The morning light seeped between the slats in the kitchen blinds, gentle and pale. Thin rectangles of dust danced lazily in the delicate beams casting spinning shadow dots on the work tops and doors. A little radio, plastered with greasy fingerprints and flour, spoke of political elections, pink roses and lost friendships. A pot boiled and hissed it's steam on to the window and little puffs of spray fizzled onto the hotplate as the water rose over the rim.
The dining room table, laid with an oddment of mismatched crockery and Woolworth's cutlery awaited it's guests. Smelling the faint but distinctive aroma of garlic and burnt cabbage, I decided to stay lying on the sun-parched lawn where dandelion and daisy leaves wilted in the August heat.
Mother shouted at us through the vaporous kitchen smog. I rolled over on to my back and squinted up at the blue sky. I could hear father struggling to shut the garage door, three thumps before it slammed into the damp, deformed door frame. I watched him cross the terrace and leap the three stairs into the house.
Our dining room had been painted an unusual shade of green and reminded me of an old-fashioned institution, like a Victorian infirmary or a sanatorium. Father's place was underneath the Van Gogh Sunflowers and I sat beneath the Birth of Venus. When he was at home Gavin would sit with his back to the window. Mother sat near the hatch so she could keep an eye on the bubbling pans and listen to the radio.
"I wonder what we've got today, hope it's not Caviar again," said father, again.
I smiled and looked through the hatch at mother as she tipped a pot of steam into a bowl.
Father wore his Primark cardigan, brown and blue squares with a corduroy collar, but because it was hot he'd undone the zip to the waist. I'd put my sweatshirt back on because the dining room always felt cold to me.
We sat together without talking, always more awkward for me than for him. The prospect of making small talk was unbearable to me, but we had learned to tolerate our silence. He was a handsome man in an unruly way, a square, slightly lopsided jaw and thick hair that sometimes fell accidentally over one eye. After a couple of stiff gins mother would say he was her very own George Clooney and then, in her typically bashful way wait for him to reciprocate, which he never did.
Mother had always looked younger than her years, pale, lightly freckled skin and shoulder length, wavy auburn hair. She had an unassuming nature, a humbleness that kept her two steps away from the spotlight and tied her to a sense of duty that characterised our suburban middle class family. Everyone that met her was struck by her elegance and charm, and although she recognised the admiration, her shyness would always prevent her from appreciating the compliments. I often imagined what she could have been if she hadn't married father, something glamorous perhaps. I think she was content with her life, although that was probably more to do with myself and my brother than her marriage. We were lucky.
From the radio Bill talked to us about his tomatoes and his greenhouse, his gruff voice reminded me of a rusty wheelbarrow. Apparently ladies of a certain age found it quite alluring. He seemed to know a lot about pruning Clematis. Father nodded approvingly when Bill admitted he'd once planted a 'Nelly Moser' too shallowly and it had, as a result, died from Clematis wilt.
Mother brought in a large bowl of pasta and placed it in the middle of the table.
"It's the afternoon play soon, I'll turn the radio up," she said.
As she turned to leave the room Gavin appeared in the doorway.
"Hello love," she said as she went back into the kitchen.
Gavin smiled back and sat down at the table.
"Heeerrss Gavin, better late than neverrr!" said father using his strange game-show voice.
Gavin slumped forwards and then placed his elbow on the table and propped his head with his hand. He half-filled a glass with water.
"Any water with that Gin?" father commented.
Gavin slammed the glass down on the table, a little splash landed on a mat which my father immediately mopped up with a napkin. Gavin flopped backwards into his chair and stared at the ceiling.
I waited for something to happen, it had done in the past. If there had been somewhere else to eat I would have gone there. The silence that followed spoke volumes about the mood in the room. I looked through the hatch wishing that mother would come back in and take the pressure out of the air but she was busy retuning the radio. 'Big Ben' clanged the hour and then the play started, something about the troubles in Northern Island. She had turned away from me on the other side of the kitchen. Half a minute passed. I watched her staring into the corner, there was something in her hand that she kept turning over, a spoon or a fork. As the silence went on I looked at the line of her shoulders, wondering if she was crying, but when she turned around I could see that she was composed and her face was dry. I could sense her worry.
