WHEN DID YOU LAST see your father? Was it when they burnt the coffin? Put the lid on it? When he exhaled his last breath? When he last sat up and said something? When he last recognised me? When he last smiled? When he last did
something for himself unaided? When he last felt healthy? When he last thought he might be healthy, before they brought him the news?
When did you last see your father? I sit at my desk in the mortuary-cold basement of the new house, the house he helped me buy, his pacemaker in an alcove above my word processor, and the shelves of books have no more meaning than to remind me: these are the first shelves I put up without him. I feel as if an iron plate had come down inside me. I thought that to see my father dying might remove my fear of death, and so it did. I hadn't reckoned on its making death seem preferable to life.
When did you last see your father? I dream of the vast ribcage of a bison lying on the sheet of the desert and being picked clean by vultures. I dream of blistered skin and crumbling parchment and a cyclone of paper bits, a lost masterpiece blowing about the sky. But I don't dream of my father. I've seen his initials on a car number-plate: ABM 179X. His voice was on the answering machine for a while, a long message about bank statements, until someone left a longer one. I heard rasping breaths from his bedroom, but they died when I walked in. I haven't the comfort of religion. I'm not like the boy in the famous painting, the Royalist boy interrogated on his footstool, who knows his father is only hiding, not dead.
When did you last see your father? The weeks before he left us, or life left him, were a series of depletions; each day we thought 'He can't get less like himself than this', and each day he did. I keep trying to find the moment when he was still unmistakably there, in the fullness of his being, him.
SUNDAY breakfast in the dining-room, the sun riding down from Embsay Moor. My father has recently bought a freezer and his paean to frozen food sounds as if it's been scripted by an ad agency: 'Just think, these raspberries we're eating were picked three months ago. And they taste as if I'd brought them in this morning. Marvellous. None of that metallic sogginess you get from tins. Incredible thing, science.'
On the side-plates my father has laid out a series of vitamin pills: he has become fanatical about minding his As and Bs, his Cs and Ds, newly convinced that we can avoid colds and flu if we adopt a regime of tablets and capsules. Some of the pills are hard to swallow, others star-burst oilily when you nip their skin with your teeth. The family, not for the first time, is acting as a controlled medical experiment: what we are swallowing today, all his patients in Earby will be swallowing tomorrow.
It is hard to reconcile this health regime with the next course, the bacon, egg, tomato and dippy bread - a slice of white bread frizzled in the leftover fat in the frying-pan. 'You can't beat dippy,' my father says as he slides the last piece of it around his plate, soaking up yet more heart-gunge, yet more killing fluids. Dippy is the last of the bad old fat habits to go - even when butter has been replaced by margarine, it passes muster.
After toast and marmalade, we settle down with pint mugs of coffee. 'Made with hot milk, Mummy? Smashing.' It is my father who says this, not me. All through our childhood he has called his wife 'Mummy', never Agnes, her actual name, which he hates because it sounds drab and old-fashioned, never Kim either, the name her friends use and which he persuaded her to adopt not so much to seem chic and Fifies - was it plagiarised from Kim Novak? - as to erase her rural Irish past. She has shed her name, abandoned her country and buried her Kerry accent; in return he calls her 'Mummy'.
Until now, it has sounded fine, but at 12 it's beginning to embarrass me: I want to call them Mum and Dad; and I want them to call each other Kim (or even Agnes) and Arthur. It's a futile ambition. My father will go on calling her Mummy - 'Glass of wine, Mummy, love?' - long after my sister and I have left home. He'll call her Mummy with increasing frequency once his own mother dies. And he'll call her Mummy not just in front of her grown-up children but in the company of friends, strangers in pubs, even when they are alone.
'It's your half-term coming up,' he says to me.
'I've been thinking. It's time we went camping.'
'You know, fathead - tent, poles.'
'Just the two of us, boys together - or men together.'
I have just had my 12th birthday. This is what he must mean by 'men'. The thought of a camping holiday with my father fills me with dread.
'It's good to get away sometimes, you know.'
'Under the stars, fresh air and exercise - marvellous.'
A week later, on a hill above Lake Windermere, we're listening to the six o'clock news: there is something about Fidel Castro, with his big beard, and President Kennedy, so young and smiley and perfect, and President Khrushchev, who my father says you can't trust. Below, a rowing-boat chops and stitches its way across the water. The sheep on the green hills opposite are dotted tinily up to the summit, then evaporate into cumuli. 'Marvellous,' my father says. 'Couldn't have picked a better day. Fresh air, blue sky, not a soul in sight - makes you glad to be alive.' To my father meteorology is a science of optimism. 'Lucky with the weather,' he'll say when it's heavy and overcast. 'Wonderful day' denotes high cloud. 'Miraculous, like being on the Riviera' is when the sun, however briefly, gets through the clouds.
