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Still Life

by Dorothy Crossan

No-one really knew about Asperger’s Syndrome when my father was a boy. I suppose they just thought him rather serious, perhaps a little odd. I expect my mother thought he would change after they got married, lighten up a bit, learn to show affection. I’ve often wondered if there was a day, a time, that she realised he would never learn to love properly, and if that was when she started on the pills.

Someone should have done experiments on us. Is it in our genes to be a little cold, or were we so anxious to please that we eventually learned to copy him? Perhaps there was a time that knowledge might have helped. Now I’m not sure I want to know that things could have been different.

We’d taken up our usual positions as though it was the old Morris Traveller: my sister behind the driver, me in the middle, and my brother on my left. Saturday afternoons and Boxing Day to our Gran’s; the occasional Sunday with Mum’s sister in Bearsden. But no songs or games, just silence, so we didn’t distract him from his driving. A life lived without emotion – what must that have been like for him? I know how it was for us.

A slash of rain against the windscreen drew me back to the present. This was the first time we three had been in the back of the same car since we were young. It was my sister’s idea that we should have a proper limousine and driver so we could talk — but we never talk after a lifetime of keeping our feelings under wraps.

Then, as now, there was no conversation to interrupt the regular switch and swish of the wipers. In the quiet I could hear my brother breathing at my side. I put my hand on the edge of the driver’s seat to keep myself from swaying against him.

Looking back it seems that it was always raining, driving to Loch Lomond, or Dunoon. Once when I was five I didn’t understand the silence and tried to tell a joke. My father didn’t even turn around as he explained that my developing sense of humour was of no interest to anyone. I became upset and cried and then he was interested. He stopped the car and took his camera from the glove compartment to take a photograph of my tears in the rain, and then we drove on.

The photo was still in the line-up on his windowsill. My arms folded, hands tucked into the armpits of my favourite blue jacket, still slightly too big. My cheeks round and cherry-like — my wet lashes long and dark. Oh, for those lashes now. My head is turned away. I remember he was tutting to himself when he had to lean over to get the right angle as I refused to look into the lens.

Next to it is the photo of us at the top of the park slide when I was three. Andrew and Kate standing behind me at the top of the metal ladder, waving at the camera as they waited for Dad to take the photo. I have an unsure smile on my face, perched at the top with my legs jutting rigidly in front of me, my fingers clinging tightly to the metal sides. I was waiting for the photo to be taken, fearful that my weight was pulling me down the slide and I wouldn’t be able to stop myself hurtling off the end.

As soon as my father put down his camera I pulled myself back up, wriggling between my brother and sister to fight my way down the steps by cross children, tired of waiting their turn while my father checked his light meter. How could he look at that picture every day and not see his little girl calling for help?

My sister was tapping against the lid of the box, in time to the wipers. I looked at her face but her eyes were fixed ahead. It was a surprise when we found out he wanted to be cremated but when I thought it through, I saw it was a logical and unemotional end to a logical and unemotional life. It didn’t occur to him that we might want a funeral for him, or for us.

My mother’s funeral was the last time we were all together. When he lined us up at the end — in the doorway of the church for photographs — it was as though it had been a wedding.

The car skidded slightly on the rainswept flagstones at the park entrance and turned sharply along the drive. Kate’s hand rested on top of the box in her lap, as though he might get out. Neither I nor my brother questioned her propriety — he was always more hers than ours. The first-born, her teething marks on his gold pen, before he learned to keep everything of his away from us. He made no such allowances for me — beating me at Monopoly with a ruthlessness that verged on cheating — when I was six.

I gave up long ago, but she kept going back, believing he could change. She will clear out the house, sort out the bills, and choose the charity shop to benefit from his clothes. No doubt she’ll divide them up equally amongst all the most deserving causes; and she’ll say she doesn’t mind, that she wants to do it.

It was Kate that organised this little ceremony. Just she, Andrew and I and Dad’s ashes in a black Mercedes, on our way to the links where my father liked to play golf — teeing off from the top of one cliff to another, alone.

‘Those are real links,’ my mother used to say, in the days when she would still speak.

My brother shifted in his seat, twisting so he could surreptitiously look at his watch. If the driver thought us odd, having nothing to say, he didn’t comment on it. Kate put her hand on the side of the seat in front of her to attract the driver’s attention and directed him to stop near the spot she’d chosen. I could see the cliff edges cutting in and out along the hillside ahead of us.

My brother pushed the car door open against the wind. It was much stronger here, sweeping towards us across the North Sea. There seemed no point in trying to use the umbrella. I followed him out pulling my scarf up over my head. It was difficult to tell what was rain, and what was sea, as strips of chill water sliced into my face.

Kate led the way across the neatly trimmed teeing-off area then right, towards the cliff edge, along a trail of overgrown polished stepping stones, until we came to the ruins of a dry stone shelter half fallen into the sea, overgrown with ramblers and ivy. Here and there strands of twisted brown and green foliage flicked out in the wind like wild hair.

‘I thought this would do,’ she shouted, the words whipped out of her mouth by the wind. As she turned, she gave a brave smile and I thought of the last photo in the row on the windowsill. It was a shot of her when she was sixteen, next to a rose bush, a pretty straw hat on her head, her fingers catching a full bloom in the palm of her hand. That same brave smile on her face.

It looks as though she is leaning gently against an arbour in a country garden but I remember my father making her lie low along the gravel path, her body twisted around at an odd angle, to give the illusion that she was standing up. He was shouting instructions while she did as she was told, both of them ignoring the fact that the skin on her elbows and knees were scraping against the gravel. The memory brought an unaccustomed feeling of warmth.

‘Should we say something?’ I asked, wanting to please her, and my brother shrugged, his hands driven deep in his pockets, his hair already soaked against his head. She was grappling with the box, trying to lift out the urn. A sudden gust whipped her coat around her legs and, off balance, she stumbled towards the cliff edge. I grabbed at her arm as Andrew caught hold of the back of her coat.

The urn jerked out of her hand as the wind caught it and swept it up into the air, smashing it against the ruined wall at the cliff edge. The ash flew out of it in a sweeping arch, whipped upwards just as a flash of sheet lightning lit the sky above us, with the simultaneous thwarck of close thunder.

Then I heard a noise that was not the wind but a cry of anguish, and Kate’s arm clenched pulling my hand against her side and I felt the sound come from within her and for a moment I forgot to breathe. The three of us stood together, my sister in the centre with Andrew and I holding onto her, the first time in years that we’d touched.

My brother stepped back pulling Kate in from the edge, and shouted over the rain. ‘Now that would have made a great photograph.’ I felt my sister shudder and then I realised she was laughing. As we turned away from the cliff the wind eased slightly and the rain was less violent; but when we reached the car we were still linked together, my sister’s elbow hooked around my arm and my brother’s fingers still awkwardly holding the back of her coat.

‘Perhaps we could go to the Cove Bay Hotel for lunch?’ I suggested, without planning to, and held my breath while I waited for their answers.

I felt Kate’s arm tighten once more against mine. ‘That would be nice,’ she said, and we looked at my brother who had already opened the car door.

‘Okay,’ he answered slowly, and then he leant in to tell the driver, still holding Kate’s coat. As he stood up he turned. ‘Shall we walk?’ he said, but he didn’t wait for an answer as he gently pulled my sister by the back of her coat and she in turn tugged on my arm and we set off in our awkward threesome along the road in the rain.

Copyright © 2009 by Dorothy Crossan

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