The trouble with mother

2,178 words – approx. 7 minutes

There would be words later, but for now father just looked down at my muddy, wet boots and walked off, leaving Jonesy to deal with me and my self-pity.

Jonesy – or Jones, as he was to father – had always been one of the kinder staff members, not as quick to lose patience as others I could mention, and more willing to allow minor incidents to go unreported. I had been secretly delighted the previous year when he was the one father decided to keep on as an all-purpose employee, although I suspected then the decision was more driven by his youth and attendant low wages than anything else.

I appealed, but we both knew it was no use. Whatever sympathy he might have had for me, there could be no blind eye turned when father had made his disapproval so clear. He couldn’t have been more than five years older than me, and yet his jurisdiction over my 13-year-old self was absolute. Upon his instruction I removed my boots, and stood in my sodden socks on the cold stone. I watched with mounting alarm as he produced a small bowl of foamy liquid and then a toothbrush from his pocket, both of which he handed to me.

“I’ll be off to see Lady Healey,” he said, in the slightly strangulated formal tone he always adopted when punishing me, or talking in father’s presence. “I’ll be back in half an hour.” And he left for my mother’s room, leaving me to begin the arduous task of cleaning my garden-dirtied boots.

Jonesy didn’t, in fact, return for close to an hour, by which time I had made discernible progress in my labours. It later occurred to me that his absence might have been intended to give me the opportunity to avoid some of the more painstaking aspects of the punishment safely out of his sight, but I did no such thing. I started by scraping as much hardened mud as I could from the boot, then diligently worked the toothbrush into the crevices of the soles and where they joined the leather, regularly washing it in the bucket so as not to simply replace mud with mud.

The work was not entirely without its satisfaction, but the room was bitterly cold from the unseasonal weather, and from time to time I would with despair see the size of the task that remained. I was in one of these hopeless slumps when Jonesy returned, bearing a curious expression that at the time I put down to my visible distress.

“You’ve made some progress, I see.”

I did not entirely trust myself at first not to cry, and swallowed hard.

“How’s mother?” I eventually managed. It was the same polite question I always asked after he had seen her.

Without hesitation, Jonesy replied: “Much the same, Master Healey. But comfortable, and she ate a little soup.”

I nodded. For as long as I could remember, I had a mental image of my mother as a sick, horizontal figure. A succession of doctors, commissioned by father, declared her to suffer from fatigue, or nervous exhaustion, or some other similarly wispy condition, diagnoses that to me were as much a part of her as her long, blonde hair, or the ways she seemed to float rather than walk. When, on occasion, I would see her at the table or in the corridor she looked well enough, but father impressed on me that these were rare, precarious instances, and so to my young mind she was constantly on the edge of a final relapse, less a mother than a distant, unwell aunt.

“Now,” Jonesy continued. “Finish that up and you can help me pick strawberries for dessert.” At this I felt a great leap in my chest; punishments from Jonesy always carried the fear that he may in fact be angry, rather than administering justice on father’s behalf, but now I knew for certain I was at least forgiven. I loved plucking and gathering the strawberries from the little patch in the south-east of the grounds, and the prospect set me to cleaning with renewed vigour as Jonesy left the room.

*

A few days later I was summoned to father’s study. An audience with Lord Justice Healey could cause hardened criminals to tremble, and although my own misdemeanour had been minor, I felt some of that fear as I climbed the small, dark staircase and knocked twice on the heavy wooden door.

“Come in.”

“Father?” He had his back to the door, and I had a strange premonition that when he turned around he would be horribly disfigured in some way. I flinched as he did so, but there was nothing unusual about his face, its sharp cheekbones pointing downwards in a permanent slant of disapproval. He was a tall man, and I was far from fully grown, yet he made no motion to bend towards me when he spoke.

“You know why you’re here.” I nodded, then remembered who I was speaking to.

“Yes father.” He gestured to me to continue. “I brought dirty-”

“Filthy!” he barked.

I corrected myself. “Filthy shoes indoor after I had been in the garden. I apologise for this thoughtless behaviour and beg for your forgiveness.”

He was silent for a while after that, and I thought he might have been about to dismiss me. But he instead he took two long, straight steps in my direction. “You know how much dirt upsets your mother.” He was looking directly down at me now, those narrow dark eyes with the knowledge of the sentence to come. To avoid his gaze I fixed my eyes instead on the chair that stood this side of the desk. On the one occasion I had been allowed inside his office in the court I had marvelled at the chairs, which were just too low for a grown man to be able to sit in and reach the ends of the armrests, although I had enjoyed the sensation of being lost in what seemed like a giant’s seat. Unlike those chairs, however, with their plush promise, this one was hard and wooden, and father directed me to it. I squirmed in discomfort on the unyielding seat. He dragged a low stand from the corner and brought it to a halt in front of me. My heart sank in anticipation: I knew what this was.