I sit on the tartan rug while he reaches into the boot, then dumps the heavy, rope-necked canvas swagbag on to the turf beside me. He undoes the rope, then slides the bag along the length of tent and yanks it up, like a mother removing the dungarees from her flat-on-its-back, nappy-heavy toddler. It must be years since the tent was last up, but at once a familiar smell rises from it - the smell of canvas and sand-dunes and grass cuttings and suntan oil and dead earwigs.
'Funny,' my father says, and goes back to the boot of the car. I get up, and fiddle with the guy-ropes, their heavy wooden adjustables. 'Is there a bag anywhere under the tent?' he shouts, as he opens the car door and peers under the back seat. I lift one corner and find a small blue canvas holdall.
'Yes,' I call.
'What's in it?'
'Pegs,' I shout back, pulling out a clunky handful of them - they look like primitive-man sticks of firewood, with little notches axed into the side.
I can remember what the poles are like - thick, wooden, three feet long, with large metal spears and slots at each end. I search the bracken, the canvas, under the car. 'I must have put them in,' my father says, without conviction. 'Couldn't we break some branches off and make do with those?'
'Don't be daft. It'll be dark in half an hour.'
'What are we going to do?'
'Pack up and go home.'
On the drove-road back down, though, he has another idea. 'We could stay in a hotel, I suppose. And ring Mummy, and get her to drive up with the poles tomorrow and meet us halfway.'
Which is what she does. And we do. But the next night it's raining, and the tent is flooded out. And the third and last night we spend back at the hotel: roast duck, consomme, a log fire. We never try camping again.
HE IS SITTING on the far side of the bed, or someone is, someone in a thin green gown, not at all like him. Hospitals have a way of disorienting people. But it can't be this. My father is used to hospitals. This hospital, Airedale, is the one to which, in his last decade as a GP, he would refer most of his cases. This ward, Ward 19, is one to which he's come, since retirement, to see old patients. Even this room, No 2, he knows from earlier visits. But today he isn't visiting. Today he's the patient. Today the visitor is me.
If it were my father visiting, this person on the far side of the bed would get short shrift. What do you call this then? A nightie? Not quite your style is it? He has a white cotton blanket over his knees: What, in this hot room, a baby blanket? Let's get some air in the place. He turns his head only a fraction when I enter. Come on, cheer up, it might never happen. But we all know it will happen, sooner rather than later, and that is why I'm here.
'Feeling rough, Dad?'
'Better than yesterday, though.'
'And it's only four days since the operation.'
I hug him a moment, then sit beside the bed in a small plastic chair. He isn't pale - the old tanned ruddiness is there - but his Bournville-dark eyes have lost their light, and his head is pushed slightly forward, like a tortoise's from its shell.
'Soup, doctor?' asks a student nurse from the door - Kieran, it says, on his lapel. I sit there silently willing my father to eat more, more. Then Kieran is back. 'How are we getting on, then?' he asks in a slow, loud, deliberate voice. I want to scream at him: 'This is my father, you dickhead, not some invalid to be patronised.' But an invalid, now, is exactly what he is.
I watch my father rise moon-slow to walk to the bathroom, his ankles swelling like loaves from his felt moccasin slippers, twice their usual size, his slender calves bloated, as if everything he drank had sloshed straight down to his ankles. Out of breath, he reaches the bathroom door and gently closes it behind him.
WE TALK on the phone. My mother has briefed me to feign amazement.
'You're home, Dad.'
'I thought that might surprise you.'
'How you feeling?'
'Bit better. Sharp pain under the scar, but you know the old theory - if a child has tummy pains, put a penny on its umbilicus.'
'You have a penny on your umbilicus?'
'Not a penny, a tight bandage. And I've slept 14 hours today.'
'That's good,' I say, though it isn't: my father sleeping for 14 hours? The man who reckoned he needed only six hours and a couple of catnaps?
I listen to his voice fading on the mobile phone, and remember my conversation with the consultant three days ago - 'Can he die at home?' 'I don't see why not: your mother's a doctor, and there's nothing more we can do for him in hospital' - and wonder if this is where we've got already.
A PHOTOGRAPH of my father in his fifties. He's sitting outside our 'chalet', or caravan, in Abersoch, North Wales. Over his shoulder is a bank of marram grass and, beyond, white beach, a frill of breakers, two islands floating in the bay. In his lap is a long piece of yellow plastic which he feeds into my mother's ancient sewing machine. He is putting the final touches to his latest invention, a sleeping bag that will allow him to sleep in comfort outdoors.
Throughout my childhood he's been in the habit of sleeping outside whenever the weather is warm enough to permit it, and sometimes when it isn't. He sleeps on the back lawn, outside the front porch, down the drive. But his favourite place is this terrace by the sea. My mother never complains about his habit, beyond a wry comment or two when clear night turns to rain by morning. His one complaint is that his sleeping bag always ends up damp: 'It's either rain or condensation. No bloody way round it.'
