Glenn Miller and the Vases

Fiction
Tara Kenway


The sun came shining through the trees like knives. I squinted, pulling down the sunshade in the car. It didn’t make much difference, as it was a low sun that as soon as I’d driven past the trees shone straight into my eyes again, blinding them.

‘Didn’t you bring your sunglasses?’ Jane asked.

I felt my face. ‘No, I forgot.’

‘Idiot.’

We were on our way to visit her parents. The first trip of the year and it was already June. Her mother phoned every day and most of the time left long, rambling messages that Jane deleted unlistened to.

Her father didn’t really speak at all and generally ignored me, hoping I wouldn’t exist if he didn’t accept it. The visits were always nightmarish, with the mother talking at 100mph—even if her husband did want to say something, he didn’t have much opportunity.

‘Are you okay?’ I asked.

Jane nodded, looking out the window.

‘You know how it is—mum’s birthday, dad’s birthday, and Christmas. Sounds like I’m talking about a prescription—three visits a year until symptoms cease,’ she said in a doctor’s voice, forcing herself to smile.

‘Did you bring the present?’ I asked.

‘Now you think to ask? We’re already halfway there. Anyway, it’s in the back.’

We’d bought a vase, like we did every year. I wanted to buy something else, just to break the monotony, but Jane had got her mother a vase every year since she was a child and had made her one at playschool. It was a tradition, like the three-times-a-year visits.

I hated these visits. Her embarrassed-looking mother always referred to me as ‘Samantha-Jane’s-friend’, as if it were all one word, to a father who refused to look at me. Jane tried to convince me he’d come around eventually, ‘especially as you like motorbikes’, but she’d been wrong. She spoke to her mother in the kitchen whilst her father and I sat in the sitting room, or in the garden if it was the June visit, saying nothing.

The only positive thing about the June visit was that the weather was usually good. As we turned into the drive her mother came out of the house before I’d even had the chance to turn the car off, knocking on Jane’s window and smiling at us both.

‘You found us okay then?’ she asked

‘Mum, I used to live here, remember?’ Jane laughed.

We got out of the car.

‘I thought we’d eat in the garden today,’ her mum said, as if it were a new idea.

‘Lovely,’ Jane replied.

‘And how are you Samantha?’ her mother asked, giving me a swift peck on the cheek.

‘Fine thanks. Happy birthday. 38 isn’t it?’ I smiled. That was my line for June.

Formalities over, we went inside. Their house was a small, semi-detached not far from the station. The front garden was neatly trimmed, with various climbing flowers that tried to caress the walls. Jane’s old room overlooked the garage, and when she was in her teens she used to crawl out onto the roof to smoke cigarettes and look at the stars.

After we’d wiped our feet, Jane went into the kitchen and left me stranded in the sitting room with her father and the vases. There were hundreds of them covering the top half of two walls. I’d once suggested putting flowers in some of them, only to have her father say, ‘Flowers are for the garden.’ End of discussion.

Today he was sitting in his armchair, his newspaper folded neatly in his lap.

‘Hallo Mr. Smith.’

He shook open his paper and started doing the crossword. I sat down and waited for the others to come back. I looked at the vases on their shelves, lined up like soldiers, and tried to see if there were any new ones. Her mother’s favourite was lilac and hand-painted with flowers. Jane bought it for her in a craft shop in Cornwall on our first weekend away together. She saw it on the first day and put it on the bedside table. That night when we were making love she stopped suddenly.

‘What’s up?’ I asked.

‘Give me a second.’ She rolled over and put the vase in the drawer and closed it. ‘That’s better. Now, where were we?’

I wasn’t Jane’s first girlfriend but I was the first she took home to present to her parents. Her mother was fine once she saw I didn’t have devil’s horns and a forked tail, but her father didn’t say a word. Later, as he took the dishes into the kitchen we overheard the frantic whispering of her mother.

‘At least try and be polite, for goodness sake,’ she hissed.

So now he responded to some questions, answering ‘how are you’ with ‘fine’ that still sounded like ‘fuck you’ to me. I had never realised such innocuous words could be so loaded.

Mother: Offer the girls potatoes, Gordon.

Gordon: Potatoes? Fuck you.

Me: Thank you. You too.

Jane knew this is what we did and had given up long ago.

‘You’re as bad as each other,’ she said.

