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Authors: Vincent O'Sullivan

Owen Marshall Selected Stories (53 page)

BOOK: Owen Marshall Selected Stories
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Dad didn't reply for a time. His head and shoulders were darker shadows against the bed end. Then, ‘You'll be old yourself in time,' he said. ‘See how you like it when your turn comes I say. How would you like to go without food for days?'

‘We've had plenty to eat, though.'

‘Useless prick,' Dad said emphatically.

Half an hour later he was snoring and the smell of shit was growing fainter throughout the house. I weighed up whether I should ring the stand-in doctor the next day and say there was no way I could cope with the old guy. In the few hours sleep that followed, I had another dream: not about dinosaurs, but gymnasts. A whole flock of them performing at once very high on wires, bars and trapeze. All men with cut-away singlets, and superb musculature. All wheeling and spinning and leaping without effort, and all with Dad's head on their young bodies like a lugubrious mask. I could hear the smack of taut equipment, and see the faint drift of chalk from their palms as they prepared for each exercise. Maybe that's how Theo passed the
time since his death.

No wonder I slept in. Dad was humming ballads as I made sense of my surroundings. ‘Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley' was the only one I recognised. My own father sang it sometimes.

‘Who are you again?' Dad asked me when I was helping him with his underpants. He was at his best in the mornings.

‘I'm your helper.'

‘Helper?'

‘And maybe I'll spray the roof,' I said.

Dad seemed pleased with something familiar in that. ‘Just so,' he said with hollow, echoing satisfaction.

After the grotesque pantomime of the night, the sunlit Canterbury morning promised a conventional sanity. Dad ate toast with ginger marmalade and discoursed on factory management, taking me for a member of his team. ‘You see,' he said, ‘It's not important now whether I know anything about engineering at all. It's leadership and man management skills that are important to run a company. It's a truth that seems to have to be discovered over and over again. People think the best chemist should run the pharmaceutical company, and the top academic head the university. In fact it's all about motivation and team building.'

‘Isn't that American touchy-feely bullshit?' I said. If Dad Ladd was up to coherent discussion in the mornings then why not have intellectual stringency.

‘I thought so myself at first, but it's their palaver that's false, not the premise. Take this deal at the moment with the stainless steel casings for Hentlings.' But Dad's voice then lost resolve, as he realised there was some discontinuity between the Hentlings contract and his Monday morning breakfast with a stranger. Bewildered pride stopped him saying more, and he concentrated on his coffee, his head cantilevered far over the table. In the afternoons and evenings when Dad was well away I played anarchic fool to his Lear without scruple, but in the mornings, when he regained something of his
original self, I was just an imposter and voyeur, and a sad discomfort was often the tone.

Dad then gazed out across the golf course, his great, loose eyes sliding glances at me when he thought he was unobserved. Defensiveness is a ploy of age, as the mind itself proves unreliable. ‘I'm here to keep you company while your daughter's away for a few days,' I said, to spare him the indignity of yet another inquiry as to where he was in the world and with whom.

He nodded firmly, as if he'd been sure of that all along. ‘It's good weather here at this time of year,' he said.

I hung out Dad's pyjama bottoms on the line, aware that more articles would have disguised his little accident, but then realised that he had no recollection of such recent things. Some afflictions ameliorate their own effects. A whole day with Dad stretched ahead. For a time I encouraged him to talk more of his management practices and attitudes, but he grew impatient with the lack of sophistication in my questions, and after explaining the professional development system he'd instituted to identify management potential, he fell silent and ignored further promptings.

There was no way I could stand being housebound for three days, and I decided if Dad couldn't be left alone, then he'd have to come with me. I asked him if he played squash and although his answer was noncommittal, I told him that he was bound to enjoy watching anyway. ‘We can get a break out of the house,' I said cheerfully, in that positive, sweepalong way that works sometimes with kids. Dad gave a lopsided grin. I rang Martin and told him to meet me there.

