Father grew a beard. I told him that he looked scruffy. He said he’d earned the right to wear his whiskers long. I pointed out that potential employers preferred clean shaven staff. He’s said this was ludicrous, and where did I get my crazy notions. This was the closest to argument we’d come for a considerable time. Clarissa claimed to like Father’s new look, particularly the ginger streaks in his full beard. I realized that our insignificant chatter signalled a near return to normality. Despite Mother, despite Elizabeth, we were somehow healing.
Father had received some bad news. His work contract would not be renewed. The firm was making major cutbacks. This meant that Father needed to search for alternative employment. At his age this would be difficult. Father had invested significant sums into the franchise. He was heavily in debt. We would all need to tighten our belts. I offered to take a menial dishwashing job, to supplement our income. Father was touched but said this wouldn’t be necessary. We’d get by. Every morning before school I watched Father scouring the employment columns. His head was hung low so he could see the newspaper’s small print. When I left, he grunted a goodbye. Things were clearly dire.
Father lay a bouquet of wild flowers beneath Mother’s birch tree, which was thriving. He addressed Mother’s spirit in a few solemn, well-considered words. Suddenly I realized how much he missed her. He had never vocalized his grief. This didn’t diminish it. I found myself crying. Clarissa squeezed my hand comfortingly. Elizabeth’s suicide, Dan’s alcoholism, had overshadowed Mother’s passing. It was time to honour her now.
It was the first anniversary of Mother’s demise. I felt guilty that Father had to remind me of this occasion. I didn’t know how we should honour the day. Whatever we did, it should be something solemn and proper. Somehow a family meal seemed inappropriate, but that was what Father suggested. We purchased some modest fare online, then Clarissa cooked up an honorary banquet. As she stirred innumerable pans and I sliced leafy vegetables, Clarissa asked me about Mother. Simple questions. A lump rose in my throat and my eyes bleared as I answered Clarissa. She could see it was disturbing me, so she desisted. When the food was ready, Father poured wine and we toasted Mother’s memory. The simple act was very moving. I felt the tears prick behind my eyes. Father lowered his head in a silent prayer, and then we ate.
I had tried to ignore Clarissa’s broodiness. I still found it strange, that an independent, intelligent teenage woman should wish for babies. I suppose I understood nothing. I avoided the subject like the plague. But I knew Clarissa dwelt on it. She would throw me a pregnant glance at the dinner table, which quite unhinged my composure. I thought about talking it through with Father. But he would probably smirk and make lewd faces. Clarissa clearly wished for marriage too. I shied away from that terrifying word. I found it hard to glance at Clarissa. Surely she would notice this. I predicted rocky waters ahead.
Dan wanted to sell up. He had no more enthusiasm for his farm. On the proceeds, he could purchase a modest town house. That way he’d be out of our hair. Father assured Dan that he was always welcome. It seemed a radical, misguided act. Agriculture was in Dan’s bloodstream. It would be like lopping off a limb. Elizabeth’s childhood was also tangled into the mix. But Dan was adamant. He jested about rising late, after a lifetime up at the crack of dawn. I thought it a sad decision. But I’d only lost a girlfriend, not a daughter. That changed people’s lives.
Dan came back to our place. The hardware had been removed from his leg, but he still needed crutches. From now on, Dan would always walk with a limp. Clarissa tried hard to keep him cheerful. She tied purple bows to his crutches and made a lavish welcome home dish of sauced prawns and fragrant rice. It was fabulous. Dan thrust a pillow under his leg and ate like a starved man. The hospital food had been unspeakable, he said. Father offered to nip out for some beer, but Dan declined, saying it would interfere with his strong painkillers. This was progress. Dan’s fingers were noticeably trembling, but he had a firmer hold on his addiction. Father promised to clear out the box room and give Dan a proper bed. We had a new family member.
Dan had been hit by a car. His leg was smashed and mangled. He’d been on his way to the bottle shop, and was undoubtedly plastered. Dan had become a fixture in our home, so we were all concerned. His drinking must stop. Even a bereaved Father had to move on. Later, we all stood around Dan’s hospital bed. His leg was braced in a fearsome metallic contraption. I felt sure there were bolts drilled into Dan’s bones. Dan was heavily medicated. He said that he felt nothing. His mood was sombre. He promised Father that he’d lay off the booze. I believed him.
Clarissa and I had taken no precautions. It was irresponsible of me. Teenage parenthood would be disastrous. I didn’t want that responsibility. Yet we did nothing to prevent such an outcome. Each month I was on tenterhooks. Fortunately Clarissa was like clockwork, and nothing transpired. I knew I should broach the subject of the pill. We spoke. I was flabbergasted when Clarissa said she wanted our baby. Nothing would make her happier. A dreamy expression descended into her eyes. It was the look of motherhood. In my head, alarm bells sounded. It was inconceivable. Sensibly, realistically, we had to talk this through.
When Clarissa read my poem, she recognized it was a declaration of love. She was solemn for a while, then she kissed me passionately. The poor girl was dead, so I was forgiven. Clarissa and I grew inseparable. She stayed over most nights. I was surprised that her parents didn’t object. Father had grown fond of Clarissa. His early frostiness had warmed into a pleasant summery fondness. I was delighted to see them chortling happily together at meal times. Occasionally Dan came around. Father invited him to read the poem. Dan’s eyes watered, but he said nothing. Soon the two men would be quaffing jugs of beer at the kitchen table. I worried that Dan might be drifting into full-blown alcoholism. He often crashed on our couch. I wondered what was happening to his farm in Devon. Father had told me there was a caretaker farmer but, eventually, Dan would have to face his ghosts at home.