Matt Gemmell

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Paths

9 min read

I wonder if I was a stupid child. I don’t think I was, but then I’m hardly the most qualified judge.

I learned a valuable lesson about the danger of assumptions when I was a young man. It was also a lesson about paying attention. I’m still a little troubled that I had to be taught the lesson at all. I feel like I should have been clever enough to put the pieces together myself.

But I wasn’t, for whatever reason, so I had to learn by experience.

“It’s time for a family discussion,” my mother said.

That wasn’t an easy line for me to type. For you, it’s an innocuous statement. You might have heard it in your own home; perhaps you’ve even said it yourself.

For me, it thunders. It provokes a little bit of nausea, even now.

I was twelve on this particular night. It was nine o’clock on a Friday evening, and it was almost Winter. As always, the house was abruptly quiet.

My mother has taught dancing (ballet and such) since she was sixteen years old, and her dance school was - and is - a part of the house. The dance studio, with high ceilings, wooden floors and mirrored walls lined with ballet barres, is almost one entire side of the house on the ground floor. The dressing rooms are downstairs, on a half-basement level, with a dedicated entrance entirely separate from the front and back doors of the main house.

Four or even five nights a week, sometimes beginning as early as 3PM, she would teach. Some nights, she’d finish at 10PM or even later - but on Fridays everything stopped at nine.

Our evenings always had a soundtrack, coming from the dance school. My mother’s instructions, the sound of the classes of twenty or more girls pirouetting and dancing en pointe, and any number of other things. The pianist, or the prerecorded music. Then the stampede of feet whenever classes changed every 45 minutes or so. Four or five nights a week, every year of my life. Leotards, tap shoes, ballet flats, ribbons, hair-grips, and bottles of water everywhere. The smell of hairspray, a hundred perfumes, and female sweat.

At nine on a Friday evening, the background noise stopped. One final stampede of feet, then just the tick and creak of the house cooling and contracting. A sudden vacuum, heralding the peace of the weekend.

This particular night is one of very few perfectly-preserved moments from that stage of my life. My memory of those years is an enormous cave, pitch black for the most part, with the occasional small island of light.

Let’s walk towards this particular scene, you and I, through the absolute dark. I know the way.

You can see a living room, just like any living room. Just like yours, most likely. There’s a sofa and some armchairs. A table that’s more ornamental than functional, displaying family photographs. Paintings on the walls. A fireplace, and its mantelpiece holds yet more photographs. A carriage clock ticks hypnotically. The decor is a little old-fashioned; beiges and browns. And there’s a TV, of course - a huge old cathode-ray tube monster. It’s tuned to a show about classic cars.

As we reach the edge of the scene, you and I, we see that the room is occupied.

There’s a man sitting watching the TV show. He’s a few years older than I am now (I don’t know what age you are, dear reader, so forgive the comparison). You notice the strong familial resemblance. There’s also a dog - a big Alsatian mix, gentle and watchful - lying by the fire. And there are two boys: one of twelve, and one of eight. The boys are also watching the TV show; the younger because he loves cars, and the elder because it’s what his father is doing.

The room’s occupants pay no attention to you and I, nor can they see the canyons of darkness surrounding this one pool of light. To them, they’re in their actual living room - not this remembered image of it - and it’s the late Autumn of 1991. The year 2014 is undreamed of here, and they have no idea that there are curious watchers standing unseen behind their shoulders.

I reach out to the twelve-year-old boy, but my hand passes straight through him. Perhaps he happens to turn around at that point, puzzled for a moment, but he sees nothing unusual and quickly returns his attention to the TV. Even this brief glimpse of his face is enough, though: you can see quite clearly that he’s me. His brother is my brother, and his father is my father.

In a few seconds, we’ll hear the sound of the enormous storm doors at the front of the house being locked up for the night - there, that was it - and then the sound of approaching footsteps. Light, graceful, but purposeful. Determined.

I draw your attention to the fact that we can faintly see a path leading away from this island of light, and we can also see the path that led us here. They’re barely visible, but they’re there. Walkways of glass, winding through the void. You intuitively understand that they’re my path; the route I took through my life. The path I was still on in 2014 when I bumped into you, and we decided to take a brief trip back, retracing my footsteps into the past.

A woman enters the room; the man’s wife. The boys’ mother, and thus mine too. She sits down in an armchair, and my father wordlessly picks up the remote control and switches off the TV. The boys register this as unusual, and exchange a glance.

“It’s time for a family discussion,” my mother says.

You notice that the path leading onward from this memory flickers briefly, and then winks out of existence. We’re stuck here, at least for the moment. You begin to feel uneasy. The air is heavy and still, as if a storm is approaching.

The younger boy (whose name is Martin; you might as well know since you and I are intimately standing side by side in my mind already) slowly grins.

He’s at that age, you see. He’s eight - almost nine, even - and he has an older brother who went to high school only a couple of months ago. Growing up has suddenly become a major priority, and being seen as grown-up is the obvious first step. This is a perfect opportunity for him to make a joke.

“You’re not getting a divorce, are you?” he asks, grin still in place, eyes twinkling, and his tone of voice making the quip ever so clear.

There’s a moment of silence. During this moment, you feel just as much pity for the adults as for the children. You glance over at me (the me that’s standing with you, not the boy), and you see that I’m silently reciting the words as if this was a song instead of a mundane tragedy. It’s clear that I’ve visited this particular island countless times.

“Yes, I’m afraid we are,” my mother replies.

