17 February 2022

Like little pieces of the sky

The wind has been terrible the last couple of days and sat in the top of the house on Victoria Road, in the loft we converted last year to make enough space for everyone as they got older, I have some uneasy feeling that the whole thing might be blown off. There are also inexplicable sounds when the wind blows. A banging once, for example, what is banging, I wondered, looking up from my phone. Thankfully, these passing concerns are embedded in a much larger constellation of thoughts about how the loft conversion was a brilliant use of funds and solved all the problems it was meant to solve. The builders were trustworthy and there's no real concern about whether everything will stick together, even if you might feel uneasy about it. They were the sort of builders you trust implicitly because you have a sense of their goodness. It's hard to explain. 

The loft conversion, and the fireplace and fence were the key jobs completed last year, and Mike, the man who had done the fence, was meant to come back and replace all the stones of the patio and the walkaway and put in a larger shed after a month or so. Mysteriously though, Mike stopped responding to my texts and WhatsApp messages and even when I called, would not answer the phone. I couldn't tell why this was, if I had offended him in some way, but after a few months I gave up. We got another quote from the guy who did the neighbour's tree, but that quote was, as far as I could tell, the sort of quote that suggested that guy didn't actually want to do the job. It was far too much, and the underlying message was, You're paying mostly for my lack of enthusiasm here. To be fair, I respect this view of work immensely, but I couldn't see spending an additional four thousand pounds, particularly after having had Mike put in my head that it could be much cheaper.

A year passed and our new neighbours had some landscapers around to do some work, James and the lad who isn't really a lad, and I stopped them one morning to ask if I could get a quote. We walked through the garden pointing out this and that, the different options, and I spoke disparagingly about Mike, I said he ghosted me, then regretted it, wondering if Mike and James knew one another and this would get back to Mike. We looked at everything and James said he could work out the quote, if I gave him a minute and I knew I would accept whatever it was, because this working out of the quote on the table in the garden definitely couldn't include the cost of his enthusiasm — that is only added later, at home, when one thinks does one really want this, is it really worth it. And sure enough, it was almost the original Mike cost, and I immediately agreed, with the caveat that I needed to speak to my partner, but she would say yes, she would have to say yes, this was the last piece of the puzzle.

The impending work on the garden means the inevitable has come, the dismantling of our seven-year-old trampoline, the one that Yoko's dad bought in 2015, and which, like all the things your children have, lost interest over time, in a way that you can't notice until it is completely gone. When was the last time it had been used, you wonder — it has been years, potentially. I had the explicable yen to do it in the dark on Tuesday night, and pulled the whole thing apart in thirty minutes before feeling like I'd made a huge mistake: what if they wanted to jump on it one more time, what if we didn't actually want to get rid of it? What if all of this has been a dream and I'll wake up and they'll be six and four and two again. What will I do then.

There are numerous decisions to make with James about the sandstone pavers and the sort of shed to get. For example, should the shed have a window or not: the pros and cons of this one, simple decision could take up a day of consideration. I've not insisted on pressure-treated wood, I'm not willing to pay for it, but of course I should be because in four years it will be like the kitchen, slowly coming undone and I'll think back to 2022 Me, that fool, and wish that he hadn't just made a bunch of quick choices to get it over with. We should have paid £500 more for the limestone if that's what we really wanted, but I still can't seem to believe the future will come, that I will be here in five years from now, that we'll still be in this house, that anything which has gone on and on for all these years will continue to go on. Of course, it will don't be stupid, I say to myself, before making another decision that is meant to only last until 2025, when I seem to think the world will end. I can make it one more month like this, I have been saying to myself for years now. It's just another month. 

This isn't healthy. The girls had some performative sadness about the trampoline, but honestly, I'm not sure how safe it was anymore. I said that to them because I wanted it to pass without a moment of inflexion, where I would have to witness them jumping on it for the last time, where they might be young again and I would see them as young again. It's too much, I'm sorry. I did it in the dark when no one was watching. When I woke up the next day, it was just gone. The new thing is coming now, we'll have new memories to make, we'll eat out there every day. And it too will grow old and the nostalgia will grow in it, like weeds between the cheap sandstone pavers, until in some future world, some other person, maybe me as an older man, will decide again that it's time to change it. 

