UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 10/2011
ALICE ASH

ON BOHEMIA

         It was more or less thirty years before my parents got divorced. He, Adrian Harvey was a bruised car salesman with a loyalty to a tie covered in

sunflowers that nobody, even my mother, could understand. She, Virginia Harvey, an ethereal shoe shop manager who had felt huge grief with every promotion and proved it with tattoos that showed up on her aging skin like a cow brand. Right up until the end they sat with their fingers locked in painful jubilation, him drinking too much, and my mother never drinking enough.

         After the break-up it was no stranger than before, they instantly seemed to spring apart in their differences as though they were two people that could have never even inhabited the same room, let alone the same bed. I mainly saw my father at night. He always had trouble sleeping so we would go to the late night cinema showings and drive around, up onto The Downs to watch the sunrise. One time we stumbled into the most rundown cinema in the City and found ourselves, father and daughter, confronted with huge orange breasts so close to the camera that their brown aureoles blurred. We sat through the whole film, both of us wearing our office uniforms, even though we could almost feel the heat coming off each other’s faces. When the lights came up we sat until the cinema emptied. Adrian avoided my eyes but said, “That was smashing actually” and I said “Yeah.” When we sat eating limp ice cream in a dark McDonalds I guessed he was thinking about what my mother would have said. Adrian imagined Virginia could never have sat on the itchy seats, bitten by microscopic insects and surrounded by orgasms with her only child, even if she did play the guitar once for The Slits.

         We made the same mistake a couple of times, once with a boyfriend of mine Karl Grating, who sat in horror as the fleshy credits rolled up, while my father and I glowed next to each other in pleasurable bohemian tolerance, chewing on a bag of foam bananas as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Sometimes we talked about the subtext to the rough sex or the tone of the plot, whether we found it progressive or not. We found special ways to share in our own pretensions, and would often discuss colour schemes and design faults in crisp packets and burger wrappers. At home we were drowned by my mother's stories of Keith Moon, acid trips and body prints. Enough times for me to remember, which must have been considerable as I would only have been six or seven years old. My father pulled the living room curtains closed and switched off the lights to project films on the wall above the mantelpiece. He invited neighbours over to show my friends and I, thrust into adaptations of Pinter plays, draped in robes and symbolic colours. Adrian struggled to keep the little girls silent during Pinter's dramatic pauses that lasted for thirty seconds at a time, during which Virginia talked at me loudly about other productions she had seen in Jazz Bars in Soho.

         My father had several affairs, all of them wretched and most of them lasting for less than two weeks. The most significant of his women was Edna, a talented musician who played the clarinet in a Church in West Worthing irregularly to the elderly on visiting evenings. She had very thin ankles which meant she could probably not control the slipping of her stockings, which were constantly in a mess around the tops of her shoes. We came face to face with her in the supermarket one Tuesday morning and her face turned a shade of ruddy pink. When she saw me looking at the price of beans behind Adrian, she smoothed her hair and deadened her eyes, as she concentrated on acting as though he was completely unfamiliar. I thought I could see her mouth twitching as though it longed to break out all her wine-stained teeth and to shout out verses of popular love poems, right there in the supermarket. My father span on the heel of his faux leather business shoes and said, "I'll buy us a cherry gateaux if they are cheap." As if I was five years old again. "What do you say?" he asked me earnestly. He steered me down to the frozen food section but there were no cherry flavoured deserts left. Edna would often telephone the house and my mother sang loudly in French and sometimes Latin while my father whispered to her on the hallway telephone.

         The morning after my father left the sky was like a peach. I drove out to the small town house my parents had lived in, located to the side of a square of art galleries and fish and chip shops. While I walked through the house collecting up the rubbish, Virginia sat in a grey dressing gown in her small, fruitless kitchen. I noticed that pieces of the house were missing: the good arm chairs and the eight steel bottomed saucepans. Without them, the house looked like a toy box, filled with worthless crap. Virginia’s eyes flickered towards the kettle and the heap of messy cups. The insides of the marigolds had been damp when she peeled them off and left them on the draining board for weeks. I put my fingers in and the plastic was filled with light, furry mould. When I leant on the dashboard and looked out of the window at the empty drive she said, “Don’t worry about me sweetie.” She sighed, twirling a strand of her greying hair around a finger before trying a bashful smile. My mother, the brave movie star, brushing the ghost of a tear from her cheek. “Are you making coffee? Oh I'll have it black, three sugars. I can’t take it any other way.” As if I didn’t already know.

         I put her to bed that evening, her head small in the enormous bed of cushions and Indian blankets. My father’s spare set of pyjamas trailed on the floor as I sloped over to his side of the bed. A stack of self-help books covered in cigarette ash and orange peel stood in a precarious tower by his bedside cabinet. I wondered if my father had read them while my mother slept, oblivious to his feverish page turning. The sheets were softer than I had imagined but the bells that were sown into the faces of elephants jangled all night long and I didn’t get much sleep. My mother had given in to the large brandy which I knew would put her to sleep but before I turned out the light she slurred into my ear, with hot breath, “He just couldn’t offer me the stability I needed honey…” She stretched her arm around me and shivered lightly, “…he was just too... too...” she sighed “…too bohemian, or something.”








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