I receive a letter from Dad. He’s on the other side of China, moaning about wanting to retire and the university not letting him.
I receive a letter from Dad. He’s on the west coast of America, moaning about his students – how they’re unintelligent but he has to let them pass anyway, quotas or something.
I receive a letter from Dad, and I wonder if it’s going to be his last: he’s coming home.
Living with Dad was a bit like being loaded into a comedy cannon and then fired off to land somewhere, who knows where: in hospital, India, or the wrong school. He had this thing about experience, the necessity to experience life, cram as much as possible into it, and ‘develop the ever-expanding mind,’ as he put it. So, education and travel and risk were important, safety much less so.
Maybe the 1960’s and 1970’s were like that, and boys like me were almost expected to wander around the city with their younger brother and older sister, get involved in things presented to us, experiencing them, and acquiring knowledge, pleasure and hurt. Maybe Dad was just hopelessly neglectful and ignored the risk of us becoming casualties. Maybe, simply because we survived, he was right.
1963. The day we found a dead squirrel, was a hot and dry one. Not half-eaten or diseased, apparently undamaged but definitely dead, it lay on the ground where kid brother, Dan, me, big sister Phoebe, and the dog, squatted down and studied it. We poked it with sticks, turned it over a few times, while we decided what to do. Our speculations revolved around eating it, burying it, burning it, hanging it in a tree as a warning or posting it to one of our enemies. Eventually we thought it best to take it home and show it to Dad. He would know what was best.
‘The best bit of learning to get from a dead squirrel,’ he declared, ‘is to dissect it.’
‘What does “dissect” mean?’ we chorused.
‘I’ll show you,’ he said. ‘But quick before it starts to smell.’
Mum just sighed and said, ‘Take that ghastly thing outside immediately and wash your hands before you come back in.’
We gathered in the garden, around an upside-down tea chest on which lay the unfortunate squirrel. Beside it were Dad’s dissecting instruments, left over from his first and only year of medical school. Steely, fascinating things, never seen before by us: small, scarily sharp scalpels that we were forbidden to touch, odd-shaped scissors and forceps, large pins, and all held in a neat fabric roll. This little dissecting kit revealed both organisation and hitherto unknown talents in Dad, so we were intrigued, and not a little nervous as we contemplated the motionless squirrel. Something that soon escalated into trepidation, and a frisson of real fear when Dad said we were going to see inside it. Deep inside our little souls we knew a taboo was being broken – the one that states the body must remain sealed and continuous, and that opening it up is a transgressive act.
Dad looked like he knew what he was doing as he fitted a blade to the scalpel and announced his intentions. He was unusually focussed as he pinned the squirrel out on its back, into a square shape, and we stared, horrified, at the tiny clawed paws through which a large pin was placed – surely that would hurt?
We must have looked upset because he said, ‘Not to worry, it won’t hurt the squirrel.’
Dan asked, ‘Is it a little boy or a little girl squirrel?’
‘A boy,’ Dad informed us with aplomb, and we all squirmed.
With the scalpel, he drew a line down the squirrel from neck to tail. A small amount of blood immediately oozed, and he made more cuts along the inside of each slender furry limb. We all recoiled at the sight of such bodily peril and Dan burst into tears and ran off to find Mum – who soon appeared at the back door, saying, ‘Is this really a good idea?’ But Dad was in his element, explaining the layers of skin, and how the ribcage moved. This, he snipped apart and held wide open with the forceps. Then he used his curved scissors to cut the blood vessels attached to the heart, and removed that.
‘Ta da!’ he said with a flourish. ‘The heart. Just like ours, only smaller!’ He laid it on the surface of the tea chest: reddish brown and about the size of a grape. I touched it – it was cold and wet.
By now the smell of extreme butchery was getting to us, especially with the heat of the day, and Phoebe threw in the towel, saying she felt dizzy. I felt ill, but I knew Dad wanted me to stay for the experience, and I was game. It was gruesome and sick and bloody but it was real and I knew I was required to appear tough even though I was only nine. Mum reappeared to complain that her children were being traumatised, but Dad cut her off with a lecture about finishing things: the importance of. He used to talk like that – finishing a sentence with its subject. She stared at him, said nothing and disappeared.
Dad looked at me and I looked at him. We obviously had more to do, so he carried on dissecting the squirrel, next removing the stomach – ‘He can’t eat much, can he, it’s tiny,’ then the large intestine – ‘Squirrel poo in there…see,’ and finally the liver – ‘It regrows, you know, like in space,’ which baffled me.
