Authors: Vivienne Kelly
He doesn't even give his order for a drink, but a mineral water turns up almost instantly, along with my wine. He notices my slight surprise.
âThey know me here,' he explains. âThey know what I always have.'
When I asked him to come to lunch, I also asked him for the name of a restaurant he'd like to go to. I meant it more as a special occasion, a treat, if you like, rather than just turning up somewhere he usually goes anyway. But he clearly hasn't seen it like this, and I can't help feeling hurt.
âWell,' he says, sitting back. âHello, Isabel.'
âAnything in particular on your mind?'
âShould there be?'
âIt's not usual, is it, our getting together as cosily as this?'
âNo. No, it's not, but perhaps we ought to do it more often.'
âDominic, what's happened to us?' I ask, a bit desperately.
I hadn't meant to do this, to jump into deep waters. All I'd meant to do was build a little bridge, maybe, the beginnings of a little bridge. But he's given me an opening: that cool âought we?' is a genuine opportunity, despite its chilly tone, and I'm not likely to get a better one.
And I'm so nervous: perhaps my judgement's off-kilter. Maybe this chink is something he's deliberately giving me; maybe it represents a sliver of opportunity that he positively wants me to grasp.
âWhat's happened to us, when we can't even be civil to each other any more? It usen't to be like this.'
He sips his mineral water, studies it, says nothing.
âPlease. Couldn't we just try? Really, I don't want that much. Only ... only to be able to be friends again.'
âAgain?' says Dominic, with just that whippy little inflection at which he is so expert.
âAh, Dominic,' I say. âWe were friends, weren't we?'
âI don't recall. Were we?'
âI don't understand. Dominic, I know I left home when you were still quite young ...'
âI was ten,' says Dominic, flatly. âI'd say ten was very young, not just quite young. Wouldn't you?'
Oh, Christ, I'm right in it now. I plough on.
âYes, all right, ten is very young. I know it is. Dominic, things don't always work out the way we want them. I didn't mean it to happen the way it did. I didn't mean to leave you. I wanted to take you with me, remember?'
âYes, but then you left.'
âWell, you wouldn't come.'
âYou wouldn't stay.'
âWhy should I have stayed?' I'm starting to get angry, and desperate.
âI was ten. That's why you should have stayed. I was ten. We go around in circles, don't we?'
âBut that was years and years ago. You've grown up. I'm on my own now. Am I always and eternally to be defined by you as the mother who left you? Is that going to be my permanent status, forever? I mean, can't we move on from that?'
âWell. It isn't a definition I came up with, you know. It was what happened, not what I invented. To borrow that phrase you're so fond of, it wasn't my fault. You did leave me. You self-selected, as it were. I had nothing to do with it, except to have to cope with it.'
âWhy do you hate me so?' I cry at Dominic, alarmed even as I speak by the keening note of my voice, the wretched and unpleasant nasal sob that catches at it. He gives me that narrow-eyed look I know and abhor.
âI don't hate you, Isabel. I just don't like you very much.'
The people at the tables near us aren't staring at us; they're averting their eyes, which is somehow worse. The waiter magically appears between us with two plates of pasta, and it occurs to me in a strange disjointed way that this is a strategy I've never before cottoned on to â if you want immediate service in a restaurant, cause an uncomfortable scene. The waiter makes much show of grinding black pepper and parmesan; we preserve a sullen silence until he retreats.
âCan't we start again?' I ask, trying to sound humble, not whiney.
âI don't think so,' says Dominic, stabbing at his pasta.
âWhy not?' I'm speaking more quietly now, anxious not to embarrass him.
âI don't know how.'
And there we leave it. I am too shaken to try any further. I can see I'm going to get nowhere. We finish our pasta in silence, to the clear relief of the neighbouring tables. It's a farce. He glances again at his watch, mutters something, gets to his feet. I offer to pay. He shakes his head, settles the bill. Off he goes, back to the demanding world where there's so much to do and no mother to make a nuisance of herself.
This wasn't how I'd imagined it. When he was a child, I mean, or for that matter before he was born. I'd always thought of our being friends, easy with each other, casual and witty, undemonstrative perhaps but affectionate, sharing an understated empathy, an unarticulated but deep mutual trust.
I'd sketched out a number of scenarios, in the torpid moments of pregnancy, before I even knew him; and then again later, when he was a baby, mistrustful and opaque. I'd bowl to him in the backyard. I'd take him to galleries, to Mozart concerts, to poetry readings. We'd play chess together, and when he grew up we'd sip chilled pale wine on summer evenings. We'd discuss philosophies, scientific theories, whatever. Our relationship would rest on shared pleasures, shared opinions, mutual appreciation. And love, of course.
Kate and Steve were, needless to say, absent from these touching scenes.
But, the relationship never worked, never meshed. It was worse, far worse, after the marriage broke up, but it was never the way I'd planned it, never the harmonious rapport I'd envisaged. ZoÃ« would say this was my fault, of course. ZoÃ« would say I got it wrong with both children.
Once, she visited when Dominic was little. He was still crawling: he must have been around twelve months, I suppose. Kate was six: that I do remember. She took a doll from him and his roar was passionate. I rebuked her. I wasn't savage; I wasn't mean: there was no need for her to burst into tears.
âShe's very good with him, isn't she?' ZoÃ« said, her voice just lifting towards that spiky tone it has so often when she addresses me.
I disapprove of discussing children in their presence. It leads to unpleasant precocity. I shrugged and nodded as non-committally as I could. At this stage Kate was whining loudly and showing little sign of being good, so far as I could see.
âIt's my special doll, Mummy,' she wailed.
âIt's her special doll,' said ZoÃ«, regarding me meaningfully.
