The gravel crunches under the wheels as I swing into the drive, take the familiar sweeping bend to the car park.
The building has a grand facade (‘only the best,’ our mother had said as she signed him in), but the inside is shabby, I’ve always thought. Faded wallpaper that peeled at the corners. Dust on the lamps.
I’m relieved to find that my father isn’t in the day room. I pass by its half-open door, through which babbling and muttering drift into the hall. The aftermath of breakfast reaches my nostrils, the unmistakeable smell of cold fat and fried mushrooms. They must figure, what’s the point of worrying about clogging up their arteries, now?
‘A little of what you fancy…’ the cheery nurse (who also serves as waitress) often says with a wink, but she never finishes her sentence.
I sign in at the desk, as per the rules, but today my moniker is an indeterminate scrawl that could belong to either of my two sisters as well as to me. The staff barely nod as I climb the stairs to Father’s bedroom, carrying flowers, as I often do. Yellow roses, his favourite.
He was jolly, my Dad, through the years of our childhood. Whisky drinkers often are. Red-faced and big-bellied, he made everyone laugh. He was a councillor, a mason, he threw extravagant parties and ran charity events for local causes. Everyone knew him and he ran an ‘open house policy’, with the result that our home was always busy and always noisy. We often came home from school to find a neighbour at the kitchen table and Dad making them coffee or, more often, pouring them a ‘proper’ drink.
My two sisters, my brother and I were all born within a period of five years. ‘I was a baby-making machine for a while,’ our mother would laugh. We loved hearing her stories of her ‘own little creche’, of the times when we were all tiny. She told them so vividly we felt as though we could really remember those times. She was careful to give each of us at least one individual characteristic, so we would know we hadn’t just melded into an amorphous baby shape in her memory. I have no idea whether these recollections are true.
Jane came first, and was reportedly an angel baby. She never cried, she measured up in every way she was supposed to and often hit her developmental milestones ahead of time. ‘If I’d had any of the rest of you first, I might not have had any more,’ Mum used to joke, ‘Jane was a little treasure.’
Next was Tom, the first and as it would turn out only boy, which must have been a great disappointment to Dad especially as he was sickly and underweight (Dad valued physical prowess above other qualities) and would never be interested in sport. He took a great liking to books, though, and Mum would often recount how he was the first of any of us to write his name, and used to read bedtime stories to the rest of us by the time he was six.
I was next, unremarkable apart from my apparently nascent insistence on doing everything for myself. I would go to nursery with shoes on the wrong feet, hair pulled awkwardly into uneven bunches, but if anyone tried to help, to improve on my efforts, I would scream.
Beth was blonde haired and sparkly eyed, playful and carefree seemingly from birth, and still is. Beth was the chatterbox, I guess she had to be to get a word in edgeways. She was telling us all off, Mum and Dad included, from her highchair.
I rap softly on the door and push it open. My father’s room reminds me of my own from college, years ago. A single bed, a desk, an armchair. A little sink and vanity unit. A bedside table piled high with sudoku books. He is astonishingly fast at solving sudoku, as though the engine in one part of his brain now angles and grinds at double speed even as the remainder shudders to an unfuelled halt and, piece by piece, falls motionless.
My father sits in his chair, shrivelled and yellowing, like a leaf turned in on itself.
‘Hello,’ I say with a half-wave.
He looks up and as usual I wait in vain for the flicker of recognition in his eyes, and as usual am met with blankness. There must be a fraction of his old affability left, though, because he replies politely, as he always does,
I follow the usual rituals: check the wastepaper bin, open and close the drawers of the desk, then kneel and run my hands under the mattress. I’m looking for the miniatures Beth sometimes sneaks in for him, even though she knows he’s not supposed to be drinking. I guess she thinks the damage is already done. I don’t know why I’m bothering, today of all days, but it’s a habit, like everything else.
‘How have you been?’ I ask. He looks at me as though he doesn’t really know.
‘So-so,’ he says finally.
‘You look well.’ This isn’t true, of course. His cardigan hangs on the pointy bones where his strong shoulders and arms used to be. His features are different, fox-like, now they’re not couched in ruddy pockets of flesh. His eyes are watery and droop at the edges. He needs a shave; Mum mustn’t have been for a few days.
