Frank is a reformed alcoholic. He lives at home with his mother, Elisabeth – at least, he did until she went into a nursing home suffering from dementia. He is devoted to her and conversely hates his estranged father, Geoffrey. So when elder sister Pat calls to tell him Dad is dying and wants to meet him, Frank is forced to face up to his demons. But what are they? And how did he acquire them? Every family has its secrets and Frank's is no exception. As much as he tries to forget, something happened a long time ago that has coloured his life ever since - and he can't live in peace until he confronts it. Seen from the perspective of four separate family members, The Burden examines an individual's contrasting relationships and the different emotions they inspire.
|Publisher:||Hunt, John Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 2.00(d)|
About the Author
N.E.David is the pen name of York writer Nick David. His debut novel, Birds of the Nile, was published by Roundfire in 2013.
Read an Excerpt
A Family Saga
By N.E. David
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2014 N.E. David
All rights reserved.
"Hello?" said Frank, for the umpteenth time that day.
At the Focus Do It All store on Clifton Moor, the staff telephone was mounted on the wall in the narrow corridor that ran from the rest room to the manager's office. It was prone to being knocked off its hook by every passer-by and it needed only the slightest of touches to send it clattering downwards. At first it was regularly replaced, but the staff had got tired of the constant bending and soon left it to dangle upside down from its cord, where it clicked and purred ineffectually.
In the eighteen months he'd worked there, and more particularly in the year since his mother had gone into the nursing home, Frank had lost count of the number of times he'd stooped to retrieve it and press it to his ear, expecting to hear news that might affect him. His anxious monitoring was met by a continual buzzing and after each check he would put the receiver carefully back on its hook. More recently his experiences had caused him to work exclusively at that end of the store and he'd unofficially appointed himself as an expert on plumbing. The aisle was located adjacent to the corridor so he could remain as close as possible to the telephone during working hours.
His perpetual fear was that Elisabeth might be taken ill or that she'd fall and break her hip and he dreaded the thought of her having to go into hospital. Worse still, it might be Sheila, the care-home manageress, her prissy little voice saying I'm afraid I've some bad news, Mr Johnson, and although he tried to banish this terrible thought from his mind, it surfaced with such monotonous regularity that it coloured his every act. Far more likely it would be some relatively trivial matter. We're having trouble with your mother again, Mr Johnson – she's refusing to take her medication. Or She's locked herself in the toilet and says she won't come out until you get here. We've tried everything short of breaking the door down but she won't budge.
So on the morning when the telephone did eventually ring and he rushed to answer it, he was surprised to find it was his sister who'd called him and not some carer or social-services official.
"Hello?" he repeated. "Who is this?"
"It's me – Pat."
His brow creased into a frown.
"Pat? What the hell do you want? I thought I told you not to call me at work."
"I know – but it's important."
"Important? How important? It's nothing to do with Mother is it?"
"No, it's not. But something's come up ..."
"Oh, I thought it might have been the nursing home."
His voice reverted to its natural grudging tone. It was as if he continually needed to remind his sister of the great responsibility he'd assumed. As far as Pat was concerned, looking after his mother was a chore to him, a fact she must not be allowed to forget. God forbid she should ever think he enjoyed it.
"Anyway, what do you mean – 'something's come up'?"
"Something's come up and I need to speak to you about it."
Frank looked nervously up and down the corridor. A few steps away, the door to the manager's office was ajar but there was no one in sight.
"Well, go ahead, I'm listening. But you'd better make it quick."
"I'm afraid it's not that simple."
"So what is it then?"
There was a pause as Pat gathered herself.
"Dad?" This was truly a surprise. "D'you mean Geoffrey?"
The word 'dad' had no personal meaning for Frank. In his view he'd never had a father. His assumption was that 'parents' coalesced into a single object – his mother – and he struggled to cope with the idea that he might have two. Geoffrey ... Even to give credence to the name was an event of considerable significance, let alone to have spoken it aloud. A thousand latent thoughts buried deep in the mud of time began to bubble slowly upwards and for the moment he was struck dumb. A protracted silence ensued. His sister eventually broke it.
"Frank? Are you there?"
"Yes, I'm here. So, what does he want?"
"He doesn't want anything," Pat insisted. This, of course, was a lie. But in the face of her brother's aggression she felt the need to go defensive. "It's just that he's not very well."
"Pah!" Frank scoffed. "Not very well? So what?" That meant nothing to him – his mother was 'not very well'. Tell me something new. "And?"
"I just need to talk to you about it, that's all." Pat waited patiently for a response. Then, when there was none: "Look, I can tell now is not a good time."
"No, you're damn right it's not."
