Wendy Janes lives in London with her husband and youngest son. Taking inspiration from real life, she turns the everyday, the poignant, the surprising and the amusing into novels, short stories and, on occasion, poetry. When not writing, she works as a proofreader and as a caseworker for the National Autistic Society’s Education Rights Service. www.wendyproof.co.uk
The Books on the Shelf
Across the small dining table sits the successful businessman who used to be Audrey’s best friend and confidant. But now Dylan’s expensive aftershave, designer clothes and new haircut have made her big brother almost a stranger to her.
Dylan’s fiancée is making polite conversation with Audrey’s mum. Audrey breathes in the young woman’s familiar light perfume, and admires her carefully applied make-up, perfect lacquered layers of dark hair, and ruffle-front blouse. She wonders, not for the first time, what Helena must make of her and her mum in their tiny London council flat: a plain seventeen-year-old schoolgirl and a dowdy middle-aged widow. Dylan had been as unremarkable as Audrey and her mum when he’d met Helena at university, five years ago. How had Helena transformed the boy into the man he is today? How could someone so sophisticated have fallen for her brother? It’s easy for Audrey to see why Dylan fell in love with Helena.
“We have news,” says Dylan as they finish the remains of Sunday lunch. “We’re going to buy a place together. We’ve found a two-bed that’s on the Tube line. Money-wise it might be a squeeze but as long as we’re careful we can make the mortgage payments.”
Audrey matches Dylan and Helena’s grins as they finish each other’s sentences in their eagerness to describe the house they’ve put in an offer for.
“You’re very quiet, Mum. I thought you’d be pleased for us,” says Dylan.
“If it’s what the two of you want, then I am pleased for you.” Val places her knife and fork side by side on her plate. “But I don’t understand why you’d want to get into debt to put a roof over your head. Owing such a lot of money. It frightens me.”
“Mum, everyone has a mortgage these days. It’s not really a debt. And it’s more than putting a roof over our heads. A house is an investment. We can make money on the property by doing it up and selling it, and then buying another, bigger place. Maybe in time we’ll buy you somewhere.”
“Wouldn’t that be wonderful, Mum,” says Audrey.
“Yes, a nice little house with a garden–”
Val cuts Dylan off. “This home was good enough for your father and it’s good enough for me and your sister.” She stands up and rests her hands on the tabletop. “It used to be good enough for you.”
She clatters the empty plates on top of each other and marches towards the kitchen. Dylan rushes after her with the mustard pot and the salt and pepper shakers.
“I told him to go carefully,” says Helena. “But you know your brother, once he gets enthusiastic about something…” She inclines her head towards the kitchen where they can hear Dylan’s voice going on at length, and then there’s a pause, followed by a short reply from Val.
Helena chats with Audrey about her courses at school until Dylan and Val return with dessert plates, an apple crumble and a tub of vanilla ice cream. They both have smiles on their faces as they take their seats at the table.
Dylan whispers something to Helena, who nods, and somehow they’ve all been returned to the manufacturer’s default setting of ‘happy family’, and while Val is serving out dessert she’s telling everyone for the hundredth time that apple crumble with a dollop of ice cream was Ernest’s favourite. They often have food that her father used to enjoy. Audrey wonders whether her mum makes these particular dishes in order to feel closer to her late husband.
Her mum is hopping from one memory of her father to another, and Audrey never fails to enjoy hearing these stories. They help her make a bittersweet connection with the man who died when she was only two. She wishes she could properly remember him, but has to content herself with a few black-and-white photographs and second-hand memories. Sometimes she’ll lie awake in bed trying to remember a real image of his face, or the sound of his voice or his laugh, but there’s only an empty longing in the darkness.
Audrey loves to hear about how her father used to come into the bakery where her mum worked, to get his daily roll – “usually ham, but sometimes corned beef” – and how eventually he’d asked her out on her sixteenth birthday; their chaste courtship made up of weekend walks in the countryside and evenings at the cinema. Unremarkable, but precious. Like the time they’d watched the second half of South Pacific before the first because they’d got drenched in a shower on the way to the Gaumont, and Ernest insisted her mother go home and get changed into dry clothes so she didn’t catch a chill. Her father, always so gallant. At the end of these stories Val often has tears in her eyes. Audrey suspects her mother regrets having to return to the present.
Often Dylan will join in when the stories are within his memory. Today he’s telling a story from a seaside holiday when he was little.
“Do you remember, Mum, when that seagull swooped down and pinched my sandwich?”
“Oh, you set up such a howl. Frightened away all the other blighters, though.”
“And Dad gave me his sandwich. And I wouldn’t take it out of the bag. So he stood in front of me jumping up and down and waving his arms about to make sure they wouldn’t come back.”
