An Unlikely Couple
Adela was a big woman. She was born big, she said. She had no idea whether or not this was true but, as she had no mother to ask, she assumed it to be so. Big people are generally big babies, she reasoned. At thirty-two she had got used to her size and, although she certainly wouldn’t object to being miraculously transformed in to a delicate and petite little lady, she no longer worried about it.
She turned slowly in front of the mirror, pulling her tummy in as tightly as she could and straightening her jacket over the plain, dark green skirt. In doing so she puffed her chest out and her small breasts protruded very slightly between the lapels. At six feet tall she had worn flat shoes since she had finished growing when she was fifteen or so; her feet were a size nine and even if she had wanted to wear high heels she would not have been able to for the choice was very limited. She was not fat, she was just big. She had the large bone structure of a man and her hands, though the finger nails were carefully painted pearly pink, were like hams, big and strong and confident, exactly like her father’s.
There was, however, a quiet beauty to her, especially there, behind the eyes. She had been told this several times and could see it herself for although her lashes were not long, nor her eyes large, there was a depth to the velvet brown colour, a liveliness and a shining that, she knew, made her lovely. She always wore a little make-up – just mascara and a touch of eye shadow, a hint of pale lipstick and, of course, some blusher, for she had a sallow skin that tanned quickly in the summer to a rich dark gold. She twisted her head this way and that in front of the mirror, examining the short pony tail and the effect of the amber high light she had just used.
Adela had started making her own clothes when she was a teenager, dashed out with surprising ease on an electric sewing machine that her father had bought her one Christmas. She had learnt that making her own things was by far the quickest, easiest and cheapest way of by-passing the XL counters in the shops and, as a result, she boasted a wardrobe packed full of smart – if not colourful – garments.
She had once asked her father about her size, several years ago, when he seemed in a good mood. Although he was never in fact in a bad mood, it was difficult to catch him in a good one.
“Your birth weight?” he had replied rhetorically. “Well, I dunno. You was fit and well, thassall.”
The clear and gutteral remains of his Polish accent were heavily littered with London jargon and East End grammar. He sat at the kitchen table, where he always sat, his elbows on the plastic cloth, rubbing one hand lightly over his five o’clock stubble. He had a habit of tilting a little on his chair and many a chair had been flung out after only a couple of years’ use because of the weight of the big Pole on it, as he tilted back and forth, always causing the rear legs to crack and then break. He was an untidy man but allowed his only child to clean and tidy-up around him, tut-tutting as she went and nagging at him to at least take his boots off. He couldn’t really see the point in all her cleaning and wiping and washing, but was vaguely aware that it would be a dull old apartment with no woman in it, wedged as it was between two large buildings just off the main road. He didn’t think about it but, had he thought about it, would have been glad of the flowers Adela put on the table, and the smell of beeswax, and the glasses and tumblers all lined up neatly on the shelf.
Adela often tried to picture her mother, even now. They seemed an unlikely couple, her parents, the big rough Pole with his heavy jaw and gruff manner and the little Spanish dancer – for she had surely been a dancer – with her olive skin and small feet.
“Is there no photo, dad?” she asked, “a picture of me when I was a baby? Or a picture of my mother?”
“No, no, nothing.”
“But when you got married, dad – surely you had a photo taken ?”
He shrugged his big shoulders. He never talked about Isabella and didn’t like to be questioned about her.
“Aw …… it was right after the war ….. difficult times …..”
“I just find it impossible that you seriously have no photos at all !!”
Adela found this almost insulting.
“I mean, surely your wedding and my birth were …. well, EVENTS ?”
Her father turned away and busied himself cleaning his boots for the factory in the morning. Even if his overalls were dirty – and they almost always were – he made sure his boots were clean. Something about a man having clean boots, he said.
Adela watched him silently. He was always doing something, head down, busy hands, at the kitchen table. Even when the telly was on he kept busy, repairing something or oiling something, and keeping just one eye on the programme.
“I’d just have liked to have seen a photo of my mother,” said Adela, sighing heavily, “or of me when I was a baby. Most people have photos, you know. I don’t imagine I look anything like my mother, do I ?”
“No, you don’t. You look like your grandmother – my mother.”
“A big Polish woman?” Adela asked, smiling encouragingly.
“A strong woman, a farm woman.”
He was silent and Adela waited in case he said something else.
“It took five of us to carry her when we buried her,” he added, his eyes fixing on the wall opposite as the memory flit through his mind.
“……..And my mother …….?”
“She was small. Small and dark. Carried her by mesself when she died.”
Adela knew that this had perhaps gone too far, and that darkness overcame him, the one she had feared as a child for it made him remote, like a stranger, as if he didn’t love her any more or even want her anywhere near him. Far back in to her early childhood, as far back as she could remember, her father would sit engulfed in his own darkness, sometimes for an entire day and on in to the night. That her mother had died was bad enough, but that she had died when she was only two and could not remember her, was intolerable.
“Dad, I’m sorry ……” she began.
“S-okay,” he said, placing his palms flat on the table in front of him, as though making a decision, “it’s only nat’ral you’d want to know.”
A bus going by made the window panes rattle and somewhere in the apartment below a child cried and a mother scolded, background sounds that they had both heard all these years, nothing changing except the varying seasons as they passed by outside the window.
“She was a pretty woman,” he volunteered suddenly.
“Tell me about how you met,” Adela almost whispered, afraid to spoil this.
“Humph! We met, thassall. Met in a queue. Queing up for bread. Rationing, you see.”
