Landican Rules – Jennie Byrne
There’s a crowd. At least fifty people gathered in the car park outside St Werburgh’s Church. They’re all talking. Reminiscing. Like we’re at a wedding. Aunt Kate hugs Uncle Charlie.
“Oh look how tall you are now,” he says to Carl, Kate’s son. He’s fourteen now, I think.
Dad’s boasting to the distant family members about my little sister Netty. He does this at every opportunity. The neighbours, even the postman know of all her achievements. Netty’s only thirteen, but you’d think she’d been announced a world champion the way Dad speaks about her. It takes me a while to remember this is what parenting is supposed to be like. I wouldn’t know.
He’s telling his cousin Victor how Netty became the Captain of her school netball team. He’s exaggerating the story; I don’t have to be within earshot to know that. His gestures and mannerisms say it all. Victor’s praising her, but I bet he couldn’t care less. It’s a sort of ritual, I guess. Each parent sings their child’s praises, and the recipient of the news pretends to be delighted and waits for their turn. Netty stands to the side, blushing, embarrassed, but soaking up the attention. After today, she won’t get it for a while. We never see the family anymore. The last time was at least a decade ago, back when Nan was healthy and able to throw her legendary Christmas parties. Netty was little back then. And as achievements go, there wasn’t much to praise for a three-year-old. Our stomachs would be full to the brim for days. And we’d reunite with cousins, uncles, aunts. The new additions, which happened more often than not in my family. We had a breeding issue, in my opinion. Just like in China.
Mum is by the rusted iron gates, greeting my older siblings, the ones with their own families. I suppose you could call them distant family too now. Nevertheless, Mum is smiling, tears are brewing in the corners of her eyes, but it’s the smile I focus on. It’s a genuine one. Not the half-crooked smile she gives when she’s not impressed but trying to hide it. It is the latter smile I see more often than not. And it’s always when she’s looking directly at me. It’s the role I’ve adopted now. The Disappointment.
I’m standing with my back pressed against the Church wall, one ankle boot resting against the bricks. I have a fag curled between my index and middle finger. My right hand is stuffed inside the pocket of my jeans, fingers clamped around my lighter. It’s Carla who pulls it free and joins our hands. Just a simple gesture, but fraught with complications. I’m now aware of the looks and the whispers around me. They’re all asking the same thing. ‘What happened to Sophie Hampson?’
She’s lost her way, Mum would say.
She’s not my daughter anymore, Dad would say. And he would be right.
Nan used to say, If you can make a whole room whisper about you, then you’ve done it right. I wonder if she would think the same now. At her own funeral. Would she approve of me now? Would she approve of Carla?
The whispers and panicked looks continue, and Carla watches me in worry. I turn to her and smile. I’m used to this. They’re staring at my clothes now. Black jeans, black boots, a black t shirt, with the letters ‘BSC’ printed across the chest in red letters, and a black leather jacket. This was the closest thing I had to respectable funeral attire, that wouldn’t have me walking around in a dress. They don’t know what the anagram on my t-shirt stands for, and I’m thankful. The last thing I need is for them to realise this is a Black Stone Cherry t-shirt. Let’s just say supporting a heavy metal band doesn’t help my image. It would be just another thing for them to pick at.
Dress to impress, Mum would say.
Dress to entertain, Nan always used to say. I wonder if this is the kind of thing she meant.
We filter inside and I find myself sitting near the back with Carla, we are the only two people on the whole row. Each person who enters avoids us like we’re a disease. I feel like a leper, but I don’t voice this.
“You’re pretty silent today,” Carla observes. I nod.
“There’s not much to say,” I reply, when it’s clear she expects a response.
“You could tell me how you’re feeling.”
I smile at her sweetness. “Later,” I say. I don’t feel like talking now.
The priest begins the first hymn, ‘Be still and know I am with you.’ The crowd joins in on the song, even Carla. She’s singing for my sake, I know that. I look so out of place among the members of my family. With my short blue hair, fringe spiked upwards, fused with hair gel, like cement. I much preferred the ‘bed head’ look, but Carla would never let me leave the house like that today. She’s wearing a black pencil skirt, with thick black tights and her Mum’s plain black blouse which has frills along the neckline. I hate it, but she insisted she had to dress appropriately. She’s even wearing her Mum’s black heels. They’re only two inches, so she was able to walk in them without much trouble. It makes her slightly taller than me now. I don’t like that.