Now he's found a way: a home-made plastic sleeping bag in which he'll slip his ordinary sleeping bag and not end up clammy any more. To make it has been a victory of will-power over instinct, requiring him to operate a sewing-machine. He has never to my knowledge darned a sock, sewn on a button, boiled an egg, washed or ironed a shirt, swept the floor, cleaned the cooker or vacuumed the carpet. But now he has taught himself to sew. This is why he's smiling in the photograph. He's smiling because it's warm and he need wear no more than a pair of shorts. He's smiling because he's in his element: sun, sand and sea. But most of all he's smiling because he's working, lost and absorbed and self-transcending in a practical chore.
MY MOTHER stands at the door. I know from her face that he is still alive - and from his face, as I rush past her, that he won't be for long. He is asleep, though awake or asleep is hard to tell. Asleep, his right eye won't quite close, and I can see the rolled-up white of the ball. Awake, he can't open his left eye fully - the lid stays low and hooded over the pupil. His cheeks are hollower. His chin, with its week-old stubble, is an offence to his philosophy of close shaving. He is breathing simultaneously through his mouth, which falls in a kind of rigid open slackness, and his nose - I can see the contractions just under the bridge, the skin tightening as he snuffs fiercely for air. His bottom lip falls away from his teeth. Something pink is gumming them up - bits of unswallowed or regurgitated pills. His hair drops
long and sleekly over the tops of his ears - it just doesn't
seem to have got the idea; it keeps on growing regardless.
I sit in the chair next to him, catching a reek from the bedclothes. I hold his hand, the one unshrunken part of him, still so big and autocratic and can-do. I can see the holes and crevices opening up in him - above his collar-bone, between his ribs, under his ears - as the skeleton seems to move up through him to the surface of his skin, in charge, taking possession, turning out the flesh. I lift the sheet and see the pads under him and the nappy round his middle, its two sticky-tape ties at the side. He is far gone from himself, yet the breathing is deep and regular. I thought that he could not shrivel further, could not become any more ill, but I was wrong.
All his adult life he has spent among medicines and now he is going to die among them. They sit like nurses on the window-sill - Diconal, Frusemide, Largactil, Periactin - not the old glass jars and coloured bottles and round cardboard pill-boxes of his first post-war practice, but white plastic containers with push-and-screw safety lids. There seems nothing odd about them being there, only that they're for him. His home has always been an overspill for pills and equipment from surgery - he liked to be on the safe side, to have spares and duplicates to hand, not least for his own family. For a time, when I was 12, he had given me small plastic syringes to play with, a Sixties advance on the old metal ones - with the needles snapped off, they made good water-pistols, and I'd found them a nice little earner, selling them to schoolfriends for a shilling or florin according to size. When word got back, he was furious and stopped the supply: it wasn't my capitalistic enterprise he minded but the fact that I was a doctor's son - what if people gossiped that Arthur Morrison was using his son in this way to make a bob or two?
The newest syringes, which he has by his bed now, are smaller and more disposable still: they come with a glass capsule, and you break the end off, dip in and fill your needle, administer the injection and throw them away. The medicines he can't take by mouth he takes in this way from my mother: a quick swab of the thigh, the prick of the needle barely registering in his eyes (because he is too drugged? because there is too much pain elsewhere to notice a pinprick?). The left thigh is now blotchy with needle-marks: he is bleeding gently from one of them and my mother washes the blood away.
Half an hour later, he gets himself upright on the edge of the bed. He's mumbly, breathless and wants a drink. Under the sheet I can see his lumpy belly with its rip of stitches - like the wolf in the children's story who swallows the goat-kids, falls asleep, and wakes to find its stomach full of stones. I hold a half-pint tankard of iced water for him - not one of his old sliver golf club tankards (burglars had made off with those), but a glass one with a red fox-hunting motif in a panel on its side, one of a set I drank my first bitter shandy from, at his behest ('Learn the taste of beer now, and you won't go wild later'), when I was 12. I put a towel under his chin, and tip his head back, and he forces a bit down, and a lot more comes back up, his hands shaking as he tries to steady them round the glass. 'Is that better?' I ask, and he manages 'Yes,' and then I try him with a straw, aiming its end between his teeth, and he gets the idea, seems too weak at first to draw anything up, but then makes a stupendous effort, the indents under each ear drawn in fiercely as he sucks, sucks. A drop of water makes it into him, and as he struggles for breath again I imagine, no, hear, this drop of water he's swallowed pinballing down and through and into the dry places inside.
