Before she startles him by tapping on the window she watches him sleeping. He is half-dressed. As usual this means that he has managed to put on that pair of raggedy tracksuit bottoms that reach to just above his ankles plus his ancient dusty sandals. A white t-shirt, like something worn by a marine or a gangbanger, is tucked into the elastic waistband. An enveloping dressing gown, bounty from his last stay in hospital, is wrapped around his shrunken body. If you stumbled across him huddled in a catacomb, she thinks, you might invest him with some mystical authority, presume he held some ancient wisdom. Here, in his living room on a Spring morning in England, he cannot be taken for anything other than what he is: a shabby old fool. His mouth is open. His teeth have fallen down.
She lets her sharp long bright red nails play against the glass. Somehow, to his fading ears, this sound is a rallying call, a heart stopping tattoo. It brings him springing out of his chair in alarm in a way that the telephone, doorbell or blaring TV cannot. There is a moment of suspense, of frozen disorientation, before he looks over to the window and smiles at her in recognition. He signals he won’t be a moment. Two minutes later she can hear him fumbling with the many catches that secure the front door.
Their kiss is papery, dry. She feels his surprisingly strong grip digging into her upper arms and winces. Whatever keeps him alive year after year can be felt in those bony claws. She pulls away.
The smell in the house, often putrid, has set up in alchemical unholy alliance with the intense central heating and formed an atmosphere. Thick and clinging.
She wades through the hot fumes, rationing her breaths, and looks him up and down. She considers telling him to change his clothes but decides against it. What was the point? Instead she instructs him to put on his coat. They are going out.
Have you come for lunch?
She tells him it is 8am.
While he is fumbling around in the hall cupboard, searching for a jacket and hat, she takes the opportunity to seek out the source of the smell. It is coming from the kitchen but what could be in there that fills the whole house with such a sickly sour odour? And why can’t he notice it?
A plate with the remains of some three or four eggs sits on the worktop in the tiny kitchen. They have jellified so they look like something gross found in a joke shop. She wonders how long this process takes, how long since the care worker last cooked or washed up? She suspects them of sitting together drinking teas and eating shop-bought cake, watching DIY and cookery programmes. Or perhaps drinking sherry or Malibu or cherry brandy, working their way through the marriage worth of Christmas alcohol that was hidden in the recesses of the teak bar that rests in the corner of the living room? She knows this is unlikely. Cleaning apart, she doubts the thing has been touched since her own teenage raids.
She opens the bin by the cooker. It is unsavoury in there and should be emptied but its smells are not yet supernatural. She closes the lid and reaches over to the fridge door. Opening it, she recoils as the smell inside hits her like a punch. In there, hidden behind a half-eaten sausage roll and some banana in an old crisp packet, she finds a plate of what had once been…she is almost certain…prawns.
Really they should be taken out, she thinks, the plate washed, the shelves disinfected. But what’s the point? She closes the door and the smell recedes. She is getting used to the diluted version.
Have you come for lunch?
He is standing in the kitchen doorway. He has added a beaten-up checked flat cap and a blue blazer with gold buttons to his ensemble. Any instinct she once felt for making improvements, for disapproving, has disappeared. He’ll do, she thinks.
We’re going out, Dad.
Sorry? I can’t ascertain….
Worry and confusion screw up his face.
OUT! IN THE CAR!
His features unfurl.
Oh, out. Lovely.
He smiles broadly and his top set of dentures drop onto his bottom lip.
She moves quickly, as if to encourage him, to the front door, opening the house up to the day, praying its foul air does not pollute the street. He moves to meet her. Slowly. She thinks of her two little dogs and their snappy energy that is no drain on her own, though they often leave her in a state of happy exhaustion. But he is tiresome rather than tiring. His weary eagerness gives her nothing but exasperation.
He pats the pockets of his blazer and sweat pants with comic exaggeration.
Don’t worry about your keys….
The face crumples again.
YOUR KEYS! DON’T WORRY. I’VE GOT THEM.
She closes the door behind them, pretends to lock it, and guides him towards the car. There she throws his stick into the back seat and fastens him in place next to the driver. Her.
She hates it, this role reversal. The pick ups and the drop offs. The doctors and the hospitals and the country pubs. She wants to be in his seat fixing her mascara and lipstick in the mirror behind the shade, telling him to drop her off around the corner so he wouldn’t be seen, ignoring his attempts to find out what is going on in her head, with her friends, this girl, that boy, what plans, what future. Now she is the responsible and curious one. She signals and turns left, joins the traffic leaving the city. She drives carefully, as if carrying illicit cargo.
He holds the strap of the seatbelt away from his body showing, ostentatiously, that it hurts him. She wants to tell him not to do it but is nervous of breaking their silence. He is happy to be out. She is relieved he is quiet.
The drive is already longer than he is used to but he has no way to tell. Indoor time can be marked by meals and the TV news but out her there is no such measure. The roads go by unrecognised. He finds no way to convert miles into minutes.
Eventually, whatever social pressure still works within him wins out.
Have we been here before?
She looks out the window at a featureless nowhere. She wants a cigarette. He has never seen her smoke.
Yes, Dad. Many times.
He falls silent but remains, well, alert, at least when she compares him to his indoor dozing self. Eyes open, his attention caught by blurry roadside boards for eggs and golf equipment and, once, a license plate that bears his initials. He chuckles at this and points a shaky forefinger. She manages a smile, a better person now than when she rode in the passenger seat.
She pulls off the main road and soon they are in a small town by the sea, driving down a narrow winding hilly street till they reach a beachside car park. She tells him to wait whilst she gets a ticket.
He calls to her through the open window.
Have we been her before?
Lots of times, Dad. With Mum.
He can’t get out of the car without help so… squeamishly, hating to touch him….she places her hands under his armpits and pulls. He staggers upright and she hands him his stick for all further support. She walks away from him in her city shoes and he follows her towards the sea.
By the time he makes it to the bench where she is sitting he feels exhausted, each breath dredged up from the waste of his insides. His heart is rattling.
She reads a brass plaque screwed into the back of the seat, a memorial to a loving husband and father who loved to sit here and watch the waves. When he sits down she cannot see it.
She nods almost.
She waits a decent moment then stands.
Wait here. I’ve just got to get something from the car.
I can’t ascer….
THE CAR! WAIT!
Her heels battle with the cobbled street again all the way back to the car park. There, she presses her key ring and hears the doors open. She reaches inside for the ticket attached to the windscreen, rips it off and throws it to the ground, then gets in the driving seat, inserts the key in the ignition, turns it, releases the brake as the engine catches, and drives away.
She doesn’t look in the mirror till she is back on the main road.
There are some things he always remembers. His name. His age. His address. She knows he will tell them that soon. He will be taken back. A neighbour will see or her number will be found by the phone and they will contact her. She will have to explain.
She will be in trouble.
She wants to be in trouble.
She wants to be told off.