It was the laugh that did it.
It made the hairs prickle on the back of my neck and told my seven-year-old sensibilities something wasn’t right. I was to hear it often growing up and it was always a signal that things were headed in a bad direction; eliciting a Pavlovian unease deep within me whenever its duplicitous joviality filled the air.
It was lunchtime. On the farm we took our main meal in the middle of the day, the hard physical labor demanded substantial re-fuelling the likes of which a sandwich or plate of cold-cuts couldn’t deliver. The kitchen was warm and welcoming; the stove, nestled in her alcove gently heating the bottoms of the two huge steel kettles that lived on her hotplate, circulated the aroma of a hearty cooked meal like a binding promise. I eyed the door to the oven suspiciously – the memory of my mother’s explosive attempt at rice pudding still was vivid, the alarming BANG mid-meal the siren of a surprise gone wrong. I needn’t have worried. Today’s meal would be marked by an outburst of a different nature.
I took my place next to my father at the rectangular pine table that abutted the wall, fingertips braille-reading the scarred yellowed surface while I waited for my plate to be put in front of me. The scent of the outdoors still clung to his overalls and made me eager for the meal to be over so I could run out and play. My legs swung impatiently beneath the table.
My mother laid our plates before us, and sat down opposite me to eat. Quiet ensued and minutes passed as we blunted our hunger. I watched condensation fog the inside of the window-pane behind her as I chewed and swallowed. Comments were exchanged but I wasn’t listening – I was thinking of exploring the mound up by the paddock and visualizing the path I would take to scale it. I took no notice of the adult conversation until loud laughter brought me back to the table. I thought I’d missed a joke but the dialogue seemed at odds with the levity.
Oddly high-pitched and mirthless, my father smilingly cajoled my mother to confess to poisoning his food.
“Why won’t you just admit it?” he wheedled with a forced geniality that seemed out of sync with his line of questioning. Like someone wearing headphones, every utterance was abnormally loud.
“I know there’s something in it. Just tell me. What did you put in it?”
As I waited for the punchline that never came I was suddenly, brutally aware I was sitting next to a man I didn’t know. I didn’t need to look at him to know a stranger had usurped his body, indeed I intuitively kept my gaze fixed on my dinner plate. An animal instinct told me it was best to be invisible. His behavior was artificial; a saccharine coating, intended to mask something sinister, like the banana-flavored medicine with the nasty aftertaste I had when I got chickenpox. Throughout her repeated denials my mother kept her tone light insisting she had no idea what he was talking about, but still the atmosphere was uncomfortable, even to a child, the air heavy with tension the way it is when a thunderstorm approaches.
I was glad when the meal was over and I could escape. I played on the mound all afternoon until it grew dark and I had no choice but to go inside for tea. I didn’t know it then, but I’d had my first significant brush with mental illness.