Patrick woke up with a throbbing head and a dark mood upon him. It hurt even to roll out of bed. He cursed himself silently for having drunk so much. As the night’s events floated back into consciousness, he moved to cursing Mary instead. Damn bitch! All he had done was go to the house to see whether Grace was okay. He had just wanted to see her, hold her against him, feel her breathing, but Mary had been a bitch about it, as usual, and had denied him that.
She must have known by then that the boy next door, Johnny, was missing. Surely she should have been able to imagine Patrick’s distress at this news. What harm would it have done to let him in? To sit with Grace for a few minutes? It was the most horrible of times, police going mad, shooting children, and here Mary was, stubborn, defiant, denying him his duty to protect his family. Denying him the very thing that made him a man.
He stood up, casting around for something to drink. In the little shack he now called home there was nothing. He did not even own a refrigerator – his meals, prepared on a single-burner gas stove, required few ingredients.
Patrick had been doing all right. Mary had kicked him out many times before. This time, too, he was sure he’d be allowed back after a suitable penance. He had been determined to stop drinking for good. And though this split between them had been the longest yet, he had not touched a drop since they’d parted.
He had stayed with his new job, turning up each morning ten minutes before starting time. He was making a go of this new life. He had left the old drinking friends behind. Once he had even gone to Mass, but he found he could not stand being within the confines of a Catholic church – the incense choked him and every time he went down on his knees he had the dizzying sensation of some big, unseen hand trying to topple him. He left before the service was over, bathed in cold sweat, as if some ungodly force had wanted him gone. He found some solace at the big tent – less morose, no incense to choke him; all-in-all, a much more pleasant place.
He’d even been baptized again, and the goodwill he’d received afterwards had helped him keep it together. He had been doing all right – until last night.
Sick with worry about Johnny and infuriated by Mary’s callous words, he had had nowhere to turn. He had wanted to help look for the boy but when he went to Tim and Rowena’s it was obvious he was not needed. He had wanted to sit with Grace, but was not wanted there either.
He had needed the girl, perhaps more than she’d needed him, he now admitted to himself. He needed the coltish limbs, the just-washed child smell of her hair, the thin brown arms around his neck. He imagined picking her up like he used to do when she was a small child, when she’d wait for him at the end of the long passage and would charge at him the moment he’d step inside the door. He’d scoop her up, she’d throw her arms around him, and they would dance, she squealing with delight. Of course she was too grown up for all of that now, but last night Patrick had needed to feel that old connection between them. He admitted for the first time, as the feeling of impotence had subsided after Mary had turned him away, that he missed her.
Patrick wondered again how Grace had gone from gurgling toddler, to laughing child who clung to his every word, to surly young girl. It was as if one moment she was there smiling up at him, and the next she had turned into a diminutive replica of Mary, eyes filled with recrimination whenever she looked at him. He knew he had not been the perfect husband and father – that the reality of his life fell far short from the vision he had had for himself on the day he had married Mary.
He knew he could be cruel. He was ashamed, always, in his sober moments, of the way he had turned to violence. He knew it was a weakness, an addiction, like the addiction to drink. He felt contempt for himself with each failure to give it up and then, sensing their contempt, turned his self-hatred outward, demanding respect.
It had been a big disappointment to overcome when Grace was born, that she was a girl, especially after his first loss. But Patrick felt he had made a decent attempt, although he was bitter at first, to be a good father to her.
Grace was quiet in nature, not at all a demanding infant, and he had found himself softening towards her even as he further hardened himself against Mary after the birth. He had desperately wanted a son and held Mary somehow accountable for this hole in his life. With Grace’s birth, the hole had become even bigger. But by the time she was two, Patrick could say that he loved her; loved the little thing who had crept into his heart.
He did not believe in loving too much, in showing too much weakness or indulging a child in a way that made him think she was the centre of the world. Patrick had no time for that. Children should know their place.
Patrick parented according to a series of unwritten rules: the child should not approach or speak to him first; she should never talk back when reprimanded; she should have a healthy level of responsibility. There should be a healthy distance between parent and child, especially father and child.
Yet when he could bring himself to enter into Grace’s world, on her terms, Patrick was enchanted by her attention to the tiniest detail, her questions, her sense of wonder at the world and the way it worked.
He took her on expeditions into the bush, watched, a little awestruck, as she discovered this bug, or that flower, and lost herself in it. There was an innocence about her that disarmed him, and yet it also stirred up resentment in him, for was this state of grace not what he had known and lost, had spent the rest of his life trying to retrieve? He had known it at some point, but had unremembered it. It had not been protected and nurtured in him, and now it was lost. He hated his parents and the others who had forced it out of him when he thought about life in this way, and then, momentarily, hated the girl for her unencumbered state of being.
It was in such moments that he would say something ugly, do something destructive, like squash the bug she’d been looking at. It was as if Patrick, in a state of half-jealousy, half- protectiveness, wanted to squash the innocence right out of her; as if by such an act, he could say in action what he could not articulate: who do you think you are, to have awe and wonder of this world? Do you not know who you are? Do you not know your place in this world, this country? Do you not know that dreaming is dangerous, and not for your kind?
Whenever he had such an outburst, the child would react strangely. Grace would not cry or ask why he had inflicted a cruelty upon her. Instead, she would lift her eyes at him in hurt bemusement, never daring an utterance.
As she grew up, that look came more and more frequently, sometimes overlaid with resignation, at other times with disgust, until one day, Patrick could not stand to look at her. He could feel the reproach in her gaze. Shame was replaced with resentment. He would think about his son, his perfect son, the one who would have looked like him and worshipped him, and he thought of the unfairness of it all, of how he was stuck instead with this creature and her accusatory eyes. Those eyes – wanting, wanting, always wanting something from him that he could not give. His feelings for Grace became a convoluted knot of love and resentment.
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