by Jane Seaford
At first, we blamed Mum for Dad leaving. After all, she told him to go. In the weeks afterwards all four of us skulked about the house, not wanting to talk to her, not even wanting to talk to each other.
In the evenings, she drank wine and later she’d play her sad songs and cry. We’d all be in bed by then, the boys in their room and Jasmine and I in ours. We’d be reading when the music started and Jasmine would sigh, switch off her light and pull the bedclothes over her head, wanting it not to be happening.
The best parts of our lives were the weekends when Dad would come and fetch us and we’d drive off in his battered car – Mum got the good one. She got the house, the hens, the goats, the cat and us as well. Mum got everything and still felt she’d been deserted.
Dad would arrive on Saturday morning and he’d ring the bell and one of us would rush to open the door (even though it was unlocked he wouldn’t just come in). He’d be standing there tall and shabby with his hands in his pockets and his cheeks pulled in as if he was about to whistle. And the hopeful look on his face would fade when he saw it was one of us kids and not our mother who was welcoming him.
One day when we were all sitting on the stairs waiting for the throaty sound of Dad’s car and his ring on the bell, Jasmine asked: ‘Why did they split up if it’s made them both so unhappy?’
Toby said: ‘They’re grown-ups. They are incomparable.’
‘Don’t you mean incomprehensible?’ Isaac asked. He was the eldest and read a lot. At that time, he said he wanted to be a professor like Dad but he’s ended up as a circus clown.
‘They are incompatible,’ I said. Mum had told me that when she was driving me into town the day before. I hadn’t asked, hadn’t spoken but Mum had said: ‘As you’re so keen to know, Miranda, your father and I could no longer live together. We’re incompatible.’ I didn’t reply but I looked the word up in the dictionary and it means: ‘Unable to live together in harmony’.
Anyway Dad had moved into a shared house and had a bedroom where Jasmine and I would sleep on Saturday night. He and the two boys had to make do in the big communal lounge. When we first got into the car he’d ask how Mum was and what she’d been doing.
‘OK,’ we’d say; ‘Nothing much,’ we’d say.
‘She got a boyfriend yet?’
‘No.’ I could feel the tension in the car as we all held our breaths waiting for Dad to change the subject. Which he would do, pretty quickly.
When we came home on Sunday evening, Mum would be waiting in the kitchen, her bottle of wine already open. There’d be soup warming on the stove and freshly made bread on the table.
‘Food’s ready,’ she’d call as she heard us coming in. Dad would hover, hands in pocket again.
‘Tell your Dad you’ll see him next week,’ Mum would yell and he’d shrug and leave, his back bent and sad as he walked to the car.
‘Meet any of Dad’s friends?’ Mum would ask as she ladled out soup.
We wouldn’t reply, just looked down into our bowls and ate as much as we could. All weekend we’d been filling up on burger and pizzas, bags of sweets and ice-cream.
‘That’s a no, then,’ Mum would say. She’d sigh and splosh more wine into her glass.
In the end, I think they might have got back together. In fact, I’m sure they would if it wasn’t for what happened a few months after the split when we were beginning to accept—but not like—the situation. What happened was that Dad found a friend. Not a girlfriend although she was a woman: just a friend, and one who changed his life and because of that Mum’s life and ours, too.
Mum and Dad had once been hippies. They still smoked dope and talked to us about sex and drugs. When they’d been younger they’d taken acid and lived in a commune and all that sort of stuff. They were left wing, too. Anti-establishment, anti-religion. Dad taught Political Science at the University in town and was known for his almost communist stance.
His friend was a nun. Not an ex-nun, not an alternative nun or anything like that: she was a real, practising Roman Catholic nun. She wore white clothes and a blue headdress that covered her hair. She had big brown eyes, skin like cream and deep dimples in her cheeks. She was beautiful and full of the love of God. You could have yelled insults at her and she wouldn’t have stopped smiling all the while and when you’d finished, she’d still want to be your best friend. We hated her.
She was called Sister Bernadette after some silly saint from France who thought she’d seen the Virgin Mary. Isaac read up about her and he told us that the original Bernadette was ‘educationally subnormal’.
