*Features adult language and themes.*
The snot refused to budge. It didn’t matter how hard he blew his nose, or how he poked and podded it with his finger, it simply wouldn’t stay clear for more than a few seconds.
He was so congested that he could feel a tight squeezing pressure inside his head. His vision was ponderous and he didn’t have the ability to say his ‘v’s’ without them turning into ‘b’s’.
Evie had given him the chance to skip dinner. In fact she had been quite insistent. If it hadn’t been for Robbie’s swift recovery Jon would have given in and stayed in bed. For a split second he had been tempted to tell Evie to take Robbie over on her own, but he wasn’t that sadistic.
Jon tried to clear his nose one last time, without success, before leaving the bathroom. His parent’s place was a big three bedroom detached house; a long walking distance from the town centre, beyond the park. The neighbourhood was full of similar houses. Timber frame elements were preserved on most but surrounded by modern refurbishments giving each building a strange mixture of old and new.
It was the sort of house Jon and Evie dreamed about. The sort of place they couldn’t hope to afford. Jon often wondered if the reason Evie didn’t like visiting his parents was just down to her dislike for his mother, or that it showed her a lifestyle that was out of reach. Either way Evie was always reluctant to go and see them.
Jon padded his way over highly polished wooden floors from the bathroom back into the dining room. Evie was busying herself with Robbie. She had sat him in a highchair and was trying her best to get food into his mouth. Robbie had picked up how to use a spoon quite quickly, but had then gone on to find many other uses for it. He liked using it as a drumstick, and more recently as a catapult for whatever happened to be on it. Evie had packed a variety of little snacks for Robbie to eat. She didn’t want him eating at the same time as everyone else, but that was just for his mother’s benefit. For a woman who raised four kids of her own, she was very squeamish about having a toddler around. Of course, nothing had been said explicitly, but Jon had noticed the faces his Mum pulled last time Robbie messily ate lunch with them. Evie had been of the opinion that Jane should just get over it. “If she wants to invite us to dinner, that’s what she gets. Her grandson has to eat too,” she said.
Jon agreed, but suggested a different approach. He’d always had a weakness where his Mum was concerned.
I think everyone does. It’s years of subconscious guilt that builds up as soon as you discover what had to happen for you to be born. Meaning the labour not having to have sex with my Dad.
He was always stuck between his wife and his Mum. He was the rickety bridge between that enormous gap and it got harder and harder not to snap the further they moved away from each another.
Robbie was happily eating small pieces of a jam sandwich when suddenly his expression changed and her threw the food across the room. Jon saw it coming as soon as his son’s expression changed and managed to catch the sticky morsel before it hit the wall.
“No, Robbie. That’s naughty,” said Evie sternly.
Jon noticed the amused look on his Mum’s face as she sat at the table sipping minute drops from her glass of wine. She had a strange superior air about her as she watched her daughter in-law try to control her grandson. Then it clicked in Jon’s head.
She never really liked being a mother. It’s the same thing with the household chores and cooking. It all bored her, it distracted her from things she considered to be more important. Now she watches Evie, and is thankful she doesn’t have to do it herself.
But she still babysits for us?
“Mummy, I need a banana,” said Robbie.
“No, you say ‘please may I…’”
“Please may I need a banana.”
Evie chuckled and dug around in her bag for Robbie’s banana. She peeled it and began cutting it into slices he could manage to feed himself with.
Robbie grabbed a slice at a time and eventually found his mouth with them after a few attempts to rub them over his cheeks and nose. “I love you Mummy… and I love banana… and Tigger… and I suppose Daddy.”
Jon walked behind Robbie’s high chair and leaned over to give him a kiss on the forehead and muss his soft brown hair. “Thanks, for that Robbie. Daddy loves you too.”
“Darling, you shouldn’t really kiss him, you might give him the cold back,” said Evie.
Jon shrugged and went over to his chair. “Do you think Dad needs a hand?”
As if summoned Jon’s Dad entered the dining room carrying two plates piled with steaming food, placing one in front of his Mum and the other in front of Evie. He winked at Jon. “Ladies first.”
“Thank you, Daniel,” said Evie as she cleaned Robbie up, wiping his face and mopping up the food residue on his high chair. She put a few of his smaller toys out for him to play with while they ate.
Jon’s Mum said nothing. She simply sipped at her wine.
Everyone sat in silence waiting for Jon’s Dad to return with the rest of the food. The only sound was the ticking of a carriage clock on the window sill and the clicking and clacking of Robbie’s toys.
