Let me help you with that,” I say.
“I can manage,” she says as she dodders over the hall rug, leaving two streaks of yellow fluff in her wake.
By the time I close the door, the car at the end of the driveway is gone.
“He’ll be back in three hours,” she says. She refuses to tell me his name. She’s worried I’ll call the home and give her up, and she’s probably right.
My mother says the reason for her visits is tea. She arrives around one-thirty and won’t do much while she’s here, other than sit on the sofa with her big black purse at her hip and sip from her cup. I leave the room from time to time to do work or answer the telephone when it rings. It doesn’t bother her. Occasionally she asks questions.
“Do you like this music?”
“It’s jazz, Mum.”
“And you like it?”
“Yes, Mum. I do.”
When I return to the living room today, after a long phone call, I notice a small brown bundle of wrapping paper scrunched up in her lap.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“What?” she says.
“In your lap.”
She looks down. “Oh, I forgot.”
My mother has always given me little gifts, and now that she’s on her way out, as she likes to say, she brings me something almost every visit. I accept them, thank her, yet can’t help but wonder what I’ll do after she’s gone and the next spring-cleaning comes around. This one is quite light, not much heavier than the paper in which it’s wrapped. When I unravel the bundle, I recognize the object immediately. My mother’s ivory cigarette holder. It is as pale as the eye of the sun at high noon, with a lipped mouthpiece and an arched hump in the middle of its four-inch-long cylindrical body. My father’s initials, Y.N., are etched on the side.
“I want you to have it,” she says.
“But I don’t smoke.”
“That’s not important.”
I run my finger over the smooth white surface. “I thought you’d given it away.”
“No, never,” she says, a little offended.
“But after we came to Canada I never saw it again.”
“I just stopped using it.”
“I preferred my hands. It was too dainty—much more your father than me.”
I can tell my mother is tiring. She’s leaning toward the armrest of the sofa, and her eyes are more bloodshot than when she arrived. The sun is going down. The man will be back to pick her up soon. He’s punctual. She never waits.
“Let’s get you ready to go,” I say.
“I am ready.”
“Well, let’s go to the door at least.”
She doesn’t move.
We sit in silence for another ten minutes. Then she rises.
The person to whom I thought my mother gave the cigarette holder was a friend I had while my family lived in Cambridge. His name was Herbert, and he was considerably older than I was, older than my parents even, but at one time he was without a doubt a friend. He said as much himself. I was twelve years old when we met, and to this day I’ve never again known the joy of what it was to be the object of his attention—his fascination, as his wife, Delia, used to say.
In 1951, when I was six years old, my family left South West Africa and moved to England. My father purchased a small tenement building some distance from the university and the River Cam. The building had been recently erected with that postwar haste needed to cope with the influx of returning soldiers. The walls had a lumpy feel—there was something not altogether hard behind the gray wallpaper—and there were strange little holes in the corners of the baseboards, as though the measurements had been off by a number of degrees. Mice didn’t squeeze through cracks; they had whole archways. As a result, my mother became quite fierce with a broom, and I a dead shot with a shoe. Of course, this was only when my father wasn’t around. He didn’t like disturbances. A mouse in the kitchen was no concern of his, and he’d shout at us to quit our racket and carry on reading the paper or listening to the news on the radio.
After a few years in Cambridge, my father began to gripe about the stingy English and how they still distrusted a man with a German surname and a foreign accent. He said that people didn’t like his sharp jaw line and that, most importantly, my mother missed the cues of civility the English held in such high regard. She’d been raised on a farm: she knew how to milk a cow and ride an ostrich, and in an effort to foster a proper sense of decorum, my father, a more cosmopolitan man, insisted that my sister, Trudy, and I walk to school without her, so my mother might use the time to learn bars of Bach or to work on her needling. My mother had smooth, creamed skin and long, golden hair that she kept straight and very clean. She smelled like the lavender of her perfume—sometimes with a little cigarette smoke mixed in—and when I leaned in to say goodbye, she lowered her head slightly without halting her task so I might kiss her soft, scented cheek.
I was eleven when this arrangement was established, Trudy eight. To walk to school we passed through the outskirts of town and onto the towpath that ran next to the River Cam. In the middle of the water, where the current moved, the sun played off the ripples of the river, and waterfowl glided on the surface, plunging their heads underwater to scour for food. Houseboats, piled with junk and riddled with rust, were moored to the bank. A smell of burning rubber often wafted from their smokestacks, and a few vessels were in the process of sinking. On occasion, Trudy and I would see old men with rotting rain boots chug their homes downriver to a different spot. A few had women with them—wives, I assumed—who sat below deck. They stared out of small cabin windows and reminded me of my mother stuck at home.