I wasn't entirely irresponsible. I put the one helmet on Dad, and even though the sun glittered in the blue, summer sky and the breeze across the golf course was warm to the touch, I buttoned him into his ankle-length, dark, Jack the Ripper coat, and encouraged him to climb onto the Suzuki behind me. The squash bag I held between my thighs and rested on the handlebars. ‘Hang on tight, and lean in when I do,' I told him. He did hold on, and as the little bike
screamed its way to the squash club, I was aware of Dad's long face at my left shoulder. Did he wonder how it had come to this? A man who had been general manager of an engineering firm employing two hundred and seventy people, trapped on the back of a 125cc Suzuki driven by a stranger who had come perhaps to spray the roof for mildew.

‘Sit here,' I told him at the club, and folded his coat to pad the wood of the tiered seating looking down on the court. As Martin and I played, I checked every now and again that Dad was still there. ‘Are you okay, Mr Ladd?' and at least once he nodded. A mishit sent the ball into the seating, and despite there being nowhere for it to be lost, we couldn't find it anywhere. I shook Dad's greatcoat and felt the pockets several times, I even patted him down like a policeman searching for weapons. He took it all with equanimity.

‘Weird,' said Martin. ‘Maybe he's swallowed it.' I wished he hadn't said that, for a squash ball is pretty small, but Dad seemed to be breathing okay and in no discomfort.

‘It's not warm here at all, is it,' he said. ‘I was wondering if there might be a nice piece of pork for lunch.'

Martin and I played two more games, then I took Dad to the lavatory and togged him up for the trip home. ‘Been nice to meet you,' said Martin, whose mother had lots of visitors to the house and was up on manners. I expected Dad to ask who he was again, but he wasn't always predictable and it was still morning. ‘Likewise,' he said and compressed his bushy eyebrows in a smile.

Little conversation is possible on a motorbike, unless you shout, but when I stopped at the Ilam Road lights, I could just hear in my left ear Dad humming one of his ballads. It reassured me that riding as pillion passenger had no terrors for him, and that a squash ball wasn't lodged in his windpipe. He was no quick mover any more, but once he got a grip such as that around my waist he held on well.

Dad didn't get any pork for lunch, but I did some cheese on toast, and we sat on the patio. Despite the heat he kept his long coat on,
and it didn't worry me. I wanted to insist on having my own way only in issues that mattered. Why shouldn't he sit with a winter coat in the summer sun if he enjoyed it? ‘It's a class coat that,' I said.

‘I had one like it in the battalion.'

‘You were in the war then,' I said.

‘Everyone was in the war,' said Dad in the voice Brando used for the Godfather. It was something else I saw no reason to contradict him on. There's all sorts of war, after all. He fell asleep suddenly quite soon afterwards. One moment he was puckering his lips and running a finger on his unshaven neck, the next his head was back on the chair and his nose was casting a shadow like a sundial marker.

For an hour and a half I was able to concentrate on the constitutional effects of the American Civil War. No question came up on that, of course. I had a beer on the quiet too. It seemed to me that I was entitled to keep a little ahead of Dad in regard to alcohol.

Mid-afternoon Dad woke. I looked up from my books to see that he was observing me quizzically. His mouth had fallen open and the sun caught the white stubble on his neck. I knew what he was thinking. ‘Who am I again?' I said. ‘I'm Brian who's looking after you. Okay?' He nodded with a certain nonchalance to suggest he knew that, then he worked hard at generating a cough strong enough to shift the phlegm accumulated during his sleep. ‘Did you enjoy it at the squash courts this morning?'

‘Squash?'

‘This morning we went down on the bike to the squash courts. Remember?'

‘Ah,' said Dad in a guarded and equivocal way. I thought that as he'd forgotten it already I could take him there each morning and it would be a fresh experience each time.

We had a mug of tea, and then I found his triple head shaver at the bottom of his wardrobe and gave him a shave. He quite enjoyed it, moving his head about to tauten the skin at my direction and
closing his eyes in the direct sunlight. It had been some time since anyone had taken any care in giving Dad a shave. Long hairs, missed day after day, lay in fold lines of his skin and his upper lip had been neglected. ‘I use a cut-throat most times,' said Dad, but that must have been years ago, for there were plenty of moles and blemishes which would have come to a bloody end. I noticed that the skin over his collarbone was very pale, and the fine creases formed small diamond patterns. The tip of his left ear was eaten away slightly by a scaly skin cancer. His cheekbones were pronounced rims beneath his eyes. It was a ravaged face, but strong nevertheless. Dad ran his hand over his features with satisfaction, and two white butterflies tumbled in a courtship dance through the warm air inches from his head. ‘You look a new man,' I said.

