David brings my cousins Rebecca and Ben south to stay a few nights at the Floodhouse. Ben is my sister’s age; Becky and I go way back. My uncle must be anticipating a well-starred, riverside holiday for his children. He may also be making a gesture of solidarity towards his freshly separated brother-in-law and recently expelled niece. A plucky gesture, if so, for these are urban people who like their morning coffee from a plunger, and their evening current affairs over the cask red.
On their arrival, the physical delicacy of my younger cousins throws into relief how grim the river-sluiced deformities of the Floodhouse actually are. Even my aunt and uncle’s murder house on the Terrace had a semblance of structural decency that ours does not. In the visitors’ fastidious presence, I see my father’s house anew. It is one thing to live there, another to have such witnesses.
One day I will find creative nourishment in my father’s talent for a mess. The imagination sometimes takes flight if there is nothing too materially demanding to hold it down. It is in one of my father’s untidy piles, by the sea, that I first begin to write.
Right now, though, no one can relax.
David assumes a blokey jocularity to assuage the shock. Jesus, Norm. My father returns the same, although his bloke act feels more like kindly drag. Fag hanging out of mouth, David proves a decent hand at the wood block too. Aware of him discreetly shepherding his children through this unanticipated slum experience, I appreciate that my uncle is a good sport.
I do not remember what my cousins make of my father’s breakfast fixture, soya bean omelette. I do not remember what they make of dandelion coffee, served from a saucepan so encased in old grounds it looks like a Gaudi then filtered through a sieve the size of a dinner plate. I do recall that, perched on the wood-smoke-blackened sofa, Rebecca eats more like a bird than ever. That Ben, naturally pale, looks ill in the submarine light. That my childhood playmate whimpers in her sleep from the mattress on the floor alongside my bed, and that, woken, I think only of not having my sleep disturbed again.
I do remember that conversation deserts us. Rebecca is uncharacteristically mute. I have entered an arrangement utterly beyond her ken.
As for what we do, there is nothing to do. A day out is a visit to my father’s cowshed pottery, which is just a cowshed with the addition of a pottery wheel, some pots and my father’s portable disarray. We make coil pots and our hands become inhospitably dry. We are city kids.
Maybe it is a test, Uncle David gently nudging his children’s mettle. Maybe he harbours a sneaky admiration for my father’s pioneer approximations, his approximate DIY. Maybe he just wants to see how another ex-husband and recent solo dad does it. These possibilities notwithstanding, the visit is mercifully short.