The bread was always out. The milk too. Father
had tried to open a credit line with the local corner
shop, but the miserable proprietor had been
adamant. No such arrangements were allowed.
Dan occasionally brought some simple groceries,
so the wolf inside me was generally placated.
Clarissa knew our dire straits. It was embarrassing
to dwell on my personal hunger, so the whole
subject was glossed over. Until Clarissa suddenly
appeared with a giant frozen chicken and a sack
of washed potatoes. The chicken we joyfully
defrosted, then roasted, together with the spuds.
Father gushed gratitude. The protein surged inside
us, and the feast made us forget our poverty.
Father always looked harassed. He came in from
his run sweating profusely, his hair tousled by the
chilly wind. We’d had a rainy spell recently. Father
was always soaked through, his crazy yellow
clothes steaming. He’d contracted a nasty sniff
and a hacking cough that seemed impossible
to shift. I felt certain his health was rapidly
deteriorating. The worst part was that he was
only earning a pittance. The work was effectively
slave labour, and nobody really wanted the stupid
brochures Father delivered into numerous letter
boxes. I felt immensely sorry for Father as he
trudged into the street, weighted down by a
colossal sack of junk mail. I offered to help.
I suggested we could balance the load on an
old tricycle that was rusting in the garage.
Father would have none of it. It was his burden.
There was a loud thudding at the door. It was
definitely hostile. I was alone in the house at the
time. The curtains were firmly drawn, but I dared
to edge a chink, so I could look out. A beefy
individual in a smart suit and tie stood on the
front step, clearly riled that no one came to the
door. He carried a spanking new briefcase under
his arm and clutched a wodge of paperwork.
Father had said if we were served papers, this
meant he’d have to appear in court. I held my
breath, feeling suddenly dizzy. Another volley of
vicious raps, then a tense silence. Finally the debt
collector slunk away, leaving his calling card.
I went outside to retrieve the laminated square,
tore it up, and tossed it in the bin. Father would
never know. If the man came again, I would be
At the supermarket, Father was buying cheaper
brands. The crappy instant coffee tasted like filth.
I was mildly concerned what Clarissa would think.
Her family had always been affluent, she wouldn’t
know how to slum it. Crimson envelopes
demanding money began to thump onto the hall
mat. Father was always on the phone, trying to
placate the bank. Until the phone was suddenly
disconnected. Father kept the curtains perpetually
drawn, in case of unwelcome visitors. He warned
me about answering the bell, unless I expected
somebody. We began to lead frightened, furtive
Father was offered a job delivering junk mail.
It was demeaning. The work was more suited
to a twelve-year old boy. They gave him a satchel
and a bright yellow vest. Father looked ridiculous.
A whole stack of glossy brochures needed sorting
first. Father did this in our basement, folding
everything perfectly, taking ages. Thereafter he
heaved a back-breaking load onto his shoulder,
and trudged into the street. I felt profoundly sorry
for him. I knew the pay was pitiful. It would be
barely enough to buy provisions, let alone settle
pressing bills. Father had muttered something
about getting extra hours, once his trial period
was completed. He was always such a die-hard
optimist. I wished I could share his golden
enthusiasm for the future.
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.