Both of my older brothers make a speech. The priest announces their names as if they are old friends about to make a celebratory toast. Pete speaks first, then Ed. They both tell stories, about a time when they were little and Nan was kind to them. The stories are hollow, no real meaning or emotion. Just a Grandmother acting how one is supposed to. It’s not special. But I hear the giggles and the sobs rise as they speak and pretend they care. They never went to see her. I should know, because I always did. The people around me are soaking up their tales, my parents gleaming with pride. It’s because they’re the normal ones. With their perfect wives and perfect freckled children. The women go crazy for those freckled cheeks. It’s a mystery why. I have them dotted across my nose. Carla likes them. She thinks they make me look cute and innocent. I don’t see the appeal. I don’t want to look cute. Cute is something girls are.
“She was so special to me. I can’t believe I’ll never get to see her again,” I hear them say.
Carla tightens her grip on my hand and I squeeze it back. She is my anchor today. My stabiliser. It was her Mum’s idea for her to come along. She said I would need my girlfriend if what I say about my family is true. Sometimes, I’m sure she believes I exaggerate those stories. But judging by the grip on my hand, Carla now knows I haven’t lied. After all, how can you lie about being thrown out of your own house?
It’s during the priest’s speech it begins to hit me. I stare at the framed photo of Nan resting on top of the coffin. The picture is from two years ago at my cousin’s birthday meal. Dad insisted on taking a picture of Ed with Nan. Probably because there were no other pictures of them together. If I remember correctly, Ed hadn’t seen Nan for a year before that. It is the same image in front of me now, but Ed is cut from the photo. This makes me angry. Her commemorative picture is a photoshopped one, with a Grandson who saw her only when he was forced to. Carla wraps an arm around my shoulders and forces me back into my seat. I hadn’t realised I’d stood up. Or that the room had gone quiet and everyone was staring at me. I didn’t know I was crying until Carla began to wipe the tears away with a tissue. She has a whole pack of them in her handbag, she came prepared. I rest my head on her shoulder and I feel her lips gently press against my forehead. I start to feel better. And then I start to feel worse.
After the ceremony we move outside. This is where the apologies begin. ‘I’m so sorry for your loss.’ I hear this at least hundred times. But the sentiment is never directed to me. It’s to my parents. To my siblings. My cousins. It’s like I have no loss. Because I’m not a Granddaughter anymore, and I have no Nan. I am invisible. Something I’d usually be glad for. But today it feels wrong. If Nan were here, I know for a fact she’d be standing with me. She’d be my rock. Carla promised to be that for me now, and I hers.
“Let’s go,” Carla whispers and pulls me toward the car. When we’re inside she presses her lips to mine. “I’m so proud of you today. And your Nan would be too.”
I give her a smile and turn away just as the tears start falling. She pretends not to notice, I appreciate that. We make our way to Landican cemetery. Carla is the designated driver. I don’t think I could concentrate on the road if I tried.
It’s about half an hour later when we gather at the burial site. Carla and I stand at the front of the crowd as the coffin is somewhat ungracefully lowered into the ground. I can feel their gazes on us. Their stares boring holes into the back of our skulls. If looks could kill, then Carla and I would be joining Nan in the dirt. She’s holding onto me pretty tight, whether out of comfort or protection I don’t know, but it makes me feel better. Her presence always does. With her I feel comfortable in my own skin.
We’re about to walk across the street to the pub for the wake when Dad stops us. It’s the first time he’s acknowledged me since he threw my bags into the puddles of rain and told me, in no uncertain terms, am I allowed back into his house. I thought he would continue to pretend I no longer exist. That is, after all, what he does best.
“Dad,” I greet him, somewhat in shock. I curse myself for referring to him by that title. I’d promised myself I never would again.
“Sophie,” he says and I grit my teeth. He knows that is no longer my name. “You and your…friend will not cause any trouble here today. I have allowed you to say your goodbyes, and now you will leave.”
I didn’t know what to expect. Certainly nothing nice. No pleasantries. Being forced to leave was not one of those expectations though.
“There’s still the wake. I’m not going anywhere,” I reply.
He seems taken aback by this, as if I’d never stood up to him before. Maybe he thought I’d mellowed in the three months since we’d last saw each other. If anything, my resolve has only strengthened. Carla helped me with that.
“If you stay, then you keep to yourselves. You do not make a scene. You do not advertise your…relationship. You do not talk to the family. But most importantly, you will not associate yourself with me or your mother. Do you understand?”
“Nick, maybe we should go,” Carla says to me, anxious.
Dad winces hearing my new name but says nothing.
“No. We’re staying,” I announce and continue walking, pulling Carla along with me.
I wrap an arm around her waist, to emphasise the fact I intend to ignore his fucking rules. I feel a sense of triumph then and even manage a small smile.
At the wake I watch as the family crowd around the head table, doting on my siblings, laughing with my parents. Carla and I sit at our own table. I’m nursing my fifth bottle of Carling; it’s barely touched the surface. Carla has a glass of lemonade, which hasn’t been touched. She keeps eyeing me as I stalk my family from the corner of the room. As an outsider. Forgotten. I tell her I’m going for a fag, and she says she will meet me out there, after visiting the toilets.
