His dad was going to die some time soon.
He looked at his dad’s face, identical to his own, except for the misshapen, prairie-yellow nose at its centre. Red stubble underscoring it. His dad shuffled about in his seat and rubbed the nose harshly as though to erase it; an act of petty rebuke for the disease it housed. In his mind his dad was announcing wordless edicts against the disease, telling it who was boss and not to forget. Such was his way with things he didn’t like: he denied them room to breathe. He was confident in his own indestructability. He would cut off his nose to spite his fate, the oncologist had said laughing.
His dad sat in the room’s only chair, lay his hand on its arm and tapped out a beat.
‘Did you see your mother this week at all? She’s keeping well? Well, why wouldn’t she be?’ he asked.
‘Just the other day I saw her.’
He nodded further approval of their meeting and touched his son’s mug, idly.
‘And what was she … did she say anything?’
‘The usual kind of thing. She’s in good form. She’s taking a break from it all. Getting away.’
He seemed to understand, the dad.
‘It’s tough for her, I’d say,’ he said. ‘She’s tough, though.’
‘I suppose she is.’
He realised he was looking too intently at his dad’s nose, thinking of all the people for whom it was tough. He forced himself to look at something else. Something pristine and inorganic, something without meaning or history. He looked at the phone, the unblemished plastic phone, and it began to ring.
The dad shifted in his seat abruptly and made a noise of confusion to himself.
‘Who is it?’ he asked as if his son had caused it to ring by
looking at it.
‘Can’t know. I’ll get it if you want.’
He did. It was a wrong number.
‘How did they get this number if it’s a wrong number? My number isn’t wrong,’ said the dad.
‘God knows. From somewhere.’ The son wondered if his dad had always said things like that or whether it was part of the sickness. Either way, there was no point in correcting him.
After further minutes had passed, and while he tried to follow his son’s explanation of how email works, the dad asked the son to pass on a message to the mother. ‘What kind of message?’ he asked. The dad told him to forget it, not to worry about it and then, without indicating that he had changed his mind again, handed him an envelope and said: ‘Just make sure she gets it, if you can.’
This was a development.
His parents had not spoken for five years and now he was being asked to broker a deal of some kind; to open up a channel of insult or recompense or apology. An envelope perhaps containing the misspelled sentiments of a frightened and lonely man. Or the irrational complaints of the cruel man he used to be. The son had no script for responding to this request. Surely, he thought, there was some moral principle to guide him or enable him to make a stand. But what did it matter to him whether he could or could not exert moral force here and refuse on some grounds or accede on others? He chose least resistance.
He said he would. He said it would be difficult really but that he would do it because. His dad had not been expecting debate and so said nothing in response except to say that this email was a strange business altogether.
They drained their cups.
‘I’ll see you during the week,’ the son said upon leaving and in a few weeks time he would next see his father and on that occasion they would not be able to share words.
The dad say the day through in his favourite chair in that same little room, annexed to the former family home which now rested in the ownership of a young family whose named sounded foreign to him, East European like those weightlifters. Two gas cylinders stood beside a polished chessboard which had no pieces on it. He had recently started to collect and draw in children’s colouring books and a few of these, with pictures of orange mice eating blue corn, were strewn around him.
He turned to the photo of his son, at seven years of age, which was nailed slantwise to the wall across from him. He didn’t know if he put it there himself or whether it was put there by others. The hair on the boy was tousled or at leasL looked tousled to him because he would like to think that he was the one that had tousled it, in a gesture of affection or approval made long ago before everything had changed.
His mother he met at the airport, returned from Edinburgh where she had been meeting old friends, making new ones. Coming through the arrivals gate, looking years younger in a linen suit which, when worn out, might look like a carefully tailored suite of hospital bandages. But not yet. Its _day was young. She saw her son and gave him a smile. He stood behind the metal barrier and awaited her approach.
He took her bags from her and she patted him cautiously on the shoulder, as if welcoming a burly primate into her company. She slowly scanned the terminal building. He did not know who or what she was looking for.
‘So, how was it?’ he asked as they headed towards the exit, past other commuters looking harried who perhaps had no reason to conceal their agitation and no-one to conceal it from.
‘Very pleasant place. I met up with Mrs Callaghan. You remember her, I’m sure. She’s been over there for fifteen years. Married an Englishman. Doing okay, not great. Her poor daughter is going to … ‘
And thereafter followed what seemed to him to be a welter of information about persons hardly known who had gone on to better things or to worse things, whose ambitions had been thwarted by fate; citizens of no renown who had failed at modest enterprises, old women and their aging daughters and sons who once had a dream but have now…
‘But, the thing is, I’m in good form. I enjoyed myself really and truly.’
