Something to consider when reading/listening: How fragile is our understanding of ourselves and those close to us? Are we only ever one discovery away from reconsidering everything?
There’s a bench, in Eel Brook Common in West London, dedicated to the memory of a dog.I’m not making this up. You can go and see it for yourself. A grey teak bench with a gold plaque decorated with paw prints. It says “In Memory of Zara, our Forever Faithful Friend.” Maybe this puts my sister’s insanity in a bit of context. Because a few feet away from Zara the dog, she’s decided to erect a bench for our mum. Mum’s plaque has stars instead of paw prints but it’s otherwise identical. “For Irene Roberts,” it reads, “Beloved wife and mother.” “Don’t you think it’s perfect?” says my sister, with tears in her eyes. Dad puts his hand on her shoulder. He’s always been terrified of telling people things they don’t want to hear. “It’s lovely,” he says. “But do you not think perhaps, you should’ve waited until she was dead?” Lydia is genuinely surprised by this question. “Errrrrm… I think you’ll find you don’t have to be dead to get a bench.” Dad’s gonna let this go, so I have no choice but to jump in. “Errrrm…I think you’ll find yes you bloody well do.” She hits back. “One, mummy loves this park. Two, she loves benches. Three, it’s the perfect birthday present. Four, she’s going to love it.” Lydia and I were born three minutes apart, but on entirely different planets. At my wedding, she made secret arrangements for a “Table of the Dead.” Typically, for people weird enough to do this sort of thing, you’d set up a small table with place names, and possibly pictures, of loved ones who have passed away. But that’s not nearly insane enough for my sister, so she had to take it one step further. She’s a casting director, and she thought it would be a good idea to hire lookalike actors to pose as our maternal grandparents. Let me say that again. She hired actors to play the role of our dead grandad and grandma at my wedding. Well, is it any wonder I got a bloody divorce? Our dad’s dad, who is still alive but has pretty bad dementia, spent most of the day speaking to the actor playing mum’s dad, who he’d actually been quite good friends with, completely convinced it was really him. And now she’s gone and bought a memorial bench for someone who’s very much still with us.
She gives us strict instructions that mum absolutely must not find out about the bench until her birthday the following week, because she wants it to be a surprise. But this becomes rather tricky when the tributes start rolling in on Facebook. Within hours, Mum’s wall is filled with people telling her they’ll miss her honesty, her rock cakes and her filthy sense of humor.She nearly gives Terri Rogers, chair of the neighborhood watch, a heart attack when she calls her up to tell her, “No, actually, Terri, we weren’t practically sisters. I’ve only been to yer house the once.” Mum’s spent forty years in west London but, as she loves reminding people, “I were made in Yorkshire, and Yorkshire bones are stamped with the words, ‘No Bloody Nonsense.’” When I told her I wanted to be a surgeon, she said, “With yer eyesight, Tania, I wouldn’t trust ye to stitch a cushion.” When I said I was getting married, she said, “Well Tania if he makes ye happy… there’s probably summit wrong wit ye but good luck.” When I said I was having an affair, she said if I hadn’t told him in a week she’d tell him herself. It’s bloody annoying, but you can’t help but admire it. She’s always been her own person, never let success or money go to her head. She’s never cared what anyone thinks. Sometimes when dad was working nights, she’d wait until me and Lyds were asleep and she’d doll herself up. I walked in on her once, big red lips, gold blusher, enormous hoop earrings. ‘You should always dress for yourself, Tigger’ she said, ‘What someone wears to a party tells you very little. Their naked body tells you even less. But what you wear when no one’s looking; that’s who you are.’
The council doesn’t do refunds, and if we want to change the plaque, they won’t be able to do it for at least two months.So, a few days later, as I’m strolling through Eel Brook common on my first full day off in ten, struggling to stay awake, I think “Well, why shouldn’t I make use of the bench I’ve helped to pay for?” It’s freezing for April, and there are hundreds of people streaming past on their way to a football match, but I could quite easily fall asleep. And, as I’m drifting in and out of consciousness, I start thinking about what would happen if mum did die. And what will happen when she does. She’s in good health but she is sixty, and both her parents died in their early seventies. I’ve had two patients around mum’s age die on me in the last month. No, they probably didn’t keep themselves as busy as she does. No one her age has half as much energy… very few people of any age for that matter. God, she used to embarrass me. She’d charge up to us after school or when we were hanging out with our friends, in her big pink bomber jacket, hair in curlers, and she’d put us both in a headlock, squeezing our ears against her hips. At school fêtes she’d buy up an obscene amount of raffle tickets, she’d volunteer to put her head in the stocks so all our friends could pelt her with wet sponges and at least one kid every single year would lose a tooth on one of her rock cakes, and she’d always end up in a blazing row with one of the other mums. And whenever she goes on holiday with anyone, you can guarantee they’ll be enemies by the time they get back. I’m convinced the main reason she has such a large friendship group is so she can comfortably be at war with five or six of them at any one time and still have plenty left in reserve. If I’m shy, and I don’t think I am by normal people’s standards, it’s because mum and Lydia never gave me the chance to speak, and when I first experienced a lull in conversation, at around the age of eighteen, I found it