âShe shouldn't have left it where he could reach it.'
âOh, have a heart, Isabel.'
âFor God's sake,' I snapped. Kate ran howling into her bedroom, clutching the damn doll. Dominic, sensing conflict, sobbed more loudly.
âYou're hopeless,' snarled ZoÃ«. This is her idea of sisterly support. âYou've got no idea, have you?'
âWhat's that supposed to mean?'
âYou favour him. All the time. It's always: “Kate, don't do this. Kate, don't do that.”'
âZoÃ«, she's six. He's a baby.'
âYou need to watch it. You're making some big mistakes.'
âOh, come on.'
âI mean it, Minky. You're so hard on her, and of course she gets upset. She is good with him. There aren't many six-year-olds who'd be as careful, as gentle. She's a dear little girl, and you're going to cause huge problems for her if you keep on going this way. You'll cause problems for him, too, you mark my words.'
âYou've got so much experience, I suppose,' I said, meanly.
âI may not have kids of my own, but I do have experience with kids in the classroom. I spend every day with kids. Anyway, you don't need experience to see the mistakes you're making. It's just a matter of common sense.'
This is a good example of ZoÃ«'s tact and sensitivity. In any case, she was demonstrably wrong. Kate has no problems that I'm aware of â or none, anyway, that are caused by me. She had a perfectly happy childhood. She appears to me, in spite of everything, to be a perfectly happy adult. And if Dominic hates me because I was too kind to him when he was a baby â well, what kind of sense does that make?
I kept thinking the relationship would improve. I gave up work for Dominic, so I could spend more time with him. It was harder, anyway, to work when I had two small children at home. I've heard other women say this, too: it's three times as hard with two children as with one. But he always fought me, even as a baby, even as a toddler. He fell over once and I cuddled him, crooned to him, savouring the moment, because he so seldom let me do this. âPoor Dominic,' I murmured, rocking him. He exploded in fury and struck my face. âI'm
poor,' he screamed. âI'm
Well. What can you do?
This is one reason I so much appreciate Sophie's company, Sophie's unconditional love. I sometimes think Sophie and Max are the only two people who have ever really cared about me, who have truly loved me.
Yet I always feel, with pricking resentment, that I'm worthier of love than people seem to think. If only they could see me as I really am, if only Dominic could get past the protective spines I raise against him, if he could only lower the guns he mounts against me, if only we could meet in some pure space unhindered by our family, our history, our expectations of ourselves and each other, I'm sure he'd like me.
I'm a likeable person: I know I am. I'm a warm and loving person.
I love you, Dominic!
Sometimes I think I ought to scream it at him, every time I see him, just to drive the point home, to make him notice me, listen to me, listen to what I want to force into that sleek, obdurate head of his.
I know women who are entirely unremarkable but who nevertheless manage to retain cordial relations with their children, their sons. Of course we all adopt party manners for the world's scrutiny, and I imagine there are rough patches in such relationships, dropped stitches, torn pages, dark, vicious corners of psyches that never see the light of day or face exposure to outside observation. Still, such people manage to maintain a reasonable faÃ§ade.
I'm quite positive most sons aren't as savage to their mothers as Dominic is to me; most sons don't chip away at their mothers' fragile veneers with anything matching Dominic's deadly ruthlessness. I can't, however, adequately measure or comprehend their success against my failure. I can't see
they've managed what should surely be a relatively simple manoeuvre, when I so conspicuously haven't. What is it about bringing up children, after all? What makes it so difficult?
I started off with intentions and resolutions as good as the next person's. I taught them manners, correct behaviour, consideration for others. I talked to them; I played with them; I didn't abuse them; I didn't take drugs; I didn't hit them; I tried not to shout at them. I know I split up the family, but it wasn't them I had to get away from: it was Steve, and I've always made that distinction clear.
I don't understand where it went wrong, at what particular point Dominic decided to limit his communications to sneer mode, why he woke up one day and perceived my maternal limitations with such devastating clarity.
These women I know who are successful mothers â who at any rate seem to be successful mothers â there's nothing so special about any of them. Intelligence doesn't appear to be a prerequisite, nor does talent, nor (let's face it) good looks. They've just bumbled along, the same as all of us. I once said to a woman I knew how lucky she was to have such happy and successful children, and she fixed me with a dirty look and said: âLuck, Isabel, had nothing to do with it.'
Well, luck always has something to do with it, in my book. If you can put in so much effort and still fail, luck has a lot to do with it.
Sometimes I fantasise about the kinds of circumstances that might enlighten Dominic about the value of a mother's love. Well, not any mother. Me. Some rescue I could effect, some unfortunate condition he finds himself trapped by (imprisonment, perhaps, for some shameful crime?) in which I waft back into the mainstream of Dominic's life trailing forgiveness and compassion.
Gosh, Mum, where would I be without you?
whispers a white-faced Dominic, as I gently raise him on my arm and spoon homemade beef tea between his unresisting lips.
Or perhaps we're hostages together (unlikely, this, I do recognise that element of the hypothesis), and I intercept the shot that's meant for him. Or then again, perhaps I'm simply dying, slowly and rather picturesquely (and let us hope painlessly), and Dominic in imagining his future without me is brought to his senses.
Gosh, Mum, what will I do without you?
whispers a white-faced Dominic, reaching to grasp my fragile hand as he sits beside the bed repenting of his former brutality.
And then there's the final scenario, the funeral one. That's where I'm in my coffin (adorned simply, due to my distaste for ostentation â perhaps only with a single crimson long-stemmed rose) and Dominic, still white-faced, is at the microphone, or in the pulpit, or wherever, choking over the revelation of his long-hidden adoration of me. Ah, the poignancy!