The oppressive silence of his parent’s house had always unsettled Jon. Quiet wasn’t part of his life anymore. At home there was always some sort of background noise. They had the TV or radio on while meandering through the day. When he walked around the town or went to work, the world created a buzz of sounds to fill the void and work itself was bursting with noise. Shoppers chatting, the annoying muzak they played over the speakers interrupted by tannoy announcements. Jon didn’t have a quiet place in his life. Even when they went to sleep they had something playing in the background otherwise neither of them could drop off.
It was a loud world they lived in. Jon’s parents still populated the soundless past.
After a long uncomfortable few minutes Jon’s Dad returned with the food and sat down. Jon went to pick up his cutlery but was stopped by his Mum making an abrupt tutting noise.
Every time. “We’re not going through this again Mum,” said Jon.
“Through what dear?” Jon’s Mum held out her hands to her husband and across the table to Evie. They both gingerly took them. “We say grace in this house Jonathan. We always have.”
“No, Mum. You always have. I haven’t said grace with you for ten years. Yet every time we come around you make a point of it. You do it deliberately to cause a fuss.”
“I’m not the one causing a fuss. It’s you.”
“If you had a Muslim, or Jewish person over for dinner would you expect them to say grace?”
“It’s my table, I’d expect them to respect my beliefs.”
“I respect your beliefs, Mum. But I don’t feel the need to participate in them. Or be forced to participate.”
“I’m not trying to force you to do anything. I simply want to give thanks for the food we have in front of us.”
“It doesn’t matter, Jane,” said Jon’s Dad, looking increasingly uncomfortable.
“Be quiet, Daniel.” She snapped back.
Jon tried his hardest to keep calm. As much as he loved his Mother he despised it when she belittled his Dad. “I’ll quite happily give thanks with you, Mum.” She beamed insipidly. There was no warmth in her smile. “He turned to his Dad. “Thank you Dad. The food looks wonderful. I hope it doesn’t get cold before we can eat it. It would be a shame to spoil all your hard work.”
Jon’s Mum began to pout. “Very well. I’ll pray alone. Feel free to begin.” She bowed her head and sat very still. Jon noticed that her lips moved ever so slightly to half-form the words she was thinking aloud to herself.
Nobody dared begin their meal until she was done, a fact that she must have pick up on, as her prayer lasted for a full five minutes. Jon was proud of his son for gurgling to himself and shaking his rattle hard in that time. He made such a racket that it drowned out the ticking of the clock and totally spoiled the solemnity of the moment. Jon looked over to his Dad and back across to Evie, each of them smirked back.
Jon’s Mum said nothing when she raised her head and opened her eyes then immediately began eating, prompting everyone else to follow suit.
“I don’t know where you get your stubbornness from,” she said to the group at large.
“I can guess, Mum.” Jon offered.
“I can’t imagine why you find it so difficult to believe.”
“I believe in lots of things.”
“I believe in nature, science, anything I can feel, taste, touch, see and smell. I believe in people, in human nature. Above all I believe in my Wife, Son and family.”
“Cheers.” Jon’s Dad lifted his glass to toast the sentiment. His Mum didn’t join in, but it didn’t stop her from taking another tiny sip.
“Surely God, is an idea?”
“Yes, I agree. I have no problem with God or any kind of all powerful deity as an idea. In fact it’s a lovely idea. I think it’s a shame that the idea was taken and a load of people built religions around it. A way to control people and tell them what to do. That’s the part of it I object to. Is it too much to ask for a little bit of proof?”
“Proof? The whole idea of faith is to hold a belief in the absence of proof.”
“You see, that doesn’t make sense to me. We don’t put people in prison unless there is enough proof that they committed a crime. We don’t let people we don’t know into our houses unless they can prove their identity. An over reliance on faith in the modern world can be a form of stupidity. Look at terrorism. People blowing themselves up because they believe absolutely in their God and that their cause is just. I don’t get it. I don’t understand it.”
“And I don’t understand how you can live your life without some sort of faith. Without believing there is something more in the world.”
“But it doesn’t matter, Mum. The world is enough for me. I don’t need anything beyond it.”
Jon’s Mum took another sip of her wine. It seemed the conversation was at an end but everyone knew it would be replayed the next time they came to dinner.
“What are you going to do when Robert’s old enough to think about these things,” said Jon’s Mum looking over at her grandson.
“Jane, his name is Robbie,” said Evie.
“We’ll let him decide for himself.”
“You mean you don’t plan on getting him Christened?”
“Not at the moment, but if we did he’d be Christened Robbie,” said Evie. That got a disapproving glare.
“We don’t plan to raise him with any particular religion in mind. If he finds religion when he’s old enough to understand and he embraces it, then we’ll accept it. It’s his choice. Religion isn’t something that should be forced on anybody,” said Jon
“Christianity would give him a clear moral code to live by.”
