Tonight! He swore under his breath. Same old internal dialogue surfaced…tonight I will see her! I will leave this depressing atmosphere, I will escape this whole shitty struggle. Those words echoed like a church choir’s mumblings, bouncing off rafters. Ever since that last big family dinner, with all her relatives getting at him; harping on about how he should ask for a raise now he has three kids, upgrade that car to something more family wagon, start looking for a larger house in a better neighborhood and so on. John vowed to cut loose of this constant scrutiny.
‘I don’t like peas.’ Bernard, the youngest, first, for a change.
His wife emitted that – you speak to him – look.
‘Come on, just a few,’ Cowering and begging to greater power.
‘I DON’T like peas!’ Insistence coupled with a tightening of facial muscles.
‘Just eat them.’
‘But I don’t like peas!’ Screeched at shout velocity, crashing cutlery down.
His family an audience captivated awaiting Dad’s next action. He surveyed a circle of frowns, reminding him of caged animals at feeding time, before speaking in a menacing hush. ‘Just shut up and eat them.’
Bernard opened his mouth to speak but his father’s facial expression stole away protestations.
Erin, attacked next. Flung back her hair with an almost ‘Miss Piggy’ affectation and asked, ‘Why were you late, again, Dad?’
John thought of work details wasted on a child. Overseas telephone call, contract clauses, or an extended conference with advertising reps. His meal break snatched in fresh air so he could enjoy a little private space, while watching office girls in short skirts and tall heels. ‘I had a lot of work, sweetheart, I’m sorry.’
‘That’s the third time this week, Dad.’
His little princess counted, kept tabs on him. Ticking off his misdemeanors, same as his wife. ‘I said I was sorry.’ Words which swung about looking for a place for their emptiness to land.
A furtive grin, toward her older brother made Erin appear to be passing a loaded weapon onto another assailant.
‘Well, I just DON’T see why we have to wait for you. And you won’t even make parent teacher night.’
The older boy, Jeffery sniggered as if responding to some macabre comedy, constantly re-run for their enjoyment. John perceived an overwhelming sense of having lost his place in his family. His strongest urge being to find that person who would talk, really talk with him. Not at him, like now, but some actual to-and-fro conversation. These kids weren’t his gurgling cherub faced babes, they’d become aggressors engineering him out. Long gone a scene of smiling faces welcoming Dada home.
‘What’s for sweets?’ Bernard shrieked. A grand total of four mouthfuls of food consumed.
‘Nothing!’ John yelled, thumping the table top with his fist producing a resonating like jump from three children. ‘You couldn’t even eat the main course, so you get no sweets.’ He chastised himself for showing temper, but they just pushed too much sometimes.
Bernard fled this shared family meal, scene of domestic bliss, in hysterics.
‘Help your mother wash dishes,’ John instructed the other two while he took his brief case into the study. If he finished drawing up those papers now, he could use an excuse of dropping the whole thing into a post box to leave the house later. Always a good idea to negate his wife’s conspiracy theories with physical proof.
He heard a plate drop. Fuck, hope that wasn’t good china. Surely those imps wouldn’t do that to their mother. Depreciation of one table plate per session; probably an acceptable loss. Just a strategy used to get out of helping. When did kids become so anti-family chores? His patience could absorb damage in order to ensure those kids were being taught cooperative domestic skills. On angry nights where three or four pieces were dropped, those made John testier.
After only being able to keep focused on paperwork for a short stint, he decided to check on Bernard. Safely ensconced in his room, by now sitting on his car-bed eating a large bowl of ice cream.
‘Mum said I could.’ He sniffled out when aware his loomed father in the doorway.
Shanna, darling wife, sat curled up in his chair with glazed, totally engrossed into whatever mind-numbing flavor of the month television look. Her fingers in her mouth again, chewing her nails worse than usual now, even though they’d talked about how this habit, and other potential self-harming mannerism which might impact on the kids. Every time he encountered those chewed nail pads, or saw Shanna’s fingers beat a well-worn path to her mouth made his stomach turn. What other bad habits were being modelled for growing minds to latch upon?
‘Can I speak to you?’ He attempted to break into exclusive circuitry between her and TV. Kids looked up, but Shanna did not. His initial invasion attempt needed more work. Her profile showed anger at this interruption. John remembered a time when she would call him at least twice a day, ‘Just to hear your voice,’ yes, she’d used those exact words.
‘Shanna, can I talk to you?’
‘What?’ Uttered with a tone indicating her husband’s presence just too trivial for eye contact.
‘Not here, in the kitchen.’ He hated to disagree within range of child-radar ears.
‘Oh, can’t it wait?’ Said with typical aggrieved sub current.
‘After this, John, I like this show.’
Since when did time become marked off in television show increments? ‘No, it can’t wait that long.’
‘Alright, what is it?’ Her gaze finally met his, if only momentarily.
‘Not here, Shanna’
‘And why not?’
Impossible to make her understand. Even his secretary embraced a greater awareness of some matters requiring discretion.
‘Come on, just a minute, it won’t take long,’ again he sounded as if requesting unreasonable concessions.
As her gaze remained glued to the television for as long as possible, Shanna begrudgingly stomped out of the room, like a bad-tempered child.
‘Why did you give Bernard ice cream?’
