Do not think that his perfection makes me content. No, I always wanted to undo and footnote him.
When he was thirteen he lived mostly alone in a house with his father and five others. He missed out on some mothering then. He floated his voice with notes and sound, and his smile in the company of others reassured, made them forget. He didn't wash his clothes, or change his sheets in a year. But his bones reached so cleanly, so sweetly from his skin, that no one noticed the dirt.
He liked to trail his hand along the semi-peeled rose trellis wallpaper in the hall. It was dry, and he moved lightly like the man I later saw. A boy who walked down halls, the man who walked a savannah,
the old man whose legs are creaking now.
Finally a woman staying noticed his toothbrush. The bristles had curled outwards and down, flattened by a strong wind/tide/so much brushing. It wouldn't dislodge tartar anymore, just skate across it.
Mothers often forget to tell you these things, or, are simply no longer present. I didn't know about 'uplift' until some assistant in a draper's undressed me and informed me that it was too late. I brushed my teeth very swiftly from side to side—not up and down—and only on the odd occasion: when I remembered. My father's toothbrush would have hailed Robert's as a brother.
By the time I met him we were both missing our fathers, wearing earplugs at night to shut out the noises of a new country. He wore his father's brown suede jacket most times I saw him, and his shirt cuffs bore those urban maps; coffee stains. I imagined those cuffs ending right there, leaving his arms unsleeved, and his mind untampered with.
I visited you in a convalescent home. You couldn't get up, but you talked about the Poetry Society and the Annual Howick Daffodil Show. I didn't know what to say. I couldn't forget your years of fury. I imagined all the other old men with rugs on their laps were mild.
A picture of you in a daffodil-yellow tutu visited me. The tutu was topped by your sudden head: networks of red and blue beneath the skin.
I became anxious with beaten-back laughter.
Only now do I notice your body halting beneath the coverlet.
When I was younger you were proud of the long stoop you would make to my face. You would take it again and again, slipping your hat from your head. My head paddled the air in discomfort. It was one of the kindest things you did.
Later, when your memory was no longer strictly faithful, you continued to send instructions, weather reports and stamped-addressed envelopes: 'Rain is frequent in April. The grapefruit will be late this year. Remember to eat the apples in the shed.' All I turned up that year were nails and spiders and the shadows of your boys' appetite. You were rich and stubborn with memory: bountiful.
You wrote to the youngest son—the one with frecked legs—addressing him as the boy who once squinted in your yard—and everywhere else he possibly could. That one, my father, had practised inscrutability long at your dinner table. He grew up refusing to look for jobs in the classifieds, and stayed that way. If you were alive, you might still be sending him clippings.
Cross cakes are shaped like swollen crosses.
In spite of looking like dog biscuits or bones, these cakes are regularly devoured by café-goers. Knobbled and dry and outsize, they look as if they could sail through the air into the jaws of big bouncing dogs.
Virginia savours the thought of them. They are so dead plain. She looks at the pleasing, robust shapes on the thick, white, railway china plate. When she does eat, you notice how high and long and bumpy, how fine her profile. It is the profile of one who lived in another more religious, a merrier, age: a northern world. The body a dancing, shrugging, slowing spindle.
She clasps the cross cake. Now she looks like a dog-governess. In another life her sleeves might have been wider, open and falling like a Venetian doge's.