On icy days, I love to get in the car, watch the needle creep forward and feel my knuckles burn as I clutch the steering wheel. It was a simple pleasure I afforded myself, to drive recklessly. It fills your bloodstream with adrenaline. And when you’re high like that, you feel like you can do anything. My father always hated it when I drove too fast. Slow down, you’ll kill us both. I couldn’t help but laugh at the fact that it wasn’t my driving that was going to kill him.
Then reality kicked in.
I didn’t laugh again. Instead, I found my eyes burning as tears broke free from the corners of my eyes. Was it sadness? Anger? I don’t know. Just that I wiped them away whenever my vision blurred. Apart from when I swerved onto Neachells Lane. I let the tears hang in my eyes and brim and overflow and pour down my cheeks. My eyes burned and I was all but blind.
I stopped the car on the wrong side of the road, killed the engine, and waited. I didn’t know what for. Only that I was waiting. I thought it might have been the police when that scrawny little officer knocked on my window. Turned out to be nothing. They said the ice made me swerve. They just told me to drive safely and let me go. I laughed as I rose through the gears, pushing the car faster and faster, hoping that I would either crash or that they would pull me over.
Nothing happened. I checked into the intensive care unit in one piece. Just my luck.
Before I entered the room, a middle-aged woman in a blue nurse’s uniform stopped me.
‘Excuse me. How do you know the patient?’
I looked at her for a long time before answering, the thought of getting myself arrested continuing to hang over me. It would be so much easier. I wouldn’t have to see him like this. I wouldn’t have to go home to that empty house. I might get stabbed in the shower over a box of fags, but it might be worth it.
But in the end I told her I was his son. She pulled me to the side and looked around. Then she put on her most obviously sincere ‘I-shouldn’t-be-telling-you-this-but-I-have-to’ voice.
‘About your father. It’s…well, I don’t know quite how to say this, but I don’t think he’s going to make it through the night.’
‘Hey, are you okay?’ She had placed a hand on my shoulder and was staring at me. I glanced at the manicured talons and wondered whether that shade of imposing bitch pink was what had pissed me off. Or maybe it was the way she spoke, like someone trying to sing but falling flat on the sharp notes. Or the loose coil of hair. I couldn’t pick a single thing to be annoyed by, so settled for hating the whole and walked away. I had taken half a dozen steps before realising I hadn’t answered her question. She hadn’t moved.
I turned and walked back to face her, towering over her. She didn’t cower. She flinched when I spat that I was about a million fucking miles from okay. She let out a small scream when I span around and out of nowhere, hurled my fist into the wall.
I fell backwards against the chipped paint and sank into a sitting position, cradling my broken knuckles like a new-born baby. The knuckle on my index finger was gently seeping little rubies that melted when they hit my skin and poured down the back of my hand. The nurse simply watched me. The thought of what was going through her mind briefly occurred to me, but only briefly. Because a second later, I was crying.
When you watch films about someone visiting a relative in hospital, it’s usually the same scene. They frantically run through the corridors before somehow arriving at the room. They ease the door open and a few tears pour silently from their eyes in the close-up. Whoever makes these films clearly never visited a hospital. The people visiting aren’t so well adjusted. At least I wasn’t. I didn’t ease my way into the room. Instead, I sat on the floor outside, nursing broken knuckles, telling that little cunt of a nurse to fuck off, and just wishing that it was me in that bed. Anything else. The tears weren’t the little crystals that wink on camera. They burned and burst from my eyes. Saliva streamed from my mouth as I screamed and begged a God I hadn’t believed in for years.
I don’t know how long I cried. But when it was done, I clumsily wiped my face. I couldn’t wipe the grimace away. I don’t think it left me since that day. It stayed with me when I swung the door open and finally, after a million thoughts and attempts to get out of it, I entered.
Immediately, I wish I had forgone all conventions about visiting the dying. Wished I had gone somewhere else. Wished I hadn’t applied for time off work.
Wished I had left him to die alone.
Except he wouldn’t have been alone. His other kids would have been to visit him. My sister would come here every day after school for a few hours. I assumed she had left the flowers and the books. She probably fell into that tired cliché of the loving daughter. She’d probably come in, fluff his pillows, wipe away a false tear and read to him or tell him about her day.
I’m sure my brother would have visited him as well. Obviously not as frequently. I mean, you can’t when you’re a fucking millionaire business tycoon. He’d have still made the time though. Got his driver to bring him here in his limo so he could sit here for a few hours and talk about their past. The trips they took. The time he took our father to Egypt because he loved ancient history. On some level, I wish I had known. It was only when they I saw the pictures on Facebook of the pair of them in front of the pyramids that it all became clear.
And where did that leave me? The drunken mistake at a New Year’s party that ruined his life. He was what, seventeen? Then nine months later, out pops little me and what do I do? Spend all my time with my head in the clouds. Bastard tells me I need to get a real job. That I’d never make it as a writer. I hated him for what he said, but when I proved him wrong, I didn’t stop hating him. Instead, hatred mixed with pity in a sickening, curdled cocktail, like mixing milk and lemon juice in your tea. He saw my brother’s success and wondered why I hadn’t been the same. I wanted to scream at him and tell him I had something more. That he wouldn’t understand because you can’t spend words.
