He stood on the crate to reach the basin. I stood behind him and we observed each other in the mirror. This younger me, stamped with my jaw line and the subtly bent nose of my mother’s folk. He’d grow into his shoulders sooner than I had, I hoped so at least. His red-blonde hair was his mother’s though, so were his slate grey eyes. I leaned over him and showed him the strange morning ritual of the fellowship he wanted to join.
I had him cup his small hands and dispensed a blob of expanding white foam onto his palms. Then the same into my left. I spread it across my face with small circles and he imitated me on his. My fingers could feel the short rough regrowth since my shave yesterday morning. His face was soft and fresh and would be for a very long time. But it wasn’t about the practicality, the need was for a ritual. My father had taught me to shave in the same way. Inducting me into the society of men. The first step down a strange path that had led me to boarding school, to drinking, to rugby, to the army, to the border and to this moment… being a father. It’s not a path I wanted my child to walk and I thought I’d been lucky, life has other plans though. I took up my own razor and gave him a toothless mimic – he didn’t need a blade to learn. Not yet. There’d come a time for blood, but it wasn’t now.
We worked the razors across our faces, stripping off the foam and rinsing the implements in the basin of hot water. It was like peeling off a mask as we looked at ourselves with intent. At our exteriors. And it was done. Faces clean. I gave him a rough towel and his cheeks shone red.
“Go on, get dressed,” I said and the pride fled his face.
“It’s only til the end of term,” I said. “Then you’re at Andervale and you can wear what you like.”
He nodded and went to his room. I looked at myself in the mirror. I should have fought for him. But I couldn’t afford to, I told myself. Just get him into a new school where he could be happy and that would be it. My child would be fine, no matter where his path took him.
“OK, dad. I’m ready to go.”
He looked brave in the dress they made him wear to school. The dress I had made him wear for too long. He looked braver than me.
He’s intent on the coffee maker. He’s laid out all the parts on a dishcloth on the kitchen counter. She’s given up on it and is in the little adjoining lounge. Kindle propped up on her knee. She’s not reading; she’s watching him. Every now and then he puts out his hand to hover over a piece, and then folds his arms back across his chest as he rearranges and rotates the parts in his head. She can hear the waves from the open balcony. It would be a perfect view to enjoy with hot coffee.
The night has left a layer of cold over everything – just a tingle across her skin as she sits – and the sun is warming the world gently, unhurried. She wants to make breakfast on the black-iron gas hob, to share it and eat it on the balcony overlooking the bay. But the kitchen is his now. The coffee maker must be fifty years old. Probably every native to Portugal knows how it works, but to these travellers it’s a puzzle.
She would be content to boil the grounds on the stove and pour it through the sieve, but he has to solve it. It’s a challenge. So he frowns over the obsolete parts trying to parse their purpose and make them fit, while she stares out at the foreign country they’re visiting to celebrate getting married.
We were young, and that is no excuse for it. We were also twice blinded. The first was by our skin, which made so much invisible to us. The second was by the beer. And the cheapest vodka and wine we could find. We took pride in how fucked up we could get for so little money. Took pride in the pain the next day, and sharing fragmented memories of what we had made ourselves into the night before. Some of those fragments are still with me. I once broke into my own car window while drunk and high, my hand went into the shattered glass. Tiny splinters were working their way out of the numb scar tissue years later. That’s what it’s like. Remembering. This night in particular has stayed clear because I thought I might die.
We were staggering along the main road toward a club; a long walk from our res but we were propelled by lust and fueled by alcohol. We were a pack of young men eager in our exaggerated machismo to score. But the walk was long and the booze was straining our bladders. The others ducked down an alley to piss against a wall. I stood on the street, bladder tight but I have never been easy about public urination and the club was close enough for me. That small act of restraint was why I was the face of the group.
By an act of something like justice, people started leaving the building abutting the alley. My friends were pissing on the side of a mosque on Friday night. The crowd noticed and started shouting. I was slow and front and centre. My friends fled as the crowd became mob and surrounded me. Enraged men screaming in my face. I didn’t disown my friends, I didn’t feel innocent. I was terrified and ashamed. A man struck me, a backhand slap through the face that staggered me. I fell to one knee. One person against a mob is helpless. That’s what I thought. And whether getting up would be worse than staying down.
The man who had struck me raised his hand, clenched into a fist. And someone stood between us. Another man, his beard grey, his upper lip shaved. He pulled me up by the arm and hustled me through the crowd, waving their anger back. He took me to the edge of the mob, pushed me and said, “just leave.” One man is helpless against the mob. But one man carried me to safety. He hated me I’m sure, but he did not want me to be hurt.
There are memories like splinters, able to pierce right through your skin and leave it marked and changed.
The cat was a large and handsome animal, its fur thick and deep, brindle. Or tortoise shell? When was the last time Shay had seen something made out of tortoise shell? Her grandmother’s set of combs? Her fingers rub the cat’s warm belly. Her grandmother’s house had been her model of fantasy worlds. Rich and dark textures. Every piece of furniture was arcane and specific to a purpose, from the roll-top writing desk with its hundred tiny draws, to the cutlery caddy that opened up a green felt chamber in which all the ivory handled silverware waited in their precisely fitted positions. Even the wood of these wonders wasn’t the wood of the rest of the world. A thousand dark shades, a thousand patterns of grain and knot, arranged as inlays or in a symmetry that seemed magical – like the far edge of a lake, where the land meets its mirror.
Shay was twenty when they moved her grandmother out of her old house and into a care home. Twenty when they sold the treasures. The only thing that went with her grandmother to the place that could never be her home was a little vanity table. Her tortoise shell combs in their silver case in one of the secret drawers. Thirty-three now, Shay wonders what happened to the table and to the combs. The cat purrs, its ear flicks.