‘God! Is that all? Because he’s hungry.’
‘Little wonder, he hardly touched his meal, and ice cream, you know it gives him asthma. Doctor said, limit dairy products. How is Bernard going to learn about eating at meal-times, not to waste food when you reward him with sugary treats? Poor dental habits, not to mention likely trouble breathing.’ Listen to yourself, man, you’re lecturing.
‘John. He was hungry. Ice-cream was all I had. Now if you’ve scalded me enough can I go?’
‘No. The child should go hungry. He didn’t eat the rest of his meal.’
‘You’d let him starve.’
As if a single missed meal would cause this outcome. Tinier tykes skipped all sort of meals when a game, or visitor trumped eating. Even an animal could outrank a proper lunch. But John wouldn’t broach those arguments. ‘What about his asthma?’
‘Come on, you know those breathing problems are a stress thing, not food, now is that all?’
‘No,’ why did John feel it might be more productive to bash his head up against a brick wall? ‘Do the kids really need to wait every time I am late?’
‘Look John,’ she rolled her eyes, in that annoying way. ‘You’re the one who wanted a sit-down family meal every night, not me, can I help it if you’re the only one who isn’t here for such significant occasions.’
‘Why don’t you feed them and I’ll get here when I can. I mean they get so bad tempered having to wait.’
‘They get bad tempered never seeing their father; hardly even know what you look like.’
‘Shanna, that is a bit over the top.’
‘Who locks himself away at a study desk moments after the kids are done with eating then? Who’s absent even when he IS home? Who doesn’t pick up broken dishes?’
‘So, in front of television is where I should be then, is it?
‘I’m not saying that, but the kids can’t even see you, it’s like they should make an appointment, schedule a meeting. Most of which you’d be late for. And haven’t you ever wondered why they break crockery?’
‘Because they’re clumsy. You always do dishes. They never get encouragement to learn simple housework skills, because you don’t delegate.’
‘That’s not it. They drop plates so you will notice and grace our kitchen with your presence. They’ll try anything to get your attention, even if it is you raving and ranting at them. Surprised you can’t see that. Can’t you get a few afternoons off just for school holidays? Anyway, I don’t believe anyone has as many meetings as your secretary says. What do you do, and just who are you with all day?’
Here is a familiar expression, trotted out in so many disagreements John can almost repeat these accusations verbatim. Shanna’s lips tremble ready for launch, count down… five, four... here comes a diatribe launch, multiple affairs he maintained with various female staff members.
‘Stop. Come on. Listen to what you’re about to accuse me of…’
She gave him a wounded, victim-wife look. While John stifled a grin in response to her imagining him some sort of Don-Juan.
Bernard abruptly slung back the door, placing his bowl on a clean sink. Usually returning crockery completely ignored forcing his mother to be a dirty dish collector. Often a trail of crockery towards his room varied only in tones of grey, yellow, greenish stale and mouldy food easily interpreted as a piece of installation art.
‘Can I watch TV now, mum?’
‘Isn’t it time for bed?’ John demanded.
Shanna looked at him, with eyes undermining his instructions, but said nothing.
‘You three, get ready for bed.’ Insisted John.
A shrill disjoined chorus with recognizable elements of aww; but mmmuuuum, and it’s not time.
‘I said, to bed, go now.’
His wife, mute at this show of authority, wore her best glazed television face.
‘We have to go to bed because mum and dad are going to fight again?’ Jeffery threw back over his shoulder, rather than toward his younger siblings.
A stamped, sealed contract in hand; he’d just tuck them in, they look so cute in repose, and then he’d be out the door, still early. Quick stop at a phone box to give her a call, because Shanna recently started checking call logs on his mobile.
Bernard rasped and wheezed, ‘I.... I..... Can’t breathe Daddy.’
John scooped the child up, trying to remain calm. So cruel to see Bernard’s tiny frame racked by simple tasks of drawing air. He’d do anything to take away this torture. John ran a bath, steam quickly filling the small bathroom, as he lowered the helpless child into tepid water, vapors and warmth producing desired effects, his breathing eased slightly.
‘That’s better Daddy,’ Bernard’s face smiled up at him.
‘Want to try your puffer now?’
Warm, fluffy, gentle toweling and securely tucked into bed again. Bernard’s cheeks flushed, tears gathered in his eyes, ‘you will stay here, won’t you, Daddy?’
‘Sure,’ John thought it best to try and distract his boy. ‘We’ll put the humidifier on, eh?’
He could hear his wife’s forced snoring while he got out a fold up bed. John could almost smell her harping on about stress being an underlying cause again. All these nights he’d gone through this routine and Shanna slept on, blissfully unaware.
Half in, half out of Bernard’s room he’d let whirring humidifier noise transport him.
John could feel warm, tingling excitement of those long brown fingers Kim liked to keep perfectly manicured and shades of vampire blood-red. He thought of how those nails traced stripes on his suit pants, slipped inside his shirt. Kim, always there, with her he didn’t fight or demand.
Bernard lay still now, his breathing gentle and no longer rasping.
He knew he ought to speak to Shanna again, try and pack up the differences of opinion, especially about feeding Bernard ice cream. But a voice inside him stopped him. What would he do about Kim? He knew better than to trouble his wife with things that happened in the office. But he swore he would try and talk in the morning.