‘Well, that is an achievement.’
She looked at him as if she had detected a note of sarcasm.
In this new and refreshed frame of mind of hers, though, he was to be granted leave to be that way. She was not the woman she used to be. The five years of singledom had been kind to her, had changed her.
‘And how have you been?’ she asked, the tired question, but her eyes enlarged to permit some generous response. Christ, he thought, she wants to know.
‘Fine. You know.’
There was the car journey to face an ‘Have you been talking to him?’ she asked.
How to read him-bastard, insensitive thug, fondly remembered accident, poor soul or neutral gendered pronoun?
They were in the car, driving out on to the M50 before another word was spoken.
‘I brought you back some cigarettes. You shouldn’t be smoking but I thought that, since you are, you might as well smoke cheaply. They’re fierce expensive, aren’t they?’
‘Yes. But they’re more expensive in Britain. You paid more for them over there than you would if you’d bought them here.’
‘No. I bought them in Duty Free.’
Her tone was steadfast and he pitied himself for having opened his mouth at all, and having opened it once, he thought himself incapable of shutting it up until his point had been made and accepted.
‘There’s no duty-free between European countries. You paid full price for them.’
Though he braced himself, the anticipated counterpunch did not arrive. Instead she turned on the radio news and muttered to herself that she had no idea what was going on in the country since she’d been away.
Stuck at traffic lights, now was a good time to give her the envelope. They would be at her apartment in five minutes and she would invite him in and he would say that he had things to do and she would say ‘another time, maybe.’ Other times might be a long time coming and so now was his best chance to act.
‘Did you know that you can fly to Italy for about 10 quid?’ she asked.
He looked at her, baffled by the question and its origin.
What had brought this on?
‘What? Are you thinking of going?’
‘I might now that it’s only ten quid. I’d be mad not to.’
‘Mad is right,’ he said and the lights turned green and on they went.
They reached the gate to her apartment complex.
‘You’ll come in for a minute,’ she said.
It was a question framed as a statement. He was not fooled. He declined. He said it was too much hassle getting parked only to pop in and pop out.
‘Well come over tomorrow or the next day. I don’t see enough of you.’
‘I’ll see how work goes in the next few days. I’ll give you a shout.’
But there would be no shouting the next day or the day after.
He worked hard. He spent his free time in pubs. He met with some people he’d known in his teenage years. They drank Spanish brandy and listened to 80s electronic music. They agreed that the music couldn’t be beaten.
A girl with whom he’d been intimate in years gone by, spent the night with him again. She asked after his parents, having conjured up some dim memory of them after they’d discussed a wedding they’d been at together.
‘He’s on his way out. She’s enjoying life.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
They embraced, rummaged around each other’s bodies for something of interest. They fell asleep. During the night, he awoke and discovered himself on the floor with a safety pin stuck to his forehead. And there was a message on his answering machine from his dad.
‘Hello. Just checking up on you. Wondering if you’d spoken to your mother. That’s all. That’s the lot.’
Your mother. As though the man had no other way of referring to this woman whose steadfastness and generousity had enveloped all the important moments of his disorderly life, taking his cruelty and his indifference and not seeking to turn them back on him.
The girl awoke and asked him why he was crying. She wiped tears from his cheeks and he denied that he had been crying at all.
Over breakfast, the girl told him he was lucky to be working in telecommunications at this time and that the future was bright for him. He nodded, knowing he was supposed to reflect back the optimism to her, to celebrate the buoyancy of the wine retail business, or whatever game it was she had her hand in. But he looked at her face, bits of encrusted sleep still lingering in the corners of her eye, showing the creeping on of age, and the fretmarks that were convening around her smoker’s lips and he wondered what he could say to her that would give hope and sound credible.
‘Would you like coffee?’
No, she didn’t drink coffee.
A week passed. A Saturday afternoon in a coffee shop with his mother and a bowl of celery soup. A hangover in him, his tongue carpeted with a yellow scum and his eyes all bleared up.
‘Take some soup for a cure,’ she advised.
He would not be advised.
‘What was on last night that you’re still drunk this afternoon?’ she asked.
‘Nothing special. And you?’
‘Me? I’m not the one with pissholes for eyes. I was at the theatre.’
She left this hanging, the unannotated piece of information, an invitation to ask certain questions-like ‘Who with? To see what?’ But he didn’t ask them.
‘I have a letter for you from my dad.’
He rummaged in his pockets and found the envelope, which still maintained its rectangular shape despite his inattention to it.
