The Singing Giants

by Matt Chesterton

Email: matt_chesterton@hotmail.com

"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 buried.

            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 he died?"

            "You didn't, but it doesn't surprise me. If there's a rose bush in heaven, he'll be pruning away as we speak."

            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 nice."

            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.

            "Daddy? Daddy?"

            "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 the garden?"

©2002 Matt Chesterton

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