On the lectern a Bible lay open, text from the next pages faintly visible through the thin paper. Father handed me a pen and a legal pad. I was to copy out verses, starting from the page that was open and not stop until I was instructed to do so. This was usually after no more than an hour, but on one occasion – when I expect father had forgotten me entirely – I had spent most of an afternoon scratching out Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. I also knew that I could expect him to periodically check on my progress, and demand that I read out the last-but-one verse I had written, to make sure I was doing so legibly. I don’t believe he ever read my transcriptions, but the fear of being caught meant I conducted my task assiduously.

It was unclear why this particular offence warranted the double punishments of cleaning and now Bible transcription, but there was no possibility of appealing a sentence; there was simply the fact of it. The heating had broken the previous day, and so I scrawled passages from Leviticus in the cold of the stone study, digging my free hand into my pocket for warmth, and heating the rest of my body as best I could with the steam from my combustible internal rage at father.

*

If memory serves – which it may not precisely, reaching back as I am several years, in a way that tends to eliminate the spaces between significant events that together comprise some form of narrative – it was three days later that Uncle Henry came for dinner. It was certainly the day father finally arranged for someone to fix the heating, and I could once again do up my shirt buttons with nimble fingers rather than the icy, clunking fists I’d had for the previous days when there was no prospect of a guest to shame father into conducting basic maintenance.

I did not realise it then, of course, but it was around this time that our family’s financial difficulties became too great even for father to pridefully ignore. I had accepted the reduction in the house staff with little thought, and the delay in fixing the heating struck me at the time as nothing more than my father deeming even the arrangement of such matters as beneath him (the undertaking of the repairs himself was, of course, out of the question), rather than a welcome opportunity to reduce our bills in a sharp winter.

But financial concerns or not, it was inconceivable that father would allow his younger brother to see any sign that might indicate that the greatest legal mind of his generation and the pride of the Healey family was anything less than thriving. And so the house was warm again by the time Jonesy showed Uncle Henry inside.

The two brothers could hardly have been more distinct. Where father was tall and stern, Henry was rotund and jovial, the legacy of twenty years of Fleet Street lunches. I watched from the doorway of the dining room as he chatted to Jonesy and stamped his sizable feet in an effort to warm his toes. I had always liked Uncle Henry – who comfortably cleared the admittedly low bar of being more enjoyable company than father – but found it excruciatingly painful to hear his earnest opinions slam into father’s remorseless, granite logic, and as a result I was somewhat dreading the dinner. My affinity with Henry meant I took any embarrassment of him to be, by extension, embarrassment of myself, and it was guaranteed that at least one wince-inducing exchange would occur that night.

When the time came to gather round the table for Grace, however, there was another, more immediate problem than the prospect of some future disagreement: Jonesy was nowhere to be found. This would usually, as I am sure is clear to you by now, send father into a fury, but perhaps buoyed by the sherry he and Henry had shared in the drawing room, he remained quite calm, even when he had called twice with no response. Instead he sent me into the larder to fetch the cold meats. It was a large, unheated room, and I was not best pleased at my instruction. Nevertheless, I obeyed, and had just found the foil-wrapped selection that Jonesy must have prepared that afternoon when I heard a noise.

From the larder rose a set of stairs up the back the house. It had once been the staff staircase where they could go about their business without disturbing us. Jonesy rarely used it now – yet I heard the distinct sound of a door opening, followed by rushed whispering voices and then the soft, suspended footsteps of someone trying to hurry without making a sound.

It could only have been Jonesy, but it still shocked me when he rounded the bottom corner of the staircase – both the very fact of it being him, and his appearance. But that was nothing compared to the fright he must have received upon seeing my pale face staring at him in wide-mouthed disbelief. He was fortunate that the abrupt cry that escaped him coincided with something (a candlestick, perhaps) being knocked from the dining room table onto the floor, and he was able to recover himself sufficiently as not to be heard by its occupants.

A great many things made sense to my young mind when I saw Jonesy, in a state that is to this day my abiding memory of him: hair tufting wildly at the sides, shirt three buttons undone, belt trailing from his trousers, face a mingled blush of pride, embarrassment, and exertion. The decision to retain him over any other staff member, the incongruity of my occasional sightings of my apparently healthy mother, even father’s impatient anger – all of these gained a new, unifying genesis. Father’s pride could not have withstood a scandal, nor a divorce (which at the time was a scandal in itself for a man of his standing), and my understanding of my mother underwent a similar transformation in that moment.

Not that I voiced any such revelations to Jonesy (nor, perish the thought, to father), either at the time or for the remainder of my years at home before I left for university, funded to father’s silent shame by Uncle Henry. Instead the two of us worked silently to restore him to a presentable condition: I smoothed his hair as he fastened his buttons and belt and tucked in his shirt. Then we went out together to the dining room where father and Uncle Henry were deep in oblivious argument, and Jonesy served the meats.

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