Eventually, the lesson was over and he said to wash my hands and go inside to call the others; we were all going to bury the squirrel in the garden, next to Jimmy the cat. I was exhausted, with cramping pains in my belly and unable to understand what had just happened. Dad claimed this was normal, useful, and it had been a good test, considering my age.
Mum was summoned to help and we all lined up next to the tiny grave while Dad announced, ‘One day your mother and I will look like this,’ adding something else that sounded important, about life and knowledge.
Mum was furious, I could tell by the way she held her lips so that she couldn’t talk through them.
Much later, when I took my turn at medical school, and they asked us to dissect a rat, I could honestly say that I was experienced at such things.
1970 and Dad was testing us again. This one started at the departure gate in Cincinnati airport where I stood with Dan in one hand and a blue nylon Pan Am branded shoulder bag in the other. The bag was empty except for ten dollars and two passports.
On arrival at JFK, of course we followed everyone else off the plane and onto the chaotic and crowded concourse – only to find ourselves alone. The vast space in the terminal building echoed and howled with noise and Dad’s instructions about connecting flights and where to go seemed to fly up out of my head to bounce off the distant skylights, where they hung, useless and out of reach. We stood around, aching with anxiety, kid brother hopping around like he wanted to pee. Both of us were longing for a familiar face, for someone to say our names, or for Mum or Dad or both or somebody or anybody to appear out of the crowd. But no one did.
We probably should have been met by someone. After all, I was nearly eleven and Dan only six.
I wanted to cry. I was failing the test. Fear grew until it loomed above my head like the slavering demon version of me. I grew certain that there was no hope, that the worst had happened, that no one was coming for us and that we had been abandoned; I realised that it was me, the big brother holding the blue nylon Pan Am branded shoulder bag, who was now, suddenly, in charge. I took kid brother’s hand, knowing I must not lose him.
Dan kept seeing Mum and running up to someone who resembled her. ‘Are you my mummy,’ he’d say, but it was always a stranger. Then he’d whisper to Dennis – the plastic toy dinosaur he always carried with him – ‘Don’t worry, mummy will find us soon.’ Dennis was soon spending more and more time in Dan’s wobbling mouth.
We stood outside for a bit and watched the taxis emptying – maybe someone we knew would climb out of one. They didn’t. Aimless as falling leaves we wandered around the airport looking like under-age nomads in search of fresh pasture, obeying some deep-seated instinct to keep moving, usually from departures to arrivals and back again. Cut adrift and irresolute, our connecting flight long since gone, we regressed into a kind of trance, a rootless endless motion suffused with dread. It grew dark. I wanted to burrow, to dig underneath something where it was dark and safe.
‘I’m hungry!’ said Dan for the ninth time.
I decided I must be hungry too.
McDonald’s stood before us, radiating promise. After a year living in America we were still captured by the spell of its fast food and we knew well the kind of divine pleasures inside.
‘Two chocolate milk-shakes, please,’ I stammered at the till.
The teenager gave me a squint and looked around for the (absent) parents. ‘Whose payin’,’ he demanded, but I had the cash ready and the sight of it convinced him. Soon we were sitting in a booth, happier than we had been for hours. We kept quiet and slurped steadily while Dennis watched us from the Formica table-top with a purple, perpetual snarl. No one was there to say no, so we had another milkshake, blowing bubbles until they ran down our chins and we felt bloated and sick.
‘Give me the bag,’ said Dan.
I was still holding the blue nylon Pan Am branded shoulder bag because it gave me comfort, authority, and a sense that I, and all this, was real. I was reluctant to hand over the talisman but did so; he seemed to know what he was doing. He sat for a minute, holding the bag on his lap and staring into the middle distance as if summoning the djinn the bag probably contained.
‘Let’s ask a policeman,’ he announced at length. ‘I saw one back there.’ And then he looked scared, because it meant leaving the safety of McDonald’s and the milkshakes and returning to the yawning chasm that was the concourse. But in the end we made ourselves leave, because we knew we had to be brave.
The cop stood behind his large belly, surveying his realm and gesturing with his billy club; he seemed to be measuring the noise and chaos as if he was conducting it. He towered above us, black moustache and black uniform, black boots that would crush us to dust if we spoke. We stared up at him in fascination and horror and were unable take our eyes off his gun. He nailed us to the floor with his black eyes.
‘Hiiii boys,’ he said, ‘I seen you two around here already, where ya’ll goin’ to, huh? You guys ok, really?’ We stared up at the monster, ready to be eaten. ‘Where’s mom and pop, huh?’ He waited with a kind look on his face, then squatted down to our level. ‘You guys lost?’ he said.
But we were now examining his moustache – Dad didn’t have one at all – which curved and snaked around his face like a black caterpillar and made us want to touch it to see if it moved.
