Dad asked Mam to take her glasses off before he hit her. A considerate gesture, I thought, at the time. He didn’t wish to inflict unnecessary injury. The punishment he was about to administer to his wife that evening had been scrupulously calculated so as to atone precisely for the wrong she had committed, no more, no less. The drawing of blood − blinding, even − would exceed the proper demands of justice. Worse still, it would signal failure on his part. A considerate gesture, therefore. A gesture which demonstrated, too, that his chosen course of action was the product neither of whim nor the heat of the moment. His tone of voice said as much: firm, but measured. ‘I shall do only that which is required, that which you have brought upon yourself.’ Measured. Prudent. Caring, even. And yet not, on reflection, lenient. No, leniency suggests that the punishment meted out is somewhat less than that which is due, in the considered balance of actions and consequences. And that wouldn’t do. No, that wouldn’t do at all. Of what use is a punishment unless it is commensurate with the crime?
‘Glasses, I said. Take your glasses off.’
And somewhat tight-lipped, too. More than a whisper, and yet less than the command you might expect, under the circumstances. Indeed not the sort of command he might well have barked earlier, in the clear light of day, when I was at school, out of earshot. Anyway, Mam stood where she was, motionless, hoping perhaps that intransigence might somehow work to her advantage. Perhaps she thought, Well, if I stand still for a minute, his temper will begin to cool, he’ll stomp off in that way of his and have a good sulk, and in a while it’ll be dinner time. That’s how things had panned out before, no doubt, once or twice, in some distant past she could recall sufficiently well at least to believe that a similar outcome might conceivably be within reach again.
‘OK. It’s your choice.’
But no, not considerate, either. Consideration, after all, is leniency’s bedfellow. It suggests a lack of resolve. It gives the impression that the law is to be enforced at the convenience of the guilty party. ‘If it’s not too much trouble ...’ And what a limp-wristed legislature that would be. So, not considerate, either. Merely correct. Fitting. Appropriate. Proportionate. Dad was being strictly proportionate. And thrifty, of course. The spectacles had harmed no-one and it would be a gratuitously profligate act to damage such an item on account of its owner’s folly.
Tight-lipped again. And by now only one course of action remained open to him. He proceeded to remove Mam’s glasses. First, with his left hand, he took hold of her collar. This was not, in itself, part of the punishment. It was rather a precaution to ensure that Mam could not evade the blow, once it came. She was wearing a blouse that evening, buttoned to the neck, so this was a straightforward manoeuvre. Then, with the index finger and thumb of his other hand, he raised one arm of the glasses. It would have been easier, of course, had he been able to raise both arms at the same time, but this was not to be. He had to retain his grip on the collar. He had to hold the head steady. Also, by now, and despite these measures, Mam had begun to wriggle. Although she must have had little hope of breaking free, this is what instinct dictated. She wriggled. Squirmed. Pulled her head back. Dad, still fiddling with that one arm of the glasses, poked his thumb into her eye. An accident, of course. And, as he would certainly have maintained, if interrogated on the matter, more her fault than his. She let out a brief squeal and pulled back. I heard her feet, stumbling a little, trying to keep their balance. Domp. Domp. And Dad himself, then. Domp. But heavier. Preventing her fall, perhaps. Holding things steady.
‘I told you, didn’t I? Eh? Didn’t I tell you?’
But Mam was slight of build, and quite short. And if Dad was not particularly large, he had a strong arm, a firm grip. A firm resolve, too. A master dry cleaner doesn’t get the stains out without a firm resolve. So he prevailed. Without letting go of her collar, he took off Mam’s spectacles and placed them on the little dressing table by the window. He did so with due care. Normal life would resume in a few hours and it served no-one’s interests to hinder that restoration. He opened the palm of his hand and drew it back, only a few inches, just enough to ensure the blow could be delivered with the requisite force. More than a slap was needed, but less than a ... What word should I use? A beating? Yes, Dad would have been appalled at the suggestion that he was a wife-beater. So he drew back his hand and aimed for the temple. But despite his grip on her collar, Mam managed to raise her head, just an inch or two. A sudden recoil. A mere reflex, no doubt. As a result, Dad’s blow fell, not on her temple, but on her upper cheek and the corner of her eye. She squealed again. Less the sound of pain, perhaps, than of surprise. And I dare say Dad regretted this mishap. Hitting Mam on the eye had not been part of his plan. For this reason, I’m sure he was cross with himself. His precautions had been inadequate. He hadn’t thought things through properly. But be that as it may, he was undoubtedly even more displeased with Mam. It was she, after all, who’d prompted this little squabble and she needed to exercise some self-discipline so that it could be properly and swiftly concluded.