‘I've got very stiff, you know.' He tested his arms by stretching them out, then lifting them above his head slowly. ‘You do get stiff with age,' he said. ‘Nothing to be done about that. I suppose I'd better be heading home soon.'

‘No hurry while it's so warm,' I said. ‘Enjoy watching the golfers for a while, then we'll think about things again.'

I did a bit more on the Civil War, but just being aware that Dad was awake made it difficult to concentrate. Even sitting and at rest, the business of living necessitated a range of noises: exhalation was accompanied by a small wheeze, he smacked his lips from time to time, and gave the occasional shuddering and dolorous sigh. And every now and again one of his slightly curled hands flipped suddenly and was still again.

As the sun slipped and the shadows grew from the golf course pines, I began to wonder about Dad and me in the coming night. Maybe the motorbike ride would help him sleep; maybe more physical exertion would help as well. ‘How about a walk before tea, Mr Ladd?'

‘Eh?'

‘We could stretch our legs before tea.'

‘Stretch your own legs. Who are you again?'

But with the false, importunate bonhomie that comes so naturally to a carer, I hauled Dad up, gave him his stick and encouraged him off the patio and down the drive. His resistance was expressed by turning a little away from me as we walked and stopping often to explore with his stick any plants to the side.

We began the small, seemingly never-ending block, and I disliked myself for the hope I had that no acquaintance would see me out walking with the old guy, yet maintained that hope just the same. It wasn't a trendy way to spend time on a summer afternoon, especially as he still wore his heavy coat in the last glare of the sun. Dad would stop from time to time to have a good cough, or peer into people's properties if he noticed movement. Self-consciousness is lost with the passing of years. A woman was kneeling on a groundsheet near her letter box to do some weeding, and after watching with interest for some time, Dad turned away, saying in his hollow but penetrating way, ‘Women get big arses later in their life, don't you think, Warren?'

‘Who's Warren?' I said, urging him roughly on down the street, but without the courage to turn round.

‘What's that?'

‘Who's Warren?' But Dad just gave his slow, soft smile. Whoever Warren was, and what brief neurological flash had linked him to our day together, was gone for the moment.

When we'd done the circuit and arrived home again, Dad was down to a shuffle. He was interested and somewhat sceptical to be told that was the house he lived in. He had entered that late afternoon free-fall from connectedness which I came to know well. And the fall was into the whirling chaos of each night. ‘I'd never buy a house like this,' he said derisively. He was a little ahead of me, and he looked back with his head hung low and the whites of his eyes showing, the way a horse sometimes looks back around its flank.

‘It's Angeline's house, and you live with her.' Even in late
afternoon his daughter's name struck a chord somewhere, and he didn't contradict me, but came with some reluctance towards the front door.

‘And you are again?'

‘I'm Warren.' I admit my intention was investigative, a hope that in denial he might reveal this Warren, but Dad's malady was too subtle for my amateur psychology. ‘You still haven't sprayed for mildew,' was all he said.

I closed the big glass doors to the patio, but pushed Dad's padded lounge chair close to them so that he was full on to the setting sun. Such comfort activated his appetites. ‘Wine and cheese would be very acceptable,' he stage whispered. So I took another red from the cupboard beneath the stairs, but, learning from experience, used a mug for Dad, and kept the bottle well away.

Dad sank so far back into the easy chair that it looked as if some sort of suction was at work, and the sun through the glass on his gunslinger coat must have put his temperature well up, but his face remained pale and he gargled happily in his mug. ‘I thought I might cook bangers and mash for tea,' I said. In my second year, when I'd been flatting, it had been my stand-by when rostered for a meal. For visitors my variation was to make a packet gravy and have peas as well. I'd received compliments, not all sarcastic.

BOOK: Owen Marshall Selected Stories
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