On Friday morning, Bernie Packer was waiting in his car outside 16 Rewa Place, feeling he was on a first date. He’d had to use the smug GPS woman to find the address—tucked in a cul-de-sac that was part of some developer’s new cement precinct: rows of identical, two-storeyed ‘executive homes’ with extravagant letter boxes and unfenced landscaping.
He lowered the car window and peered at the front door. This was where Rachel had been staying with her friend Eleanor, whose husband, apparently, was some overpaid princeling in the corporate world. It was Marriage Guidance Day, the reason Bernie was wearing his blue suit, his special occasion tie, clean socks and polished shoes—as well as the fresh underwear responsible for last night’s near-death experience.
He reached up now and angled the rear-view mirror, craning forward to inspect the large plaster patch above his left eye, touched it tentatively, and winced. A rim of blood had leaked around the plaster’s circumference, and the surrounding bruise was darkly theatrical. It could look like evidence of domestic strife, he thought; only it wasn’t: he was a recent casualty of Marriage Guidance.
Last night, finding his cupboards empty of shirts and underwear, and wanting to impress Rachel at their meeting, he’d crammed the contents of the laundry basket into the washer, and inadvertently gashed his skull on the edge of the overhead drier. He’d cried with the pain, run to the bathroom to stem the surprising eruption of blood, and then left the machines to complete their work while he numbed the pain with a couple of stiff whiskies. Later, he’d carefully laid his fresh guidance gear out on the spare bed, and retired for a near-sleepless night.
He pressed the plaster gently, bringing a sharp intake of breath. Out of the corner of his other eye, he saw the door of number 16 open, and someone peer out (not Rachel) before closing. He looked at his watch. Ten minutes to get there. What was she doing? He fetched the chamois from the glove box and ran it over the passenger seat, dashboard and gear lever. The front door opened again, and Rachel stepped out in full kit: black jacket and skirt, high heels, handbag, and bright scarf draped around her shoulders. We’re dressed more for a wedding, he thought, than a rescue session.
But she was thinner, and pale, her face taut with nerves, or tension. He went round to open the passenger door. No kiss offered, just a nod and a murmured apology.
“What happened to your face?” she said with a frown, pulling up her seat belt.
“I knocked it, just a scratch.”
“Well then,” he said brightly, sympathy not forthcoming, and he swung the car out on to the road. “Let’s get it over with.”
“No. I meant, ‘Let’s go’. Sorry.” He glanced across at her. She was biting her lower lip.
“Try to remember she’s just an innocent stranger, a professional doing her job.” She opened her bag for a lipstick and applied a thicker layer of war paint. “Please don’t be aggressive. Give it a chance.” She shut the bag with a sharp click.
“She’s called Mrs Messer. Eleanor says she’s highly recommended.”
“Messer! Christ! Great name for an interfering—”
He nodded solemnly at the road. “Sorry,” he said.
It was an older, colonial house with client parking behind, and brass plates for four or five consultants. A sharp-jawed, unsmiling woman in her fifties answered the doorbell. She had crimped purple hair and sharp grey eyes behind over-large, red-framed spectacles. Bernie distrusted her immediately.
“Ingrid Messer,” she said, in a voice stiff with kindness, ushering them down the passage to her room, and pointing to the solitary sofa that required them to sit together. She sat facing them, and began by sketching out the parameters of the sessions, before beginning a fairly rapid interrogation:
Why were they here? What were the disputes about? What was the trouble with Miranda? Did they know why she’d left the university? Where was she now? Were they in contact with the aunts? Why had Rachel moved out?
After thirty minutes, she took off her spectacles, released a chilly smile, and apologized for the intensity of her questions. “I needed to understand the situation,” she said, “and where we might go from here.” She leaned forward with her hands clasped in her lap, and eyed them both earnestly. “The strongest impression I’m getting, is the very real difficulty you, as family members, seem to have in communicating.”
She sat back in her chair with an air of sad resignation, sighed, and said, “In fact, there appears to be virtually no communication at all: not with each other, not with your daughter, and not with the family members who are currently looking after her.” Her smile was one of regret and bafflement. Bernie cast a sidelong glance at Rachel, who sat looking down at her hands, fingers laced, in her lap, biting her lip again. On the verge of tears, he thought.
“What I can see,” the therapist continued in a more mollifying tone, “is that you, Bernard, have been dealing with a lot of job stress; and you, Rachel, have left a job that you love, which must be a considerable disappointment, a loss of identity, even; and that you are both worried about Miranda, who has real struggles of her own; but not knowing how to help her, you have sent her away, hoping that others will do it for you!” The last part of her analysis was delivered with an edge of accusation, and she sat back, as if allowing for applause.
Bernie exploded. “It wasn’t like—” He began. But the counsellor held up her hand like a traffic cop.