‘Stand still, will you.’
Dad did his best to rectify his error. He tightened his grip on the collar. He drew Mam’s head towards him and threw another blow. This time his aim was true. I heard the appropriate sound: that of hand on temple. Skin on skin. Bone on bone. Another brief squeal. The wrong had been righted. Content that matters had been resolved, Dad left the room.
What, then, was the transgression for which Mam was being punished? I cannot say. And I cannot say for the simple reason that I did not see any of these events but heard them only and gave the sounds shape and substance as best I could. I am, however, a seasoned practitioner in the art of interpreting sounds. It is a facility with which I have been blessed from an early age – even as far back as the womb – and it enabled me to distinguish at once and without hesitation between, for example, a hand striking a table and a hand striking a face. Or even, upon that same face, between a blow to the cheek and a blow to the temple, the former resembling a sheet of paper being torn between finger and thumb, the latter reminding me more of the noise a workman might make when dumping a sackful of sand on the pavement outside. And no doubt that’s why Mam was doing her best to stay quiet, so that she wouldn’t frighten her little boy sleeping, as she thought, in his bedroom next door. No shrieking, therefore. No crying, even. Just a little squeal. More of a squeak, really. And that despite herself. An unintentional reflex. And Dad as well, of course. Because Dad didn’t want to wake his son up either and allow him to trespass on the private affairs of husband and wife. So just a few words at a time, squeezed out through tight lips. And more spit in them, you might say, than voice. But how do you keep a cheek quiet? And a temple? A bone’s tongue is a feeble instrument, it is true. Flesh speaks more quietly still. And yet, through the wall, my young ears heard both and understood their distinctive vernaculars.
The following day, around tea-time, Mam and I were in the kitchen. She was chopping and peeling. I sat at the table, drawing a picture of my school. (This building was little more than a block of glass and concrete, but its windows alternated with squares of bright yellow which I could replicate quite easily and, I think, with a fair degree of accuracy.) We heard Dad come through the front door, a cough, and then: ‘Glenys …?’ He left the question mark hanging in the air. Mam carried on with her chopping and peeling. Then, again: ‘Glenys.’ Louder this time. And less of a question stuck on the end. She went out into the hallway. He’d bought her a bunch of flowers. ‘Mm,’ she said. ‘The front room, I think.’ Just to say something. She brought the flowers into the kitchen, trimmed the stems and put them in water. They were only daffodils, but perhaps that was all they had, that time of year, in the little Spar around the corner. Dad came into the kitchen and stood by the fire and coughed again and made a show of reading the paper. Mam took the flowers to the front room.
‘I’ve done a picture,’ I said, to fill the gap.
Dad looked at my picture, the blocks of grey and yellow. ‘You going to put people in?’
And perhaps he, too, was glad of the chance to fill a gap. Then I heard Mam’s feet upstairs. Which was all wrong, because she’d only mentioned going to the front room.
‘You going to put one of your teachers in?’
And in my head I said, ‘Come back down now, Mam. Please come back down.’ But then I heard the clunk, clunk of the pipes. She was running a bath. And that was all wrong, too, at six o’clock on a Monday evening. So it was my turn to be cross at Mam: for leaving me here in the kitchen, having to talk to Dad, for having to put people into my picture as well, just to keep him happy.
Nobody mentioned the flowers again. It was enough that they were there, standing to attention on the window sill, bearing witness, keeping Dad quiet. And for a while all I could hear was the doc-doc-doc-doc in his head, the same as ever, just like one of his own washing machines, swishing the dirty clothes round and round, tossing them this way and that, keeping the lid on. Doc-doc-doc-doc.
Mam’s bruises turned black, then yellow. She stayed indoors for a week. Got me to do the shopping after I came home from school. ‘Mam not well again, Tom?’ they said. I told them she had a bad migraine. And when she finally went out she wore sunglasses and pretended the light hurt her eyes. Before the flowers withered Dad was already complaining about the pain in his back. And I heard that, too. The sound of his back groaning, telling you it was bit poorly today, a bit out of sorts, going down with something.
