“She began to re-see everything he had done and find it lacking, thin, the actions of someone hollow”: a short story by acclaimed Wellington essayist John Summers
They had asked her where she holidayed as a child. “Near a river down south,” she said, and they nodded, going on to talk of summers at a family bach while she remembered a long weekend, nothing longer than that, in a dewy tent beside an ablution block. They thought their experience was hers. They thought their experience was everybody’s.
Their parents came to visit. They took an interest and they understood. She had meet them herself at gallery openings: a grey-haired man in hornrims maybe, a woman in a bold dress. They would ask after the paintings, demonstrate some casual acquaintance, if not with the artist, with the concept of openings and exhibitions and art that didn’t look like art to a lot of people. These parents stayed in hotels. They took their adult children and their friends out for dinner at nice restaurants and wandered up to the counter with card in hand once all were sated. On the few times he’d made it north, her father camped in the lounge of her apartment. He had come for the first opening she curated, and there he went purposefully from picture to picture with the same genial smile, the face of a man meeting a stranger. When he joined her and her friends after this, she could tell he was fighting the urge to talk about the sketchbook she carried from early adolescence until more obvious talents made it an embarrassment in her second year at university. It was something he raised whenever the subject of her work, of art, was mentioned. It was also something she had forbidden him to talk about in front of others.
She worked hard during the day. She worked hard in the evenings, sitting at her computer writing for publications, knowing she needed her name to be seen. When not doing this, she networked relentlessly. She went to everything. Her knowledge and skill had got her where she was, and although it didn’t pay well, she knew there were many who wanted the job regardless. She knew that all it might take was someone whose father or mother knew someone, or, even worse, the scenario she had most trouble admitting, was that it might also take someone for whom it was effortless, who could simply see without thinking all the things she had trained herself so carefully to see.
Early on she said these things aloud, thinking she was provocative and speaking truths. Now she shuddered at how naïve she’d been, how risky. They didn’t want to hear it, no matter how much they murmured their agreement. And so she kept quiet, knowing all along that she had got here because of her work. She alone could say that, except she couldn’t. When would someone congratulate her, notice? She was lonely. Mostly she was angry. It was an anger that was dull and constant, like the pain of a wisdom tooth. She didn’t feel wise.
There had been boyfriends, artists usually, that at first seemed the same. As artists, as men, they could take pride in difference, in not having things that others had. But more often than not they would disappoint her. “My dad hates it,” they might say, after seeming to understand some story of her own family. “He wanted me to get into law as well.”
But somehow it was worse when they were the same and had also come from families and places where art was not discussed or if ever mentioned came followed by the same old jokes about things two-year olds could do. Once they realised they had this in common, she and he would begin to revel in it, would swap details of those assumptions about holiday homes and parents footing the bill until one morning she woke feeling treasonous. She would have to admit that she wanted everything they had. And so, she would find some reason to think his jokes about them were not funny, unfair even, until finally it would all fall over, and she would remind herself to not make this mistake again.
Ben was an exception. A good guy her friends said to her, introducing him. He did something very specific in IT. A nerd he told people, and she liked that because it wasn’t true. Socially he was quiet but able. He gave her gifts for her birthday: an expensive book and a bunch of flowers. The book was not one she would have chosen, a retrospective on a famous, long-dead painter, the type of artist that people, not art people, thought they had to talk about. But she appreciated the expense and the thought and the way the flowers balanced and softened the tombstone heft of the book. These were the gifts of a good guy. With him there were none of the disappointments she had encountered before. He rarely mentioned his parents, and she would later learn they ran a dairy in a town not unlike hers. He was able to spot some of the same absurdities that she saw without becoming subsumed, without it ever putting his or her place at risk. He moved in and they went halves on the rent and the shopping, but kept separate accounts. He never tried to change the careful way she had furnished the apartment.