‘He started it,’ I grumbled. ‘Miserable old sod.’ These discussions always ended in her being silent and me apologising. Quite what for, I wasn’t sure but the apology always seemed to work.

And at first I did try, but after receiving illicit insults with every vegetable dish I gave up.

We once saw Jane’s mum by herself—a nerve-wracking experience as she hadn’t told Gordon she was meeting us and was paranoid he’d find out.

‘You’re sure that wasn’t him?’ she asked, turning around in her seat to follow the portly man who had just walked past. We were in the sterile end of the shopping centre, where all the shops looked the same, and the customers were mainly young mothers with three children, or pensioners who came here every week for tea and a bun.

‘Mum come on. Dad never comes to this part of town. When have you known him to change a habit? Anyway, why didn’t you just tell him you were seeing us?’

Her mother looked at me, and we both understood it was my fault.

‘Gordon doesn’t like new things very much,’ she said, nibbling at the carrot cake in front of her.

‘Sam’s hardly new now mum,’ Jane said, taking my hand. ‘He’ll have to accept it one day.’

‘Your father can be a little stubborn, dear.’

I said nothing, afraid that if I made one comment about Gordon, the floodgates would crash open.

Her mother sighed. ‘He wasn’t always like that you know. Before you were born we used to dance in the garden every evening in the summer. He had an old gramophone that he’d plug in and I’d put my heels on and we’d dance to Glenn Miller for hours.’

‘Sounds romantic,’ I said.

‘It was. Except for the fact that my heels kept sinking in the grass and we’d have to start over.’ She laughed at the memory.

‘Didn’t you ever try barefoot?’ Jane asked.

‘Just once but I trod on a slug and thought I’m not doing that again!’

‘Why did you stop?’ Jane asked.

‘Once my heel sunk in and Gordon didn’t notice. He spun me around—he was ever so good at that—and we both heard this snap. It sounded like I’d trodden on a twig. Then I had a shooting pain up my leg, and thought that wasn’t a twig! I had broken my ankle. Gordon blamed himself and felt terrible. Even when the plaster was off he refused to dance again. I suggested it a few times but he wouldn’t even hear of it.’ She shrugged. I went to take the bill but she took it from my hand. ‘This one is on me, Sam.’

She went into the bar and I saw her talking to the barman, laughing at something he said.

‘I didn’t know Gordon danced,’ I said.

‘Neither did I,’ Jane said, watching her mother.

Over the years I’d tried to memorize the order of the vases—Jane’s playgroup, green and yellow, red roses, Bognor Regis beach… Any new vase was merely added on at the end, and each visit was like playing that kid’s memory game: I went to the market and bought one apple, one banana and 75 vases.

If the new vase were too big for its shelf, Gordon would unload all of the vases from the given shelf, and put them on the floor in a group but still in order. He moved the shelf down and then reloaded all the vases, with the new recruit at the end.

Once, I’d asked why he didn’t just put the new vase on a shelf where it fit.

‘Because new vases go at the end.’ Fuck you.

Lunch today was roast lamb with homemade mint sauce, potatoes and two other vegetables, lightly steamed, and a white wine from Marks and Spencer. To follow there was a selection of cheeses and the birthday cake. The lunch was always the best part of the visit. Jane’s mother put into cooking all the colours and perfumes she couldn’t put in her vases. The complete opposite of my family where eating fish fingers was a special occasion.

Over lunch, Jane broke the news that we were buying a flat together. We’d already been living together for three years and the landlord had wanted to increase the rent, so we looked around and found a place not far from Wimbledon Tube station and the park.

‘You remember the park, don’t you mum?’

Her mother thought for a moment. ‘There’s a nice little pub nearby, isn’t there?’

‘That’s the one. Samantha goes running there and saw the For Sale sign.’

‘That’s wonderful, isn’t it Gordon?’

‘Wonderful.’ He put more potatoes on his plate, the sun shining off his bald spot, burning red like a traffic light.

‘When do you move then?’ her mother asked.

‘Next week. We’ve both taken a couple of days off and rented a van, so it shouldn’t be too bad,’ I said, wondering if Gordon’s head would be sore the next day.

‘Make sure you wrap your china up carefully. I’m ever so good at that. I remember when we got married and my mother gave me her second set of china, but she didn’t have the box and I spent a whole Sunday afternoon wrapping up cups and plates. And we didn’t break anything when we moved, did we Gordon? Which was a pity really as the second set of china was rather nasty!’ She giggled the way she always did when she said something daring.