His burnt lips look moister now, his voice-box is oiled and working again, though I can't make out what he's saying. My mother, responding, chats and flirts and teases, and there are certain words she says at which he seems to prick up. He had said to her in the night, 'Could you move me, pet,' and that pet has convinced her he knows she is there and recognises her still, but I can't say with confidence, or even without it, that he recognises me. His eyes have milked up, distant, unfocusing. I had hoped he would know me one more time, but it doesn't look likely now. If the point of my coming here was for that recognition, to get some sort of return for my nursing and attending, there is no longer a point, for he's off on his own. There is a Robert Frost poem which says this, or some of it, or more than it:
The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short
They might as well not try to go at all.
No, from the time when one is sick to death,
One is alone, and he dies more alone.
As we help him back on to the bed now, lifting him under the arms, his body so wasted away yet so heavy with fluid, and as we heave his bottom (BTM he used to call it, a euphemism for a euphemism) closer to the pillows to keep him upright, and as we swing his legs back up and straighten him, I wonder whether these manoeuvres are more a comfort to us - an illusion of doing something - than they can ever be to him. Perhaps if he had bedsores, our tending, even at this late stage, could provide some relief to him. But now he has got near to a place so far away that what's happening to him here no longer seems to register.
There are to be no more moments of lucidity, no more conversations, only the look of him all afternoon and evening: the stubble, the left eye half-open, the head sunk on his chest until some word in whatever anecdote we are trying to engage him with - my train journey up, my mother's dealings with the gardener - seems to catch and snag for a second, to trip some not always related words of his own, then to ratchet away hopelessly into space again.
As the day drags on, it becomes harder to ignore the stench coming from his bed. Finally, around teatime, with my sister there and a few drinks inside us, we resolve to change him. It means my catching him under the armpits, lifting him up and off the bed, then turning him through 180 degrees to plonk him on his bedside chair. While I hold him there, my mother clears the pads, the soiled cotton sheets, the swimming rubber sheet underneath, and my sister puts down new sheets in their place. Then we unsnap the ties on his nappy, and I lift him upright again while my sister slides it off: it peels away crooked and slantwise, snagging on his thigh, but at least the wiping of his bottom, which is smudgy but not sore, need be no more than perfunctory. Then we slide the new nappy under him, my sister proficient at one side, my mother - a Fifties Terry-nappy mother - struggling with the technology at the other. I have to slide my right arm through my father's right arm and across his chest to support him under the left arm, while with my free left arm I hold the nappy firm so my mother can stick down the tie.
Now he is done, and I begin to lift and turn him in a semi-circle back again. But to do this means moving the chair with my knee, and I miscue and tilt it, and for one horrible moment one of its legs catches his leg, spearing the instep, pressing hard into the puffiness, skewering him to the floor, enough for him to mumble: 'Chair'. Then I see and lift it off again, and I get him up and then recumbent on the bed, his chest vertical, the pillows propped behind him. And I sit there breathing heavily, his hand in my hand, wondering if he, being the patriarch he was, ever changed a nappy of mine, and wondering if this might be a definition of what it is to be grown up - not changing your child's nappy but changing your parent's.
When I walk my sister back in the dark, a moon in the clear sky, I say: 'I hope he dies tonight. I don't want him to go on any more.'
'I hope so too.'
'Shall we ring if he does?'
'No - in the morning.'
A HOT September Saturday in 1959, and we're stationary in a lane near Oulton Park. Ahead of us, a queue of cars stretches out of sight around the corner. We haven't moved for 10 minutes. Everyone has turned his engine off, and now my father does so too. In the sudden silence we can hear the distant whinge of what must be the first race of the afternoon, a 10-lap event for saloon cars. It is quarter past one. In an hour the drivers will be warming up for the main event, the Gold Cup - Graham Hill, Jack Brabham, Roy Salvadori, Stirling Moss and Joakim Bonnier. My father has always loved fast cars, and motor-racing has a strong British following just now, which is why we are stuck here in this country lane with hundreds of other cars.
My father does not like waiting in queues. He is used to patients waiting in queues to see him, but he is not used to waiting in queues himself. A queue, to him, means a man being denied the right to be where he wants to be at a time of his own choosing, which is at the front, now. Ten minutes have passed. What is happening up ahead? What fathead has caused this snarl-up? Why are no cars coming the other way? Has there been an accident? Why are there no police to sort it out? Every two minutes or so my father gets out of the car, crosses to the opposite verge and tries to see if there is movement up ahead. There isn't. He gets back in and steams some more. The roof of our Alvis is down, the sun beating on to the leather upholstery, the chrome, the picnic basket. The roof is nearly always down, whatever the weather: my father loves fresh air, and every car he has owned has been a convertible, so that he can have fresh air. But the air today is not fresh. There is a pall of high-rev exhaust, dust, petrol, boiling-over engines.
