...A memory from my days of manhood
My first emotion on hearing about Dad's heart attack was irritation. Typical of him to pick a time like this to screw everything up.
It was Friday 23rd May 1986, the day of his fifty-second birthday, the beginning of the Bank Holiday Weekend.
I'd been working late every night, making that month's print deadline for the music magazine I assistant-edited. My boyfriend David was worn out too, after a hard week training health service people about this scary new thing called H.I.V. We were both looking forward to spending the long weekend break just having some fun.
And now, all I could see ahead of me were endless hours of sitting on a hard plastic chair, in a drab, magnolia-painted ward somewhere, making small talk with a man who two years before told me I was no son of his, because he couldn't possibly have a son who was a poof.
And that would be if I could get past my mother, whose own parting shot had been “... And don't think you're coming to my fucking funeral, you pervert.”
According to my sisters' panicky phone call though, I might not lose the whole weekend. The attack was a bad one; they were operating immediately. It would be touch and go if I got to the hospital in time, whatever the outcome.
I phoned David to apologise about our plans getting screwed. He was firm.
“I'll leave work now, come and pick you up. It'll be quicker by car.”
“Don't be daft. I can get there myself. No reason why we both have to blow out the weekend. Besides, you know what they're like about us.”
“I'm not coming for their sake,” he said. “I'm coming for yours.”
His ancient Renault 4 pulled into the hospital car park at dusk. We headed for the surgical wards.
Mum was patrolling the corridor outside the one dad was in. My sister Lisa, pale-faced, slumped against the wall, watching both of us warily. Mum looked up, and saw David.
“What's he doing here?”
“He's my boyfriend, mum. I want him here.”
“Well, I don't. I'm not having any pansies here. Well, none who aren't family, anyway.”
She stared through him.
“He can fuck right off.”
David touched my arm gently.
“I'll be outside in the car. Don't worry. I'm not going anywhere.”
Mum watched him leave, a tight smile on her lips. Her body was tensed, readying for the latest round in our endless fight. She glared at me. I shook my head.
“I'm not playing your games tonight mum. It's not the time. I just want to know how Dad is.”
She snorted. Lisa spoke.
“He came out of theatre about an hour ago. They said we can go in soon. The doctors seem optimistic...”
...But my sister didn't sound it. Four years younger than me, Lisa had always been Daddies' girl, and I realised now she was frightened for him. I couldn't begrudge her that.
But maybe, if like me, he had ever moved her physically from one end of our hallway to the other by the sheer force of his booted kicks, or beat her with a braided leather dog lead kept specially for the purpose, until the imprint of each welt stood out in perfect detailed relief on her flesh, she might not have felt that way. She might, like me, have been feeling nothing at all.
We waited a long time.
And while we waited, Lisa told me what had happened. A typical Dad story.
This was a man who, one election year, confessed he wasn't sure who to vote for, the communist Socialist Workers Party or the fascist National Front. He was drawn to the extremity in both.
Dad the contrarian: the proud racist, whose best and only friend at the council yard where he fixed dust carts was Mark, a Jamaican guy; Dad, who never met an absurd proposition he didn't like. The only person I knew who made a point of inviting Jehovah's Witnesses in, just for the sport of arguing with them.
So: he'd gotten into some typical, pointless row with one of the other guys at work, over religion, or sex, or which way to stir your tea, and in mid-flow had clutched his chest, and collapsed. Argumentative, overweight, a smoker. A coronary waiting to happen.
And now, they let us onto the ward, my head still full of the bully, the bigot, the racist, the man who had once disowned me, and only later, grudgingly, had allowed any contact at all between us...
...And in the bed was this crumpled, deflated figure. Shockingly grey-faced, hooked up to bleeping machines, he was still a stocky, fleshy man, but someone had let the air out of him, his skull sunk back from the bloodhound jowliness of his face, and there was something in his eyes I had never seen before. Fear.
...So we made stilted hospital small-talk, in the endless muted limbo of visiting time. And all the while we chatted about nothing, the fear never left his eyes.