In the spring, when the plants at the bottom of the river were short, birds waddled onto the sloped bank and ate the grass seeds strewn about, and I made a game of chasing them back into the river. The ducks skittered away before I could make much of a run, but the swans were slow and feisty, and one May morning I happened upon one that didn’t flee from my charge. Instead of escaping into the water with her mate, she’d unfurled her enormous white wings and squawked. Trudy had no patience for my games and had long since left me behind. I pulled out a piece of string from my pocket and noosed it, something I’d learned in South West Africa from my mother. The sun shone on the bird’s oily white plumage and into her eyes. She looked like she was squinting behind that black mask of a face. On the opposite bank of the river, the leaves of the willows hung low, swaying in the light breeze. When I took another step, the bird squawked and beat her wings, and as I readied to lunge, she charged. I planted my foot on the wet downward slope to retreat, but slipped and fell. She nipped at the nape of my neck, and as I kicked and squirmed and tried to crawl up the slope, I heard a man cry: “Hey—what are you doing there?”
A sharp clap followed, and there was a flurry of wings and feathers and suddenly the bird was gone. When I looked up, the man was standing at the bow of a houseboat moored nearby, waving both hands to me.
This was Herbert. He had a box-shaped face, with a low forehead and a heavy brow. An orange chinstrap beard U-ed his mouth, squat nose, and flat eyes, and I had the impression he’d been stamped with a large square-shaped mallet. He brought me onto his boat and sat me down on a low-lying, lime green Victorian settee with loose buttons digging into my thighs. The room was a sitting area of sorts, but with a white plastic table in the middle and three wood stools set around it. Short red curtains covered the windows, and the ceiling only reached a few inches higher than Herbert, who was not tall to begin with. In the corner, a lamp cast a dim glow, but most of the light came from a fluorescent tube at the far end of the room, where there was a kitchen.
“You had quite the drop there, lad,” Herbert said, smiling, as he filled a kettle for tea. “I thought I might have to fish you out of the Cam. Are you hurt? That swan really gave you a number. But don’t worry—you’re not the first. Say, do you want a bite with your tea? Biscuit or sweet or something? Maybe a drink? No, you’re too young for that—hey, what you got that string for?”
I passed him the noose, and he ran it in and out a couple of times. “Could snare a rabbit with it.”
“Or a swan,” I said.
“Ah, you like the hunt!”
The kettle whistled, but he didn’t notice. He trapped a couple of fingers in the noose and made a wonky face at me with his eyes rolled and his tongue out.
The door to the bedroom was yanked open, and a woman wearing a thick brown bathrobe and big white slippers came out. She had deep-set eyes and gray curly hair that sprouted from her head like a tangle of wires.
“What have you gone and done now?” she said, as she passed into the kitchen and removed the kettle from the burner.
“Delia,” Herbert said, “this is Peter.”
Delia buried her head in a cupboard, and Herbert asked me what tea I liked.
“I really should go,” I said. “I’m feeling much better.”
“No, no,” Delia said, turning to face us. “At least have this here tea.” She lifted up the box that she’d fished out of the cupboard. “Besides, dear, it’s not you who’s on my nerves.”
Beneath her frizz of hair, Delia had big eyes and thin cheeks. Her eyebrows were high and pronounced, and at first glance they gave her a bit of a flared look. But, after a moment, her soft nose and round chin offset this, and the rest of her body—with wide shoulders and long arms, along with a heavy bosom—made her appearance distinctly warm.
She poured the hot water into the teapot and placed the pot on a tray, which already had three cups on it. Then she added a shot of liquor to one of the cups and brought the tray to the table. A wan sliver of morning light slipped through the curtains and stretched across the room to where we sat. Herbert handed me one of the empty cups.
“Give that back,” Delia said. “I’ll pour.”
“I was thinking,” Herbert said. “Maybe it’s not a bad day for a little hunt. Sun’s rising, ground’s warming, just perfect for a tramp through the fields.”
“You’ve never hunted a day in your life.”
“Never had a weapon. Don’t like guns. But Peter here has a mighty nice noose.”
“Surely he has to go to school.”
They both looked at me, and I confirmed what Delia had said. Herbert quieted down, and we sipped our tea in silence until Delia went to the kitchen and added another shot of liquor to her cup.
