Cornelia Bullen-Smith

Why I didn’t make it to Venice

“Charles, darling, so good at making plans. A holiday! How wonderful.  What a treat!”
This is Belinda’s voice you hear fluting through the rooms of our castle.

A family outing is on the cards and Charles, generally accepted to be the offical leader of the pack, has been excited, bullish and clear for the last three months. ‘Venice for all of us. Three generations in one car. Culture, is what I want to show the child. I’ll drive. It will be a wonderful experience. Basta!’

Belinda, my kuschelig mama, over the years the recipient of innumerable bouquets of red and yellow tulips, dishwashing and other little helper services, hugs and poems, presented with a big smile, a big thank you and the ever rekindled hope that this padded image of myself might love me. It is this mother of mine who has, beneath the songs of traditional praise, kept her cards to her bosom.

‘Will this be safe?’ she asks. And: ‘Will you cope, dear Charles?’ all the while folding towels, counting underpants and shirts into his suitcase, muttering ‘I don’t want to go!’
Charles has been hard of hearing since he returned from the trenches. So she can mutter loud enough for me to hear. Sharp enough for me to remember. Often enough for me to make her wish my fight.

Of course he is the king of kings, a celebrity in our conventional industrial small town, the man who walks into any shop, any restaurant and greets to the left, to the right. Most know and respect him: Charles, the man who came back from the war with impaired hearing, an arm missing and an ego to build. Wrapped in teenage ugliness, I walk to heel, short sighted, anxious to please. He introduces me to his colleagues as if I’m his missus. You could think he’s proud of me, my father.
Belinda stays home quite often, is mother hen to the rest of the offspring, pats, pecks, cooks and washes. ‘I’ll always be on your side,’ she whispers when we’re alone, when I cry in despair and fear of him, ‘always.’

So we set out. A trip in two stages.

A family holiday is what we’re doing. Picture book stuff, first stop: Italian Alps. Grandparents, grandchild and daughter exploring a mountainous paradise, half-way to Venice. Staying in the farmhouse, dog-earing hand picked memories from thirty years back, sticky sweet, selected for primary colours of family unity and bliss.
The breakfast taken in a large room, includes carefully counted slices of cold meat, cheese, buckets of second grade coffee. Milk. This is a dairy farm.
We have the corner table with a bench along two walls and chairs on the other long side. Belinda and the grandchild sit on the wooden bench, cushioned by dark green and yellow flower patterns, Charles has the head space, overlooking the salon, ready to greet other guests coming in, ready to spot the left over cheese and wurst, ready to flirt with the waitress. Ready. The chair next to him is mine.

That’s where I let off the bomb that morning. ‘Papa, we, my child and I, don’t want to travel any further. Let’s stay here. Let’s have a lovely time, then go back home.’ Speechless, his face goes black, his eyes shoot daggers, Belinda sugar-creams her coffee, sighs motherly, winks at the child.
I become invisible.

There is sharp air drafting through the yellow door into their room.  He’s propped up by quilted cushions, the king holding court, Mr Justice himself. Belinda is moss on the velvet armchair in the corner.
I stand erect, holding my one hand with the other, secretly gasping for air.
Finally I kick the door closed, keep things more private, protect my child in the other room. My heart twins my stomach in a knot.

‘You!’ He slices the air. ‘You and your interference. Always your interference. I’ve planned this for months and you know it. You thief! Robbing me of the pleasure I want to give the child.’
My mouth is cottonwooled, my throat’s full of straw. My eyes flitter with sparks of neonlight. My ears are full of the kreisching of thousands of crickets.
No movement from the moss in the corner.
‘Papa, please, we like it here. Let’s just stay and have a nice time.’
No clucking from the mother hen. Not one cluck.

I give her another chance. ‘Look’ I bow to the king ‘I am so very grateful for the opportunity to be here with all of you. It will be so strenuous for you to drive us all the way to the coast. You’ve done so much, giving us this wonderful time, this splendid experience.’

I insert a pause. She could nod now, blink, she could just glimpse in my direction. Black silence snakes from her face onto her chair, around the room, into my beggar’s heart, strangles.
‘Out!’, taking his hand off his heaving chest, indicating PAIN, he’s pointing.  ‘You.are.a.disgrace!’
Even as I crawl towards fresh air, I listen for her breath. Without a whisper, she locks the door after me.

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