An Old Man Walks Up A Road

by Rebecca Burns
The questions began when his daughter became pregnant. He had initially welcomed the symmetry of such an event; his child having a child, life continuing to be replenished. In one of his poems he likened the motion to that of a needle, diving through fabric, in and out, weaving one soul to the next.

His son-in-law began to take photographs, snapping his young wife with an egg for a belly, standing her against their barn, the fence, in the trees. Alan did not tire of this project and even put an album together; just a cheap, plastic wallet picked up in town.

Sonia asked the questions of her father for the first time when she was about six months gone. The old man sat next to her on her porch, drinking a sympathetic lemonade, watching the horses canter in the field beyond the fence.

“Dad, why don’t you have any photos of Mum when she was pregnant?”

The glass had stopped at lips, the shock of the question gluing his tongue to the cold glass. “I must have some.”

Sonia had smoothed her hands over her stomach, tracing the soft island of her belly button. “Not one. Lots of me as a baby, with Mum and Aunt Rosie. I just wondered.”

“We didn’t have much money in the early days.” He hoped it would be enough.

For the next six months it was. Brendan was born, an upside down version of Sonia; same hair, same creased ears, but an unapologetic boy. Sonia fed him constantly, her breasts outraged. She sat in her father’s parlour as the wind cooled and buffeted outside, and he scribbled verses between the nursing and the changing. Alan had left by then, taking his photo album with him.

Then Sonia asked again. She had the roam of the old man’s house now. Brendan grew and slept and she was able to stretch the cord between them. She took to hiding in different rooms of her father’s home until her son’s screams could no longer be ignored.

She found the box of photos under his bed. She had been right: not one photo of her mother with a distorted belly.  

“See?” she laid them out on her father’s kitchen table, where she had learnt long division, the capitals of South America, where Alan had drank coffee and asked her father’s permission to take her out. “Not one. Why is that?”

He had frowned and shook his head, hoping that Brendan would wake. The breeze whipped up into a gale and he insisted they make for the storm shelter. They both know he was evading, cowering from something, but not the weather.

“There are so many of Aunt Rosie, fatter than I ever remembered.” Brendan was on her hip now, dimpled fists shoved down his throat, as though he were trying to push the bleeding teeth through his skin. Sonia had organised the photos into chronological order. “See, she’s wearing Mum’s dress on this one. The blue checked one, remember?”

A question beneath a question. Her father closed his eyes, thinking back to another time and another voice. She’s so young, isn’t she? Will she cope? Then he had been brave enough to unpick the layered meaning, pulling the frayed canvas of the chatter. What do you want? Can we do it? But now he was too old and too scared.

Brendan began to toddle, spatula hands reaching up to spin the Lazy Susan on his dead wife’s dresser. He smelled of apples. “Gampa!” and a wet lick for a kiss. Sonia laughed when her son and father raced each other around the worn parlour carpet, knees popping, sturdy feet thundering. But she would not be swayed.

“I found two bags,” she said, the morning she left and took Brendan to a small apartment in town. “Letters.” She did not look at him and his insides bruised. One of his students had written a line in a poem; I turn purple from the inside, and he now appreciated what she had meant. “When you want to tell me the truth, I’ll be at this address.” She left a sheet of paper on the kitchen table.

The house expanded around him. Brendan’s buttery fingers arched over the doorway as he passed through it. A year of tender games: Higher! Up Gampa! He wondered if the boy would miss him.

He had not forgotten about the letters but moving, removing, burning: these were acts of finality he could not commit. He was a man who liked the emptying and filling of life, water into water. And perhaps he wanted the secret to be out and for Rosie, his dead wife’s sister, to step into the light and reclaim a life she had passed over to her sister thirty years ago.

Sonia had left the address of a new apartment block in town. Beneath it she had written ten words: Bring the letters with you or don’t come at all.

He found the bags in the place he had stored them when his wife had died six years before; behind the water tank in the spare room. He had wondered if a terrible accident might occur, a flood of some sort, removing all need to deal with them. But. There they were.

He stretched his weary bones into the quiet space and retrieved the canvas bags. Words were contained within them, bursting, pushing at the seams, waiting to spill their secrets with quiet mutiny. They felt heavy in his hands. So many phrases, covering and smoothing the great lie.

So he took them up the road into town. To where Sonia sat with her son, her son. Waiting.
Rebecca Burns is an award-winning writer of short stories, over thirty of which have been published online or in print. Her story collections – Catching the Barramundi (2012) and The Settling Earth (2014 – were both longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Award. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011, winner of the Fowey Festival of Words and Music Short Story Competition in 2013 (and runner-up in 2014), winner of the Black Pear Press Short Story Competition in 2014 and, in 2016, was been listed for competitions including the Evesham Festival of Words and Music, the Chipping Norton Festival, the Sunderland Short Story Award, and the Green Lady Press Short Story Award. She has also been profiled as part of the University of Leicester's "Grassroutes Project", a project that showcases the 50 best transcultural writers in the county. Her debut novel, The Bishop's Girl, was published by Odyssey Books in September 2016.

© 2014, Rebecca Burns