Catch up...Part One
Too tired for sorting paperwork any longer, Duncan reclined on the sofa and continued – half against his will – to think of Dad.
Resenting the old fellow, Duncan in adulthood returned home only when either it suited him or he felt he really had to. An uneasy truce did develop between them, it was true, but it was peppered with occasional shots across one another’s bows. Duncan could see Dad was lonely. He could see why the old guy hated being landlocked in Larkfield. Dad dreamed still for the sea, for youth, for travel. Hence the interminable jolly jack tar tales. But it was too late for that – too late for the old man to go back, and too late for Duncan to sympathise too much. Time, like a tide, had washed away too much of what little love or compassion Duncan had ever felt for his father. Time and tide had passed for reaching out and reconnecting with his one remaining relative.
Then, as the years went on, and medication largely sorted the angina problem, Dad stopped trying to interest Duncan in his war stories and started to lose his mind. Stupid old bugger. All he could do by the end was sit in his filthy armchair, dribbling away and asking where Mum and Janet were. As if he didn’t know.
In a strange way, though, this last fortnight had afforded Duncan some sense of closure. Of course, selfishly, it couldn’t have come at a better time – to get out of Stirling and catch his breath, and give him time to think before he decided how best to leap from the problems he’d caused for himself there. But to see Dad one last time had been more emotional than he’d anticipated.
The house had been mobbed when he arrived, kind neighbours, doctors and Macmillan nurses already on the scene and at the bedside. Dad lay at the centre of all this commotion like a boat bobbing over the pounding waves of a storm at sea. The poor sod didn’t really know what was going on. Duncan could never forgive him for Mum and Janet’s deaths, but he couldn’t help but feel a little sorry. First dementia, now cancer. What kind of life was this?
Duncan dropped the document in his hand, sat back, sipped coffee and thought through the last fortnight. Sitting with Dad during those last days and nights, the old boy became daft with pain and the medication seemed only to exacerbate the dementia, the confusion. Befuddled, Dad’s thoughts rambled, unravelling from his tongue. Sometimes he’d been quite lucid, sometimes he’d even recognised Duncan. Often not, though. Often, Dad just lay there, moaning incoherently, occasional bursts of sense making it out through his dry, sore, cracked lips and out into the bedroom.
With little else to do but wait, Duncan had listened to his father with some interest. A lot of Dad’s mumblings concerned the war. At times he seemed to believe he was back on board a torpedoed ship. The white uniformed doctors and nurses around him appeared as sailors. Duncan hadn’t liked the anxiety this evidently brought the elderly man, and it made him feel awkward that he really hadn’t ever taken in much before about what his old man had gone through before he’d met Mum.
At other times, Dad seemed even more wandered. He thought he was outside, in Greenock itself. One day, he complained to a nurse that the medicine she brought him was the bitterest coffee he’d ever tasted and she, the waitress of a café on West Blackhall Street, should be sacked. He was mortified when this waitress proceeded to jab him with a needle.
Every morning, Duncan would enter the bedroom and greet his father. On one occasion, he politely enquired how the old man was. The reply he received was unexpected:
“Oh, fuck off. Leave me in peace. It’s almost worse than the call of them dead people.”
He didn’t take offense. Dad clearly had no idea who Duncan was. Of more interest to Duncan was who, exactly, these dead people were.
The gnomic utterances Dad would eject, reject or sometimes appear almost to vomit from his wounded, failing mind intrigued Duncan. Little of it made sense and, because of that, it had a spooky, sinister quality that Duncan – with his lifelong love of the fictional macabre – rather appreciated. With the selfish ear of a writer, he was drawn by the hallucinatory quality of Dad’s perception. The old man saw things in the room nobody else could – birds flapping their wings above the bed, an old nightshirt hanging from the wardrobe door that simply wasn’t there. And sometimes he saw worse:
“Get that man out of my room!” he’d screamed, pointing at the wall. “I don’t want to see him! I didn’t like him then, and I don’t like him now.”
It all looked so real to Dad that Duncan began to doubt his own eyes, wondering where exactly the boundary between reality and dreams, sanity and madness actually fell. How thin that boundary now seemed. There were fresh stories to be written from all this, if nothing else.
One incident in particular stuck in Duncan’s mind. On a grey afternoon towards the end, Dad lay in his bed, mumbling again about being up on Greenock Cut. He was exhausted, a nurse had just had to raise him up and change the bed linen. This, by now, was an excruciating process for a man who could barely breathe without sending waves of pain flooding through his body. Duncan couldn’t imagine how the nurse managed to perform it so quickly. To distract Dad from the discomfort, Duncan had put the TV on for him. One of the channels showed highlights from that year’s Ashes series, Dad’s favourite sport. The old man seemed to take interest, but then, suddenly, he gazed up at Duncan as though noticing and recognising him for the first time. The poor bloke looked aghast. Turning to the nurse, he motioned her down to his mouth. It was as much as he could do to speak.
