My father died shortly before my first child was born. Despite my grief, I found comfort in the unwavering consistency of The Rules; my mother, on the other hand, seemed to hover on the edge of meltdown.
‘Are you all right?’
‘Do you want me to help you with the funeral arrangements?’
‘I’ve done it.’
I waited for further details, but she turned away, busying herself with ironing that didn’t appear to be creased.
‘There’ll be a short service at the crematorium on Tuesday morning,’ she said, her mouth tight, her words sharp.
‘But…I thought Dad wanted to be buried next to Paul.’
‘Don’t you want a church service?’
I sighed dramatically, determined to provoke a response. ‘Uncle Graham will be annoyed if it’s not at St. Mary’s.’
‘But…’ I pulled The Rules from my pocket, smoothing the page out on the board in front of her so she could see it. ‘What about rule eighteen, “Always be considerate in times of emotional or physical upheaval”?’
She slammed the iron down with such force that for a brief moment her face was obscured by a cloud of billowing steam. My hands shook as she re-appeared, her features contorted with anger, and instinctively I backed away, watching in horror as she picked up the page and greedily tore it to shreds.
‘Rules? Rules!’ she cried. ‘What’s the point in rules?’
‘But you said without rules the world would be chaos.’
She looked at me then, her scowl relaxing into a pitying smirk. ‘Stupid girl. The world already is chaos, can’t you see?’ She grabbed my wrist, dragging me over to the television. ‘On every channel,’ she said, flicking from programme to programme, ‘there’s war, destruction, death. Rules won’t save you from that, Susie. Rules didn’t save your father.’
‘It was a heart attack, Mum. It wasn’t something we could have done anything about.’ But it was as if she couldn’t hear me. Her gaze travelled from the television to the photograph on the mantelpiece as the sunlight bounced off its polished frame.
By the time my son was born I was thirty-five. I had tried, in the months following my father’s funeral, to reconstruct my beloved rules, but my new tenets seemed to lack the preciseness of the original and I had slowly begun to lose faith in both their veracity and my own judgement.
The phone rang: ‘Susie, it’s Mum.’
‘I can’t do it, Mum,’ I wailed, cradling my howling son in my arms. ‘Matthew won’t stop crying. I don’t know what to do. Can you remember what The Rules said?’ My mind whirled, barely settling on the memory of our last conversation; barely conscious of the silence on the end of the line. ‘Mum…’
When she finally spoke her voice was quiet, her words unusually tender: ‘There are no rules for looking after a baby, Susie.’
‘But wasn’t number nineteen something about trust or adversity or -?’
‘I think rule twenty was about trusting your instincts, but you don’t need a piece of paper to tell you that.’
‘Yes, yes I do, Mum.’ Tears clouded my vision as I tried desperately to control the unsteady rise and fall of my tone. ‘You wrote The Rules; can you write them out for me again?’
‘No I can’t.’
‘Because you don’t need them, Susie.’
‘Then why did you write them?!’ The words tumbled out of me, loud and accusing, bouncing off the pale yellow walls of the nursery. On the end of the line there was silence again. I slumped against Matthew’s cot, his howling cries reverberating against my chest.
‘Susie…’ Mum’s voice wavered. She coughed. ‘I wrote The Rules to…to protect you. I never thought they’d cause you so much harm.’
‘They haven’t! They’re not-’
‘Please, Susie. Let me speak. I need to tell you…’ I could sense her pacing, her feet treading that well-worn path to the mantelpiece. ‘After your brother was killed, I struggled to make sense of everything, to understand that Paul’s death was an accident. I thought my son had been taken from me because I was a bad person. I was so frightened that I would lose you too that I started to write down rules…I thought, if we as a family became the best people we could be then God would spare us from any more pain. Then your father died and I lost my faith in The Rules, in God, in everything.’
I swallowed. When my words came my voice was weak, unlike my own: ‘Why are you telling me this?’
‘Because I think you need to get some help, Susie.’
‘You’ve become too dependent on rules. You need to trust yourself.’
‘I’m not dependent on anything,’ I snapped. ‘The Rules are just guidance, that’s all. And it’s not like I have them anymore, is it?’
Silence crackled down the phone line as I readied myself for my mother’s rebuke, but when her reply came without malice and her voice was unexpectedly warm, the truth of her words seemed to ingratiate themselves into my conscience and I found myself gazing down into the wide eyes of my son, acutely aware of the sacrifices I’d made for the sake of The Rules:
‘I’m sorry, Susie. I’m sorry for giving you terms to live your life by, for pushing my worries onto you. I’d hate to see you do the same to Matthew.’
Tears rolled down my face. As I struggled to control the thoughts that now swam unbidden through my mind, a small flicker of certainty seemed to settle itself in my stomach and after a while my breath began to relax, my heart rate dropping to a soothing metronome. The phone was silent in my hand.
‘I’m still here, Susie.’
I stood, slowly, my legs shaking. ‘I know.’