7.30am, November 10th 2006. I was walking off an English breakfast in the Oxfordshire countryside with three colleagues from work. We were up early on our company’s annual away days. The sun hung low, gloriously obscured by a thick mist rising from ploughed fields. The morning frost tried to hoax us into believing it was the year’s first snow. We were on our way to see the ruins of a sixteenth century church, walking down a country lane beneath an oak canopy and a volley of starling song. The ice was everywhere it wanted, varnishing dead leaves with crystals, glinting like silver fillings in the roadside mud. The ice was crunchy white and undercover black. My mobile rang and broke the morning in two.
Austin. Get here now.
Sobbing. Uncontrollable sobbing. Fighting to get the words out between petrified chokes of air sobbing. What I heard was more than fear, more than panic, and more than pain alone. It was an aggregate loss of hope.
Mum, Mum, what’s the matter?
Austin, get here now. Dad’s not good. The ambulance is on its way. It’s his heart.
I’m on my way.
Please drive safe. I’m at your Sister’s. I need you.
I looked at my colleagues, their faces frozen and hesitant.
It’s Dad. Something’s up, I said. The ambulance is on its way.
Oh Austin, they said with their eyes.
Drive safe, they said individually.
I ran down the lane, over the ice, across the gravel car park, along the corridors and into my room. I stood in the middle of my room thinking what the fuck do I do? Is he dead? I snatched clothes from hangers, stuffed them into my weekend bag, piled on books, paperwork and toiletries then ran to the car. The bag thrown into the passenger seat, the key slid into the ignition. It didn’t start. Not now, not today. I tried again, the starter motor turned over, sounded hollow. Again, nothing. I knew I should have had it fixed sooner but please please please not now now now. Arms firm on the steering wheel pushing my back into the seat. Silence. White noise. Deep breath, I asked nicely. I talked sweet with cherries on top. I turned the key and the depleted roar of a once powerful engine rang out.
I pulled from the car park, on to the road and into the path of a fully-pimped matte black Range Rover Sport. Full beam lanced my eyes in the rear view mirror, forcing flecks on to my vision, fucking with my focus. Palpitations. The driver kept full beam on for what felt like seconds but could have been minutes. I flashed my hazards, issued my apology. I accelerated, made for the motorway blinking and unsettled. He followed.
Chest pains. The roads quiet. The fast lanes empty. Travelling against the tide of traffic. My mind raced faster than the speedometer. Indicate, overtake, down a gear, up a gear. This is it, my mind whispered This – is – it.
This can’t be it. They’ve only been back in the country for days, five days? They had lived in Spain for a decade and Christmas was coming. This was supposed to be the week of phew and woo-hoo. A week of relief of the unthinkable: of Mum being left alone in Spain, of his body coming back in a bag. Indicate, overtake. Down a gear. Up a gear. The matte black Range Rover followed. Dad’s in hospital. In an English hospital, and I will see him alive again. This is it is on a loop over and over and over and over and over until, shiiiiiit, breaks, pump, the, fucking, brakes. Tyres screech. I stop short of the car in front. Adrenaline bites down. Left ventricle failure. The driver of the Range Rover gives me a sardonic smile in the wing mirror. Heart attack.
Traffic starts to move again. Dark thoughts gain traction. Heart attack. Heart attack. Oh look, Eddie Stobart haulage truck. Your Dad’s dead. Heart attack. A classic Aston Martin Vantage. Your Dad’s not dead. Keep calm and cruise in the middle lane. Radio on ignore the voices. My stomach creaks, wants attention of its own. Drive just drive and think of something else. Humphrey Lyttleton is on Desert Island Discs. He loves jazz from no later than the 1950s and his desert island luxury is a keyboard. I couldn’t care less about his taste in music or his favourite book, I needed a shit so bad I’m hunched over the steering wheel in pain. Subservient to the needs of my body, I indicated to pull into the services. An all-consuming thought filled my head and my heart: he could well be waiting for me to arrive before he gives out.
I looped twice around the roundabout and pulled back onto the motorway, tried to achieve the monotony of vans and cars and lorries, signposts exits and bridges. Failed. Obtuse images and bleak thoughts reined, questions rattled and collided. Had he hung on long enough to get Mum home before giving out? Was this poetic or heroic or cruel? How much pain had he been suffering? Genetic predisposition.
