On the Death of the Old Man
by Colin Clark
My old man was going to die. No doubt about it. His skin, rice paper, stretched over bones eager with the promise of escape from the vein-laced prison that’d held them back for seventy-odd years. Veins now full to bursting with the drug of choice. Not my choice, not his. No, that was down to the surgical priesthood with their white linen cassocks and stethoscope badges of office. Their mumbled litany of platitudes, each practiced line matched skilfully with stock expression and empathetic nod.
“Don’t let them take me to hospital” the old man had said, looking up from the floor of the bathroom, colour of his skin a blue contrast to the white of the tiles, “Please”.
I’d smiled then. For the first time in forty years he’d asked me for something, eyes begging for mercy. Those same eyes now tick-tocking beneath lids that hid the dreams inside, keeping me safe from thoughts I didn’t want to know.
Around us the nurses move to the technobeat of bleeps and buzzers that form the top line of the last tune most of us will ever hear. The rattle and hiss of artificial lungs a mechanical metronome, counting out the minutes, the seconds.
“He’s a fighter”. This from one of the priesthood, an efficient chart-checker who ticks his paperwork with red ink from a well-chewed biro, “He’s hanging in there”.
Ignoring him I continue my death watch.
“You’re a waste of space. A no-good queer boy. If she’d listened to me, your mother would’ve had you aborted”.
Terms of endearment echo through my mind as the old man’s chest rises and falls, drawing my attention to the matted grey hairs poking up from the top of his hospital gown, at the droplets of sweat that hang from the tips of each hair
So weak, so helpless.
Sorry. I’ve got to go. You’ve made your choice. This is mine.
So long ago. I remember the letter, remember the reaction. None. If she were here now, I wouldn’t be. I could’ve enjoyed this from a safe distance, laughed and celebrated. Ding dong the witch is dead. Send a letter of congratulations to the owner of the house that dropped on him. Dear mister Heart attack, thank you so much for donating your house to end the life of a tyrant. Love and kisses, Michael.
Memories jostle and nudge for brain time. Technicolor, black and white, a montage of images, words, snatches of my life, his life, our lives.
Freezing outside the sitting room door. Listen. Voices. Rattling high-pitched. Rumbling low growl. The door jumping in the frame as something crashes into it from the other side. Heart racing, tears rolling down burning cheeks. The continued distant thunder from in the room. Listen. Another skin on skin slap. Silence.
“In at eight I said”. L-shaped frown-line deep above narrowed eyes, petulant top lip raised in a sneer. All the danger signs flushed bright red.
“Sorry dad I…”
Explosion. Pain. Flying through the air, already crying before connecting with the edge of the sideboard. Curling into a ball as blow after blow rains down. Each one delivered with precise, calculated venom. Thigh, upper arm, buttock. Nothing tell-tale, nothing visible. Never above the neck-line.
“Now look what you’ve made me do, you little bastard”
A fool. Dropping the guard to look. Barely time to register the blood dripping from his torn nail before the other fist burrows deep into gut. Can’t breathe, can’t breathe.
Back in the present his eyes are open, aware. Swivelling, focusing now on me sitting here. The machine’s rattle and hum, good ol’ U2. The familiar L-shaped frown appears and his long fingers twitch.
“aaaaahhhhhh”, he says.
Remember. Another Christmas, same house. Sitting at the dinner table. He’s there carving turkey, eyes soft, smile broad. Passing slices of the bird to mum, Peter then me. “There you go Mickey boy, cooked by my own fair hand”.
He laughs. We all laugh.
Dinner is served. I’m tucked behind a gravy topped food mountain and the meal continues. Turkey, stuffing, gammon, mash. Christmas pudding with real sixpences. I break a tooth, blood mixed with brandy sauce. Not daring to complain, tears in my eyes. Moby Dick on television, Morecombe and Wise. A very merry Christmas.
Boxing Day. Literally. My broken tooth on a plate the day before, now thrown at me just before the first punch. Happy New Year.