“What about after?” Herbert said. “There’ll still be some sun then. Not like now, but it’ll do, I fancy. Or, better yet, the weekend. A Saturday morning hunt. All right and proper. Like the gents do with their bucks.”
I thought Herbert was pulling my leg. We wouldn’t have a shot at catching anything with my noose. I’d tried, many times. But the idea of traipsing around with him sounded fun, so I gulped the rest of my tea and agreed to come back after school. Herbert led me to the door of the boat and carried on with me down the path for a few minutes. When we finally parted ways, he asked to hang onto my noose. He said he wanted to get in some practice before the real thing.
If Herbert had the opportunity, he would speak incessantly, about everything, floating from one topic to the next with a blissful disregard for logical association. He knew a host of strange people—even odder than himself—and he’d yammer on about one’s peg leg and the other’s glass eye in a way that never allowed me to keep any of them straight and made me wonder if perhaps he had once been a pirate. He was entertaining to listen to, though, and in the afternoon, the three of us—Delia joined after a few excursions—would march out of town and into the surrounding farm fields, forests, and grasslands on long walks, which Herbert insisted we call “hunts” because he carried the noose with him. The rolling, shrubby land stretched out around us, and the smell of manure often piqued my nose. We never caught anything, of course, but Herbert and I chased rabbits, and even a deer once, while Delia stumbled along with a tumbler full of vodka. Sometimes she chimed in to corroborate or correct the assertions of Herbert’s stories, but often she remained silent. Of the noose Herbert carried around, she called it—along with me—his new fascination.
“Before this, it was a thumb-sized orange seahorse,” she said. “He found it sitting atop a bench in the park, and he didn’t let it out of his sight for a whole six months. But then you came along with your noose, like something always does, and changed all that, thankfully.”
When a “hunt” was out of favor, we puttered up and down the river on the boat. It was a ten-kilometer jaunt from one lock to the next, and we attracted the waves and whistles of people traveling the towpath, as well as the glares from late-afternoon rowers, who had to lever in their oars alongside their sculls and drift to the bank to make way. Delia lifted her drink to the fanfare for a while but then tired of it and refused even to smile in return. Herbert, on the other hand, always hollered “G’day” and “Mighty fine mornin’,” even to the rowers, even if it was raining. When the weather was bad, he wore a dirty yellow raincoat with the hood up and made fun of Delia, who complained about her drink diluting with rainwater, while I huddled under the small overhang at one end of the boat, cold but perfectly content, waiting for Herbert to call me over and show me things—like how to steer the boat, or how to steer the boat with my foot, or how to steer the boat with the noose. And as I stood there by their side, with the rain falling, drenching us all, and the little propeller churning the water behind with a low rumble, I would take it as my moment—as Herbert did on our walks and as Delia did at night when the drinks had piled up—to hold the floor and jingle out whatever loose, imprudent, jocular change I had lying around inside my head.
At home, my parents’ speech was always compact and calculated, and to open one’s mouth in their presence felt like a disturbance. But if I had been silent for too long with Herbert and Delia, they would prod me, sometimes with questions and other times with a little jab to my side, as if to uncork me and remind me the sound of my thoughts were reason enough to hear them. As such, it didn’t matter much what I said as long as it was something, and once I spoke, I found my words often ran on for as long as the river would take us.
After the boat ride was over, we’d sit out on the roof deck or dry off by the wood stove and drink tea. When school ended and summer arrived, the days were long and warm, and often, in the early afternoon, with the sun high and forever arching in the sky, I felt like our rambling excursions would never end. But, of course, eventually I always had to return home to my parents. They were often listening to a radio program when I arrived, my mother on the sofa and my father in his plush green armchair. My mother would ask where I’d been and tell me how much she liked it when I was around. There was a sense of urgency in her voice, as if she knew my responses were lies, and if I didn’t reciprocate a fondness for being at home with her, she could become quite upset. My father might shush us at that point or intervene to tell my mother to calm down or me to be nicer, but soon he’d lose interest in our strife and venture as discreetly as he could into the quiet of his bedroom.
By the time I lay in bed with the light off, and my mother came in to kiss me goodnight, her breaths had eased. She’d hold her lips to my forehead, and I’d feel the perspiration from her chin touch the tip of my nose as I drowned in the lavender of her perfume. Some nights I fell asleep right after that; but on others, I’d lie in bed awake—the images of my day with Herbert and Delia clear in my mind—and listen to my mother walk between the kitchen and the living room and back for a while, until she finally opened her bedroom door and creaked into bed next to my father.