But standing there, looking at him on his deathbed, nothing seemed to matter. The letter from my publisher felt like a pile of lead in my pocket. I had gone there to gloat. To rub the letter in his face and tell him I was number four on Amazon. I had dreamed that he would smile. Pore over the letter. Ask me about the book and, more than anything, just tell me he was proud. Just dreams though. Words failed me. I wanted to leave. But my guilt was too heavy.
He looked a lot smaller than I remembered. His once powerful arms were frail and wrinkled, jutting out from under his gown. He had a decidedly grey pallor. His hair. His skin. It all resembled a man on the verge of death.
‘Dad?’ I had to question the man before me. There was no way this was my father. He was too weak. Not the man with the dark hair and beard standing in front of the pyramids. Not the man who had scolded me so many times. Surely this was some stranger. I was in the wrong room. I had to be.
‘You just gonna stand there or you comin’ in?’
I entered and lowered myself into the uncomfortable chair beside the bed. It might have sounded like it was filtered through a gravel pit, but there was no mistaking his voice. There was still that subtle hint of happiness. Or was it sarcasm? I could never tell.
‘I wondered when you were gonna show your face.’
‘Yeah. Sorry. I’ve been busy.’
‘Oh?’ He sat up, wincing as the IV tugged at his arm. ‘You got a job yet?’
I felt my skin burn violently at this. Even on his deathbed, the prick had to pick apart my life. Suddenly, the letter in my pocket didn’t seem so heavy.
‘Well, no. Not yet. I’ve actually had a letter from a publisher…’
‘Oh, I wouldn’t worry about all that mess. All these writers getting their selves into debt and eventually they kick the bucket at thirty. Aint worth it son.’
‘Dad, I wish you wouldn’t…’
‘What was that one writer? Plaff or something, weren’t it? They all reckon she was depressed so she stuck her head in the oven. Nah, bollocks. Her book bombed and she was in arrears so she took the easy way out.’
‘Actually, she was depressed. Tried to kill herself before. There are a few that reckon her husband was abusive and…’
‘Nah, never mind that.’ He had this annoying habit of cutting me off when I was talking, and always when I was talking about writing. I always went with the theory that it was because this was the one field that I beat him in. That was my realm. Shame I never got to look around it though.
‘How are things with you?’ he asked.
‘Really? Just fine? I don’t hear from you for months and all you have to say is that you’re fine?’
‘Yeah. I mean, I’ve had some letters from publishers but nothing major.’
The letter in my pocket was growing heavier with every lie. My conscience was screaming at me, that he was dying, that he deserved the truth. But rational me wouldn’t let him have it. Not yet.
‘Oh well,’ he said in that nonchalant manner he seemed to have mastered. ‘Not everyone’s cut out for it. probably wouldn’t be worth it anyway.’
‘And I heard somewhere that writers are more likely to top themselves than anyone else so’-
‘Look.’ He stopped talking and actually gave me his attention. But now what? He continued speaking after realising I had nothing to say.
‘You didn’t come here to lord over me, did you?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You know I can read?’
I didn’t reply.
‘Well, Jack bought me a kindle last time he was here, showed me how it worked. And I looked at the top ten writers. And there you were.’
Still nothing from me. I felt like my cheeks were ready to blister and boil.
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
Why didn’t I tell him? I had asked myself that question a million times. Before I had time to formulate a response, he had answered his own question.
‘It probably wasn’t worth mentioning to be fair. I mean, some cookbook was at number one, so I wouldn’t bother really.’
That’s why I didn’t tell him.
The tears were again lashing against the flood barriers in my eyes. The single greatest achievement in my life, and this bastard was ready to dismiss it like it was nothing. I suppose it probably was nothing compared to my sister being groomed for the Olympic judo squad, or my brother taking over another multimillion-pound business. What chance did I have to make an impact when I couldn’t even beat Mary Fucking Berry’s ‘Everyday’?
‘Really?’ The crack in my voice was painfully audible. ‘Really? The single greatest achievement in my life and you’re just going to throw it back in my face. I should expect it really. You never gave a fuck about anything I did.’ I rose to leave as he protested.
‘What are you on about? How didn’t I care?’
‘Well, you didn’t go to my graduation for a start. So while every fucker else was out there taking pictures and grinning because they had their whole life in front of them, I was sat on the roof of the library. Drinking myself blind and hanging my legs over the side, wondering how long it would take someone to scrape my body off the pavement.’
‘Or what about the time Charlotte was in hospital? Didn’t know about that one, did you? Too busy rubbing shoulders with some smarmy cunt that would just as soon as sweep you out the door and laugh at the little pleb. Didn’t matter though, did it? Because you got to meet all of Jack’s dickhead contacts while I was holding Charlotte’s hand, spending hours trying to convince her that it wasn’t her fault that our unborn baby was nothing more than a red stain on our duvet.’