"Why don't we meet somewhere? I get off at twelve. What about the coffee shop at Tesco, say around ten past?"
She'd obviously prepared her suggestion in advance and in the light of her pleading it seemed he didn't have much choice. Besides, whatever it was, whatever 'thing' was affecting his father, whatever had caused Pat to break his long-standing instruction not to contact him at work, perhaps it was better to face it now rather than let it fester. He reluctantly decided to agree.
"Very well then."
And yet he still felt the concession had been wrung out of him.
At the same time, the door to the shop opened behind him and his supervisor's head appeared.
"Frank? I've been looking for you all over. You've got a customer."
Frank clapped his hand over the mouthpiece. "I'm coming."
Only a couple of words but they were enough to make the head disappear. Bastards!
Always snooping. Couldn't they leave him alone for just a few seconds?
He returned to the phone. "Look, I've got to go."
"I'll see you at Tesco then? Just after twelve?"
He was on the point of saying If you must but there was a click and she'd already gone.
Frank replaced the phone carefully on its hook and waited for a moment before returning to the store. Geoffrey's come back ... Geoffrey, the man in whose shadow he'd lived for the past fifty years had suddenly resurfaced. Why now? Why after all this time? He searched for a plausible reason and could think of none. But the fact was that he had and not even the need for Frank to immerse himself in the world of copper pipe and brass fittings could distract him and prevent whatever process had begun from continuing to its sad conclusion. For no good would come of it, of that he was certain. He turned and made his way thoughtfully down the passageway that would take him back to his place of work.
Whilst he'd been talking, someone had closed the door to the manager's office. Suddenly, the corridor had become eerily quiet and he felt quite alone. Halfway between the telephone and the exit he stopped. An old dryness in his throat had returned and he knew then, without even looking, that his hand had begun to shake just a little.
Unlike Frank, Pat had never had a problem with her father – not in the beginning, not later, and certainly not now. Oh, Geoffrey could be difficult, she'd discovered that, but no more so than any other human being. People in general were difficult – which is why she'd spent so much time learning how to deal with them. It was what she did for a living. She was supposed to be managing an electrical goods store, although in truth she was managing the people.
But Frank was of a different mindset. She'd concluded it was because she and her brother had followed such dissimilar paths in life. Frank was restless, always staggering from one disaster to the next, heavy with the smell of his own self-defeat and leaving behind the inevitable trail of destruction. She, on the other hand, had settled down almost immediately after leaving home to what Frank had once dismissed as 'the dull niceties of family life'. Although in recent years, since the boys had gone to college and she'd been left on her own with Terry, she'd started to experience pangs of disquiet.
But these were issues that were in no way attributable to Geoffrey. She and Terry would have to resolve things between them – but it had induced in her the feeling that there was more to life than the raising of children and the maintenance of a home and she'd begun to look outside it for answers. When Geoffrey had called it had awakened something in her, something akin to the realisation that there was a world beyond the kitchen door, the daily grind of work and the weekly expedition to her mother's house to sit and drink tea on a Saturday morning. For the first time she'd found she had 'family' and the temptation to explore it had been irresistible.
It was natural that she should be the one to keep in contact. Wasn't it always the women who stayed in touch? Weren't they the clay that bound the earth of life? We're a family, her mother had said, and we stick together, no matter what. And now, with Elisabeth out of action, it was she who'd become responsible and had shouldered what her mother had mysteriously described as 'the burden'.
But if that had been her intention, then her father was not an easy prospect to cultivate. Sometimes he would disappear completely, only to resurface much later, demanding attention. Her mother had warned her – He'll give you a hard time, I should sup with a very long spoon if I were you. It was then that she realised just how much Geoffrey was the progenitor of the same restless spirit that infected Frank (So that's where he got it from, it certainly wasn't Elisabeth) although her brother would never have thanked her for saying so.
In the end, she'd come to tolerate Geoffrey's approaches instead of encouraging them, partly through frustration and partly because she had more pressing needs of her own. On the occasions it had become a nuisance, she'd reminded herself it was familial duty rather than love that moved her. In fact, she could never claim to have liked him but a degree of acceptance had grown up between them. For the last few years they'd traded Christmas cards in the way that distant relatives often do, habitually and with no meaningful contact in-between.
He'd never suggested meeting. She'd have been surprised if he had. His life seemed full of its own importance and he appeared to have no immediate need of her beyond her role as messenger. Latterly, as soon as the idea of entertaining him in her own home entered her head, she instinctively recoiled from the prospect. Geoffrey, she'd discovered, was an acquired taste and she'd resolved to abide by her mother's advice and keep him at arm's length. But now he was ill and his latest communication had sounded like a cry for help.
