How does time work?
Everything that happened is ‘The Past’ and all the things I want to do are ‘The Future’, but I’ve never known how to think of those things in any kind of order.
Gillian takes lots of photos and keeps them neatly ordered and dated in albums stacked on shelves. I’ve never been organised enough to do that even when I do take photos of Mani. Alan Sebastian says he doesn’t know how to have feelings about pictures, but Gillian probably takes enough of them for everyone.
But inside my brain everything is just… together.
How long ago was that? People ask me. I don’t know how to know. There’s no DateTime field on any of my memories.
It’s lucky I have Mani. He keeps growing in the same direction, which means there’s something to go off of.
I keep growing too, I guess. Just orthogonal to the way he does.
And I feel like… without a way to process my past as any kind of series, I just get stuck; unable to plan for the future. Alan Sebastian and I don’t really know where to pin-point the start of our relationship but it’s certainly somewhere between eight and fifteen years ago. In some ways we’ve always been together but in other ways it feels like yesterday. One minute I was too scared and in denial of my sexuality to admit to feeling anything; the next we were living together with a child and a proper little family.
I don’t know how to trust my past enough to know for sure that sort of change won’t just happen again. Or how to plan and trust that the future will work out.
There’s ‘The Past’ and ‘The Future’ but the most slippery one is ‘Now’. Now is the weirdest! It keeps moving. I got distracted by life and suddenly I’m 30.
In the meantime time keeps… happening. And everyone gets older.
My father died a week before my sister Amy’s second wedding. He was only in his seventies.
You’ll understand, when you have kids of your own was a thing my mother used to say a lot. And I’d sort of trusted that that would be true… until I did have a child of my own and, as it turns out, that made me understand my parents even less.
He never even liked me. But he was still my Dad. I do think I feel something about him dying. But I don’t know how to tell what that is. Too many feelings stacked on top of each other for me to find the bottom one.
Amy seemed more upset about him disrupting her wedding than the fact that he was dead.
I used to think it wasn’t Amy’s fault – that she was the baby of the family for 10 years until I came along and, as she put it, ruined her life… but that was a long time ago. Alan Sebastian says she’s just a very selfish and entitled person and that puzzling out whether there is an underlying reason for that, is probably just a waste of time. Tim and Ruth aren’t quite as bad ,but they all have their own families and Mani always seemed overlooked as a grandchild.
I got my inheritance along with my siblings. I almost wanted to give it back like they suggested. I don’t feel like I deserve it. I wasn’t really part of their family. But Alan Sebastian pointed out that even though I’m only their half brother… our father wasn’t my half-dad. I did feel guilty though.
I felt guilty that I hadn’t made more of an effort for Mani to know his grandfather and his cousins. But even more guilty that I cared about that when none of them had ever made any effort to include us. But most guilty of all that when I thought about Dad being dead I didn’t actually feel very sad.
I gave the money to Gillian instead. It wasn’t anywhere near enough to pay her back for everything she’s given me and done for me over the years, but it was still difficult to get her to accept it. She insisted that nothing she’d given me had been a loan. It didn’t seem fair when she has two actual children, but Michelle hasn’t been heard from in years and it’s hard to argue the case on Alan Sebastian’s behalf when we share a bank account.
But still. It felt important to repay her, so I did.
But then my Mum was in trouble. My Dad was my Dad. But my Mum… my Mum is my Mum.
It had been hard work to convince Gillian to accept the money, which made it even harder to ask her for it back. But she’s my Mum. So I did. And it gutted me pretty severely when Gillian refused.
“She needs me,” I had told her.
“She’s not supposed to need you,” Gillian said, which seemed pretty cruel. Everyone needs each other. Family are supposed to help each other out.
Gillian’s given me a lot over the years. An enormous amount. I couldn’t have raised Mani by myself without her. I didn’t raise Mani by myself – because we had her. She basically bought us a house and I know the rent we pay doesn’t cover the mortgage. She’s forgiven rent and paid for school uniforms and paid bills… and taken Mani to school when I couldn’t get out of bed, and organised appointments for me, and cleaned my house… so I don’t want it to seem like she’s not a generous person because she is. But right then I didn’t feel like she was.
“I can’t abandon her,” I told Gillian.
“Where was she when you needed her?” she asked.
She said Mum was probably just asking because she knew I must have got money from my Dad. I didn’t believe her. My mum loves me. Of course she loves me. She’s my mum.
Gillian said crueler things about Mum than I thought she was capable of thinking. Called her an abusive mother and an addict. I told her she had no right to call anyone else’s mother abusive with what she’d done to her own kids.
I hadn’t fought with her before. Not like that. We hadn’t gotten along well when I was living in her house as a teenager, but since I’d moved out we’d mostly gotten along pretty well.
I gave Mum what I could, prepared to argue with Alan Sebastian about it. But he just said ‘okay,’ and re-did our budget. Somehow that was worse.