“I couldn’t stop laughing.”
“Was I there?” Audrey asks.
“No, love. It was before you were born. Dylan was no more than five.”
Audrey pictures a curly haired five-year-old Dylan eating his sandwich, sitting cross-legged on the beach, sand lightly dusting his golden skin. She can almost see Val, wiping tears of mirth from her smooth cheeks. And she can imagine a man cavorting on the sand, but his face and body are a blur.
Her mum has hopped to another memory.
“I’ll never forget our visit to Kew Gardens when you were a toddler, Audrey. You still needed your pushchair, but it was a big cumbersome thing, and it was difficult to get it on the train, so we left it at home and your dad ended up carrying you around the whole day. Every time he tried to put you down, it was ‘Up, Dadda.’”
Audrey tries to remember being picked up and held by her father. She ought to remember – the sensation of being held in strong hands, the smell of his aftershave – but there’s a black nothingness where her memories should be. She tries to dismiss the familiar heaviness in her heart. Her place in that family of mum, dad, brother and sister doesn’t exist.
Too soon the afternoon is over and Dylan and Helena are leaving.
“You off out with your friends tonight, Aud?” asks Dylan.
“No, I’ve got a history essay to write, and I want to check over my 1984 essay.” Audrey feels a strong connection to the bleakness of George Orwell’s vision of the future, and not just because it is 1984. The grim streets surrounding the flat, the boarded-up shops on the high street, so many people out of work or working all hours to make ends meet, while only a few miles up the road, posh people in posh houses earn more than enough. It doesn’t seem fair. She dismisses the prickle of conscience at her acceptance of all the gifts Dylan’s new-found wealth provides for her and her mum.
“We did Animal Farm for our O level English exam,” says Dylan. “I was always getting the names of the animals muddled up, but Dad’s notes really helped.”
“Dad’s notes?” she echoes. Dylan and her mum have a habit of dropping these nuggets of information into conversation as if they aren’t of any significance.
“Yes, he had a few Orwell books that he’d marked up with comments in the margins. Didn’t study the books at school though, did he, Mum?”
“No, it was when he was doing his National Service, before we were together. Met up with some political types there–”
“So where are the books now, Mum?” Audrey interrupts.
“Let me think. They used to sit on the top shelf over there.” She indicates the dresser, now covered in knick-knacks. “Can’t say I know where they are now.”
“I used to keep them in the little bookcase by my bed in our room,” says Dylan. “I didn’t take them with me when I moved out, so I reckon they’re still there.”
How could she have missed them?
As soon as Dylan and Helena are out the door, she goes to the bedroom she used to share with her brother, and scans the three shelves that make up the bookcase, and there in the bottom left-hand corner are some old paperbacks: 1984, Animal Farm, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier. She opens Animal Farm and sure enough there’s some spidery writing squashed into the margin. She wants to dive in there and then, but the history essay is due in this week and she has masses of reading to do before she can start writing it up. Reluctantly she puts the slim volume back on the shelf and goes back into the living room to get on with her work. But it’s hard to concentrate.
“You’re away with the fairies,” says her mum. “And stop chewing the end of that biro lid. People can choke on those things.”
“Stop fussing, Mum.” Audrey puts the lid down on the dining room table and tries to focus. It’s difficult because all she wants is to curl up on her bed with those books. The sound of her mum’s video is getting on her nerves. She can usually tune it out, turn it into background noise, but tonight stray lines of dialogue and music interrupt her thoughts. However, there’s nowhere else to do her homework, and her mum loves her videos. Old black-and-white films about couples falling in and out of love. Ugh. Ever since Dylan bought her mum the video player and a selection of videos last Christmas, she’s been watching them over and over again.
Her mother’s voice, her essay and those books in her bedroom are all demanding her attention. Audrey tries to block out her mother’s commentary on the film and the decades-old gossip about the stars and the elegance of the costumes. She lays down her pen, knowing what will come next, when her mother says, “Your dad always said I reminded him of Audrey Hepburn. And when you were born a girl, he held you in his arms at the hospital and said, ‘She’s so beautiful. Just like you, my love. What do you think to us calling her Audrey?’” Her mum sighs and returns her focus to the film.
Audrey wonders whether her father would appreciate the irony of having called his daughter after a tiny pretty person, when she’d had grown taller than her mother by the time she was ten. On days like today, her father is such a strong presence in her life. The call of those books is too much.
“Mum, I’m going to have an early night.” She gives her mother a kiss on the cheek, hurries the few steps to her bedroom and closes the door behind her.
