Death and Texas

Commended by Ali Smith in the Bridport Short Story Prize, 2009

As it happens, I wasn’t meant to hear any of it. Nada. Zip. But I did. Handy gadgets, baby monitors. The first night Evie fell asleep by 8 o’clock was the night my mother decided, right there in the nursery, to tell my sister that my father wasn’t my father.
I was downstairs at the time, in the kitchen, carving my initials into a raw potato. In my youth, I was a vandal.
The baby monitor coughed the broadband signal. My mother’s voice, growlish as a speedboat engine and laced with a Greek accent, macheted its way through the mono-speaker.

‘They called, the people from that show. They say they’ve found him.’
‘What show?’ My sister Corinne. Or, I should say, my half-sister. It explains a lot.
‘The chat show that’s on in the mornings, what is it, you know, the one where people hit each other?’
‘Oh. Oh!’

I put down the second potato. I was meant to be cooking dinner. I moved closer to the monitor. I’m always out of the loop with these two. Even Dennis, my younger brother who is currently in a submersible in the South Pacific, gets the family low-down before me.

‘So what they say? The people from the TV show? Was it the producers? How much do they pay?’
‘Too many questions, too many questions!’ my mother hissed.

I picked the monitor up and held it to my ear. An ambulance from the street opposite buzzed through the black holes, so I missed the first part of my mother’s response.

‘….and they say he’s been living in Venice…Venezuela since 1990. That’s all I know.’

Silence. I shook the monitor up and down. Corinne spoke first.

‘Don’t you think it’s time you told Kerry about all this? I mean, it’s her dad, not mine.’

At this point, I think I dropped the monitor. I think I picked it up again, looked at it, then yanked it out of the wall. I think I ran upstairs.
The two of them stood there, silhouetted in the imposed darkness of the nursery, my sister, hunched, pinched, my mother, foul-breathed, wringing her hands.

‘Yeah, I agree,’ I said, wheezing. ‘It’s definitely time you told Kerry about all this.’

My mother flapped her large hands towards her face. I looked briefly at Corinne’s hands. Large. Mine were short and fat. Like the rest of me. Always so different.
I glared at Corinne. I couldn’t make out her expression in the darkness. I imagined she was already scheming about Dad’s will.

‘Well, spit it out!’ I yelled. ‘You just said, “it’s Kerry’s dad”, or did you mean some other Kerry, like, Kerry Katona, or County Kerry, or County Kerry butter…’

My mother emerged out of the darkness. She shuffled towards me with her arms stretched forward like someone sleepwalking, her enormous, mascara–smeared eyes filling with fat tears.

‘Oh, Kerry,’ she sobbed. ‘Forgive me, forgive me.’

She wrapped her arms around me and buried her face in my scarf. I glared at Corinne, who turned away. Finally, my mother looked up at me, her face closer to mine than it had been for years.

‘His name’s Bob,’ she said quietly. ‘Bob Texas. That’s all I know.’

I stared at the spot between her eyes. She still had a mono-brow, like me. I felt myself teetering on tears.

‘Did Dad know?’

I said it as measured as I possibly could. We’d buried him just the week before. Mum had never loved him. She’d swear otherwise, even at gunpoint, but it was true.
Slowly, my mother nodded. Then she smiled and did that annoying thing, the thing that she knew was annoying, of tucking a strand of my hair behind my ear. I tilted my head and the strand fell back across my face. She scowled.
I looked back at Corinne, who was stroking Evie’s face as she lay in her cot, snoring.

‘So when’s this show?’ I said stiffly.
‘Monday afternoon, isn’t it, Mum?’ said Corinne.
‘Thought you said it was on in the mornings?’ I said.

Mum took a deep breath and placed her hands on my shoulders.

‘They shoot the show on Monday afternoon. We’ll be on the television.’ Another deep breath. ‘And so will Bob.’

At this point I should mention the situation with my mother, why it struck me over the next couple of days that Bob’s re-entry into my mother’s life thirty four years and six months after a two-week fling should be viewed as entirely suspicious, and why I was, unremittingly, indefatigably, opposed to the whole idea of meeting my biological father.
First, there is the matter of my father’s recent death. Emotional meteor landing aside, there was also the financial consequences of his departure into Paradise, leaving me, my mother, and my siblings with just over a quarter of a million pounds to split between us. The money – precisely seventy thousand pounds a piece, half of which I planned to put into Evie’s University fund, and a tenth of which I planned to use to divorce her father – would reach our respective bank accounts within the next 48 hours.
My mother was known, probably nationally, as a soft touch. My childhood afternoons were spent watching her get fleeced by the butcher, the greengrocer, the milkman, and stray animals. Door-to-door salesmen flocked to our house as if a billboard was slung from the bay window reading, ‘Mug Villa’. Within two seconds of the news sinking deep into my heart that my darling, gentle, gambling-hooked father was not, in fact, my father, a vision unfolded of Mum dolling out blank cheques to this Bob Texas who, she later admitted, was one of several paternal possibilities, and whose last name she wasn’t altogether sure was Texas.

