Stepfathers

Sarah Tirri
April 1, 2020

Prize winning short memoir published in the 2016 Fish Anthology

We had been living in our new home for just over a month when I realized nothing had changed. My mother was still living in her private world, I in mine, my brother in his. We all came and went without saying much; my brother to school and then off on long evening bike rides with only a life that confused him for company. I filled my time with whatever crossed my path; school, shoplifting, cigarettes, explicit romance novels and makeup—endlessly applying and reapplying it. I found all aspects of existence mortally boring. Life was because life just was.

I had made some friends, but most never stuck around for long. I became aware that I repelled people. It was because everyone was under my scrutiny. Even if they did not know it consciously, they felt it, I made them feel uncomfortable.  Most teachers preferred to avoid me too, not making much effort to engage this rebellious little heathen who had descended on their quiet little school. 

A clique of spiteful girls began to call me names—especially when the boys began looking at me. I was not sexually mature and indifferent to their various means of solicitation. Perhaps my rebuttal was a deliberate gesture not to be like my mother—who threw herself at the feet of any man who gave her the slightest bit of attention.

My mother was not enjoying her single life and The Otter Inn was where she decided to put an end to that. The Otter Inn, owned by some friends she and my father had known since the sixties, was a flourishing country pub. My mother only worked Fridays and Saturday evenings, and as she affirmed, only to socialize. For a while at least, she had enough money to pay the bills from the sale of our old house.

Her very soon-to-be husband number three was an old man, well into his seventies; my mother was not even forty. The old man had a plastic knee and a cane to keep him steady, he was quiet and measured and looked a lot like Santa Claus. Not long after they met my mother invited him back to the cottage we lived in and when I first looked into his beady brown eyes, I knew he was an old scoundrel and he knew that I knew it. My mother did too, but this did not deter her because the need to be married was now a pathological obsession.

The old man moved in with us about three weeks later and three weeks after that my mother and he were married at the local registry office. The old man could not work because he was registered disabled. He liked to watch cricket most of the time. He had given my mother some sob-story about losing a daughter to cancer and a wife shortly after that in a car accident. It could have been true, but I didn’t think so. He always knew what my mother wanted to hear; that she was loved and a prize, that she was witty and clever and he couldn’t imagine life without her.

One evening, as I made my way across the living room with a plate of food I was taking upstairs to my bedroom, I deliberately turned and gave my stepfather a penetrating and highly contemptuous look. He looked at me coldly and looked away again as if I did not exist. I wanted him to know I disproved of his presence and his agenda—which was to freeload. My mother had noticed the unspoken standoff and gave me a look so intense it almost felt demonic; Keep your mouth shut you little bitch and don’t fuck this up for me, was what she managed to successfully and silently communicate.

Although the old man was comfortable in our home, my mother was starting to get restless, and I knew the charade wouldn’t last too much longer, so I did keep my mouth shut. The following week, my mother was offered a job she had applied for at a posh hotel and restaurant called The Monkton Court. The Otter Inn was just a country pub, The Monkton Court had a marble staircase. My mother was scheming for a more glamorous future so she changed the color of her lipstick and went blonder. After one night of working at The Monkton Court she instantly loved it. It was then that I realized that she wanted the old man gone as much as I did.

It was early Monday morning when she asked him to leave. He remained in his armchair, watching cricket as if nothing unusual was taking place. His supreme indifference made my mother angry and the scene that followed was dramatic and theatrical. My mother slowly walked upstairs and gathered his possessions which fitted into a small burlap hold-all. She then walked back down the stairs humming a tune as if she was pruning roses or curling her hair. I was watching from the kitchen with a clear view of everything. In a continued exaggeratedly slow manner, my mother walked over to where her husband was sitting. She dropped the bag in his lap and then strode towards the front door, opened it wide, and gestured with her hand for him to walk through it. She had his cane in her other hand which she was tapping on the floor. This meant he had to walk across the room without it. I thought this a needlessly cold touch, but I still found the scene funny. No words had been exchanged.

My soon-to-be ex-stepfather number three eventually got up and shuffled towards the front door. He left without a backward glance. I thought he would be better off in a nursing home. My mother winked at me in satisfaction and I at her—it was a genuine moment of motherly daughter kinship. With a smile on her face, my mother made her way to the telephone. I heard her tell someone that she needed the locks changed. I cringed, this was not a funny moment—something didn’t feel right.

