Alf’s train was due in just before six. Caroline’s last message to him was a list of identifying clues: red scarf, black beany… Nothing back. She scanned the boards, tried to pick out likely faces from the stream of commuters pouring past her. The best she could hope for was that the uncle she hadn’t seen since she was seven might resemble his brother, but then her father, during his last few years, had hardly resembled himself. Putting her hands in her pockets – why hadn’t she remembered her gloves? – she saw again the web of tubes and wires taped on to her father’s mottled skin. Nights she’d spent after he died trying to retrieve his face from that plastic maze, see his liquid grey eyes respond to the strip of light expanding as she opened the curtains.
‘Alf – we spoke on the phone.’
‘Alf, yes, of course –’ Caroline nodded, trying not to study his face as closely as he seemed to be studying hers. Perhaps he recognized her father in her. People always said they looked alike – appearances being the one thing they had in common. The image of her father started to crystallise just as she needed to blink it away.
None of her uncle’s features struck her as particularly familiar. She was standing on his front step with her father the last time she’d seen him. All she remembered of that afternoon was how long the drive had been, how her father had put a flowerpot in her hands to give to her uncle when they arrived, and the door that had closed almost as soon as it opened –
Just passing –
was that was her father had said?
Her uncle’s name was mentioned less and less after that. Hissed if it was uttered at all. Then, once it seemed the name had been irretrievably buried, Caroline had heard it again, her father saying it in the rasp that had replaced his voice, muffled through the plastic of the mask, a name that was almost unrecognisable without the spite, loaded with longing instead. Barely audible and yet it rattled the silence. Her father had never been much of a conversationalist, even before the illness. He could be mute for weeks, the sound and pace of his tread up the stairs his primary mode of communication. By the time each syllable meant another scrape against the back of his throat there was little incentive to challenge a natural tendency towards reticence. He didn’t get any further than the name – Alf was all he had managed to say – and just as the way the name used to slice the air was never explained, neither was the sudden change in tone that layered grief over scorn but never quite displaced it.
Alf was checking his case now, his plastic bag of rubbish, waving off her offer to help, to find a bin –
‘There’s one just there –’
‘No no,’ he said, pulling the bag a little closer into his side, ‘there’s paper cups in there, can’t be throwing those away, you never know when they might come in handy.’
She had to slow down as they left the station – Alf considering each shop they passed, the takeaways, the bus stop, the railings, changed a bit, this has – he was saying, more to himself than to her, new that is, shuddering as the road works resumed. Instinctive as a reflex, she gathered the miscellany of questions she’d prepared as soon as the cab pulled into the curb. Bearing the anticipation of the last twenty-four hours had involved resourcing herself with readymade conversation to fill the gaps where the unsaid would hover, to provide a semblance of distraction from the reason they were in each other’s company at all.
‘The train wasn’t too crowded then?’
‘No,’ he said, tapping his middle and index fingers against his little case. Her father had done that whenever there were breaks in the conversation – breaks which tended to be more extensive than the conversation itself since he quickly tired of indulging her efforts to buffer the silence. It did grate – that tapping of his – and that habit he had of humming when she was trying to find something to say.
‘The hotel’s not much but it’s perfectly…’ she looked for the word… clean – Alf was humming now too – she would have to ask him a direct question: ‘Do you know Stukeley Street?’
‘Stukeley Street – it’s near where the hotel is.’
Why had she said Stukeley Street? Why not Russell Square or –
‘Oh,’ he said, his hum seeping into the agitation of the stalling cab, the horns, the unremitting urgency of the city denied momentum –
‘That near here then is it?’ Alf asked as though she’d only just spoken.
‘Oh yes,’ she said.
‘Ah, well then,’ Alf said ‘very well, if you say so, very well.’
‘Yes, very near, we’d be there by now if it wasn’t for this – and it’s very central, the hotel, really you couldn’t fault the location, it’s –’
Couldn’t fault the location? Couldn’t – what? Sounded like an estate agent. Or worse – had she just implied he’d popped down to London for a spot of sightseeing?
‘Decent though – for the price, I mean –’
For the price? –
‘hard when it’s such short notice and –’
Alf looked at her, ‘short notice, yes.’ Neither his tap nor his hum showed any sign of abating until they reached the hotel.