Stunned silence. I had grown accustomed to the way silence rang in my ears, but this time it was giving me a migraine. I quickly crossed the room, ready to leave him alone once more.
But he called me back. Told me to sit with him a while longer. I paused with my hand on the doorknob, staring at my tattered boots.
I told him to drop dead.
More silence. I couldn’t believe the words that had just left my mouth, or the bitter aftertaste they left. It was something I had wanted to say for years, but now that I had, all I could think about was some stupid metaphor they teach schoolkids about how words hurt, and how they’re like strips of paper. You let them out on a windy day but you’ll never get them all back. Part of me didn’t want to get the words back. Part of me wanted to run around with a net, scooping up those little strips of paper.
All of me felt the deathly chill that ran down my spine at my father’s next words.
‘I want to.’
I wrestled with my voice box to force a single strained what? from my lips.
‘You said it. I want to die.’
This was enough for anybody to return to their seat and submit themselves to another few minutes of socially-awkward hell.
‘Why?’ What else could I say?
‘Because this is no life. Look at these machines. They’ve got pipes and wires all over the place. It’s not worth living.’
‘I could imagine.’ My mind was asking whether there were masochists who enjoyed this sort of painful awkwardness.
‘No, you couldn’t, not that it matters. I just need someone to help me. They’ve got me under observation. I can’t do it myself.’
‘Do I have to spell it out for you?’
‘I want you to kill me.’
My stomach did a flip and I felt something rising in my throat.
‘You’ve got some fucking nerve asking me for something like that.’
‘No. There is no way in hell you can rationalise this. I’m not getting arrested and leaving my girlfriend on her own just because you’re too much of a fucking coward to die like a man.’
‘Don’t you talk to me like that. I gave you everything. Every opportunity.’
‘You gave me nothing!’ I towered over the old man, screaming like I’d spat my pills and walked right off the mental health ward.
‘You had everything you’re brother and sister had. At least they did something with it.’
‘There’s a big fucking difference between not giving me a tenner to go to the theatre and giving Chloe a grand so she can go to Paris.’
‘That was for a tournament. What would watching a bunch of poofs prancing round the stage have done for anyone?’
‘Well, it would have got me away from you for a few hours!’
I was shaking slightly as I turned once more to leave. But pausing at the door, a thought occurred to me.
‘Why me? Why not one of the others?’
He scowled at me.
‘I thought you hated me enough to actually do it. Besides, you were never a good son. I thought I’d give you the chance to make things right’-
His words were cut short by a violent round of coughing. His breath rattled around in his throat like the metal pea you hear when you shake an empty can of spray paint. He retched and spluttered, fumbling wildly for the bedpan, but failed to find it in time. Vile yellow vomit poured over his bedsheets, dripping onto the floor. The smell, caught somewhere between bitter and fruity, hit me instantaneously and I had to fight the urge to vomit myself.
This was a proud man. A man who bought suits he couldn’t afford so he could maintain his image. The man who always bought a round of drinks in the pub, and just threw back his head and laughed when people who had been nursing half a lager suddenly developed a taste for a double cognac. A man that would never let anyone see him in a bad light. And here he was, covered in his own vomit, crying as he urinated on himself.
That single quivering syllable was enough to make me throw away any sense of morality I had. I hated him. I still do. But nobody deserved to suffer like that. And he was my father. He wasn’t a particularly good man, but I like to think that I am, even if you have to do something terrible for the right reasons.
I silently crept around the bed and fumbled with the plastic cage that held the controls for the morphine. I tried to swing the little door open, but it was locked. When this failed, I thrust my fist into the screen. The shock reverberated up my arm. I fell back against the bed, clutching my wrist. My father was still sobbing behind me. There was a gentle trickle as lurid urine soaked through the mattress and dripped onto the floor. I began to sob. I felt my face contort into a horrific, convulsing grimace that refused to return to any semblance of dignity.
I punched the plastic screen again. And again. Again. Then crack- a jagged white line traced its way from my bloody knuckle print upwards. I threw one more good punch and went straight through the screen. I took one last look at the man. Still sobbing. Had no chance to clean himself. I almost wished there was a better way for him to go. But that would take time. And right now, time was pain.
With a bloodied hand, I jerked the shattered plastic away and flinched slightly as it clattered on the ground. There were a few off-key beeps as I thumbed the ‘plus’ button, pumping more and more morphine into my father’s veins.
‘Thank you.’ His voice trailed away into a long, guttural groan. His head rolled back. His eyes, like painted marbles, stared blindly up at the humming lights.
Somewhere in a corridor, an alarm was ringing. Nurses and doctors rushed into the room and tried to revive him. His body jerked upwards as they surged electricity through him. But it was no good. They called the time of death. Questioned me. What happened? What did I do?
All I could say was that I took pity on a dying man.