Gavin looked awful, he'd been away for three days and had turned up, out of the blue halfway through the previous day. His greasy hair was tied tightly back into a bun and I could see a small cut above his left eyebrow. His skin looked sallow and oily and there were deep, dark shadows under his eyes. His yellow, nicotine-stained fingers trembled as he reached for more water. I watched father's eyes track the movement of the jug as he grabbed another napkin.
The play had gathered pace but the narrator had such a tedious, dreary voice I'd tuned out. "There was a most wonderful, valedictory service at the church." Father repeated the line from the play and asked Gavin if he knew what 'valedictory' meant.
I closed my eyes and waited, either Gavin would ignore the comment or he'd get up and leave. I'd seen it all before.
The both of them had lived in a functional way, learning to tolerate each other, but small frictions sometimes arose when they sat together in the same room or travelled in the car. Neither sought to deliberately antagonise each other because they were both afraid of the consequences it would have on the family. Mother would try to intervene in their little moments of discord unless voices were raised when she'd retreat into a sanctuary of housework. The radio had become one of her ways of coping, safer in a world of gardening, drama and shipping forecasts.
Gavin's life had taken a course that had been heavily influenced by his peers, by the age of fourteen he'd been arrested twice for being drunk and disorderly and then by sixteen for possession of cannabis. Mother had helped to organise a program of rehab for him in conjunction with a local self-help group. He'd started with the best of intentions but hadn't seen the program through, and now his drinking had become a real problem too.
There was a vague smell of booze at the table now, father looked at me and wrinkled his nose in an exaggerated way as an attempt to force me to make a comment. But my loyalty to my brother was robust enough to justify losing my father's respect and I refused to join in the contest.
I could see Gavin was building himself up for the match, he lifted his head and through gritted teeth began to say something. But his courage failed him and his pursed lips froze in silence.
Mother came back into the room and looked at me.
"Help yourselves before it gets cold."
I reached out for the serving spoon but father put his hand on my wrist to stop me.
"Gavin first, looks like he's hungrier than you," he said quietly.
I knew what he was trying to do. Gavin reached for the spoon, his hand noticeably trembling with the effort. He dropped his forearm on to the table to try to steady himself but his middle finger flicked the tip of the spoon's handle and it spun sideways, spilling the pasta.
Mother grabbed the spoon and tipped the food on to Gavin's plate, her feigned smile dissolving into a concerned, anxious stare.
She'd always known how best to handle Gavin, how to get him to talk about his problems, when to laugh with him and when to scold him. They had been closer as friends rather than mother and son and when they fell out it had never lasted for long. But now, since he'd developed his issues she found it harder to get close to him and he struggled to talk to her in the way he'd done when he was younger. Now, he just seemed to clam up, or brush her efforts away with a cold apathy. He would never understand just how upset it made her. Her love for him was unconditional though, despite her husband's indifference to him.
I helped myself to pasta and offered the spoon to father, which he took with a snatch as a way of demonstrating his irritation.
"You can't always expect your mother to do things for you know," he muttered, looking at his plate.
I waited for Gavin's reaction, but still he remained completely silent. Father took hold of the pepper grinder and tightened the screw before sliding it along the tabletop towards Gavin.
I wanted to say something, anything that might diffuse the awkwardness that was building. But I couldn't think of anything innocuous enough that would sound as if it wasn't designed to dissolve the building tension.
The kitchen clock ticked down the seconds, each marking in increments the increasing friction that thickened the air. It felt even colder now than before, and I hugged myself. A car horn blasted a two-tone tune from somewhere on the main road and a child screamed. I hoped, in an awful way, that there'd been an accident so we would all rush from the house to help. But then I heard the faint sound of girls laughter and the diminishing noise of a car engine. The radio growled out a babble of quarrelling voices.
Mother smiled at me across a no-man's-land where the silent fight simmered, and I looked down at my plate. I picked the fallen pieces of pasta from the tablecloth and put them on to a mat.
The only sound was of cutlery against plates, I waited quietly and looked at the wall.
