Detours is the final short story from All of Use With Our Pointless Worries and Inconsequential Dramas that I’ll put up on this blog and it’s probably one of the most personal I’ve written or maybe it was just one of the hardest to write.
Ostensibly (I like that word) it’s a story about a dinner party, a family reunion of sorts but as with a lot of family parties there’s something more running beneath all the chatter. This is a story with clues running throughout as to what lies ahead or what the story is really about. It is basically about death and the way we sometimes avoid talking about that subject – the elephant in the room, as it were. Okay, enough, here's the story.
“You always wear those big boots.” Esme says as we finally jump into the street after descending five flights of stairs.
“You always wear a permanent frown.” I shoot back.
“If it was permanent I would naturally always be wearing it, you messed that up. I’ll give you it though. Although I think I have reason..”
“I know,” I interrupt, “I know.”
“Well at least you dressed up. The suit looks good. We need to get some wine.”
“Or Champagne? We can splash out for once.”
“Wine will do or we can buy some single malt if you want.”
“Single malt, that’s a definite. Then we can take it back home and drink it on our own and avoid this altogether?”
I’m sending that idea out quickly although I’m 100% sure of the answer.
“We’ve talked about this, it’s been arranged. We’re expected. I have family and these people are now your family whether you like it or not,” she smiles, “it’s too late to change and you agreed that this is what we would do.”
We walk down Rue Oberkampf. The street is empty, not quite deserted but almost, as if Christmas day has arrived seven months early. I cannot believe that some of the shops and bars are still open although no one is visible behind the illuminated windows. I nod over and smile to a woman riding by on her bicycle, a women I must have seen a thousand times around here but have never spoken a word to. She smiles back. No trouble riding her bike today on the traffic free streets.
Yes, I don’t have any family but Esme’s are such a nightmare most of the time that I think I might have gotten off lucky there. Her melodramatic mother, her blowhard brother, her neurotic sister…but I’m sure things will be different tonight. Of course they’ll be different. Esme is the only thing that’s important to me anyway. I’m going for her and god knows where I’d be tonight if it wasn’t for her.
“Did your take your pill?” I ask.
“No. No, I decided against it.”
“Okay. That’s good, I guess. I suppose you can always take it later if you change your mind, you still have time.”
“I don’t think I will.”
I light a cigarette.
“You stink of cigarettes.”
“Well you,” I think for a second or two, I’m grappling here, “stink of yoga.”
“Oh that is ludicrous.”
But we both laugh.
“Don’t light up here.”
“Oh come on. You’re mother smokes, she won’t mind.”
“It doesn’t look good arriving at the door with a cigarette hanging out of your mouth. Why don’t you just open the whisky bottle and have a swig while you’re at it.” I don’t know why she’s whispering. If I can barely hear her no-one inside can.
“You’re worried about appearances?” I say. She shoots me that look I’ve seen many times. It’s a look I admit I’ve grown to love and I also admit I’ve been known to annoy her at times just to achieve that expression. It’s a look that a mother gives to a five year old son or daughter and which means, ‘I’m certainly not going to tell you again’.
“Okay, okay.” I whisper back before returning the cigarette to its packet and ringing the door-bell again. Esme’s mother answers, a cigarette in one hand and a glass of something in the other. She puts down the glass on a small marble table next to the door but keeps hold of the cigarette.
“Esme, Esme.” She embraces her daughter.
“Mama,” Esme exclaims, “you look beautiful. Is this new?”
“I thought I would make the effort. Jacques created it especially. Said I was the only one he would do it for at such short notice, he didn’t even charge although…you know I did offer to pay.”
“You’ve given him plenty of business over the years and what’s the point in charging you. Is everyone here?”
“Yes, everyone’s inside.”
Margot finally turns to me, opens her mouth as if to say something but stops and then surprisingly, she puts her arms around me and even more surprisingly, kisses me gently on the lips.
She takes a step back and looks me in the eyes, “Thank you.” She whispers.
“No, no. We split up about a year ago. You didn’t hear? Almost wiped out my bank account.”
