Light the blue touch paper and stand well back.

Submitted into Contest #29 in response to: Write a story about someone dealing with family conflict.... view prompt



The door slammed with a reverberation that made the whole room shake. The violence of the action caused a crack to appear in the aging wood. The frame shuddered and slowly an uncomfortable silence began to descend as the last angry footsteps pounded away into the distance. 

He was incandescent with rage. His stout frame was still physically shaking as he ran his hand repeatedly through his thick dark hair. His eyes were closed with an intensity which hardly seemed possible. The small, well-trimmed beard was slowly greying, but could not disguise the firm set of his jaw. A man, whose mouth was usually given to smiling and laughing, to sharing his life with family and friends joined in joy and unity and concord was twisted in anguish. The over expression was of a man in pain. 

Eliza knew there was nothing to be done so she retreated to the kitchen and put the kettle on to boil. She made a pot of tea and, when it had taken the time to brew, she poured out two mugs. She walked back to the scene of the argument and found her husband still standing in front of the fire place, eyes still closed and his hands now hung limply by his sides. He opened his eyes as she entered the room. Those eyes were an enviable blue grey. Those eyes were the reason why Eliza had said ‘yes’ when he had proposed. The expression in those eyes were the single thing Eliza best remembered about their wedding day. The same expression she had seen when the midwife had first placed their daughter in his arms. With a reluctance to take her, he had acquiesced and then those eyes, his eyes, had taken on the same hue and expression as she had seen on the day of their wedding. At that moment in time, she knew that everything would, somehow, always be fine. 

With that thought in her mind, she passed over a mug of tea. He took it and without words, offered her thanks. She sat down on the sofa and her motion suggested he join her. They sat, side by side, for an hour, sipping tea and not speaking. In a way, there was no need for words and Eliza had learned that sometimes to try and create a conversation, to get things out into the open, to share thoughts and ideas, concerns, worries and anxieties, was not the best way. So silence dominated. Even the fire in the grate seems to smoulder without its customary happy crackling sound. As time passed the tension in his body began to soften.


As they sat down to lunch, Tom looked proudly at his only daughter. His sons he knew, he understood and with all of them he felt a close connection, but to Jess, there was a different link. The youngest of the family, Jess was pretty without being beautiful, a little overweight without approaching fat, shorter than average without being petite. She had ivory skin and a crop of red wavy hair like her mother, which delighted Tom; her eyes were like her father’s, which delighted Eliza. Both parents saw in their daughter something of each other and this was sometimes a problem as Jess was neither another Tom nor another Eliza. She wanted to stand free of the long shadows cast by her brothers and her delving into academia had been in part a response to that longing. Her chosen subject for study was a world away from the interests of either parent. Jess was Jess and despite all her academic achievements, she still struggled to be herself and cut her own path through the world. 

Tom loved her, that was without question but she was so different from the boys. In a family dominated by boys, brothers and cousins all male, she had grown up to be feminine and more academic than all her siblings put together. This was where the difference really rested; not in her lack of tom-boy behaviour but that Jess was a PhD graduate and could out think all the men in her family. She was both academically able and verbally agile. Sometimes just for the fun of it, she would chase an argument round with her brothers, knowing that she could and would outsmart them. They were proud of her and never minded the intellectual beatings she gave them; it seemed to counterbalance the physical bruises and cuts which the boys had inflicted on her when they were children, almost always without deliberate intention but merely the result of their size, strength and boisterous activities. It was simply a ‘thing’; in this family, Jess had the lion share of the brains. As they ate, just the three of them today, there had been absolutely no foreshadowing of the argument which was soon to follow. 

After lunch, Eliza suggested Jess and Tom settle by the fire and enjoy the peace and quiet of the house, without the boys today, while she cleared the table. After a while she heard the beginnings of a debate but that was nothing new and did not disturb her. Gradually the volume rose, then Tom’s voice could be heard and Eliza paused to listen. The words were indistinct, but Tom never shouted at Jess – he rarely shouted at the boys, even when they were young – Tom shouting denoted either immediate danger or his own deep anger. Eliza dried her hands and joined them. 


When they married Eliza knew that Tom was hard to calm and smoulders for a long time if he becomes angry. The opposite side of this aspect of his character was certain knowledge that the anger was hardly ever aroused. His mother had confided in her that Tom was rarely angry, but when he was it was best to keep away until he called down. Eliza had liked her fiancé’s mother and after the wedding had grown to love and respect the woman, she was wise and seldom wrong. After their first marital argument, Eliza had sought solace, not with her own mother, but with Tom’s. Tom’s mother had dried Eliza’s tears, proffered cups of tea and after a while had firmly sent her away, back to Tom and their little flat. She reminded Eliza that Tom bears grudges and can be resentful which always causes so much pain as it is not in his everyday character. She had also explained that Tom will apologize if he was wrong. She had looked in to Eliza’s eyes on that and other subsequent occasions with her blue grey eyes, just like Tom’s eyes, just as piercing, just as all-knowing and just as gentle, filled with unspoken kindness. Eliza, now feeling restored returned the gaze and confessed it was she and not Tom who should apologize and she went home to do so. Today, her apology was not necessary but she did not know if Tom or Jess needed to make the first move. 


