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.

9 Responses to Post-Mortem

  1. tamarahunter says:

    Ah Keith…bleak and beautiful at the same time. The sadness is palpable…drawn so sparely and yet completely. So good to see some of your writing.

  2. Pingback: The Sound of Silence | Waxings

  3. waxings says:

    Keith, this is so simply written yet powerfully evocative. See my latest blog post (pingback above) for more on how beautiful it is. I’d love to read the rest of the 73,000 words!

  4. Anna says:

    Dadsy…..I’m not good w words but the best way I can describe it is beautifully haunting. Sad & reflective but I sense a big understanding or realisation coming for the character. Can’t wait til it’s finished…look out JK Rowling!! xxx

  5. Gemma says:

    as a recipient of the McDonald writing gene i know that the stories we write reflect ourselves, our situations and our feelings regardless of what details we change that might say otherwise….and having also received your email about grandma today this excerpt has really opened my eyes to what you’ve been feeling….i almost did a mum, nearly crying as i read this…..yes i am your daughter so i’m somewhat biased but to be able to write and evoke deep feelings from the reader is the gift…..i echo everyone else’s comments – beautiful, sad and poignant…..

  6. Natalee says:

    Dadsy, very description opening, I felt like I was in room with Stuart. I’m very keen to read the rest of the book. I wish I inherited your writing skills – not mums!!!!!!

  7. Gazza says:

    For people my age this is indeed a haunting event you’ve written of. Your first 500 words rather vividly brought back memories and feelings with a poignancy and texture that somewhat startled me. And for that experience alone I thank you.

    I particularly enjoyed the vividness brought to me by … “It was barely a sip of air, hardly noticeable.”

    Thanks for sharing this Keith. I look forward to more!


  8. Robin Rhyner says:

    This scene evokes exactly the numbness I’ve felt at a loss I can’t yet comprehend as really happening. The sadness when you just begin to understand that someone is gone. The cleanness of the writing gave me room to be in that space with the character without being overwhelmed. Thanks for sharing this piece.

  9. jgavinallan says:

    I hope you finished and have sold this wonderful novel…it has brought back memories…and my feelings now are quite disturbed.
    The emotions from losing someone…is so incredible….the memory will always be there.

    be happy

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