I gripped the steering wheel tighter and tapped my right foot incessantly. The white noise wouldn’t leave me. I called my Sister’s mobile and home phone and got no answer. Am I supposed to be driving to her house or the hospital? I called my friends with the news he may or may not be dead. Warm voices helped calm me. Motorways became A roads and A roads became B lanes. The Potteries’ glorious countryside floated into vision and out of rear view mirror. The fully-pimped matte black Range Rover Sport overtook me. I was high definition slow motion personified. Shock had arrived. Nature’s finest opiate smothered me.
As I pulled into my sister’s street the sight of a solitary police car confirmed what I’d already known.
My Dad was dead,
My Dad is dead.
My Mum and Sister met me at the door. In bits: completely in bits. He’s gone sobbed Mum, he’s gone. Fear of the unknown engulfed me. Fear of the unknown fought with the state of shock and knotted in my stomach. One fear fell onto the other, and then to my feet. I stood rooted on the doorstep as we all embraced. A Policewoman sat doing death’s paperwork at the dining room table. We joined her and answered the questions she delivered with care. I chose that day to start smoking properly again. Give me a taxable self-destruction, for now, but not for long.
Mum asked if I wanted to go and be with him. Dad was lying dead on the floor in the front room. His slow decline had meant the thoughts of this moment had rattled around my consciousness for years, plenty of time to formulate questions. The voices from countless airports and emergency plane journeys to Spanish intensive care units amplified as the motorway exits gained in numerical value. They asked me the same questions.
What is it like to lay with them at that precise moment?
Is it the wholesale effacing of pleasurable images?
Are they superseded by one bleak image of finality?
What is it to talk to a dead man, to unload the unsaid on incapacitated ears, just to ease your own emotions?
Are these moments cathartic?
What is it like to help your mother shut your Dad’s eyes for the last time?
I had envisaged this last moment over the years, but it was never like this. My mind had dictated that it was always in a Spanish hospital with surgical surfaces and reassuring smells of disinfectant. We were supposed to be buffeted by the bustle of the vital tending to the ill. As it turned out it was just hardcore normality. A house I know at the end of a road I recognised and will see again many times over. I’m glad it happened that way. We had more time with him in a place he was comfortable as the man we knew him to be.
With a deep intake of breath, I opened the door to the front room. A white sheet draped his body. He looked much smaller under it, loose folds made an outline of the man that taught me blue from green. If I am to trust the fidelity of memories I once tried hard to obliterate, then I was completely unruffled, submersed in a sublime halcyon moment. I knelt next to him and pulled back the cotton sheet. He was smaller, at once colourless, and every single shade of every single colour. He was unearthly cold. Devoid of the pump of lifeblood, individual skin cells were thickening, passing on the Chinese whispers of decomposition.
Everything was so motionless, but still – there was something.
I sat on the floor at his shoulder, stroked his hair, and kissed his forehead. I spoke to him, first in my mind and then aloud, words that would take me years to recall. I made my last new memory with him in the present when he was already in the past. A one time exotic duality. All of a sudden I was unsure if he knew how much I loved him. I would have swapped everything to have the chance to say it to him alive once more. At that one moment I knew I had wasted conversations. I would have given anything to hear a retort from him, telling me to stop being so daft. I felt a blaze of guilt for those pointless arguments about his smoking and his drinking. Guilt lengthened into every single cavity that my body had left to offer. The reasons for extended silences and rancour were so pointless to me now. Hefty tears came quickly. Mum must have heard and opened the door, joined us on the floor. I asked her if he knew what he meant to me, and if he knew I was only being hard because I cared. I couldn’t get the words out.
From the windowsill we said the last goodbye. I watched strangers carry him to the ambulance with much the same emotion as I’d waited for him to return home from work as a child: adoration. Mum watched the warmest man she ever knew disappear.
Next day. First wave down. Numb and nowhere: somewhere else on foreign longitude and a pirate frequency. My future was yesterday. I looked different, sounded unfamiliar: internally corrosive. I’d woken up looted and fat lipped, wondered why I was at my sister’s, and then I remembered the day before.
