A few months before they’d split up, her ex-wife, Cal, had told her about a TV show she’d seen where one character grabbed another by the upper arms, looked into their eyes and whispered, “The Lakota have a superstition that you don’t die properly until the last person who can remember you dies. Don’t ever forget this.”
The next day Kate had talked about this idea with Maury, her lover.
Maury had nodded slowly. “I like that.”
But Kate snapped, “So Robert Maxwell could technically still be alive under this ruling?”
Maury had laughed. Kate regretted that now.
Logically it was easy. Kate had been telling herself this all the way in the car, grinding up the Westway ramp, through the red-roofed sprawl of north-west London, past where the road cut through the chalk hills of the Chilterns and buzzards glided above the black tree skeletons until she pulled up in the car park of the nursing home. She yanked the handbrake on too hard. She’d have done it harder if she could. Only a few yellow leaves hung from the branches of the rowan tree. The birds must have eaten all the red berries she’d seen ripening on other visits. Kate checked her phone. When she saw there were no messages, she pushed it down to the bottom of her bag.
Virginia didn’t visit here often. Kate knew this from the nursing home staff. Of course not. Why would she? This was only the man she’d spent the last forty-two years of her life with. But that meant Kate hadn’t needed to ask her to stay away.
The last time she’d seen her mother, she seemed full of an edgy, frenetic energy, though she looked well — her tawny eyes clear and unbloodshot, her fingernails expensively manicured and painted with clear polish. In the garden centre café that they’d appointed as a neutral meeting place, she’d harassed the slow, old waitress. Once she finished crumbling a scone, foot tapping all the while, she hesitated then clearly decided against giving Kate a goodbye hug and high-tailed away between the trays of blue and red polyanthuses.
The nursing home buzzer gave a low juddering ring as she leant on it hard. When Kate had been buzzed inside and signed her name, she went quickly through the hall, ignoring the brew of floral disinfectant and overcooked peas, which was usually the first stage towards her feeling upset and angry. Heading briskly to his room she had a moment where she was both walking down the corridor and watching herself walk from above. The awfulness of the mauve carpet was what mainly struck her.
“Dad?” She knocked and waited a few moments out of exaggerated, useless respect.
There he was in a chair in the corner, curled into himself. She paused to make herself breathe and imagined him, a curled leaf, swept away down a dark river. Why couldn’t it be like this?
Someone with little sense of her father’s style must have been in this morning to dress him and sit him up in that chair – he wore black slacks and a blue cardigan that she didn’t ever remember seeing him in before. His hair had grown back, but the haircut he had was too short and she could see white scalp between the grey-blonde stubble. The vacancy of his face was truly horrible.
“Dad, it’s me.” She felt the hot prickle of tears. His eyes opened and seemed to fix on her for a few seconds before his gaze wandered off. Where are you? Where do you go? She hoped he was wrapped in memories as tight as a cocoon: her and her sisters riding on his back, ruining his suit trousers on the scrubby grass of her childhood garden; a much younger Virginia smiling at him as he came towards her, his thick, blonde hair like wheat flattened by rain, tennis racket lifted high in jubilation; rowing on Ullswater, the splash of the oars muffled by the morning mist, a boy again. All this he held. All this would be lost.
“Honestly, if I ever get so that I’m gaga, don’t know where I am, the full works, just finish me off with a brick, will you, girls?”
Kate couldn’t remember exactly when her father had said this, but she remembered being at the polished dinner table in her parents’ conservatory, air full of the smell of roast potatoes and hot fat, despite the trundle of the extractor fan from the kitchen.
“Dad!” Jacqs had squeaked.
“Paving slab more like with that skull.”
“Thanks, Hetty. Semper fi and all that.”
“Do you really mean that, Dad?” she’d asked coolly.
“Never been more serious in my life.” Tony forked up a potato. Kate had no memory of her mother in that conversation. Her father’s wishes didn’t seem like much of a practical guide now.
Lying alone in bed last night she’d tried it on herself, fingers clamped down hard across her mouth. If anything, it felt reassuring to hold her own face this tightly, but that was because she could take her hand away at any time. She could also still breathe out of her nose, she realised stupidly.
She sat on the fleecy blanket on his bed at a right angle to him. She felt she should say some important words to him, to tell him how much she loved him, how she hoped she was doing what he would have wanted, how it would be over quickly, but she also knew this was impossible because to open her mouth would be to let herself start crying and if she started she wouldn’t be able to stop. “Dad,” was all she could manage. She took his hand.
She cast around the room, to fasten her gaze onto something, to steady herself. The ugly pink and gold vase filled with gladioli on the windowsill was so far from anything her parents would ever have chosen for their house that it loomed as a symbol of how lost her father was. She stared until, when she closed her eyes briefly, she could still see its wide mouth and stout outline.
It was hard to pick the moment because time was an endless series of now, now, now, and any one of those could be the moment. But as they drifted past her, she recognized that none of them were, yet.
But really? She swept her gaze around the large, north-facing room with its impersonal furniture and en suite bathroom. Would it be so bad to give him more of this? She could come again, more decisive, better rested, she’d hardly slept at all last night. Another chance for everyone.
What would Virginia feel when she heard? Kate didn’t care. But her sisters? Hetty? She thought she’d feel bad for Jacqs. Her ex-wife, Cal? Relationships complex as a tangle of scummy hair pulled up from a plughole.
It was December but with this strange surge of feeling came the memory of a thunderstorm last summer. She was naked in bed in their flat, the safety and imprisonment of Cal and Maury’s hands on her at the same time. At first the burst of lightning just at the moment she’d shouted to a sharp climax seemed too comically ironic.
“Wow, look!” Maury had twisted round to where white lightning cracked the brown-tinged London sky. Thunder rumbled like heavy furniture being moved in the flat upstairs.
Naked, she moved past her two lovers, left them kneeling on the bed, as she was drawn to the balcony doors. She couldn’t remember Cal or Maury following her. The city spread out seventeen storeys below was a dense hive of lit, anonymous buildings, nowhere she had ever been before or cared about. The dry flashes of lightning illuminating the city were like negatives dropping into the night before her eyes. And she remembered the power of the storm, breaking over London and how, as she stepped out onto the balcony, the damp air had been like a cold, heavy curtain brushing against her skin. But then she passed through it and was exhilarated.
“Dad.” She squeezed his hand, sure that he would know what was about to happen and would summon all his strength to meet her eyes and give her a small nod or otherwise absolve her, but he stayed huddled in his chair, head drooping down, as if fearing a blow, just as he had been when she first arrived.
She couldn’t say, “I love you,” but she reached forwards and covered his mouth and nose. As his body started to jerk beneath her hands, she hoped that, on some distant level, he would understand that this meant the same.
L.E. Yates was born in Manchester in 1981 but now lives in London. She’s interested in the imaginative loophole fiction creates out of the contract of everyday life. She had been awarded Arts Council, England funding and her short stories have appeared in anthologies from Parenthesis to Dead Languages.
Her twitter account is @l_e_yates
Her website is http://leyates.co.uk