Arthur and Mavis had been married for over thirty years; and in that time, they had brought three children into the world: Rodney (Rod), Arthur Jr (young Arthur) and Charlene (Charlie). Charlie had been named after Arthur’s brother, a merchant seaman who was lost at sea off the coast of Newfoundland just weeks before the baby was born. Uncle Charlie had never married, had no family, so it seemed fitting that he should be commemorated through the new life that had begun just when his own had been so tragically cut short. But by the time baby Charlie grew old enough to comprehend the significance of her name, her uncle’s demise had long since ceased to be a topic of conversation.
Mavis’ world revolved around her home and her family. She was a devoted mother, a fastidious housekeeper and a competent cook; and since Arthur’s tastes in food were simple and well within Mavis’ capabilities, he’d extol the merits of her cooking whenever the question was raised; and she would bask modestly in the sunshine of his praise.
Arthur’s world revolved around his shed. It was a small, wooden structure, situated at the foot of their garden. No one knew what Arthur did when he was in there. Occasionally, one could hear hammering or sawing above the sound of the radio, which signalled to anyone within earshot that he was in residence; but the interior of the shed and the purpose it served remained one of life’s mysteries to Mavis and her children.
If Arthur ever produced anything in his shed, the result of his efforts never seemed to materialise in the house or in the garden. Not that the shed was large enough to construct anything that could not be concealed about one’s person. But it seemed strange that, for all the hours devoted to whatever was going on there, there was nothing to show for it. In fact, the idea of spending so much time unproductively was so alien to Mavis’ way of thinking that she sometimes found herself rising to a crescendo of frustration at the very thought of it; but she had learned, over the years, to suppress her feelings before they drove her to call a locksmith to open the place up.
In the early years, when Arthur was still working in the steel mill, there had been much speculation, much kidding, much probing and many theories expressed about the shed but Arthur never rose to the challenge, never took the bait, was never intimidated or tricked into a confession or explanation; and the shed maintained its secrets until, eventually, everyone just gave up and accepted that there were worse things he could be doing than whiling away the hours in his sanctuary. He had never smoked, never gambled, drank only rarely and never to excess, and if he had a woman in there, the place was hardly big enough for them to stand up together, let alone do anything else. Besides, Mavis always knew where he was when he was in his shed; which was more than could be said for the husbands of some of her friends who didn’t have sheds to go to.
For Charlie, as a child, the shed was Aladdin’s cave. For young Arthur, it was like the Tardis; and in it, his Dad was visiting distant galaxies, battling alien life forms and vanquishing them so that he could get back home just in time for tea. Rod was the only one who didn’t have a theory and didn’t care to have one. It was Dad’s place and what he did there was his own business. Being the oldest, he was the most independent and had his own life to organise. He didn’t need to organise his father’s.
When the last of the children had left home to follow their individual destinies, Arthur and Mavis discussed the possibility of travelling abroad; and strangely, it was Mavis who was more reticent about the idea. She had always been the gregarious one. When people came to the house it was to see Mavis; and on many occasions, depending on who the visitors were, Arthur would seek refuge in his shed at the earliest opportunity. And when they were invited somewhere, it was really Mavis who was invited, with Arthur tacked on as her plus one. It wasn’t that Arthur didn’t like people. But he wasn’t totally comfortable in social situations; whereas Mavis seemed to come alive in company. So Charlie and young Arthur, who’d supported the idea of their parents going on a trip and had expected to have their work cut out convincing their father to agree, were surprised to find themselves locked in negotiations with their mother instead.
Even though the children were, in all practical ways, leading independent adult lives by then, Mavis still felt that she should be there in case they needed her. Charlie and young Arthur sought Rod’s assistance to help convince her otherwise, that they could look after themselves, but his response was that, if she didn’t want to go, they shouldn’t force her because she’d spend the whole time worrying and wouldn’t enjoy it anyway. Even Arthur, in his own quiet, unprepossessing way, was unable to convince her; and in the end, the travel plans, like so many other things in their lives, just faded away and were never talked about again.
Mavis went back to taking care of their home, which now felt empty much of the time. She cooked and cleaned out of habit, with pride but with a diminishing sense of purpose. She was still a mother. She still worried about her children. She still urged them to wrap up when it was cold and wear hats when it was sunny. Young Arthur and Charlie accepted this and went along with it; but Rod grew irritated by her unnecessary mothering – “smothering” he called it – and she saw less and less of him, which hurt her more than anything he could have said.
“You’re just like your father,” she’d say to him, as though it were an admonition. But Rod wasn’t offended by the comparison. He’d just shrug and leave it at that.
After he retired from the steel mill, Arthur spent more time than ever in his shed, doing whatever it was he did there. Occasionally, he’d ask Mavis if she’d like to go out for the day; and sometimes they did go out; and sometimes they even enjoyed the experience, enjoyed being in each other’s company. But when the outing was over, they’d each go back to their separate worlds, as if it had never happened. The shed seemed to be Arthur’s place of preference, the place where he felt most comfortable within himself; and the fact that he kept it locked, kept it secret, jealously guarded, seemed to signify that no one else was welcome there. But if the truth were known, Arthur yearned for someone with whom he could share the shed; if sharing it meant sharing it on his terms.
By any reasonable measure, Arthur was a good man. He provided for his family to the best of his ability and never squandered money on himself. He helped around the house: washing the dishes; putting out the rubbish; fixing things that were broken or worn out; occasionally dusting; sometimes taking in the washing; a bit of maintenance; a bit of painting when the place needed it; that sort of thing. And he did the weekly grocery shopping; paid the household bills and was the family chauffeur, since Mavis didn’t drive. It doesn’t sound much when itemised like that; but it was probably more than the average man of his age and culture and class would do. And he always had time for the children: playing with them, mending their toys, taking young Arthur to football practice; taking Charlie to ballet lessons. But when all was said and done, Mavis was in charge of the house; and Mavis was in charge of the children. This was her domain. And Arthur sometimes felt that his existence was only defined in terms of what he was to other people: a steel mill worker, a husband and a father. Without these relationships, it was as though he didn’t really exist. It was as though no one cared to know who he really was.
Arthur and Mavis had been married for over thirty years; and in that time, they had brought three children into the world. When the police came to the door that day to inform them that their eldest son had died of a drug overdose in the squat he shared with an indeterminate number of other people, Mavis was devastated, hysterical. The police wanted Arthur to go with them to the morgue to make a formal identification of the body; but he insisted on staying with his wife, to comfort her until the doctor arrived to sedate her. He called young Arthur. Then after the doctor had been, he sat with Mavis, holding her hand, as the grief rose silently within him like seawater slowly filling the hulk of a sinking ship, until young Arthur and Charlie arrived, almost simultaneously, both ashen-faced and distraught, demanding answers, why, why? And when, at last, they were satisfied that their father had no more answers to give them, young Arthur took up the vigil at his mother’s bedside while Charlie went down to the kitchen to make a cup of tea; and Arthur went out to his shed for the last time.