A stark and powerful Irish accent talked of forgiveness and peace, and then a short, gentle ditty signalled the end of the radio program. Gavin picked at his food, slowly raised his fork to his mouth and held it for a moment as if preparing for some repulsive taste that would make him sick. Then he pushed his plate to one side and dabbed his mouth with the back of his hand. Father immediately murmured a phrase that included the word 'serviette'. Gavin took a napkin from the table and pressed it carefully, not to his mouth, but first to one cheek and then the other. Then he crumpled it into a tight ball and threw it back on to the table.
"There's more if you can manage to find your mouth", said my father.
Mother sat upright in her chair and stared accusingly at him. I wanted her to say something, anything to encourage some sort of dialogue that might alleviate the tension. But her long sigh was a declaration of her compliance, and an sign that she was retreating again. I watched her fingers drum along to the beat of the music that signalled the end of the show, and then the world news echoed through the hatch, a starched and prim voice speaking of welfare, tax and war.
"I'm sorry mum but I can't eat this, it's lovely but I'm not feeling too well, I might go and lie down for a bit."
Gavin pushed his chair back and put both hands on the table ready to leave the room.
"You should stay and eat, your mother's gone to all the trouble of cooking it and the least you can do it eat some."
Father voice had dropped a key, a sure sign that he was losing his patience.
I was relieved that the silence had been broken but the sense of hostility between the two of them was now palpable, I carried on eating.
Father scratched the side of his nose, adjusted the collar of his cardigan and gave an insincere sniff. He looked firstly at me, and then at mother expecting a reaction from us that would appease his statement. But we both stayed quiet and avoided his gaze. Mother put down her fork, moved her plate forwards and then back again, then straightened the mat underneath, little movements like a solitary game of chess. Outside somewhere a car door slammed and someone coughed. Gavin stood up and threw his fork on to the table without saying anything.
I hoped father wouldn't continue with his little game. I was frightened now and I felt sorry for my brother who had said very little in a deliberate attempt at keeping the peace.
I suspected father would change the subject to something more light-hearted, or even come up with some ridiculous joke to smooth the mood over. There had been many occasions in the past when he'd contrived to fill the silence with a forced jocularity that had fallen badly flat. But things were too tense now for words.
Gavin brushed past mother's chair without touching it and I saw his arm briefly stroke her shoulder. She touched his hand and he squeezed hers back, then he was through the door and heading for the staircase.
"Why don't you just leave him alone, he's not feeling well."
Mother spoke without taking her eyes from Gavin as he climbed the stairs.
There was a reply on father's lips but he let it slip away unsaid. A man with a calm voice spoke about melting ice-caps, penguins and rising sea temperatures and I saw mother look towards the hatch. Father finished his meal and pulled up the zip on his cardigan.
"Chilly in here today isn't it?" he said looking down at the table.
A loud crash came from somewhere upstairs and a door slammed. Gavin stumbled down the staircase missing every other step and bumping his rucksack against the wall.
And then he had gone, I don't even remember the front door closing. I left the table, walked barefoot through the house and lay back down on the lawn in the back garden, it was still too hot despite the shadow that had spread from the tall hedge. I turned over, put my face on my arms and thought about the years when the four of us had laughed and joked and lived the happiest that a family could be.
I watched my father go back into the garage and slam the door shut. I waited a few minutes until I was sure he was busy and then went back into the house to find my mother but the kitchen was empty. I stood in the hallway and saw her in the dining room. She held her face against the net curtain which hung limply and lifelessly to within an inch of the windowsill. Her collection of little china owls stood underneath in rows on the fading paint. And then she turned her pale, tear-stained face towards me and smiled as she kissed my forehead.
I watched her take some biscuits from a tin and put them on a plate. She took a vase from the window sill and rearranged the fading rose stems as she wiped a tear from the corner of an eye. And then as the early afternoon sun cast a delicate shaft of light through the hatch, she put her face in her hands and sobbed.
I put my arms around her and leant my face against her shoulder unable to summon the words that might help to cheer her, although there was little we needed to say.
And then as she cried, she turned to wipe some crumbs from the table top, and the little flour-stained radio told tales of arctic ice, stormy seas and hot summer days.