The customs official asked me the reason for my visit. Business or pleasure he said, in the surly grey English morning.
Neither, I replied.
You are English, he said. This is an Australian passport.
Yes, I said. I’m coming home. It is neither business nor pleasure, it is a requirement.
He looked puzzled.
Family, I said. My mother. Cancer.
Welcome to Great Britain, he said.
I headed north out of London, wearing sunglasses in the dull light that felt unfamiliar and familiar at the same time. I was assaulted with things that used to be unnoticeable: accents and the particular smell of laundry.
Three days ago the phone had rung late at night. I recognised my sister’s voice instantly and the years since we’d spoken collapsed.
“Iain,” she’d said.
“You need to get on a flight.”
Her voice was choked. “Mum. We’re going up to the house.”
“It’s not the sort of thing you say over the phone.”
“Harry,” I said.
“We’ll be there tomorrow night.”
“I don’t know. She’s not exactly forthcoming.”
It sounded as if she was crying.
“When did this happen?”
“I don’t know, you’re the one who phones.”
“That’s what she says.”
“I haven’t called in a while,” I said, which opened a torrent of guilt. I rationalised: I’ve been busy, my life is here and even when we do speak they only want to hear about the good things because those are worthy of a long-distance phone call.
“How did you find out?” I asked.
“She went to see them. Mum had a wig.”
“They went swimming.”
I imagined my mother marching out of hospital in the midst of her treatment, jettisoning her wig, the bags of chemotherapy dragging behind her like poisonous jellyfish threatening to burst and sting her at any moment. I knew she would ignore them. Nothing could keep her from the sea because it was her answer to everything. The sea, for my mother, would make it all better.
When I arrived at my parents’ house I paused. Ringing the bell seemed to formal, walking right in too informal. I saw my mother’s face in the window: her cheeks were sunken and she’d lost weight.
I rang the bell and the door opened onto my father and Myrtle, my sister’s daughter.
My father looked me up and down suspiciously. “What do you want?”
“Hi Uncle Iain,” Myrtle said. “Perfect timing. Grandma’s just putting dinner out.”
He looked at Myrtle. “Harriet, do you know this man?”
She led him into the kitchen. I heard her say, “Mum, he’s doing it again.”
“Hi,” I said to the empty foyer.
Mum nearly dropped her serving spoon when she saw me.
“Oh my God, Iain, you’re going bald!” Harriet said as she hugged me.
“Iain,” Mum said. “I wasn’t expecting you.”
I gave her a hug and a kiss. She felt frail in my arms. “It’s good to see you.”
“Myrtle, set another place,” she said.
My father lurched into the kitchen. “Hi Dad,” I said.
He looked at me dismissively and put the kettle on. He fiddled with the button, and it refused to switch on. “Goddamn it! Why doesn’t anything in this house work?”
Everyone ignored him.
He looked around wildly. “Have you all gone deaf? The bloody kettle’s buggered again.”
“John, stop shouting,” Mum said. “Sit down at the table, please.”
“Stop telling me what to do!”
Mum took a deep breath and Harriet led him to the table, helping him into his seat.
I offered to help but Mum brushed me away.
“What’s going on with him?” I asked.
“No, he’s not.”
“Did you come all the way from Sydney to tell me that?”
She still had her sharpness, which was reassuring. “No,” I said. “I came to see you.”
“You should’ve called. We’ve a full house,” she said as she brought the roast to the table. She handed me the carving knife. “Make yourself useful.”
I wanted to talk to her and find out what was going on and why she’d kept it from us, but it was obvious that wasn’t going to happen tonight.
Mum served Dad first, as was our custom, and when she put the plate in front of him he lowered his head and sniffed.
“What is this, chicken?”
“It doesn’t smell right,” he said, pushing the food away. He turned to Myrtle and said, “Harriet, go and put some tomato soup on.”
No one moved. Mum cut a potato in half and chewed slowly. Dad waited, looking at Myrtle and when she didn’t get up he said, “You’re just as willful as your mother.”
“That she is,” Mum said.
Dinner passed quickly. There was no sense talking when my father kept interrupting.
That night I couldn’t sleep. The jet-lag was punishing but more than that, my childhood bed was claustrophobic, it was difficult to resist returning to the old version of myself so I went into the kitchen and poured myself a glass of milk.
“I’d have thought you’d be out for the count,” Harriet said. “Jet lag?”
“What are you drinking?”
I held up my glass and she scoffed. She wrestled with the fiddly latch on the drinks cabinet, then poured us each a glass of whisky.
“This reminds me of the old days.”
“When we’d have gone down the pub and had come home pissed out of our minds.”
“Do you think they knew?”
“I bet Mum did.” I sighed. “Harry, what’s going on?”
She shook her head. “Myrtle came up here last week. Mum took her swimming.”
“Right?” She smiled ruefully at our mother’s devotion to the sea. “Myrtle said that instead of putting a cap on, Mum took her wig off.”
“That’s a wig?”