‘Bernie,’ he said to Dad’s nun. ‘Did you know you’ve called yourself after a girl who drooled and mumbled and was known to be simple?’
‘Oh, Isaac,’ Bernie said (that’s what we all called her). ‘Even if what you said was true would it matter?’
I could see Isaac considering this. Finally, he answered: ‘No, it wouldn’t. But then neither does anything else. Nothing matters.’ I think it might have been then that he changed his mind about being a professor when he grew up.
The first time we met Bernie, Dad was jumpy. When I’d opened the door to him that morning he’d had his back to me and was actually whistling. His hands were jingling coins in his pockets. He turned when I said, ‘Hi, Dad,’ and smiled at me.
‘Miranda, let’s go. Get the others.’ He strode towards the car and I knew that something was different.
As we drove into town he didn’t ask anything about Mum. Nothing at all.
Just before we arrived Toby said: ‘Don’t you want to know if Mum’s got a boyfriend?’
Dad answered: ‘Has she?’ And he sounded almost pleased.
‘No,’ Toby said and knocked his elbow against the window. ‘Ow,’ he said.
‘Right,’ Dad said when he’d parked the car. ‘There’s someone I want you to meet. A new and very good friend.’
‘A girlfriend,’ said Toby, sneering.
‘No.’ Dad laughed. ‘Better than that.’
‘Not a boyfriend,’ I said.
‘Hardly,’ Dad said, getting out of the car. ‘Come on, you lot.’
She was in the kitchen of the shared house, drinking tea. She stood up when we came in and smiled as if the future of the world depended on it.
‘It’s wonderful to meet you all,’ she said, sounding as if she were singing.
She’s a joke, I thought. She’s Dad’s new woman and he’s dressed her up like this for some kind of sexual pleasure. I could feel heat reddening my face at the idea.
Later when Dad had left us to take Bernie back to her convent, Isaac said; ‘He must be bonking her. She’s very pretty.’ He blushed after he’d said that. He was nearly sixteen at the time and probably obsessed by sex.
Toby asked Dad when he came back if he’d been to bed with her.
‘Don’t be silly. She’s a nun. They don’t.’
‘Why are you friends with her?’ Jasmine asked. Dad told us that she was one of his students. She had joined a liberal order of nuns when she was very young and now it had been decided that she should study politics, learn about the modern world. Later she would become a teacher. He had been struck by her difference from his other students.
‘She questions everything I believe in,’ he said almost reverently, as if this was something that had never happened before. Probably it hadn’t. ‘Sister Bernadette has made me look at the world in a new way. She’s made me rethink.’
‘She wouldn’t have done that if she’d not been beautiful,’ I said. I was angry and scared. I felt that our lives were about to change in ways we didn’t want.
‘Miranda,’ Dad said sounding like someone else. ‘Have faith in me.’
I just looked at him. Why had faith suddenly become important? I wanted to know but didn’t ask.
We saw Bernie the next afternoon. Dad drove off to fetch her and we all went for a walk in the local park. She tried to talk to us about what she called: ‘Your parents’ sad situation.’
‘I’m praying for your family, Miranda,’ she said to me, ‘hoping that God will see a way to heal this rift. And best of all,’ she added, joy making her words bounce, ’would be for you all to find the faith.’ That dreadful word again. I looked at her with my eyes narrowed. I wanted her to see that I hated her and her religion, her stupid prayers and awful optimism. Above all, I hated that she clearly had the hots for Dad and he for her, though both would deny it if I mentioned it.
She changed colour when she talked to Dad, turning a sort of holy pink. And she clasped her hands together probably to stop them from touching him in places she shouldn’t even be thinking about. I’m sure I could see her lips swelling a little and her eyes growing even bigger. As for him, he’d started to smile in the same way that she did. They walked along beaming at each other and I felt that at any moment they would join hands and start to skip.
That evening as Mum was pouring out the soup Toby said: ‘Dad’s got a friend.’
Mum stopped and looked up. ‘What?’
‘A nun,’ Jasmine said and Mum blinked a few times and then started to laugh.
