You stand outside your father's bedroom, your hand hovering over the doorknob, uncertain whether you ought to open it or walk away and leave it for another ten minutes. You listen, your ear close to the wooden panel of the door, but hear nothing. You put your hand around the doorknob and touch it hesitantly. What if he's sitting up in bed and staring at me with those deep dark eyes of his? You ask yourself. Closing your eyes, you try to imagine how he was when you left him fifteen minutes before. However, the image is overcome by your fear that he has somehow managed to survive your attempt of suffocating him with the pillow, and is waiting for you, either in bed or behind the door.
"And I want some warm soup," your father had asked earlier that morning when you had entered the bedroom and he was lying back on his pillows and staring at you with his deep hard eyes. "And try not to allow lumps in it. I hate lumps," he added a few moments later. You had entered the room and gone to the bed to tidy up his blankets and covers, and he had grabbed your hand and squeezed it with that spiteful way he had, even when you were a girl and you had offended him, or simply because he was in a bad mood, and you were the nearest and youngest. You had pulled away your hand and stared at it. Red marks were around your wrist where he had grabbed you so tightly. Even as a sick and weak man, he had that strength of will to hurt and cause pain to others.
Taking a deep intake of breath, you open the door slowly. Your heart is beating so hard that you feel it hitting against your breast. You look towards the bed expecting him to be sitting up and glaring at you, but he isn't. He's lying on his back with the pillow still over his face and motionless. You hesitate and stand by the door. What if it's just him trying to catch me out? you muse, standing still with your hands gripping each other anxiously. You wait and stare. The clock on the bedside cabinet ticks softly. There is no other sound. Even the birds outside the window have stopped their singing. You move closer and look down at the pillow. Your father's hands are still curled up as they were when you had left the room fifteen minutes before. Even though it all looks as it was when you left the room after holding the pillow over his head, he could still be pretending, you think, hesitating over the pillow, fearing that he may suddenly open his eyes and make a grab for you. Your breathing becomes heavy and you sense your body perspire. Dampness clings under your arms.
You lower your hands slowly and remove the pillow, expecting your father to suddenly grab at you, and see his eyes glare at you as he often did if you had not pleased him for some reason or other. However, once the pillow is removed you see that he not pretending at all. His eyes are open, but blankly staring at the ceiling.
His pallor is off-white with a hint of yellowness about his drawn cheeks. His lips are parted as if he was about to say something, but nothing had come, only a stillness. You hold the pillow away from the body and stand back. Even now, you still fear he will turn his head and look at you with those eyes that as a child you feared so much.
If your mother had not died when you were nine years old, she would have stood up to him and not let him treat you the way he did. Or that is what you always believed and told yourself as a child after he had beaten you, or had locked you in the cupboard under the stairs, or outside in the summer house where you feared the spiders, and other things that seemed to move in the dark. Your brother, Gavin had fared no better, but he was a male and eventually had managed to leave the house and go to war and get himself killed in Africa somewhere. However, your mother, whom you barely remembered, was your saviour even though she had ill served you by dying as she did. Suicide was not a word you understood much as a child, and when you did understand it, you tried to forget it, and imagine it had been a mistake, or even that your father had murdered her and pretended she had committed suicide.
You put the pillow on the chair by the bed. Your father has made no turn of his head or moved a muscle in anyway at all. He is motionless as if made of wax. You move closer and sniff him. There is a sickly smell about him, a smell that has lingered for weeks now, and has made you tread entering the room, because it made you feel nauseous and giddy. Hesitantly you place your hand on his brow. It feels strange. You have not touched his brow since you were a child, and he had asked you to play at being a nurse, and had grabbed you and squeezed you and said that he knew you only wanted to poison him and as you think of that time, you remove your hand and wipe it on your dress. Your father's hands are laying claw like on the blanket. Harmless now. Nothing about them can harm you anymore. You want to squeeze them tight has he done and make red marks on them as he had done to your hands, but you don't. You lift them and put them under the bed covers out of sight. They seem so light, so feather like as if he were a bird no longer able to fly.
