A Perfect World by Veronica Bright
Nought to sixty in 5.5 seconds.
Thomas loves the feeling, cruising in the third lane, checking the mirror for the ‘nee-naws’, as his daughter calls them. Everything’s hunky-dory, and he’s alone in a perfect world.
Hunky-dory. That was always one of his mother’s favourite words. He passes a lorry, and sighs. He remembers why this journey north is so difficult.
He hasn’t been there for… how long? Guilt rides in the car with him. Harriet is nearly three, and he’s never taken her there. His mother’s been up to London of course. The house is small so she has to stay in a hotel. Meg said they could make room, but he wouldn’t hear of it.
Thomas pulls into a service station for a coffee. The menu advertises those pancakes Harriet loves so much. Thomas wishes he had more time for his family. He often has to bring work home. The pay’s good though, and he is able to buy Harriet all kinds of treats, cherry pancakes with ice cream being one of them. He really should make more time for family outings.
And yet……he’s never really happy unless he’s alone, is he? There are times when he longs to be all those things he imagines the perfect parent to be: patient, interested, kind. He knows he is generous. His own parents gave him expensive presents, didn’t they? He sips his coffee, and remembers the bike they bought him for his fifth birthday. It was superb, the envy of the neighbourhood children. But he’d done something so bad, his parents had put the bike into the loft for three months, and when it came out again, it didn’t seem so wonderful after all.
“Has it shrunk?” he wanted to know.
“It’s an illusion.”
He frowned, puzzling over this new grown up word.
“You’ve grown somewhat during the school holidays, that is all,” his mother said.
He has a sudden urge to go back to that first house. He had a climbing frame in the garden. Once, at the park, he’d pushed that prissy dark-haired girl off a swing. He’d wanted a go himself, and that seemed the best way to solve his problem at the time. Now he remembers his mother’s exasperation. Why wouldn’t he share? Take turns?
“I don’t understand you,” she said.
In Thomas’ mind he can see their former house clearly, set in a quiet cul-de-sac. That bike was something else. He used to take it outside and the crowd would gather, small eyes looking at it longingly, little fingers stroking it, somebody squeezing the hooter. He used to laugh, push their hands away, and ride off along the pavement shouting, “Can’t catch me!” No way would he let that lot have a go on his bike.
Thomas drains the last of his coffee, sets down the cup, resumes his journey.
Nought to sixty in 5.5 seconds. Again he experiences the satisfaction of speed, of driving away from problems, cruising fast and free. His mobile rings and he ignores it. He’s made up his mind.
He detours to go and park outside the house where his childhood began. He gets out of the car, and presses the key fob switch. The locking system gives a satisfying clunk.
The front door is the same, polished oak. He rings the bell. He hears some-one coming; prepares a charming smile.
“I’m sorry to bother you. I used to live here,” he says.
The woman turns her head slightly, peers at him.
“My name’s Thomas Dawson. Does that mean anything to you?”
“Well!” The woman breaks into a smile. “We bought the house from the Dawsons…… Must be thirty years ago.”
She calls her husband who emerges to say hello. They invite him in.
Thomas steps over the doorstep, into the past. Immediately he feels frustrated, oppressed. He fights a desire to escape. He follows the couple into the lounge; looks around.
“It’s very different,” he says.
“I know,” says the woman. “We’ve brought up three children here, so our furniture had to be pretty sturdy.” She smiles. “Your parents had some beautiful things.” Then she sighs, and shakes her head. “Those cabinets full of exquisite pieces!”
“Wedgwood, Royal Doulton, etcetera,” says Thomas. He can almost see them again, cold behind the glass.
“And that gorgeous pale carpet! We inherited it, you know, but I’m afraid we had to replace it after a few years. The children, you know. And their friends.”
“I was never allowed to play in here,” says Thomas. The old resentment eats into him.
The man makes Thomas a cup of tea while the woman continues to talk, leading the way into the dining room. The polished table has gone, of course. Suddenly he remembers why they took his bike away from him. He’d been banging on that magnificent table with his fork. He had screamed at them in frustration, thumping his fork down, on and on, bang, bang, bang, leaving rows of tiny holes in the virgin wood. He wouldn’t stop till they forced him out of the room, banished him from their sight.
Then he has a flash-back to last week, when he’d hollered at Harriet for a similar misdemeanour.
“I don’t know how your parents managed to keep such a beautiful home with a youngster and his friends tearing around,” says the woman.
“I wasn’t allowed to have children in,” says Thomas, and his mother’s words echo in his ears. “No-one wants to play with a naughty boy like you.”
He clenches his fists, and then straightens his hands again, a habitual gesture as he tries to remain calm. He feels uncomfortable. He wants to leave, to speed away.
The woman is pointing out at the garden, where Thomas had his climbing frame. Now there’s a toddler’s swing.
“For my grand-daughter.” She picks up a photograph. “There’s nothing like the blessing of grand-children. Mind you, sometimes you need the patience of a saint.”
Again Thomas thinks of his mother and Harriet.
