We’d just moved into a new place in a new town, one hundred and sixty miles away from the last. This was up north, and it’s hard to say what made my parents want to move from the capital – not that there was any reason to stay – to what was officially a village and felt like one. At the time we’d been there a few days and nights, this two-floor, three-bedroom house, but what I remember most clearly from the first weeks was shuttling here and there in the car, Mum and Dad in the front and me and my sister in the back. Sis – I never called her that, but I will now – had her earphones plugged in, as always, her head turned to the window, and she positioned herself just so that you could never tell if she was genuinely interested in the blurred scenery beyond the glass, or if she was just trying to block all sight and sound of the interior of the car.
I had my own music player – no iPods back then, and a 512MB MP3 player set you back about £120, which is how much my parents had paid for my sister’s – but I wasn’t much of an audiophile. I’d pause songs frequently, taking my earphones out or sometimes leaving them in as the voices of my parents washed over me from up front. The words were rarely important, but the tone was. When I was satisfied, the music resumed.
We were visiting what was, then and now, a major mid-to-high-range furniture outlet, Scandinavian in origin, which designed and sold products with busy urbanites in mind, or so was my general impression, then and now. The actual store was consistent with so many that my family came to visit and depend on during our three years in the north: a massive space in desolate surroundings, more warehouse than storefront, cold in a literal sense and strangely inviting, especially with time and familiarity, and highly organised. Perhaps due to our living in a village, around which smaller and more frequent outlets would not be profitable, my memory of all things commercial up north revolve around vast, cavernous structures like the one we visited that day.
I can’t remember what it was we were looking for, a sofa or a bed, but for the sake of clarity I’ll assume it was the former. Like many sold at this particular outlet, the frame required self-assembly, its cushions provided separately and packed in thick plastic. My sister and I wandered the aisles on our own – probably pointing at various furnishings and deciding whether or not we’d buy them for ourselves some day, although this, too, I have no real memory of – until our parents collected us, Mum following Dad who had under one arm a long and apparently heavy cardboard package, and under the other the plastic-wrapped cushions. We returned to the car, got in and drove off, starting the journey back to what had become home.
I used to get car sickness, and probably still do, one of many contributing factors in my decision not to learn to drive. It’s hard to say what circumstances, if any, triggered it, except the obvious, which was a full stomach. That day, I hadn’t eaten since breakfast two hours before, and yet the queasiness was unmistakable, creeping up from my belly and spreading what felt like a cold sweat across my skin. Normally, it ended here, with some dizziness and a dry mouth and shallow breathing – the last of these a deliberate attempt to limit each wave of nausea – but every so often, it would escalate to its conclusion.
From her position in the passenger seat, Mum must have looked at me through the side mirror, or else it was my sister who informed her, although given the earphones and averted gaze, this is open to debate. But we pulled over on some quiet road, a merciful condition to an embarrassing delay, and I got out and retched. I can’t remember if Mum came out to support me, however it is a mother is supposed to support a vomiting child, but I am sure that my father remained in his seat, waiting with both hands on the wheel and the engine still running. I wondered whether he would say anything when I returned to the car a minute later. He did.
“All better now?”
The house was cold and still carrying the vacancy of a property recently moved into – our trip to the furniture place had been aimed at rectifying that. My sister must have gone upstairs to her bedroom, to carry on with her music or else to go on the internet, but I stuck around Mum and Dad, busy completing their normal upon-return rituals: shoes off, jackets hung up, keys on the wall, the usual. After that Mum went into the kitchen, assumably to prepare lunch, while my dad stood in the living room – or else the bedroom, if it was in fact a bed – standing over the cardboard package from the shop. I stood with him.
He began unpacking the box and, scissors in hand, I helped him. The furniture came in slats, narrow and short for the middle, wider and longer for the frame. There were several large screws to fix it all together, along with a small instructions manual, which was really a single sheet of folded paper. There were no words, just images, in sequential order. These were easy enough to follow, myself and my father working together on every step.
There was more to do than just the frame and body – other sections to fix together, which in turn fixed to the rest – including these plastic screw-on legs. They were actually closer to stubs, an inch or two in length, designed to keep the frame off the floor and little else. After slotting a large metal screw through the centre of each one, they were supposed to be twisted into the holes already drilled into the base of the frame. We left them until last, as instructed.
When it was all done, the cushions on top and neatly in place, Mum made an appearance just in time for the main event. I simply don’t remember which one of us sat down to test the assembled furniture, myself or my father, but I do know what happened in the aftermath, when one of the feet had given way: the thing turned upside down, my father on one knee and investigating the damage, which turned out to be a dislodged foot and a huge split in the wood to which it was screwed. It was the kind of damage that was neither possible to repair nor entirely ruined the furniture itself. We could have taken it back, or simply left it as it was, which is what, for one reason or another, we ended up doing.
Whether my father decided to leave the plastic stub in, or take it off, is now also unclear, although it hardly mattered either way. The final result was a slightly slanted sofa which tilted if you leaned too far back. Not the end of the world. Just one of those things.
“Good enough for the Swedes.”
This is what he said, and what I remembered most clearly, years later, about the whole thing. I can’t say what triggered this memory – not some furniture of my own or moving into a new place, or, God forbid, some long overdue phone call to a family member – but I did get around to thinking that it was a perfect summation of my father. It was one of his things. These comments. Elusive and slippery – you could never really pin them down. Nobody could confront him about them, because there was always some safeguard, and some doubt; some fear in whoever was listening that they might be overreacting, that it was them, not him, who was taking things too seriously.
But it was always there, when he needed it. It didn’t matter if you were white or black, poor or rich, smart or stupid or fat or thin. It didn’t matter if you moved about with a cane or a chair or if you had acne scars or wrinkles or something else or nothing at all. Always the comments, always when he felt the need. Some off-the-cuff remark, always personal, always aiming for the jugular, and somehow always delivered in the same flippant and evasive way.
Then again, maybe it didn’t mean anything. Maybe they truly were only light-hearted jabs, at situations and life and even, at times, himself. Laugh it off, you know. Good enough for the Swedes.
Lee Turner lives in Surrey, England. Beyond writing that aims to blend fact with fiction and memory with impression, his pursuits include travel and digital illustration. This is his first publication.