Family consciousness

After the two police officers had left, they sat in the living room for a long silent minute. Dad was in his usual easychair, the one that looked directly at the TV, but he didn’t look so comfortable. Neither did Mum, perched on the arm beside him, looking like she could hop away any second to make a cup of tea or go back to peeling the spuds. Nearby was Michael, at one end of the couch, on the edge of the cushion, desperate to get out to his mates to give them the gossip. At the opposite end of the couch, the far end, was Jill. She pulled at a strand of hair so she could bite it.

Nobody knew what to say, where to begin. Should Mum and Dad start by apologising for 19 years of lies? Was lies too strong a word, since they’d argue they had her best interests at heart the whole time? If it wasn’t lies then it was certainly deception. All those times when Jill needed her birth certificate but Mum couldn’t find it, only to come up with it later and bring it personally to the school or to the Post Office to get her passport that time. Or should they start by going over the events of that morning, talk about how frightened Jill had been, how she hadn’t been paranoid this past week after all? That guy really was stalking her, and not just for a week – for three years! Freak. He was clearly mentally unstable, not the kind of person you’d want passing on genes to a new generation. But here they were, coils of that man’s DNA right in this room. Were they all replaying the moments of Jill’s past when she too had been difficult, a little obsessive, a touch too sensitive? She spat out the ring of hair, then fought hard not to pick at the fingers in her lap.

‘At least we won’t hear from him anymore,’ said Mum.

‘No,’ agreed Dad. ‘They’ll lock him up for a long time.’

‘Not bloody long enough,’ said Mum.

Dad only mumbled, only half-nodded his head. If he’d been watching this on the telly, seeing it unfold on some mid-afternoon talk show, he’d have been outraged. He’d have been shouting at the flickering colours on the box, trying to make himself heard, trying to get them to lock up the bastard up for good, throw away the key, while Jill and Michael sniggered at his impotent rage. But he wasn’t saying any of that, now that it had come to his door, was interfering with his family. His mind was elsewhere, perhaps calculating his own guilt, thinking about what he could’ve done better, how he could’ve prevented all this, how he should’ve been protecting his little girl these last three years. She was, still, his little girl after all. After all that had happened that morning.

Mum seemed more secure, more confident that everything she’d done was the right thing at the time. For the best reasons, and with the interests of her whole family in mind. But then, Mum never did admit mistakes. She remained stubbornly steadfast in her decisions. She was the parent. She was there to be obeyed. Even if hindsight appeared to prove her wrong, she would still refute any criticism. ‘It’s all right saying that now,’ she’d say, ‘we’re all very clever after the fact, aren’t we?’ And with that, the conversation would be closed, no ‘but Mum’ allowed. It would be: up to the room to get the homework done.

Were they thinking about that? Were they thinking about how Jill was so good at school? The first of their family – meaning extended family too, and going back generations – to go to university. And not only that, but to finish third in her course, behind the two guys that were obviously going to get PhDs and work in a lab the rest of their lives. Were they wondering about that? Where her brains had come from? After all, you’d have to be pretty smart to stalk a young girl for three years and never be caught, never even get noticed. Today was his own fault, like he couldn’t sit back any longer. He practically gave himself up. That takes a certain type of person too, a certain type of courage.

Dad shuffled, looked at the white rug under his slippered feet. He clapped his hands together and looked up, looked round them all. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘I suppose we should make that statement now.’


(Exercise: Dip into the consciousness of a family in a short piece of prose)

Book editor with, considering the links between therapy and fiction at and reviewer for @bookmunch.

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