In the cars ahead and behind, people are laughing, eating sandwiches, drinking from beer bottles, enjoying the weather, settling into the familiar indignity of waiting-to-get-to-the-front. But my father is not like them. There are only two things on his mind: the invisible head of the queue and, not unrelated, the other half of the country lane, tantalisingly empty.
'Just relax, Arthur,' my mother says. 'You're in and out of the car like a blue-tailed fly.'
But being told to relax only incenses him. 'What can it be?' he demands. 'Maybe there's been an accident. Maybe they're waiting for an ambulance.' We all know where this last speculation is leading before he says it. 'Maybe they need a doctor.'
'No, Arthur,' says my mother, as he opens the door again and stands on the wheel-arch to crane ahead.
'It must be an accident,' he announces. 'I think I should drive up and see.'
'No, Arthur. It's just the numbers waiting to get in. And surely there must be doctors on the circuit.'
It is one-thirty and silent now. The saloon race has finished. It is still over an hour until the Gold Cup itself, but there's another race first, and the cars in the paddock to see, and besides . . . 'Well I'm not going to bloody well wait here any longer,' he says. 'We'll never get in. We might as well turn round and give up.' He sits there for another 20 seconds, then leans forward, opens the glove compartment and pulls out a stethoscope, which he hooks over the mirror on the windscreen. It hangs there like a skeleton, the membrane at the top, the metal and rubber leads dangling bow-legged, the two ivory earpieces clopping bonily against each other. He starts the engine, releases the handbrake, reverses two feet, then pulls out into the opposite side of the road.
'No,' says my mother again, half-heartedly. It could be that he is about to do a three-point turn and go back. No it couldn't . . .
My father does not drive particularly quickly past the marooned cars ahead. No more than 20 miles an hour. Even so, it feels fast, and arrogant, and all the occupants turn and stare as they see us coming. Some appear to be angry. Some are shouting. 'Point to the stethoscope, pet,' he tells my mother, but she has slid down sideways in her passenger seat, out of sight, her bottom resting on the floor, from where she berates him. 'God Almighty, Arthur, why do you have to do this? Why can't you wait like everyone else? What if we meet something coming the other way?' Now my sister and I do the same, hide ourselves below the seat. Our father is on his own. He is not with us, this bullying, shaming undemocratic cheat. Or rather, we are not with him.
My face pressed to the sweet-smelling upholstery, I imagine what is happening ahead. I can't tell how far we have gone, how many blind corners we have taken. If we meet something, on this narrow country lane, we will have to reverse past all the cars we've just overtaken. That's if we can stop in time. I wait for the squeal of brakes, the clash of metal.
After an eternity of - what? - two minutes, my mother sticks her head up and says, 'Now you've had it,' and my father replies, 'No, there's another gate beyond,' and my sister and I raise ourselves to look. We are up level with the cars at the head of the queue, which are waiting to turn left into the brown ticket holders' entrance, the plebs' entrance. A steward steps out of the gateway towards us, but my father, pretending not to see him, doesn't stop. He drives ahead, on to a clear piece of road where, 200 yards away, half a dozen cars from the opposite direction are waiting to turn into another gateway. Unlike those we have left behind, these cars appear to be moving. Magnanimous, my father waits until the last of them has turned in, then drives through the stone gateposts and over the bumpy grass to where an arm-banded steward in a tweed jacket is waiting by the roped entrance.
'Good afternoon, sir. Red ticket holder?' The question is no shock: we've all seen the signs, numerous and clamorous, saying 'RED TICKET HOLDERS' ENTRANCE'. But my father is undeterred. 'These, you mean,' he says, and hands over his brown tickets.
'No, sir, I'm afraid these are brown tickets.'
'But there must be some mistake. I applied for red tickets. To be honest, I didn't even look.'
'I'm sorry, sir, but these are brown tickets, and brown's the next entrance, 200 yards along. If you'd just like to swing round here, and . . .
'I'm happy to pay the difference.'
'No, you see the rules say . . .'
'I know where the brown entrance is, I've just spent the last hour queueing for it by mistake. I drove up here because I thought I was red. I can't go back there now. The queue stretches for miles. And these children, you know, who'd been looking forward . . .' By now half a dozen cars have gathered behind us. One of them parps. The steward is wavering.
'You say you applied for red.'
'Not only applied for, paid for. I'm a doctor, you see' - he points at the stethoscope - 'and I like being near the grandstand.'
This double non-sequitur seems to clinch it.
'All right, sir, but next time please check the tickets. Ahead and to your right.'
