Ed Walsh is a writer of so far unpublished novels and occasionally published shorter fiction. He lives in the north-east of England.


Trigger Warning

Every summer we went to our place on the coast for a month. That last time, we had been there a week when I heard my father on the phone. He thought we had all gone down to the beach, but I had come back for my snorkel. “See you when I get back,” I heard him say. “I can’t wait either. Yes, I love you too.”

I wondered who he could be talking to; surely the people he loved were here, me and my mother and Bobby, my little brother. Grandma and grandad? Maybe his sister, who was my aunt Monica. But he wouldn’t say that sort of thing to them. I’d never heard him say that sort of thing to anybody. So, I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew something wasn’t right. That kind of love talk was not something I was used to hearing.

I watched my parents closely after that; they still held hands walking along the beach; they still swapped pieces of food at the restaurant in the evening, still did the Times crossword together on a Sunday. I listened for signs of change when everyone was in bed. There were none, and at the end of the month we went home.

Next thing, Bobby got himself killed. It was two weeks after we got back, and he ran out from behind a bus and got hit by a car. The driver wasn’t speeding, but Bobby was a weedy kid, a breath of air could have blown him over.

There followed a grotesque few days, my mother on her knees, tearing at her own face, my father, shocked and serious, trying comfort her and cleaning her up. “Come on Roberta,” I recall him saying. “We’ve got to get through this somehow.” I guess he had no idea then how they were going to get through it, just that they had to somehow.

Me, I missed old Bobby for a while; he was a good kid. I’m sure he could have done some good in the world if he hadn’t appeared so quickly from behind that bus.

And yesterday it was my father’s funeral. He had lived alone since my mother took too many of her tablets. I used to visit him now and then with my own kids. We weren’t what you might call close; friendly enough, and polite of course, but not close.

Many of his old colleagues came to the service and his old head-of-chambers threw my father’s wig into the hole after him, the hole that also held my brother and my mother. “Farewell Ralph,” he shouted. “Farewell. Another good man gone.” They applauded.

I had noticed her briefly in the churchyard; a woman I hadn’t seen before and who seemed to be alone. She was also at the cemetery, a distance back from the crowd around the grave. Some people glanced across, but nobody showed any sign of knowing who she was.

I knew though. I knew with a rare certainty that she was the woman my father had spoken to on the phone all those years previously when we were up on the coast. As people dispersed, I went over to her and she smiled as if she had been expecting me.

“You knew my father I take it,” I said.

“Yes, I knew him very well,” she said.

“Shall we?” I said, gesturing to a nearby bench.

We sat and she told me, and it came as no surprise. They had been lovers before he ever met my mother, and then met up again by chance when they were both married. That second time, they had embarked on an affair so intense that they planned to leave their families and be together. So, while we were playing on the beach back then, and eating crab sandwiches, he was planning to leave us. It was to be our last holiday together, but only he and she knew that.

“And then?” I asked, although I knew the answer.

“And then your brother,” she said. “He couldn’t leave your mother after that.”

“You never saw each other again?”

“Never, but I’ve never stopped loving him.”

“And are you still married?” I asked. “If you don’t mind me asking.”

“Still married,” she said flatly.

“Aren’t you unhappy?” I asked.

“Of course. I’ve been unhappy since your fool brother got himself killed.”

“It wasn’t Bobby’s fault,” I said. “He wasn’t to know.”

“No, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be so unkind. It must have been appalling for your poor mother.”

“Now what?” I asked.

“Now?” she repeated. “Now, all hope is lost. Now, I go back and prepare my husband’s evening meal.”

“Does your husband know about my father?”

She shook her head slowly.

“No, my husband is a decent man. He doesn’t deserve to be wounded in that way, to know that his long marriage has been a sham. That is something I must bear alone.”

“Who was that?” my wife asked as we drove home.

“Who was who?” I said, knowing who she meant.

“The woman you were talking to.”

“An old colleague of my father’s,” I said.

Why did I lie like that? It was an interesting story, one that I would have been eager to share had it not involved my father. But it did involve my father, and in some way involved me. And I thought that my involvement, circumstantial though it was, might have implications; that in my wife’s mind, I might be associated with marriages that might not be as they seem.

And in bed last night, my wife sleeping beside me, I felt an immense sadness, not for my father’s death, but for his life; a life which I now know he had spent reluctantly with me, and with my mother and Bobby when they were around, cut adrift from the woman he loved and the life he might have led.

Oh Bobby, why didn’t you look?

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