I’d lost my Dad, I’d pissed off Gillian and I hadn’t managed to help my Mum in any real way at all.
Even so, Gillian wanted to make up with me.
“I’m sorry,” Gillian said. “It is your money. I didn’t want to take it in the first place. You… I don’t know that you’re doing the right thing, but you’re a grown man. I don’t want to control what you do. Even if I disagree with it.”
“I’m sorry for what I said,” I said.
“You didn’t say anything that wasn’t true,” she replied.
“I’m scared that you’re right.”
“I think I’m scared that I’m wrong.”
“I don’t understand.”
“When I met you,” she said, “you were this… extremely irritating and frustrating child. I couldn’t understand what Alan Sebastian saw in you and I resented you for… impregnating my daughter. And then constantly showing up at my house and eating my food, tapping on my table, and chewing on my pens.”
“I guess I was kind of a shitty kid.”
“No, Scott. You weren’t. You were just a kid. But you weren’t my kid and it pissed me off that I couldn’t seem to get rid of you.”
“And then… and then I realised that you spent so much time at my house because you had nowhere else to be. And that my… my threadbare tolerance of your existence was more affection than you were getting anywhere else. So I took you in. Partly because I felt like I had to… but mostly because nobody deserves that. No child is irritating enough for that.”
“I guess that’s true.”
“… and then I got to watch you grow up. I got to watch you grow from this… frustrating bundle of insecurity, so terrified of doing the wrong thing that you were almost incapable of thinking anything through… to this… wonderful man.”
“So… If I’m wrong about your mother. If she’s changed like she says she has and the way you’d like to think she has. Or will. I can’t stand the idea that she would swan in fifteen years later and get to play happy families with you and reap the benefits of all of your growth when all she did was inhibit it. You’ve turned out to be an great person, Scott. You’re a wonderful partner, an incredible father, and you’ve been a good friend. To me. And I… I really value that. I’ve never been good at dealing with… people. I don’t have many friends. I treated my own children very poorly and it’s possible I didn’t even see the true extent of that until I saw somebody do a better job of it. I don’t want it to seem like I’m taking credit for the way you turned out. It’s clear that mothering is not at all one of my strengths. You did all of that on your own. And it has been quite a privilege to witness that. And to know that… if I didn’t directly help you, I helped remove some of the barriers that might have prevented that from happening.”
“You definitely helped.”
“Your mother doesn’t deserve to have you. She doesn’t deserve to have your warmth and light and love in her life. She doesn’t deserve your help. She doesn’t get to have that. I get that. I didn’t make you into the person that you are. But I made sure you and Mani were fed. And housed. She didn’t do that. She wasn’t there. I was there.”
“Do you think it’s possible? That she could be better? With my help?”
“I doubt it. But I know why you want to try. Because you are a good and generous person. And I don’t want to be someone who stops you from being that person. But I do think you should be careful.”
“… I just want her to be… the way she was before.”
“Maybe she wasn’t ever that way. Maybe I only remember her being wonderful because I was a little kid. I look at Mani and I see how… simple and straightforward everything is to him. Even at fourteen. Things are only just starting to get complicated for him.”
“Do you think my Dad had a good side? My siblings loved him. I never got that. I should have… tried harder to find it.”
“He’s the one who should have tried, Scott.”
“Yeah. I know you’re right… but now I’ll never know. I guess that means I can stop trying. My Mum’s still alive but she hasn’t really been the person I loved for a long time. My Dad’s dead. Like you said… neither of them were actually there. So why do I suddenly feel so alone?”
“You do get used to it,” she said. “Eventually.”
Gillian takes a lot of photos. Documents her and her families lives through her camera. She has frames and albums all neatly dated and ordered.
And I’ve never seen one from before 1983, when Alan Sebastian and Michelle were born.
“I suppose my father might be dead by now,” she said suddenly.
I stopped asking her about her past when it was clear it wasn’t a good topic for small talk. She just says she doesn’t want to talk about it. That she can’t.
“Probably is,” she continued, “he’d be over ninety. I doubt he’d have lasted that long. He might have been dead for years. That’s a nice thought.”
Gillian’s not an affectionate person. She didn’t hug me or stroke my back or say I love you. But I don’t think any of those things would have made me feel as loved and trusted as those few short sentences did.
“You really should spend some of it. The money. Do something nice for yourself. Go on holiday with Alan Sebastian. Do something for you. Spend some of that generosity on yourself.”
But I don’t know how to feel like I deserve nice things. Like it will probably just all be a waste. I’m too changeable. I’ll probably regret whatever I choose to spend it on and not be able to take it back. Isn’t that what I always do? Change my mind about things. I don’t know how to trust myself. Which makes it scary when other people trust me.
So I gave my mum enough to cover a bond deposit for when she finds a new place to live. We’ll save the rest for us.
I felt good about that. I even told Mum she didn’t have to pay me back.
“Is that all you got from him?” she asked me, “he was always a selfish asshole, your Dad.”
I didn’t see her again after that.