After the receptionist had given him his keys and he had refused any help with his things, Caroline looked into the empty lounge – could she spend few minutes in here with him? It would be less awkward than the mustiness of that cab – the stale warmth of it, traffic locking them in from all sides and – worse than the station – it had been impossible at Kings Cross – everyone hurtling towards the exit, that incessant drone of clattering wheels, suitcases, trolleys, ripped by the odd lurching squeak – and then blasting out over them all, the loudspeaker… false starts were inevitable in those sorts of places – places where everyone was on their way to somewhere else. But the lounge didn’t promise to be much less impersonal. Another place between places. Displayed the idea of comfort as opposed to actually offering it. Bunches of false pink flowers, a bowl of plastic fruit. A few brochures lay flopped on a shelf, leaflets dressed a low table between chairs. There was something unsettling about the sheer quantity of itineraries, the shiny faces of tour guides in Victorian dress –
as though he’d just popped down to London to see the sights –
The receptionist was acquainting Alf with the bed and breakfast schedule.
‘All included, sir. Check out at eleven. Just the one night is it?’
‘Yes, just the one,’ he said picking up his bags, ‘thank you’ – and then, without turning, only adjusting his gaze a little over the receptionist’s head and sharpening his voice very slightly, ‘thank you, Caroline – good of you to – to see me in.’
‘No trouble at all, really – and if there’s anything else I can do –’
It felt as though he’d met her eye by mistake. He dropped his head forward, inspected the floor, ‘but thank you,’ tightening his grip round his case and the plastic bag he was still holding on to, nodding with an assurance his feet couldn’t follow, wary of the expectation that they should take him as far as the lift. Caroline watched him as he turned away, one arm dragged down by the case, the plastic bag rustling, completing his pilgrimage down the hall in small, slow steps.
The station, the cab, the hotel, possibly an exchange of nods before the funeral. Was that all she’d know of him? That he hummed and tapped like her father and held on to his plastic cups? She fiddled with her keys, her eyes drifting to the back of his head now slowly tilting towards his feet, his lopsided shoulders pulled forwards…index finger of the hand holding the plastic bag straining for the button to call the lift.
‘About tomorrow,’ she said – the lift doors were opening – ‘I could meet you –’
‘Kind of you but…’ he tried to stall the closing lift doors with a foot.
‘Directions then,’ she said, sudden as her steps towards him, ‘it’s easy from here –’
Seeing his finger reach again to call the lift, she winced – she was holding him up –
‘Alf,’ she said, stopping the instant she called out his name, step checked by the sound of hearing his name in her voice. He looked up, his eyes rising like a weary inhalation.’
‘See you tomorrow.’
She walked back to Kentish Town, unable to face the bus. Hot and nauseous, the cold was a relief. People seemed to move strangely, the sounds they made muffled, distant, the streets veering as though she’d just got off a fairground ride. When her father had first relayed that word terminal she’d pictured passengers waiting at an airport, napping on their luggage. He’d said it so glibly – tagged it on to something about needing to get the electrician round –
‘All but one of my lights have gone,’ he’d said, ‘imagine that. And no, it’s not the bulbs, Caroline.’
She’d asked if there was anything she could do and he gave her a look and said if she wanted to be helpful she could find him an electrician who wasn’t going to take him for a ride to sort out the wiring.
‘Better get off,’ he’d said, ‘Happy hour’s five minutes away – I won’t be able to hear myself think.’
‘We could go somewhere quieter –’
‘I don’t want to go somewhere quieter. I want to go home.’
It was only an hour later he called – the way he’d kept her on the phone, never done that before, repeating bits of news, finding something to say, not mentioning the diagnosis, steering her away from it if she approached it, talking about anything but. Anything but for over forty minutes when a brisk catch-up roughly once every couple of months had been the norm. Only at the end, when she was about to go, she heard his voice catch –
‘Caroline – just one thing – I won’t be telling anyone so…’
‘There’s no need – I’m not planning on going anywhere – I’ll get a second opinion.’
‘I thought that was the second opinion.’
‘Fine then, a third, a fourth, what does it matter?’
He couldn’t be going anywhere, he said, not yet, he wasn’t ready, there were things…things he had to do.