All things make a sound. Big or small, makes no difference. And, as far as I know, every sound can be heard, too, provided you have an ear that’s up to the task. A snowflake falling on a stone. A midge flitting across the window pane. That midge’s tongue, licking its lips. Everything has its signature tune, the song of itself. What song does that tiny midge tongue sing? Is it smooth? Is it rasping? Is it wet, or is it dry? And perhaps we shouldn’t call it tiny, either, because size is a relative matter where sounds are concerned. Imagine, for example, that some creature much smaller even than the midge is perched nearby, up there on the window frame: a creature for whom even that mere midge is a towering monster. Imagine then the midge-monster, gobbling up the last mouthful of his dinner, licking his lips. Would not the slurp-slurp of its tongue be excruciatingly loud to its diminutive neighbour? I can’t say for certain, of course. I am not versed in such matters. But it makes sense.
To an unborn baby, they say, the mother’s womb clangs and clatters like a foundry. Between the pounding of her heart and the rush of her blood and the churning of her intestines and the clack and jabber of her voice (and her snoring, then, at night), the little mite enjoys scarcely a second’s peace and quiet. That being the case, is it not true also of the poor little midge foetus, enduring the infernal hammer-blows of his own mother’s heart? And that is merely the beginning. Beyond the womb’s sanctuary, a whole world of sounds teases the unknowing ear: a world of guffaws and curses, of pounding and trashing and tearing. The mother’s skin does, of course, filter and mute those noises somewhat, so that perhaps the baby must strain to hear beyond that more intimate din, down there in the foundry of his mother’s belly. He must prick up his ears and concentrate hard to separate the one from the other. Words mean nothing to him, of course, not as such. But I think he catches their drift. He registers the mood of a sentence, whether it flows gently, promising a tranquil conclusion, or whether, on the other hand, it springs from deeper waters, follows a steeper, stonier course, skirts a rocky precipice. He winces at the bark of a dog.
Most babies forget the tumult of the womb. The pangs of birth see to that. All that pulling and pushing and writhing, that interminable heaving towards the light. What memory could survive such an ordeal? I, however, was different. I was spared this torture, this erasure. I remember the whole cacophony.
Mam told Grandma that one fair-haired little chap was enough for her, thank you very much. And anyway, she couldn’t face going through all that again. Like a man washing the dishes in her belly, she said. His hands swishing this way and that, slosh, slosh, deep down inside her. And I heard that, too, the hands going slosh, slosh, a sudden storm in the womb’s lagoon. But the knife first. Caesar’s blade, tearing the skin, parting the curtains, letting the light in. Then the slosh, slosh. The hands pulling me out of the water and the blood and the darkness. ‘I’m not going through all that again,’ Mam said. Not the pain, but the noise. That man, washing the dishes in her belly.
Before I was born my right hand was wrapped tight around my ear. Mam saw it on the scan, she said. Asked the nurse why she couldn’t see the whole head. What was the matter with the lad’s arm, that funny way it was bent? Surely that wasn’t normal? ‘Like this,’ Mam said. ‘Cupping your ear you were, just like this.’ And she did it herself, she cupped her own ear, to show me what she meant. ‘Just like this.’
‘Can I see?’ I said.
But Mam didn’t have a copy of the scan. Hospitals didn’t hand out copies in those days. Things have surely changed by now. I shall make enquiries, when I get the chance. I shall ask to see my records, put in a Freedom of Information request. Although, on second thoughts, Mam might have to do that for me, because it will be her name in the system. I, of course, had no name at the time. Whilst I could hear well enough, and indeed catch the drift of much that I heard, I did not yet exist, not in the world’s eyes. And I shall take this course of action for one simple reason. I wish to demonstarate that I was not, in fact, cupping my ear that day, when the picture was taken. This was merely a fancy on Mam’s part. She wanted to believe that her first-born was special. She harboured a notion that he was different from other babies, their hands no doubt waving about aimlessly in the amniotic fluid. ‘Bright little fellow, isn’t he?’ That’s what she said, probably, to her friends. To her husband, even, back in the day. ‘Bright little fellow, don’t you think? Look at the way he’s cupping his ear, trying to keep up with what’s going on.’
No, I was not cupping my ear. I was covering it. I wished to hear less, not more. I had already heard too much. It has always been thus. And perhaps that’s why they took the knife to me, because I doubt whether I would have ventured out otherwise.
