The Singing Giants
by Matt Chesterton
"Why do they sing, Daddy?"
"They don't sing,
Spike," replies my father, his tone affixing 'you ridiculous
child' without actually having to say it. "It's just the hum
of the electricity travelling down the wires. I've explained this
to you countless times."
Sweet, isn't he? But I don't
sulk just screw up my face in the manner of all six-year-olds working
out how to rebut some banal truth. And, as always, I have another
card to play.
"Jenny told me that
they sing, Daddy" his knuckles tightening on the lawnmower
already "She says they're giants - giants that sing. Jenny
says that during the day they're just tuning up, not really
singing at all. Then during the night, when I'm asleep, they sing
songs to each other down the wires; real songs, like on the radio.
Is that true, Daddy?"
My father pauses just long
enough to arch his eyebrows and shake his head. I'm waiting for one
of his stock responses; he doesn't disappoint me. "Your stepmother
has a very vivid imagination, Spike."
And so the scene plays itself
out: me as a sprawled-out child on the lawn, listening to the interminable
baritone of the singing giants known to certain adults as electricity
pylons. And my dead father, face pinched and bloodless even in life,
cutting perfect strips out of his perfect lawn.
The daydream fades into the present one week after
my father's death. I am standing in front of the french windows in
my dead (I can't abide insipid euphemisms like 'late' or 'departed')
father's dining room. Apart from a faint whiff of detergent and carpet
glue the smell of moving house there is nothing left in this room.
The whole place is bare, dim and inexplicably cold. So I prefer to
look outwards into the garden. There is at least some life there,
notwithstanding the ghosts languishing on the lawn.
My stepmother stands close to me, her fingers
resting lightly on my right arm. Even in mourning she is the picture
of controlled elegance: dark navy jacket and skirt, sandy hair just
the odd intrusion of grey held back tightly behind a rainbow hair
band. "What a trouper Jenny is!" some obscure uncle had
murmured to me during the funeral. I could only agree. But dearer
to me was the mischief beneath the decorum, the harlequin who had
slipped into the house disguised as a stepmother and brought some
enchantment into my childhood.
We are waiting for the other mourners to
join us from the church. This is what I have been dreading the most.
The funeral itself passed breezily enough for me: well-worn litanies
acting as proxy for genuine sentiment. The village vicar turned out
to be reassuringly ancient and solemn; the brief sermon poignant enough
to elicit just the right amount of handkerchief-passing and shoulder-trembling.
(It turns out that my father had become a regular churchgoer since
his cancer was diagnosed. His standing in the parish was such that
we were deemed worthy of being loaned the water urn from the church
hall, now gurgling away in the kitchen.) But any moment now I will
be filling thirty Styrofoam cups with budget coffee, handing them
out to people whose faces I will dimly try to match up with names
on Christmas cards, compelled by the occasion to express emotions
I barely feel. It will be a pale, awkward affair. In that, it will
at least have the virtue of reflecting the life of the man we've just
Do I sound very sour? Or crime of crimes
where the dead are concerned disrespectful, perhaps? Honestly, I
don't believe I ever loved or even respected my father and I have
no moving requiems to offer.
"Are you ok, Spike?" Jenny asks,
jolting me out of my little self-pity session.
"Yeah, I'm fine," I reply, a little
too insistently. "How about you?"
"Absolutely bloody awful, thanks."
I grasp her hand and turn towards her. But
I needn't have worried. She is wearing the expression I have come
to know so well over the past thirty-five years. Half-pout, half-grin:
brow slightly furrowed in mock concentration like a young girl attempting
to whistle and failing comically. It's a look that can carry both
laughter and horror; sometimes, a little weariness. It's the look
she bestowed on a shy four-year-old when introduced to him all those
years ago, out there on that same immaculate lawn. "Say hello
to your new stepmother, Spike," my father had ordered in that
tortured manner of his, a Dickens caricature sprung off the page.
This had cut no ice with me; I just kept on clinging to his legs,
perhaps wondering how I'd missed the old stepmother. But then Jenny
had fixed me with that bewitching gaze. "And I'm very very
wicked, indeed," she had said pure Bette Davis! And, of course,
it wasn't long before I was hiding behind her legs.
I wish I could hide behind them now; whimper
"Haven't they gone yet?" at regular intervals until this
wretched wake is over. Jenny, ever telepathic, gives my elbow a light
squeeze as if to say, "Be strong! or, more realistically, "Pull
yourself together, you selfish prick - this isn't about you."
I'm so superstitious about her mind-reading abilities that I wait
until she goes into the kitchen before allowing my mind to turn over
one of the great unanswered mysteries of the universe. What did a
woman like Jenny - young, urbane, smart and witty - see in a man such
as my father - middle-aged, morose and terminally awkward? I had asked
her this same question only once before, at a pathologically boozy
New Year's Eve party some ten years previously. "Beats me, Spike,"
she had replied, fixing me with that look. "Perhaps I
just want to deprive his only child of his rightful inheritance. More
tequila?" And that was that.
Jenny returns to the dining room with two
glasses of wine. "We have to get drunk quickly: they'll be here
any minute," she says airily. She grins, but her bloodshot eyes
give her away: she's been crying, alone. Strangely, this perks me
up a little. I'm humane enough to be glad that at least one person
is grieving for my father in the rawest, most chaotic way; that is,
with the full weight of their soul, not just for the sake of convention
or being seemly.