She nodded. “And when Myrtle looked, I don’t know, shocked, frightened, curious, Mum had said cancer. I had no idea she’d even come here, that she even knew where they lived. So, at dinner, Myrtle’s getting really moody and blurts out that Mum, that Grandma, has cancer.”
“Have you talked to her yet?”
“Yeah, but you know what she’s like.”
Harriet smiled. “She hasn’t changed a bit.”
“She’s too thin.” I looked at my drink. “She looks old.”
“We all do. You’re going bald, I have crow’s feet.”
“It’s good to see you.” I hadn’t realised how much I missed her.
“You too. You know, Heathrow’s always open. You don’t have to wait for cancer to come over.”
“I know, it’s just,” I sighed. “I’m busy.”
She rolled her eyes. “Who cares? Life’s short.”
I finished my drink and held my glass out. She refilled it.
“Did you at least find out if the cancer’s gone?”
“Breast cancer, and she finished chemo last week.”
“Would’ve been nice to know.”
“You regret coming?”
“No, but I could’ve planned it properly.”
“What’s to plan? You pack a bag, you get on a flight.”
“So she’ll be okay?”
“She’ll be fine.”
“Dad, on the other hand.”
“What is going on there?”
“You know, for someone who calls regularly you really don’t know much about what’s going on here.”
“You think it’s hard getting information out of Mum in person, try doing it over the phone. She hasn’t put him on in a while.”
“I asked her, but she won’t talk about it.”
“It’s not good, whatever it is,” I said.
“No, it’s not.”
In the morning I heard arguing. I put my track suit on and went downstairs where Mum and Myrtle were standing by the door. Harriet did not look happy.
“Tell her she can’t go,” she told me.
“She’s your daughter.”
“Not her, her,” she said, stabbing Mum in the shoulder with her finger.
“Can’t go where?”
“You have to ask?” Harriet said.
I looked at Mum and the most devilish grin grew across her face. It was comforting.
“How does your doctor feel about this?” I asked.
“I’ve no idea,” Mum replied. “But it’s my life and today I would like to take my granddaughter swimming.”
“She can’t go,” Harriet said.
“Why?” Myrtle whined.
“Fine,” Mum said. “I’ll go by myself.”
I watched her diminished figure walk away and wondered if her physical strength could match her determination. I had seen her swim the Channel more than once and I had to believe it would see her through. My sister and I mooched through the morning, drinking coffee and acting as if nothing had changed until the changes were impossible to ignore.
“Get out of my house!”
I jumped at the sound of my father shouting. He stood in front of us, dressed in his usual waistcoat, tie and jacket. But he was wearing slippers, and by the state of them it looked as though he had gone out in them.
“Dad, calm down,” I said. My impulse was to try and comfort him, but something wasn’t right. He looked frightened: his eyes wide open in shock, his mouth sputtering, his hands shaking.
“Whoever you are, get the hell out of my house!” He held his fist up and I thought he was going to come after me.
“Dad!” Harriet shouted, springing up. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
He shrunk back from her.
“Get away from me!” he shouted.
I tried speaking quietly, slowly, as you might to a lost child. “Dad, it’s okay. Why don’t you come and sit on the sofa?”
I didn’t move towards him, I kept my hands at my sides.
“What the hell?” I whispered.
“Just get him sitting down,” Harry said.
I didn’t want to be the one to try and get him to sit down, and I didn’t want to be the one who sat with him. At that moment I wanted to go back to my life. I wanted my parents to go back to being a phone call twice a month where I was reassured that everything was, as ever, fine. Because this was not fine, this was a problem, and I had no idea how to fix it or cope with it.
My father settled on the couch.
“Dad,” I said tentatively. “What happened? Where did you go?”
He was on edge but gradually he calmed down. He leaned back on the couch and stared out the window ignoring me. At least I wasn’t an intruder anymore.
We rang Mum and let told her what had happened and as we waited for her to sort everything out I felt bad that, even though she was ill, very ill, she was still the one who would have to do the heavy-lifting.
“When she gets home,” I said.
“We talk,” Harriet said.
When Mum got home she looked at him sleeping on the sofa and I thought she was going to slap him, she looked so angry. Instead, she went into the kitchen without saying a word. Harriet and I exchanged glances, then followed her and blocked her way out. She ignored us and made a cup of tea.
“Anything you’d like to share?” Harriet asked.
“Would you like a cup too? There ought to be enough water.” She opened the cupboard and took out a tin of biscuits. She took a bite and then, noticing our eyes boring a hole in the side of her head she held one up and said, “Rich Tea, my favourite.”
“Mum,” Harriet said. I put my hand on her shoulder; I wouldn’t have been shocked if she’d tried to strangle her. “Enough. What is going on here? With him?”
“He’s just tired. He’s having trouble sleeping.” She poured the water and avoided eye contact.
“And you?” I asked. “Harry said you have cancer.”
“Had,” she said. “Finished the treatment a few weeks ago.” She put the tea bag in the sink.