wildly exciting. I’ve nearly fallen asleep when Lydia calls me in a panic. “Dad’s sprained his ankle.” “Oh god, ok. Is he at home, I’ll be right there.” “No, not dad dad.” She’s talking about the dancer she’s hired to play dad in a musical tribute to mum’s life. I mean, of course she is. Once I’ve talked her down from the ledge, I notice there’s a Hispanic man who can’t be much older than I am, standing before me, holding a bunch of daffodils. He has tears in his eyes and, after a few moments of contemplation, he places the flowers on the empty half of the bench. By this point, the football crowds have passed and it’s pretty much just the two of us. “Sorry,” I say, “did you know her?” “I know, yes,” he says, his English far from perfect, “I know and I love. I no live here in this country since four years. I back to see a friend and the friend he tell me of this sofa in the park. I having to come by myself in case I can no believe. But is real. And still I can no believe because I’ve been loving her so much.” “Sorry, you’ve been loving… you were in love with…?” “Oh so much, so much yes. The energy. The entusiasmo. We have… como se dice… a love affair. You know her too?” “Oh, uhmm, no, no. I’m just sitting here. But… how long were the two of you together?” “I living here three month and she and me every day we do it.” “Every day?” “Oh yes.” “And when was this?” “Four years since.” Four years ago? That’s the summer I told her I was having an affair, when she ordered me to come clean to Lawrence. I remember being shocked by how angry she was. She’d always despised him but she was furious. But what if it wasn’t me she was having a go at but herself? Mum tells the truth. That’s who she is. She says things as they are. “Honesty,” that was the word that kept popping up in the Facebook tributes. Her exercise routine, her fundraising, her inability to sit down. Was it all just an excuse to be out of the house? Keeping herself busy so she always had an alibi? After she’d put her head in the stocks at the school fête, she’d always disappear with Mr. Bridges to dry herself off. For about half an hour. And why was she always falling out with other parents? It was only ever the women. And why did she go on so many holidays? And what if that thing she said about wearing makeup when it’s just you alone, what if that was just something she made up when her daughter caught her unawares? Oh my god, of course it was. She didn’t sit around doing herself up just for the sake of it. She was waiting til we were asleep so she could sneak out. And so all those lonely nights when I’ve got in at 3 AM and exfoliated, and tried out a new lipstick, and a pair of tights, just for me, just because I liked how it felt, just because I thought it actually meant something, that was all a lie, wasn’t it? I ask Marcos, that’s his name, if he works in theatre. He says yes, he’s a dancer. Mum was a choreographer. How many other dancers did she get close to over the years? If she did this four years ago, at the age of fifty-six, how many other Marcoses have there been? Dad was a heart surgeon. He always felt awkward around mum’s theatre friends. So did I to be honest. And it’s just so obvious now, isn’t it? The evenings dad and I would spend up in his study talking about blood pressure and aerobic aneurysms, while mum and Lydia entertained the luvvies downstairs. Her laugh would echo through the house. She was laughing at him, laughing at all of us. I turn to Marcos. He has kind, sensitive eyes and a strong jawline. I can see the attraction. “You did say you were a dancer?” He nods. “Well, as it so happens, my sister’s a casting director and she’s looking for a leading man.”
The night before mum’s birthday, I don’t finish work until 1 AM, and then I only manage at most two hours sleep. I have to pick up the party food en route, from Lydia’s specialist caterer, it’s all gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free to conform with her definitely-not-made-up food intolerances.By the time I get to their house, all the guests have arrived with their real leather handbags and fake plastic smiles. Lydia’s turned the garden into a performance space. There’s a stage made of wooden pallets, a proscenium arch made of orchids, a woman with a lute, and ushers, actual ushers, showing people to their seats. Everyone’s acting like this is normal. “Yuh, yuh, Irene’s sixtieth, why wouldn’t there be an interpretive dance tribute to her life performed in her own back garden? I think Sylvia’s getting ice skaters in for hers.” Then again, we live in a part of the world where it’s perfectly acceptable to dedicate memorial benches to household pets so maybe I’m the crazy one? You know what, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it turned out that Zara the dog was the “Forever Faithful Friend” of one of the people here today. I find a seat in the row behind mum, tap her on the shoulder and say happy birthday. “‘Ta for all this love,” she says, “but I’d have been happier with spa vouchers.” Normally I’d laugh. But right now all I can think about is mum secretly meeting Marcos. Walking with him, arm in arm, around the common. Sneaking off for their “como se dice love affair.” She says something to dad and he almost goes blue trying not to laugh. He’s always found her hilarious. But she’s been laughing at him the whole time. Four years ago was about when grandad’s dementia started getting really bad, when he stopped knowing who me and Lydia were, and dad’s spent every free moment looking after him. Has mum felt neglected in that time? Maybe. So maybe Marcos was the first, maybe the only, and maybe it came from a place of real desperation. But still, she should have spoken to him. When I told Lawrence about my affair, he said I’d shortened his life. Well, first he said nothing and set about watering every plant in the house. But when he finally spoke that’s what he said. Because our lives are only as long as our memories, he said. The brain creates new memories