It was a cold, wet January day when Herbert and Delia met my parents. The winter fair had come to town and turned the solemn, stone-laid streets next to the university into a grand bazaar for the weekend. Smells of suckling pig, crêpe batter, and Indian spices mingled and filled the air with one big heavenly smack of grease. An old blind man with two teeth and bloated cheeks played gin rummy with children on a felt table; two women, with hens in cages and goats in pens, showed their farm stock; and big wicker baskets filled with chestnuts and cinnamon sticks encircled a foppish young man selling mulled wine by the cup, jug, and milk bottle. The fair was out of character for that grand area of town, with the great stained-glass windows of King’s College Chapel in sight, but that was part of the charm. There was a sense the fair had been set up in error and would soon be asked to move, so one had to make the most of his time while it lasted.
In this spirit, Trudy and I often ventured off alone over the course of the day, while our parents waited in food lines or sat in a pub warming up. That year, we were all cold by mid-afternoon, because of the rain, but not altogether miserable. The crowd had thickened to a swell, and we jostled through the main thoroughfare toward the bratwurst tent we frequented each year. My mother purchased a few dozen sausages, which she then froze to last us a couple of months. There was always great deliberation on the exact number, and my parents had already started on their calculations when I grabbed Trudy’s arm and pulled her behind a collection of wood cabinets that filled one of the tents. Our parents drifted away in the herd of bodies, and Trudy and I struck out in the other direction to watch the formation of a human pyramid—twelve men on all fours abreast at the bottom and body upon body above.
Around the base of the pyramid, the earth had become sloppy from the rain, and there were cries and grunts as these men climbed atop one another, stepping up into their respective positions. As the pyramid rose higher, the men climbing decreased in size and increased in agility. Finally, a small man in a colorful vest and pantaloons hopped from one back to the next rather energetically with a wide, bowed knife between his teeth. His arms were spread for balance, and they seesawed as he climbed for what looked like show more than anything else, as he appeared very comfortable dancing on this mound of men. Atop, he turned to the audience and lifted his arms to the sky. He wore a loose black wig and a fake beard, and had on plenty of dark eyeliner, but I could clearly see it was Herbert. He hallooed to the crowd a number of times, sat down, stood up, wielded the knife this way and that, and then threw the blade up into the air. The black hilt turned over and over against the gray sky, and he glanced down at the audience with a big smile before tilting his head back and catching the knife in his mouth. The audience roared and applauded, and Herbert took his bow, the wig sliding forward on his head slightly, and then hopped off the back of the pyramid.
That Herbert could accomplish such a feat was astonishing to me. I’d always considered him a little too lumpy to be agile. Before the fair, I’d spoken to him and Delia about whether they would go. They’d planned to but had said nothing else, and as I was expected to accompany my parents, I’d been quite happy with this response. After seeing Herbert’s performance, though, I felt cheated and wondered if they kept other things from me.
When the show ended, Trudy grabbed my arm and started toward the disassembling pyramid. She’d been quite taken by the whole spectacle and wanted to meet the performers, the man who had caught the knife in his mouth. But as I was determined to avoid an encounter with Herbert and a member of my family, I put a stop to this.
“Just for a minute,” she pleaded.
I gave her arm a jerk, but she yanked her hand free.
The performance had energized the crowd, and people moved with force around us. I turned to push through the flow of bodies and to carry on alone but came face-to-bosom with Delia.
“Peter!” she exclaimed. “Did you see?” She pulled me into her chest and kissed my forehead. “Oh, Herbert will be so happy. The old sod still has some hop in him yet, don’t you think? Who’s this you’ve got with you?”
“My sister,” I said.
Trudy was silent. Her nose was red from the cold, and she’d stuffed her hands in her pockets.
“And do you have a name, young lady?”
“Lovely. Well, where are your parents, then? I thought you were with them today.”
“They’re here,” I said. “We’re headed back now.”
“Do you have a moment to come see Herbert? It’d mean an awful lot to him.”
“We really should be going.”
“Who’s Herbert?” Trudy asked.
“Why, your brother hasn’t told you, dear? He was that man up top all those people just now, acting a bit of the fool.”
“You know him?” Trudy said, perking up.
“I should think so. He’s my husband.”
After this, there was no stopping Trudy. She and Delia started toward the tents, behind where the pyramid had been, and all I could do was follow. Herbert had removed the wig and beard and cleaned his face of most of the eyeliner by the time we reached him, but there were still streaks of black across his cheeks. He gave me a big hug when he saw me, something he’d never done before.