I SIT IN front of the television and watch the news (another policeman stabbed, name of Morrison), and then a film, Escape from Alcatraz. At some point I fall asleep, waking in some dark and nameless hour to the sound of the phone, which I rush to knowing it must be terrible news, that my father has died at home, and then I find myself in his bedroom, where the phone by the bed is disconnected, and there he is breathing next to my mother, neither of them hearing, and I rush back into the living-room and pick up another phone - it's the GP, checking on progress and inviting us to feel free to call him any time of night at the following numbers. I thank him and hang up, wondering why he has felt free to call us at any time of night without being invited to, but then I find it is only 11.15. I wander back to my parents' bedroom. Her hand is in his, I see, like the couple in Larkin's An Arundel Tomb, though the little dog is not at their feet but in the kitchen, and both are flesh and blood, not a monument, though one may be tomorrow. My eyes fill at the sweetness of her hand in his, sleeping beside each other as they have for 45 years, love surviving them.
I wake at 6.30, utter blackness, and, descending the stairs - some anxiety but quietly certain he is still alive - hear the regular sniffy intakes of breath. My mother lies on her back, a copy of a large-print Dick Francis novel flat across her breast. My father is on his side, and every so often seems to want to raise himself, his right hand feeling for the edge of the bed, scrabbling to get a grip, the arm tensed. But then the hand weakens, the arm slackens, he lapses back into sleep. I go to make tea, and return to sit by the bed. My mother wakes, confused for a moment to see me there. I hand her a mug of tea, and she sits up:
'How's he been?' I ask.
'He woke at four, and sat on the edge of the bed, and coughed and coughed until he seemed to get something up and felt better.'
I point to his frail flapping efforts to get upright: it seems cruel not to help him, but it would be crueller to sit him up when he's so weak and out-of-it. Then I notice him opening his eyes, which seem to fix on something beyond the bed, and I walk round, into his line of vision, hoping I will register in them. But nothing registers at all: his eyes are looking cloudily into some middle distance - they seem to have died. His breathing, too, has changed in some way - mother remarks on it - slower, though still regular. Then he gives a slightly bigger breath than usual - and stops. I nod at my mother. After about half a minute, he breathes again, lightly, a wisp only, and she puts her left hand to her chest, as if to say, Christ, what a relief, I thought he was gone. Then nothing again. Another half minute, another wisp. Then silence. And more silence, restful. I look at his clock: seven o'clock. Then at hers: 7.10. It is very quiet: I can hear only the distant cawing of rooks.
He is dead, and I feel an odd triumph about it. He is dead, the thing (when I was small) I used to dread more than any other, but I'm still here, my mother's still here, I can hear her breathing, the world has ended but we've survived, we're OK. He is dead - no rage against the dying of the fight, no terror and delirium, only a night-light smothered in its own wax. Sitting here, the body silent between us as we peer into it for a sign of some kind, I'm on a shock-induced high. If I listen hard enough, I know I'll hear his own count-your-blessings verdict: 'Well, that wasn't so bad, was it? When I think how it could have been - drawn-out, or abrupt and messy, or in hospital rather than here - it makes me feel lucky. A good death and a good life too: who could beat it?'
'The GP said to lay him flat.' My mother rises, icy calm, and we lift his head and remove some of the pillows from under it, straighten him on his back, pull his right leg up from its dangling position, and draw the covers up to his chest - why would anyone, except in the movies, draw them over the head, and shut out before time what will soon be unseeable forever? I'm crying quietly through this, and then leave my mother alone with him, and cry more noisily at the kitchen window. Outside is a tree-stump he left as a bird-table, with frills of white fungus growing out of its side.
Six hours later his forehead has cooled to marble, but his chest - when I slip my hand under the covers, across his huge ribs - is still warm. My mother sits across from me, holding his hand. She has not cried properly yet: with each phone call - and as the day wears on there are more and more of these - her eyes water and her lips tremble, but she does not howl. Now, finally, she throws herself across him and sobs into his cold neck and chest. It is a horrendous, unfamiliar, back-of-the-throat wail. She doesn't want me there listening, and I suppress the instinct to go and hold her, knowing that if I do she will stop, and feeling sure that she should voice her pain, release it, weep it out:
Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak
Whispers the o'erfraught heart, and bids it break.
So I withdraw and move restlessly about the house, looking in on my father each time I pass his door: I've been doing this for the past fortnight and see no reason to stop now, just because he's dead. After lunch - lunch] - I come back in secret and slip my hand under the sheet: the body is dimly warm still, but there's a shock when I touch his icy hands, which unlike his face have turned white. And he is stiffer, too, not just the limbs but the skin. I stroke and clasp his fingers. When my mother comes in, she isn't shocked; she sits beside me and starts to touch him around the mouth, kneading it into positions which she likes the look of and he holds for her, as if death were a camera pose, or else a new suit he were trying on ('How do I look?'), which in a sense it is.
