The Walk

by Gabrielle Green on Thursday, 8 December 2011

'The Folly', misshapen and
irregular, stood encircled by a sea of mud, its starkness and sharp contours
jarred against the skyline and jutted out at all the wrong angles. Jean pulled
the front door towards her, letting it catch in the usual places and then
pulled again, harder and then watched the flakes of paint drift down and settle
on her boots. She stamped her feet and stepped back to study the front of the
house; so much for low-maintenance paintwork and modern alternatives. ‘The
Folly', her husband Bart's retirement project, innocently represented five
years of never quite getting it right. Jean still missed, and knew she always
would, the character and ease of their old house, a comfortable 1930s semi
where they'd lived for thirty years, the house her children always referred to
as home.

Standing outside the modern,
horseshoe-shaped box made her feel sad. Bart's lifelong ambition and promise of
a high-quality, energy-efficient eco house had swallowed their money, created
continuous problems and become a project too big for him to manage, or admit.
The expanse of glass that stretched across the back of the house, revealing
every move within, captured too much heat in the summer but never generated
enough in the winter, and the ergonomic curve of the roof somehow didn't
deliver on the desired effect. Every part of the house had been a disaster,
culminating in the contractors going bust and Bart taking over with assurances
that it would be finished by Christmas. But that was last Christmas. It didn't
work was the same thought that stayed with Jean every time she walked up the
drive.



A car horn disturbed the silence,
followed by a rush of crows departing rapidly away into the heavy grey sky.
Always impatient, Bart sat in the car revving the engine as Jean manoeuvred
herself into the passenger seat and tugged the seatbelt strap.



‘What were you doing?' he asked as
he continued with his meticulous wiping of the window screen.



‘We're going to be late'. Bart liked
to state the facts. After thirty-six years of marriage Jean knew that a
response wasn't required.



‘You haven't changed,' Jean said,
looking across at Bart's overalls covered in paint, plaster and mud.



‘There wasn't time. I wanted to get
that last bit of wiring finished. We're only walking.'



‘I hope the children have got
coats,' Jean said, continuing to tug at the seatbelt. 'It's cold today. They
never seem to be properly dressed.' Finally, the seatbelt clicked into place.



Bart revved the engine and pulled
out into the road. He switched the radio on.



‘Sshhh, it's Gardeners' Question
Time
.'



 



As the winter sun settled weakly
over the hill the family gathered at the bottom of the footpath and Kingly Hill
stretched upwards, away from the fields. A footpath marked the direction up to
the woods where yew trees offered shelter and places to hide. Across the ridge,
the humps of the Kings Graves stood, majestic and mysterious. Waiting. On
Boxing Day, regardless of the weather, the family always walked to the very top
of the hill to race each other up and down the grassy slopes of the ancient
graves.



Jean fell into step beside her
daughter-in-law, Siobhan. Instinctively, they both stepped to one side to let
the others go on ahead and Jean watched as the children ran up the lane, the
wind catching their hair and coats. She resisted the urge to call after them to
do their coats up.



‘Has Michael been away much
recently?' Jean asked.



'He's always away,' Siobhan replied,
‘more than he needs to be.'



Jean looked across at Siobhan,
surprised by her response.



‘What makes you say that?' Jean
asked.



Siobhan pulled her collar up around
her face. Jean waited.



‘He just announces that he'll be
away and when he'll be back. Sometimes I don't even know where he is.… or what
country he's in.'



They walked on in silence, Jean
trying to piece together what had been said. Even without hearing clearly, she
could sense the strain in Siobhan's voice.



‘I'm sure he'd rather be at home
with you and the children,' Jean said. 'I know he misses them when he's away.'



‘Yes, he misses the children,' she
replied and stopped to pull a branch from the hedge. She waved it in front of
the dog and threw it across the field.



Apprehension spread through Jean's
body. Without seeing Siobhan's face, usually so mobile and transparent,
Jean couldn't decipher her mood and she realised that today was the first time
since the summer they'd talked freely, without interruptions.



Further up the lane Jean could see
Bart with Michael, followed by random groups of the family spread out along the
footpath, all moving steadily in the same direction. Jean made a note of where
the children were; a habit that was no longer necessary but she couldn't let
go, and registered the adults deep in conversation. In the past she'd enjoyed
guessing what those conversations were about, but today her thoughts kept
returning to Siobhan and Michael. Jean tried to recall when Siobhan had started
to sound so angry.