‘It might have been Lexus,’ she said.
‘Isn’t that a car?’ asked Corinne.
‘Or McArthur,’ Mum added.
‘That sounds nothing like “Texas”,’ I said.
‘Would seventy grand get me a Lexus?’ chimed Corinne.
‘Then again, that might have been his stage name,’ Mum said, fanning herself.
‘His what name?’ Corinne and me, both.
‘He was an actor,’ said Mum, and then she touched the gold necklace at her cleavage and waltzed off, humming in Russian.

The show’s producers had a surprising list of do’s and don’ts. Don’t eat, chew, vomit, or walk into the crowd. Do swear if you feel like it, but not so much that entire sentences have to be censored. Do threaten to hit opposing guests, do storm off-stage into the wings, at least once, and, if you have any tattoos, hickeys, or particularly gruesome scars, we’d like you to show them off, please.
Mum was appalled. Corinne was chuffed and rolled up her skirt, exactly as we used to do at school, to show off the tattoo of a garter belt on her right thigh. I sat three rows behind, breathing slowly with my cheeks between my knees.
One of the producers knocked on the door.

‘You all ready?’

The three of us looked at each other. The producer waved her hand for us to follow. We did.
The studio erupted into applause as we walked along the small plastic stage. Four cameras leaned in. I held my hand up against the studio lights, but still couldn’t make out the audience. The producer batted her hand from the wings, gesturing at me to put my hand down. I did.

‘Good morning to the Smith family!’

the host boomed into his microphone. His sentences always rose in pitch, a steady incline of garrulousness. The audience cheered and whistled. Corinne shuffled in her seat. Mum’s left eye twitched.

‘Now,’ our host continued, leaning on one knee, ‘do I have a surprise for you girls. This morning, ladies and gents, we get to learn whether – or not – our next guest is the long-lost lover, and long-lost father, of these girls.’

My mother raised her hand, tentatively but insistently. The host frowned and pointed the microphone at her.

‘One of these girls,’ my mother said. ‘He’s the father of my oldest child, Kerry,’ she said, cupping her hand at me.

I blushed and looked down. I felt, foolishly, as if I’d done something wrong.
The host gaped.

‘So…you two grew up thinking you were sisters?’

Corinne and I looked at each other. For a moment she looked sad. I nodded.

‘Grief mixed with joy, what a special show we have here today, ladies and gents,’ the host said reverently.

He jumped to his feet and held his hand in the air, holding a white card.

‘I have in my hand, right here, the DNA test results that prove whether our next guest is the father of one of these girls. But first…please give a big hand to….’

The theme music blared as the host mouthed what I presumed to be the words ‘Bob Texas’.
From the western wings jaunted a squat fat man in a tight black suit, a slim black tie, creased white shirt, and battered black lace-up shoes. The audience gave him a standing ovation. My mother stared, then covered her mouth with her hand, which was shaking. ‘Bob’ gave the audience a little wave. He never once looked at us.
‘Bob Texas, everyone,’ the host said, and the music died down. The applause continued, as if ‘Bob’ had just won an important award. I wanted to leap on top of my seat and rant, is this what we as a nation have descended to? But I didn’t.
Instead, I folded my arms and gave him the evil eye. He was, as they say, portly. His arms were thin and dragged forward by sloped shoulders, which made him look as if he was permanently sandwiched between two large objects, even when sitting. His suit was both tight and short, revealing two odd socks (one white, one grey). A large pregnant gut bulged forward, straining his shirt buttons and giving the odd flash of pale, hairy, stretch-marked flab. His eyes were two ice-blue slits above very high cheekbones. He had jet black hair, which, despite receding at the front, was slicked back into a duck-necked curl at his collar. A deep, ugly scar twisted its way across his mouth and nose, deep into his eye socket. His beard was worn purposively Musketeer style. He grinned like an idiot, showing both rows of teeth and his tongue. I groaned to think this was my progenitor. My mother leaned over and rubbed my hand.

‘Welcome, Bob,’ said the host.

Bob didn’t speak, merely gave another little wave. I suspected he might be shy.

‘Bob, tell me something,’ the host continued. ‘What have you been up to these last thirty five years? Give or take.’ Laughter from the audience.

