As to the house, I find it at last, much further from the station than the old one, with mountains looming behind it like things also themselves newly- acquired, drawn nearer by ownership. It is smaller than my parents' former home and has a neat, white appearance. I see that it has the advantage of being easy to paint.
I go to the back door with shyness. My mother emerges like a stranger from a fresh, a smaller kitchen.
'Oh, how lovely. You took your time!'
It is early evening on New Year's Eve.
Behind my mother's head a mirror is full of the pink of the setting sun. At my back is the odour of garden. A child squeals glee. I bend to my mother's cheek.
'The kids are having tea.'
In the breakfast area beyond the kitchen my sister's daughters sit at table. Ann stands above them. She seems taller. I kiss her, too, on the cheek. She is thinner of face, has achieved a definition she must previously have lacked. She is quick with odours, of the children and their foods, yes, but with all the scents of the garden as well, of leaves and their sap and of woodsmoke.
'I like your soap,' I say.
'What, good old Sunlight?'
We laugh together. I hold her at arm's-length to watch the little of myself there is in her. I see her again as a girl, see the curtsy in her look. With her I am at home, have made it to this annual celebration, to the place where the family meets.
The children have spread before them the usual holiday fare. One of the girls was a toddler when I last saw her, a little blonde thing at once shy and page 144 inquisitive with bright Australian speech. Five years ago her sister had not been born. But Rosie remembers something of me, my beard perhaps. She looks to her mother.
'You remember Tony,' coaxes Ann. The child struggles.
'I think so,' she says without pleasure, her dignity apparent. She has one of those little cheerios in her hand and will not now eat it.
'Go on,' I say with a grin. 'Have your sausage.'
'It's not a sausage,' says Rosie.
'It's a sort of sausage, pet. Doesn't Anthony look handsome this year? Did you come by train?'
'You would have done,' says my mother, 'the train's a thing of the past.'
Is it? I have been sober six months but am still everywhere encountering absences, of things and of people.
I take my mother in as she makes the three of us some tea. She was once very pretty. I remember her as having been very pretty when I was a boy.
'Mum,' I sigh, 'how are you, really? I mean, how has the settling-in been? I bet leaving the old place was a wrench.'
'It was, love, it was. And sad, in a way. Davey was here for Christmas of course and kept going to stand at the front gate, or getting into the car, you know, waiting to be taken back to the old house. He was very confused by it all, was our Davey.'
The house of which she speaks, I know, was for her a delivery from the misery of her early marriage. My brother David has Down's Syndrome. And so, yes, he might stand at the gate, any gate, and wait to be driven, or walked, back to the sombre rooms of a former, familiar existence, to the amber wallpapers of childhood's calm.
My father comes up the warm, bright street on foot. Though he does not now get any more grey, there is still something rakish in his gait, an invitation to levity that increasingly few people might recognise. His tan has made his eyes more pale, less blue. He is as familiar to me as myself.
He shoots me a look of complicity from the door: I have been standing, page 145 thus, in his kitchen since last year,
'He'll get caught, yet. Your brother. He's taken the car off boozing at the lake.'
'Ah. It used to be a straight line home. How are you?'
'Good. Just fine. Apart from the piles, eh, Mum?'
'Anthony doesn't want your piles, dear. He's been waiting for some dinner.'
'Am I late? I must have got trapped at the club. Terry had his daughter in. I said we might see them tomorrow.'
'We should be taking Davey out.'
'Of course,' says my father. 'Are you having a beer, Tony?' he asks with a smile.
'I could go a sherry, Dad. But no, thanks,' I say. My father is silent. What I have told him must surely be news, but he is too old a bird to evince any great interest in what we will pretend is my very own business.
'There'll be no need,' says my mother. 'Ann and I would like something to eat, Alan. There's ham, pet, or mutton if you'd rather.'
Remembering past Christmases I have looked forward to something hot. Before the deaths of grandparents and the polite defections of my married siblings, Christmas and New Year were more colourful events, of sixpences and burning brandy. I take consolation in the fact that my father hates anything cold. I assemble some ham and circles of boiled egg on a piece of the Spode about which the family joke. What I need is a drink. With pity and amusement Ann joins me at the kitchen table.
'Have some pickle,' Ann jokes.
'Shush you yo' mouth. Bloody salads are good for you.'
'Been slaving away then, too, over a gelid refrigerator all day?'
'As a matter of fact these salads are a jolly pain to prepare, Here's poor wee Clare. Hello, darling.'
She lifts the child to her knee.
'It suits you, this motherhood,' I say.