“But you made it! How’d you know? Did Delia here tip you off? I knew she would. It was a pretty grand success, I think. A little something I do here every year. But a particularly good one this go around. The rain makes it harder, but it’s also good for the thrill—why, who’s this here, crumpet?”
Trudy was shy around strangers but couldn’t hold back her excitement. “How’d you do it?” she said. “You should have split yourself wide open. Do you have a metal mouth? Or extra strong skin?”
A man at the front of the tent with a big white satchel hollered to the passersby, asking for donations for the next show. “See the arch!” he cried. “The Great Human Arch! It’s a pleasure, it’s a wonder, and it’s made right before your eyes in minutes!” The man was shouting loud enough that it was difficult to hear what Herbert said, but he pointed to the table behind him where his wig and beard rested, and Trudy went over to examine them.
“Where’s the knife?” she said. “It’s not here.”
Herbert laughed, delighted by Trudy’s curiosity, and put his arm over my shoulder.
“All right, Herbert,” Delia said. “Out with it already. They’ve got to go soon.”
From behind his back Herbert drew out the bowed knife and handed it to Trudy. She took hold of the black hilt with both hands, and her mouth fell open. Gently she swiped the air one way, then the other, and brought the knife to her mouth.
“No, don’t,” Herbert said. “You want to watch out with that there now.”
Trudy lowered the knife to her waist. “Will you do it again?” she said. “Will you climb on top of the arch and do it again?”
The man out front called, “How about you, sir? It’s money for a small miracle is what it is. None like it anywhere in all of England!”
“Absolutely not” was my father’s reply.
“Trudy,” my mother cried, stepping into the tent and taking the knife away, “what are you doing with this?”
“Don’t worry, mu’m,” Herbert said. “It’s all right. See here, look, just between you and me.”
He lowered his voice and whispered into my mother’s ear so Trudy and I wouldn’t hear, but I heard anyway. “It’s plastic.” He pulled on the point of the blade and it flopped ever so slightly. My mother snickered and covered her mouth with her gloved hand.
“I guess that’s all right, then,” she said.
Herbert looked up at her and smiled, perhaps for as innocent a reason as having fooled a grown woman. “I hope so, mu’m,” he said, “’cause I imagine I’m meeting Peter’s mother and father.”
He extended his eyeliner-smudged hand to the shock of my parents. He referred to Delia and himself as my friends and, after a short silence, asked if my father would like to see the knife as well. He declined, and my mother beckoned Trudy and me over to have a bite of her bratwurst.
“It’s good,” I mumbled, as I looked at the ground.
Herbert asked my father about his life before moving to Cambridge, but didn’t receive much of a response. Then he turned to me and said, “You have one interesting family history, Peter.”
“If only he’d take an interest in it,” my father said.
“He’s a good lad, though,” Herbert said. “Handy on the boat.”
“What boat?” Trudy was the first to say.
“Our home,” Herbert said. “On the Cam.”
I felt all eyes swivel in some way toward me. My mother’s chin dipped to her long neck as she looked down, and I knew she’d made the connection: I’d been in Herbert and Delia’s home instead of hers, spending wet evenings by the wood-burning stove and long weekend afternoons under the sun.
“You should all come for a sail someday,” Herbert said.
My mother looked up. “That would be lovely.”
But my father didn’t say anything, and with a swipe of his hand, he whisked onto the intervening ground a collection of water pellets that had pooled above the seam of his coat pocket.
Herbert clapped his hands together and said, “Great,” and my mother seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. She looked at Herbert a moment longer and then turned her gaze to me.
“Well, that’s nice,” she said.
When we left, Herbert ruffled my hair and Delia kissed my cheek. A little ways from the tent, my mother stopped to bend down and kiss me on the cheek as well. She was smiling.
Sometimes, after all these years, I think my mother is really quite a marvel. She was married to my father for forty-eight years and still has a will. When he died, she used to say, “Now I’m free to do as I please.” She traveled around Canada all clad in black for six weeks, and when she came back she said, “Foreigners. All foreigners.” Then she went back to Namibia to visit a sister of hers who was still alive.
She doesn’t mention my father much anymore. I think she’s said all that she needed to about him. On the rare occasion she drifts into something negative, it’s like she’s slipped past some sort of barrier of how she’s told herself she feels. She roams around in her memory for a while, blind to her surroundings, and when she catches herself, she looks about the room with a startled expression on her face and throws in something good about him that completely contradicts what she first said. Then she laughs, a quick sort of flummoxed laugh, where it’s clear she’s not concerned if anyone else understands.
