They would only be staying one night, of that he had been assured.
He didn’t begrudge them their visit, at such short notice as it was, but was unsure how best to occupy their time. His parents could on occasion prove difficult guests. He would take them for a meal, but for their hesitance in the face of extensive menus. Here, in the city, one could travel the world in cuisine, offerings from every nation served nightly. But he knew that they would opt for the prosaic, insist on something simple. Raised during wartime, they possessed palates fashioned by rationing. It was not as though they yearned for powdered egg, but their tastes ran to the bland. Rather than revelling in survival, gorging on all that had been denied them, they seemed to rein in possibilities, deliberately limit themselves, to experience a certain guilt in pleasure.
With the glut of recent openings, he wouldn’t be surprised to discover a restaurant dealing solely in ration book recipes, a pop-up in an original Anderson shelter perhaps. Knowing current trends, it wouldn’t accept bookings. Outside, as it enjoyed its ten seconds in the spotlight, the wealthy would jostle to eat austere meals. He didn’t wish to queue with them, to extend torture beyond its natural bounds.
During their time together, he hoped to foreground background noise. He would use the city as a shield, the clamour and chaos drowning out their interrogations. The last thing he wanted to do was to spend the evening at home with them, an oppressive silence waiting to be filled with awkward questions. They would not relax in his flat. In its cramped confines he would struggle to ignore them. He would approach such claustrophobia only after he had worn them out, offering his home as a haven away from the accelerated pace of his adopted home. They would disappear into the city’s noisy comfort.
The ideal would be to take them to a show, perhaps even the cinema, to stall conversation for a couple of hours, sit in the dark whilst distractions danced before them. In his mind, he ran through options. Nothing leapt out. He could take them to a Beckett revival, let someone else’s awkward pauses dominate the evening. Their theatrical experiences ran to pantomimes. They would not trouble the West End.
He would take them out for a drink, but was uncertain where exactly to go. They would need seats and that was not something he could guarantee at this hour. He considered quieter pubs, though not too quiet, pints doled out to a brace of receptive locals. He would attempt to replicate the everyday for them, didn’t wish to take them too far from their comfort zone.
He lived for all the city had to offer, but what did it offer them? Beyond ammunition. The things that drew him to it were the things that repelled them: its relentless bustle, the chaos of crowds, the endless variety. They preferred the quiet life.
It wasn’t that he was ungrateful, they just had so little in common. There was limited crossover in their interests. Breezy conversation eluded them, every new attempt at conviviality taken by either party as offence. He did not relish the prospect of their presence, the cut and parry of their casual chatter.
Whilst it was with reluctance that he accommodated them, he would still make an effort, attempt to give his life the vague appearance of order. In preparation, he upgraded his cursory housekeeping, the Hoover’s amplified suction announcing to neighbours the imminent arrival of guests. In his attention to such details – the hiding of telltale signs, an overhaul of his life – he lost track of time. Washing up, catching sight of the clock, he panicked. Where had the time gone? Dressing hastily he ran into the street. Taxi summoned he joined the stop-start dance of rush-hour traffic. He wasn’t sure he would make it in time.
They would only be staying one night, of that they had assured him.
On the train, they had sat in silence, in apprehensive dread. How had it come to this? That visiting their own son should prove such an emotionally fraught exercise?
On the telephone, arranging their visit, they had detected, in their son’s voice, a reluctance to offer them a bed for the evening. His hesitations suggested that their presence would be of the greatest inconvenience. He hadn’t said as much of course, had couched his doubts in convoluted explanation, relayed his busyness in no uncertain terms.
Where had they gone wrong?
They envisaged an evening of brittle chitchat, their concerned enquiries met with suspicion. He would have made a good spy, they thought, no secrets revealed under duress. His reticence in the face of questioning had left them feeling that they barely knew him. How had this happened, their only child growing so distant from them? They had so little in common, had effectively raised a stranger. They yearned for quality time, although they were uncertain, exactly, what that entailed. Their relationship held scant precedents. Had he, at every turn, made a deliberate effort to distance himself? It had felt like that at times.
He could not leave his family quick enough, had disappeared into tertiary education to be seldom seen again. At home, besides a silent phone they contemplated their failings. Communications had been infrequent ever since. On the occasions that he did phone they could detect a lack of money in his tone, underlying requests that would never be clearly stated, but which inevitably would see one of them returning the phone to its cradle whilst the other dug out a chequebook. They would not deny him his inheritance.
He would whisk them away no doubt; shelter them from the city. He seemed to believe that they despised his life. Any protestations on their part he took as signs of unwilling compromise. They would be shepherded somewhere quiet, away from the city’s frenetic pace, their small town life reflected as near as possible in some secluded pub or under-attended restaurant.
Their son rarely had news for them. His circumstances never changed. He gave the impression of enjoying the high life, making the most of the city, but to them he looked stuck in a rut. His life was going nowhere. Where was his life’s companion? Neither could imagine going through this life alone. Although their thoughts, of necessity, had dwelt upon such prospects of late. They couldn’t tell him over the phone. They had beaten his awkward defensives in order that they may tell him in person.
Their journey drew to a close, the country having blurred beside them. Wrestling an overnight bag from the overhead rack, they braced themselves, shuffled with others along the platform.
As welcoming committees absorbed loved ones into the fold, the soulless concourse playing host to numerous reunions, they stood together, alone, anxiously, awaiting the arrival of their son.
About the author:
Stuart Snelson lives in London. His work has appeared in 3:AM, Ambit, Litro, Structo, HOAX, The Londonist and Popshot, among others. He is currently working on his second novel. For a full list of links visit http://www.stuartsnelson.wordpress.com
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