The Life of Roberts
hello! I’d forgotten it was you today. I’m all over the place this
week! What’s that? No, no, nothing to worry about. I’ve just
changed my blood pressure meds and I’m not sleeping so well on
these new ones. It was like that when I started on the Statins. Yes,
that’s right. Katy fetched them for me on Tuesday. She usually
comes round Wednesdays and Fridays but I needed the prescription
fetching and she’s good like that, with the last-minute emergencies.
That’s right. Yes, she lives on Avenue Road. By the park. See, that’s
her there, on the mantelpiece. With Roberts, my son. Do you have
children? Really? That’s nice. It is, isn’t it? You take a lot of photos
of them at that age, but this one has always been my favourite.
There’s just something about it, the two of them, together like that.
1974 it was. Aberdovy. We used to stay there every year. Look at it.
It’s lovely isn’t it? Katie has a real twinkle, doesn’t she? She could
wrap people around her finger at that age, that one. Still can. Even
then you knew she was going places, she just had that about her.
Whereas Roberts… Look at him there. That’s right, yes. Roberts.
What’s that? I don’t know really. His real name was David. It started
as a nickname and just stuck – I don’t think he minded though.
Anyway, he wasn’t like Katy. He was quiet, withdrawn. You can see
it in his eyes even then and he was only four. He wasn’t very happy,
you see. I don’t know why. He’s dead now. He died. Not too long
ago. About ten years – let’s see – nine years and 6 months. Nobody
knew why, not really. I mean a lot of people thought they did, a lot
of people tried to work out what was wrong with him but no-one
ever got to the bottom of it. There’s too many possibilities these
days if you ask me. Something’s always something else, even when
it isn’t. I sometimes think it’s just the luck of the draw, do you know
what I mean, I said that at the time. Mind you, I don’t think it
helped that Keith was the way he was. Keith. That’s my husband.
Well, he was. There he is, at the end, look – that was taken on our
honeymoon. He shut Roberts out, you see, even when he was a
little boy. Said he was away with the fairies, couldn’t cope with his
ways. I always thought that was one of the reasons he left us. I think
he was just too old-fashioned, you know? Wanted us to be
something else, a different sort of family and Roberts was the final
straw, in a way, not that I feel guilty, you know, not really, not all
the time. It’s just… Well. It’s hard, isn’t it? What’s that? I’m not
boring you am I? That’s good. Because Katy only comes twice a
week, and it’s good to have someone to talk to. Could I have a cup of tea?
No, I’d better not.
Are you sure?
Yes. I’m not a big drinker. It doesn’t agree with me. You go on.
Go on then, one more. I’m enjoying this. So what was it you were saying? About when you were younger?
Just that there was this golf course, up the road from my school. I used to wag it with some friends, and we’d go there, just sit and talk. Some people hung around on street corners but we liked the golf course. I think we liked it there because it was peaceful, away from other people. I also liked the grass. You know that springy grass you get, on lawns that are really well looked after? Or eaten by sheep, I mean that’s the same thing, I’ve always liked grass that’s been eaten by sheep. It just makes you want to take your shoes off and I love that, walking on short springy grass in bare feet. We did that on the golf course and then we found a spot and we just sat and talked.
Sounds wonderful! You don’t mind this, do you?
All these questions. It’s not exactly the sort of thing you’re supposed to talk about on a date, is it?
Are we on a date?
I think so. Aren’t we?
I suppose we are, yes.
That’s right – play it cool.
No, not at all. I don’t mind. It’s just I hadn’t looked at it like that.
So would you say you got on with people at school? Or were you more of an introvert? I think I’m an introvert.
I don’t know really. I liked some of them.
We went to Whales. It was a long trip and we’d finally arrived. It was the countryside, it had flowers galore and was filled with colourful trees (leaves). I liked to have a stroll down the quiet woods along the pathway. We slept in a tent. There were lots of sheep and there wool was very fluffy. We saw some of there wool on the fence. I wonder why I never got to stroke them? And then when I come to think of it filled me with disapouintment. In the morning we climbed a big hill. It was very steep and the grass was very short. I wondered what it would be like if I fell. Daddy said I should stop but I liked to think about falling all the way down on the short grass.
The ones you went to the golf course with?
Yes. Although it wasn’t long before they got bored and started pulling the wings off dragonflies.
There were dragonflies? I love dragonflies!
Me too. There was a lake.
Cool. Not literally I take it.
Not literally pulling the wings off dragonflies.
And would you like to have children yourself? If you don’t mind me asking.
No, I don’t mind. I don’t know. I think it depends if they’re going to be like me.
And if they are?
