See what you make of it.
Shouting At Stars.
In sobriety he is a quiet man. Not a great thinker, nor yet a fool, he keeps his own counsel. Always scrubbed clean, crisply ironed shirt-sleeves rolled up like tourniquets around still hard biceps, black hairs standing like a proud army on permanently tanned, tattooed arms; there is more than a vestige of the young man remaining. If you ignore the rasping, rattling breath, the rheumy, red-yellow eyes and the stay-pressed nylon trousers. The constant channel-hopping, endlessly burning cigarette ends and demands for strong, sweet tea the only indications that he is still functioning independently, he sits on his tattered, foam-backed throne beside the fire, spending his day watching life pass him by.
Occasionally, when he has grown tired of his own thoughts, of listening to long-departed voices in his head, he offers gruff, rigid opinions, or takes up on some unfinished scenario from the screen-play of his life. Something like, ‘I told him it would never work like that, see. Then he sits, waiting for one of us to ask for more, to prompt the story he is longing anyway to tell. And he is always the hero. Or the villain. Never anything in-between – no indifference.
We sit and nod or ‘Hmm,’ and ‘Aah,’ like we’ve never heard it before, too lethargic or understanding to challenge him, and he orates, center-stage, grateful for his audience and making us feel privileged indeed, until his voice runs out, his inspiration flags and he sits in silent soliloquy again.
We all know what’s next, but we have no way to stop it. Would we, even if we could? I have wondered.
A day. Putting the kettle on. Nipping to the shops. Egg on toast for tea. Us, of course, not him. He sits in supervisory observance of us and is waited upon grudgingly by those who love him.
And then night falls.
A night that holds escape for some, with the promise of cheery company, a different set of four walls to hold them in, or the sweet escape that is sleep. If you are lucky, you might not even dream.
He sits there, while the shadows lengthen and the flames shorten; while the house grows quieter and colder. He grows ever more silent and is noticed more for it. The requests for tea stop, and a bottle of something unfound appears at his table.
I seek out the only retreat available to me. My bed is old and too soft and more embracing for it. I let it engulf me, let my eyes grow heavy and close, allowing the worries of the day not to slip away, but to wander some way from me, my sleeping sub-conscious keeping a firm hold on their leash, lest they stray too far. It doesn’t do to escape fully. Not yet.
When I awake, it is dark but for a thin line that underscores my bedroom door, which is shaking gently, impatiently, against its catch, caught in fitful gusts of wind that should not be exploring our home so voraciously, uninvited.
It is happening again.
‘I wish he’d shut up,’ I think, as I strain to understand what he is saying. I don’t need to go downstairs to see him standing, like a skyscraper in an earthquake, in our front doorway. I can hear the wide-open door banging against the mirror in our hallway and I wonder again how it remains on the wall.
‘I can’t hear him.’ I tell myself as I listen to him shouting at the stars, berating the night, carrying out some spirit conversation that would give any half-decent philosopher pause for thought.
It is late. And he is loud and obstreperous. Yet the neighbour’s front doors remain adamantly closed, their curtains stubbornly drawn. Their thoughts kept firmly to themselves. Amongst themselves.
I feel the pressure on my bladder grow more insistent, but I am loathe to leave my bed. It is not the chill night or the late hour that impedes me; no, I just do not wish to be seen. To become the object, or subject, of my father’s drunken monotone. He knows this house so well, that any tell-tale groan from floorboards would give me away. If I turn the landing light out, even from his dark perspective, he can tell.
He pauses for breath and clears his throat and I can smell the cigarettes and beer from here.
Still in my bed, I can see him leaning on the lintel. His slippered feet – always so correct – are on the cheap square doormat. He has lost his thread and is trying to recall what prompted such an impassioned speech from him. What offended his high moral standards so, that he felt forced to deliver such an argument in defence that would have made any politician proud? His speech far from conservative, his breathing laboured, his confusion liberal, he governs me, dictates even, from his doormat podium. My need is growing and with it, my anxiety. He must relent soon and be content ruling from his armchair throne, mustn’t he?
And then, at last, I hear him take leave of his glittering audience. Ungraciously, the door slams, and mumbling, shuffling (embarrassed now?) he seeks the sanctuary of the living-room.
I am still straining to hear him. The knowledge that my torture is almost at an end is almost unbearable. I am afraid to sneeze, afraid to think beyond translating the sounds that reach me from downstairs. Familiar sounds. His armchair creaking in protest as he settles into it, his slippered feet knocking over the silver-plated hearth brush, to send it clattering noisily over the tiled hearth, his loud ‘Sssh!’ as if someone else were responsible.
And now I must move. I tiptoe to the bathroom unobserved, my cheap, synthetic, snagged blue nightdress crackles electrically with each static step.
I am still listening, but at last all I hear is his loud, repetitive snoring; the illiterate, voiceless shadows of his earlier ranting.
Sleep has taken him.
I have made it.
Sweet relief for us both.
Copyright © S P Oldham 2003