The Theory of Knots
‘The secret is to find the master loop,’ says Kenny, as I look glumly at the tangle of line which has brought an end to my fishing. But I know he won’t find it himself.
‘He’s all talk,’ mum says.
But Kenny pays his rent on time and is forgiven most things, like riding down the street on his motor bike shouting ‘Banzai,’ because he says he fought in Burma. Dad, who fought in the Great War, cuts the tangle out and ties the new ends together with a perfect blood knot.
‘Life’s too short to be buggering around all day with that,’ he says.
When he isn’t working as a butcher, Kenny either spends hours shut in his room or tinkers with his bike. He tells me if it wasn’t for his eyes he’d be a marine engineer. He wears glasses with thick lenses.
And that’s all he’s wearing when he appears one evening in front of my teenage sister, not quite by accident.
‘Get out before breakfast,’ my mother tells him and then spends the rest of the night thinking about the gleaming set of butchers’ knives he keeps in his bedroom and the shrill noise they make when he sharpens them.
Mum only relaxes when Kenny kick-starts his bike and roars away. I try to hear it for as long as I can in the quiet dawn. It dwindles fast as he accelerates out of town and our lives. He leaves a note and some money to have his suitcases sent to his brother’s place up-country. He’s ashamed, he writes, and sorry for what he did. Mum and Dad tell me he’s cracked.
‘Always so neat and clean, but twisted in the head,’ Mum tells our other lodger, Frank, who isn’t so neat and as clean as she would like.
Frank tells everyone he fought in the Great War and calls dad, who’s younger, ‘John, old fella’. Dad rarely mentions the war with anyone and won’t talk about it at all with Frank. Maybe for him the enthusiasm escaped with the blood from bullet holes in his back and a couple of years in a German prison camp. And anyway, Frank is one of those people whose cup is always brimful. His fishing line runs off the reel of life silkily smooth and its only knots are the ones he ties at the ends. Or so he likes you to believe.
‘Lovely day John, old fella,’ he calls out as a sou-westerly blasts the town and the sea enfilades the promenade with shell bursts of spray. ‘Just like Passchendaele, eh?’ Mum’s happy for Frank to move into Kenny’s bigger room with its view of the sea.
‘It’s closer to the bathroom too,’ she says.
And so it’s Frank who finds the cardboard box in a dark corner of his wardrobe.
‘You should see this, Mabel,’ he says to mum. The box contains pencil sketches of my sister and they’re stunning. Like, I just gape speechless. Even my mother does. I suddenly see my sister in more than just a brotherly light. Her hands, which box my ears, Kenny shows them long and slender and delicately poised above the worn keys of our piano. And he’s sketched her face, beautiful in profile, her long hair lit in soft, morning light and framed in his bedroom window. Mum looks hard at the sketch of her daughter sprawled, reading, but surely sees, even as I do in my young way, that it is truly redolent of innocence, not a hint of immodesty in her nakedness.
‘Now we know what he was doing in his bedroom all those hours,’ mum says. ‘I didn’t even know he could draw.’
In another sketch she finds me included, but Sal isn’t boxing my ears, she’s putting a plaster on my knee and the way Kenny has drawn it, it’s like as if Sal really cares for me. And I remember when this happened and Kenny was there, head down in a motor cycle magazine. Or so we thought.
‘Well, Mabel, he couldn’t have drawn these out of his head,’ says Frank and he might just as well have come out with it and called Sal a proper little prick teaser. Mum’s face flares hot but sucks all warmth from the room and she says nothing, which is the worst sign of all. Frank hastily backtracks: ‘Unless he’s got a good imagination that is.’
‘Imagine this then, Frank,’ mum says, looking him straight in the eye and talking her ‘really meaning it’ talk. ‘You say one more thing like that in this house and you’ll be out of here too.’ No one speaks while Frank’s lips keep moving like Anne Boleyn’s did after she was beheaded. And then mum adds, ‘Our Sal’s no angel but she’s honest and you don’t need an imagination to see how pretty she is. Not a word to Sally while I talk this through with John.’
Frank and me, we nod our heads as she goes off to find Dad, but I do tell of course, and Sal rushes downstairs to see the pictures and when she does, she bursts into tears, and then so does mum, and they clutch at each other and I’m wondering what’s going on.
‘Burn them,’ suggests Frank. ‘The guy has a screw loose. Why remind yourselves of the dirty bastard?’
‘Maybe Frank’s right,’ mum says over Sal’s shoulder but dad sees something of value and maybe more.
‘Don’t be so hasty,’ he says.
Nobody asks me what I think, and if they do, I’ll say, ‘Dunno.’
Sal keeps crying, like in the saddest sketch of all, when she failed grades and cried all evening in the front room. Kenny shows her tears falling on the piano keys. ‘Why couldn’t he have just said something?’ Sal looks at the one of her reading.
‘What would you’ve said, if he had?’ asks Mum. ‘He’s just a sad old man.’
‘But he isn’t so old really,’ says Sal. ‘And why is it I’m so sad too?’
‘And just what do you mean by that?’ Mum isn’t crying now and her face flares again.
‘I really don’t know, Mum.’
In later years I wonder how anyone who’s been in such hellholes in his life could be like my father. But later still I knew it was the hellholes that gave him the perspectives.
‘Let’s not make such a big thing of it,’ he says. ‘Kenny’s a sad case all right dear, but he can’t be all bad now, can he.’
‘No,’ my mother admits reluctantly. She looks at the pictures and shakes her head. ‘I don’t suppose he can really.’
But in Frank’s neat life there’s no place for complications.
‘Do yourselves a favour and get rid of them,’ he says. ‘Kenny’s just a goofy kink with a gift so be thankful he’s gone.’ For some reason he’s angrier than I’ve ever seen him, but when he leaves, he’s whistling ‘We’ll hang out our washing on the Siegfried Line’ and I know his washing, if he gets around to doing any, won’t be spun into knots by any crazy winds and his pegs won’t lie skittled like corpses over the red earth.
The pictures are put away and in time, a long time, they’re almost forgotten. Frank leaves one day and later we have a postcard from Miami where, he tells us, he’s settled down to live with a widow he met on a cruise. Sal gets married and has children, and I live the bachelor life. Our parents die and Sal and me grow old and closer together just to share the burden of living, especially when Sal’s husband dies and she’s alone in a large house, the children long gone. She decides to sell up and we plan to buy a small place between us in sight of the sea.
The accumulation of a lifetime is piled high awaiting disposal and the kids have arrived to help. Sal isn’t coping and in a bare bedroom she sits dry-eyed on a crate, the wellspring of her grief capped for months since the funeral. But then her son rushes in, his face aglow with excitement. He carries a tatty cardboard box and has a sketch in his hand.
‘This is awesome,’ he shouts. ‘This is sincerely the most beautiful picture I’ve ever seen.’ He hugs her to him. ‘Look …’ He shows her the picture and she looks at it, awestruck. She sees herself at the window again, her youthful beauty held eternally in the delicacies of shade and the long-drawn, flowing lines. They reach out for her heart and with gossamer fingers tease out the knot within it.
And then the tears begin to flow. They trickle down the tracks and gullies of her face and carry the hard edges of her grief away with them.