Late evening at Heuston Station I check the digital timetable, relieved to see that I’ve made it in plenty of time for the last train home. I buy a paper mug of coffee in a café adjoining the station’s pub, weak coffee, strong price. I think about doing an Eddie Hobbs but the guy serving doesn’t look as though he could handle my grief. You’d think by his puss that his customers were ripping him off.
I think about Dad, lying in a hospital bed not ten-minutes walk from the station. Rarely, I suppose, does anyone ever stop to think about never hearing his father’s voice again. Normally it doesn’t steal upon you till your father’s dead and the missing then is a whole missing, not a partial one.
There is a dull grey and cold light in the almost empty station, as though the residue of night has drifted in. The air is tainted with smells of river sewage and diesel oil, of dampness. And a strange energy thrives; of a million or more comings and goings for a million and one different reasons.
Across from me sit a woman and a man. She wants to be heard talking about her book, while the man is uncomfortable with such self-aggrandisement. The flea in his ear shows in the shift of his arse, and the way his hand comes to his mouth—
trapping a please shut the fuck up talking about yourself.
I don’t bother to finish my coffee.
I walk along platform 8 and pick a carriage with a scattering of passengers and sit in a window seat, intertwine my fingers on the blue topped table. A notice under the window rim says the paint spraying was done by an award-winning Irish company.
I own a lingering summer cold which I blame on the changeable weather; wear a jacket and you’re too warm, don’t and you feel the cold. I’ve been to see the old man in hospital. A week ago he’d undergone twelve hours of surgery to remove a tumour from his throat. His voice will return but it won’t have the same quality, the surgeon has said. He will also be restricted in the type of foods he can eat. Skin grafts will follow. This is all in the future, that fluid and indefinite entity people try to make definite.
It had been heartening though to hear the surgeon speak so positively—but then he paused, his face changing expression before he issued a note of caution. Of course there would be tests to see if they’d contained the cancer; that it hadn’t spread.
From a man who had learned the hard way not to be definite.
My mother said he’d gotten the cancer in the right place, which made me ask myself what fucking planet she was on. She’d meant, of course, that he’d gotten it in a part of the body where the cure rate was a high percentage.
She comes out with a lot of stuff like that—things you could pick several meanings to. Bugs me sometimes the way she says things. The old man on the other hand was never a great one to talk unless fortified with drink, then he found himself believing he had a wisdom the world and its son simply had to hear. To his credit, drunk or sober he was never ambiguous.
When the train pulls out, it is, I think, a slow going into the darkness. The city lights are left behind, the night and my own image stare at me from the window glass. A ghostly reflection. I am in my father’s likeness—a thought shrill and sharp enough to have me search my cheeks and throat.
By the time I reach Kildare forty minutes later, it’s drizzling. I climb the wet concrete steps and cross the railway bridge, its studded steel floor vibrating under the pitter-patter of feet and roll of suitcase wheel.
I’d parked my car in the station car park, an old beat-up Ford Fiesta whose engine cracked a week after I’d bought it in a garage, that my father said, would cheat a blind man out of his change.
‘A bit late for the learning’, I’d said to him.
‘You never ask, you never tell me anything—like that shitty tattoo you got done—you came over and asked me what I thought of it—you didn’t ask me my opinion before you went and got it—the car is the same old story.’
The old man was right. I have a habit of asking him for his advice when it’s far too late for the asking. A masochist thing with me, I think—wanting to hear I told you so.
I live in an apartment close to the station. A Spanish-villa type apartment block that within five years has acquired a cheated look; born in the wrong country, the weather too hard for its bones. The swamp it was built on shows up in green patches on its façade. A plethora of For Sale signs thumb from behind low walls.
My father was involved in soccer. He won junior and senior amateur international caps, and had been a day away from signing professional terms with Aston Villa when he broke his leg playing against Shamrock Rovers. He lost a yard of pace and a further yard of nerve—never the same player.
He used to go to all the international senior matches and roar his head off. Germany 1990 was our pilgrimage year. Jack Charlton played his kind of tactical game. Chris Hughton and Ray Houghton who put the ball in the English net signed my T-shirt. I was nine back then and the day we were to leave for Stuttgart I didn’t want to travel and he’d to talk me into it. His breath smelled of mint and when he asked me why I didn’t want to go with him I said I’d seen the Nazis on TV and Hitler and all, and that Mam said the English fans would hop the shite out of us. He looked hard at Mam and shook his head. Then he said he wouldn’t let anything bad happen to me.
In my apartment I put the keys on the granite countertop and ring Mam. After the call I take consolation in the fact that she is the same towards my father’s friends, ringing those who have not visited him and others whose visits haven’t been as prolific as she believes they ought to be. She does not understand that some people are uncomfortable about hospitals and find it difficult to speak to someone as seriously ill as Dad. In addition some of those she’s called moved out of Dad’s social circle a long time ago and would have resented the past catching up with them.
If I had a brother, a sister, things might be different. Sometimes I feel it is all too much, my mother too much, and think about getting away from the town, not having a fixed notion of where I might go. Knowing it is the notion of leaving that gives me solace but the actuality of it would reef my heart, for I love the town and if I am unsure of my love for my mother I have no such doubt regarding my love for my father. Also there is Heather.
Because our relationship is in its embryonic stage I do not involve her in the family’s crisis, other than to give her brief daily reports which I amn’t too sure she wants to receive. Hospital bulletin, I joke, trying to read a blank face. She has a habit of feeling a tendril of her long black hair, like she is forever contemplating matters. Occasionally, I sense her attention drift from me whenever we are out, but before it grows to a slight, an act of ignorance, she’s back all smiles, bubbling, focused again, aborting my rising umbrage.
I do not make the hospital the next day, nor the day after. I tell Mam when she calls that my head cold isn’t getting any better and I don’t want to risk passing my germs on to the patients. I sneeze on cue, which is a coincidence and not contrived.
I’m feeling a little down in myself. I did not visit Dad because Miss Blankface had said I was rushing her. She suggested that we take a step backwards and asked me not to contact her for a few days. Staggering news, delivered as she toyed with her hair. It hurt me, for I am not stupid. If Dad sees me in this mood he will think I’ve heard bad news about him. I will have to tell him the truth. And though he cannot speak I’d hate to see I told you so register in his eyes.
I am alone with Dad. Mam has gone to get something to eat in a café. She did not say this in front of Dad, who can’t eat solids and probably won’t for a long time to come.
He lies there, on his back, throat bandaged, drip tube in his forearm. Drowsy. He writes hello on a writing pad and I think of when I was away in the States for six months and how Mam wrote and Dad didn’t. Now I understand why as I read his childish scrawl in a spiral-bound notebook. Dad’s thin fingers look out of place holding the pen. After a couple of minutes he drops the pen and looks to the ceiling for guidance.
I say, ‘Mam, she’s doing your head in?’
Dad nods an almost imperceptible nod.
He goes to pick up the pen but I say, ‘Yeah, she means well, I know, Dad.’
His finger and thumb relax.
I sit for a long while talking to Dad, answering his own questions for him, he nodding in agreement, once smiling the ghost of a smile.
The years have brought us to this—a woman panicking at the notion of living a life without her husband, a son not knowing where his place is but trying to find it all the same.
It has been a week of little deaths: Heather adjourning our relationship so she could date an ex-boyfriend who’s back in town from the States, the death of my father’s voice—for now a nod, a scratch of pen, in the future it’ll be a resurrected mutation of a voice, a strangled sort of cry—and even that much isn’t definite.