And his eyes looking into mine, searching for something, forgiveness perhaps. A rasping whine in his throat and the machinery around us goes into a hyper-drive cacophony along with the shaking of his limbs. It’s the Exorcist without head-swivel and I’m no priest.
Nurses converge like a swat team and I’m pushed back to the edge of the crowd, craning my neck like a football spectator waiting for the penalty taker. Top corner, bottom corner or will the goalie save.
Enter the high priest. White coat tails flapping with the speed of his arrival.
Through the crowd I see dad’s hand reach out, clench into the familiar fist, squeeze tight; release. Fingers quivering for a millisecond then still.
Silence. The penalty taker’s skied it, no last minute equaliser. I breathe out and the sound is a sob. Zaphod the priest turns towards me and shakes his head slowly.
Ding dong the witch is dead.
The nurses head off to dance to someone else’s technobeat. I take my seat and look down at my old man. Even at the end I never got a chance to say all those things I’d wanted to say. To let him know exactly what I thought of him, of what he did to me, mum, Peter, all of us.
My eyes are burning, tears rolling down my cheeks as I lean forward and say, “Bye dad, I love you”.
Home. Closing the heavy door behind me, the rusty iron knocker rattling as the latch cracks shut. Silence. Breathing in a familiar mix of dust, stale nicotine and bleach, home in a bottle.
Standing there, savouring the moment, I become aware of the empty tick of the old railway clock in the hallway. First time I’ve heard it in years, a steady beat loud in the stillness, a hollow backbeat for dancing dust motes that tumble in daylight streaks at the lounge doorway.
I can’t move. Frozen in place, back to the door like the late guest at a funeral. Funeral? A word to break the spell. Arrangements to make, Peter and Sandra to tell, better get a move on. Hugging the carrier bag containing the old man’s worldly goods to my chest like a kid with a puppy, I put one leg in front of the other and make it all the way to the kitchen, head down, heart thumping.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. He’s not here. Can’t be here. Won’t ever be here again.
Folded clothes, dog-eared Bible and a portable tomb-toothed smile laid out on the table. False teeth, false hopes and yesterday’s fashions, a fitting tribute on his passing. He’d always been oddly proud of the fact that he’d come from a poor family, that he’d been given nowt but God and a good hiding as a kid.
“It did me no harm”, he’d growl, “Made a proper man of me”.
Not a fond memory. Delivered before a snarling rant or after another lesson had been taught, it was the precursor to his favourite depiction of himself as the eternal victim, the man no one appreciated, nobody understood. Damned if I did.
One thing left in the bag, a long brown envelope containing official confirmation that he isn’t coming back and that the best laid plans sometimes come to fruition. His death certificate, my pardon from a life sentence. I don’t bother opening it, no surprises there. Time to let the others know.
“It’s me, Michael”.
“Your brother, remember me”?
“Oh, hello. How’d you get our number”?
Ignoring the question I tell her dad’s dead and listen to excuses as to why she won’t be able to make the funeral, no matter when it is. Work, kids, Dylan’s shifts, I know how it is right? She’ll send flowers. We really should get together sometime, soon, but not too soon, work, kids, Dylan’s shifts, you know how it is right? I know how it is. For work, kids, read bruises, black eyes and the fact she’s not allowed out. The husband, Dylan, a younger version of the corpse I’d left at the hospital. Poor Sandra, ran away to escape the old man and found herself a carbon copy. He was on my list for a visit soon but it’d wait, for now.
“Mike, how you doing bro”?
He sounded cheerful as always. Terminally happy, mum called it. Wasn’t much could put a dent in Peter’s day. “I’m fine Pete but…”.
“Tell me he’s dead”.
I’d heard it a hundred times, every time we spoke he’d ask for the good news, like just wishing something could make it so. I told him what he wanted to hear and waited for him to stop telling me how great it was.
“About bloody time”, he said, “I’ll come to the funeral, just to make sure they burn the bastard”.
He offered to come over now and help me get sorted, laughing when I said I could manage, then happily chatted to me about his new boyfriend and the house they were hoping to buy, “You’ll love him bruv, promise. He’s a real gentle giant”.