She stood up and started to clear the dishes away, knives and forks clattering. Jane gave her a hand and I was left with Gordon.

I never knew what to say in these silences. Anything I said just made things worse. I topped my wine up as Jane was going to drive home, and sat there and drank. Odd strands of conversation drifted out of the kitchen, but we stayed buried in silence. I finished the wine, accidentally letting the bottle thud on the table. Gordon glanced at me, and blinked, as if that would clear me from the garden. Finally Jane hustled her mother out of the kitchen and made her sit down.

‘Sam, give me a hand will you?’ she asked.

I stood up, feeling the wine rush to my head. I steadied myself against the kitchen sink, and watched as Jane got the cake out of the fridge.

‘Where’re the matches?’ she asked, opening and closing various drawers.

I handed them to her, not trusting myself to light the candles without setting fire to something.

‘How much have you drunk?’ Jane asked, laughing and slapping my arm. She pushed me into the garden, whispering, ‘Start singing!’

Jane followed me, carrying the cake with five candles on it, one hand cupped around the flames to stop them blowing out.

‘Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you!’ we sang.

Gordon sang too, his voice a melodic bass that never failed to surprise me when I heard it.

‘It’s time for your present Mum,’ Jane said once her mother had blown out the candles. She handed her a long narrow package. Her mother carefully unwrapped it and took out the vase.

‘Oh, you’ve outdone yourself this year, Jane. Hasn’t she Gordon? Look at that!’

‘I’ll have to move the shelf.’ he replied.

It was a long narrow vase, designed to hold three long stemmed roses.

‘Are you sure, Gordon? It might fit,’ she said, looking at it.

‘It’s not that tall,’ I said.

‘It won’t fit.’ Fuck you.

Jane’d bought it a couple of months earlier from an antiques shop on the King’s Road.

‘Tad phallic, isn’t it?’ I said, holding the vase in my hand.

‘Oh god, don’t even think it!’ She looked at the vase in horror, snatching it back from me. ‘Can you imagine my dad’s face if you said that at the table!’

‘Phallic vases go on the second shelf,’ I said, imitating Gordon. I smiled at her. ‘It might finally break the ice. You never know.’ I topped up her wine and she took a sip. She put the vase on the table in front of us.

‘God, I’ve bought my mother a phallic vase. I can’t give it to her now. If I look at you, I’ll start laughing and then I’ll have to explain why.’

‘At least it’ll brighten up the afternoon.’

‘I’ll have to think about it.’

‘And Gordon will be peeved because he’ll have to move the shelf. Perfect present choice, Jane. Well done.’

The vase sat tall and erect in the centre of the table. I tried to catch Jane’s eye but she refused to look at me.

‘I’d better move the shelf,’ said Gordon, standing up.

‘Well, there’s no need to worry about it this second,’ said Jane’s mother, gently pulling him back into his seat. ‘Let’s enjoy the rest of the sunshine.’ Her mother turned the vase so she could see the design on the other side. She smiled at Jane.

‘Anyone for tea?’ she asked.

‘That’d be lovely mum. Why don’t I take the vase inside?’ Jane said.

‘No. Leave it there. I want to enjoy looking at it while I drink my tea.’

After dinner we had the vase ceremony. This involved Jane’s mum putting the vase on the shelf and everyone saying, ‘It’s lovely!’ Obviously this was when the vase fit. When it didn’t, we had to watch Gordon try and fit it on the shelf, holding it at different angles as if he could catch the shelf off guard, and squeeze the rebel in. Failing, he then said: ‘It’ll have to come down.’

The first time this happened, I thought it meant we could go back in the garden for another piece of cake, but no. We all had to stand and watch as Gordon took off all the vases from a shelf, one by one. I offered to help once and received a jagged look from Jane and silence from her parents. Shelf adjustment was Gordon’s job.

We finished lunch and Gordon cleared his throat and picked up the vase.

‘Let’s see about this then.’ He stood up, holding the vase in his hand like a truncheon. He went through the patio doors into the lounge. We all stood up and followed him.

There were four shelves in the lounge—two on one wall and two on the other. The vases stood silently, waiting to see what Gordon would do with them. He went to the lower shelf and tried to put the vase on. It was about one centimetre too tall.

‘Sorry, dad,’ Jane said.

‘Surely we can put it on a higher shelf just this once, can’t we Gordon?’ her mother said. ‘What will happen if we don’t put it with the others?’