Her face had been carefully controlled when she walked in, but now she’s pale and badly startled. This obviously wasn’t one of the dozens of permutations of this scene that she’d imagined during every class that evening, and all through the day before, and indeed for much of the week.

Now it’s my turn to grin - the boy me, this time. I put a hand on my younger brother’s shoulder, and turn to him confidently. “They’re just joking,” I say.

Another path appears, leading away from this place. It goes in a slightly different direction; almost imperceptibly shifted.

“No,” my mother says, with a shrill note of tension in her voice, “we’re not joking.”

The new path vanishes. It seems there’s more to be seen.

My brother looks towards me, and his grin has disappeared. He glances at our mother, then our father, and then back to me. Suddenly he’s just an eight-year-old boy again, and so woefully unprepared for any of this. The silent future-me standing beside you knows that, strangely, in the fullness of time this is the moment that will hurt me the most.

Perhaps I even glance away from the scene while you continue to watch, but I see it in my mind’s eye anyway. I see the look in his large, liquid eyes. The desperate question, for which I have no acceptable answer. Dethroned in an instant, before I even knew what had happened.

My hand stayed in place on his shoulder. If it hadn’t, I’m not sure I could even live. I had nothing else for him, and I will never stop feeling guilty about that. It hasn’t noticeably abated in the twenty-two-plus years since. I hope it never will; carrying it is the very least I can do.

The scene continues, but you know that it’s essentially over. We’ve had our climactic moment.

There’s another round of they’re-joking, no-we’re-not, and finally in frustration a smack is threatened if I say it again. There’s no question as to the truth now.

I don’t remember any previous family discussions, and this was of course our last. It wasn’t even a discussion, nor should it have been. I’ve often wondered if she regretted the choice of words. Then I remember how she was barely older then than I am now, and I feel a surge of horror and pity.

The scene is winding down now, and following the familiar narrative that I’m sorry to say really does happen. My brother and I promised to be good, and not fight from now on. Immediately and instinctively, that’s what we said. There was no thought process at all: we assumed that the problem was us.

It was made clear that we weren’t the cause, and that no amount of bargaining would alter anything. Then the question occurred to my brother and I at the same time.

“Dad, when are you leaving?”

Another face that’s clear in my mind, despite the gulf of years. I also feel some guilt about asking that question, but it had to be asked. I can live with it.

The car pulls out of the driveway about fifteen minutes later, and the two boys watch from the large living room window. It’s so perfectly awful that it’s absolutely inevitable.

Cups of weak tea, loaded with sugar (and, as I only came to suspect much later, probably something to hasten sleep). Pyjamas. Tears. Reassurances of love. And finally, numbing exhaustion.

A path blinks into existence again, and you know that the scene has finished. This path skews off wildly into the deep darkness, in an utterly different direction from the first one we saw. It’s shockingly divergent, leading somewhere I’d never have seen if not for this particular thirty or so minutes on one Friday evening in the past.

We’re flying now, you and I - we’re hurtling forward, flitting through barely-glimpsed islands of memory that speed by like the occasional solitary lamp post on a winding country road at night. We move faster and faster, lights blurring by, until finally we burst out of the darkness that had become so familiar, and into the present day we’ve almost forgotten.

That night was a formative experience for me, in the truest sense. A sudden, radical change in the trajectory of my life. Prospective paths shattered, and were replaced by new ones. I can’t think of another time where I’ve so clearly veered towards a different future.

I was a stupid child. In the months before, on any number of nights I sat at the top of the stairs (legs dangling through the railings), listening as they shouted at each other. My brother was asleep, and eventually I would always return to bed, in case the raised voices would waken him. But he always slept, and I was genuinely surprised on that Friday night, when I really shouldn’t have been.

I don’t blame my parents for a moment. Divorce is an essential thing. It was the right choice for them, without question. I think that it’s probably almost always the right choice, if you’re actually seriously considering it at all. I don’t think children are well served by living in a home where the parents aren’t a hundred percent committed to each other, as well as to the kids. I also don’t think adults should sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of providing a strained, fictionally stable household. It’s better to make the difficult choice, and let everyone try to heal. That’s my theory.

In practice, it has costs. It damaged my confidence, certainly. I became suspicious. Where before I’d had a child’s casual, unthinking assumption of stability, I now had distrust of the veneer of people’s relationships. I despaired for a while at the unknowability of others’ inner landscapes. Then I learned to watch, and to measure. To look very carefully at things, from all angles, to try to discern the emotional truth.

The effects have never gone away, but they’ve passed their acute phase. My wife and I have been together for ten years now, and for the first year or so I was still restlessly analytical; endlessly reassessing how things were going. I was the man who wanted to talk about the relationship, at times to an unhealthy degree. It’s a testament to her patience that we moved past that stage and continued on to be married. And here we are.

I am one possible version of myself.

Branched and diverted; pivoted and pushed. Unimaginably far from any other possible version that might have been. Perhaps others exist in parallel worlds, creeping through that same dark canyon of the past on different walkways visible only to them (as you and I were visible only to each other), but that’s of no consequence to me. Those years are already written.

We’re back now. Oceans of time later. You’re where you are, and I’m back here, in front of the keyboard. It feels like we never left, but we did. We did.

Now things are back to normal, and the tables are turned. I’m the one in a pool of light, and I can’t see the darkness beyond. I have a glass walkway beneath my feet that I can’t see - and every so often, it moves. These memories (like the living room) stand behind me, now. Silent and watching. Always hidden, and always there.

And if you glance over your shoulder, well… you won’t see anything. But your own memories are there nonetheless. Maybe even you, from much later, watching without being able to speak.


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