When I did spot him it seemed
absurd to me that I could possibly have confused him with anyone
else, despite his shrunken frame.
got a visitor, Alfred”.
I was momentarily shocked by
the use of his first name, as if the nurse had known him all her
life. He belonged here now, he belonged to these people.
sat with his arms laid along the arms of the chair and his feet
together, gazing across the room. He had the regulation tartan
slippers they all had, a baggy pair of grey trousers and a beige
cardigan a bit stained down the front. His tie was still knotted
carefully at his throat. There was a second when he looked at me and
I was nothing to him, and I thought I would die if it went on, but
then his filing cabinet of memory, which had been ransacked by an
intruder and everything thrown up into the air to settle again
anyoldhow, still managed to come up with the right reference, and he
smiled; his tongue leaping about like an oyster in its toothless
cavern, he smiled at me and his watery eyes wrinkled up, his glasses
gone now. As a child I had always been alarmed when he took off his
glasses – those bushy brows! They were grey now but still had the
same power to alarm when they shot up: at the nurse who witholds the
biscuit; at the brisk young fool of a doctor; at the idiot in the
next chair. He held my hand and laughed a lot. I had never seen him
laugh so much, this new world seemed a great joke. He pointed to a
button on his cardigan.
at that,” murmured the mathematician, running his finger round the
edge of it. “It’s perfect.”
we bent our heads and contemplated the satisfaction of a perfect
I remember you: the one who cut his food into precise pieces before
eating, who had to have the tablecloth square on; who went to bed
like a letter going into an envelope; who paid the bills the day
after they came, keeping careful accounts of so little; a man walking
on a tightrope, fearful lest he should drop it all into the abyss and
go hurtling after. “Ask your father, he’ll know, he’ll decide.”
But there was a wild untended place in the garden, and I woke in the
night and Dear
he was sobbing, help
first, mother had come a few times, refusing to recognize that this
was no ordinary spell in hospital, bringing receipts of bills for him
to see, holding them under his nose.
I’ve paid that then Alfred, see...”
would not look at them but gazed into the distance, infuriating her
because it was so unlike him. He had forgotten how to read, in any
case, words had become once again just black marks on paper, as they
were in the very beginning. He was unlearning all his skills: reading
forgotten, and the use of a fork getting more difficult day by day;
soon he would unlearn how to walk; shedding all the accumulated skins
of being grown-up, he was retreating down a long dark tunnel, smaller
and simpler he was becoming, laughing and waving, free at last.
nurse in a green overall was urging somebody across the room, her
voice bright and brisk:
follow your stick, George!”
passed us by, a powerful smell of urine about him. He was wearing
faded pyjamas, those old-fashioned blue and white striped pyjamas
that my father had worn, with the drawstring waist. In his haste to
get to the bathroom they were coming undone, his withered old sex
trembling in the shadow. I wondered if George had anything to ask
forgiveness for, if he had ever been heard weeping in the night.
only journey I had ever made with my father, as an adult, was the one
that took me away from home for the first time, the one that began
with leaving mother crying into her apron on the doorstep. In the
echoing main-line station I stood with my luggage - the least I have
had in my life – while father queued up to buy tickets. There was a
long queue and I spent the time looking around at the people coming
and going, thinking that I was about to become one of them, and when
I glanced back at the queue to find out how much progress he had
made, I could not find my father. For a moment I felt a slight panic,
thinking he had changed queue and not told me, but then I recognised
him. I had not seen him immediately because I had been looking for a
tall man and my father was the shortest man in the queue.
My father is a small man.
was a four-hour journey down to London and I cannot remember any kind
of conversation between us. He left me at my lodging, walking away to
the bus stop with straight shoulders and high head as if it didn’t
matter, but I knew, I knew.
He had kept all
my school reports. That last summer, before I left home, he did
nothing but take photographs of me.
Once I found him furtively copying out the address of a boyfriend I
had. Once I had even wished him dead.
looked down at my hand holding my father’s hand. They were both
cold, they might have been a marble sculpture. He does not know.
Nobody can tell him, and perhaps he would not even understand it now
if they did.
I looked at an old man who was
sitting opposite us, nodding and chuckling, his open mouth showing a
few brown stubs of teeth. He seemed like an evil dwarf laughing at
head was bent between thin cardiganed shoulders. His elbows were
stuck out to steady him and his free hand shook the air in front of
him as if testing for invisible obstacles. His baggy pyjama trousers
wrinkled up over the slippers, too big, that splayed out to left and
right as he made his lonely, inch-by-inch journey across the floor to
the toilets. No crossing of continents or oceans was ever such an
looked around me. It was the only time I had ever been in a room
where there were so many men present but so little sense of power in
the air. So – this was Man, made in the image of God, shuffling in
a stained cardigan and flapping slippers along the corridor, spittle
brimming on a slack lip.