It shocked me that my mother had wasted no time replacing husband number three with soon-to-be husband number four. I don’t know why, it was all so very predictable. The man who came to change the locks was a resident at The Monkton Court, a divorcee, new to town, and on the rebound. My mother had met him on the first night of working there. Apparently, he was fresh from a marriage that had ended badly so they had something in common.

As soon as my mother let in ‘the locksmith’ I realized that they were already well acquainted. I was still in the kitchen eating some toast and I watched another prospective stepfather fiddle around with a screwdriver. Roy looked like the actor Peter Ustinov and spoke with an upper class accent. His car was a new and expensive Rover. Roy looked me up and down but did not say hello, nor to my brother, who, from the top of the stairs, was watching our mother swoon over the man she barely knew.

 My mother soon quit her job at The Monkton Court—mission accomplished—and after her annulment from the old man had been granted, she married Roy in a civil ceremony that my brother and I had not been invited to. Shortly after they had returned home from their honeymoon in Malta, we all moved into the house that Roy had recently purchased. I had absolutely no thoughts of us becoming one big happy family, because I knew that would not be the case.

Roy didn’t work because he didn’t have to, he had made a lot of money on the stock market and liked the good life, and by most people’s standards the house we lived in was very grand. Winding stairs led to a black front door that few were welcome to pass through. For the first time in her life my mother didn’t have to worry about money at all, which I knew was a significant factor when picking number four. Beyond that, her judgment was always laced with ridiculous notions of romantic love, and the ideal that she constructed in her mind and projected onto the outside world as the perfect romantic scenario, turned out to be anything but.

One of the first things I noticed about Roy was that he talked to himself, loudly and openly, a lot. His thoughts never stayed inside his head. I got used to it after a while, but for a long time I found it embarrassing. My brother found it too weird to deal with and decided that shutting himself in his bedroom was a better option. He spent two years living in exile on the top floor of the house reading Tolkien. I think he preferred the conflicts of Middle Earth, an imaginary world that was a lot less fucked-up than what he had to deal with in his real life.

Not only had Roy lost possession of his mind, he also suffered with an obsessive compulsive disorder. During dinner we were required to engage in a very precise etiquette, which was foreign to my brother and I. For the first thirteen years of our lives my mother had put our evening meal on a tray and we sat in front of the telly watching Blue Peter while she remained in the kitchen, smoking and fantasizing. Roy firstly trained then expected my mother, my brother and myself to cut a bite of food, but not, God forbid, holding the knife like a pen. Blowing on our food to cool it was forbidden, and so was using the fork like a shovel, which I was often accused of (but overcame). We then had to put the food in our mouths without biting the fork, which was punishable by death. In between bites, the knife and fork had to remain on the plate, and with our backs straight, we chewed slowly with our mouths firmly closed. The entire meal had to be consumed in this civilized manner, and then, with military precision, we had to close our knife and fork—fork on the left, prongs pointing downward, and knife on the right, blade pointing inwards—and wait silently for everyone to reach the same stage. This nightly nightmare happened until I could stand it no more. I was always a hungry child. I liked to stuff food in my mouth, chew quickly, swallow, and go back for seconds before anyone else had a chance to beat me to it. My predicament, not to mention my solution to it, was not particularly welcome. 

We couldn’t outright contradict Roy, and none of us were stupid enough to try, and so one day I decided to adopt what I thought were acceptably good manners and bravely said, “Roy, I do hope you don’t mind, but I can’t eat slowly today. I skipped lunch and I am really hungry. I can take my food to my bedroom. That way you don’t have to look.”      

My mother quickly tensed, and heavily blinked at me, which meant, “Why the hell did you have to say that. Shut your mouth and cooperate.” My brother and I got these looks all the time. I think it was the only silent communication tool my mother had to keep things from exploding. Roy simply said, “No, you may not, you little prole.” Roy referred to most people as proles, short for proletariat. A synonym might have been “working class filth.” Or “disgusting little worm.” I said nothing more, and I knew instantly that his mind was now starting to fester. I became familiar with the warning signs that some ugly performance would likely follow, and my brother had too. I finished my meal, helped with the dishes, and before banishing myself to my bedroom, my mother smiled one of her frosty smiles because she knew what asserting myself was about to amount to, an angry display by her husband who was a bully and a beast, and she was too weak to leave him.

