I. It’ll be a shower scene. No Hitchcock, though. Just you, standing there, under the trickle of soothing hot water. Thin, but not too thin, shampoo in your hair, yesterday’s underwear on the green rug outside the steamed-up cabin. A mini break by the sea, three years into your marriage. A spring morning, one of the sunniest days yet, a full moon still visible in the sky. You’re humming to yourself, but the fan is on, so nobody can hear you, the landlady downstairs, your husband next door.
‘Take your time,’ he said before you disappeared into the bathroom.
Among a handful of other reasons, you married him because he reassures you like this. And this morning, it’s precisely what you do: you take your time moving around the cracks of your life. The previous night, in a cosy bar in the harbour, you danced. Nothing spectacular, a few groovy moves to some nice R&B music. You’re right, you won’t be a ballerina, but your husband enjoys watching you. What’s more, he knows when you’re happy, and, on the whole, at that particular time of your life, you are. After the humming, however, you slip. The shower cabin is small, so you don’t fall very far. Remembering the past in a confined space, it’s what adults do, and you are no exception. Your arm hurts, you expect a bruise, assume its disappearance down the line, a week later, maybe two, nothing drastic. Disoriented, your arm throbbing, you press both palms against the shower wall to steady yourself. You start spotting pink patches of mould between the tiles, first one, then two, then many more, streaking the cabin walls like weak blood. Before you know it, water cascades into memory, days spent silent as a child, your pale father next door, smoking and watching TV, waiting for nothing, changing in the wrong direction, almost taking you with him.
Years earlier, in the hospital, during your worst spell, aged fourteen, with staff keeping the place spotless, there wasn’t any mould. They even tried to make you spotless, and still, while nobody dared to believe it for months, especially you, one day they sent you home alive, ready to become someone who, years later, would work, travel, marry. If you remember one thing in that shower, make it this. In the meantime, you look up into the showerhead’s tiny holes. They remind you of a microscope through which you looked at dead flies as a child. Under the lens, the insects took on the texture of a Dürer drawing, clear lines, grey and black, a scaffolding of existence.
All in all your shower scene only lasts minutes, and minutes go fast in your thirties. Afterwards, you massage the bruised spot with a towel. Your husband sits on his side of the bed, looking through emails, deleting most of them. You don’t tell him a thing, you manage just perfectly, and the thought makes you proud, stand tall. You get dressed, dry your hair, put on mascara. You go downstairs with him, have breakfast, then head to the beach, all set to watch people fly kites.
II. Right now, all this is far away. You’re a child, eleven years old. It’s night-time, the end of December. In a different country, the one you were born in, in a city flat on the fifth floor, you and your father have just finished watching TV. A new series, made for the Christmas season. There are six episodes altogether, one per night, leading up to New Year’s Eve. So far you’ve seen three, and during each of them, at some point, your father cried. He stubbed out his cigarette, sobbed a little, and finally wiped his eyes with his sleeve. The series tells of a young ballet dancer’s recovery from a traumatic accident. By now the girl has recuperated enough that she is slowly starting to dance again. She has a barre in her bedroom and goes to class every day. What’s more, you know that before the end of the final episode, just before the start of another year, the same girl will be given the lead in an important production, go abroad, and fall in love. You’ve read about it in the TV magazine.
After tonight’s episode you ask your father to follow you into your room. You want to show him a picture of the girl you cut out of the magazine. When he finally manages to shuffle into your room and lowers himself onto the chair by the desk, you aren’t sure anymore it is such a good idea. Besides, he doesn’t ask what you were going to show him. He simply looks relieved to be seated. Hard chairs are easier for him than soft seats. You sit on the bed across from him, cross-legged, fakir-like, atop your favourite duvet covers, a sea of horses, brown and yellow, with soulful eyes. In your room your father isn’t allowed to smoke. It’s not your rule, it’s your mother’s, and he abides by it. When he doesn’t say anything, you start counting the horses, but there’s always a point when you get mixed up. There are so many of them, their pattern random. After a while you don’t remember the ones you have already counted.
Just before the episode started he sent you for a packet of Camels from the cigarette machine around the corner.
‘Quick, honey… quick,’ he said, his shaky left hand counting the coins into your palm. You put on your winter coat, zipped it up and ran out of the flat.
‘And don’t you smoke when you grow up,’ you heard him call after you, and you shook your head skipping down five flights of stairs. You shook your head because he generally likes it when you acknowledge that he’s spoken, even if he couldn’t see you right then. You ran through the darkness like someone with a kite, inexplicably connected to the thing that animates all, the thing that was nearly knocked out of him, and has never quite come back, leaving him like a halfway house. A minute or two later, when you stopped to throw the coins into the machine, the Camels came out with a thud. You picked them up, a girl with no gloves on, who routinely shakes her head for her father as if to prove to him that her life will be better than his. You ran back home through the freezing cold, the stars above you like moments to come, the third episode about to start.
Your father is a small man, and his story entirely different from the girl’s in the series. He could have been a jockey, though. A stranger told him this when he was a boy, on a Saturday afternoon, somewhere in the city, when all was in ruin after the war. The sun was high in the sky when the stranger said this, and afterwards your father spent some weeks trying to find out about jockeys, but nobody knew much about them, other than that they had to be thin. The stranger never returned, and it turned out that instead of becoming a jockey, your father had to learn to write again in his forties.
