On Sunday Mornings
On Sunday – when I was a child – my father always took me out for the morning. It was a routine. He led me by the hand down by the river or we took the car. Either way, we always arrived at the same place.
He might have a bath before departure and sometimes I walked into the bathroom to surprise him there lying in six inches of soapy water. Meanwhile downstairs, my mother perched lightly in the worn velvet armchair to skim through the newspaper. Then there were elaborate discussions between them, prior to our leaving, to negotiate the exact time of our return, and I understood this was because the timing and preparation of a Sunday lunch was a complex affair. My father took me out of the house the better to allow my mother to concentrate single-mindedly upon this precise task and she was grateful for that opportunity, I believed. It was only much later that I grew to realise how much she detested cooking and housework.
A mile upstream there was a house on the other riverbank, the last but one in a terrace and the front door gave directly onto the street. This was our regular destination. When we crossed the river at this point by car, we took the large bridge entwined with gryphons cast in iron. On the times we walked, we crossed downstream at the suspension footbridge and my father’s strength was always great enough to make the entire structure swing.
Even after all this time, I can remember the name of the woman who lived in the narrow house by the river because my father would tell my mother quite openly that he was going to visit her, and her daughters. For she had many daughters, and all preoccupied with grooming themselves it seemed. I never managed to count them because every week the number of her daughters changed, or so it appeared. Each had some activity, whether it was washing her hair or manicuring her nails, that we would discover her engaged with upon our arrival. These women shared an attitude of languor, as if they were always weary, but perhaps that was just how they were on Sunday, the day of rest. It was an exclusively female environment and I never recalled any other male present when I went to visit with my father on those Sunday mornings.
To this day, the house remains, one of only three remnants of an entire terrace. Once on a visit, years later, I stood outside the house in the snow, and contemplated knocking on the door and asking if the woman still lived there. But I did not. Why should I? What would I ask? What could I say? The house looked blank, like a face. Even this is now a memory to me, that I recalled once again after another ten years had gone by and I glanced from a taxi window to notice the house, almost dispassionately, in passing.
There was a table with a bench seat in an alcove which extended around three sides, like on a ship, so that sometimes as I sat drinking my orange squash while the women smoked their cigarettes, I found myself surrounded and unable to get down even if I chose. At an almost horizontal angle, the morning sunlight illuminated this scene from a window in the rear of the alcove and gave the smoke visible curling forms in the air. After a little time, sitting there, I became aware that my father was absent, that he had gone upstairs with one of the women. I knew this because I heard their eager footsteps ascending.
On one particular day, I sat at the end of the bench with my back to the wall. The staircase was directly on the other side of this thin wall and the women at the table were involved in an especially absorbing conversation that morning, and I could hear my father’s laughter at the top of the stairs. Curiosity took me. I slipped off the bench, placed my feet on the floor and began to climb the dark little staircase.
I could see the lighted room at the top. The door was wide open and standing before the end of the bed was my father and one of the daughters. They were having a happy time, both laughing and leaning back with their hands on each other’s thighs. My father was lifting the woman’s skirt and she liked it. Yet my presence brought activities to a close in the bedroom that morning. It was a disappointment, something vanished from the room as I walked into it but I did not know what it was. That was the last time my father took me to that house, perhaps the last time he visited. Though I could not say what happened on those Sunday mornings when I chose to stay with my mother.
We ate wonderful Sunday lunches, so that whatever anxiety I had absorbed from my father, as we returned without speaking on that particular Sunday morning, was dispelled by anticipation as we entered the steamy kitchen with its windows clouded by condensation and its smells of cabbage and potatoes boiling.
My mother was absent from the scene, so I ran upstairs in a surge of delight – calling to find her – and there she was, standing at the head of the bed changing the sheets. I entered the bedroom smiling with my arms outstretched and, laughing, tried to lift the hem of her pleated skirt just as I saw my father do in that other house on the other side of the river. I do not recall if my father had followed or if he saw this scene, only that my mother smiled in a puzzled fashion, ran her hands down her legs to her knees, took my hand and led me downstairs to the kitchen where she checked the progress of the different elements of the lunch. For in spite of herself, she was a very good cook and the ritual of those beautiful meals proved the high point of our existence at that time.
The events of that Sunday morning long ago when my father took me to the narrow house with the dark staircase by the river only came back to me as a complete memory in adulthood, but in that instant I understood their meaning. I took a strange pleasure in this knowledge that had been newly granted. I understood what kind of house it was and who the “daughters” were. I was grateful that my father had taken me there, and from then on I could only continue to wonder at what else this clue might reveal of my parents’ lives, and of my own nature.
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