"Dead," you whisper. The word seems to linger about the room like a bird of prey.
You walk around the bed, not taking your eyes off your father as you go. Once you reach the other side of the bed, you look at him from the other angle, stooping level with the bed. You stretch out your right hand and touch his left cheek. Your fingers run slowly down the skin and then up again.
Bristles make his cheek rough and manly.
The moustache, which you trimmed the other day, seems in need of trimming again, but you won't anymore. He can go as he is, you muse, withdrawing your fingers and wiping them on the bed cover. "You can't harm me anymore," you say bitterly. "Can't make me cry anymore. I won't cry at your funeral." Your words linger about your head and seem to crowd you in. What now? you muse moving around the bed again and standing by the bedside cabinet. Call Doctor Vine, you tell yourself. He will not be surprised. He will come and that will be that. Yes, call him, you say to yourself, phone him now. And picking up the pillow on the chair by the bed, you leave the room and shut the door behind you with a softness that comes from habit.
"Your mother is dead, Lizabeth" your father had said the night after her body had been discovered hanging from a tree in the garden. "We will not mention her anymore. She no longer exists," he had said to you and Gavin.
"I want to see her," you had said. Gavin said nothing; he stared at your father and waited to see what would happen to you by your outburst.
Your father had grabbed you, dragged you out into the garden, and locked you in the summerhouse all night with the spiders and other noises that seemed to echo all around you in the dark. Gavin had said nothing and never did mention your mother again. But you did. At least you did to yourself. You tried to conjure up her image time after time, until gradually she became just a blurred and faint image, and then you couldn't remember what she looked like at all, and went on thinking of her out until it became pointless, and you slowly stopped, and she became just another face forgotten, amongst those your father had dismissed, or made disappear from your sight.
The doctor leans over your father and examines him in silence. You stand by the door and watch him moving his hands and touching your father's body. You have not seen your father's naked body so blatantly before. Its thinness and whiteness brings to you just how mortal your father really was. Yet even now, as the doctor moves the body over, you have a deep fear that your father will suddenly wake from his silence and fight back against his death.
"Was he like this when you found him?" Doctor Vine asks.
"Yes," you lie, looking at the doctor's back, at the way his head tilts to one side as if he were deciding something that is puzzling him. "Is anything wrong?" you ask, moving forward towards the bed.
"Were the hands beneath the blanket when you found him?" the doctor asks.
"No," you reply, standing just behind the doctor." I put them inside after I found him."
The doctor nods and stands back. He turns and looks at you with a steady professional gaze. "I'm surprised he has lasted this long," he says. "I'll think his heart just grew too tired, Elizabeth." He looks back at the body of your father and sighs.
"Shall I contact the undertakers?" you ask simply.
"Yes," he replies, turning back and looking at you. His eyes have a sense of pity in them as if he had a suspicion that something was not quite right, but wasn't sure what it was. "I'll write out the death certificate. You'll need that before anything can be done."
You nod your head and then over towards the body now covered by the blanket. You feel a sense of emptiness enter you and an emotion you never thought you would have. The doctor places a hand on your shoulder and taps it a couple of times.
"Time will heal the pain of your loss," he says, moving his hand back by his side. "I remember your mother's death," he adds, looking back at the body once more. "Untimely. You were so young. Your father was not an easy man." The doctor pauses. He turns back to you again. "Sometimes a death is a death for more than the person who has died. Others die a little at the same time. I think your father began to die the day your mother died."
You didn't think you would ever feel for your father enough to bring tears to your eyes. You say nothing, but wipe your eyes on a small handkerchief. After a touch of his hand on your head, he turns and walks out of the room. You listen as he walks down the stairs and out of the front door. Silence. You look at the body of your father and wipe your eyes once more. "Now I can live," you murmur, moving towards the door. "A death is a death, but your death gives me life," you utter bitterly. You give the body a last stare and then you close the door behind you and begin to walk down the stairs. However, half way down you turn round and see a woman standing by the bedroom door. She is smiling; just like your mother use to smile as she kissed you goodnight, those long almost forgotten years ago, before the dark ages came.