“It must be boring, just lying there,” I said, stupidly, at one point, for the sake of something, anything to say, to fill the silence that threatened to engulf us all at any moment. Death was right there in the room with us, but if we all kept chatting about nothing, nothing bad could happen.
“Yeah, boring,” Dad said, distractedly. His eyes were focussing on something none of us could see.
Suddenly, despite my coolness, my contempt, I wanted, I needed to do something for this man, who had hurt me and scared me, and who was still my Dad. I had no idea what. Then, thankfully, a bell rang, and we were free to leave.
I went outside and there, in the car park, beyond mum's reach, was David, patiently waiting for me.
I went back on Sunday. Lisa and mum were gone, dashing home for a meal and a change of clothes. They'd left with a warning in their ears: 'stay close, just in case...'
I had a present for Dad. A cheap little plastic transistor radio. He still had that haunted, thousand yard stare.
“It'll give you something to do, you know?” I gabbled. “Something to listen to. News, plays...” As if my Dad would ever listen to a play. Suddenly, I felt awkward, student-pretentious. The first in my family ever to go to university, education had built almost as big a barrier between us as my sexuality.
“Take your mind off, er...” Take your mind off dying, I meant.
He opened the box it came in and looked at the radio dubiously.
“Fucking pink? A pink radio? That's a poofs' colour, pink.”
His voice, though weakened, summoned up some of his usual bile. I felt embarrassed. I hadn't taken the crappy little radio out of its' box when I bought it, didn't realise what colour it was, and now here he was thinking I was trying to score some stupid poofy student point off him...
...And then I looked up into his sunken, grey face, and there was a gleam of another Dad there. Not the violent bigot, but the funny, quick-witted charmer I knew he could be as well. He winked.
“Yeah, thanks son. That'll come in handy, that...”
Two doctors met at the foot of his bed, and began examining his charts, whispering urgently.
Seeing them, the fear returned to his face.
“What they saying? What they looking at, eh?”
“Don't worry Dad, it's nothing.”
A machine began beeping faster. One doctor glanced up, said something to the other.
“Cancer! He said cancer, didn't he? Fucker said I've got cancer, I heard him...”
“What? No, no he didn't, Dad. Where'd you get that from?”
Cancer had killed his Dad. It had become a kind of superstitious totem to him. “Look, Dad, calm down, I'll ask him... Doctor...”
I turned. The beeping machine suddenly went crazy. Dad had his fist, still clutching the little pink radio, clenched over his chest. His teeth were bared in a rictus of agony. An alarm started to sound. I heard running feet. The doctor whose attention I'd been trying to get pushed me aside. “Excuse me please...”
As they wheeled Dad past me, out of the ward, our eyes locked one final time. The fear I saw there was limitless.
...I was standing in a dimly-lit room somewhere. Dad lay on a trolley. His chest rose and fell in time with the bellows of a machine next to him.
“I'm sorry,” a voice was saying “... a second, massive coronary... nothing we could do... It's the machine breathing for him now. He's gone...”
“...It's okay,” another voice in my head said. “We're done here, and you've still got some of the bank holiday left. Everything is fine. Still feeling nothing here.”
A nurse came in and pressed something into my hand. “He was holding this,” she said. I looked down. A crappy little pink plastic radio. Such a cheap piece of shit. I'd been too tight to buy him something decent.
And in that second, grief - physical, animal, utterly overwhelming grief - grief that I had never known it was possible to feel, or survive, ambushed me completely and swept me away.
Somehow, tear-blinded, I found the car park. David was still there, still waiting for me. He'd been out there for hours. I couldn't speak. His arms reached for me.
“Shush now,” he said softly. “I'm here. I'll always be here for you.”
It would be another twenty years before I proved that a lie.
“Typical bloody Dad,” I said at last. “Gave himself a heart attack worrying he had cancer.”
And I laughed. Squeezing the piece-of-shit little pink radio as tightly as I could.