Across the heads of the children
Bart caught Jean's eye and smiled. It was a smile that carried a question: was
she all right? She knew he didn't like feeling defenceless, that his way of
coping was to act rather than wait. He'd demanded that the consultant get
Jean's results before Christmas, so they could tell the family if they needed
to, but Jean was able to accept that all they could do was wait. She smiled
back at Bart and followed it with a reassuring nod.



Jean turned to Siobhan.



‘Why don't we have the children next
weekend?' she asked, ‘give you two some time together, on your own.'



'I don't think Michael would be
interested,' Siobhan replied as she watched Michael swing one of the children
up onto his shoulders. She slowed down and pulled her collar away from her
face.



'Jean, I know this might sound a bit
strange, but do you think Michael could be…?'



'What?' Jean interrupted her,
‘having an affair?' She stopped to look at Siobhan, uncertain even if this was
what she was asking.



‘No… Siobhan… Michael wouldn't do
that. No, I'm sure he wouldn't,' she stated, firmly and started walking again up
the path, a little faster so that Siobhan had to quicken her pace to keep up.



Shouts from the children of:
‘Grandma, Grandma, quick come and see,' diverted Jean's attention.



‘Come over here, quick,' they all
joined in, ‘come and see.'



‘I'm coming. What is it?'



'You see, over there Grandma, there
in the second field. Can you see it? It's a deer. Just like last year.'



‘Do you think it's the same one?'
Jean asked. The three children looked at her, disbelief spreading across their
faces.



‘Come on,' Jean said, 'let's catch
up with the others. We don't want to be left behind.'



The children ran ahead, deliberately
splashing through the tracks in the mud the others had left behind.



‘Come on, Mum,' Michael called from
the stile that split the field. As Jean approached, she looked at her son,
trying to see if there was anything different. He looks healthier, she thought,
not so grey around the edges: happier. Again, Jean found herself trying to
recall the last time she'd spoken with Michael, properly. Had she really lost
touch with what was happening in her family?



'Here,' Michael said, holding out
his hand as she stepped off the wooden platform, narrowly missing the puddle
that always collected at the bottom of the gate. They walked on in silence
until Michael said:



'So, Mum, how's Dad? He looks better
than he did,' Michael said. They both looked up the hill at Bart leading the
way and chatting with Siobhan.



'Yes, he does, doesn't he?' Jean
said. 'He's still got to be careful, though.'



'And how's ‘The Foolish Folly?
Keeping him in a good mood?'



'Um, what do you mean?' Jean asked,
surprised by Michael's directness.



'Oh come on, Mum, you don't have to
pretend. Not with me, anyway.'



Jean wanted to say more, tell
Michael that they may all need to take more care of Bart in the future. But the
time wasn't right. She didn't want to say anything until she had to.



'Don't worry about me; I'm used to
your father after all these years,' she said and paused before deciding to go
ahead. ‘Siobhan was saying that you've been away a lot recently.'



Michael turned around and walked
backwards so he could look back down the hill across the fields. Jean knew he
was looking out for their old house. When he spoke, he turned around to face
the hill:



'Yes, there is a lot on. Our department
is under-staffed as usual and we're cutting back in most areas.'



‘Are you worried… about your job
then.'



‘No, it's not that bad, and who said
I was worried?'



Jean decided to leave it for now.



At the top of the lane the family
gathered to look back across the fields. Jean stood behind and listened to the
children pointing out the familiar landmarks.



'There's The Cathedral.'



‘Can you see the windmill… there,
over there next to the balloon factory?'



'There's the sea.'



'No it's not, that's just clouds.'



'Is it? Dad, does that look like the
sea or clouds?'



'It looks like cloudsea to me, or it
could be seacloud.'



'They're not real words.'



Jean smiled, wanting to freeze the
moment.



 



As the path opened up, the family
spread out across the hillside, dividing again, as the ground shifted into a
steep incline. Bart fell into step beside Jean and took her hand and as the
incline increased they clung on to each other, both unwilling to admit the
climb was a struggle for them now. At the top they stopped to catch their breath
and Jean watched the children, their shouts and laughter interrupting the eerie
stillness as they raced each other up and down together. She pulled her coat
closer and recalled how her own children had been fascinated and haunted by the
stories of battles of the ancient burial grounds.            



