We’re teaching our sons about our ex-girlfriends.
How many of them there have been. What they meant to us. Where it all went wrong, again and again.
We turn up at the doors of our ex-girlfriends with our sons in tow, ask if we can come in and state our cases.
Our sons sit on the sofa, accept offers of juice and biscuits and say please and thank you, are generally a credit to us. Our ex-girlfriends entertain the thought, just for a couple of seconds, that we have borrowed or stolen these children in order to impress them. That we are up to our old ways.
We are not up to our old ways.
We are aware of the remarkableness of our ex-girlfriends. We know we are lucky men to have loved and lost such spectacular and interesting women, to be in a position now to try to make amends for all our terrible behaviour.
Our ex-girlfriends are not so easily convinced,
“What are you doing here?” they ask. “What is this about?”
“We’re trying to make amends,” we say, “having undertaken a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. We want to make up for all the bad things we did back when we were drinking/ gambling/ on drugs/ addicted to sex. For the lies, the betrayals, the constant unreliability etc.”
Our ex-girlfriends are surprised.
“You were addicted to sex?” they ask.
“Well, no,” we say. “It’s just an example.”
“Right. Because we probably would have noticed.”
Our girlfriends think about it, remembering. Maybe for a bit longer than we’re comfortable with.
“Now, Steve,” they say, “he was definitely addicted to sex.”
Everyone is quiet for a bit then. Our sons shift their gaze from us to our ex-girlfriends and back again. We had expected this to go differently, if we’re honest.
Outside the windows the late October light slowly fails.
“Well, anyway,” our ex-girlfriends say, eventually, “it was all such a long time ago.”
They see us to the door, thank us for coming, tell our sons what fine young men they are, wish us all the best for the future.
Our sons look at us, about to say what we’re all thinking.
“Who’s Steve?” they ask.
We’re teaching our sons about haunted houses.
We’re taking them on explorations of abandoned lunatic asylums and ruined castles and spooky hotels where the corridors go on for miles. We’re spending the night in deserted mansions, armed only with torches and sleeping bags.
“What was that?” our sons ask, sitting up in the dark, in their Paw Patrol– and Pokemon-themed sleeping bags.
We tell them it was only the wind, the sound of the old house settling, mice under the floorboards.
“Go back to sleep,” we say.
We’re fairly certain it wasn’t mice under the floorboards. Not just mice, anyway.
“Tell us a story,” our sons ask, “to help take our minds off all the terrifying things that could potentially be hiding in the dark”.
So we tell our sons a story. We tell them how we used to play in the garden of the local deserted mansion when we were children, how we would climb over the wall of the overgrown orchard, throw stones at the broken windows, dare each other to climb the stone steps and knock on the front door.
We tell them about the time when we stayed too late one evening and saw the girl’s pale face at the window as the sky filled with swooping bats. How she haunted our dreams for years afterward.
“Who was she?” our sons whisper. “Did she live there?”
“Nobody lived there,” we say, and we realise we haven’t thought about any of this since we were twelve years old. “Nobody had lived there since before we were born.”
We all sit there listening to the creaking of the trees outside the window, the rise and fall of our breath.
Eventually our sons yawn.
“Great story, Dad,” they say, and roll over and shut their eyes.
Our sons go to sleep and we stay awake until the sun comes up, watching the corners of the room, waiting for the impossible return of everything we’ve ever lost.