I looked out of the window. The sun’s beams were meant to pour delightfully through my turquoise mermaid-shimmer curtains, but hadn’t generated any emotion in me for a countless number of days. The unknown depression I was slowly and irrevocably slipping into solidified the knowledge that I was still me, in my body, in my house, on this particular street, as if I was frozen in the fifties in a static bubble that rewinds time and goes nowhere. Then my feet dragged me down the spiral stairs, and I smelt my father’s coffee and burnt toast which fogged the air. It was eleven o’ clock on a Sunday and time for mid-morning snacks and newspaper readings. My father was sat at the kitchen table, with his glasses on his balding head. He wore his faded Busted T-shirt that my mum had made for us three on our fifth concert two years ago.
My mother was doing the ironing: peripheral, unimportant. Her greying-black hair was flattened against her head as it often was in the mornings, and I could see the effort she went to, to make it fluff up again. ‘I mustn’t let your father see me like this,‘ I remembered her saying the Tuesday before, when she had been caught in the rain walking back from town, flurrying around preparing his lunch for him an hour before he was due to come home.
I sometimes stared at her as she did these household tasks. I had started to see the pain and unhappiness that she stopped herself from feeling. She is painfully stubborn, but I began to realise that she had given up after the doctors told her she had two slipped disks in her back and couldn’t work. She had been a banker before my sister and I were born and worked in a town thirty minutes away from home. That had always seemed progressive to me, the fact that she had managed to get out. Not everyone does. And the fact that she was offered a promotion just two years before she left taught me that she was clever, valued, and had prospects. But it seemed to me that a woman’s supposedly true purpose, ingrained by her parents and by everyone in this small town, was too powerful. She had the chance to be a housewife, and she chose it over a life. I was seeing, for the first time, that she wasn’t happy. She folded up my father’s light blue shirt and placed it on the pile by the sink.
‘I thought I’d take you out today, what do you think about a National Trust place? Have a look at the booklet,’ my father mumbled to me. ‘Anything, I don’t mind,’ I shrugged, and munched on a piece of toast before going upstairs to change. When I came down I layered on the winter accessories that best suited the Cornish Farmer’s daughter façade- my Fat Face wax coat, Barts woolly hat, and my Barbour wellies reserved for the horse and hound hunt on New Year’s Day, when every new year would roll in the same as the last -and I got into the car, watching my mother through the window folding up the last of my father’s shirts and standing in the middle of the room, alone.
My father and I were bouncing off each-other like a pair of old friends. We were occupying our familiar space, the one where our formal father-daughter relationship slips away momentarily, as it does sometimes when I let it. We were talking about a boy who I used to go to hockey training with, who had just started as an apprentice at my father’s work. Apparently trying to make him talk was like trying to draw blood from a stone. It was then that my father told me he makes sexist jokes to try and make him crack. I froze in my seat anxious with silence. I didn’t want to ask what the content of these jokes were, because the fact he made them was enough. ‘They go down a treat,’ he scoffed, forgetting the significance of me being a girl.
I thought about the environment in which these jokes were received. My father manages a tractor parts workshop, having entered the company as an apprentice himself at the age of fourteen. When I heard that he started to bring me and my sister in when we first started walking, I had thought that he was showing everybody how proud he was of us, showing his life in full circle, but I began to see it differently. He would dress us up in Massey Fergusson overalls and wellies, but it wasn’t because we were the future of the company, it was because the concept of women needing overalls or wellies was funny. The men would laugh fondly with endearment. I could now imagine him making these sexist jokes.
After we reached twelve years old, I have no more memories of his workplace. The last few are of us sitting at his desk, me and my sister compiling lists of the ten rudest words we could think of, when a man walked past and ducked his head in as my father pulled shut the sliding door. I saw his silhouette walk away into the distance. Men were always lurking. It was a dangerous place for his girls who were starting to enter puberty. It was dangerous because my father had made it so. It was always cold, and the air hung with the stale stench of oil and machinery, things I did not understand in my female unknowingness: the smell of iron and sweat and stale wood chippings. Anything we touched would leave us with the mark of black liquid on our hands in places we weren’t allowed to go.
Throughout my stunned silence, I thought of my mother, stuck under the power of a man who jokes about women. I thought of her pain, and how she hid it in the pile of ironing, as if burying it in her subconscious.
Stay tuned for part 2…