That she'd thought to involve Frank must have meant she'd considered things serious. She was well aware of her brother's views (she'd heard them often enough) and his statements on the subject left no one in doubt as to his feelings.
Do not, under any circumstances, let that man anywhere near me. Do not invite him into our home. And above all, do not let him anywhere near my mother.
Rather than expressions of wish, coming from Frank they amounted to commands. He'd served in the Army and professed not to have been a stranger to violence so they carried the threat of retribution. The benefit of such strongly-voiced opinions was that at least you knew where you stood on the matter. Frank's adopted position was more than a line in the sand – it was a defensive rampart and any move against it was bound to provoke a response. One day he might flare up at the slightest thing, the next he would lie in wait to make a surprise attack. Pat had learnt to live with her brother's outbursts but for all her managerial skills she'd not yet found out how to control them. He would always come back at her, she could be sure of that – but she never knew how or when.
Today she was faced with the prospect of giving him news that he would certainly not want to hear. How would he react? Badly, she suspected, but the weight of family duty pressed on her and pushed her forward. And as she kept reminding herself, if he couldn't hear the truth from his elder sister, then who else could he hear it from?
The coffee shop at Tesco was a halfway house, lying almost equidistant from their respective places of work, although in practice it was further away for Pat. As manageress of Comet Electrical she was obliged to cross the access road to reach it, whereas all Frank had to do was stand at the entrance to Do It All, look out over the car park and there it was. It might even have paid him to stay there and watch for her arrival so he could ensure she got there first. At least it would have saved him from waiting.
As brother and sister they might have met there regularly, getting together over lunch or after work for a coffee and a chat. But despite the fact they were family, they were not socially connected and they used the place solely as a parleying ground, a piece of neutral territory where they could thrash out whatever business there was to be conducted between them. As far as Pat could recall, the last time they'd got together like this had been when Elisabeth had gone into the nursing home. That had been at her brother's instigation, although she'd had to coax his purpose out of him – these things did not come naturally to Frank. But when he'd finally managed to tell her what had been going on, she'd instantly given her support.
You can't go on like that.
I know – but I don't want to let her go, Pat.
It was the closest she'd seen him to tears and one of the rare occasions he'd ever called her by name. That had been just over a year ago – now it was her turn to bring something to the table.
The access road was busy with lunch-hour traffic and she was running a minute or two late. Frank was already there, slumped in a window seat and staring out over the car park, looking sullen and resentful as if he were some errant child hauled up before the head teacher. The scowl on his face said it all. Let's just get this over with.
Pat queued for orange juice and a sandwich. She'd hoped to use the time to compose herself but there was a problem with her change and she arrived at her seat still flustered. She set her tray down in the empty space between them.
"Can I get you anything? Tea? Coffee?"
Frank shook his head. He wasn't in the least bit hungry and when it came to the matter of drink, he'd ideally have liked something stronger. Pat could tell he was already on edge.
"So what's this all about then?"
He snapped it out before she had a chance to settle. But she'd known there'd be no preliminaries, no polite enquiries as to health or children – Frank didn't do small talk.
"Look, I know you might not want to hear this ..."
That much she'd prepared in those few precious moments in the queue – but Frank was already ahead of her.
"If it's anything to do with Geoffrey, you're bloody right I don't."
"Well I'm sorry, but we can't simply bury our heads in the sand and pretend that nothing's happened." She'd determined to remain calm in the face of any provocation. "We've just got to deal with it."
Frank breathed a sigh of frustration. Deal with it? Why did they have to 'deal' with it? Couldn't they just leave it alone? Although it didn't surprise him, coming from his sister. For some reason she always had to 'deal' with everything – sometimes Pat could make mountains out of molehills. As far as he was concerned, it wasn't a problem.
"So what's it got to do with me?"
"Well, he is your father."
In contrast to her earlier lie, this was an obvious truth – and for Frank, an inconvenient one. Yes, in name only, he thought. But out of the modicum of respect he held for his sister he outwardly relented.
"I suppose you'd better tell me what's been going on then."
The invitation came at an inopportune moment for Pat. She'd just taken a bite of her sandwich and was forced to launch into her story with her mouth full of tuna mayonnaise and salad.
"You know that Dad and I had been in contact." She brushed the crumbs neatly from her lap. "Well, last night I had a phone call." Her latest training course with Comet had been Key Concerns for Negotiators. This was Stage 1 – Preparing the Ground.
"A phone call?"
"He rang you?"
"But you said you had a call."
"So did he call you or not?"
"No, he didn't, it was the hospital."
Excerpted from The Burden by N.E. David. Copyright © 2014 N.E. David. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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