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8

Tiresias at the Post Office

The high street was wide and bright; the sun always found a way to hit the shops and show off their shabbiness, peeling paint, busted brick, echoes, forty years later, of the blitz the city was still obsessed with. Inside, each shop ate the light. I was already a shy, fraught child but these darknesses particularly unnerved me. They were a shadow city, overlaps in space and time. I expected to be confronted by a creepily animatronic lion or a fearsome Ice Queen. The record shop on the corner was so dark that I refused to go in there at all, annoying my dad, who loved nothing more than flicking through the vinyl for something he didn’t yet have. I would wait out on the street, holding my nose against the deep, honest smells from the butcher shop.

By eight, my mum would send me out on errands to the high street alone; she had other worries now. I didn’t come across any centaurs or lost child royalty in the post office but tacked to the inside of the postal counter window were special edition stamps and coins that always interested me. I would pass by the rows of chocolate bars, oblivious to them, to get to the coins at the end of the corridor-like room. I wanted to collect them all up.

The post office was family ran. The mother was watching me while I posted my mum’s letter or paid money in or whatever it was I was doing that day. Her son, older than me but made even taller by the high stool he sat on, was with her behind the counter of sweets. He must have only been a few years older but at my age he might as well have been twenty. I made my way out. The wake of the mother and son’s conversation sat in the air. The son wafted his arms at his mother as if their conversation was unpleasant incense. She ignored him.

-Don’t say that, she’s obviously a girl.

Said to her son while looking at me and said loud enough for me to hear.

-No, it’s a boy.

 In an impatient half whisper

-You’re a girl, aren’t you.

It wasn’t a question and I was raised not to answer back. My shyness was not only painful for others to watch, it was a nail bomb exploding inside me. Not only did my awkwardness make me uncomfortable in my skin but now this woman was telling me my skin wasn’t what I thought it was, that it might not even be my skin.

\

I grew up in a time when photos were one of a kind, not bits of code to be copied indefinitely. I don’t have any photos of me as a child but there is one that is clear in my memory. I’m sitting on a black leatherette couch. There’s the vine green wallpaper behind me. The print on my t-shirt is of Animal playing the drums. I’m leaning towards the camera, happy, as carefree as only you can capture in childhood. In that memory of a snapshot, I don’t see what that postal worker saw.

It was the Eighties. Men were wearing makeup in music videos and women had taken to spiking their hair.

It was the Eighties and my dad didn’t survive the stomach cancer that would most probably be operable or even preventable now, the cancer that I had conflated with a story of my dad being winded by a football during a match. While the other boys in my year played football I exiled myself to a different corner of the playground. Now, this thing that brings men together remains alien to me.

My mum threw herself into boyfriends, or vice versa. She didn’t know how to raise a son. As a child she had shared one bedroom in a tunnel-back with three sisters, had a mother whose idea of parenting was a constricting Victorian-hangover, and a dad that was lost to the betting shop and the gamble of factory work. Simply, my mother didn't know how to cope.

We all dealt with his death in separate ways. His mother chanted about children going before their parents in what seemed a particularly Irish way. His own dad without a word. His brothers lost without a leader. I cried and screamed for what I romantically remember as a full day. I was left alone. I withdrew even more, the cries leaking out, even still, at unscheduled times.

The front room of our house was cheap embossed paper painted harsh white. It only had a bed in it; my dad couldn't take the stairs. I can’t remember there being anything in it before dad’s illness and I can’t remember there ever being anything in it after. There was no garden or porch; the door opened out onto the street. Constant traffic, people and cars, passing the window made it an uneasy room to sit in. We had been kept out of the room since dad had been released from the hospital, his body making a prison of our home, his illness making a prison of his body.

My brain flatlined during this time. I remember my dad showing me the tracks of stiches on his back – blue plastic thread – the surgeons approaching the tumour(s) from behind – he had my hand – I couldn’t bring myself to touch them. His body was measly now and spiky with bones; this man who liked to eat; this man who could make a meal from a can of beans and an oxo cube in the tight days; his skin a suddenly loose fitting top. He was thirty. I was eight. I remember him telling me what I now realise was a stock conversation but that would embed itself and glint at me for the rest of my life, that I was now going to be the man of the house. I nodded. I told him I understood when he asked if I did but I was numb to all of this. What did being the man of the house mean? What was being a man?

The adult world was pulsing music sunk to the bottom of honey light at the foot of the stairs.

It was jokes I couldn’t work out.

He was the fun.

Already cemented into myth, the hero who climbed drainpipes to be with the woman he loved, who made shoes of silver, who led an army of brothers.

I decided it meant giving up toys. We were on our knees, playing with toys in the dirt that was the back garden when I surprised myself as well as my friends and said, 'I have to stop playing with toys.' It seemed obvious. This is what adults do, right? Stop playing with toys? My friends looked at me like I was insane or they simply couldn't understand what I was saying. I stuck to my word.

I practised by wearing my dad's vest for a full day. It hung stupidly off me but I survived without anyone telling me the truth, that it looked ridiculous.

I decided it meant running errands.

\

It was all this and more that made that sentence – you’re a girl, aren’t you – blister and swell to an unrecognisable shape. I couldn’t live up to all this. I answered the postal worker’s mistake with one of my own; I gave a sheepish nod and hurried out to the light on the high street.

 

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