Did I want another cup of tea? my mother asks, rising awkwardly from her chair.
I shake my head and wave my half-eaten biscuit at her over my half-drunk mug.
She settles back down into her chair but starts twiddling her thumbs.
I swallow quickly and scoot over to her, phone in hand, encouraging her to scroll through some pictures from the weekend before of me, Michelle, and Kit at the beach.
"Oh, how lovely," she croons, her eyes sparkling.
It's always like this between us, a dance of avoidance. We take turns leading, keeping ourselves from mentioning the old man.
It's ten years since they found him stiff and cold in the alley behind the pub, and although I make sure I'm here every year on the anniversary, we've never once mentioned him: as if we're trying to convince each other we've forgotten him, that he was nothing but a bad dream.
Michelle and I almost didn't have children, my fear of succumbing to the same disease as the old man keeping me one step away from that leap into fatherhood. But, dare I say it: I'm not doing too badly. Kit has no doubt that he's loved and that he matters more than anything to his dad.
—"To forget," the old man always said when Mum asked him why he carried on the way he did.
That answer always killed her. She thought what he wanted to forget was her, me, us.
"He wasn't always like this," she'd say. "You remember when he wasn't like this, don't you?"
But I had few memories of my father from before he started going on his benders, like my brain had somehow locked that part of my life away, perhaps to spare me the same sorrow that Mum felt remembering happy times in misery.
A fly buzzes in the window, unable to return to the fresh air and sunlight of the world beyond the glass. In the distance, the blue sky is receding, swallowed up by billowing black clouds.
—And then, when he did come back, it was like he was a man reborn, and for a few glorious days, he'd seem to notice us again. We would swell in his estimation: my good marks at school would suddenly mean something; he would tell Mum she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. He became a man of passion once again, and in the evenings, I'd sit with him as he berated the politicians on the telly. I'd listen as he talked of how things should change, of how the world could be better.
God, I loved him in those moments, when whatever it was that plagued him had been pushed far down into the depths. But it was never long before it rose again, and that glazed look would once more overtake him, and nothing in the world mattered anymore. Soon after, he would be in the pub again.
My mother stands up and goes to the window. As she pushes open the glass, a breeze wafts in from the garden, bringing with it the scent of unkempt grass, wildflowers, and the promise of rain.
—And suddenly, I remember Camelot.
I am nine years old with my father; we are walking across the wildflower meadows that spread out along the bank of the river as it meanders away from town. It is late summer; a storm gathers unnaturally above us; the air is charged and seems to fizz like a shaken bottle of pop.
A trumpet sounds over the meadowsweet where once a skylark sang, and where a moment ago only spires of foxglove and willowherb strained towards the sky—now rises a many-towered citadel.
Yes, I remember it all—the red-cheeked pages rushing round, the whinnying horses with their peacock-feather plumes and singing bridle bells, the kaleidoscope of regalia more thrilling than the packed shelves of a sweetshop—and Arthur, with twinkling eyes of chestnut brown and a kind voice, and Excalibur, blinding as he pulls it from its sheath, at once weighty and light as air as I take it from his proffering hands, and knowing then that all the tales were true, that Arthur's perfect city existed, beyond any doubt, and keeping that knowledge close in my heart as the sun set and the city and all its towers, horses, knights in their regalia faded with the dying light, leaving only a moonless gloaming, the whisper of distant thunder, and the scent of wildflowers on the air.
My mother's hand darts to her mouth. "You looked just like him then," she stutters. "You had the same look in your eyes that he—"
She turns away, sobbing, but I barely hear her and don't rush to comfort her as a good son should. All I can think is that Camelot exists! Perfect Camelot, before which everything else pales: everything I know and hold dear dwarfed by that resplendent city, where truth and goodness and beauty reign eternally.
I sit still, absorbed in the vividness of the place, in its perfection. Everything around me begins to chafe: the pettiness of our joys and sorrows, our grievances and great causes. Why concern ourselves with any of them when somewhere like Camelot is real?
As I blink at the brightness of that vision, my eyes fall on my phone and the picture of a woman and child—whose names I struggle to remember are Michelle and Kit. I rub my eyes.
Their faces appear dull, washed out in comparison to the brilliance of that sublime memory.
And now I see it. Now I see what ate up the old man. I am afraid—so very afraid—that I will never be able to forget Camelot again.