“We’ll give him a clear moral code to live by. Religion isn’t the only way to teach a child right from wrong.”
“It never did you any harm.”
Jon decided to leave it there. They all sat and ate in silence. His father was an excellent cook. He’d made them a delicious roast dinner with all the trimmings. He chose to serve a rolled lamb joint that had stuffing in the middle. “The lamb’s lovely, Dad.”
“Yes, it did come out rather well. I studded the outer meat with garlic and rosemary. The flavours really got in there this time.” There was another spell of silent chewing from the group. “How are things at work since your promotion?”
Jon was asked the question as he put a forkful of food into his mouth. There was a pause as he chewed and swallowed. Jon’s Dad and Evie smiled as they realised the timing of it. It was one of Jon’s favourite little jokes to do this to others on purpose.
“Work’s been going well. Hopefully by the end of the year all of my training will be done and I’ll be able to look for a managerial position.”
“Will that be at this store?” Asked his Mum.
“I’m not sure. I’ll have the option of staying where I am as a supervisor until someone leaves or a position is made available, but there is always the option of moving somewhere else within the company.”
Jon’s Mum looked a little distraught at that. She didn’t say anything but it was clear by her expression that she wasn’t pleased by the prospect of her last child moving away.
Hmmm. That’s surprising.
“I must admit, I will miss the day to day work I do now.”
“Really?” Said his Dad.
“Yeah. I enjoy talking to the customers. Getting to know people that come in. It’s nice.
“There’s a customer I see every week. She comes in the same day, at the same time. To begin with we just nodded at one another because she happened to come to my checkout by chance a few weeks in a row. After that she made a point of being served by me, even if it meant waiting in a queue for a while. If I wasn’t on a till she would find me on the shop floor and we’d chat, or I’d help her with her shopping. She’s an elderly lady, sometimes she’d ask to be escorted around the store. If she needed that sort of help, she would request me personally. After a few months we’d get chatting. I told her about Evie and Robbie, she’d tell me about her family. It was nice. I wouldn’t call her a friend, but when we saw one another I like to think it brightened both of our days a little.
“The other week I noticed that she hadn’t come in when she normally would. In the beginning I would have just dismissed it, you know. Sometimes people don’t go shopping when they plan. But this was after almost a year of seeing her on the same day every week at around the same time. I left it for a few hours, expecting her to show up any minute. I kept an eye out for her, and started to get worried. In the end I spoke to the reception staff who always called a taxi for her. They said they hadn’t seen her that day either and admitted it was a little strange. It turns out there were two or three people in the store that had a similar relationship with this lady. We got together to compare notes and asked each other if she’d mentioned anything the last time we saw her that might suggest why she hadn’t shown up. None of us had an explanation.
“In the end I called the taxi firm the receptionist always used, told them the situation and asked for her address. Then I called the police station, giving them the full story and her details saying we were a little worried about her. They said they’d look into it.
“The next day we got a call from a community support officer to say that they had found Mrs. Jennings at her home collapsed in the bathroom. She was unconscious with a nasty cut on her head. Apparently, she’d slipped and fell. The police only entered the flat after a neighbour with a key let them in. They explained their concerns and the neighbour was worried because she hadn’t seen her leave that day either.
“So she was taken to the hospital and she’s well on the way to making a full recovery. I got the manager to send a bunch of flowers to her.”
“That’s amazing,” said Jon’s Dad.
“I thought so too,” said Evie.
“Just goes to show you can still rely on the kindness of strangers.”
“That sort of thing should be in the newspaper,” said Dad.
“The press office are trying their hardest. It reflects quite well on the store, but nobody seems interested in it.”
“That’s a shame.”
“Yeah, I think so. I guess people don’t buy papers for a happy ending. That’s what fiction is for.”
Evie leaned across and kissed Jon’s cheek. “Well, I think it’s wonderful that you take the time to get to know strangers and care enough to notice when something seems off. A lot of people would have shrugged it off and not bothered to follow it up.”
Jon shrugged. “I hope that isn’t true.”
“Of course it’s true. The world is becoming a place inhabited by individuals. I told you about those teenagers I saw at work the other month, didn’t I? They sat in the cafe all afternoon talking to one another through their computers. It was hours before they put the things down and actually spoke face to face. They’re all disconnected. I couldn’t believe it.”
Jon’s dad arched his eyebrows. “That’s unbelievable.”
“I know.” Evie grabbed hold of Jon’s arm. “That’s why it’s so special for someone to talk to a stranger and take an interest in them.”
Jon noticed that his Mum didn’t say another word until they’d finished eating.
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