Taking all five books off the shelf, she spreads them on the bed, and then picks them up one after another to study the covers. Which one to look at first? She chooses Animal Farm, as that’s the one Dylan mentioned. Some of the comments make her smile, such as the one that refers to the farmer as “Tory bastard!”, and some she can’t decipher, which is really frustrating. There are also lots of questions in the margins about income tax and strike action. She’s surprised to discover that her father had left-wing sympathies, and wonders what he would have thought of her mother voting for Mrs Thatcher in the last two general elections. She reads on, feeling closer to this man she never knew.
Over the next few nights she finishes her homework as soon as she can, and then goes to her room to discover more about her father from his jottings in those books. Even on the nights when his comments don’t reveal much about the man, she loves seeing his writing, reading his words. He had passionate views about the rights of workers and the injustices of power, and the more she discovers, the closer she feels to him. She shares the same politics as her father. How wonderful is that? She never knew. How could she?
She doesn’t mention any of this to her mum.
Her mock exams are looming, but she still has to save that last hour of the day to be with her father. There’s one more book to look through. She’s saved 1984 until last, and tonight is the first night of it. As she opens the book, a thin piece of paper falls out. No, not a piece of paper, a flimsy airmail letter. It’s addressed to her father. He must have been using it as a bookmark. The date on the postmark is 1967, the year she was born.
“Dear Ernie” Ernie? She’s never heard anyone call her father anything other than Ernest.
“First of all, many congrats to you and Val on the birth of baby Audrey. Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply. Settling in to a new country is knackering. We thought life at Kirkham was hard, it was a doddle compared to all the hassles Margie, me and the kids have had since we arrived in America.”
Kirkham, that was where her father did his National Service training. This must be one of his mates from back then. She skipped over all the detail about red tape, broken water pipes, no Tetley’s tea and all manner of other issues big and small that assailed this family when they emigrated to St Louis. And then she was devouring every single surprising word:
“Have you talked to Val about wanting to bring the family to live over here?”
They might have gone to live in America? Wow! That would have been so exciting. She might have grown up an American. She’d have been a different person. They’d all have been different people. She laughs at the thought of an American Dylan and an American Val. The laugh catches in her throat as she sees a clear image of her father, robust in middle age; a parallel life of sunshine and happiness flashes into her mind. Still holding the letter, she lies back and closes her eyes, allowing herself to imagine the wonderful life the four of them would have had if only they’d gone to America.
A familiar light tap on her bedroom door, and a “Nighty night, Aud,” from her mum, rips her from a cosy family Thanksgiving, her father just about to cut the turkey.
“Night, Mum,” she automatically calls back and hears the click of her mum’s bedroom door. She sits up and as she continues to read. The warmth of that Thanksgiving returns to comfort her like a blanket around her shoulders, until:
“Honestly, mate, you’ll still have the same problems over here that you have over there, only you’ll just be arguing in a bigger home or in a bigger car.”
The blanket is snatched away. She reads the words again, hoping she’s misread them. Problems? Arguments? What is this man talking about? Her parents didn’t argue. Her parents didn’t have problems. Audrey reads on.
“So she likes fluffy films, a laugh, doesn’t take things seriously. It wouldn’t do you any harm to take a leaf out of her book. You loved her once. Marriage is hard. You can make it work again.”
Audrey allows the letter to fall to the bed, not sure if she wants to read any more. She remembers her mum saying how serious her father was. Audrey had presumed they were well matched in that. Her mum has always taken things seriously, rarely laughs. But the mother she knows now isn’t the same person she was before her husband died. OK, the bit about fluffy films still rings true, but it was a bit harsh of her dad to criticise her mum for it. Her father must have known that before he married her, the number of times they went to the cinema…
She feels defensive of her mum, but at the same time she sort of understands if her father became frustrated with her. Val isn’t what you’d call a thinker. Her mum is happy in her world of soap operas, and talking to her neighbour about recipes and curtain material. Audrey gives an involuntary grimace at those moments during parents evenings at the school when she knows her mum obviously has no idea what the teachers are telling her, and the teachers know it too.
Suddenly her parents have turned into an ill-matched couple, and while feeling critical of both of them, her heart goes out to them too. She wipes perspiration from her forehead, but at the same time she gives a shiver. Maybe she’s going down with something. The taste of onion from the cottage pie her mum made them for supper sits stale in her mouth. She takes a few deep breaths.
Should she read on? Maybe there’ll be some resolution, something to make her feel better.
She picks up the letter again. There’s only a quarter of the page left.
“And as for your Plan B. I know you’re a better man than that. You’d never run out on those two children. Your little boy would be bereft, and that beautiful little girl would never even know you.”