“He didn’t take it seriously!” Rachel burst out. “No, let me finish!” she barked at the counsellor. “He said it was just a phase, that she was a typical first year drop-out and—”
Bernie sat bolt upright. “I do think it’s a phase, and lots of first year students struggle and—”
“Not helpful, this is not helpful!” the therapist chimed in.
“She wasn’t eating, Bernie!” Rachel said. “She was sick. You were too busy to care!”
“Care? Of course I care. She’s my daughter, for god sakes! Why wouldn’t I care? And it was my relatives who offered to help her!”
The counsellor subsided, apparently going to let them slug it out. Bernie heaved a sigh of frustration.
There was a moment’s silence before Rachel spoke again, slowly and quietly. “That’s the thing. I don’t even know if she is your daughter.” She turned to face him, and he could read misery, or fear, in her eyes. And something else: defiance, he thought.
What? It burst out of him. “That’s absurd! Of course she—”
“I wasn’t sure when it happened.” She was speaking quickly now. “It could have been someone else. You said we had to get married right away, because of going to Canada. But this year, when she came home and seemed so different, and not eating, I began to think about it. I don’t know.”
Ingrid Messer intervened. “I’m very, very sorry. But this is a whole new turn. And I have clients waiting. You two have a lot to discuss. I want you to try to do this—in an open way, if possible. But I want you to remember first and foremost that Miranda is what matters here. She’s the innocent party. Her needs come first.”
Bernie sat up, wanting to speak, but she held up her cop’s hand again, and continued. “Whatever the truth, she has been in your care for many years, and she still needs that care.” She looked at Rachel and then at Bernie, and smiled tightly. “I believe you are both good, loving parents who can work this out. You need to leave, now, but call, please, when you are ready for another session. Take care.”
They stumbled out in silence, Rachel with her head down, her collar turned up, sniffing; Bernie like a slack-jawed zombie, padding out to the car. They drove in silence. At Rewa Street she got out in silence, and he gave her a brief nod before she turned away.
He looked at his watch: after eleven. He had a class at midday. He needed time to think, could do with a strong drink, but coffee would do. He’d stop somewhere for coffee. Part of him wanted to try to catch Robin at the staff club and tell him, but it was too big a thing to tell; he had to work it out himself. This wasn’t a part of town he knew, but he found a street with shops and café, parked outside and went in.
He sat in the corner away from the bar. His heart was racing; he was scarcely able to breathe. He reached over to the adjacent table for the day’s newspaper and tried to focus on the headlines. Canterbury farmers struggle after earthquake, CIA drone strikes in Pakistan. All people with bigger troubles than his own, except that he was alone with it, had nobody to share it with. He pulled out his phone and dialled the office, cancelling his midday class.
“I’ve had some bad news,” was all he said, and Judith Gereighty made kind noises of sympathy and told him she would handle it.
Take care. There it was again. It rang through his head when he put down his phone. But he had always taken care. He’d taken care of Rachel in those first months of her pregnancy; and taken care during their struggling years in Canada, when she was depressed with a newborn baby, and they had no money and no friends, except for a few of his fellow post grads. It had almost cost him his doctorate and his career, but he’d taken care. And of Miranda, whom he loved, had loved her from her first moment, the tiny thing, waving arms blindly, closing her hands on his finger. He loved her quietness, her lopsided smile, her long dark hair, her presence. He would always love her. And if she wasn’t his child? Did it matter? She was his child de facto. He’d fathered her, brought her up, listened to her stories, her jokes, wiped her tears, put plaster on her grazed knee. How could he not be her father?
But lately, the last couple of years, he hadn’t always been there to take care. Neither, for that matter, had Rachel, with her work. He’d been disappointed when Miranda had wanted to leave school and go away to university. He’d tried to persuade her to stay for another school year, and stay at home for university, but she was fiercely determined. And when she’d come home, clearly distressed and defiant, and Rachel decided she needed to stop working, he’d kept out of it, mainly because he was struggling himself, with the new teaching and pressure of appraisal. Strangely, even though he was now busier than ever, he was more settled at work and probably could take care. Too late: things had already fallen apart.
Communication breakdown, the Messer lady had effectively said. Which was ironical, given that he worked in a department of communication and media studies. How did it happen, when you lived together, saw each other every day, and shared the same table, the same bed? It stole up on you. Habituation, the Russian Formalists called it: the deadening familiarity that stopped you seeing, stopped you feeling, sharing, talking; kept you trucking along on autopilot, the years sliding by.
He pulled out his phone. He’d text Miranda right now and let her know he was thinking of her.
Hi Darling, he tapped out. How are things going? Spent time with Mum this morning. Send her a message, will you? She’s not been well. How was Ruth’s birthday? We’re hoping to come over after exams. Love to hear from you. Miss you. Love Dad.
He attached three hearts and a teddy bear and pressed SEND.