When her father became unwell, Ben had come with her at first and then on occasion, and made no comment on the tired old house and the bedroom she and her sister Lianne had shared, or the dull streets of her home town. Spending more and more time there herself, she worried about neglecting her work, the vultures circling, and so took books to read at her father’s bedside, looking up to see him slumped and sleeping each time she turned the page. Towards the end of his illness, Lianne came from Sydney where she lived with her husband and children. In the past they had fought. She thought Lianne was absent, could have done more for their father with her husband’s money. Lianne said it was too late for that, it wouldn’t have made a difference and anyway, Andrew had investments, his business, he couldn’t just pull money out of a hat when they needed it. But she was too tired now to fight and she and Lianne sat up late beside their father, watching him sleep, watching him wake, bewildered until a look of content would come over his face on realising both were there.
When he died, the uncles and aunts and family friends came too, and for the first time in decades she spent time with them, with Uncle Brian and Aunt Sue, and the Kembers, listening to them say the same things about her father: what a tearaway he’d been when he was young, how much trouble he’d been in at school. These were the details they loved to talk about, before they noted how hard he’d tried with his two girls and that was what counted really. She wondered what they meant by this, how much they knew about the nights he left them alone while he was at the pub, the weeks when, his pay gone too soon, they ate the same meal each night. But she kept her wondering to herself and at this point they would turn the conversation to her work only for it to stall and falter, and she would ask after them instead and listen to the detail of their last holiday, the price of things in Fiji.
Lianne left immediately after the funeral, talking of the need to get back to the kids. Neither they nor the husband had come to the funeral. I don’t need anything, Lianne said of their father’s possessions. Take what you want. Although she would want her share when the house sold. And so, Lianne and the aunts and uncles gone, she found herself there alone until Ben arrived and helped her pack things up to go to the Salvation Army. They slept in her old room. She couldn’t bring herself to sleep in her father’s bed, and one day while packing she came across a photo album and opened it to a picture of him as a young man, younger than her now, with the rude squiggle of a moustache. He held a can of beer up in cheers, grinning hard, and there, on either side, his two girls, smiling too, tiny in pink sweatshirts and the long, floral skirts Nanna had made. She closed the album quickly, but put it aside. It was something she would take as well as a Garfield mug, her favourite as a child, and the baseball cap he wore to mow the lawn – it held his smell still, his smell from before he got sick. The rest she watched get carried away, piece by piece until the house was empty, the carpet holding the outline of their beds, drawers, chairs and TV, the ghost of their old life.
On the plane, Ben held her hand and looked to her from time to time, his face showing sympathy.
“There’s so much I never said to him,” she said and laughed. She was close to tears. “I don’t know what to do.”
“It’s the end of an era,” Ben said.
She looked away and later his comment would gnaw at her. It was a feeble thing to say after all that had happened. Ben was a good guy, but what was that? Thinking again of his first gift, she suddenly saw it as arbitrary and impersonal. The book was the sort of book you gave someone who liked art and you gave a woman flowers. From this moment she began to re-see everything he had done and find it lacking, thin, the actions of someone hollow in some way. They would last another month.
Her worries about work, about being usurped while at her father’s deathbed came to nothing. Everything she had done meant her absence was notable, more so than her presence. They missed her calm, the depth of her knowledge. Her colleagues told her there had been a running joke about how easy it would be to simply ask her the difficult questions they had, if only she had been there. All it had taken was her father’s death for her talent to be noticed, and the estate had meant that for the first time she had, like them, received financial help from a parent.
People began to talk about her. She was encouraged to apply for jobs she would have never have considered herself eligible for and, to her surprise, she was given a senior role at the city gallery. There she planned an exhibition that revisited an artist of the past now neglected, but in whose work she had spotted something of current tastes and preoccupations, something she knew they would respond to. She judged correctly. It was a success and her position was cemented. On opening night, they wanted to be near her and they lingered. Speaking to so many people made her feel drunk, her tongue swollen. She scanned the room, avoiding eye contact so she might have a break from conversation, and it was then that she saw him: the curly hair, the clothes loose on his thin body. He was the only one still looking at the paintings and he did so diligently, going from one to another as he always did, trying as hard as ever. His face, she knew, would hold that same open, guileless expression. She waited for him, watching as he worked his way around the room, invisible to everyone else and when he finally turned and she saw a stranger’s face, she wept. She let the tears run. She sobbed. She didn’t try to hide them away. So passionate, they said to one another, seeing this. They would never know.
The Commercial Hotel, a book of essays by John Summers, will be published by Victoria University Press later this year.