When my worn-down husband comes back from the city fray, I think we struggle to adjust - all five of us. Men come home from war and business breakfasts and think their aproned, lipsticked wives should ticker tape their return, break out the brass band vinyl records and shout: "Huzzah!Huzzah! The hero has returned. Huzzah for him!" Last time my husband came back, my four-year-old pointed out: "The baby is looking at Daddy like he's just some old bloke." This time, at the railway station, as he hoisted her into his arms, she looked as if to say: "I know the face. I just can't place the name."
Today, he took my chair at the dining table and I said: "You're in my chair" and he said: "No, I sit here." "No," I said it slowly so he could understand, "you have not been here. Remember. I sit there. If I sit somewhere else, I can't feed the baby." He moved but hogs the phone for work and I have to wait to make a call, eats herrings in the study, assumes he will drive and I will sit beside him. When I do go out alone, the car keys are not where I left them; the jangling keys fewer and more silent than they were. "Where are the other keys?" I ask. "I took them off. The bunch is too big for my pocket."
While he was gone, I took my long-handled sable brush, my titanium white and painted him out of our daily life. We managed. We got through. We were OK - the kids and I. The picture still looked good. Daddy rang and there would be a silence. I watched my six-year-old with the phone pressed tight to his ear: "I'm standing, looking at the wall and the train engines on the floor". A silence, then: "I'm fine". Another, then: "Yes, good. Bye Daddy. Love you" all in a rush and that was that.
Now though, when I should cheer, I growl at his shadow. I am the irritated prompt as my husband tries to remember his lines back in the centre-stage of our family life. Family is a subtle, complex thing; petalled with strong emotions, hopes and history. I hear my six-year-old rage on the stairs when checked by his papa: "I don't want him here," and sympathise. Yet that same night, I see his father kiss a torn finger to better mend the tender spot and think: "He's home. That's good."