It wasn’t a joke though and it got worse. A few weeks later Dad suggested that we go to church on Sunday. We all refused.
‘I can’t make you,’ he said, using his recently acquired ‘sorrow rather than anger’ tone. He went though, dressed up in new clothes none of us liked. He came back with Bernie. She was triumphant. She thought she had won, we felt. Dad was now a churchgoer.
‘I’m still thinking about religion,’ he told us. ‘I’ve not converted yet.’ But he sounded pious and Bernie nodded at him, her cheeks pink, as if it were only a matter of time.
‘I wish he’d just screw her and get it out of his system,’ Isaac said one evening when we were all in the living room.
The next weekend Isaac told Dad he was leaving school as soon as he turned sixteen. Dad tried to persuade him not to. But Bernie weighed in with: ‘What would make us truly happy, Isaac dear, would be if you were to join your father in becoming a Catholic. Then we’re sure you’ll be guided by God when deciding your future.’
‘Piss off you retarded self-deluding nymphomaniac,’ Isaac shouted. Bernie gasped, but carried on smiling. Dad banged both fists on the table. After that, Isaac stopped coming when we visited Dad at the weekends.
The strange thing was that Mum recovered while all this was going on. She cut down on her drinking, stopped playing her sad music and re-registered at the university’s psychology faculty to finish her Ph.D. She’d given it up years earlier when Isaac was a toddler and I was born.
‘I’ve changed the topic slightly. I’m going to look at the relationship between personality traits and religious conversion,’ she said.
‘You’ve dropped Dad,’ I said sadly.
‘Well… If he gave up this nun and all that goes with it, I could…’ She didn’t finish the sentence. She was still sad, I decided, but not bereft.
He didn’t give up his nun. Not exactly. What he did was to stop being our dad. That was how we looked at it. When he told us what he was going to do, I shouted: ‘You won’t be ours anymore.’ I started to cry. He patted me in the soft manner he’d developed since Bernie came along.
‘Miranda,’ he said in his new concerned voice. ‘I’ll still be your dad.’ He was smiling in that silly way that he’d learnt from Bernie as if nothing could upset him or make him change his mind.
‘Miranda. It’s quite glorious what your father is doing,’ she said. Her face was shining and she looked like one of those soppy pictures of angels.
Toby’s mouth was hanging open and Jasmine was staring at Dad as if he had turned into a monster. Which in a way he had. He had told us that he was going to join a monastery.
Eventually Jasmine shuddered as if she’d come out of a trance. She frowned. ‘So you’ll be a monk, like Friar Tuck.’
‘Not quite like Friar Tuck,’ Bernie said. Her hands clasped, her expression radiant. I wanted to hit her.
‘Take us home, now,’ I ordered Dad.
‘Now,’ I insisted. ‘Now,’ said Toby and closed his mouth. ‘Now,’ said Jasmine.
Dad shook his head and led us to the car. We all refused to see him again. So did Mum. That night after he’d taken us home Jasmine said: ‘I’m going to be a stripper when I grow up and my stage name will be Sister Bernie.’ And she did just that. Toby embraced right wing politics and was a successful businessman before giving it all up when he turned thirty to become a Buddhist. As for me, I’ve had four husbands and still not found a man I can live with. Would all this have happened if Dad hadn’t teamed up with Bernadette? Who knows?
Mum still feels it might have been her fault. ‘If I’d foreseen what would happen I’d not have asked him to leave,’ Mum said one evening a few months after Dad became a monk. By then we no longer blamed her. He was the one we now hated. He was our ex-Dad we said. We’d excommunicated him we said. At that time, we indulged in what we called our religious jokes. They made us laugh: a lot.
Jane Seaford is the author of two novels, ‘The Insides of Banana Skins’ and ‘Archie’s Daughter’ and a short story collection, ‘Dead is Dead and Other Stories.’ Her stories have been placed, highly commended or shortlisted in international competitions. Many have appeared in anthologies or magazines. Others have been broadcast. As a freelance journalist, she had a column in Bonjour magazine and sold pieces to The Guardian, The Independent and other British publications.