“That’s all you have to say about it?” Harriet said.
“What more is there to say?”
“What kind of cancer? What kind of treatment? How do you know it’s gone? Why are you still wearing a wig?”
“I don’t see why it matters.”
I thought Harriet was going to take Mum by the shoulders and shake her.
“It was breast cancer, the kind you want, that’s what the doctor said. It had a Latin-sounding name. They operated and I had chemotherapy. I went for a check-up last week and the doctor said everything looked fine. It made my hair fall out and it’s not growing back fast.” She took a sip of her tea. “All right?” She pursed her lips and I actually thought there was a slight smirk in her expression, as if she was pleased with herself for getting away with it all, for keeping it a secret.
“You didn’t tell anyone you were having an operation?” Harriet said. “You don’t keep things like that from family.”
“You two have your own lives. It was nothing.”
I could see this was going to turn into an argument neither of them would win. “What about Dad?”
“He’s fine, he’s tired.”
“He came in here and didn’t know who the hell we were.”
“You know what he’s like, always joking around.”
My father was many things; a joking-around kind of man he was not.
“Mum, we want to help,” I said.
She looked over my shoulder. “We’re fine, aren’t we, John?”
I turned and saw my father; his expression was different and he was almost back to his normal self.
“Why wouldn’t we be?”
He pushed past me and Mum handed him her cup of tea.
The day I was due to leave Mum announced that she was going for a swim.
“I’ll come with you,” I said.
She looked surprised. “Try and keep up,” she said.
We walked to the beach where she taught me to swim. The shoreline was closer to the cliff than I’d remembered. There were more boats, and a greater sense of activity, but it was mostly the way I remembered it. The way I’d left it.
I followed her to her usual spot, which I could’ve done in my sleep. It was muscle memory; my feet would always know the way across the rust-coloured pebbles, to the spot where she stowed her things.
I followed her to the water’s edge, shivering in the breeze. I’d never known anyone with cancer before and I’d imagined such people to be frail and weak, but she was transformed in the water. Head down, arms churning, she cut through the water as I followed in her slipstream, as I’d done when I was a boy.
“I’m so glad you joined me,” she said.
She was a different person out here in the sea. This was her home, but it wasn’t mine. The cold burned my fingers and toes.
“What is it, about the water?”
Her smile grew broader. “It’s hard to say, exactly.”
“Try,” I said.
“If we really wanted to, we could swim to another country from here. We could escape.”
“Do you want to?”
“I’ve been to France.”
“Sometimes.” She rolled onto her back.
I didn’t know what to make of that. “Now, or then?”
“Both.” She went back to treading water and looked me in the eye. “Do you remember, when you were little? We used to come out here?”
“How could I forget?”
“You’d be surprised how easy it is.”
“We just want to help, you know.”
“There isn’t much that can be done.”
“What’s happening to him?”
She ducked her head underwater and when she came back up she wiped her face. “Age,” she said. “We’re getting old.”
“Mum, please. I’ve come such a long way.”
“Yes, you have. Grown man, father, big job.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
She ducked her head under again and when she resurfaced she said, “Did you know that we have the same salt content as the sea? The sea is literally inside us.”
“You didn’t go to church yesterday.”
“We haven’t been in a while.”
“This is the only church I need.”
“He doesn’t come here with you anymore?”
She shook her head. “It’s too much for him now.”
“Why won’t you tell me what’s going on?”
“Because some things are private,” she shot back. “Because I am tired of the looks and the stares and the whispers.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We don’t go to church anymore because people started talking about your father’s rather erratic behaviour. We’ve become a topic.”
“Who cares what a bunch of gossips think?”
She splashed water on my face. “I do. He does. They are, they were, our friends.”
“Have you been to the doctor?”
“He won’t go and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“I could’ve tried, I could’ve helped.”
“A name isn’t the same as a cure.”
“But people would be more understanding.”
“No, they won’t. He’s frightening, he frightens me. He breaks my heart. I walk through town and I know people are staring. I can feel it.” She ducked underwater again, and stayed down for longer this time. I watched the air bubbles slowly make their way to the surface.
When it was time for me to leave I didn’t know what to do, but my mother wrapped her arms around me and said, “I’m glad you came. To see, the sea.” She kissed my cheek and I could smell the sea on her skin. Nothing was okay, but she was still herself and that was something.
My father sat in his chair, sleeping.
“You’ll let us know,” I said.
I knew she wouldn’t. I knew it couldn’t happen across so many miles, so much distance. That it was not her way to ask for help and that what assistance I could offer would change nothing.
Gillian Best has been short listed for the Bridgeport Prize for short fiction (2013), was runner-up in Unbound Press’ first novel competition (2011), a finalist in Glimmertrain’s short story award for new writers (2007), and won the Bronwen Wallace award for short fiction (2003). She has had short fiction published in the UK and her native Canada and is the holder of a PhD in Creative Writing and English Literature from the University of Glasgow (2011). Originally from Canada, Gillian now lives and works in Bristol.