Back in the car, on the road again, getting provisions. People still needed to eat. People in the countryside don’t drive like people in the city. I edged out at junctions, pushed, barged, and chanced it. People honked, people gave me hand signals. The passengers offered stares I could not return. That very same matt-black Ranger Rover sport passed me in the other direction, I read its number plate: CAN C3R The driver met my gaze and raised his index finger from the steering wheel.
The roads were busy, the streets were empty. I left the retail-park and its commercially manicured round-a-bouts, and made for the contours of the b-roads. I passed a junior school. Kids in uniform were running in the playground, standing in groups in the playground, kicking balls at each other in the playground. Having fun seemed like a strange concept and it looked energetic.
The difference. The difference. The difference.
The open road. The green fields. The reflective yellow of speed cameras.
The view opened out for miles and miles either side. Patchwork quilts and stone cottages. Winter skies dark soon. Black rusting gates. Rootlets of decay. Electricity pylons. Giants walked the earth.
A pair of umber cows sidled up against each other, breathed each other in, were still. The rest of the herd were scattered around the field, some lying down under naked and brittle trees. A few examined the stone wall that separates them from the open road.
The only visible disturbance was road signs pointing at me in tongues. Chevrons to the left and to the right. Sharp bend. Adverse camber. Cattle grid. Soft bastard verges. All had exclamation punctuation. Be careful.
The village welcomed careful drivers. The engine is up to temperature and up to speed, gears changed automatically both up and down. I just point and press, point and press. Take chances round corners. Rail the car, hard. Vulcanised rubber screeches, black hole, ambitions breeched. My sister’s village welcomes careful drivers too. I decelerate and indicate: mirror signal manoeuvre. The second time in two days. Up more hills round more bends, hedgerows, piles of leaves in gusts of life, the autumnal colour palette was pulled through my lachrymose eyes. I flashed full beam to give oncoming traffic right of way. Yearned into my sister’s road. Parked. Walked into the kitchen. Looked out the window for two minutes or three hours. Time didn’t matter anymore because it wouldn’t move backward sufficiently.
The coffee was cold so I put it in the microwave. I walked into the front room and forgot that the coffee was in the microwave. I sat down and tried to watch the television. Failed. All I could do was stare at the carpet. My eyes fixed on the carpet. The carpet was beige. Daytime television was vanilla. People wanted to buy a place where the shine is ‘splendiferous’. Couples wanted to move to the countryside to escape the arsehole of city existence. People wanted to downsize, spread out, ‘get back to nature’. Feel the sun on their backs, the sand under their feet. I stared at the carpet. The carpet held my attention. The carpet, it was beige. The carpet was where he was declared dead. Think about it. I couldn’t think about it.
Go back into the kitchen. Nuke the coffee for the second time. It tasted like piss and I threw it down the sink. Back on the sofa, the idiot box flickered at me and I at it. The presenter talked of kitchen diner large open plan living space. Fantastic sea views no real fireplace and the second room is a bit cramped: onto the next property. Old oak beams period features working Victorian fireplace and permission to extend already granted conservation area. See it, hear it, and don’t take it in. Stare at the carpet then look out of the window. The Place in the Sun theme tune rang out. Bright and breezy guitar licks.
The credits rolled on a Place in the Sun and the adverts started. A grey haired man looking despondent. He stares wistfully out of his kitchen window and shuts his laptop, combs his hair with his hand. The same man with noticeably darker hair looks in the mirror and I sense conviction as the boy watches him drive off. The man returns home and the boy runs to him and is scooped in his father’s arms, they wrap around each other.
Plump tears fell down my face poured from my eyes. It’s quite incredible, I didn’t make a sound my breathing remained the same, tears streamed I felt nothing absolutely fuck all. I tried to marry the evidence of tears with the knowledge of Dad’s death and get jilted. Hard.
Two months down the line and the starter motor on the car was still playing up. I tried talking to the car coaxing it back into life, got nothing in response. I reached for the mobile to call Dad.
There was no answer.
There was to be no more calls of fatherly advice.
A W Wilde has been obsessed by the power of words since Chuck D walked onto his record player in 1987. A Large Can of Whoopass, his new collection of short stories is Out Now – for stockists check awwilde.co.uk