Bob continued to stare straight ahead, grinning, open-mouthed. He shrugged. I thought I heard a rip.

‘Where do I even begin?’ he said, laughing. I noticed he had a strange accent, vaguely British – Northern – wrapped in French and Spanish. ‘Begin at the beginning,’ offered the host.

Audience in stitches.
Bob scratched his head. I noticed he threw my mother a quick glance, a tossed smile via his eyes. She nodded at him.

‘Well, thirty five years ago I was in Cyprus, completing a training exercise for the army. I was fit in them days.’

His voice was low and either insecure or gentle, I couldn’t tell. I noticed he’d force air out of his nostrils between clauses, as if he spoke only on an inhale.

‘It was then that I met Elaia,’ he continued, looking at my mother. She looked away. My father had always called her Ellie.
‘Go on,’ the host prompted. Bob shifted in his seat and cleared his throat. ‘It’s a silly story, really…’ ‘Go on,’ the host ordered.
Bob continued. ‘Well, I was out for me morning run one morning, in a village called Gypsou, anyhow, I’m jogging along and I see this girl sitting cross-legged on the ground, kind of slumped, and I figures it’s ‘cos of the heat, you know? Anyways, I give her a bit of a prod, just to check she’s still with us, you know, and she looks up at me. Well,’ he leaned back into his chair, which creaked, ‘I’d never seen beauty like it, says I. Absolute stunner. And that was that.’

He grinned. The audience broke into a pedestrian applause of approval. My mother looked cross. The host picked up on it.

‘Did that, er, was that the way of it, Mrs Smith?’ he asked my mother.

She looked over at the man in the bent chair. Bob spoke first.

‘Well, I guess I could have been more precise.’ The host scuttled towards Bob. ‘You see,’ Bob went on, ‘when I say she was a stunner, I guess I might say, she would have been a stunner, were it not for the shiner she was wearing.’

Corinne gave a sharp, shocked little laugh. Mum continued staring at the floor, wiping and wiping her hands as if brushing off invisible grains of sand.

‘Shiner?’ the host said.
Bob nodded. ‘Well, she’d had an accident, hadn’t she? What was it, Elaia?’ He leaned in the direction of my mother. She didn’t budge. ‘Oh yes, it’s all coming clearer now. She’d fallen off her bike, hit a lamppost. So when’s this DNA test, then?’

The host folded his arms.

‘I’ve a feeling there’s more to this story than meets the eye, wouldn’t you agree, audience?’

He swung round to face the rows of seats behind him. A murmur of agreement sounded. Bob cleared his throat and crossed his ankles under his seat.

‘OK. My memory’s going, you know? Something happened that hurt her face. But still, I fancied her.’ He grinned at Mum. ‘So, I swooped her up into my arms and carried her all the way home.’

I felt my hand float upward. Corinne, Mum, and then Bob all stared at me. It was the first time he’d looked at me. I watched his face soften. Rather, he looked terrified.

‘Yes?’ The host was looking at me. I could see my reflection in a camera lens.
‘That’s not how I heard it,’ I said. The audience whooped. ‘What are you doing?’ said Corinne through gritted teeth.

I stared at Mum. Why had she dragged us here? And why was she letting this imposter make up stories about how they met? She’d told Corinne and I – after much persistence – that they’d met the way all young and foolish people do, at a bar over too many drinks and not enough sense.
Bob laughed nervously.

‘Maybe you want to tell this story, Elaia,’ he said. My mother’s name on his lips made my stomach churn. He continued. ‘I’ve no memory left that’s sound.’

She looked at him, and slowly shook her head. She was touching her necklace again, her neck arched slightly, as if she was swirling a thought inside her head.
Bob took a deep breath.

‘Look, er, I don’t know that this story’s…appropriate for national television.’ The audience whooped saucily. The host mock-fanned them. ‘Alright, you lot,’ he said to the seats behind him, ‘it’s getting steamy in here. Maybe we should just move on…’
‘I was raped.’ My mother’s voice, calm and clear over the audio system.

An invisible hand plunged through my chest and yanked my heart. Corinne stood up sharply, showing the tattoo on her thigh to the world. She attempted to speak. I stood up next, flinging a fist at Bob. Oddly, I thought of the ‘Do’s’ presented to us by the show’s producers. Do threaten violence. I wondered if I could actually carry it out.
A legion of threats, taunts, and foul names merged in my throat and came out as a roar in Bob’s direction. He looked petrified. His chair squeaked backwards. A large security guard padded on to the stage, took me by the elbow, and calmly settled me back into my chair. I couldn’t breathe. I leaned forward in my chair and pressed my temples against my knees. Mum was raped.

