The photo is black and white. The wedding was held on her grandmother’s birthday. Isabel’s parents look happy. Her grandparents too.
Her father proposed to her mother by letter. Her mother’s response – her grandmother told her this too – was: ‘Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!’
But her mother had only met her father – how many times? Two? Three? They barely knew each other. The Organisation kept men and women apart, or chaperoned them, so the pair cannot have had one intimate conversation.
Yet her mother said: ‘Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!’
On her parents’ wedding certificate, her mother is described as ‘Spinster’. She was not quite twenty-eight years old.
Isabel will be born ten months after the wedding, her conception a result, according to her grandmother, of sex that almost didn’t happen.
A thought has only just occurred to her: if her parents’ first time was a month after they got married, what did they do on their wedding night?
Isabel and her parents are watching television, but her father has fallen asleep, his head on the back of the sofa, mouth open. He is snoring.
Isabel is nine or ten, and can see her mother’s face, crimped in disgust, and her body, upright and rigid on the edge of the seat.
Her mother picks up a cushion and whacks her father on the arm. He jolts awake and lashes out, grabs the cushion, hits her back. They freeze, bristling, like two cats mid-fight. No words are spoken.
‘When your grandfather retired, we were forced to get to know each other.’
Another unexpected confession; Isabel is not sure when or where. She glimpses her grandmother bustling in her tiny, dark kitchen, throwing the remark over her shoulder.
Isabel’s grandfather works as an accountant. He left school at fourteen, and had no chance of getting a good job unless he had a qualification. It took him five years because he studied at night. Isabel’s grandmother and mother were not allowed to disturb him. When they leave the Organisation and move back home, he works for the same firm until he retires; a job Isabel can never really tell if he enjoys.
After he retires, every Thursday, Isabel’s grandparents drive out on a day trip. One week of every school holidays, they take Isabel. Her grandmother packs lunch: sandwiches in greaseproof paper, hard boiled eggs in their shells, fruit and the fruit knife, a tartan Thermos of tea, a small glass bottle, perhaps an old medicine bottle, holding enough milk for four cups, stoppered with a greaseproof-wrapped cork. Neither of them take sugar.
Isabel recalls her grandparents’ conversations on those day trips as ordinary. They talk about what they observe out the car window, birds and animals in particular, and trees if they are noteworthy, like a big oak in autumn or a lone nikau palm. If they go for a bush walk, they know the names of plants, and birds, which they stop and watch. If fantails come swooping, Isabel’s grandfather purses his lips and emits a squeaky chitter, not far off the real thing.
If they decide on the beach, her grandfather picks up driftwood. One time, he returns with a branch, salt-dry with a ridged barley-twist pattern, thick as a wrist and straight. He puts a rubber cap on one end and turns it into a walking stick. He walks for hours, all over the hills behind their house, while her grandmother stays at home and – Isabel only knows what she’s observed – does laundry, bakes,knits, and reads Dick Francis.
Her grandparents never gossip on the driving trips, the way adults do when they think the child in the back seat isn’t listening or won’t understand. They rarely talk about other people at all. They are always polite to each other, only occasionally irritable. Isabel has no idea what they talk about when they are alone.
The kitchen smells like old roasts and new bread. It is warmed by the range and the midday winter sun streaming in through the windows, and shrunk by two big men sitting at the table. They lounge in the old wooden chairs, one arm hooked over the back, legs stretched out, socks the texture of hardened horse mash, on display because the boots must be left outside.
Isabel’s son is five. He is on her lap, leaning forward over the table, drawing with coloured pencil. It’s a picture of the farm. Green hills, white sheep, blue sky and the ginger cat who is much larger than the sheep for reasons, Isabel guesses, more psychological than perspectival. Even though he knows where the cat hides, it has attacked his ankles more than once.
Her mother-in-law at the head of the table, drinking tea from a blue mug and listening. As always, hard to read her mood. The best way to describe her mother-in-law’s usual demeanour is ‘not displeased’.
‘You know, Isabel,’ says her father-in-law, ‘when this lad was five, he slapped his mother on the rear and said “Hurry up, you old tart” because that’s what he’d heard me say to the sheep.’
‘Ha!’ Isabel’s son shakes his head, smiles knowingly, and adds more blue to the sky. ‘Old tart.’
‘Cheers Pa,’ says her husband. ‘I thank you on behalf of his teachers.’
‘Do you remember doing it?’
‘Slapping Ma on the arse?’
‘Thank you—’ His mother warns.
‘Did you slap me back, Ma?’
‘I don’t recall.’
He turns to his father. ‘Did she slap me?’
‘She chased you down the hallway once, brandishing a wooden spoon, I remember that.’
‘You once threw a boot at my head.’
‘You were being a cheeky shit.’
‘Do you mind—?’
‘He knows that word already Ma.’
‘Not from me he doesn’t.’
‘I wouldn’t speak too quickly,’ says Isabel’s father-in-law. ‘That ewe who butted you over the other month? You called her a very bad name.’
His wife gives him a fathomless look as he laughs and laughs.
‘More tea?’ she says to him.
‘You don’t have to change your name if you don’t want,’ says Isabel’s husband-to-be.
‘I like your surname. It’s solid.’
‘We could hyphenate?’
‘No we couldn’t! What would our children do if they married another hyphenated name? Who needs a quadruple-barrelled surname?’
‘I read a news article about dodgy hyphenated names. Hardy-Harr. McDonald-Berger. Dixon-Dykes.’
‘My mother still uses my father’s name. She didn’t go back to her maiden name.’
‘What about when she and the sailor man tie the knot?’
‘She’s keeping everything separate. Has her own bank account. Pays half of all the bills. They own the house as tenants in common.’
‘Doesn’t she trust him? He seems like a good bloke.’
‘Dad used to give her housekeeping money, and she used to have to ask him for money for clothes and things. I was nineteen when she got her first paying job.’
‘You should keep your own bank account. It’s smart.’
‘Do you want me to?’
‘I don’t know. It’s up to you.’
‘I’d rather be – together.’
‘What if I turn out to be a gambling addict? Or have a whole other family, like great uncle Alistair?’
‘Don’t jinx it.’
‘Don’t jinx it.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Catherine Robertson has published four novels that have all been #1 New Zealand bestsellers. This work is an an excerpt from her short novel, The Break, submitted as a thesis for her MA from the IIML, 2015.