07 February 2022

Something in the way

When Covid cleared the house, I had the sensation that can only be felt after all the limitations of self-isolation come off: when you step out of the house for the first time, legally free. Of course, you might have left during your self-isolation period, to pick up a child in a car because it was too dark for them to walk home, or drive another child to school because they have not had a good morning, but can go now. You don't feel like you were free then, you feel like you are breaking the law. But when Friday came, I could lace up my new Nike Zoom Pegasus 38s which I had bought at a heavy discount only two weeks ago. I felt like everything was possible again, that my body was completely renewed and whatever was coming that day didn't matter. I was out in the world and running again, not fast or slow, not at any pace because it didn't matter did it. I was just running. 

I used to joke that I was looking forward to the day when there would be no crying in the house. This was some time ago when the children were much smaller and there was always some sort of three-to-eight-year-old problem that needed resolving, often by giving or withholding something, or by simply picking them up. You could do that at some point: just pick them up. Three girls, people would say, you'll have your hands full won't you, but I always wondered what ratio of boys to girls would make it easier: surely I'd have my hands full with three boys — would one boy and two girls be okay? At what point would my hands have not been full, theoretically? 

A day did eventually pass, I'm sure, where there was no crying in the house, but I never clocked it. The absence of crying is a hard thing to note, something we don't tend to think about in any given instance: there is no one crying here. As it went though, the crying that's come later, the crying of kids who are past eight is much more unsettling, something that can't be solved simply by giving or withholding or picking up. You could assert your compassion when they were younger, you could smother the tears like a fire with a blanket. You could make any feeling go away. Now, with every year, you have less and less control. You no longer know the right thing to say, or what needs to be done, to make it stop, to make it okay, to make the world make sense. The kids know anyway, they experience it every day: life doesn't always make sense. There isn't an answer sometimes.

When we bought the house on Victoria Road almost five years ago, and did all the work that was needed in one round, the Ikea kitchen we had installed was remarkable. The previous cabinets, the manufactured wood and veneers of late-stage capitalism had moisture inside of them, the way things get moisture in them in the UK. The new ones were clean and dry and durable. Now, four years have passed and I noticed in the last year that they were yellowing and the steam from the kettle had begun to warp the cabinet door above it. The sink is also chipped. The truth is, as I look at it, the kitchen will need to be redone in five years, won't it. It will be manageable for another two or three years and then everything is going to start breaking. Yoko had intimated this at some point, but we were burning through money on white goods, we couldn't afford to double the cost of the kitchen — besides, there is a warranty, I said confidently. Twenty-five years. 

Without knowing it, I myself stopped crying sometime last year. I cried a lot at the start of the pandemic, in a small converted garage, off a fantastically large house near Mary Vale in Bournville. It was unproductive crying, the sort of crying that you do and afterwards feel less settled than when you started: you feel pathetic and pitiful, and I seemed to have subconsciously resolved to not do it anymore, at least not in the presence of anyone who could judge me for it, who might think I was weak because of it. Why cry in front of your wife, what sort of pathetic, adult person does that. That's it, isn't it: we're adults now, even the kids are adults. There is no one to pick us up, to tell us it's okay, to soothe us. To desire that is infantile, isn't it, to want someone to soothe you and reassure you, particularly when you yourself have never been especially supportive. Besides, you're almost forty. 

I haven't been entirely successful, in part because it's not who I am, but also because grief continues to stalk around outside the Pihlajas of Harborne, always it seems on the edge of breaking back in, making itself known in a rush of negative energy. They'll tell you this, of course, when someone dies, that everyone moves on even when you don't. Even yourself, you'll move on without noticing, but she is still gone and it's only been a month. I read The Year of Magical Thinking, and of course, everything that we've experienced is normal. The sense, particularly when you're so far away, that it didn't actually happen. That you'll get an email or some report from her, like you did for fifteen or sixteen years, when you didn't really appreciate it like you should have. Sometimes you'll remember that this won't happen again, you'll be on the stairs, just coming down for a glass of water, and you'll remember.