Later she lies down next to him and falls asleep for an hour. But she spends the night in the spare bedroom, not sure whether it would be unseemly or traumatic to sleep with him. I go upstairs to my room and write a letter. I'm woken next morning at eight by a phone call from one of his patients, a woman who lost her parents in her twenties and has always been devoted to mine. 'Please tell me it isn't true. He was like a father to me. What shall I do? I've left my house to him.'
THE FIRST day of life after his death. Friendly but not nosy, the registrar holds a fountain pen and asks me to sit down. She needs to know, for the purposes of the form, who, when, where and how: she needs to know whether I was present at the time. But she does not want to talk about the death more than is strictly necessary, and if she ever knew my father she isn't letting on. I give her his full name. The doctor's certificate says: Cause of death - Carcinoma 1(a). 'What does 1(a) mean?' I ask.
'Oh, that's a doctor's thing,' she explains. 'It means leading directly to death rather than a contributory factor, which is 1(b). When did he die?'
She scratches away. 'Relation to the deceased?'
'Son.' I look at the map of Craven District on the wall, her patch of births, marriages and deaths. 'Are people fairly well in control of themselves by the time they come here?' I ask.
'Yes, usually, though you get some who want to talk about it and cry. Sometimes I want to cry myself in the really tragic cases - you know, like children.'
'But you don't just do deaths?'
'No, but this time of year, mostly. Today I've had four deaths, a birth and a marriage. Getting wed on a Monday morning seems a bit odd to me, when they didn't have to, either. I'll just copy this out neatly and then we're done.'
I take the green cremation slip, the form for the DSS, the information booklets for widows, the death certificate itself, and I drive to Morrisons, the big new supermarket where the old cattle mart used to be, to shop for the wake. My father had talked warmly of Morrisons ('You can get any bloody thing you want') and bought shares in it, as if it were the family firm. I load the trolley high with drink - gin, whisky, brandy, vodka, rum, wine, lager, bitter, as much as I can get in, the booze mound, commemoration and amnesia. I have to hold the wine boxes at the top to prevent them falling out. A man in the queue behind me winks. The woman on the till gives a knowing smile: 'Now here's someone who's going to have a good Christmas.'
SHE WILL sleep with him tonight. She worries that it's macabre, but I encourage her: she must do what feels right. And she says this is the last night she'll ever have him here, and she wants them to spend it together.
We are sitting on the bed round midnight, and she is stroking his hair and kneading his face and then she tweaks his nose and says: 'Icy. But you never did complain of the cold, did you?' We have kept the window open, which is just as well because we've not been able to turn the radiator off and from time to time I catch a whiff of something I don't much want to think about.
When I come in at seven next morning, she's breathing beside him. Later, when I return, I find she's been crying.
'I've just been talking to my little man.'
'Oh, I've been telling him he shouldn't have gone and left me alone like this - not so soon.'
She berates him some more, and I think of Cleopatra berating Antony:
Hast thou no care of me, shall I abide
In this dull world, which in thy absence is
No better than a sty.
In the next room the phone goes; in here, by the bed, it's disconnected. I laugh with her about this - how we've not wanted the phone to ring and disturb his sleep, how no vacuuming has been done for the same reason, how we find ourselves whispering or low-voiced not out of grief and piety but because it would be such a pity to wake him. The GP has been fine about our holding on to the body - said that if we kept the room cold enough we could have him here right up to the funeral. We decided against that: he's going today; we don't want the house to be a morgue or chamber of rest, just to hang on to him a little longer, get used to him not being in his body.
'Do you think it's odd what we're doing?' I ask my mother. 'What's standard?'
'Remove the body and put it in a coffin on the day of death, I suppose.'
'This seems better.'
'When someone dies at home, anyway.'
'Even for those who die in hospital: you could bring them home.'
'It wouldn't be right for everyone.'
'But it's like the authorities fear for the corpse and won't let it out of their sight, as if it were going to get chopped up or boiled down or something.'
At 12.30 we spend a last half-hour beside the bed. We don't say much, no grand finales or profundities, and when my mother leaves to go next door with my sister, not wanting to be present when the undertakers arrive, she simply kisses him on the brow and says, 'Goodbye, my love.' I take the covers off for one final, secret look at him. No secrets left himself, he lies like an open book. The belly is more swollen now above the fawn pyjama bottoms. Little blisters have formed around the long stomach scar: his skin here is like ancient parchment, crumbling once touched. 'You have to look after yourself,' he had always said, and he had done so until . . . Until when? Until a month ago, when an unusually virulent or, well, healthy cancer had overcome him? A year ago, when he began to complain of tiredness? Two years ago? There's no saying when. There's only this moment, which happens to be this moment, but which would feel this bad whenever it happened. Now he is past looking after himself. I shut the covers on him, the end of the story.