After I had been in my bedroom for twenty minutes, Roy walked into his dressing room, which unfortunately was just across the landing. He then started mimicking my voice verbatim, over and over again” “Roy, I do hope you don’t mind, but…” He repeated the speech, parrot fashion, in a scathing tone. “Roy, I do hope you don’t mind, but can I take my food to my bedroom, I can’t eat slowly today, I skipped lunch and I am really hungry. That way you don’t have to look. Roy, I do hope you don’t mind….”

I found it really weird to have someone mock me, especially when he had the correct inflection, pitch, and pace. Thankfully, after about twenty minutes of this little performance, Roy started recalling another conversation with a shopkeeper who had upset him the day before. Apparently, Roy had walked into the shop and left the door open. The shopkeeper, another prole, had said something like, “Close the door, squire. If those wasps get in here, they’ll be a royal pain.” Roy, who disliked being told what to do, began reliving the entire exchange out loud. He did this every time someone said something that annoyed him. He would sometimes mimic entire conversations that he’d had: doctor’s visits: conversations with his mother, whom he detested; encounters with strangers when he was out walking the dog; etc. He would even mimic conversations that he’d had years ago with a chilling exactitude. As a young man, he had been a cadet at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhust, and he was court-martialed and subsequently discharged for punching an officer. He always bragged about the fact that he had been trained to kill with his bare hands and a diploma attesting to this was displayed on the wall in his study. I would hear the whole military trial as it had originally played out—Roy becoming different characters, switching back and forth and totally oblivious to the uncomfortable fact that everyone could hear him. Everyone could hear him, and he didn’t seem to notice, or if he did, he didn’t care. The cleaner and the gardener quit very early on. The milkman ran up the step, and he ran back down again, faster. The newspaper delivery boy did the same thing, cringing. People were just too embarrassed to be around him. Everyone cringed.

One day, Roy pulled my mother down the stairs by her hair and then walked into his study to play Chopin. I had not seen this, my brother had, and it marked him. Another time, Roy gave my mother a black eye. I had witnessed this through a mirror. Roy was unpredictable—quietly antagonistic and openly aggressive. After assaulting my mother again one night, we got into the car and drove to my grandparent’s home in Surrey two hundred miles away… but we went back, as usual. There was a part of Roy, a very small part which my mother later came to resent, that she still craved. Roy was unexpectedly capable of being the sweetest person in the world—tender, nurturing and loving, and this confused us all.     

The Vanity of Regret, by Omar Khayyam, was a poem that Roy had written out in script and which was framed and hung on the wall of his study. 

Nothing in this world of ours,

Flows as we would have it flow;
What avail, then, careful hours,
Thought and trouble, tears and woe?
Through the shrouded veil of earth,
Life's rich colors gleaming bright,
Though in truth of little worth,
Yet allure with meteor light.
Life is torture and suspense;
Thought is sorrow-drive it hence!
With no will of mine I came,
With no will depart the same.

I had disliked Roy the moment we had met, but somehow, strangely, I had grown not to hate him. I actually felt sorry for him. When I knew Roy was having an up-moment, I could make him laugh, often quite easily, and sometimes we would listen to classical music together. I introduced him to a piece by Ennio Morricone called Chi Mai. I told him that I thought it embodied the word “delicate.” He cupped my face in his hands and told me that I was absolutely right. He was a gifted but erratic pianist and would play the introduction to Bizet’s March of the Toreadors and then abruptly play Debussy without finishing this piece either. Roy found some serenity through his music, but he would sink back into his darkness without knowing how to stop it. I once remember watching him through the crack of the door, knowing that his mind was clouding over. He was playing Beethoven’s Fifth, banging away at the keys, a sure sign that he was wavering. It was very depressing because I knew it would likely be days before the tension eased, and in the meantime the eggshells we were required to walk on, hurt.

Unless my brother or I had business in the house—like getting something to eat or drink or passing through when coming or going, my mother preferred that we stay in our bedrooms. I followed the rules pretty much; I did not want to upset Roy, unnecessarily—just being alive did that.