Afterward, she might say, “If it weren’t for you, Peter, I don’t think I would have made it through—you were always so good to me.” I’m never quite sure what she’s thinking when she says this—I know it’s not true—but sometimes I wonder if it’s her way of saying thank you and sorry at the same time, for it’s often right as she’s leaving that she mentions it; right as I give her two kisses, one on each cheek, and smell the lavender of her perfume; and right as the man who drives her here pulls into my driveway and takes her back to the nursing home that I pay for but rarely visit.
After my mother met Herbert and Delia at the fair, she, Trudy, and I used to go over to the boat together on Saturday. My father refused to come. He had some idea that because he was a landowner we were in a different social class and would do well not to associate with those below it. He and my mother had a big fight about it and, surprisingly, my mother had her way. I think my father only relented in the end because he liked the prospect of having a few hours to himself every Saturday afternoon. But this fight also marked a change in their relationship that my mother built upon over the years to extricate herself from my father’s demands. Out of the house, she didn’t have to practice the piano or ameliorate her needlework, and later, in Canada when she made friends, on occasion my father either had to accommodate her guests or would end up without anyone to prepare him dinner until late in the evening when my mother returned.
Obviously my mother and Trudy’s intrusion on my friendship with Herbert and Delia didn’t appeal to me. I had wanted to keep the two sets apart. There is a wonderful balance in a triumvirate, never static yet always manageable. But with the five of us, this balance was lost, and I soon felt too young to understand where and how affections ran. Until then, and despite my mother having grown up on a farm, I had associated her more with the indoor life she had led since we’d moved to England. So far as I remembered, she always dressed early in the morning, not in new clothes—she owned few of those—but in clean and well-kept dresses and blouses. She applied makeup and her lavender scent, and throughout the day occupied the various rooms of the apartment or, when shopping, the sidewalks of the street. Perhaps she was not cosmopolitan, as my father would have liked, but in my mind she lived a type of organized town life that should have been at odds with Herbert, Delia, and the boat.
Yet she clearly reveled in Herbert’s jaunty manner. In his presence, she always had a slightly enthralled, slightly bewildered expression on her face, with taut eyebrows, parted lips, and, on occasion, a gentle shake to her head to emphasize astonishment. As he carried on performing in the way he always did, she sat attentively with her purse at her side, smiling and drinking and coaxing him on when he tired. I remember one Saturday in particular, when Delia and Trudy were in the cabin below and it was just the three of us on deck. Spring had arrived, and we were headed upriver. I was at the stern, steering, and my mother lounged somewhat precariously on a dysfunctional deck chair Herbert had recently cobbled back together. I had not grown used to her presence on the boat, but seeing her outdoors with the sun on her brow and the breeze loose in her hair, it was obvious she had not always lived indoors. Herbert was talking about something, but I don’t remember what, because my attention was drawn to my mother, who, with her legs crossed and her feet bare, was searching for something in her small, tan purse. When she finally found the item, I saw that it was her cigarette holder. My mother didn’t smoke often, but my father had given her his holder as a point of civility, so that when she did, she didn’t yellow her fingers.
Before smoking, though, she turned the object over in her hand a number of times, lifting it to the sun and examining it. The white ivory gleamed like a diamond on the desert sand, and when Herbert caught sight of the dazzling little trinket, he was dying to get his hands on it. He studied the curve in the ivory for a long time, running his finger back and forth over the white hump, and then, seemingly without thinking, popped the holder into the front pocket of his plaid shirt. I assumed my mother was either too polite or too embarrassed to ask for it back right away, but I think she also liked that Herbert admired something of hers, and wanted him to take it. In any case, my mother smoked a cigarette without the holder, and it wasn’t until later, when Trudy and Delia were back on the deck and Herbert had removed the item from his pocket to inspect it again, that Delia asked, “What’s that?” After watching him for a moment, she muttered, “Well, there it is, Peter—his new fascination.”
My mother rings the doorbell with a peculiar insistence. She struggles with her fine motor skills, so her finger tends to linger on the buzzer, sounding the bell in bursts, over and over, as if there’s a madman up in the belfry.
“Why don’t you fix it?” she says.
“It’s not broken. You just have to take your finger off.”
She doesn’t say anything in response to this, and I take her coat. In the living room, she plops down on the sofa where she always sits, opens her purse, and takes out her mirror. Her makeup is askew today. The lipstick swerves a bit from her bottom lip and extends from the corner of her mouth. With the mirror, she fixes the latter, but the swerve remains. She tucks a few loose strands of hair behind her ears, and not long after, I notice there’s a parcel in her lap.