Less than five weeks later she was trying to grasp what he was saying from behind his oxygen mask. She didn’t realise that he was exerting all his energy on edging his hand towards hers – it was only when he managed to hold her eyes for a moment that she understood. The skin around the taped cannula and plasters where they’d tried to draw blood was soft and thin. He’d let her call one of his old colleagues and a friend – but that was all. The only other name he mentioned was Alf. Perhaps there would have been others – she was sure there must have been – but as soon as he’d brought his brother’s name back it eclipsed everyone and everything else. He didn’t seem to notice the nurses coming in and out, doing his obs, flicking the drip. He’d never explicitly stated that the subject of Alf was prohibited – it had just been one of those tacit contracts she’d been aware of so long she felt as though she’d been born knowing the terms and conditions. But now, as far as his lungs would let him speak, he had to make sure she heard him. No narration, no explanation – he wasn’t after a witness to his death-bed confession. He simply had an instruction. He wouldn’t settle until she repeated his words back to him, trusted she understood. The numbers on the machine monitoring his heart rate escalated if missed a word, jumbled others. Three times she’d had to confirm where the chess set was. That Alf must have it. It didn’t make sense. He’d never played chess. It was the exhaustion. The delirium of medication and half-sleep. But the set was exactly where he’d said it was, in the trunk in his room.
Her father had refused to get a mobile but she knew he kept address books. She felt like an intruder going round the place, digging through drawers. All the numbers started 081 or 071 – the old dialing code. Not that updating them helped –
‘My father – Lenny –’
‘I’m sorry dear, you must have got the wrong number.’
‘Caroline, Lenny’s daughter –’
A few offered their condolences, one put the phone down. And then there was just Alf left to call.
‘I see. Next Thursday. Thank you for letting me know.’
Caroline went back to the entrance of the cemetery just before the service was about to begin. Alf hadn’t come. She checked her phone, not turning it off until she sat down. Her father’s friend had pulled out a double-sided A4 of looping handwriting. He’d squeezed her arm and said he didn’t like to presume –
‘Kind of you,’ she managed, wondering at this man who had had two sides worth of memory to share. It might as well have been the length of the bible.
She hadn’t managed more than a paragraph – how was she supposed to find words that held the shape of a life she’d only ever been on the brink of knowing. She didn’t recognise the friend –
‘Robert. Robert King.’
– any more than she recognised the man in his speech. Robert appeared to be addressing a full congregation rather than the two seated in the front pew. She tried to concentrate on what he was saying but the more intently she focused the less she understood – perhaps something had happened to Alf – surely after all that he wouldn’t just not turn up – he’d come all this way, paid for a night in a hotel –
It was only when she got up that saw him in the back pew, head slightly bent. She blinked over her paragraph, looked up. Robert caught her eye – he looked like an expectant theatregoer. She folded the paper in her hands – the words she’d written didn’t say anything – she couldn’t. Alf looked up, she couldn’t see his expression clearly but in that moment she felt the pressure in her stomach soften.
‘If you’d like to come back,’ Caroline said to Alf as they left. She glanced towards Robert and the old colleague, telling Alf he was welcome to join them. Seeing his mouth open, close, tighten, she couldn’t ameliorate the fact that the four of them were strangers, connected only by a man who wasn’t there, and perhaps not quite known by any of them. And yet she was inviting them for tea and sandwiches because – because a body had just been buried and that was what you were supposed to do.
‘My train’s just after five,’ he said at last, ‘the hotel is keeping my things for me till four so I’d have to –’
‘Of course,’ Caroline said, ‘yes, of course.’
It was just Robert, Alf, and Caroline in her studio flat. Silent over their cups. Robert attempted various compliments. Shook his head a few times. Asked if she didn’t have anything stronger and excused himself.
‘I should really be off, too,’ Alf said, setting his cup down.
‘Your train, yes,’ she said, though it wasn’t yet two. ‘Could you hang on a just a sec?’ She’d put the chess set in the bottom of the cupboard. ‘I didn’t know dad played but he said you did and –’
‘A bit. I play a bit – and Lenny, well, quite the obsession it was for him at one stage. Always one obsession or another. The chess lasted longer than most.’
She smiled, ‘good, yes –’ she handed the chess set towards him, ‘he wanted you to have it – wanted to know it would be in safe hands.’
‘I see,’ Alf said, looking at her, nodding. He pressed his lips together and glanced down. ‘I suppose I’d better take it then.’
Miranda Gold is a writer and teacher living in London.
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