The pain in Audrey’s chest makes it difficult to breathe. She forces herself to focus on the page.
“Must sign off now. Nearly run out of space. If your job is boring, get another one. All kids are noisy, all babies cry, all wives nag. That’s life. If you want to make a change in the world, do it, but stop blaming your wife and kids for holding you back.
Your worried friend
It hurts. It really hurts. She can’t think. She can only crawl under her duvet and sob.
The next morning over breakfast her mum is fussing about Dylan’s house move. Their offer has been rejected and they’ve found another property, but it’s in the Surrey countryside.
“Such a long commute to their jobs. And it could take them over an hour to visit us too.”
“Not in Helena’s car!” joked Audrey, wishing she’d thought twice before opening her mouth because the speed of Helena’s sporty car was another one of her mum’s worries. She hurried on. “And we could go by train at the weekends. Maybe stay over. It would be fun. A change of scenery.”
“They won’t get me to move out there, you know.”
“You make it sound like the back of beyond. Surrey is only a few miles out of London. And you know Dylan would never make you move if you didn’t want to.” Audrey sees her chance. “But have you ever wanted to live anywhere else? Abroad maybe?”
“No, I’ve not.”
“You love all those American films. Did you ever think about settling over there?”
“Oh, when you were born your dad had a notion that we should move there. What nonsense. Had a friend out there from his National Service days who made it sound like a paradise. But I said I wasn’t going to drag two little children halfway round the world on the say-so of an old friend of your father’s. Such a nice man he was, can’t remember his name. Sent a beautiful condolence card when your dad passed. No, I soon put a stop to any talk of America. London is my home. Anyway, I could never leave this flat. It would be like deserting your dad.”
For the next few days, on the outside Audrey is a normal seventeen-year-old girl going to school, eating, drinking, talking, doing homework, watching telly. But on the inside she’s a baby whose selfish father has left the family home; she’s a toddler who is about to start a new life in America with her reconciled parents; she’s at nursery school, drawing a picture of her family – her mum, her brother, herself, and her daddy who lives a long way away; she’s a five-year-old sitting on her daddy’s lap reading a book while her mother educates herself at evening classes; she’s a ten-year-old receiving an airmail letter from the stranger who is her father; she’s a fifteen-year-old being told by her loving parents that they are about to have another child; she’s an eighteen-year-old, about to start university, escaping to a new life in a different country to live with her father and his new family. The vivid fears and wishes of these alternative lives make her everyday life feel unreal.
Questions keep nagging at her. But the biggest one is the one she can’t ask: could her father still have been planning to leave them when he died? She has to know. She can’t ask Dylan because he was too young to know his father’s intentions. She can’t even begin to imagine the conversation she would have to have with her mother. This is too personal to share with anyone at school. There’s no one except perhaps Harry. That’s assuming he’s still alive and living at the same address. After another sleepless night, she has no choice. She writes to the return address in St Louis, asking after him and his family and updating him on hers. She can’t ask the question outright. Not yet.
Three weeks later she receives a reply. Inside a small parcel is a letter from Harry full of stories about his St Louis family and a few reminiscences from National Service days with her father. There are also two envelopes. One reads: “I hope you like these,” and the other, “I think this is the answer you’re looking for.”
She opens the first envelope, and carefully takes out three black-and-white photographs. There’s one of her father and what must be Harry, in uniform, arms around each other, looking impossibly young and handsome, grinning at the camera. The next one is of her parents standing outside the flat, probably when they first moved in. Her mother looks tiny next to him. Her father looks to be a similar age to Dylan. It’s bizarre to see someone who looks so much like her brother, but isn’t him. The third picture shows the four of them on a picnic rug under a tree. Dylan is sitting beside their mother. Audrey is sitting beside their father and he has his arm wrapped around her, and although she can’t clearly see his face in this one, it doesn’t matter, because he’s leaning over and kissing the top of her head.
She carefully opens the second envelope. Yes, it’s her father’s writing, and the letter is dated 1968, the year before he died.
Thank you for your patience with my ramblings. It’s been easier to write than have these conversations face to face. I’ve been more honest and so have you. Therefore, you deserve to hear my decision.
I can’t leave them. I can’t miss out on seeing these children grow. On helping them with their schoolwork, taking them on holidays, teaching them right from wrong, to respect and care for others, and guiding them into adulthood. And I can’t leave Val. She may not be the wife I thought she would be, but her laugh, her lightness, her love for me are things I can’t cast aside.
I’m going to join the local council, and maybe, one day I’ll be an MP, and you’ll read about me in your newspapers.
God willing, I’ll be the husband and father my family deserve.
There’s a world of regret and longing in her heart as Audrey reads her father’s words.