Rear View Mirror
The house grew old with my father, but in the end it outlived him. Now the task of clearing out his belongings has fallen to me, since Greg is in Canada and Susan is… well, let’s be frank, Susan is insane. It’s weird – there are rooms – beyond the kitchen, living room and downstairs loo – that I haven’t set foot in in years, and it aches to go back in them now. Even the rooms I have frequented looked different with the curtains pulled back and the first sunlight of the summer dusting their corners. Cracks in the plaster, scuffs in the paintwork, cobwebs thick as mustard: it’s not that dad wasn’t house-proud, but he couldn’t see beyond the end of his arm anymore, and he certainly wouldn’t have been able to get up into those corners to clean. If I’d paid more attention myself when I visited… but those visits were always rushed, there was always somewhere else I had to be. Just calling in— On my way to the— Got to pick something up for Rebecca— Not really got time for a—
He was always pleased to see me, but then I was the only one who really made the effort, if only for half an hour, twenty minutes, once a week. John Wayne? I won’t interrupt if you’re watching John Wayne, dad. Greg came over last Christmas, and Susan… well, who knows what goes on with Susan anymore? I still can’t believe she left Andy with the kids and went off with that… teenager… What the hell happened to my sister? The girl I grew up with – here, in this house… the woman she became? I used to be able to talk to her about anything. When Diane and I broke up, Susan was the one who got me through all that. I know it hit her hard when she lost the baby, but she had two other kids, great kids, and a husband who… What the hell was she thinking? I can’t believe she brought him to the funeral. It was obvious Andy and the girls were going to be there – he was their grandfather, for god’s sake! That kid… he didn’t even know our dad. He was there for Susan? He’s there to fuck Susan, that’s all, that’s… I’m surprised they didn’t do it in the fucking crematorium. On top of the fucking coffin. She’s not the person I knew, not anymore…
“As long as she’s happy,” was all dad would say on the subject. “That’s all I ever wanted for any of you.”
There are cat hairs everywhere of course, on all the furniture – and the carpet is thick with them. The cat though, Peter Lorre, nobody knows what happened to the cat. The neighbours say they saw him round, right up to the day dad died. He used to haunt their windowsills, staring into their kitchens while they were cooking. Peter Lorre, a funny name for a cat, but that was dad for you. He’d had that cat since mum died too – no, it couldn’t be… cats don’t live… Well, I suppose occasionally you hear about one that… I wonder where he went, that old cat? Part of me likes to think maybe he went with dad… I know that’s just some kind of crude, sentimental dock leaf, but it won’t stop me rubbing it on the sting.
It’s not like I haven’t noticed the cat hairs before. You can’t help but – as soon as you sit down, they’re all over your clothes. I could have offered to clean up for him, probably have filled the Dyson three times a weekend, but I didn’t because there was always somewhere else to be soon afterwards. Picking Rebecca’s suits up from the drycleaners, getting that stuff to pour into the drains, meeting her in town so she didn’t have to carry all her shopping back on the train. It’s not that I ever resented doing any of that stuff, but I do wonder now if it was worth it. After all, it didn’t stop her leaving me. Would it have really made any difference then if I’d spent a little more time with dad?
Upstairs now, first is Greg’s old bedroom. Thirty-five years gone. It’s not like dad kept it as a shrine to him or anything, though Greg’s the only one of us who really made anything of himself. It’s full of dad’s books now, and all the newspapers he refused to throw away. He read that paper, his paper, cover to cover, every day of his life. I can’t remember the last time I read more than a headline from mine. He’d save me clippings. Stephen Moss, some kid I went to school with, playing cricket for England now. Our old geography teacher, Mr. Reynolds, got his telegram from the Queen last year; they invited him back to teach one more class for his 100th. “That boy our Susan’s knocking around with? Got himself an installation in the Tate Modern, and he’s not even twenty.” That wasn’t anything I cared about, I wanted to tell him, but… I wouldn’t ever have said anything like that to him. I might have got off even earlier that week, but I never let on that it was through anger, or… He stayed proud of his children, my father, all of us, whatever we did. He found a way.