A baby in the womb can hear the world. It is rare, however, for the world to hear the baby. But this is the ability with which I was blessed. What I mean is this: once I got to the outside, I could still hear the inside. And I carried on hearing the inside. That’s how I knew what Dad’s back sounded like, the sound of his spine rotting, little crumbs of his body breaking free. Like iron rusting, the bits of rust grinding their teeth.
Sometimes, as he sat in his chair, Dad would give his right leg a little shake. The first time he did this we were watching football on the television and I thought, My God, he’s trying to kick the ball, he thinks he’s John Toshack (or Alan Hansen, or whoever happened to be playing at the time. I don’t remember now). But he did it again during Antiques Roadshow. I stared at him. Even Mam stared. ‘Circulation,’ he said, and gave his leg another shake. Just the one word. And spat it out, as though we should have known, as though our asking had made it worse. Sometimes, then, after shaking his leg, he would raise it in the air and bend it, back and forth, like the handle of a pump. ‘Can’t feel a thing,’ he’d say. Then he shook his left leg. ‘Not a thing. Not a blasted thing.’
And then, once, when he’d finished with his legs, he said he could feel a cold wind blowing in his face and he sent me out to shut the front door and gave me a mouthful, too, for being so careless. But the door was shut. The central heating was on full blast, too, even though it was already summer. ‘It’s shut,’ I told him. He shook his head, got up and went to see for himself. He went to the kitchen, and the dining room, and the bedrooms, too, in search of the elusive draft. He opened and closed the windows. He stood by each one in turn, just for a while, ear to the glass, waiting for that feather of air.
I heard all of this from my chair in the front room. The click-click of each window as it opened and closed. The domp, domp of his feet, going from room to room. He came back downstairs then, closed the front room door and drew his fingers along the join. ‘Bloody draft.’ And gave a little groan, because his back had started playing up again. And I was glad Mam wasn’t home that night – the night Dad first felt the draft on his face – because I’m sure she’d have paid for her negligence.
The following Sunday Dad stuck strips of rubber around the doors and windows. It took him all afternoon. Then he sat down for his tea, waited for the warm air to return from wherever it had been, to hold him tight, to tell him everything was back to normal. And if he still felt a draft on his face, he said nothing. Perhaps he couldn’t admit, even to himself, that the chill was all his own making. That he was the chill.
Translated by Tony Bianchi
‘Take your glasses off.’
Politely but firmly, Endaf Rowlands asks his wife to remove her glasses so that he can hit her without causing excessive injury. He doesn’t want to break the glasses either: that would be a waste. And after all, they’ve done nothing wrong. It’s his wife who’s transgressed. Tomos, their seven year-old son, hears these words from his bedroom. Then he hears the blow. The sound of hand striking bone.
In Tony Bianchi’s latest novel, The Two Deaths of Endaf Rowlands, Tomos tells his story. It is the story of a man who has always heard too much. Even in the womb, he clamped his hand tight over his ear: the scan proved as much. As a child, he hears the dok-dok-dok-dok inside his father’s head, echoing the metallic whirrings of the machines in his launderette. In adolescence, he catches the minute grumblings of Endaf’s spine, as it begins to crumble.
Growing up in the redeveloping Cardiff of the 1990s, Tomos dreams of becoming an architect, of building a new future. In the meantime, however, he must help his ailing father. Coldly and methodically, Endaf teaches him the arcane procedures of dry-cleaning, the intricate art of stain removal. As the years pass, Tomos comes to realise that he will never be free while his father lives. But will one death be sufficient? Or will Endaf find a voice to haunt him still? Will Tomos’s ears torture him once again?
Bianchi’s novel is reminiscent of John Williams’s Stoner. It is a record of failure – of dreams repeatedly dashed − which nevertheless manages to move and surprise us. It is written with a lyrical intensity, and a dark humour directed particularly at the absurd, obsessive rituals of everyday life. It asks whether we sometimes will our own continuing bondage, when that is the only security we have ever known. It asks whether we can kill our fathers twice. And at Sunshine Cleaners, in the Cardiff suburbs, the late Eric Morecambe’s discarded camel coat witnesses these torments with wry detachment.
‘Fel y mae synau’n troi’n rhan o fyd mewnol Tomos, felly hefyd mae’r nofel hon yn tywys y darllenydd i ganfod y byd o’i gwmpas o’r newydd.’