Monday, September 3, 2012

Family Photos

My dad was a fisherman; he had a 12-tonne boat that he called Merry. I had often wanted to go out on the boat with him, but he always left me behind. Then, all of a sudden, one morning he asked me if I wanted to come out on a fishing trip with him. I don’t know why, but I refused. He tried to pressure me, but I wouldn’t give in. The last thing I was about to do was go on that fishing trip. And sure enough, during that tour, Merry sank, with the black-and-white family photo in the forecastle, just as it was supposed to do, and my father collected on the insurance. He didn’t even have to have a child on board to convince the judges. He paid off his debts in a hurry, before inflation burned the insurance money to a cinder; and believe me, the inflation inferno consumed entire families in those days.

Dad had never spent much time at home; he was always out to sea. But soon I began to notice that he wasn’t home even when he seemed to be in town. Once when I was driving around with him in a delivery truck – he claimed he’d been working as a truck driver the last few months – he stopped for an instant and disappeared into a flat in one of the countless apartment buildings in the east end of town. When I asked him what apartment that was, he said he lived there. Apparently he’d been doing so for quite a while. The next thing I knew, he had moved to the Faeroe Islands and was living with a young Faeroese woman. Now that was news.

I had begun to hang out alone in the neighbourhood. The kids who weren’t forbidden outright to play with me found me so odd that when I got any attention it was because they started flocking around me just long enough to be able to tell stories about me. And I’d never even heard most of these stories before: either they were utter bullshit, or they were about somebody else. But somehow I had managed to become the kid people talked about without having done much to deserve the honour. Jamie avoided me like the plague. I looked out my window over at his house.

One of his neighbours was Sandrine, the most beautiful woman in the neighbourhood. She lived there with Abdullah, her Arabian husband, and two huge poisonous snakes. Sandrine spoke with a French accent. I’d found out that she’d only spent a month in France in her entire life, but when I confronted her about it, she just smiled her dreamy smile and said, “But I felt immediately as though I belonged there.”

Sandrine was twenty-one, always dressed in spike heels and a short skirt, and always in a hurry. The Arab was always in a bad mood and bellowed like a gorilla every now and again. Once when they were arguing I looked out and saw one of the snakes stretching out the window. Though the apartment was on the second floor, the snake reached most of the way down to the yard. Suddenly the fight in the apartment dropped into silence, and Sandrine and Abdullah joined forces to try to drag the snake back in. But it was too late, and while the Arab held the snake’s tail so it wouldn’t fall down to the yard below, Sandrine came running out topless, carrying a laundry basket to catch the beast. I’d never seen a more beautiful sight than Sandrine stuffing that glistening serpent into that laundry basket.

Now it was quiet in the house. I went to sleep. In the middle of the night some noise awakened me, and I realised my mother had come home with a man.  That suited me just fine, and I got out of bed to go and greet him. Maybe I’d be getting a new father. When I entered the living room, the man had disappeared.

“Where’s the man?” I asked.

“What man?” my mother spat back at me, a little tipsy.

“I heard a man come in with you. Can I say hi to him?”

“What nonsense; no one came home with me. Go to sleep.”

I heard some commotion from within the wall. The man was obviously in the bedroom closet, just beyond the living room.
I went into the bedroom and opened the closet door. The man stepped out.

“You sure are a cheeky little bastard.”

“I’m not cheeky; I just wanted to say hello to you.”

“Well, your mother and I were hoping to have a little peace and quiet.”

I went out onto the balcony. Then I climbed down the birch tree into the yard. My cat, Buster Goldenbelly, followed me. My mother stood on the balcony and asked if I didn’t want to come in and lay down.

“I’m fine right here,” I said.

The night was starry and windless.  I lay in the grass, and Buster sat beside me.

Mom asked again whether I didn’t want to lay down in the bedroom, but before long she gave up and went in and closed the door.
I looked at the stars and felt as though none of it could touch me.  I felt I was no longer a part of this neighbourhood, this school, these friends. I had to live my life alone under the watchful sky. It didn’t get upset over little things, and I, who had lived for a full ten years, should follow its example.  This conviction settled in my stomach. When I stood up, Buster had disappeared. I never saw him again.

I decided to move to the Faeroe Islands.

When I said as much to my mother, she looked at me long and thoughtfully. Then she whispered that I was the best thing she had ever done in this life.
I didn’t know what she was talking about, so I went into the bedroom to pack my things. A few days later we were walking together near the end of the runway, toward the airport. Several times during that walk it seemed as though she were on the brink of saying something but then couldn’t find the right words. When the time came to say good-bye, she seemed again to be about to speak, but then too, the words didn’t come. She rifled hurriedly through her handbag and pulled out a new camera that I had never seen before. Then she pointed the camera at me and snapped.