Issue > Fiction
Emma Robinson

Emma Robinson

Emma Robinson is an actor/director recently turned author living in Wellington, New Zealand. Emma completed the short fiction paper at Victoria University's International Institute of Modern Letters in 2015. In 2016, Emma had her first story, "Shelter," published online in Issue 8 of Headland Journal.

Something to Cry About

When he wanted to see her, he would send a text. Always the same. Are you free this week? She appreciated his approach. It made it easier for her to decline if she didn't feel up to applauding the latest achievements of her siblings or answering questions about her employment status.

Last week it was her birthday. A card and a book voucher arrived in the mail. She felt she ought to say thank you in person so had agreed to meet.

He was sitting by the window when she arrived. He stood up, reaching out one arm for their usual sideways embrace. They didn't meet often but politeness and obligation regularly pulled her back into his orbit.

Once she had tried to shape herself to match a vision she imagined he had. She recalled his pleasure when, at eight years old, she learnt to turn the Gestetner, fold newsletters and stuff envelopes at his work. At ten she had mastered spaghetti Bolognese. It was the year after her mother left and the threat of having to endure more of her father's cooking (frozen meat pie, lumpy mashed potatoes and peas) was her excuse racking up fines for extended borrowing of Good Housekeeping from the local library. Her culinary triumph was a bombe Alaska for their combined birthdays when she turned fourteen and he was thirty-nine. They'd discuss Formula One racing over breakfast and stay up late for the FA Cup final. By her last year of high school she'd watched more than her fair share of sub-titled films and read André Gide and Kafka to enliven their conversations. She had never seen him cry.

"I'll just order a coffee," she says. "Can I get you another? Cake?"

Her tears always flowed too easily, especially during the year when her parents went missing. On the long bus rides from visiting the woman who wore her mother's clothes back to the house with the man who had stolen her father's face she'd rest her head against the window and wonder if her parents would return. Stop that snivelling or I'll give you something to cry about, the words spat from his mouth. She can feel the cold tiles beneath her feet, the sunlight bouncing off the kitchen sink blinding her as she tried to listen then his hand meeting her cheek, a slap in rage at her or her likeness. The shock, the warm urine soaking her jeans, her foot skidding, she fell and regaining her balance ran to her room.

She returns with two plates and their drinks. She hopes he had a pleasant birthday too and enjoyed the pinot.

"Yes, thank you. Sorry you couldn't make it for dinner."

They comment on how unseasonably warm it has been lately. She feels her smile tighten when he segues from the American presidential election to how one half-sibling has got a new job and the other is renovating her house. It took less than five minutes to get there, she hadn't even finished pulling apart her caramel slice. He talks and she nods, writing a 'to do' list in her head. Then, with the same ease, he says he has an appointment next week at the hospital. He has a lump that needs to be checked.

"My doctor thinks it is likely to be nothing major but best to get it looked at properly. Anyway, just keeping everyone in the loop."

"Ok. Let me know how it goes."

She cannot think what else to say. He is so neutral, unfussed, as if he were informing her of his annual appointment with the dental hygienist.

A month later she is sitting at his kitchen table. Half a dozen tiny paint pots line up along the counter beneath stripes of colour exploring a theme in sandy hues. His wife is redecorating. The timing could be better but it was in the pipeline before this.

She stands where her bed used to be and looks out the window to the garden. Her room was swallowed years ago in another renovating project. The Laura Ashley wallpaper she was so excited about long painted over. Would he like her to bring magazines when he starts treatment?

She recalls the perfect solitude she enjoyed when home from school with a cold. She read and slept till she heard the front door unlocking. He'd come home from work to make her lunch. There was a tray with a hard-boiled egg and soldiers, some juice in a tall glass. Just before he went back for the afternoon he would remember the comic in his briefcase. She'd prop herself up and read cover to cover. She wished she could send away for the real mermaid advertised on the back but would they ship one all the way to New Zealand and, even if they did, would it survive such a journey?

"I think I'll postpone my trip to Washington," he says. "I'll go at the end of the year, when this is sorted."


He will start radiation and chemotherapy treatments on Monday. He shows her a schedule of appointments, all the specialists to be consulted.

Of course she will help. She ticks the days that she can do, her hours are flexible and she likes to drive. Rather do that than sit by his bed struggling to make conversation while avoiding mention of the many aspects of her life he finds distasteful.

He explains the pros and cons of a nasal versus stomach feeding tube. The oncologist said he needs to decide now in case he has to move to liquid food at some point during the treatment. But now he is tired, he had exploratory surgery two days ago and the combination of general anaesthetic, biopsy and tonsillectomy has given him a sore throat. A nod to the future then.

She follows him upstairs to his study. From behind he looks like his father, he's even wearing a brown cardigan. Why has she not noticed the shuffle or the hunched shoulders before? She watches him talking, not drinking his tea, the biscuits she put on his plate are left untouched. She looks at the dog who appears to be getting fatter as her father shrinks.

She is about to leave when she feels a tear seep from her left eye. It is so completely unlike them both now that she feigns a sneeze and removes her glasses, swiftly wiping her eyes. He hugs her this time with both arms and there is an unfamiliar gripping before she pulls away.


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