‘Raped,’ the host said in a low voice. ‘By this man?’ He pointed at Bob.
Mum smiled sadly at Bob and shook her head.
‘By who, then?’ the host said, astonished. A hush drifted across the audience.‘Oh, I don’t know, there was so many of them.’
‘So many of them?!’

I looked over at Bob. He was looking up at the ceiling, his hands spread across his thighs. Even at this distance, I could make out the similar jutting lunar mount, the short index finger, the far-stretching pinky…exactly like mine.

‘There were dozens of rapists, and dozens of women raped,’ Mum sighed. ‘I heard the men calling each other by name, but as rape wasn’t illegal in my country at that time, it didn’t matter if they did it in public. Which they did.’

Silence. My heart was pounding so furiously I thought I might be sick. Corinne leaned against my shoulder and sobbed.

‘Bob,’ the host said, ‘you’re on national television here, buddy. Do you want to tell this story? What part did you play in this? Tell us, Bob.’

Bob fixed his tie.

‘Well, so far most of what I’ve said is true. I was jogging through the village, and I found a girl at the side of the road. She was bleeding badly. One of her legs was broken, and she was trying to drag herself under a bush. When she saw me approaching, she became frightened, and started to panic.’
‘Because you were a man,’ the host said.
‘Because I was a soldier,’ Bob corrected. ‘A… Turkish soldier.’

All at once, fragments of my childhood exploded into the present. The Turkish flag mounted on the wall of our study, Dad’s history lessons about the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, my mum’s odd insistence that Corinne, Dennis and I receive lessons in Greek and Turkish. I had never understood any of it.

‘Most of the other men in my regimen were participating in this…game,’ he said carefully. In some villages, the soldiers made the women live in houses and become their mistresses. In my village, they dragged them into a church and locked them inside for days, weeks.’

Suddenly he stood up. His shirt flapped around his gut. He straightened his back, picked up his stool, and moved it towards my mother.

‘Elaia, may I?’ he said.

She nodded, and he sat down. With a wail, he yanked her hand off her lap and held it between his own two hands, before pressing it to his lips and cheeks. My mother fingered the long scar on his face and cried. Corinne and I stopped crying and stared. Two weeks ago our father had been alive, had held our mother’s hand, had sat by her side. Two weeks ago we believed that our mother had left Cyprus on a student exchange programme to learn English.
Bob and my mother muttered quietly for a few moments, before Bob continued.

‘Elaia would not be taken prisoner by the soldiers. She knew what that meant: death. None of the girls taken inside that church saw sunlight again. I carried her back to my base, hid her in a latrine, and told my commanding officer that I wanted to visit the seaside. The next morning, we landed in Turkey, with false passports. Mine under the name of Bob Texas, Elaia’s, Ellie Texas.’
‘Why didn’t you marry him, mum? What happened after that?’ the words seemed to burst out of my mouth.

I thought of my father, stroking the back of her neck fondly, while she’d twitch, ever so slightly, as if to move further and further away from him. Once, when I was no more than seven years old, I’d walked in on them in the middle of an argument.

‘It’s him, isn’t it?’ my father had yelled, and my mother nodded.

At the time, the only ‘him’ I could conjure in my head was my brother, chewing on my plimsoles and weeing in mum’s wicker chair. Now, the picture was clear. She had always loved Bob.
Mum looked up at me. I hadn’t realised I was standing again. Bob put an arm around her shoulders. The cameras inched closer, predatory.

‘We spent a few weeks together,’ she said. ‘Then Bob had to return to Turkey, or face execution. He’d been spotted, you see. His commanding officer sent word that he’d be given only minimal punishment, if he return. So he did, promising that he’d come back for me.’
‘And then what happened?’ the host, ever querying, pushed on.
‘I returned to Cyprus,’ Bob said, ‘and was placed in the punishment centre for one month.’ He stared at the ground for a long, uncomfortable minute.

My mother closed her eyes and sobbed. Finally, Bob straightened upright.

‘I spent several months after that in the army hospital, where I was discharged for disability.’ He patted his leg. ‘And then I returned to Turkey for Elaia.’
‘And where were you, Elaia?’

Tears rolled down my mothers face, along the lines on her neck and chest, circling the small gold moon pendant on her throat.

‘I thought he’d left me,’ she said. ‘So I moved on. My false passport was British, so that’s where I headed. And I fell in love. Again.’
‘So,’ the host added up mental sums, ‘if you’d never met Bob, you would’ve never come to England and married the father of – which one, is it? – Corinne?’
‘That’s right.’