Esme’s brother Tomas, drunk already although it’s only around seven, is reminding me, as if I need reminding, that what appears to be a successful life can disappear in an instant, although I don’t think anyone has been providing him with much sympathy lately. Of course I had heard about it. He had an affair with a woman who was at least 10 years younger than him, he left his wife and then his lover left him three months later. I had heard he had begged his wife to come back, did all the usual acts of contrition and some highly unusual ones as well from what Esme had told me but he couldn’t buy or talk his way out of this one.
It’s not that I can’t feel sympathy for him or that I don’t understand how he must feel, it’s just that he’s always been such a dislikeable guy. Conversations with him always centred on money, how much money he had, how much his new car or his new set of golf clubs or his new suit or his month long vacation in Monaco cost or how much money he had sunk into his now worthless investments and pension schemes, and I always knew when talking to him that the conversation would eventually lead to how much money I didn’t have or that I was wasting my life eking out a meagre existence through my writing. I had always considered him an asshole and my opinion wasn’t going to change simply because his wife had come to the same conclusion.
“Anyway none of it matters now does it?” He says mournfully, pouring another glass of the whisky I had bought. But I know that this does matter to him.
“Maybe not but what does matter now is the people who are here tonight. The ones who are here with you now.” Sometimes everything I say feels like a cliché. Why did Esme leave me alone with him?
“You were right, you chose the life you wanted, regardless of what anyone else said or thought. I wish I had done that. I wish I could have been so…so…fearless.”
“Is that a compliment I’m hearing? It’s been a long time coming. And there’s nothing fearless about sticking to one thing because I didn’t know or have any desire to do anything else. Come on, you followed love,” or more likely your dick, I thought, “that’s a brave thing to do, even if it didn’t turn out how you thought it would. You still tried.”
“I did, didn’t I?”
It’s something for him to hold on to. I can give him that at least.
“There are lights in here you know.” Esme says as she enters the drawing room. “Why are you both sitting hunched up together in the dark?”
I hadn’t even noticed that the room is now only illuminated by the almost night sky. I also hadn’t noticed that I’d been unconsciously moving the large stool I’m sitting on, edging it away from the shadows creeping into the room. I’d been too lost in my thoughts as well as listening to Tomas.
“Leave the lights off. Just use candles if you must.” Tomas says, taking Esme’s hand as she bends down to the table in front of us.
“Have you finished the entire bottle between you?” She holds up the bottle that was full only two hours earlier.
“You’re lucky we have more. And don’t get drunk or maybe you should get drunk, I don’t know. Maybe we all should just get drunk.”
“That’s got my vote.” I reply.
“Seconded,” shouts Tomas getting up shakily from his chair and walking to the door, “and thirded, fourthed, whatever.”
“You,” I say as Esme sits next to me on the stool and takes my hands in hers, “have some messed up family.”
“You, definitely fit in well then.”
Esme rests her chin on my shoulder and we sit in silence for what seems like a long time.
“I’m at a party in a huge house in the country,” Esme whispers into my ear, leaning in closer to me, “and I’m looking for an escape route because I’ve grown tired of all the people and the embellished stories they tell in order to assuage their fears that they’re really not as interesting as they’d like to think they are.
So I leave the party through the huge patio doors and walk outside, down the concrete stairs, away from the lights and the noise and into the darkness of the garden.
And before long I find myself wandering along little pathways and past fishponds so motionless that I can clearly see the moon illuminated across their surface, past the hedges that are taller than I am and I keep walking deeper into the gardens following the moon until I’m so far from the house that the conversations and the music have been replaced by the hooting of owls and a breeze that moves the grass and keeps time with me as a I walk. And I walk further still until I come to a very old tree, a tree with enormous outstretched limbs underneath which sits a bench and even though it’s raining lightly the bench is dry, sheltered by the tree’s branches.
And there I sit, in the warm evening air, in the darkness, accompanied only by the sound of the creaking branches and the music of a thousand droplets of rain falling softly upon the tree’s leaves. I sit on the bench alone and I wait.”
