There are daffodils at the feet of the trees in the garden, which means it’s Charlotte’s birthday. Every year it’s the same: daffodils for Charlotte’s birthday, snow for Bobby’s, a chocolate egg for Mr. Miller and Christmas for her.
The daffodils are the tall variety that a strong wind can kink, and mixed in with the bright yellow are the pale ghosts that look like they fed on the light of the moon. This morning she cut a selection and put them in a vase for the birthday girl. Outside in the earth they were small yellow stars dotted here and there, but inside, in the vase, they are the sun toward which every face turns.
I’ve lived with the Millers since Charlotte was a baby and they moved to 12 Tacoma Street, the place I think of as home. I watch over the children and keep myself to myself. I’m part of the furniture but also, I suppose, an audience; though it never feels that way. I think of Charlotte and Bobby as family, and I look up to Mr. Miller and her. I’ve lived with families in the past, the last three: the Pyszkowskis, the Riordans and the Kalkerts. And our arrangement always ended when the children grew up. I know this will happen with the Millers someday, but I don’t know the hour, or how, and I don’t care to think about it. I don’t like to think that I am a wanderer in the lives of other people; hanging on when my time and purpose are up. Although I always remind myself that I’m not family, it’s impossible not to care for the people around me and hard not to miss them when they go.
I wake Charlotte up this morning, not that she needs much nudging. She leaps out of bed and runs into the kitchen where her parents are eating breakfast. I can hear her ask about presents while I check in on Bobby—he is dead to the world and all its troubles.
“Tonight, Charlie,” says Mr. Miller in the dining room, as he picks up his daughter, and I can hear her laugh and feel her weight in my arms as if it was I, and not her father, who held her.
“What do you want for Birthday dinner?” She asks, although she already knows the answer.
“Cake, for dinner?”
“You woke up older and heavier, Charlie.”
“Is Bobby up yet?”
“Can I go to the park after school?”
“What do you think, Andrew?”
“I guess we can’t say no to the birthday girl.”
They go on talking like this, while I watch Bobby, his hair styled by the pillow into a shaggy rug.
“It’s time to wake up, Bobby,” I say. “Rise and shine, little one.”
While the children are in school and Mr. Miller is at work, she and I have our daily tasks to do. Sometimes we sit together in the living room waiting for the sun to arc and drop in the sky, and at other times I am left alone in the silence of the house, waiting until they are home and I will be comforted by their noise. To help time pass I wander around, dusting the top of a picture frame, flicking a light switch on and off, or watching a tiny crack slowly creep down the corner of the living room wall. Sometimes I fill the time rehearsing stories that will make the children smile; silly stories about goblins and greedy children, Irish warriors, Polish dragons; stories I half remember from my days with the Riordans and the Pyszkowskis. Today, as the light cuts through the window in the living room, I think about the birthday of Tommy Riordan when he was ten, and the birthday of Marta Pyszkowski when she turned sixteen and got her ears pierced. I still have the ribbons from the different presents over the years, a small memento of times past. I think of birthdays because I don’t know when my birthday is. Every year I pick a date at random, a day when I am sunk in blue and need something to cheer me up, and I say, “Today is my birthday.” Immediately I feel I have a place in the world, and with the ribbons tied in a chain around my neck, I look in the mirror and say to myself, you haven’t aged a bit. And it’s true.
I stand next to Charlotte and watch over her shoulder as she blows out the six pink candles on the cake. And I look up at Mr. Miller and her, as they scrunch their noses and smile at their firstborn and lean in to kiss her on the cheek. And then there are the presents. I like presents, but more than presents I like the coloured wrapping paper. I watch it collect at the feet of Charlotte’s chair, and I watch where the ribbons fall so I can pick them up later and take them to my room and add them to my collection. The red ribbon belongs to the jigsaw. The green ribbon is Bobby’s present (a plastic toad) to his sister. The white ribbon belongs to the tea set: white china with spring flowers painted on the rims. And the silver ribbon belongs to a small brown bear with large ears sticking out on either side of his face, just like Bobby’s.
In the evening we sit around and sing songs, and Charlotte serves us tea in her set, and Victoria sandwich cake on the dishes. The children are allowed to stay up a little later than usual, but it’s bedtime at eight, and I retire soon after.
“This is my family,” I think, as I lie in bed, going through the day in my head. The thought comforts me briefly, and then makes me feel sad and dark. “Is this my family?” another voice from the past asks. And I fall asleep to stop from answering.
It happens on her birthday. It is Christmas, and ice has crawled across the lawn. The living room has a large Christmas tree and I can’t help but stare at the lights and the angels near the top: Gabriel with his trumpet, another with a lyre, and another with a tiny candle.