I pull a few books from the shelf and blow away the years. Those Magnificent Old Steam Engines, by W. Fred Conroy. Private Wars: Personal Records of the Anzacs in the Great War, by Gregory Kerr. On the table by the little reading lamp, one’s still bookmarked, less than a third read – The Russian Empire, by Arcadi Gaydamak. As I flick through the pages, a small scrap of paper falls to the floor. Written in dad’s shaky hand, “Property of Mr. G. L. Frasier” (Georgey Frasier, they were in the army together, played cards together every Tuesday and Friday night long as I could remember – gin rummy, drink to match) “please return”.
I set the book down, and leave Greg’s old room as it was, crossing the landing to Susan’s. Lots of photos in this one, dad’s got it set up like some kind of gallery. His old slide projector too, with the screen folded up in the corner. I’m tempted to flick through a few of those old slides, but I know it wouldn’t be good for me. Not now. Just the photos I can see are enough. Me and Greg, before he emigrated. Best friends, closer than brothers. Susan and Andy when the girls were young. Back when she was the sister I knew. Mum: still young, still beautiful. You’re never too old for a hug from your mum. Before the fucking c-word took everything. Me, aged 7, dressed as Aslan. School play. The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe. Mrs. Potter wrote the script. This room’s going to be the hardest. Leave it till later. Leave it till last.
So what about mine? Guest room now, though I’m not sure dad’s ever had a guest in here. That’s a woman’s thing, I think, having people over. Rebecca was always like that, we must have Mark and Sally over for the weekend: personally I could have done without it. Yeah, it’s nice to see people, but it’s nice to see them go home at the end of the night too. The only time I ever suggested asking anyone to stay over, it was my dad. We can all have a drink, I told her, and he doesn’t have to worry about getting a taxi or… it’ll be good for him to spend a night somewhere else, different surroundings, people he loves… She didn’t see the point. “He only lives a few miles away, I’m sure he’d rather sleep in his own bed.” I guess you just can’t make the people you love love the people you love. I certainly didn’t care much for her old man, grumpy fucker…
Twenty-nine years since I slept in this room – is that really still my old bed? Still got the old mirror too, Susan used to hate that I had such a big mirror in my room, but like dad said – there just wasn’t room in hers. Dark in here though, never got a lot of sunlight and now the ivy’s nearly filled that window in completely. I’ve seen from outside how much it needs pruning back, but… I mean, I doubt he came in here very much. No photos, no books – just the bed and that big old mirror.
I can remember him standing behind me when I was little, hands on my shoulders, staring into that mirror together. “Look at the boy in that mirror, Paul – look at him! He’s crying – why’s he crying, Paul? We need to do something about this, Paul – we need to make him laugh. Pull a funny face. No, go on, funnier. Like this! Or like this! Go on, Paul, make him laugh! I say, I say, I say… Doctor, doctor, I think I’m shrinking! Well, you’ll just have to be a little patient! Bwa-ha! Bwa-hahaha!”
That boy in the mirror, dad, look at his eyes now – all red and wet and swollen. Look at his bottom lip, you could rest a glass of milk on that – if you wanted a milkshake. Look at his face, dad, all old and tired and miserable. All those years you gave him, and he couldn’t spare you more than half an hour a week…
Yeah, go on, wallow, Paul, wallow. I always did like a good wallow, ‘specially when I was a kid. But look at me now – look at me… how often do you actually do that? Just look at yourself… unless you’re shaving or combing your hair, when your mind’s usually elsewhere anyway. Who has the time to stare at themselves in the mirror these days? Maybe dad did. Do you think he was unhappy here, all by himself? He never showed it, but that was his generation, wasn’t it – they didn’t. They were chipper. Not like their kids, bunch of whinging bastards the lot of us.
Pull a funny face, dad. Go on. Make him laugh, the boy in that mirror. Just one more time. Make him laugh.