“For you to come and find me.”
I look down to see that the shadows have crept further, almost to the far wall, leaving only one sliver of glowing light trying to outrun the darkness.
I’ve only been in this dining room once, on my first visit a few years ago when I was given the grand tour of the apartment followed by a family dinner. It’s almost bare in comparison to the other rooms, save for the dining table and chairs, the shelves along the wall and the two floor lamps. But the lamps haven’t been switched on and the room is lit only by three large candles, which sit in the centre of the table and even the moonlight drifting in through the balcony doors at the far end of the room doesn’t reach the corner where we are now sitting.
Small talk. Forced small talk is happening but I’m not listening. I’m looking at the ornaments on one of the shelves, a strange collection of glass and chinaware with no theme to it whatsoever. For a woman who is immaculate and precise in all other areas of her life it looks like Margot has given no thought at all to this collection of small cats, china plates, music boxes and tacky-looking holiday souvenirs, and in the centre of all of this disarray sits a large glass elephant, facing directly forwards towards the dining table. The only piece on the shelf that looks as if it has been placed deliberately.
I look over at Margot and I realise that she’s been watching me as I look at the ornaments and it looks as if she is about to say something but then she turns her head back to the shelf and then back to me and then she smiles. And I’m not completely sure what she has shared with me in that moment but she puts down her empty glass and announces to the table, “I’d like to say a prayer before we start eating.”
“Oh come on mother,” Tomas, who is sitting to her left, says loudly, "none of us here are religious. You know this.”
“You don’t have to join me. I’m not asking for that.”
“You should have gone to Notre Dame with the rest of them then.” He retorts. A sneer in his voice, slurring his words slightly.
“Just give me this can’t you. One prayer. Just one!”
“Let her say her prayer Tomas. What difference does it make?”
This is the most I have heard Esme’s sister Adele say the entire evening apart from our first greeting. She’s sitting directly opposite me and it’s only now for the first time that I notice how much she resembles Esme. The same long dark hair and brown eyes, the same caramel colour to her skin, the same slightly turned down mouth that can make her look unhappy even when she’s not, although I haven’t seen her smile in a long a time. But Adele has a slight scar running down her forehead, about three inches in length and which you can only see if her hair is pushed back. Plus Adele worries about everything. Esme is a worrier but not nearly to the same level as her sister. I wish I had asked Esme how Adele had received that scar.
Margot finishes her prayer and then gives thanks that we’re all here tonight.
“I can’t remember the last time we were all sitting together like this but I’m glad we are.” Says Adele.
“I can.” Tomas replies while filling everyone’s glass again.
I can remember as well and I hope he has it wrong or that he thinks more about what he is about to say and doesn’t say it.
“When you were pregnant remember and we had that dinner to celebrate.”
Adele looks stunned as if she has had her breath taken away from her, “Oh yes, that’s right. That was it. I forgot. I mean…”
“Well I don’t how you can forget that, come on it…”
“Do shut-up Tomas and put your phone away for once.” Margot cuts him off.
“Idiot.” Esme hisses at him. She takes her hand off mine and reaches over to hold Adele’s hand.
“I’m sorry. Look I, I didn’t think. You know what I’m like. I’m sorry Adele, I’m sorry.” He is almost pleading with her. I can imagine this is the same way he pleaded with his wife, who he’s no doubt hoping is going to text or call tonight, which is the reason he has barely let go of his phone all evening. After all this time, a year later, still hoping.
“It’s okay. It doesn’t matter. It was a long time ago. I just forgot with everything going on. Although, no, it has been on my mind for the past few months, now and again but it’s not important.”
But even in the candlelight, with her head bowed, I can see the tear running down her face and although I want to stop seeing that tear, to turn around and look out through the balcony windows, I don’t.
“It is important,” Margot says, “and you shouldn’t forget. None of us should.”