'Come on, we'd better start making
tracks, before it gets dark,' Bart called out: the same announcement, at the
same time, every year.



The family gathered together and
faced the wind. The children hung back, breathless and ruddy cheeked, no longer
concerned about running ahead or being first.



Jean waited for Michael, ‘Siobhan
was saying that you've been away a lot recently.'



'All right, Mum, I heard the first
time,' Michael replied.



Jean's mind went blank. Michael was
never like that with her. Was Siobhan right? The layers of meaning slowly
unpeeled to reveal a different situation than Jean could, or wanted to imagine.
She felt the awkwardness between them expand as they both focused on the path
ahead. Michael tapped the fence that ran along the edge of field and Jean bent
to pick up a sweet wrapper one of the children had discarded. Eventually
Michael said:



'Sorry, I didn't mean to snap.'



Jean had been about to say she was
sorry too, but stopped herself.



'I was just trying to say that your
father and I are here to help, that's all,' she waited, 'if you need it.'



'But you'd always be on Siobhan's
side,' Michael replied and stopped walking to let the children and dog pass.
Stung by his response, Jean took advantage of the children's chatter to collect
her thoughts and find the right words.



'I don't think I've ever taken sides
Michael,' she said, ‘I wouldn't do that.'



Silence lengthened the gap of
misunderstanding that lay between them and Jean felt a sense of unease leak into
her body. It was the same feeling she'd had sitting in the consultant's waiting room. A feeling that the future wasn't going to be how she hoped or thought it
would be.



'No, I know, I know,' Michael's
voice flattened, ‘sorry Mum.' He shrugged and took Jean's arm. 'We're all
right. There's nothing for you to worry about.'



 



As they all walked back through the
woods, the path narrowed. Trees blocked out the sky and patches of random light
pushed through the gloom. Jean felt her mood darken along with the landscape.
Overhead branches criss-crossed and overlapped, occasionally becoming tangled
and unable to pull free of each other. Jean had assumed she knew everything
about her children, but she realised adulthood had created a distance and place
that didn't include her. They were all harbouring their own secrets. She was
the same. They reached out to each other, were misunderstood, pushed away, or
pulled towards the people who needed them.



The wintry light was beginning to
fade as the sun dipped on the horizon and cold air settled like an unwelcome
blanket over the landscape. At the bottom of the lane, cars waited to return
them to their homes. This was the first year Jean was happy to see them all
leave. She had wanted to free herself from worry, reassure herself that they
were all happy. But she realised they were all the same, all carrying their own
secrets and worries but she had to let them go, to continue living their own
lives, with their own families.



Jean got into the car and waved at
the grandchildren being strapped into seats or plugging themselves into music.
She could hear an argument developing about whose turn it was to sit in the
front. Bart eased himself carefully behind the steering wheel and waited for
the other cars to pull away first.



‘Look at their cars, they're always
filthy,' he said.



‘You always say that,' Jean replied.



‘Do I?'



‘Yes.'



He smiled and switched on the
engine.



‘Michael looked well, didn't he?'
Jean said. She couldn't help it.



‘Yes,' Bart said as he negotiated a
three-point turn to join the queue of cars leaving the car park.



‘It's always a bloody nuisance
getting out of here.'



‘You always say that too.'



‘Christmas visitors clogging up the
roads, why don't they all stay at home?'



Jean smiled.



‘Did Siobhan say anything to you…
about…?'



‘What?'



‘About… about anything? Did you
think she seemed herself?'



Jean looked across at Bart and
waited. But she knew it was no good and reminded herself that she had to let
them go, let them make their own lives, without her.



‘The children enjoyed themselves,'
she said.



‘They always do. Growing up, though,
aren't they?'



‘It's all right this way, after the
next car.'



The car jerked forward and stopped
abruptly.



‘Damn.'



‘I've invited them to stay next weekend.'



‘Have you?' Bart nosed the car onto
the main road and into the line of traffic. ‘They can help me do a garden plan
on the computer.' Whistling his usual tune he rubbed the window screen. Jean
turned the radio on and adjusted the dial.



‘Sshhh, it's The News.'



 



 

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