I laughed along with him, agreed I should sell the house, burn the old bastard’s stuff along with him. Agreed to go over to Manchester and meet up before the funeral, spend the night, catch up, knowing he meant it, knowing too that I didn’t.
Chalk and cheese my brother and sister. Understandable, I could save Peter from the beatings but daddy’s little girl I couldn’t help. He was born confident, left home wearing full make-up. Sandra was a mouse and once mum died, even I had to sleep.
Peter’s enthusiasm geed me up and I went from room to room upstairs, opening windows and curtains that hadn’t let in daylight since his last heart attack. He hated fresh air, felt the cold. It was too sunny or too rainy, the view was miserable to look at. Didn’t want to feel like a goldfish in a bowl, people looking in every time you switched a light on, people watching his every move. People like him, who kept a pair of binoculars on the windowsill in his bedroom.
His bedroom. Last on the list. A yellowed door firmly closed, panelled eyes staring blankly at me as I stand in front of it. I hated this door, had always hated this door. Too many bad memories, looking back at me, daring me to reach out and turn the black-brass handle.
The sound of my bare feet slapping on cold lino and the scrabbly, itchy feeling of unswept dust between tiny toes. Remember? This hallway stretching long and dark ahead, ending in a nicotine coloured door with a stain like a goblins face halfway up that laughs as I move closer, its wicked knothole eyes squinting in the early morning light. Soft flesh on the bottoms of my feet pinching as I slide to a stop, a chill draft raising goose pimples on naked legs and chest, a chest heaving with momentary panic as I dip my head and squeeze eyes tight shut. Always the same place, shivering, trying to work up the courage to run the last few feet, head down, refusing to meet that wooden gaze, stretching up and curling chubby hands around the tarnished door knob. The goblin is bad, brother to the one that screams from the painting on the wall of my bedroom.. Bad. Tears in my eyes now as the door swings inwards, swinging me in with it, feet in the air. Remember?
“Mummy”. It’s half question, half giggle as the goblin is left behind. Dropping to the floor and muttering ouch at the rough friction of carpet on dimpled knees before attacking the mountainous bed covers already moving as she wakes. “Mummy”?
Sitting on the shiny-smooth cover laughing as she makes the wake-up face that stretches her mouth to a big smile, a smile that softens as I bend forward and burrow upward to rest a cheek on warm flesh. “Mummy”. The word a whispering sigh, snuggling down content, safe. Remember this?
“Fuck off”! He appears like an ogre from the other side of the bed, thick nails at the back of my neck lifting, pinching. The room spins and I’m flying to the floor, a tumbling, skidding roll burning back and knees on the roughness of the carpet; a shuddering squeal rasping through my chest. Cold. So cold. Hearing him growl above the muffled thump of heavy feet, curlingl into a ball unable to speak. More heat as stinging hands slap at back, legs. Bad. No daddy! Thinking it,, even as the raking claw of his hand tears at my hair and sends me sliding back into the hallway.
Hearing the metal frame of the mirror rattle as the door slams , its thunderous crash jerking me to a trembling silence of swallowed sobs. I’m blind, deaf and alone with the goblin. Deep down I can still hear him laughing. Remember?
Yes. I remember, remember every detail so vividly my bladder’s ready to burst. Detour. Away from the goblin door and back to the bathroom, peeing long and hot, watching tiny splashes arc back out onto the tiled floor. The floor he’d lain on, begging me.
Reminding myself I was forty-five, not five, it was just me and the goblin door again. I don’t give it the chance to mess with my memories this time, grabbing the handle and shoving it open like I mean it, wincing as something heavy thumps to the carpet, dislodged from the oversized dressing table. All but jumping into the room I spot an old shaving mirror in pieces on the floor. Seven years bad luck. Fuck it. What’s another seven?
This is it, the ogre’s lair and it’s shabbier than I remember from the last time I crossed the threshold. Unmade bed like a rat’s nest, a coiling heap of unwashed sheets and pillows, adding to the heavy odour I recognise as stale sweat and cigarettes. An overfull ashtray on the bedside cabinet marks the source of one, sheets and soiled clothing by the wardrobe the other.
