:: Article

The Re-education Camp

By Aiden O’Reilly.

They have taken my parents to the re-education camp. “Go easy on them,” I said, “they are old and come from a village.”

“We mean them no harm,” they assured me, “but their ideas offend us all. We will keep them under scrutiny, that’s all.”

When I visit my parents – twice a year at least – they are delighted. Yes, they are keeping well, they have satellite television now, they have vitamins and skin creams, duvets instead of blankets. It is a pleasure too for me; they no longer treat me as a child. When my mother cooks I can show her how to use the settings on the oven. I like to listen to them talk about the old days; they have a precise memory of names and extended family connections. I have amazed my colleagues on occasion by telling them that, for example, a second cousin is related to a famous politician.

“How do you know these things?” they ask. I tell them straight out. It’s no shame to have parents in the camp; it could happen to anyone.

“It gets cold here,” my mother says, putting on a shiver. “Water forms on the walls and runs down.”

Condensation,” my father nods his white head, “poor air circulation. It never did that before the big changes.”

“No,” I tell them, “you just haven’t learned how to adjust the settings.” That’s always the way. They forget the discomforts of lighting a coal fire, just like they forget how much time they wasted washing dishes, feeding dogs, standing in line at the post office.

My mother’s voice drops. She leans toward me in the dark living-room. Out of habit they never switch on the lights until the last daylight is gone. “You wouldn’t believe the things they are telling us now.” Stay longer than an hour and they begin to speak freely. They think I am one of their party. I lower my eyes and say nothing.

“They say the Vatican is abolishing limbo. The baby souls go straight to heaven.”

I scraped my foot along the skirting. Examined my fingernails. Things are worse than I expected.

“And all the prayers I said through the years, what becomes of them?”

“I’m sure they’ll be . . . reassigned,” I said.

“Aaagh,” she made a noise of dismissal. Father shouts from the kitchen, “The potatoes need teeming.” He swaps pots on the rings and fiddles with controls. My mother joins him in the kitchen and they make a drama. Steam rises and they forget to switch on the ventilator.

Dinner is proceeding nicely when my mother starts off again.

“They are telling us that now one man will be able to marry another.” I say nothing to encourage her. My father pushes down the potato with the back of his fork. He was never a thinker, but he had his progressive views as a young man, and greeted the early stages of the change. He has gotten more reactionary since entering the camp, more silent at any rate.

“And you’re not allowed to wear a cross at work. Do you wear a cross at work? And young Gilligan who set fire to the plant was sentenced to get counselling. Counselling, so he can find himself.”

“The economy is going downhill because people are not spending enough. It’s wrong to save, so they tell us now.” It’s my father this time. He doesn’t like my mother to monopolise the conversation.

I bear through it as best I can. Before I leave I fix whatever needs fixing. The alarm system that replaced the Alsatian needs adjustment. The silicone sealing in the windows leaks in spots. I set up instant dial on the telephone yet again. No matter what goes wrong they will obscurely hold the new regime to blame and fail to see how comfortable they really are.

Inside the re-education camp they cluster with their own kind at sheltered corners. I see them from a distance, necks stretched toward each other, nodding. Their eyes gleam, the wind carries the rustle of whispers. A few steps closer and they dissemble with loud greetings, genuinely hearty. They are shameless in their dissimulation. This bothers me; it shows the depths of their deviancy. I am made to feel like a child who has blundered into a conversation that doesn’t concern him.

“What was that?” I ask, but the question gets lost in the greetings. I don’t pursue the matter: it’s not a constructive way to proceed.

They are hungry for ears to listen to them. It’s ugly to see their bony fingers tremble with lust and the spittle rise to their lips. There’s only a few years left to die, why do they have to spoil it?

Sometimes though, I can see they want to make me proud of them. They have been scrupulously friendly to every girlfriend I introduced, no matter what her race or habits. They tell me, as though it could possibly interest me, that the noodles from the local Chinese take-away are a very healthy food, delicious, nourishing.

“That Mr. Larkhill is a friendly chap. He was looking at the way I was chucking at the window catch. ‘Oh no Madame‘,” – my mother was clearly impressed by this word – “let me show you how to do it. And he took out a hand drill and bored another hole just a fraction of an inch further along. You’d want to see the way it works now. As smooth as I don’t know what. My name is Mister Larkhill, he told me.” She gave the type of nod I had last seen when I announced I had graduated with honours.

“And he sat there where you are now and drank tea without milk and instead of biscuits he asked if I happened to have a square of chocolate.”

Mr Larkhill is from Mali and is as black as coal dust. He sweats something terrible, and the whites of his eyes are splintered with red.

I know the thoughts that raced through my parents’ heads. I know the ugliness that stains them through and through. Yet when I relate the story of Mr. Larkhill it will go to my parents’ credit. The colleagues will laugh and say the old pair are at last getting in tune with the times. No, I want to tell them, you should hear what they really think. I keep my silence, half because there is little sense in being rigorous with such hopeless cases, and half, perhaps, out of sentimentality.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

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Aiden O’Reilly has worked variously as a mathematics lecturer, translator, building-site worker, IT teacher, dark-room technician, and technical writer. He spent seven years in Germany and Poland and now lives and works in Dublin, writing full-time at present. He has been published in 3:AM, The Dublin Review and The Stinging Fly.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 6th, 2007.