Mum looked over at Corinne and I. Like chalk and cheese, she’d always said. Corinne pushed her arm against the back of her seat, pressing into mine. My lily-pale flesh against her smooth golden skin.

‘I love you, you know that, don’t you?’ she said, awkwardly. ‘Yeah, absolutely,’ I said.

She rubbed my arm. Her hands were cold.
The host spun into the nearest camera lens.

‘Don’t go away, folks, ‘cos when we come back, we’ve got the results of our DNA test – is Bob Kerry’s father, or isn’t he? We’ll be right back.’

Theme music again. The host set his microphone on the floor and did an exaggerated yoga pose.

‘Kerry?’ It was Bob. He held his hand towards me, offering to shake. I shook. ‘Hi,’ I said. ‘I’m Kerry.’ It seemed such a stupid thing to say.
‘I’m sorry about all of this,’ he said, fanning his hands outwards. ‘It’s an awful way to discover your father.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘we don’t know about that yet, do we?’
He nodded. ‘I’d like to be,’ he said.

I took a small step backwards, stunned.

‘I never had any children of my own,’ he continued. ‘I spent years searching for Elaia. Then I heard about this show and that they find people all the time and I thought, I’ll give it a go. You never know.’

I thought about that July when I was seven, right before the fight between mum and dad, right when I got my first bike.

‘Bob?’ I said, looking directly into his eyes – which were considerably warmer than I’d first calculated – and letting go of his hands. ‘Did you ever come to the house? To see mum?’

He took my hand again and led me towards the wings. We glanced over at Mum, who was consoling Corinne.

‘There was one time,’ Bob whispered, ‘that I visited your parents’ house. I tracked them down through land registry records. When I arrived, your parents were in the back garden, I could hear them chatting. And you rode up towards me on your little bike. I remember you fell off.’
‘I got a black eye,’ I said. ‘I had to tell fibs about that for ages.’

Tentatively, he reached down and stroked my hair.

‘You look so like your mamma,’ he said. ‘Thank you,’ I said, and meant it.

The theme music started with a bang. The producer ushered us back to our seats. It was all beginning to feel a little like a huge circus.
The host strutted in front of the audience, holding up a white card like a referee.

‘Here, in my hand,’ he said pompously, ‘are the DNA results. Is Bob Kerry’s father? Let’s find out.’

An awed hush fell across the audience as Bob opened the card.

‘Bob is….’ he said. Out of nowhere a drum roll sounded. ‘Bob is….NOT Kerry’s father.’

The audience gasped. The drums crashed. Bob and Mum looked at each other, and smiled. A little sadly, I noticed.
The producer gesticulated to the host. He tossed the card to the side.

‘That’s all we’ve got time for folks! Now remember, tune in next week for some more family scandal!’

It was hard to place my feelings after all that. In the limousine – courtesy of the producers, with CCTVs installed to capture our post-show discussion – Mum and Bob shared a seat, but each sat tightly against the windows, looking out at the street unravelling past them. Corinne and I sat together, as we used to when we were very young, way before we started arguing over boys, clothes, Corinne’s selfishness and my self-righteousness.

‘Maybe we really are sisters,’ she said. ‘Of course we are,’ I said. ‘Of course we are,’ she said.

When the car pulled up outside our house, the babysitter – Mrs Shields from next door – was walking up the garden path holding Evie in her arms.

‘Who is that?’ Bob said as we got out of the limousine. It was the first thing he’d said for the entire journey.
‘That’s my daughter, Evie,’ I said. ‘She’s nearly two.’
A pause. ‘Would you mind if I visited her?’

I looked at him. My eyes traced the thick scar rippling across his lips and nose. Something inside me turned tide. ‘Sure,’ I said.
Inside, I set Evie in her high-chair and tugged the heavy curtains across the evening sunlight. This would be our home a while longer, at least until the divorce was settled. I saw Mum outside, watching the limo pull away with Bob’s hand stuck out of the window, give his awkward little wave. She stood there a long time, until I had to go outside and walk her, arm in arm, towards the front door.

‘Mum,’ I said, my voice breaking.

Images of her in Cyprus, bleeding and crying, rolled around my heart. There was a part of my mother’s past I would never fully know, never completely understand. I watched the limousine nose down the road. Maybe I would.

‘I’m so sorry, Mum,’ I said at last. ‘I can’t imagine what that must have been like.’ I struggled to control my voice. Mum hated emotional outbursts. ‘It must have been awful, living with that secret for so may years.’

She stopped, glanced at me, then looked past me at the limousine turning the corner. She gave a small smile.

‘Now, what’s for tea?’ she said.
‘Potato salad,’ I said.
‘Let me cook,’ she said.
‘OK,’ I said.

And that was that.