Mr. Miller wakes the children early. He dresses them and they laugh with early-morning excitement. He tells them “Shhh,” and puts his finger up to his mouth and smiles. And Charlotte and Bobby smile back and flash their white teeth with gaps. He then puts on his hat, and makes sure they wear the mittens I picked up off the ground the night before, and they close the door gently behind them and they leave the house. “They are gone to buy her a present,” I say to myself, and I think forward to the moment she unwraps it and tells them, “It’s exactly what I need. How did you know?”
They slide on the footpath and pass the car in the drive. I don’t know if she hears them or if she is quietly dreaming. I hear her turn in her bed and I hear the birds outside, and a dog, and the sounds of car doors closing, and voices calling out. They turn the street corner and I hear their voices become low as they walk further and further away.
I was in the kitchen when I heard her scream. I hurried out to the hallway and in the blue evening light I saw her in a bundle on the ground. Crouched next to her was her friend Helena, her hair damp with sweat, and above her stood two policemen with their caps in their hands. Her crying woke a memory in me. The situation was different, but the sounds I recognized. The scream. The keening. The silence.
The men took her by the arms and lifted her into the living room. My first thought was to find Mr. Miller and to tell him that something terrible has happened. I turned to go to their room and my eyes caught the light of the Christmas tree, the presents beneath, and the Christmas stockings draped on the couch nearest to me. Then everything went black.
Later, I pieced together, from fragments of whispered conversation, what had happened. “A truck…”, “black ice…”, “…crossing the road.”
I never knew who I was until I heard her tears. So much time had passed that I had forgotten what happened to me. I had seen so many families come and go and grow up to be strong. They came and went, and I stayed, and I thought: this is a kind of living. This was before she started to wander.
The first day she wandered until she fell to the floor, unable to stand. Then she repeated, and repeated, and repeated. She said their names as she walked. Andrew. Charlotte. Bobby. And I started to remember. First, how my mother called my name, her joy in her saying it: a bubble dancing in the light. And then, when I was quiet, how it fell from her mouth like a heavy, dark stone into my cot. I remember, now. My mother’s grief was snow in the world; beautiful and dangerous and unending, it seemed. It was my mother I thought of first, when she wandered through the house, as mine must have done, looking for me. She made me think of all these things as she wandered from room to room, taking me against my will into her world of ache and rage, forcing me to circle within, every day, a landscape of loss.
My head was always “up,” my mother said. I was listening. Waiting. Wanting to see. And touch. I remember when I first heard the shift in my mother’s voice. It happened one morning when she came in to check on me and I was lying awake but groggy (I learned this word—in fact, all the words—afterwards), and she said my name in a new way, and she called to my father. My father came in and said “Rise and shine, little one.”
That was the last clear thing I remember from that time.
Then, one day I found myself in Tacoma Street again, when it was empty and my parents had left. Eventually, a couple moved in, and they had children, and I watched them grow up, and age, and move on, and then another family moved in, and it went on like this: the De Vries, the Goldmans, the Riordans, the Pyszkowskis, the Kalkerts, the Millers; collecting ribbons from the presents, the only way to count the years since it happened; my passing. But by the time that Charlotte and Bobby were in my life I had forgotten exactly what I was, until I heard her scream. I try to count the seasons now (there are no ribbons anymore), and for the first time I see that the house is old, and so am I.
I follow her, like her shadow, into their room with the books on the shelf, the tea set on the bureau, and the clothes folded in the chest. I float to the ceiling light where I used to watch them sleep. Their eyelids twitched. Their toes peeped out from under the duvet. I watched their cheeks grow hot and pink. Did I feel hot and cold when I was like them? Did my cheeks glow like that? Did my toes peep out?
I want to tell her that they are not here. That she is holding on, and they will not come back. Unless they are here and the afterlife is full of currents of ghosts that pass each other without knowing it. But I don’t believe this is so. I want to tell her this so that she might sleep, and I might sleep, and sever my tie to the invisible thread of her grief. If I could sleep I could think of happier times, and not everything I lost and never had.
Around the table, through the door, on the carpet, against the window, in the dark, with the clock chiming in the hall, her head straight, and the hair on it greying, she wanders. She leans against at the door of their room, sits on their beds, and stands in the sitting room staring into the corner where the Christmas tree was the year it happened. I can still see the presents underneath and the angels on top, deaf to their voices, the birdsong that day, and the snow shifting on the gable. These things, like people, we leave behind, and the contents of our lives—once loved possessions—become lonely objects.
How long more will she make me remember? How long more will she haunt me?
HENRY MARTIN is author of Agnes Martin: Pioneer, Painter, Icon (Schaffer Press), Yappo (Company Cod) and contributor to Great Women Artists (Phaidon). Other publications include Irish Times, Hyperallergic, and Journal of Illustration. Playwriting includes work for Theatre503, Underbelly, Lime Tree Theatre, Bunker Theatre, and Fishamble. Henry is a 2021 Fulbright scholar at the Archive of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. www.henry-martin.com