The next time you see him – the next time
you see any of them – you’re in the Lidl
carpark, carrying some bananas and a
packet of wet wipes. Alright mate you say,
it’s been a long time. His face is bruised and
puffy but you can see a glint in his eye and
he says How’s it going? He can’t know of
course, that you’re about to tell him; if he
did he wouldn’t have asked – back in the
day you used to joke about some of your
mates and how their responses to greetings
made you wish you hadn’t bothered. Yeah,
you know, you say. Not been out much
recently as it goes. Not been to the park in
ages, not done much of anything. Not like I
used to. Did you hear? Yeah, a little boy.
Tommy. Yeah, I heard, he says, and you wait
for something more but it doesn’t come, so
you say, yeah, I mean I wouldn’t change it
for the world but it’s hard work, you know?
Do you remember when you were a kid you
were afraid of the dark, because it seemed
to go on forever and hide all sorts of
monsters, and each one of them was more
terrifying than you could imagine, I mean
you couldn’t even picture them? Do you
remember? Your mate looks backwards and
sideways at this, with what passed for the
glint in his eye – on reflection a reflection,
as if off glass – now dulled. Well now I’ve
had Tommy I can see all of them, everything
that’s in there, every last thing, I can see the
things you can’t put into words, the
nameless, the unspeakable and they’re so
brilliant it’s dazzling, so vivid they stop you
from seeing anything else, so bright they
dissolve the dark. And the thing is, I can’t
switch them off. Not now, not like I used to.
There’s nothing I can do, they’re there all
the time. Do you know what I’m talking
about? No, you don’t do you. You can’t. You
still switch them off, don’t you, you can still
shut the dark out, not let the brilliance in
and by now the colour has drained from
your mate’s bruises and he says Got to go
and he scuttles off, puffy-faced, stick legs
inside Lidl jeans, to hide again from the
terrors, and for a moment you wish you
could go back, you think you’d like to go
back to how it was, not that it would help,
not now, because whatever you did, now
you have Tommy you can’t unsee it all.
Of course they had to find him on the beach at Tywyn. Tywyn is a hateful place. There’s so much beauty along that stretch of the coast and then you’re assailed by this ugly little town, all boarded-up arcades and guesthouses with their colour leached by salty wind. It’s the sort of place with violence in its bricks.
We’d walked to Tywyn along the beach from Aberdyfi. For as long as I’ve known him, David had been talking about Aberdyfi, so I thought we should go. He loved it there and I can see why. There‘s a terrace full of cafes, all brightly coloured, doing ice cream, a pier where children go crabbing. It’s built against a cliff and you can climb up to a viewing platform and look out across the estuary. It was because of the ice cream that we decided to go for a walk, to stretch our legs, walk it off. In a way, I wish we hadn’t bothered, but that’s the thing isn’t it? You think about the days leading up to what happened and wonder if it might have been different if we’d made different choices, when the truth is everything would have turned out the same, whatever we had done.
It was too late by then. He’d come so far in so many ways – I was so proud of him for all that he had done, with Thomas especially – but it was always there. The funny thing is, I knew. I knew as soon as I saw the beach at Tywyn. All the way from Aberdyfi we’d been walking on this expanse of pristine sand, I mean it was beautiful, all you could see were the dunes, a tide line of perfectly smoothed stones and then the sea and the sky. The sea was faraway – the tide was out – and it was so peaceful I stopped walking at one point and just stood there looking, lost in the emptiness of it all. I remember thinking it would do David good too, it would do him good to lose himself in that absence, not that he ever could, of course. Then we got to Tywyn and everything changed.
I remember it so clearly. We walked around a headland and there it was, like a different part of the coast altogether. The first thing I saw was that the dunes disappeared. They just stopped. Then I saw a concrete sea wall and these hideous groynes that stretched from the wall to the sea. The sea seemed a lot closer too, even though the tide was out, the waves were smashing into the beach and it was all we could hear. I say beach, I mean I’ve been describing it as a beach but it wasn’t, not really. It was covered in sharp black rocks and rubbish, so much rubbish trapped between the groynes. There were nappies, bottles, cans; empty pots of paint, plastic bags, I mean it was foul.
When we climbed over the first groyne, I started to think about the difference between the beach at Aberdyfi and the beach at Tywyn. Not the way they looked, but the way they came to be as they were, the way the currents in the sea are and how some beaches are completely clean because the currents take the rubbish away from them whereas others, which can be very close by, are covered in rubbish because the currents come together at that point. And the thing is, there’s nothing you can do about it, nothing you can do to change the confluence of the currents, the flow of the sea, nothing you can do to stop all this vile junk from piling up, from washing up on particular beaches, while others stay free of rubbish. Funnily enough it was a very David way of looking at things. That’s one of the things I loved about him, the way he changed the way you saw the world.
The thing is, I sometimes wonder if he knew too. Maybe that’s why he wanted to go back there, I don’t know. I sometimes think he must have, he must have known all his life. Then I wonder what that’s like. Deep down, to know all your life. What must it be like to know?