Return of the Native
Bangor, Northern Ireland
May is 97, Ken is 75. They are meeting for the first time in 50 years.
Maybe it’s jetlag, or nerves that he thinks he’s trained himself not to feel, but Ken has trouble with the dials on the front door lock of the tiny house in Church Street. He’s been warned that May can’t come to the door, so he keeps fumbling, his fingers barely able to keep the dials separate.
A woman comes out of a house three or four doors away, one without a For Sale sign. Ken picks up his backpack and hurries to her.
She is wary.
“Could you help me with a lock? I have the code.”
She watches him, her face blank, finally signals him to wait and steps back inside the house.
The hall behind her, the room through the low window appear devoid of furniture: the most shameful thing that could happen to a family when he was growing up.
A youngish man appears, more comfortable with Ken.
“My wife doesn’t speak English.”
Central or Eastern European looks and accent. Bangor has changed; Ken remembers only two foreigners in Bangor long ago: the Lucci sisters, Italian owners of the sweetshop on the sea front. (Italian refugees during the war? Why no rumors of prejudice? Or is that the reason the shop is usually empty of customers even with the summer visitors? Maybe too stylish, too European, too dear?) In the summertime May helps out one or two nights a week for extra money—ten bob a night?
Before Ken can explain himself, a car has drawn up to May’s house and a woman is getting out. When he’s sure she’s at May’s front door, he points to her, thanks the man and hurries back.
“I’m here to visit May. From America.”
She’s sure enough of herself not to doubt him. “I heard about that.”
They told him a health visitor drops by four times a day, probably free on the National Health. He doubts there is any similar service in San Francisco.
But May is almost blocking the front door from inside. She’s heard Ken at the door and crawled a few feet along the well, balancing precariously, dragging one leg, a hand tottering on a walking stick.
They support her, clumsily, back to her armchair. She’s like a sack of potatoes, Ken thinks, and notes his easy reversion to thinking like the Ulster boy of sixty years ago. He drops his backpack and sits on the only other chair in the tiny living room, only a thin wall and a window separating them from the pavement. Kenneth never lived here; he was brought home to the house in Dufferin Avenue, on the other side of the railway station. This doll’s house, two up, two down, housed Maggie and Andy and their children when they were young: Smiley, May, David, Iris.
May and Ken observe each other across the top of a folding tray table, on it a half-eaten white bread ham sandwich and a half-drunk cup of tea. May wears a pink housecoat, the color too pale to hide the grubbiness where she’s dropped food. A pair of glasses diminishes her pixie face.
Ken has long prepared himself for this moment, at times regretting that he ever bought the plane ticket. He has rehearsed acceptance, self-control, equanimity, anticipating how easily he could be drawn into the old family ways. Having trained himself, he thinks he can train May. And doesn’t believe it will be possible.
Her voice shocks him, deep and forceful from the tiny frame, the Ulster accent strong despite her years in London.
“Who are you?” she inquires politely.