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SnailsOnTheRoad



There were snails on the road to the tapas bar. They had oozed over from a scrub of undeveloped land beside the main street into town. Grandma shouted a warning from up ahead, shading her eyes as she turned back to face us, squinting into the sun. But Mum didn’t swerve to avoid the little creatures littering the road. Instead they were crushed under the wheels of Toby’s buggy as Mum pushed him straight on; their shells disintegrated with tiny pops that reminded me of the gravel on our drive at home, churned up into a sharp spray by spinning wheels. Mum’s jaw was set, but I couldn’t see her eyes behind the dark glasses she’d worn all week. I tried not to think of the snails’ soft bodies being pulped into the concrete.

It was early evening but the heat was still stifling. We’d sat around the pool for most of the morning with Grandma whilst Mum slept in the villa. Grandma was strong and had easily held Toby in the shallow end, letting his twisted legs float to the surface in a way that delighted him. He squealed and drooled, thrashing his head from side to side, soaking us both. But we didn’t mind. It felt good to see him so happy.

We had lunch sitting on towels, still damp from the water. Tangy olives and Manchego cheese, and handfuls of crusty bread; Grandma let me have a beer, winking with secrecy. She’d disappeared inside the white building to ask Mum to join us, but returned to the pool alone, shaking her head softly. I think she had tears in her eyes when she sat down, but she said nothing and helped Toby to eat.

“Best to get inside, Jess,” she said, after we’d finished. We’d been careless with the crumbs and now delicate brown birds pecked the ground around us. Toby was amused by them, giggling in his gurgling, rattling way so alarming for strangers. He loved it here – I’d been nervous when we’d stepped off the plane, knowing how he could scream if he felt unsure or unsafe. But the heat seemed to calm him and smooth out the kinks in his broken body. And he loved Grandma. He turned to her now as she spoke. “It’s going to get hotter, if you can believe it. Come on. I have cards inside.”

We sat in the living room, the tiled floor cool under our bare feet. Toby stretched out on the sofa and fell asleep. I love to watch him asleep. His body relaxes and the tautness in his limbs eases; he looks like any other four-year-old. He tends to sleep flat on his back, arms flung out above his head. Sleep seems to open his body up, as though he wants to embrace a world that he finds both daunting and exhilarating.

Grandma set up a little card table and spent the afternoon teaching me Gin Rummy, laughing quietly as I finally got the hang of it. Occasionally she glanced over to the bedroom door, tightly shut. Mum had come out for coffee at breakfast, but hadn’t eaten anything again. She’d shaken her head at Grandma’s offer of rolls and jam, bought from the English supermarket in town. She had helped Toby to eat though, wiping his face whilst staring over his shoulder at the brilliant pink flowers in the garden. That first night, after she had found out about Dad and Toby’s nurse, she stayed in Toby’s room, like she used to do when he was a baby. If ever I was up late, doing some last minute revising or chatting online, I knew that I’d find her sleeping on the floor next to Toby’s bed. Her arms would be stretched out above her head also, mirroring the restful abandon of her son. I peeked in on her that night though, after she had found the email, and she was curled into a tight ball, hugging herself.

Grandma saw me looking at Mum’s bedroom door and reached across the card table to touch my hand. “She’ll work it out,” she said softly. “You all will.”

I sniffed and nodded. I missed Dad but – and this was the awful truth – I preferred being here with Grandma than being back home. And that was despite Mum becoming a mute, brittle creature now so distant from us. I was afraid to touch her. She no longer seemed like flesh and blood to me: instead she seemed like a shattered figurine, glued together so precariously that the slightest jolt would cause her to disintegrate. Even Toby sensed she was different and hung back when she was in the room. But it was better here, with Grandma – who was dimpled warmth and sun-bronzed affection - than being at home. There, even before we found out about Dad and Nadia, the air around my parents seemed sour and drained of anything that was bright and good. For a long time they could barely talk to each other. Toby and I spent a lot of time in my room, watching Thomas the Tank Engine on DVD, which he loves. Occasionally we sat around the kitchen table for dinner, inevitably drawn into the macabre dance they called “a conversation.” Did Dad have a good day at work? Did Mum get much painting done? Had Toby done his exercises? How had my driving lesson gone? The same, lazy questions of a family that no longer knew how to talk to each other.