Every now and then he smooths imaginary creases out of his trousers.
‘My divorce has come through, Dad,’ I say lightly as I arrange the roses in a jug on the windowsill. It’s my second divorce; the first one didn’t register with him either. He’s been like this for some years now, although he was still at home with Mum when my first marriage fell apart. I moved back in with them for a time but couldn’t get away quick enough, away from her stifling concern and his indifference.
‘I see,’ he says, although he doesn’t.
‘So I’m alone again, officially.’
We girls are regular visitors, at least once a week each. Mum is erratic: sometimes she comes every day, sometimes she leaves it a fortnight or more, when her ‘nerves are bad’. Tom can’t bear it, says the place makes him gloomy.
‘And what on earth do you talk to him about?’ he often asks.
‘Oh, it’s easy,’ I laugh, ‘you can say the same thing over and over, it doesn’t matter.’
This is true, and in my loneliest times I’ve come here just to hear the sound of my own voice somewhere other than in an empty room. I suppose that’s why I bother to visit, in spite of everything. I can say anything to him, it barely registers. If I were to say something unpleasant, it might prompt a confused flutter of the eyelids, but within seconds the gormless grin would be back. I can’t affect him, now. I’ve left it too late.
‘If he’s going to be taken from us,’ Mother would sigh when it first became apparent he was ill, ‘I would rather it was like this.’
I couldn’t believe it. She would choose this for him, for his brain, his very personality, to just rot slowly away? I would rather cancer, heart failure, a car crash.
‘At least this way he’s not in pain,’ she stroked my hair as though I was still a little girl, ‘he’s happy, in his way. Ignorance is bliss.’
Yes, I thought, it is.
I wished he had cancer instead.
Dad used to love the garden; he always had dirt under his fingernails. On hazy afternoons, under the pagoda, my sisters would clamber into his lap for cuddles, letting him tickle them while they made feeble protests and laughed until they coughed; but not me. He would watch me over his glasses as he called them both ‘good girl’, but not me, never me. What he never said, but what I felt as a knot of iron in my chest, was that I wasn’t a good girl, and maybe this was why he only cuddled me at night.
‘Those flowers are pretty,’ he says.
‘Yes, they’re your favourite,’ I nod, ‘I’ve put a paracetemol in the water. It makes them last longer. Isn’t that funny?’
The first time it happened, it was only the weight of him on the mattress, a hand resting on my back, a few indecipherable whispers. That was all. I asked him the next morning why he’d climbed into my bed. Mum was making scrambled eggs and I saw the wooden spoon pause for a second and then keep turning. He looked puzzled, the same vacant stare that would become his de facto expression years later, then released his booming laugh.
‘I don’t even remember,’ he chortled, stroking his chin with one hand and ruffling my hair with the other, ‘I must have been sleepwalking!’
I never asked again.
The sun is getting low and I know it’s nearly time to leave.
My fingertips brush the contents of my bag and I make a silent inventory for the twentieth time today. Wallet. Pills, various. Hairbrush. Compact. Small bottle with dropper. Passport: my photograph, someone else’s name.
I didn’t think any of the others knew. I didn’t understand how they could not know; I would wake up feeling that I had his smell on me, whisky and aftershave and sweat. I would take long baths while a procession of feet marched to and from the bathroom and hands of varying sizes rapped and hammered at the door.
It was years later that Jane, perfect daughter, perfect sister, turned to me in a smoky bar one night and asked, in the same tone she might ask me to pass her a menu,
‘Why you? Why not me?’
I blinked at her, turned away and never spoke to her again.
‘I’m going to be going away, Dad,’ I tell him, ‘so I might not see you for a while.’ He is unmoved by this and says,
‘Well, that’s nice.’ I’m about to speak again when he perks up suddenly and adds, ‘Somewhere hot?’
‘Hotter than here.’ I reach into my bag, ‘Will you have a little drink with me?’
As I pull out the bottle, his eyes brighten. You haven’t forgotten everything, then, I think. They say you always remember your first love.
I take two tumblers from the little cupboard below his sink and turn away from him as I mix the drinks. He doesn’t see the dropper, or the way I swill his around the glass for a little longer than mine.
‘Down the hatch,’ I say, smiling, ‘Cheers.’