Resisting the urge to leave it till another day, I try breathing through my mouth and start snooping. Dresser drawers, the usual collection of socks and underwear, some sealed in plastic, fresh from the shop, one pack of y-fronts still showing traces of Christmas wrapping paper beneath clear tape, others showing traces of less festive uses. I avoid several tightly rolled socks at the back of the drawer having brushed one with a fingertip, thinking of similar socks in my own drawers.
Moving on, pulling open the doors of the wardrobe, beginning to enjoy myself now, reaching in to pull out the suits, shirts and ties, throwing them onto the bed. It all has to go. Anything, everything of his. I’d cut them up later, when I’d calmed down enough to use scissors. Buzzing now, I commit the ultimate crime, pulling open the heavy curtains, then straining to open the sash window, ignoring the raking screech as it complains on the way up.
Daylight. At the bottom of the wardrobe a suitcase, older than me, cracked leather held shut with a canvas belt which snaps as I lift it out into the light, spilling magazines and photographs over the floor in a technicolour flood.
Kneeling down, seeing the covers of magazines too raw for top shelves, magazines older than the girls on the covers, small girls, little girls. I’m not shocked, not until I pick up the first handful of photographs and recognise my sister and my mother. Tied, twisted, spread, filled, eyes blank, skin white. Secrets. This is what I’d come looking for, proof positive that would justify what I’d done, as if what he’d done to me wasn’t justification enough.
In the attic now. Alone with my thoughts, the photographs and, oh yeah, the dead girl. I’ll burn the photographs, once I’ve figured out how to tie those kind of knots, dump the girl, but the thoughts I’m stuck with.
I can manage those, always have. It’s not easy being the eldest. That’s what Peter and Sandra never understood. I had it hard even before they arrived, no one there to get in his way see. It’s why I stayed. You don’t go through all that just to walk away. You learn, adapt, survive, and wait till the time’s right. A time when you’re bigger, stronger and much, much nastier than the bully you’re afraid of. You look for the weaknesses, something that’ll give you the edge, then tip them over it.
The dead girl had been in bleach for twelve hours before I moved her downstairs to the bathroom, so there wasn’t any blood. I’d finished with her by then you see. She was a lovely girl, very obliging, had been for the three days she’d stayed with me in the workshop. Of course, that might have been the drugs, or perhaps she really enjoyed it. I know I did.
I can’t remember exactly when she’d decided to die on me, but I do remember she felt a bit cold on Thursday evening. I covered her with a blanket, seemed like the gentlemanly thing to do. We made love again on Friday but I could tell she wasn’t into it. Like fucking an ice cube.
Looking at his snapshot collection, I reckon dad would’ve been as proud of my work as I was, if he hadn’t been too busy dying. But he couldn’t say he hadn’t been warned. The doctors had told him. He was old they’d said, had a weak heart. Shockingly high blood pressure, smoked too much, living on borrowed time they’d said, kept on saying until they ran out of clichés.
Bit of a surprise when he hadn’t died straight off, laying there gasping like a landed fish, promising not to tell. I might’ve believed him had he ever passed on an opportunity to belittle me. Like the time he’d told the lads how I wet the bed, or how I was a queer because he’d caught me playing with mum’s underwear. He killed my pet hamster for that. No. We both knew promises weren’t his strong point.
I didn’t touch him, just left him there overnight with the window open. Seemed to do the trick, he’d lost the ability to speak by the time I called the paramedics. Nice chaps, dedicated, but I could see it in their eyes, no hope for this one. I managed a tear or two, nice touch. Result.
Of course they didn’t know what had triggered the heart attack. What nasty little shock had sent him screeching to the bathroom floor. How could they?
I’d show the dead girl my appreciation but she’s beginning to smell a bit now despite the bleach. Better just to cut her up, ship her out and get on with arranging the funeral. It’ll be nice to see Peter again, meet his boyfriend. Then I’ll pay Sandra and Dylan a visit. Wonder if those knots would hold a man? We’ll see. Hey ho, happy thoughts