‘Is that it?’ she asked as though disappointed by its dimensions.
‘What else would it be? I’m not in the courier business. I don’t carry an assortment of letters with me wherever I go.’ ‘Leave it on the table. I’ll look at it later.’
It sat there on the table and he wished it success in its mission; mentally cheered on the unassuming page inside.
After the soup she took up and left to go to the ladies with the letter in her hand, carried by its comer between her middle finger and thumb as though in fear of infection, and when she returned he wanted to be able to tell from her face, from her eyes, what it ha ‘That was Grainne,’ she clarified on returning to her seat after five minutes of jawing with a woman in a fawn golfing jacket.
‘Her son, Liam, plays hurling for Wicklow. Bought one of those four-hedroom houses down in Arklow … ‘
And she wouldn’t say anything about the letter, he told himself, and she would feign forgetfulness or indifference if he mentioned it himself. And so he didn’t. Poor letter.
But she could surprise with her indirections. He was on the brink of making tracks when she casually took a red envelope from her handbag and, having weighed it in her hand for a second or two said, in a manner which suggested the request was without cryptic aspect:
‘Give that to him. I was thinking of catching a film tonight, something European. I wonder is there anything good on?’
He was too dazed to follow the segue, too hungover to protest at it.
‘I’ll give it to him for you. I can do that.’ He looked at the
bright red envelope, wondered about its relationship to the
white envelope which had provoked it.
‘I was thinking of something Scandinavian. They’re all the fashion now, aren’t they?’
‘I’ll go see him tonight. I’ll make sure.’
‘Yes, Annie says that subtitled films are all the rage these days.’
There had been a crisis at work. The burden of extra work had been his allotment. He managed, he worked hard. He did not drink for many days. And he thought, as he worked those long hours, of his father, who had himself been a hard working man, perhaps too much so. Thought, as he worked, of his entitlements and obligations as a child, of how he could not fail in his duties, long since established, to be the bridge between his mother and father, regardless of how they used him or what they had to say to each other through him.
There had been a time, before ten-hour working days and litre bottles of vodka, when he would have sacrificed whatever he had of worth to bring them together once more. A time when he had mourned the loss of something which knew no name, the passing of family and the disintegration of whatever force had held the three of them together. He used to ask himself what had caused them all to grow apart, to forget that they should be one enduring thing and not three satellites. The dad’s cruelty, the mam’s enlightenment, the son’s silence.
This change, the death of these questions, he took for maturity. Maturity was the decision not to care, to let come what would, and hold out no hope that he would again see what had once seemed so necessary for his happiness. This renewed concern for and curiousity in his parents, and the irrepressible need to try and solder them to each other once more, the dying one to the live one, the dead to the quick, worried him because now that it had returned, it seemed that nothing would arrest it.
He drove to the father’s house, quickly, enduring rain and errant drivers, patting on his way that heart-coloured envelope with its promise of profuse sentiments. As he pulled up to the house, the Romanian man who lived in their old house was standing at the door of his father’s house.
‘I think there’s something wrong,’ he said.
The son could imagine but did not want to. He helped the Romanian to heave the door to and stepped inside where immediately he saw his dad slumped in his chair, a half-eaten apple rotting in his lap and apple skin protruding from his mouth. His head was slumped onto the chair’s arm and beside it lay a telephone receiver, upturned as though to focus on its dead master. The Romanian left them be.
He had the envelope in his hand. It was vivid red and seemed now to be the only thing that might make sense of what had happened, as though its presence here and his father’s absence might be related.
He opened the envelope. A folded napkin with words printed in red lipstick. ‘I can’t talk to you anymore.’
As he approached his dad’s body he could hear a sound
coming from the receiver.
A distant female voice spoke over and over again into his father’s cold ear:
‘Your call was unsuccessful. Please try again.’
They buried him in Glasnevin cemetery on a Friday afternoon. His mother turned out in a new black dress. She read a poem over the grave and shook hands with everyone who felt keen to do the same. Afterwards, they had a private drink, mother and son, and she noticed that he was more taciturn than usual.
‘There was nothing to be done,’ she said. ‘About this or about me and him. There was no salvation coming. Don’t crucify yourself or me about what might have been.’
‘I know. I know that. I won’t.’
And he looked at her to see if she still resembled his mother, the one who until five years ago had been hardly a person, and had existed only as a partner to something which lessened her and was cruel. She had not been defined then and now he wasn’t sure who she was except that she might be all that he had left.
‘You’re looking well, Mam. I meant to say that.’
She shook her head. She looked past him.
‘There’s no-one to blame,’ she said.