Men in suits wandered in and out of the icy air-conditioned room, took our passports away and asked me the same questions again and again, but never seemed to like my answers. Uniformed Pan Am women brought us hamburgers and Cokes and showed us where the toilet was. We shivered in our shorts and t-shirts and waited; adults knew what to do, at last, but I held onto the blue nylon Pan Am branded shoulder bag just in case.
After what seemed like days, they decided what to do and we followed someone down corridors and onto a plane. She told us where to sit and gave us our own blanket and a sweet, one each. She smiled at us. ‘You’re going home now,’ she said.
We curled up in our blankets and Dan said, ‘When we grow up to be men, will we have a moustache like his? I want one like his.’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘If you want, but you have to want one. Anyway, guess what, we’re on a plane home so we passed the test, ask Dennis if you don’t believe me.’
‘Will Phoebe be there?’
‘Yes, of course, she’s our sister. Stop making me say of course.’
We had survived, so maybe Dad was right in his theories. Maybe the idea was to compress the child until it fit the mould, squeeze until it squeaked and learned the lesson. Like making diamonds. But I didn’t understand that either.
1990. Emotionally unintelligent and unfit for the task I ease myself into an unsuitable marriage, the way you would an old sock – it’s a good fit, but the work involved can make you sweat. Dad would say that with Amy I’m experiencing one of life’s bigger tests, but everyone else just says I’ve lost my sense of humour. Maybe it’s because I see my life as a theory now, a complex maths problem with me as a kind of equation: if I can just input the right values then I can calculate the correct volume of a sphere.
I am collecting my kid brother after his AA meeting; now in his late twenties, Dan has decided which way is up and is evangelical about it. Sometimes we go for a coffee and discuss the experience. Dad would approve. I just love to hear Dan’s old laugh again, there’s a maniac in it, or a djinn.
I too, might be learning – by taking the long view, and enduring. I decide I prefer distance to closeness so Amy and I move to the flatlands, a mute, unwelcoming part of the world; crisscrossed by ditches and canals the landscape seemed to have been darned. The country is so level, so endless and the sky looms and spins you around so vast and just above your head that it makes you want to clutch onto things. Here it is always October, the mists and watery environment enter my mood until a bleak habit of mind develops. It feeds a kind of fundamental disorientation, but it’s actually quite simple – I am no longer a child, in fact I have two of my own.
Being halfway round the world most of the time meant Dad missed the birth of my daughter, and a son. But later, when he holds a baby against his shoulder, supporting the head without me needing to remind him; I see his tenderness, how he is capable of great care, and remember that he cared enough to teach me to read. Dad says I am on the right track with the maths problem approach to life, but that I am living in a wasteland. Dad is often right about his children, or thinks he is because he’s the teacher in the family; but being the Dad doesn’t mean he knows what to do about kid brother’s drinking. No-one does.
Dan gives up on AA, full of nutters and liars he claims, and is back to living in the pub. He drinks a bottle of vodka a day most days, and his decline is unequivocal, untouchable. There is a vengeful quality to his drinking now, as if he knew something all along and wants to tell someone – ‘I told you so, I told you I was doomed.’ When his laugh turns sour and bitter I try, and fail, to give him up as lost.
My parents divorce, as do Amy’s. The events echo through our marriage from a distance, like the sound from the paper cup and string telephone I used to make for Dan and his little friends when he was small. A hurricane in the form of meningitis seizes him when he turns twenty-eight, carrying him away in the space of a week. His death feels like someone has stolen the truth and is a test no one could pass intact, only by a kind of internal withering do I make it into middle age. Phoebe and I, shocked and bruised by loss, sift through memories for a while, but unable to touch the wound, float apart from each other. She wanders as far as California, marries, rarely writes.
Two griefs. One mine and one hers; one here one there, one arid and shrunken and one inflated and sentimentalised by jukeboxes.
Things between Amy and I begin drifting soon enough. Cracks form, silences expand like an invisible gas, all made from the satisfactions and disappointments found in any marriage, but with me are built on a foundation of ambivalence. I try. I try to calculate the right answer to the equation, but the answer never fits. And between us now, nothing fits, or is fake, or a joke.
‘Maybe if you see it all as an experience…’ Dad says, trying to help.
I wake in the night and look at my wife’s face softened and changed by sleep and the room’s shadows, see her younger than the girl I married, look again and see her older, my-mother-like; until finally she is a stranger, as incongruous in my life as a llama grazing in an English field.
In the empty space that somehow occupied decades, I remember one of Amy’s final acts before leaving for good was to take a photo of three men on a sofa: Dad, me, and my teenage son. All shy of cameras, all with the same angry mouth.