The half-full plates remain on the table long after the meal is over. None of us has had much of an appetite it seems but we are all drinking the wine and the scotch, and the nervous, subdued conversation is now no longer a problem. Esme has decided to tell the story of the drunk woman we had met outside a bar a few weeks ago.
“..and she was sitting there on the ground, so drunk, I mean incredibly drunk and we are just standing around her smoking cigarettes, and she keeps saying something but neither of us can make out what it is, and then suddenly she raises her arm in the air as if she’s asking a question and Michael, the idiot, bends down and slaps her hand with his, gives her a high five.” Esme has told this story a few times and each time she finds it hilarious for some reason. “And the woman looks stunned and then shouts at Michael that she’s asking to be picked up not given a bloody high five.”
Everyone begins to laugh.
Esme’s mother, who I have never seen laugh this much or even at all, shouts out over the table, “I’m glad I never went swimming at the beach with you Michael.”
“A few days ago I saw a man walk in front of a car. Straight into the road, straight into the traffic.”
“Was he drunk?” Tomas asks.
“At first I thought he was because his face was emotionless, glazed over,” Adele replies, “the way he just walked casually out into the road but the cars stopped for him and he continued to the other side. But then, instead of walking on he turned round again and he walked out into the traffic, and he kept doing this again and again.”
“Did anyone hit him?” I ask.
“I don’t know. I just drove past him. No one was helping him and no one stopped him. When I looked in my rear view mirror he had turned his back and was walking deliberately into the oncoming cars.”
“With what’s going on in the world today I don’t blame him at all.” Says Tomas while pouring another glassful of whisky.
We’ve all had plenty to drink but the drunkenness has gone now and I don’t think it’s going to return no matter how much we try to recapture it.
I wonder what Margot and Esme are talking about. Margot had said she wanted to speak to each of us alone. They’ve been gone for about half an hour now. I look at my watch and calculate that there’s not enough time to spend half an hour with each of us I don’t think but I know or at least I think I know that Esme has always been Margot’s favourite, even though parents aren’t supposed to favour one child over another. But that’s usually the case.
Esme finally returns and I can see she has been crying. “She wants to see both of you together.”
They both stand up and look at their older sister who says that it’s okay, that there’s still time, and they walk slowly out of the room.
“Does she want to speak to me?” I ask as she sits down next to me.
“No, she said you would understand and she would only be telling you what you already know.”
The candles have almost died out, the flames flickering but still holding on. I want to ask Esme if she is scared but her reply, if it’s a yes, will only make me more scared and I don’t want that but I can feel my heart racing and I take the half empty bottle that’s at my feet and I drink from it to try to extinguish the fear. I drink a large amount of the whisky and pass it to Esme who drinks from the bottle, her arm tightly around my waist and as I look at her as she drinks I wish that we were anywhere else but here. She puts the bottle down and rests her head on my shoulder.
“Tell me again.” I say.
The room is almost in complete darkness by the time Margot, Adele and Tomas return. There’s only the moonlight to guide us now.
“Well, it’s time.” Says Margot quietly.
I take Esme’s hand and we all walk towards the balcony doors and I push the handle down but then stop before opening the door.
Margot looks at me and nods.
A soon as I open the thickly glazed doors I hear screaming and shouting coming from the streets below. The illuminated city appears in front of us as we step out onto the balcony and I take a deep breath of the cold night air. I put my arm around Esme, pull her tightly against me but there’s nothing I can do to stop her shaking and I steady myself, steady both of us by placing one hand on the balcony railing.
Tomas stands drinking from a bottle, muttering something again and again but I can’t make out what he is saying. Adele is holding onto Margot who is motionless, staring up into the night sky but then both of them back away from the railing until they reach the glass doors and slowly slide down until they are seated, their arms around each other.
Esme tries to say something but her shaking has become worse and the noise has become so loud that I begin to feel light-headed and I’m finding it hard to breathe but I’m sure I can hear her say, “you…” and although I don’t want to I turn my head from her to confront the black sky.
And I see the hundreds of dots, glowing and becoming larger, dwarfing the tiny stars behind them.