“Can you keep a straight face during this?” I ask Aunt Janice. She looks at me and her face crumples again. We are sitting in her car, mine parked just behind it.
“I’m so sorry” she says, welling up once more. I put my hand gently on her arm. “I’m grateful for that, but if you can’t do this I won’t be mad. This is something I need to do. With or without you.”
I got the news at about 4am. I phoned her immediately and God bless her, she was at my front door within 2 hours. First thing she did was hug me but I forbade her to tell anyone, until I was there too.
“She won’t know yet, it’s only 8.30am.” I say quietly. We’re parked up in her car, round the corner from my mother’s house. “If you want to help me I need you to keep a straight face, or at least blame the state of it on something else. This is a final test. If she passes it, then cool.”
Janice nods and turns off the engine. Drying her eyes she unbuckles her seatbelt and pulls down the sun visor to look at her face. “Ew!” she says, managing to smile and dabbing at her damp cheeks with a tissue. I manage to smile too. I’m not angry or sad yet. I just feel a huge weight on my chest. Aunt Janice sorts herself out and then turns to me. “Are you sure you want to do this?” she says, her voice more under control now. I nod.
“I don’t want retroactive statements to be uttered later that rewrite history. If you’re there you can see what she says and does. Once more. You going to keep it together in there? If you start blubbing she’ll know something’s up.”
“Yes I’ll be ok”.
“Good, come on.”
I get out and she follows me. The walk is just under 2 minutes. I timed it a couple of years back when I was bored. It feels empty and cold, like the morning. We get to the driveway and I feel my feet start to become leaden. I curse them silently and whisper “not now you bastards”. Last thing I need is emotion getting in the way of this. I hear the birds chatter in the trees at the back of the house. The morning air is cold. If true to form, I predict my memory will recall every detail of this. Whatever the outcome.
I pause at the front door and turn to Aunt Janice. “Ok?”
Again she nods. “Let’s do this. I hope you’re wrong.”
I ring the doorbell and within a few seconds I see a shape moving, through the frosted glass. My mother opens the door. “Hello Dan” she says smiling broadly. “Wasn’t expecting to see you today.” I hug her and look over my shoulder.
“Look who I saw on the way here, stopped to give me a lift. You’re popular today!” I say in reply. I’m totally calm which surprises me. Think I was more nervous at my last Karate grading. Funny.
“Hello Janice” she says looking surprised. “You not going to Romania tomorrow?”
Aunt Janice’s eyes flicker but she keeps her mask intact. “No, pushed back to next Wednesday now. Troubles with the bookings. You know how it can be.”
God bless her, that was smooth.
“Oh, well both of you come in”. We step inside she walks to the kitchen. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“Yeah, lovely”. As she puts water in the kettle she idly asks about my job and how I’m getting on. I do a quick check over to Aunt Janice. She’s looking composed and I decide to do this as soon as I can. Not fair on her to drag this out. Poor old girl is probably hating every second.
“It’s all good. By the way. You know that video I told you about of Rob winning a silver medal in that tennis tournament in Paris. It’s on YouTube still. Would you like to see it?”
My mother doesn’t pause but finishes filling the kettle then turns and plugs it in. “Not desperately,” she says and there’s a pregnant pause. I glance across at Aunt Janice and see the flicker of anger. I catch her eye and give a quick shake of my head. She nods back. My mother hasn’t seen the exchange.
“You sure? He’s doing really well in it. Doing something he loves. He’s got an awesome serve and a cracking volley. His face when he gets the medal is a picture. Sure you don’t’ want to see it?”
My mother looks up at me and says curtly. “I’ve already given you my answer. No thank you.”
“Cool, cool.” I reply, like it doesn’t matter. I decide not to give any further descriptions of Rob’s prowess and skills as I might end up losing my temper or crying myself. Instead I say casually, “Sure I can’t persuade you? Your eldest son excelling at something he loves? I mean, you haven’t seen or spoken to him for what now….20 years?”
My mother glares at me and says irritably, “Stop going on about it.”
I smile. “That’s fine. So anyway how’s your cat?”
My mother smiles and her mood instantly brightens. “Oh he’s fine. Little bugger keeps getting the birds in the garden. I tried to put the bird feed higher up but he found a way to climb up.”
She continues but I don’t listen. In seconds I feel all love I have for her evaporate and vanish in whisps of steam. I glance again at Aunt Janice who is clearly about to lose it completely. I hold up my hand for mum to stop talking. She looks surprised but trails off.
“You failed.” I say quietly and Aunt Janice now starts crying.
“Failed what? What are you talking about?” my mother replies looking confused. She looks at Aunt Janice. “What’s he going on about?”
Aunt Janice is crying so much her makeup is running. “YOU STUPID, STUPID WOMAN!!!” she shouts at her. My mother looks confused.
“What, what’s going on?” she stammers looking upset. “Don’t speak to me like that!”
I walk over to Aunt Janice and give her a hug. “Thank you” I say quietly and kiss her cheek. “Give it five minutes yeah?”
Aunt Janice nods and I take an envelope from my inside pocket and as I walk back out the doorway of my mother’s house for the final time I place it on the cold varnish of the hall table.
“What’s going on? Where are you going?” my mother shouts at me. I open the door and step out into the driveway. My mind is clear but I know that later I’ll pay in spades for the grief I have yet to feel.
Walking to my car I see my reflection in the glass as I go to open the door. My face looks like I always wanted it to look when I was younger. Calm and emotionless. I get in, take a deep breath and then drive away.
Twenty minutes later my phone rings. It’s Aunt Janice. I pull over to answer it.
“You ok?” I ask. Knowing the question is stupid, but not knowing what else to say.
There’s a pause. “Listen Dan…if there’s anything you need, I’m always here for you, you know that.”
“I always knew that, but thanks.”
“She’s…read your note. I had to call an ambulance. She passed out. I’ve put her on the sofa but…I don’t know.”
“She’s lost both of us now. You know I would still be there now if she’d passed the test.”
“I know Dan, I wanted her to.” She sniffs and I can tell she’s still crying. Poor old woman, shame she had to get dragged into this.
“So did I. His life was what mattered, not his death.”
“Where are you going now?”
“To see dad. He needs support more than ever. We always guessed Rob would go out like that. Maybe it was how he wanted it. He was protecting his mates when the guy pulled the knife.”
Aunt Janice sobs again then says. “You take care of yourself. Don’t end up like Rob. We still love you. You’re welcome any time at mine. Your cousins miss you too.”
“Thanks, I’m gonna go now. It’s a long drive to dad’s place. I love you too.”
I hang up and then drive off. It’s a 7 hour drive. I hope I don’t think too much.