These days, when he needs to sign a form or one of your school reports, he insists on using a poorly flowing biro from his office days. When you offer him your fountain pen, he hisses, like an iron putting out steam. Slowly, the words emerge on paper, small, restricted outlines, like housing for the poor. When he was first sent to rehab, two and a half years ago, in a small town in the foothills of the Alps, he sent you a postcard with the picture of a cheerful Alsatian. His letters were much more neatly printed back then, like arrows into the future.
Liebe Marie, …
You’ve hated Alsatians since you were three and nearly attacked by one. It ran toward you one rainy morning and bared its teeth. It didn’t bark or howl, it just ran, as if you were the only thing worth running toward in the whole wide world. Your father managed to pick you up at the last moment, but he must have forgotten this when he sent the card five years later. He has forgotten many things.
‘You can’t blame him for that, sweetie,’ your mother says.
A stroke peels layers off a person, makes them smaller, absent-minded at times. They look at you more, spend more time trying to say things than managing to say them. Your father is just one of many. You’ve seen them, small crowds in the hospital, the rehabilitation centres, the support groups.
None of your friends have ever mentioned that their fathers cry. In the books you read there’s no mentioning of crying fathers either. And even in the new TV series, when the girl had the accident, her father didn’t shed any tears. The doctor says that your father cries because of the medication. It’s a side effect. What’s more, regardless of whether he cries or not, your father doesn’t like being watched. That’s why you’ve developed ways of not looking without missing a thing. Right now, as he sits in your room, you scan his frail body with the paunch at the front, his sad, faintly red face, wondering if you’ll become like him some day rather than the dancer you wanted to show him a picture of. In the end, lost for something better to do, you press down the play button on your cassette player. You don’t know which song is up next, and then, after a brief spell of static noise, The Beatles’ ‘I’ll Follow the Sun’ begins. With the winter darkness outside, the refrain makes you giggle. Your father listens, then looks at you and giggles, too. After that he cries a little, no big deal. There are voices and laughter next door in the kitchen. Your mother, your uncle, aunt and three cousins are playing cards, trusting that you and your father will return to them soon. After all it is Christmas, and the family at Christmas is all about love. Like a slice of cake that doesn’t get smaller, a cake you and your father had a little too much of.
Later, when the guests are gone, with your mother asleep, and your father back in the living room, watching more TV on his own, some of which will make him cry all over again, you’ll look at the picture of the girl on your own. You’ll take in her long neck, the burgundy leotard, the carefully braided hair, piled up in an impressive do, and know in your bones that you will never be like her. What’s more, chances are your father will never go back to work, never walk like he used to. Your family have lived like this for nearly three years now, three springs into summers, autumns, winters, too long to pretend.
‘He’s never sailed smoothly through life,’ your aunt said about him once, not long before he got ill. Her words made you picture him in a little red boat on the open sea, a film that doesn’t end well. A storm flares up, the boat keels over, your father disappears amongst crashing waves. The sun is about to set, no one hears his screams but the gulls above. You prefer it when you manage to reduce the film to a still, a boat surrounded by tiny waves, far enough away for you not to see the exact look on your father’s face. You walk in and out of the image, looking on from the beach, mostly to check he is still in the boat.
In the mornings it is your mother who empties the ashtrays. She doesn’t like it when you do it.
‘You’re a child, remember? This is what adults do. Adults only, Marie.’
If you had a choice to be somebody else, it would have to be the girl in the series, but you will never be like her of course. You keep forgetting, even if now, at eleven years of age, it’s obvious. You still love contorting your body on the living room carpet. It makes your mother and father go ‘Ooh’ and ‘Aah’, and ’Our daughter, the acrobat.’ You don’t want them to stop, and you bend your body some more. You twist it until it hurts and you finally remember that you’re wasting your time.
‘I’m fat,’ you told your parents last week.
‘You must be joking, you’re a rake,’ your mother replied.
‘What’s a rake?’
‘It’s a saying.’
‘How about a toothpick instead?’ she teased.
You pulled a disgusted face. Your father was watching.
‘Well, something different then. Let me think,’ your mother said.
She looked at you long and hard, but you still felt fat, even if you weigh less than you should. You’ve been told. People have taken you aside. ‘Eat more, you must eat more, don’t worry about your Papa,’ they plead.
‘You’re like a crescent moon,’ your father suddenly filled the silence, ‘how about that?’
It stopped you in your tracks. You didn’t know what he meant, but he’d said it beautifully, without hesitation, and you didn’t want to ask any questions. Even your mother looked a little confused, but eventually she smiled, and your father’s sentence hovered in the room for the rest of the afternoon.
You‘ll remember it again in bed tonight, just before switching off the light. It will make you climb back out of bed, open the French doors and step out on the balcony. Slippers on your feet, a small, luminous thing, your winter coat over your pyjamas fluorescent against the sky, you’ll look at the lit up medieval castle on the hill in the distance. In three days’ time, on New Year’s Eve, fireworks will go off at midnight. They’ll look spectacular, the castle far enough away to seem just the right size for you to pick it up and hold it in your hands, like a snow globe or a shoe. The last episode in the series will have screened. You’ll be happy.
Six months later, during a spell of summer heat, your father will die. Life as you know it will go to pieces. Over time, mould will appear where you and your mother forget to clean because, with him gone and you eating less and less, there will be other things to worry about. It’s the weakness of him, the faint red, still there, still flickering, somewhere, somehow, still in the boat. The loss of him will wax and wane in ways you can’t fathom as yet, nearly erase you, make you run when there’s no need, look at life like an ashtray to be emptied, not once with the intention to kill you, but never quite telling you this the way your father might have done.