“What’s that?” I say.
“It’s for you. A thank-you.”
Inside the package, I find a plastic, thumb-sized, orange seahorse. “Do you recognize it?” my mother says.
“Yes, of course. It was Herbert’s.”
“Herbert. From when we lived in Cambridge.”
A profound emptiness pervades the expression on her face, but then her eyes widen. Her lip twitches. “Oh my,” she says, “there’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time.” She tilts her head to one side, drooping toward the armrest. “But it’s not his. It was yours, when you were a boy. Not much of a gift, I suppose.”
I place the seahorse on the table between us, remove the cigarette holder from my pocket, and run my finger over the soft, white hump as Herbert used to do. My mother still dyes her hair the same gold color it was in Cambridge, and long thin strands have fallen from her bun and touch her cheek. I have questions to ask her that I should have asked a long time ago. But it’s too late. She remembers what she wants to these days, and though she’s grateful to me, I don’t think she could say why. It’s just always been that way since she met Herbert.
After that Saturday with the cigarette holder, I usually put up a great fuss about accompanying my mother and Trudy to the boat. On occasion my mother would still force me to go, but most of the time I managed to stay at home with my father. He wasn’t overjoyed by the prospect of having me around, yet when he saw that I was motivated to do little tasks for him, like open and sort the mail or go to the store to purchase the paper, he warmed to the idea. When we were alone, he often complained about what he considered my mother’s shortcomings. He would mention them, seemingly at random, as he worked on his papers in the living room.
“She is a hopeless spendthrift who files her nails while she listens to Mozart. She chews with her mouth open.”
One time he told me that when he first met her she could hardly read. I didn’t like when my father said these things, but if I remained silent, he’d eventually stop. “She read like a native,” he continued that day, “mispronouncing words and stumbling from sentence to sentence. I was surprised she could make sense of her recipes. Practically illiterate. And she did not speak much, so it was difficult to tell what she did not know. Now, she has an opinion on everything and no interest in cooking.”
I don’t think any of what he said was true, but at the time the only part I knew to be false was the last. My mother prepared meals three times a day, every day except Saturday. But my father had gotten something into his head at that moment that pricked his mood. He stood up and went into the kitchen, and I heard the fridge door open and close. When he came back into the living room, he told me to go “fetch” my mother from the boat. He wanted her home. And despite the way he’d spoken about her, I had a strong sense that she should be there helping him deal with their affairs, as, without her, the task somehow fell to me.
I slipped on my shoes and set off for the boat. Somewhere along the towpath next to the Cam, I bumped into Trudy. She was humming some tune to herself as she came toward me. “You missed a really fun time today,” she said. “We took the boat out, and Delia showed me all the best swimming spots.”
“She forgot her cigarette holder.”
I probably could have turned around then and taken this answer to my father, but I wasn’t far from the boat, and given the mood he had been in when I left, I decided to go on until at least I met my mother on her way back.
When I arrived at the boat I found Delia sitting in a rocking chair with a sweaty tumbler in her hand and the front fringe of her hair moist and unkempt. The room was unbearably hot, and I noticed flames lapping against the small glass window of the wood-burning stove.
“Oh, keep the door open,” Delia said when she saw me. “We could use a breeze.”
I stuck one of Herbert’s boots in front of the door and opened a window. “Why is the fire burning?”
“I like the smell,” Delia said, pushing herself upright in the chair. “Don’t you?”
Delia’s legs were extended, and her bare feet, with yellow nails and sooty toes, rested on a small footstool. “Is my mother around?” I asked.
Delia turned her gaze from the fire in a tired, drunk sort of way. Her eyelids drooped, and she jostled the drink in her hand. “No hello?” she said. “No how are you anymore?”
I stood in the middle of the room with one hand clenched in a fist and knuckled on the table. Delia finished the rest of her drink in one swig and mopped her brow with her forearm.
“Is my mother here?” I asked again.
“She left,” Delia snapped. “About ten minutes ago. She and your sister.” Delia wrapped her hands around the narrow armrests of the rocking chair and pushed herself up. “It’s bleeding hot next to that thing.” She stumbled into the kitchen and fixed another drink. “You know, you’ll drive yourself mad trying to do what your father does. You can’t corral people. They’re free to do as they please.” She looked at me from the kitchen and smiled, and then padded back over to the rocking chair. “Besides, even if you try, they always find a way out.”
The fire crackled as I stood there not knowing what to say.
