By Keith McDonald
(This is the start of a novel I’m trying to write. It began in April when I sat down in a launderette in England and wrote this bit. I was over there to see my 89-year-old mother whose life is gradually sliding away. It was meant as another short story but grew and grew and is now up to 73,000 words . . .)
He parked his father’s car in the garage, closed the shaky wooden doors and unlocked the front door of his parents’ house with his mother’s old key. Closing the door gently behind him, as if not to wake anyone, he stood in the hall and listened.
It was almost 4 in the morning. April. Dawn was three hours away and night still prevailed. Stuart had just come back from the hospice where he had held his father’s hand as he watched him take his last breath. It was barely a sip of air, hardly noticeable. The 10-month struggle with cancer had stripped away his dignity and made the happy man in familiar family photos unrecognisable.
Stuart had never listened this hard to silence. Oh, he had prayed and meditated, done yoga. But those kinds of silence were like curtains he could pull to shut out the light and then, when he’d had enough, he would open them again and the light would still be there. Everything as normal. As before. This silence was taking root inside his body. Nothing was ever going to be normal again. He’d lost his father, his last surviving parent.
As he stood in the hall, Stuart could see only the pain of his father’s slow death. Now he wanted to erase all of that and replace it with a better memory of him. He thought back to the last time he had seen him. It was a month after the cancer had been diagnosed and his father was relatively unhindered by the illness. He still mowed the grass. He even got angry, which was uncharacteristic, when Stuart offered to do it for him. It was the same story in the kitchen where his father insisted on doing the cooking, relenting only when it came to the washing up.
Then Stuart hadn’t seen him again until two days ago after his sister had asked him to “come quickly because Dad probably won’t last the week”. The shock of his decline into a barely recognisable, skeletal, comatose figure struggling for breath was acute. So was Stuart’s guilt.
He knew he hadn’t been there enough for his father because, as he stood in the hall, he felt like a stranger in a house where he’d spent his teenage years wanting more freedom. Now he had freedom. He could do anything he liked here, even at 4am, and no-one would stop him. He could put on a CD and turn up the volume — it wouldn’t wake anyone because the house was empty. He thought of doing that because the house’s silence was deafening. It would be a diversion. Only he didn’t really want to be diverted. He was listening out for his dad.
Stuart rubbed his eyes. Tears were threatening to fall. Still in darkness, he turned to his right, where an open door led to the lounge room. He edged in apprehensively; the silence followed him. Everything was unchanged. The bulky, old-fashioned television set his father had had for many years. The old sofa and armchairs that, even when Stuart had been living here, his mother had wanted to replace but she didn’t get her wish. His father had seen no compelling reason to get new furniture. If he turned on the light now, he would find all the old photos in their frames exactly where his father had left them, but he couldn’t face them. Not yet. The curtains were open but only to darkness.
The TV remote was on the sofa where Stuart had slept last night. He’d left the remote here and had no difficulty finding it in the dark. He pointed it at the TV and I Love Lucy came on the screen, with its manufactured audience laughter. Stuart pressed the “mute” button and stared listlessly at the screen. He kicked off his shoes — but not his jacket — and lifted his legs on to the sofa. It was cold and he could have turned on the gas fire or found the blanket he’d used the night before, but Stuart didn’t bother with either. The cushion that had been his pillow the night before was still in place and he rested his head on it again. There was room enough to stretch out on the big sofa but he chose to pull his legs up under him. Like a baby in a cot. He curled away from the TV and lay there until it got light. He didn’t sleep.