Short Story: “Failing Our Son”

When her teenage son fails a rugby trial, Gina is annoyed by her husband’s indifference. But did Martin secretly hope their son would fail all along?
fruits on kitchen table

Plate with different fruits on kitchen table © Pixel-Shot /

April 21, 2024 01:56 EDT

Something to consider when listening/reading: Is it wrong to tell your child they can achieve great things? 

Gina watched her husband coming through the door, smiling, full of energy, filled with the joys of spring. And, well, it really pissed her off.

“I could murder a banana,” he said.

And she thought, I could murder you.

“Where’s our fruit bowl?” he said.

And she thought, no, she said this time, she said, “Sod the fruit bowl, we need to talk about our son.”

“Oh, he’s not still moping, is he?” said Martin. “Don’t worry, he’ll get over it.”

“‘Don’t worry?’” she said, “‘He’ll get over it?’ Have you taken something?”

“No, but I would like to take a banana and I can’t find our…”

“Sod the sodding fruit bowl!” She gave him that look, the one he hated. “For 19 years, we have put everything into this,” she said. “All the weekends we’ve given up, all the weeknights. All the sacrifices… all the sacrifices he’s made, too.”

Gina had spent the day poring over pictures of their son, James, in his rugby kits. Remembering the time he ran through the entire team at the under-15 county championships, crossed the try line and made a point of placing the ball right in front of where his parents were standing. For James’s whole life, his dad, her husband, had drilled it into him that he was going to play professionally. And today, at the age of 19, he’d been rejected from another trial, the one they all agreed was make or break.

“And there you are,” she said, “acting like he’s just been picked for England.”

“We always leave it by the microwave,” said Martin, “That’s where it lives. Look, you can see the circle where the dust has accumulated around it…”

“If you mention that sodding fruit bowl one more time!” said Gina. “Our son’s whole life was built around rugby. From the moment I taught him to catch. And you, you Martin, you have done nothing but encourage him. You put these dreams into his head, you made him believe, you made me believe, they weren’t just possible, but that they were guaranteed. I thought, I thought they were gonna…. I thought we were gonna… I thought, Martin, I really thought!”

He carried on searching for the fruit bowl without looking up. “I know,” he said. “I know, I get that. It’ll take time.”

“But this is all down to you!” she said. “You pushed him. You encouraged him.”

“Yes,” he said, “I know that.”

“And now he’s failed. It’s never going to happen for him.”

“I understand that, Gina.”

“So why are you so bloody relaxed about the whole thing?”

He took a deep breath, bracing himself for her reaction and wishing he had a banana right now to take the edge off. “Because,” he said, “because I always knew this would happen.”

Gina blew the air up into her fringe to try and calm herself down. Was he being serious?

“Deep down,” said Martin, “I always expected him to fail. That was, if I’m honest, the whole point. Look, you know how much I care about my art, don’t you? In my mind I firmly believe I should be able to earn a living doing nothing else. Our garage is a studio. Our attic is a dormant goldmine. I’ve sold a few pieces, I’ve garnered a decent amount of praise. And even now I can’t help but dream that one day someone will understand the brilliance of my lilies or the wonder of the one where that woman in the red coat is chasing after the leprechaun. I can’t let it go, Gina, I can’t give it up. It’s there for me, this mad, impossible dream. And at times it drives me mad.”

She gave him that look he couldn’t stand. “So you wanted your son to feel the same way you do, is that it? Because that would somehow make your failure okay? Is that what you’re saying to me?”

“No, no, the opposite, the opposite. The minute James got into rugby, I was so excited because I knew that he would find out.” He scanned the kitchen again. Where was that fruit bowl?

“At a young age,” he said, “in adolescence or as a young man, James would find out if it was going to happen or not. He would know one way or the other. Throughout his childhood, he had all the upside of the dream, the passion, the thing to motivate you to get up in the morning. But now he also gets something I never will, which is closure.

“He gets to know that it’s over. He gave it his best and it didn’t work out. And now he can live the rest of his life free from the crippling ambition I seem to have passed onto him. He can have a job, he can have a family, he can have fun, without being dragged down by this gnawing sense that maybe one day, maybe tomorrow, all his dreams will come true.

“Look, I know it will be tough for a while. But today is the beginning of our son’s life. Unlike his old man, he gets to spend it in the real world.”

Gina gave him that look again, but this time, she didn’t let it drop. All the car journeys; all the freezing, muddy mornings; all the ruined footwear; all the stress; all the sacrifice and now this.

“Your little theory,” she said, “is all well and good. But our son isn’t interested in the real world. Our son isn’t interested in giving up his dreams. Our son told me this morning that he wants to be an artist. He’s in the garage right now, painting a sodding picture.”

Martin paused. This plan of his had been more than ten years in the making. It had been at the back of his mind during every tackle and every dropped catch. He had looked forward to his son’s failure the way a normal father looks forward to the birth of a grandchild. But now, come to think of it, he should probably, at some point, have discussed it with his wife.

“On the plus side,” he said at last, not daring to make eye contact, “At least we know where the fruit bowl is.”

[Lee Thompson-Kolar edited this piece.]

[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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