In Spain, with Grandma, even though we hadn’t seen her for a few months, we slotted back into a relaxed pattern of unity. She met us at the airport and, taking one look at Mum’s drawn face, drove us home and into her vibrant, heady world of heat, wine and oranges. We fitted easily into a rhythmic pattern of conversation and hugs: Grandma couldn’t help but touch us. Toby came to love her lap and spent his evenings there whilst they listened to the radio together.

He stirred in his sleep and I stopped playing cards to look at him. I think he missed Nadia more than Dad. She had a way of caring for him that wasn’t invasive. He never seemed to mind when she helped him dress or changed his nappies. He responded to her better than he did to Mum, which I knew hurt her.

Grandma sighed and drained her beer bottle. “It came as a shock you know. Toby.” She nodded towards the bedroom door. “Even though your Mum and Dad knew there was a chance something could go wrong, given her age, it still came as a shock. But there was a time when I thought he drew them together.”

Toby was nearing the surface of sleep now, for his limbs had become rigid again. 

“I think he misses Nadia,” I said quietly, feeling mutinous.   

Grandma was quiet for a moment. “No doubt. We’re all drawn back to what feels right, to what centres us. Your Mum and Dad will get back together.”

I was surprised and looked it.

Grandma smiled ruefully. “I’m sure of it. Your Mum has loved that man since she was fourteen years old. He’s her centre. You know, when I was seven, I went on a school trip to a museum. You know what an ammonite is?”

“Like a fossil?”

“That’s right. I think love is like an ammonite. It has a central core, and no matter how far away we spin from that point, we’re always connected to it. We’re always drawn back. Toby to Nadia, your Mum to your Dad.”

I wasn’t sure. “I don’t know. He hurt her very badly. I saw the email. I think it had been going on for months.”

Grandma shrugged. “Months, weeks, it doesn’t matter, Jess. Anthony is at your Mum’s core, has been since she was a teenager.

I wondered. Mum was fragile right now but something about her had hardened; apart from Toby, she had withdrawn from everyone and had thrown up a protective shell between herself and the world. I think she was embarrassed. She’d never suspected Dad, had been so slow to see something that I had caught glimpses of weeks ago. And now that she knew, it was as though she’d moved beyond a point where we could reach her. She’d retreated into her bedroom, but I got a sense that she was different. Harder. Slow but purposeful.

But something else troubled me.

“A fossil sounds old, Gran,” I said. I wrung my hands. “But what about new love? What if Nadia is at Dad’s core now? What happens to Mum then?”

Grandma took a deep breath. “I can’t see that happening. How old is Nadia? Twenty-three, twenty-four? Not that much older than you. What’s your Dad going to do with a young girl like that?”

It seemed obvious, but I didn’t like to say. I was talking to my Grandma, after all.

There was a noise from the bedroom. The bed creaked and a cupboard door opened.

“Your Mum’s getting up,” Grandma said, and gathered the cards together. “Good.” She leaned over the table conspiratorially. “I’m taking you to the tapas bar this evening. In town.”

“Ok. If Mum will go.”

“You’ll have to persuade her.” Grandma’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Your Dad will be there. He phoned two days ago.”

My mouth slackened and dropped open. Grandma saw my look and nodded briskly. “It’s up to us, Jess. Otherwise they’d be too slow to see what’s inevitable.”

I didn’t like this talk about inevitability. For me, with the world looming up like an unopened present, “inevitable” suggested a lack of control over my own life. And then, as we walked to the tapas bar, we saw the snails, and I became more certain that Grandma – for all her love and good intentions – was wrong.



Rebecca Burns lives in Nottinghamshire, England, and is a mum-of-two. Before her life became dominated by nappies, night-feeds and
nipple cream, she achieved a Ph.D. in New Zealand Literature: now her text books make useful bricks with which her son builds towers
and roads.

  

Copyright 2009