There is a simplicity in Ann, a grace which admits this freely enough. She thrusts her jaw forward playfully.page 146
'Yes, brother. I've enjoyed it,' she says as if of something done, some- where visited now receding in her path. Is her marriage in trouble? I know so. My acceptance of the fact must come from without, from the evidence her changing circumstances will in time provide, signalled across an ocean.
We do the dishes, Ann and I, did them together as children. Attending here and there to her newer plants, my father circles the house with mother in the lovely dusk. I venture out myself. A sprinkler beats. The sky is slivers of peach. Inside again, I read to the children of monsters.
After their shared bath my nieces are presented to me for kissing. Rosie thanks me for having kept a secret. When Ann returns from their bedroom my father clears his throat.
'Cracker kids,' he says. 'Not like you little sods were.'
Ann thinks this predictable.
'Yes. Well, there's no one around any longer to tell us what you were like at their age.'
'Much like them I would imagine,' my father says brightly. 'A drink, Mother?'
'A wine-cooler I think. And don't be so conceited, Alan. Your mother didn't think that much of you, even when you were grown-up.'
We have been sitting, talking of this and that, with only the illumination a Christmas tree provides. It has gotten dark before Ben my youngest brother returns from the lake. The lights of his car brighten the lounge as he turns into the drive. He is with us almost at once.
'Evening all. Hi, Anthony. Are you staying?' I have arrived in his absence.
'You can have my bed then.'
'He cannot,' says my mother. The light Ben has switched on shows her to be knitting.
'Yeah he can. I want to sleep at the Thyme Street flat.'
'I know you do. And you'll do no such thing. You'll sleep in your own bed, thank you very much.'page 147
'I'll be all right on the floor,' I say unhelpfully.
Yo. In this I am seeming as Ben might, a cartoon figure with a haircut like a paper party hat, talking circled talk.
The women knit and talk. Ben drinks the Elephant Beer l have brought him. He affects a 'gee-whiz' amazement.
'You wanna try some of this, ole man,' he tells our father.
'You want your head read,' our father tells him.
Father plays his new Pavarotti on Ben's new stereo. He does more than hum along.
'I could have been great,' he winks, very pleased with himself and Luciano.
Midnight approaches. Ann gets Rosie up. Rosie dances between her mother and mine, little steps, little steps.
My watch does not agree with my father's and we turn the radio on. My mother hurries back from the kitchen. Our crossed hands reach and grasp and we have formed a circle. A drum-roll begins. Then everyone is singing.
'For auld lang syne, m' dear,
For auld lang syne,
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet
For the days of auld lang syne,'
my father's voice dear and youthful above the rest.
It moves me as it always does. And for me at least the room is crowded with ghosts, ghosts eager to be present. We who are material seem so few amidst this airy throng of others. And then we are all shaking hands or kissing and slowly, slowly, something begins to be over.
My father disconnects the Christmas-tree lights. I kiss my sister. I kiss my sister Ann goodnight.
When everyone else has gone, I settle to sleep on a lilo on the floor. The logistics of turning the light out and finding my bed again in the dark constitute my last effort of the day. I lie on my back in darkness.
I have not seen Ben in his uniform of a nurse, the inverted watch pinned page 148 to his short-sleeved smock, his fair-head's brown arms with their repertoire of strengths. I was cruel to him when he was a boy, he who has so recently become himself.
I dream of Ben. He has a present for me. It is a perfectly finished model glider, sky-blue, cloud-white, smelling of size and cement. Its wings have short, dihedral tips as if for catching at the air for height.
I am awake and up early. I make a cup of tea and take it to the back lawn. The grass is dewy, the light simple in which flowers unstick themselves from sleep. Tracing invisible geometries in the damp air, bees ferry tiny certainties about. It is here I invent the dog.
My father is shaving, the bathroom door ajar.
'I'd like to get back today, Dad.'
He dabs lather at himself.
'It's all buses nowadays,' he says. 'Inter-bloody-City, I think they call it. They travel in convoy when they move at all.'
'Where is the terminal?'
'There's a booking outfit behind the Mall. I'll drop you down there after if you like.'
Our language has been oddly sparse. I have felt it to be letting in the air like a building half-finished.
My mother, too, is up. I say:
'I have to get back today.'
A small, complete figure in a quilted dressing-gown of pink, she is making tea and toast for my father.
'Never mind,' she says, perhaps to herself. 'But won't you have trouble going today?' I will and have thought about it.
'There must be something doing. I'll ring around. I'll hitch-hike if I have to.'
She looks at me squarely now (a girl with how many brothers?), her hands on her hips. There is much that is tender in her stance. Yet she wants a little more.
'There's a dog now,' I lie. 'I've got a dog now at home.'