whenever we have a novel experience, but it clumps all similar experiences together. That’s why time appears to go more quickly the older you get. All the drives to work, all the same TV shows, all the predictable meals or sexual encounters, they’re folded into one. But that one time you jumped out of a plane, it gets a whole memory all to itself. According to Lawrence, my affair had smeared all our unique memories so they all looked the same and could be gathered up and clumped together. A seven-year relationship with two years of marriage was turned, almost instantly, into a thick clump. I can feel it happening now. I can feel mum smearing her dirty fingerprints across my memories and bundling them up in her fists like discarded film reel. If she’s not who I thought she was, this doesn’t just change her now, it changes her forever. If she’s not who I thought she was, who does that make me? “You ok, Tigger?” Mum asks, just as the performance is about to begin. “Ye look like ye’ve seen a ghost.” Then the lutist starts luting and, when this fails to get our attention, Lydia appears, wearing an electric yellow kaftan, even though she’s not part of the performance, and tells us all to shut up. For the first scene, she has twelve teenagers dressed in pink and red, reenacting mum’s birth. “I think they’d have sent her t’ operating theatre if it were anything like tha,” mum says and everyone apart from Lydia laughs. Then we see the actress playing mum crawling across the garden in black and white rags, while the others walk with slumped shoulders and out-turned pockets to symbolize how poor they are. “Much more realistic,” says mum. “But ye’ve forgotten the diphtheria.” Then there’s a few scenes where mum’s wearing school uniform, and one where she’s carried around by two teenage mutant ninja turtles because her maiden name is “Turtles.” It’s all very sophisticated stuff. Then Marcos appears, wearing a rugby shirt from the local team dad used to play for and, for some reason, a pair of purple tights, and everyone swoons and whoops. He took a lot of persuading to come in at such short notice and learn the part. But I knew it would be worth it to see the look on mum’s face when her former lover appeared playing the role of her husband.
The music switches to UB40’s “Red, Red Wine,” and Marcos and the actress playing mum grind against each other while the whole audience howls with laughter. And I realize the laughter is borne of recognition. They’re not laughing at what they’re seeing, they’re turning to each other, nodding to each other, in acknowledgment of what it represents. It’s a knowing laughter. A huge, hilarious in-joke.But when mum turns and looks at me, her face is solid wax. She turns back and stares straight ahead, as Marcos and my fake mum continue gyrating to the music and everyone else falls about laughing. They all know. Every single one of her theatre friends knows her dirty little secret. The show goes on for another fifteen minutes, and mum seems to loosen up a bit. On a couple of occasions, she shoots me a smile which I don’t return. As soon as the performance finishes, with her doppelgänger being carried off stage by the rest of the company, I’m expecting mum to come and talk to me. Or to go and hide somewhere. But instead, she makes a beeline straight for Marcos. I assume she’s going to tell him to leave but she jumps into his arms and signals to the band who start playing “Red, Red Wine” again while mum this time, my actual mum, grinds against him, and squeezes his tight purple arse, as everyone else claps along and howls with laughter. Marcos looks stricken with fear but he goes along with it. God knows what he must be thinking right now. My dad, my poor dad, is laughing louder than anyone. And I realize now what a monster she is. She loves the control she has over him, over everyone. The beloved wife and mother she presents to the world, compared with the person she really is. The choreographer who makes the rest of us dance to her whims. When someone dies, they don’t live on in a bench or a musical tribute. They live on in the minds of the people who love them. But what will mum’s afterlife be now? Once she’s finally let him go, I grab Marcos’ arm and drag him away from mum and over to Lydia. The sleeve of his green jacket is dripping with sweat. “Marcos, I know today must have been incredibly difficult for you. But please, can you tell my sister what you told me in the park?” Then, leaving him to explain it to her, I march over to mum, and pull her away from her friends. “How can you think this is remotely acceptable?” “Ok Tigger, let’s not get hysterical.” She’s still smiling, and waving to people behind me. “How do you expect me to behave?” “Why can’t you see funny side like yer sister did?” “What? Lydia knows?” “Course she does. I assumed she’d already told you. I were telling a group of friends. I forgot she were there. But she found it hilarious.” “Of course she did. Of course she bloody well did. Why would I expect anything else? And you, bragging about it to your mates. You should be ashamed. Do you know what you’ve done, mum? You’ve shortened my life. You’ve shortened my life.” Then dad comes over, giggling to himself. He’s only had one glass of wine, but he’s not a big drinker. “What’s wrong?” Mum holds my gaze. “Tania’s a wee bit worked up. She’s just found out she and her sister were conceived at a UB40 gig.” Oh yeah, good cover. Thinking on her feet once again. She really is a pro. Dad chuckles. “You do take things so seriously, Tigger.” Then he waves a bottle of Pinot Noir in the air. “Red wine?” he says, and they both laugh. In the distance, I can see Lydia and Marcos sitting at one of the trellis tables. Lydia’s wiping tears from her eyes. I take dad’s arm. “Come with me. You need to hear this.”
[Doe Wilmann first released this piece on his short story podcast, Meaningless Problems.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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