Once outside, I light up a cigarette and take a long drag. I hadn’t realised how much I needed it. I hear footsteps nearing. I think it’s Carla.
“Those things will kill you,” I hear my Mum’s voice. I turn to look at her. She’s staring at the fag in my hand and frowning. “Each puff on that thing expels black tar into your lungs.”
I press the tip to my lips and inhale dramatically. She rolls her eyes and scoffs.
“You look…well,” she says, after a moment. “Is she feeding you?”
This, I was not expecting. I drop the fag onto the floor and push myself off the wall I’m leaning against. I stare at my mother, checking for any ulterior motive. I don’t find one.
“More than I need,” I answer her and she nods in response.
She looks relieved. Like she was worried. I’d come to think of myself as an anomaly. Unwanted and discarded. I don’t know what to think now.
Since moving in with them, Carla’s Mum has been fattening me up. My binders are too small now. It cuts into my skin like a guillotine, making it difficult to breathe. Or perhaps this is my nerves. It’s difficult to tell. Carla approaches us now as we stare at one another. She’s cautious, like she’ll poke the bear if she makes too much sound.
“Hi Mrs. Hampson,” she greets my mother politely and wraps an arm around my waist.
Mum jumps slightly but manages to whisper a greeting in return. I’m thankful for this. It’s progress.
“I miss-” Mum starts to say but is cut off by Dad’s approach.
His jaw is clenched, his eyes on fire, eyebrows drawn together. There is a crowd forming now, probably noticing the way Dad steamrolled outside. We stare at each other, unblinking, unapologetic. The same way we did when he rejected me the first time. I hate him in this moment, for interrupting what Mum had planned to say. I think she misses me and I realise I want her to. I miss her too.
“Why did you come out here? We agreed not to speak to her,” he spits toward Mum.
She gulps as she stares up at him, fear in her eyes. “I’m sorry…but he’s-”
“She! She, Fiona. This is Sophie for Christ’s sake.”
“His name is Nick,” Carla tells him firmly. I’m happy somebody said this, but I wish it hadn’t been her.
He turns toward her, his eyes like a predator. “Who the fuck asked you, you filthy dyke.”
I push myself between them, shielding Carla. “Hey, back off. This has nothing to do with her. This is between you and me.”
“I want nothing to do with you either. You crash the funeral of my mother, even though you weren’t invited. I let you stay, and now look, you’re causing a scene. You and your lesbian need to leave right now. You are not part of this family anymore. You are not my child.”
I stare at the people behind him, their eyes full of disgust. The same people I once got on well with. Who I once joked with, was best friends with, now look at me as if I’m a stranger. An alien. A freak. A thing they can’t understand. No. A thing they won’t understand. I thought at least one of them would. Wasn’t the world supposed to be changing? Not in this family, at least. I look at Mum; she hangs her head in shame. Shame at herself. Shame at me. Fearful of my Dad and what he may do next. She doesn’t look up, and I know what that means. She’s on his side. She always will be. Anger fills my mouth like spit.
“D’you know what’s so funny about this whole thing?” I say toward the crowd. “You stand there as if I’m some monster. A demon or a disease. And the truth is Nan knew everything, and she accepted me this way. So, while you’re all raising a glass to her later, why don’t you remember that Nan was a kind and supportive person. And she’d be disgusted in every single one of you.” I aim that last statement towards Mum, who has finally looked up. I hope she remembers this for the rest of her life.
I take Carla’s hand and turn my back on them for the last time. I walk toward the car with my head held high. I could have said a lot of things. I could have swore at them until the sun rose, but they wouldn’t have heard a word I said. Instead, I hit them with the truth. I hope that’s enough.
A dramatic exit is just as important as a dramatic entrance, Nan used to say. I think she would be proud of this one.
So, I guess I finally realised something today. We can spend our lives letting the people around us decide who we are. Boys or girls. Saints or sinners. But maybe it’s about time we create something new. And something better.
Jennie Byrne is a poet and fiction writer from Wirral. She has a BA and forthcoming MA degree in Creative Writing from Edge Hill University. Her work has appeared in Defenestration, The Mechanics Institute Review and The Black Market Review among others. She was shortlisted for the Jane Martin Poetry Prize 2017 and was published in Electric Reads’ Young Writers Anthology 2017. Recently her poetry was shortlisted for Arachne Press’s ‘An Outbreak of Peace’ anthology. She currently works for Edge Hill University Press alongside poets Professor Robert Sheppard and Dr James Byrne and in association with Arc Publications, having published a transatlantic poetry and poetics anthology entitled ‘Atlantic Drift’.