I receive a letter from Phoebe. Somehow, she has encountered Amy, and though I try not to, I see them drinking coffee in the Los Angeles sun, comparing notes, sharing experiences of my warped family.
2010. In the end Dad has made it back home. His book is published, the property empire is established, his life-long global trek has ended with the conquering of academia. He finally begins his fable of retirement so no more letters come to me from distant, exotic cities detailing a life one step, many steps, removed from mine.
Now Dad’s brain is being tested by dementia. He stands on the steps of an imposing Victorian building in a February gale, the wind howling down off the moor and blowing wisps of leaf and rain against his flat and empty face. The gloom of a winter twilight barely reveals its brown stone, damp with age and neglect; its brightly lit interior seems both an invitation and a lie.
Dad’s new wife and daughter accompany me. We fail to remark on the magnolia, the steel bed frame, the smell. We do notice the rhododendron garden outside, the way the moor stretches up from the river. And the way Dad’s unnerving, subterranean silence is deepening.
We all smile at Matron, who, as implacable as the stone of her building, calmly takes charge. She anticipates our visits to be infrequent, and painful; his stay to be short.
She’s right. Because whenever I visit Dad and sit with him in the day-room where I read him poetry for an hour or two, the difficult part is the leaving.
‘Dad, you have to stay here.’ He tries to follow me out, but the staff keep him inside and so he stands there at the door, waiting for it to open like a cow at a gate. ‘It can’t be helped, Dad.’ Meaning I can’t. His posture is a mute accusation, meaning why can’t you.
‘Dad, you have to stay here, please.’ He stands like a disciple – silent and patient, waiting for me to release him, his face blank, as inscrutable as a crow. We look through the door’s window at each other, the wire reinforced glass a barrier to everything precious but light.
2020. “… until we’re all at death’s door.” It was a line Dad liked to finish a sentence with, to exclaim at odd intervals or to simply add emphasis. Well, here he is now – at death’s door. Pre-occupied as I am with other losses and terminal illnesses, to find myself in another hospital room at someone’s bedside seems almost routine. It obviously is for the nurses. My step- mother and I have just finished the latest conference with one of the senior ones. Leaning against the wall, with her arms folded and her face in neutral, the nurse’s stance says more to me about Dad’s chances than anything in her words. It must be hard to know what face to wear when every day contains a tragedy.
‘It’s the old man’s blessing, pneumonia,’ is what she does say, not quite casually. She’s probably right.
I’m watching his heart rate on the monitor next to his bed, over 120 a minute – as if you or I were running hard, sprinting after a long race, but he lies motionless under the toxic umbrella of his breath which is too shallow, and far too fast. I wonder how long an old heart can keep going.
Phoebe is here, jet-lagged from a long flight from Los Angeles, but still hoping. I watch as she climbs onto the bed and sits on his hips, pulls open his pyjama top and rubs scented oils into his chest. Intent and furious in the task, she is trying to heal him, cure the illness, make everything all right again. I keep quiet and watch her efforts, knowing them to be fruitless, but appreciating them just the same.
The heart rate monitor goes up a notch, his blood oxygen level goes down a notch. Phoebe climbs off and sits next to him in a chair, her face in her hands. I want to go and squeeze her shoulder or something but am unable to do so; Dad, unconsciously, had taught me the undesirability of touch.
“What is a life for?” he would have asked us as we watched the football on the juddery, black and white TV. I just wanted to know: how do you talk to girls?
I watch Dad’s grizzled face and wonder what he’s going through. He used to say it’s all grist for the mill, it’s all usable as an experience. That’s one way to approach life and I wonder if it’s made him ready to face this, the end of his life.
Phoebe puts a small, water-soaked sponge between his lips and the lips suck hungrily at it. She repeats the act with great tenderness, a few more times, until it seems he’s had enough. And we’ve had enough too, for now; we go outside for a cigarette and to talk for the first time in years, only to discover that, in a vacuum, things have fallen apart.
She says, ‘Do you remember that song Dad used to go on about all the time? That goes …are you experienced?Remember?’
‘Yeah, great song. Jimi Hendrix, Dad’s song, isn’t it.’
We go back up to the ward’s side room where our stepmother is waiting, and Dad is still alive.
David Fisher is a new writer based in Romney Marsh, Kent. He studied English and Creative writing at the Open University. He has had work published in The Guardian newspaper, winning its travel-writing competition and a story is forthcoming in the ‘Between these Shores’ annual. He was long-listed for the VS Pritchett prize and the Fish publishing short memoir prize. He is currently employed as a train driver.