He was suddenly clear: he would take the day off, go home and write to Rachel. He would tell her that whatever happened all those years ago, Miranda was his lovely daughter, and would always be so.
He’d begun to hate arriving home these days. As soon as he put the key in the front door, the hollow feeling down in his gut came back. Home Alone Again. He’d started a routine: hang up his coat, switch on the radio, throw the newspaper on the coffee table, and turn on a few lights. Evenings, after work, he’d unwrap the day’s takeaway meal—usually curry and rice—and tip the lot into a bowl ready for the microwave, before going upstairs to shower and change into his tracksuit. Then he liked to pick out a Charlie Parker, Herb Alpert, or an Ella CD for company, and sit in his armchair, swallowing his microwaved meal while reading the paper, moving on to the cryptic with his coffee. He’d vowed to grade ten assignments a night, with the help of Charlie Parker et al and a beer, or two, before retiring and the whole shebang starting over again the next day.
He had the lights on now, even though it was only midday, and Friday—with the yawning weekend ahead, for god sakes, and no takeaway to heat up. He’d poach a couple of eggs, but first he’d send some emails. From now on, he was going to work on his communication. Why did psychologists always talk about doing the work? He could tell them a thing or two about work, and it wasn’t sitting in a comfortable chair playing oracle to some sad sucker spilling his guts for forty-five minutes, and then saying, Time’s up for today. No, ma’am. It was shovelling soil for a week in the rain, operating a supermarket checkout all day; or, in his case, slogging through a PhD thesis for almost four years with a baby teething, and a depressed, snivelling wife—all the while living off a narrow diet of home-made pizza, with celebratory pasta and mincemeat on Sundays. Still, he would do the ‘work’, and he went up to his study and pulled up his email.
He would write to Rachel. He’d let her know how he was feeling.
I hope you’re feeling OK today. Yesterday’s meeting was a bit harrowing, but I’m glad we had it, and it was good to see you. I’ve been thinking over what you said about Miranda. It shook me, shocked me. I want you to know, whatever the case, it doesn’t make any difference to me. I think we were both with other people at that time. As far as I’m concerned, Miranda is my daughter, and has been from her first moment of life. And will always be my daughter.
Let me know if/when you want another session, or just to meet in a café, or somewhere. I really want you home—but not because of the conference. Amel, the Arab lady, is bringing her partner, so my being here on my own won’t be so difficult. But it would be really nice if you were back here. No pressure.
He’d done several rewrites and made fifty or more changes to his text, and still didn’t feel ready to press SEND. Why did it have to be so difficult? What else could he do? What if she didn’t come back? Would he have to move out? Let her have the house? He felt a jolt of fear that he might lose the lot: wife, daughter, house. His whole adult life was poised on a precipice and Rachel’s whim. Had he really been such a bad husband to deserve this? Everything in his world had somehow shrunk. There was only work: the conference, classes. Home was reduced to rubbish removal, wiping down the shower, and throwing out takeaway containers. He’d cancelled the last two games of squash with Bernie, and not even been over to the staff room to see him. He felt a swirl of anger, and the question of the ‘other’ putative father began to nag at him. The Bastard!
He woke in the morning with a headache and dry mouth and stumbled into the bathroom. The man in the mirror was a lot older, his face rumpled and lopsided, the left side of his head markedly distended, as if a balloon had somehow been inflated in the upper quadrant of his skull, which now instantly throbbed with pain, summoned to attention by the mirror. He sat on the toilet seat and held his head. He was still in yesterday’s clothes. He had not followed his pious routine for the remainder of yesterday, as intended. He had not poached the eggs he’d set out on the kitchen counter; or graded the ten papers he’d removed from his briefcase, nor got around to mowing the lawn, as intended. Instead, he had remembered an unopened bottle of duty-free Jim Beam at the back of the lower kitchen cupboard and taken it into the living room, drawn the curtains and shared it with his favourite artists—Benny, Herb, Satchmo, Dizzy and Ella—until much later, when he had crawled up the stairs and draped himself over the bed.
Now he shook off his clothes and stood under the shower with the water at full pelt; then soberly shaved and dressed himself for work. He poached the two eggs he’d left on the counter, eating them straight from the pan, and then circled the room, collecting and stacking discarded CD jackets and discs; he replaced the untouched student assignment papers in his briefcase and picked up yesterday’s newspaper from the coffee table. Friday, the masthead said. Friday! Today was Saturday! He leaned against the front door, laughing; and then found himself crying, and he crouched down behind the door, still clutching his briefcase and the newspaper, then sank to his knees and sobbed aloud.
After some minutes, he scrambled up and made himself coffee and toast, which he took at the kitchen table, still in his coat, his briefcase beside him, and thought out his day. He would tidy up the kitchen, change into weekend jeans and sweater, check his emails for a response from Rachel, and then mow the lawn. He’d have another couple of eggs, take a little nap, and then do his grading.