A Family of Four
A grown-up woman, of thirty-five to forty, reading Enid Blyton’s boarding school novels on the underground every morning, from Dollis Hill to Baker Street. She flickers expeditiously through the pages, reads studiously when a detail catches her attention, then flickers again. Malory Towers, St Claire’s, Whyteleafe - you know the ones, I don’t need to tell you.
If you asked her: Why?, she would reply: To learn more about boarding schools. There: she speaks in a foreign accent. She is not from here. You would imagine that what moves her is an honest desire to learn more about this most British institution. The woman looks like she could be a refugee of years, and these often want to become assimilated, at whatever cost. She doesn’t realize that, even in their own time, those novels portrayed a rarity, an extravagance, and that most British children have forever attended - and have done so for decades - plain old day school.
On some evenings, after the subway takes her back to Dollis Hill, the woman might go to, say, a dinner party, where she may be asked: Do you have a family? She will answer, Yes, we are a family of four. Her husband, if he’s standing next to her, will nod After the party, they will go back to their flat. It’s empty and tidy. Women from the country they are both from take pride in ironing pillow cases and hand towels, arranging table clothes so that the vase stands exactly in the middle.
See, the flat is empty because the two children have never been in it. In fact, the four people in this family have never been under the same roof together. They have never had, as a family, a birthday party or a cinema afternoon or a day together at home in the late summer when everyone wishes, although no none dares saying so aloud, school would start yesterday.
Still, the woman won’t let anyone entertain any doubt that they’re a family of four. In this, she is more vehement that her husband.
Those nights after dinner parties, the woman curls up to the husband in the sofa while they listen to the third programme and have a cup of tea (people in their country don’t like tea, but those two like to make a point of adapting quickly) and they talk about midnight feasts, lacrosse games, Geography classes: everything the Enid Blyton characters do in her books; everything that she imagines the two children will be doing right now at boarding school (if they were at boarding school, that is).
But - and this is crucial - they never speak at length about the children, because that would be dwelling on their own misery and they’re not the sort of people who do that.
In some of those dinner parties she’s been to she has told some of her story. She and her husband meet in a ship across the channel. Both are fleeing from the same place, the same war, but come from opposite sides of the same country: they are a stranger to each other. Something develops, which is not unusual on that ship, and before they disembark, he shows her a photo of a boy (no older than four) and a girl (no older than three). They stand hand in hand. She has never seen them before, but after a voyage plagued with conversations - there’s not much else to do on a ship, you see - she knows that they are no more; they stopped being during a bombing (just a bombing, no details). She knows too that that their mother vowed to stay forever in the country where her children died. Where she is now, nobody knows.
“You can have me if you want,” he says. “But they come with me.”
She nods. She knows already that they are a family of four. Once they settle in Dollis Hill, she starts to work on it for real. Explanations, justifications need to be drawn up. They need to hold water. That’s why she reads Enid Blyton - because in a country like England, she thinks, children of the age those two would be now could be at boarding school. This takes care of the evenings and weekends. For everything else, her husband provides the detail. What they liked to eat; what their favourite fairy tale was; how they mispronounced words. This is then re-spun, re-told, casually dropped in conversations. It has worked, so far, passably well.
It doesn’t escape her that one day the children - even theirs - will age past boarding school. This won’t happen for many years, and she knows she’ll be able to think of something.
There’s one thing she fears, mostly after they turn off the radio and go to sleep every night: that he - the only one who has known in the flesh all other three members in the family, even though he doesn’t put as much effort in the details as she does - will die and take with him whatever pictures he stores in his imagination of the four of them being a family.
Originally from Galicia in Spain and a resident of Glasgow in Scotland, Eva Ferry's fiction and non-fiction work has been published or is forthcoming in Salome Lit, The Public Domain Review, The Cold Creek Review, Foliate Oak, Adjacent Pineapple and Novelty Magazine, among others.Twitter: @TheDrRodriguez