The house looked familiar yet different: smaller, neater, darker. Matthew picked up his overnight bag and crossed the road. He could picture his mother behind the net curtain, touching her hair to ensure neatness, smoothing her skirt, unsure whether to open the door to greet him or remain sitting in her chair until he was shown inside. He braced himself.
The old man answered his knock, smiled warmly in greeting and ushered him across the freshly vacuumed carpet towards the good front room. Had this furniture ever been in fashion? How had these ornaments appeared interesting to a small boy? Matthew recognised each of the cluttered possessions sitting in it’s carefully dusted place, no longer surrounded by the detritus of family life. The house stood as a museum to his parents lives.
‘Hello son, did you have a good journey?’ she asked. He took off his coat, sat down in front of her and prepared for the onslaught of questions. It took only a few minutes for the recriminations to begin.
Perhaps he should return more often. There was guilt in the background but he could not face this place too often. He made excuses to himself, citing cost as well as time and worth. They were always pleased to see him but never satisfied with what they found. It had always been thus.
When away from this place he carried happy memories of a rose coloured childhood, of parents who had done their best in the small world that was all they had ever known. These visits were almost too raw to bear, reminding him of the darker times, the accusations and arguments.
His mother was talking of neighbours long forgotten, of relatives in which he had no interest. They were her life now, they were all that she had.
She felt hard done by that he had not turned out as she had wished, as she had dreamed and planned. She wanted to be able to boast of his accomplishments, to respond to the tales of impressive achievement by her acquaintances offspring with one-upmanship. She took his inability to provide her with conversational fodder as a personal affront, deliberately withheld for no reason that she could fathom.
She could not see him as an individual, only as her son.
His father sat across the room, an expression of indulgence on his aged face. It had always been unclear how much he took in. He would be pleased at this visit, but was this pleasure due to the boost it would give his wife or because he too wished to see his only son? He had always been a man of few words.
It took only an hour or so before the conversation ran dry. They had so little in common save for blood. Matthew had tried to share a portion of his life but had elicited only an outflow of tales of other sons who had experienced what his mother perceived as similar adventures. He would never be able to make her understand, perhaps she did not want to.
She had put aside some books for him, a nearly new jumper that some friend had given his father but was too big, a cheque from a bond that had matured. He took the gifts, murmuring words of gratitude, wondering how he could dispose of the unwanted items.
The cup of tea was welcome and he noted that the kitchen appliances looked old and worn, much like his ageing parents. He knew that they had been looking forward to this visit and worked hard to make it pleasant. Still, he could not agree to their suggestions. He would not call in on an old neighbour, he would not agree to apply for the job his mother had carefully clipped from the newspaper for his consideration. He saw tears well up in her eyes as she wondered why he persisted in being so difficult.
He had booked a room in a nearby hotel so as not to inconvenience them unduly. He had been surprised at how easily they had acquiesced to this suggestion suspecting that they were relieved, grateful for a chance of respite.
He left to check in, freshen up before meeting for dinner at a local restaurant. His father insisted that it was to be his treat.
A few hours apart and they would have recharged their batteries, be ready once again to cope with each others idiosyncrasies. The wine would lubricate the evening, the neutral venue would ease the awkwardness, it would be fine.
He would call by the next morning and stay for lunch before returning to the airport. His mother would hold him close and cry when they said goodbye.
They would all be happy to return to the normality of their everyday lives.