“Were you all refugees in the queue?”
“Well, I dunno, do I? I was, she wasn’t. Don’t know about the others, do I?” He tilted his chair back and forth. “She – Isabella – your mother – come to England after the war. Said she wanted to better herself. Came with an aunt. Died, she did, the aunt – before you was born.”
Well, that fugures, though Adela, fighting sarcasm. Couldn’t possibly have a living relative, could I? Aloud she said:
“And did she better herself, my mother ? What did she do ?”
“Worked in a factory. Put handles on drawers. Didn’t better hesself, no.”
He looked up suddenly and grinned.
“Married me, didn’t she? Married me, then you was born.”
“Was she …..” Adela was suddenly emabarrassed, “was she pleased to have me ……..?”
“Course, course she was. We both was. Midwife come here. You was born over there.” He jerked his head in the direction of his bedroom, at the big oak bed that had been there for as long as Adela could remember.
“Did she die there too?” Adela whispered.
“Yeh ….. she died there.”
He suddenly started picking bits of mud and tar off his boots, using a small penknife, and the bits flicked on to a sheet of newspaper he had spread on the table. Silence filled the room. After a while Adela started peeling potatoes for their evening meal. Usually she would chat lightly – tell him what she was cooking , when they would eat, whether or not she was going out with her friends afterwards. He hardly ever answered and they sat at the table to eat, and they would watch the telly as they did so. At a loss for something to say, yet hoping perhaps he would say more himself, Adela tried to move quietly, almost as though she was afraid of jarring him. She had always, all her life, trodden carefully around him and his grief, very sensitive to his loneliness and his inability to start again without Isabella. Imagination had run riot when she was a girl, so that she pictured her mother as a stunning beauty and her death as a tragedy ……. but she was aware these days of feeling slightly cross about it all …… it was high time to put an end to the awkwardness. She imagined that if they’d had relatives of some sort it would have been easier. Had she had an aunt she could have asked, or a grandparent …… but there was only her father. They lived in a closed-in world of near silence; affectionate and happy enough, but quiet. He had never been a talker. He had some friends at work and he was part of a darts team. In recent months she had noticed that he had started to smarten-up a bit before going out, sometimes to the pub with his mate Jeff, sometimes elsewhere. Once he even wore a tie. It was nice to see him taking care of himself a bit. He was never gone long and was frequently back in before her. She never asked where he went, just as he never asked where she went either. She knew it was not lack of concern on his part; he just knew she was sensible and safe.
“Dad,” Adela finally broke the silence, “there is something I want to talk to you about.”
Sensing the importance of his daughter’s remark, the big Pole put his knife down again and once more laid his palms flat on the table in front of him. He looked at her fondly, unable to guess what she wanted to discuss with him, but some inner parental instinct telling him it was about a man.
“Yes, Adela?” he asked.
“I’ve met a man,” she said immediately, confirming his instincts.
“Well, that’s good.”
“That’s why I wanted to know a bit more about my mother ….we have no family, do we? Id’ like a family. Ricardo – that’s his name – has a huge family. We’d like to have kids one day – soon, we hope.” She spoke in a rush, having finally broached the subject. “We see each other every day, dad, he works in the hotel. He’s a waitor. And guess what – he’s Spanish!”
If this news shocked or upset him, her father didn’t show it. He smiled very slightly, still watching her closely. He waited for her to say more.
“I’d like to invite him round,” she ploughed on, “I’d like you to meet him. He’s really nice, dad. He has eight sisters and one brother! Grandparents, uncles, aunts, and loads and loads of cousins. Mostly in Madrid, but several here. I’ve met lots of them.”
“That’s good,” he said again.
“We’ve been seeing each other for over a year, dad. But I felt you wouldn’t want me to ask him back here ….”
“No, no, that’s OK, you go ahead and ask him back here, Adela”.
Suddenly she felt like a schoolgirl. It seemed so silly now, after all those months of worrying about how he would take it, and now here he was perfectly all right about it.
“I was worried you’d be annoyed,” again she spoke in a rush, wanting to say all the things she had kept to herself. “I badly want to get married and have children …. but I’ve been worried about leaving you ….”
“Ah! My lovely Adela!”
Her father’s sudden exclamation startled her.
“Of course! Of course I want you to be married ……… but you never seemed to have man friends …….. I want grandchildren, lots of them!”
The tension went out of the air and they were both laughing. She hadn’t seen him laugh like that for years, and even then only very rarely. He had laughed with her at the zoo once, and once when she was very little and he was getting her out of the bath. He was not a man prone to laughter.
“I’m really relieved. Ricardo – well, he’s not like you. For a start he’s really short.”
“Yes, short. He’s way shorter than I am. And way thinner. But it doesn’t matter to us. We get along fine. We make an unlikely couple, but we get along fine.”
“Well, that’s all that matters,” he said, “and I’m glad to hear you have a man in your life.”
“I’d have told you ages ago,but you never asked,” said Adela. “I mean, it got sort-of awkward somehow …. you assumed I was with girl friends …..” She breathed in deeply as if taking a gulp of fresh air. “Things will be different now. I shall introduce you. His family will love you. We don’t have to leave, you know, we could live here with you after we’re married.”
“Oh, no …..” he looked at the floor. “It would be best if we find you another apartment.”
Adela was astonished.
“Dad! I wouldn’t dream of just leaving you all alone ……!”
“Ah, Adela, my dear child. I will not be alone. You see, you have just assumed that I, when I go out, am with my men friends …..eh ?”
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