“Oh, just stay awhile,” she said sharply.
I pulled up a chair and sat down with my hands in my lap. Delia sipped her drink. She rested the tumbler on her leg, and when she raised the glass again, there was a dark ring of moisture on her dress.
“Where’s Herbert?” I asked.
Delia placed the tumbler back on her leg so that a portion of the bottom overlapped with the initial ring.
“I think we’re going to move,” I said.
“I heard your mother imply that. Where to?”
“Canada, I think.”
The circles of moisture multiplied on Delia’s dress, and after half an hour or so, the initial ring had smudged into a big wet blot. Eventually there was a noise outside, and the boat dipped. We heard Herbert muttering to himself as he banged something against the side of the boat. Delia called to him, and a moment later Herbert’s flat face popped in through the open doorway.
“Can you give me a hand with this?” he said.
“Peter’s here,” Delia said.
“Oh, hi, Peter. Can you give me a hand?”
I rose, but Delia told me to stay where I was. “You come here first,” she said to Herbert.
Herbert came in fanning his flushed cheeks and opened another window. “Why on earth do you have the fire going?” he said.
“Never mind that. Peter may be moving to Canada soon.”
“I know,” he said. “We’re going to miss him.”
“Me too,” I said, realizing I already did.
“Maybe we’ll take the boat over to visit you someday,” Herbert said. “You think she’d make it across, if we gave it a go?”
“Oh, stop it, Herbert,” Delia said. “This is serious.” She slid her empty tumbler onto the white plastic table and huffed. “Just go get the petrol.”
“I cleared us a way to the helm,” Herbert said, as we stepped off the boat, and the bumpers rubbed against the stone siding of the bank. Two petrol tanks sat in a wheelbarrow in the middle of the towpath. Herbert lifted one out and placed it by his feet. “Mighty heavy, these things.”
I could hear the wind soughing through the plane trees as I crouched down to wriggle my fingers underneath the tank. A strong gust rustled the leaves, and a ripple of air slipped up my sleeve and under my shirt. The scent was strange at first, out of place, and I cleaved to it, searching for a second whiff. Herbert heaved the tank up, and I had no choice but to do the same. My arms were weak and started to shake as we staggered toward the boat.
“Is it too heavy? We can put it down.”
But I didn’t reply. We stumbled onto the boat and bumped into the bedroom window of the cabin as we brought the tank to the helm. When we put it down, I caught my finger under the bottom rim. Herbert lurched forward to lift the tank, and my face landed flush up against the warm, bristly patch of hair on his chest. I smelled lavender.
I pushed off of him and tipped backwards, yanking my swollen finger from under the tank. “Are you all right?” Herbert said as he grasped my shoulder. I stood up and walked back to the wheelbarrow and the other petrol tank, but didn’t stop there.
Herbert called after me, and I started running up the path. Afternoon had turned to dusk, and the half moon was already white in the summer sky. Thin streams of cloud swept by, and as I ran beneath bridges and away from town, I heard the long, plaintive murmurs of old hulls and the endless echo of water lapping up against the bank. I cut across a wide field and down empty side streets, and at one point I managed to be somewhere I’d never been before, even though I never doubted where I was going. The streets were oddly deserted for a Saturday evening, and I remember passing pub after pub without a soul around and thinking perhaps it was precisely that time of day—whenever it is exactly, I don’t know—after people have gone in, but have yet to come out for the night, and there is a moment of emptiness—when not some but all people are away, resting, dressing, or preparing for the evening—and the moment you linger to consider it happening right then and there, it is gone.
I don’t know how long it took me to return home that day. But when I saw the shadow of my father’s building at the end of the street, looming over the mute glow of the streetlamps, I stopped. Inside, I knew he would be waiting for me. He would be disappointed I’d taken so long, disappointed I had no information for him, despite my extended absence—for as much as I wanted to tell him what I’d learned and give my mother away, I knew I couldn’t. She had done exactly what I’d done, only better. She’d escaped—wildly, completely—even if only for a short time. And as I walked the last few steps to the foot of the building and began climbing the stairs, the only thing I wanted to know was whether she would be back or not.
She was. She sat on the sofa in the living room, smoking a cigarette with her bare hands. “Wash up, Peter,” she said, as I came in the front door. “I’m hungry.”
Philip Brunst‘s writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Joyland, and The Best American Poetry online. He has been a fellow at the Norman Mailer Center and at the International Writers’ and Artists’ Residency in Quebec. A graduate of the MFA program at The New School, he lives in Hudson, New York.