Pineapple yoghurt. Trifle. The last few months he wanted milky things. I bought a bottle of Rémy Martin. He took a sip, made a face. ‘It’s too much now, too strong. I’m sorry,’ he said.
There was a time he would have loved the drink, refilled a shot glass long into the late evening. We’d have played chess, Scrabble, talked about his childhood days: the scrumping, stale cakes at a penny a bag, the war games in The Spaniards woods that led, finally, to the real war.
‘They were lovely lads then,’ he’d say, taking a drag, ‘honest lads.’
He stood next to me in the hall that morning, our reflections in the mirror. ‘Look how I’ve shrunk,’ he said, leaning into my side. Then we got in the car and drove to the hospital. More blood tests. It was a bitter day. ‘This wind will kill me, get me inside.’ It took him half a minute to say eight words.
The breathing problems had begun long before. He’d sit on the stairs. ‘Can’t get the air in…my god, I used to run…I could really run.’ He’d won medals for it from the platoon: cross-country, the mile. Then, for a few months, things would improve. Winters hit hardest. Inside his lungs, with each inhalation, the damage was being done: hot smoke burning out the tiny air sacs, one by one, rendering them unusable, beyond repair. There are technical terms for this destruction.
After the tests, we went to see the specialist. He appeared distracted. ‘Sit down, Mr Crocker, if you would. And you are?’
‘The son. I mean his son.’ I looked at my father’s face. His cavernous face so wasted. He smiled at me, puffed out his cheeks. Now his glasses were so big on him, like joke glasses. I reached for his hand: the purple bruise near his thumb, the liver spots. And I remembered…
We’re walking over grass. The sun glares down. He wears a shiny blue tie, white shirt. I’m in my chocolate-coloured shirt, my new shoes with the pattern of holes on the uppers; they rub. Then on a bus, a green double-decker. 106 or 107. Rough carriage cloth, that smell. People could still smoke upstairs, so that’s where we sit, at the front; and he lights up. The smoke rises to the convex mirror in the corner; the mirror through which the driver can see everything you do. I have some sherbet lemons in a paper bag, football cards in my trouser pocket. We’re moving.
We don’t say anything. It’s a weekday, and now I can’t remember why he wasn’t at work. But that’s where we’re headed – the chocolate factory. He’s an assistant manager in credit control. Most evenings he brings back misshaped liqueurs, soft-centres, New Berry Fruits. The misshapes come in clear plastic bags.
‘Just follow me. Afternoon, Hilda. No, I can’t keep away, can I? This is my youngest.’ A large lady with horn-rimmed glasses ruffles my hair. I look at the floor. The wiry grey carpet stretches ahead for miles.
Then we enter the room. A grotto. Four walls rammed tight with chocolate and sweets, in boxes, packets, tubes, cartons; the shelves overflowing, right to the ceiling. Later, I thought that perhaps it was the tasting room. Standing on a wonky stepladder, from the highest shelf he brings down the largest Toblerone I’ve ever seen. It has the thickness of my arm.
‘We’ll take this back,’ he says. ‘Your mother likes it, and these cherry brandy. D’you want fudge? There, you can carry those.’
A man comes in. I find out later he’s my father’s boss. The man has a smooth, worriless face, wears a light-grey suit, and displays an ease of moving and talking that my father has never shown. I sense immediately that he has some power over my dad because Dad’s voice changes, goes higher, and his hands move jerkily. He’s over-animated, unreal.
‘That muddled bastard ruined me, Son,’ he said, much later.
The specialist, a tall man with a hawk nose and elegant silver hair, shuffled some x-ray sheets on his mahogany desk. ‘Yes, well, Mr…Crocker, we met back in November, didn’t we?’ He didn’t look up.
Dad pulled one of his stock funny faces just as the specialist was raising his head. ‘Something like that,’ he replied.
The specialist leant back into his red leather chair, making it creak. His eyes were half-closed, he looked almost happy. ‘Emphysema is not a curable condition.’ There was quite a long pause before he leant forward again and took a piece of paper from the desk. His voice now brisk: ‘I see you’re on oxygen treatment…and heart tablets…I see, arrhythmia, yes. Hmm. I’m sorry to have to say this, Mr Crocker, but this condition can only deteriorate. I note a history of bronchitis. Yes. Are the inhalers somewhat effective?’
My father’s inhalers: blue, beige, burgundy plastic lifesavers littering the house. His thumb depressing the inner metal canister, a brief hiss as his head arches back, inhales, eyes closing, the soft drift of vapour escaping his pale lips. And the constant dread of them running low.
The man who’d only hit me once in my life, smiled at me. His sunken cheeks, poorly shaven. The man who hated me with stubble: ‘Get that fuzz off,’ he’d say, in half-mock horror, ‘only twisted people wear beards. They hide behind them. Beards are evil, Son!’
‘What about Jesus?’
‘He was different.’ Then he’d grab awkwardly towards my head to stroke my hair.
I helped him back into his coat and we left the consulting room. Out in the car park he wheezed, ‘That’s it then, I’m fucked.’
‘It’ll be alright, Dad, you’ll be alright.’ I was looking across at the car as I said this. It was so damn far away. Then we moved. My arm around his back, steadying him. The glasses slipping down his nose.
‘Get me home, Son. Just get me home.’
We reached the small red car. I drove back. ‘Get it into fourth, the engine’s straining, for Christ’s sake. Open it up here. Go on, don’t be frightened.’
For once, I didn’t argue. His head lay against the window as we passed my old school; the playing field long since built over with executive homes.
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