As the tension drained from his body, Tom relaxed a little and started to talk about the argument. The words came in almost random sequences, making little sense. Eliza sat quietly and aside from refreshing the tea, waited until order and method returned to Tom. Ultimately, he began to recount the nature of the argument. It was simple. Too simple really and that in itself had caused Tom to become outraged. Jess, with all her mental capacity and her knowledge, with all the thousands of pounds worth of education she had absorbed, wanted to ‘drop out’. That phrase, ‘drop out’, was Tom’s interpretation of her proposal. Jess had come to lunch to talk to her dad about her future plans. Jess was currently a university research fellow and she came to say she wanted to stop work. She wanted to spend time finding out what she wanted to do.  Tom was mystified by the idea that she needed to decide what she wanted to do. She was already doing things… work, a healthy social life and friends. What good would it do to simply stop work and navel gaze. The more Jess had tried to explain what she meant, the more unsettled Tom became. He was proud that all his children were out in the world, working, supporting themselves and being economically productive; he liked that they each had a wide circle of friends but more than that, he liked that they always supported each other. His was a close family and they each adhered to the unwritten, unspoken, tact rules of the family. These concepts were assumed and understood without the need for verbalisation. The idea that Jess was giving consideration to simply stopping work shattered the whole foundation on which Tom had built his life. There was no room for wastrels in his world, he had been raised and he had raised his family to be active and useful. He didn’t particularly care how it happened and was happy for each individual to find their own path, but he didn’t understand what Jess was saying to him. Tom was upset and unable to comprehend his daughter and he was looking to Eliza to explain the inexplicable. 


Jess rang her mother later that evening. Her version of the story was of course, somewhat different. She did apologize for storming off without saying goodbye. Her flame coloured hair, as the urban myth dictated, made her given to outbursts of anger and flashes of intolerance and temper. 

“Sorry, mum. I should have spoken to you before I left. I am sorry.” The inflection in her voice gave away the tears she was trying to hold back. “Dad simply wasn’t listening. I don’t want to throw my life away, or whatever he thinks I want to do, I just want to see what I want from it.  Is that unreasonable? Is he still mad at me?”

Jess was trying to elicit her support, just as Tom had done earlier in the day. Eliza had been in this position before, standing between father and daughter and trying to bridge the gap. She hated this arrangement and was thankful it was a rare occurrence. Reassuring Jess was more difficult than usual. Reassuring Tom was equally challenging. The evening passed eventually and Eliza chose to take a long bath before climbing into bed, securing some time for herself and away from two of the people she loved most in the world. The repercussions of this argument were potentially not to be easily assuaged. Only time would tell. Eliza fell asleep and rested fitfully. 


As the grey of early morning gave way to the warm shades of yellow and pink, Eliza heard the front door click. She listened as faint footsteps moved towards the kitchen. One of the boys would have made more noise… Jess had come home. Slipping out of bed she went down to the kitchen and found Jess fumbling with the coffee maker. 

“Sorry, Mum, did I wake you?”

“No, darling.”

“I thought I might make a family breakfast. Sort of an apology to dad. Perhaps a chance to try and explain to dad, or at least reassure him I’m not off to be a hippy and live in a commune. I should have spoken to you first – or at least at the same time. After all these years, you’d think I would know better.”

“I know that feeling.” Tom’s voice was rich and deep. “Perhaps, I should be the one to apologize. I didn’t listen to you after I heard you say ‘stop work’. Mind you, as you’re here, breakfast would be good!”  He stood in the kitchen doorway, looking at his daughter. 

Eliza felt relief that this argument was not going to run like a weeping sore for days to come. Breakfast was not without tension but it passed without real incident. Jess explained in a calmer manner how she wanted to take a sabbatical. The change of wording had the desired effect. Jess had clearly considered how to approach the issue without inciting antagonism and she had succeeded. This was less threatening to Tom’s belief system. This was a chance to reflect and consider the future without the overtones of waste. Jess was not unhappy but felt she had fallen into her current role and had not determined for herself that it was the right career path, the right option to pursue, the right role for her. She wanted some thinking time and a sabbatical, although the university would apply restrictions around it, would give her the chance to make this decision and still hold the security of work to which she could return. 

Eliza glanced out of the window and noted for the first time, the daffodils had moved from bud into nascent blooms. Spring was coming and with it, new hope. 

February 17, 2020 22:20

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Sam Kirk
02:37 Feb 29, 2020

I enjoyed the hopeful ending. You've described family dynamics so well. Good job. Families argue, but in the end, they come together.


17:16 Mar 05, 2020

Thank you! I wanted an element of hope in the idea of family coming together.


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