Gordon looked at her and for a second I thought he might say yes, but he just blinked a few times and said: ‘No. Its place is here. I’ll go and get my tools.’ He put the vase on the floor and went to the cupboard under the stairs where he kept his toolbox.

How many times had the two of them watched this ritual? Her mum didn’t just get vases for her birthday, but also for Mother’s Day, Easter, and Christmas and often if they invited people over for dinner, they brought a vase, as there was no point bringing flowers.

‘Jane, come on. Can’t you talk him out of it? Just once?’ I whispered.

She was just about to reply when Gordon came back in with his toolbox.

Gordon slowly took down every vase. The shelf wasn’t attached to the brackets, so he just had to pick up the piece of wood and lean it against the wall. He took a pencil and marked where he wanted to move the shelf. He drilled a new hole, making the vases on the shelf above jiggle in excitement. When he’d finished, he put the shelf back in its place and checked it was straight with a spirit level. Satisfied, he started replacing the vases, starting with the troublesome phallic one, and working backwards.

The problem was that the vase after Jane’s latest was a heavy Inca vase made in Mexico. It fitted onto the shelf perfectly, so Gordon didn’t give a second thought. But all by itself on the shelf, it was too heavy. The second he took his hands away, the shelf shot up like a pinball flipper, hitting the shelf above it with such force that it too jumped, causing the vases to slide. Once one slid, it knocked into the next and suddenly the vases started raining down from the first shelf like lemmings, directly onto the other vases that were waiting below.

There was an immense silence once the noise had stopped. Gordon’s hands were still frozen where the Mexican vase used to be.

‘Are you all right, Gordon?’ his wife asked finally.

His hands were trembling.

‘I’m s-sorry Jean,’ he finally stuttered.

‘They’re just vases, Dad,’ Jane said.

He turned around slowly. ‘They’re not just vases, Jane. They’re your mum’s vases’. His left eye was twitching madly.

We all stood in silence looking at the remains of the vases.

Jane’s mother sighed deeply. ‘You know, I think I’ve had enough of this.’ She crossed the room and turned on the radio, turning the dial until she found some big band music. She turned up the volume and danced a few steps until she arrived at the surviving vases. ‘Gordon, sweetheart.’

He looked at her, tears starting to run from his left eye.

‘They are just vases.’ She took one and dropped it onto the floor where it split into three large pieces. ‘So is this one. Look.’ She lifted his face to make him watch as she took another, this time throwing it onto the floor where it smashed. She took another, offering it to Gordon like a piece of cake. He was frozen and stood there, left eye still twitching, saying nothing.

‘Jane, can I tempt you?’ her mother said, holding out a vase.

‘With pleasure.’ She smiled and smashed the vase.

‘Samantha?’

‘Thank you. That’d be lovely.’ I launched the vase against the wall, where it exploded.

‘Gordon? Are you sure?’ his wife repeated, this time standing close to him, closing his fingers around the vase. ‘I love you,’ she whispered,’ and it is just a vase.’ She kissed him on the cheek, and gently wiped away a stray tear. ‘Try it. It’s rather liberating.’

He looked at the vase in his hand as if seeing it for the first time.

‘But Jean—‘ he began.

‘But Jean, nothing,’ Jane’s mother said. ‘Throw it. For me. Please?’

He looked again at the vase in his hand, this time weighing it up like it was a problem to solve.

‘It’s what you want?’ he asked.

‘Yes.’

He nodded to himself, a silent decision taken. He turned away from the wall and took a few steps, rubbing the vase against his trouser leg like a cricket ball. He turned to face the wall, and bowled the vase over arm against the wall. ‘And he’s out!’ he shouted, holding his arms above his head. Jane’s mother kissed him on the cheek, and handed him another.

Jane took my hand and smiled.

We smashed all the vases that afternoon, except one—the one Jane had made at playgroup. It was the only one that had ever mattered.

In the car on the way home, Jane was quiet as she drove. I put my hand on her knee and she looked across at me.

‘Never again can you say my family is strange,’ I said.

She laughed and continued driving.

pencil

“I was born in England, but spent seven years in Italy (Florence is my second home and I swear I must have been Italian in a previous life) and now live in Paris. To pay for food, etc. I sell books. To maintain some semblance of sanity, I write and play hide and seek with my cat, Angelo.” E-mail: kenway.tara[at]lycos.com.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email