I gulp down my wine pretty quickly. Hello,
numbness come on in, make yourself at home and stay as long as you
like. Jenny, meanwhile, is twirling her empty glass like an off-duty
martinet. Then, in quick movements, she hands the glass to me, leans
forward and pulls open the french windows. It is one of those sharp,
icy March days that are best admired from a snug window-seat, but
I welcome the chill on my face nonetheless. At least now the house
seems cold for good reason.
"Isn't the garden looking wonderful,
Spike?" Jenny remarks with sudden passion. "Did I tell you
that he was out there trimming the hedge last Friday, the day before
"You didn't, but it doesn't surprise
me. If there's a rose bush in heaven, he'll be pruning away as we
Jenny sniggers, probably pleased to get something
out of me that isn't wholly sullen. But I mean it - my dad could have
gardened for the gods. And so could she. That's how they got together:
eyes meeting across a crowded hothouse, shyly start to compare bulbs
and cuttings, and - if you'll forgive me - love blooms there and then.
Gardening was their shared passion (my real mother - who died before
I was two - detested it, apparently) and, I've always reckoned, the
mainspring for their love. Now, I think, Jenny's greatest fear is
that whoever buys the house will plant a gazebo in the middle of the
lawn and stock it with gnomes.
Once more my stepmother has tuned in to my
thoughts with uncanny precision. "It was his creativity,
Spike," she says, holding my gaze unblinkingly and moving a step
closer. "You have your painting; your father had his garden.
It was his way of making something beautiful out of nothing
and he passed that compulsion on to you."
I grunt some inanity and glance away. We've
had this conversation several times before. I've spent a lot of time,
not to mention money, persuading my psychiatrist that the reason I
became an accomplished painter was simply because my father thought
it was a disturbing hobby, proof that I was some kind of feckless
dilettante. I became good at it just to spite him, my theory goes.
And then you have to reckon up all the hours I spent doodling and
daubing indoors while he tended to his precious seedlings. Our differences
are rendered satirical when you consider that the one thing
I loved about his garden was the single part he detested: those singing
pylons straddling the bottom right-hand corner. Only Jenny had understood,
had stepped into my lonely realm to entertain me, to encourage me...
And it is Jenny who is still staring me out
now, eyes caustic with stale tears but with something else too. This
isn't the look I am so comfortable and familiar with, but her eyes
speak to me nonetheless. There is a love and protectiveness there
that grief has only sharpened. And there is a kind of challenge for
me there, also.
The doorbell buzzes twice. Jenny averts her
gaze, her face softens into a smile and she squeezes my hand.
"I'm really looking forward to seeing
Samuel," she says. "I didn't get much of a chance at the
service, what with all the..."
Any further speech on her part is rendered
impossible by a direct hit from a cannonball of raw energy, otherwise
known as my six-year-old son, Sam.
"Grandma!" he yells. The ensuing
exchange doesn't get any more meaningful than that, but watching Jenny's
way with Sam is the only time I ever feel nostalgic for my boyhood.
My wife Lucy enters more serenely, gives me a hug and mouths "be
Cars draw up outside and guests begin to
file in, one black suit after another, whispering to each other as
if any sudden noise might wake my father up. Flesh is pressed and
regrets exchanged. Several people lie and comment on how nice the
coffee is. In every corner old enemies are solemnly swearing to make
more of an effort to 'keep in touch'; that, after all, it's only two
hours on the M5 when traffic is light. Why not make it a day trip?
Uncle Trevor, whom I marvelled at in childhood only for his premature
baldness, has brought a portable CD player and covertly slips on "Funeral
Clichιs Volume II" or similar. The wholesome strains of Pachelbel
and Albinoni add another layer of gloom to the whole affair.
It isn't enough to stop Jenny from being
radiant and dignified. Such a trouper, like the man said. Lucy is
keeping me going, remembering names for me. And Sam? Sam keeps pulling
at my trousers, ever more insistently.
"Not now, Sam. Ask me later."
He shuts up for about five seconds, decides
that 'later' has arrived, and resumes the tugging.
"What is it, Sam?" Most of the
room is listening now.
"Is it true that Granddad has become
a fruit tree?"
"What on earth are you talking about?"
I giggle nervously. The whole room is attentive now. But my son is
not to be deterred.
"Daddy, Granddad said that he would
get into a big box and they would plant him in the ground and he would
grow into a tree, like the ones in the garden. He told me not to be
sad if I saw the box. And I did see the box, didn't I, Mummy?"
"Don't be ridiculous, Sam!" I snap,
all my scorn ranged against all his wonder. And almost immediately
I know I would give anything to have that moment over again.
He doesn't cry, just sits down and drinks
some juice. I'm looking at my shoes as if something vital and unique
is written on them. The world is closed and timeless: only the humming
of the pylons suggests otherwise. And, with my eyes shut, I know how
Jenny is looking at me.
Mostly it doesn't but sometimes the penny
just drops. Ruffling Sam's hair, I smile at Jenny and then turn, eyebrows
raised, to the rest of the gathering:
"Would anyone care to take a look around