“Believe me,” says the man, coming in with the tray. “Children are another species.”
Back in the car, Thomas forces himself to concentrate. Only half an hour and he’ll be there. It’s not so easy to sit in a cosy nought to sixty bubble on these country roads. Besides, new thoughts crowd his head with every bend. The memory of his mother persists. There she is, neat and tidy, polishing the brasses, wiping sticky fingerprints off the walls. Why oh why had she always wanted everything to be so clean and sparkling? So perfect. She’d have been better off with a nice quiet girl, he thinks; a girl to match the pale pink carpet, bows in her hair, and pretty manners. Instead of which she had a boy, certainly not a docile, do-as-you’re-told one.
He slows to take a double bend. The light in the sky is changing. Surely there was nothing wrong with asking questions? He wasn’t worse than any of the other boys who lived in the cul-de-sac, was he? His mother, his bossy, fussing mother, had no idea what children were really like. The words of the man back at the house return to him. Children are a different species.
How many times has he been frustrated with Harriet? Too exhausted and irritable to listen to Meg? He sees that perhaps he is just like his father was, always busy, a responsible job making too many demands, taking its toll. Thomas admits he leans heavily upon Meg for solace. Kind, calm Meg.
When did he last make Meg a cup of tea?
Perhaps the expensive gifts Thomas received as a child were an apology for the time his father spent away from him. Perhaps his mother resented having a small child she hadn’t asked for. Now Thomas finds life so hectic, he has barely any time for Harriet. No wonder Meg wants them to give it all up and move to the country.
“That’s impossible Meg,” he’d said. “What would I do in the country?”
“People find jobs in the country as well as here,” she’d replied. “Or they commute. A train journey can be quite relaxing, you know.”
She’d said she’d like to see Harriet running across the fields, finding wild flowers, feeding ducks.
“We have ducks in London, Meg,” he’d said, “in the park.”
“I’d like another baby, Tom.” Then she’d gone on quickly. “And I want to grow vegetables, maybe keep chickens...”
“Chickens, Meg. Are you out of your mind?”
He pulls into his mother’s drive.
The live-in carer opens the door, and leads the way into the drawing room. The same antique cabinets are full of the same beautiful things. Thomas’ mother reclines on a chaise longue, a blanket over her knees.
“You came alone then?”
“Meg couldn’t get the time off…” His voice tails away. He feels five years old again, a naughty boy.
“I’ll make some tea,” says the carer.
“Do sit down, Thomas; you’re making the place untidy.”
“I always did that Mother,” says Thomas, almost savagely. Then he stops. “I’m sorry. It’s been a long journey.”
His mother is silent. She looks tired. Thomas takes his case upstairs. Do we all end up stuck in some dreadful caricature of ourselves, he wonders, unable to break free.
He goes downstairs to where his mother waits. Her hair is beautifully styled; her make-up is tasteful. Thomas sees the effort she has made for his visit. Yet the illness is winning. She looks terrible.
The carer brings in a tray. She gives no hint of disapproval that he hasn’t visited for months.
Thomas attempts to speak calmly of Harriet, and Meg. From the distant kitchen come the sounds of a meal being prepared, a song on the radio.
A silence falls between them. Shadows gather in the room.
“I went back to our first house today, Mother,” he says.
He tells her about the people who moved in after they left, the people who stayed for thirty years.
“You hid my bike from me. Do you remember that?”
Thomas watches as his mother shuts her eyes.
“I found you such a difficult child, Thomas,” she says. He strains his ears to hear her. “I didn’t understand you.”
He thinks of Harriet. He doesn’t understand her, not at all. She’s so… alive, yes, that’s the word, alive.
“I do love you, Thomas.”
The words spill into the gloom of the impeccable room, as if his mother has to say it while there is still time.
“I wanted to be the perfect parent,” she says.
A log shifts in the fire. The clock ticks. From the kitchen the six o’clock pips announce the news
“What do you wish, Mother?”
“That I could have another go at it all. But as they say, life isn’t a rehearsal.”
Thomas needs to do something, anything, to prevent the anguish and guilt and the
desire to weep.
“I’ll pull the curtains, shall I?”
He stands beside the window, looks out at the darkening sky. The first star gives a gentle welcome to the night.
“Mother.” He tries hard to see things from her point of view. He walks over to her, and takes her hand.
“Growing up in the country was good,” he says. “I don’t really care about the bike, you know.”
“I’m so tired,” is all she says.
Later, in the bedroom that overlooks the hills, Thomas has time to think. He has a future, God willing. It’s time to be the person he wants to be. He imagines Harriet playing in a sunny garden; Meg picking flowers, growing vegetables, her weary frown long gone. Maybe feeding chickens. Maybe another child on the way.
No. Alive. He will be alive, like Harriet. And Meg.
Everything will be all right.
Soon it will be tomorrow, and he’ll head for London. He may well be singing. Yes. Probably one of Harriet’s funny little songs.
Nought to sixty in 5.5 seconds. Not escaping, but going home.