“Tell him. Tell him,” he whispered, “Get the box and throw it away.”
The nurse looked baffled, exchanging glances with Duncan who drew near.
“What box, Dad?” he asked, softly.
“You know the box. It’s in a room with all the other boxes. A box inside all the other boxes. You know it – I know you do.”
“Yes, I know,” Duncan muttered, not knowing how else to respond. “But I can’t remember where it is.” Dad could be so convinced by himself that Duncan too couldn’t help but believe there might really be a box somewhere.
“In the room with the others. Find it. Throw it away. Bury it. It’ll save your life.”
“Save my life? Bury it? What’s in it, Dad?”
“You know which box. The box with them apples in it.”
“Apples. But not apples. The box with them apples what aren’t apples.”
Duncan was truly perplexed. Dad was running short of breath and energy.
“Apples that aren’t apples?” Duncan’s words faded on his lips. He felt oddly desperate to find out what Dad’s command meant, even though he knew perfectly well that it probably meant nothing at all.
“You don’t – you don’t know, do you?” Dad’s whisper died away. He lay back, looking up at Duncan through grey eyes glassy as marbles. His sunken features thawed into a sad smile. He’d seen through Duncan. He knew Duncan hadn’t understood, not really, and now he had neither heart nor energy to explain. Duncan pulled away from the bed, surprised how upset he felt – annoyed that he could make no sense whatsoever of Dad’s instructions, but angry with himself too for disappointing his father once again.
Those last days had been enormously tough on all concerned. Duncan barely slept for keeping an eye on his father. The doctors and nurses and neighbours joined the vigil. Duncan began to long for an end that never seemed to arrive. Every time Dad seemed on the verge of slipping away, he’d perk up again. Another day would pass – more pain, more moments of lucidity and resignation, more peculiar conversations, like the time Dad shuddered violently in bed, as though shaken from sleep by unseen hands. Without thinking, Duncan, who sat on a chair at the side of the bed, shot out his hand to rest it on his father’s shoulder:
“Maybe it was something those two people gave me,” Dad said, in reply to a question Duncan hadn’t yet asked.
“The two golden ones.” The arrival and departure of his resplendent guests seemed as commonplace to Dad as the coming and going of the nurses (who’d all left for the day) or Duncan himself.
Finally, on a dreich Friday afternoon, Dad succumbed. It began with clamour and confusion, the doctor rushing to the old man and nurses shouting down the stairs to Duncan. Although surrounded by people, Duncan was the only living relative at his side. Father and son had held hands momentarily before Dad’s slipped from Duncan’s, his skin cold and clammy.
“Don’t leave me.” Duncan recalled these words but couldn’t remember afterwards who had said them – he or his father.
“I see something.” That was his father.
“I don’t know. Something ahead.”
“Does it look good?”
Duncan found himself wanting to reply, “Why don’t we go there together, Dad? I’ll hold your hand.” This came as a shock to him. But he couldn’t, perhaps because of the company in the room, or because he knew the hour was too late for sentiment. Later, he tried to recall what he had finally said, but those words had disappeared, melting away along with Dad, never to return.
Now the place was his, the house and the estate. And he was damned sure he was going to milk it for what little it was worth. Duncan pushed aside thoughts of Dad and returned to the more pressing needs of the living.
That evening, Duncan dumped all the paperwork he no longer needed outside in the blue bin. It was chilly but his head was fuzzy from working and he needed to unwind. He pulled on his fleece and wandered through the rain to the shop on the corner of Oxford Road. He fancied walking into town and sinking a few pints in the Jimmy Watt, but he wouldn’t know anyone and it was too late in the evening to sit drinking alone in a pub. Instead, he bought whisky and then found a Chinese take-away.
The first nasty surprise he received upon entering the house again was the darkness. He knew very well he’d left all the lights on. The fuses must have blown. Dropping his food and booze, he wandered through the house to the box, but no – the fuses were fine. At that very moment, with a pop, every light flickered back to life.
Returning to the hall for his bags, he was perturbed to find the picture of Dad sitting back up on the telephone table, the wicker bin kicked deep beneath it. Nobody had been in the house all day except for him. Certainly, he hadn’t picked it up again.
Almost glad that the rustle from the bags provided some noise, some company, in the silence of the house, Duncan wandered to the kitchen and plated up his meal. He poured a tumbler of whisky and took a swig. The door from the kitchen to the living room was ajar. Tired and cold from his walk, but nervous still from the curious discoveries he’d made upon arriving back, he took another gulp.
And then it happened.
Beneath the living room window sat his father’s armchair. It leapt forward, shunted not by human hands, but jumped, thrust suddenly across the carpet, blast by some kind of surge of energy, a full two feet from where it should have sat.