The undertaker's car pulls up outside the window, not a hearse but a Ford Escort estate. The coffin looks to be made of a sort of pale pine, like the bookshelves I've put up without him. Malcolm, the boss, and the middle-aged assistant wearing a carpenter's apron, have some difficulty manoeuvring the box down the hall and into the room: 'Gently does it.' Finally they put it down on the far side of the bed. The thinner end of the coffin, for the feet, is hard up against the wardrobe.
They chat and dither, awkward about getting on with moving the body, perhaps expecting me not to be here. They ask whether I want little white drapes - see, like this, stapled against the side - to conceal his pyjamas: they know no one is likely to come and see him in the Chapel of Rest, but if anyone does we won't mind if the coffin is open, will we, and these drapes may be more discreet. They take the lid off to show me his resting place: there is nothing plush about it, no purple velvet, no fancy panelling or inlay, just some white-cotton-lined foam under the head, plain and cheap as he'd have wanted. The phone goes, and they look at me, thinking this will be their chance to get the body in unobserved, but I keep jabbering and let it ring until it stops. I've been waiting for this moment, I'm not going to let him out of my sight.
Now Malcolm slips his arms under my father's shoulders, while his sidekick holds the ankles. They lift him clear of the bed, being careful not to knock his head against the bedside cabinet, where his clock and and brush-and-comb set and drinking glass with the hunting motif are still laid out. They hold him suspended above the coffin a moment, and try to ease him down - as if he were a living body needing careful handling, or me a relation needing careful handling: 'Gently does it.' But both the legs and head judder and jolt a bit as he hits the bottom of the coffin, sort of bounce or spring back unnaturally, no working muscles to absorb the strain, and I see the meaning of the phrase 'dead weight'. It's taken till now, till that judder, for me to accept that he is dead, that he's vacated the premises of himself. They start to manoeuvre the lid on, with its name-plate 'ARTHUR B MORRISON Died 15 December 1991, Age 75 years', and I do not even try to see his face one last time: there's no need, it's not him. The lid clicks home.
They lift the wooden box, and get it out of the bedroom and back down the hall without destroying any of my mother's porcelain. At the door I hand the green cremation form over, and Malcolm says he's sorry the GP hasn't been up to remove the pacemaker: 'He'll do it at the chapel of rest: you won't mind not being there, will you? I'll make sure he keeps it for you.'
I watch the Escort pull away and feel angry with myself that I didn't insist on seeing the scalpelling out of the pacemaker. I wanted to know if I could take that. I wanted to stand there while his body was opened up, his skin slit open, and not faint or be squeamish or feel that wince in the stomach that the sight of blood brings. Sang-froid: I wanted to prove that I possessed it, that I could be a doctor like him.
Back in the bedroom I find a large bloodstain on the sheet and bolster where his shoulders and head have been, where the blood had gathered once it was no longer pumped around. There must have been a small skin-tear there, a nick in the neck, from which it has seeped. I pull the sheet from the bed, the pillowcase from the bolster, and take them through to the washroom. I pick up an old dishcloth and wipe the blood and other fluids from the red plastic sheet that had covered the mattress. The body has gone but there is still a faint smell in the room, not unpleasant - a depersonalised decomposition may be part of it, but I can get his sweat and body-scent, too, the distinctive odour of him, engine oil and rosehips. I go back to the washroom, and let the cold water wash his blood away, let it stream to transparency under the tap, thinking how often I'd seen him with gashes on his fingers or purple-mooned finger-nails, the wounds of carelessness, of saws and chisels lost hold of at crucial moments, or the day the top part of the extension ladder hurtled down and tore open his forehead and he stood unreacting there with a beck of crimson running into his eye.
I pour myself a drink, gather up a box of photographs and sit on the empty bed. There he is, lying in an easy chair with a cat or dog in his lap, or with his arm round a good friend, or round the wife of a good friend. There's one of him leaning dandy-ishly against the side of his car, a cigarette dangling from his hand, his beautiful wife, fortyish then, beside him - an image of wealth and substance to set against these last months. Often there is a drink in his hand; until the late Sixties, when he gave up the habit, there is a cigarette, too. I wonder whether drink or smoking contributed to the cancer. I push my fingers against my ribs to feel my heart, which is, so it seems to me, all over the place, a double or triple beat in every ten. He used to worry - no need now - that I would predecease him, and would bang on about me learning to look after myself better; I'd snap back that I was fine, and would he shut up, and that if anything was going to give me a coronary it was the stress of listening to him nag me.
Once, not long ago, he had placed a stethoscope against his heart, then against mine, to test the difference: he had wanted, I think, not to show me how bad his health was, but to reassure himself how immortal I was. Patron and protector, he'd been the wall between me and death; now that wall is gone; now I'm on my own.
Extracted from 'And When Did You Last See Your Father?', published on Thursday by Granta Books at pounds 14.99
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