I was lying on my bed one night reading, and at around nine p.m. my mother visited. This was very unusual. She made a thespian pretense of appearing surreptitious, she wanted to communicate that something was very wrong and she wanted to do it inaudibly; the message was more to be transferred than spoken. The moment she had walked in, she had brought with her a horrible fixed smile. Her hands were firmly clasped behind her back as if she was restraining herself. Without saying anything, she walked towards the window and back to the door again. She did this a couple of times, and then, after she had finished setting the scene she spun around and quietly hissed, “You have to go.” I was scared of her, not that she was going to hurt me, physically; I was somehow scared of her determination. A catty argument began to erupt, but she left the room because she could hear Roy walking up the stairs. The last thing we both needed was to offer him a reason to flip out. It did occur to me that I could make things very difficult for her just by slamming a door or raising my voice, but I didn’t. I was more concerned with what had just happened. My mum wanted me gone. I had witnessed an ice cold side of her I had never seen before. It was chilling; I had never felt such a lack of warmth from anyone, not even Roy.

My father, who lived two hundred miles away in London, was genuinely sympathetic about my home plight, but not in a position to come to the rescue. He assured me he wanted me to live with him, but said it wasn’t possible until he found a new place. He was still in the process of divorcing his latest wife and was sleeping in the back bedroom, so I had no choice but to stay put until the circumstance arose whereby I was able to fly over that particular cuckoo’s nest.

My father was due to visit, but I was cynical that he would. He tried to visit us monthly, but often something came up, a car with engine trouble, trouble on a jobsite which really meant a hangover, or some other petty distraction, but on this particular weekend he had made it, and I was happy. The Otter Inn would be our hub for the entire weekend. My father had known the owner for many years and they liked to play cribbage after hours.  I was pleased that I would be out of the house until Monday, my brother, too. We knew that my mum and Roy felt the same.

It was a Friday night and my dad, my brother and I were enjoying a steak dinner in the bar area when a lady walked in who soon introduced herself as Becky. Her husband’s name was John and he had walked in behind her—he always walked behind her. Becky was in her early thirties, short, and at least fifty pounds overweight. She had long ash blond hair pulled into a tight ponytail and she had a lovely smile. John was tall, dark and handsome and very removed—life on the peripheral was where he preferred it. Becky and John had recently married and had just moved to the area. John worked for his mother’s t-shirt manufacturing company and Becky groomed and exercised horses in return for a small wage and a cottage on the grounds belonging to a family who had enough money to employ help.

Becky sat down on the bar stool and turned around to talk to us. My dad and Becky, both being boozers, hit it off instantly. I liked her too but I didn’t say much. I just watched. My brother had gone back up to the room to watch The A-Team and Becky’s husband had gone off to play a slot machine on the other side of the pub. It wasn’t long before I heard my dad telling Becky about my predicament…about my mother’s new pig of a husband, and the life he forced us to tolerate. I continued to listen to the conversation, sipping on my Coke, Becky her whisky, my dad his beer. After he had finished revealing the details about my home life, Becky simply shrugged and said; “Well that’s it, then. Sarah must come and live with me.”

My father took Becky’s offer on face-value and shook her hand as if somehow this made everything legally binding. He then bought the entire pub a round of drinks. He was happy that a problem had been solved and it was time to celebrate. The only thing Becky had to do was tell her husband, and when she did, he didn’t say much. In the well-mannered way of someone who couldn’t care less about anything much, he said, “Sure.” Nobody consulted me.

On Monday morning my father headed back to London. I moved in with Becky and her husband the following weekend.  My possessions were packed in a bundle of supermarket carrier bags and as I got into my mother’s car, I saw my brother looking down at me from his bedroom window. Neither of us waved, we just looked at each other. My mother then drove me to my new home a little too quickly. Becky was waiting outside and I introduced them. They had spoken on the phone, briefly, but had never met. Becky asked my mother to come inside and she did, but not for long. Roy was taking her to lunch.        

I watched my mother drive away, she wasn’t looking back at me in the rear-view mirror; she just turned a bend and disappeared. I listened to the engine of her car fade away and as I waited motionless, a feeling of abandonment swept through my consciousness so utterly that I felt like the loneliest person to have ever lived. I thought that what was happening to me was not supposed to happen. I thought that mothers should not leave their babies. I was fourteen years old.

I walked inside my new home. The three things I like about it the most was my double bed, the two feather pillows, and the duvet. I felt secure in my new bed. I thought about my mum and my brother and felt sorry for them both. I was in a better place than they were.

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