Home Stories The Grace Period by Dan Brotzel

The Grace Period by Dan Brotzel


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It is a tiring business, waiting for the dying to die. There is a lot of yawning and a lot of central heating, a lot of looking out of windows and a lot of unnecessary custard creams.

In between visits to his room – where we take it in turns to lean in and try to catch a few whispered words that might well be Dad’s last, and rack our brains for new nuggets of appropriate small-talk to say in reply (without him realising we can’t really understand what he’s saying) – my two brothers and I retire to the Living Room.

Like the rest of this ‘residential home’ (and what kind of home, incidentally, is not residential?) the Living Room gives off the atmosphere of a fading, high-end hotel – discreetly tasteful and well-appointed, impeccable in its fittings and fixtures, but ultimately sterile and soulless. It features three circles of armchairs, each arranged with tedious symmetry around a small coffee table, each of which in turn bears a small selection of perfect-bound magazines stacked so neatly that no one has ever dared to pick one up: Country Living, Good Housekeeping, The National Trust Magazine. The carpet is some muted blend of grey, green and brown that is not quite a colour. A large thin-screen TV takes up half the back wall, though in all my time here I’ve never seen it switched on. The rest of the wall is taken up by a large dresser-style bookcase of a dark wood, its shelves ornamented with mint Folio Society volumes that are clearly also not for reading.

In the corner of the room, seated at a little formica card table, there is always the same elderly lady, silently tinkering with a jigsaw puzzle of many small pieces. (Get her one with 1500, you can imagine her grown-up children plotting. That’ll shut her up for days.) She is so quiet that we often forget she is there, and she must be stone deaf too, because our many Hellos and Goodbyes have all been ignored, and we have long since given up on acknowledging her presence. Very occasionally, she looks up from her puzzle, catches my eye, and smiles a distant ghostly sort of smile that seems aimed, not at me, but at a point on the wall directly behind my head. At these times I am struck always by the extraordinary colour of her hair, which has moved beyond the faintest trace of grey into that realm of pure cotton-cloud white that is only ever bestowed on the truly ancient. She is beautiful, in her way.

The other end of the room is all glass, giving a fine view over the grounds of the home: an enclosure of neatly manicured fruit trees, a decorous lawn surrounded by inoffensive beds of low-maintenance shrubs, a modest bird-feeding station, a visitors’ car park. Wandering around the corridors, as we do when we are bored, one glimpses other residents through doors that are always left wide open. Old ladies, all of them, apart from Dad; propped up in armchairs, straddled by trays of food on wheeled tables, the television blaring out in every room. How on earth did people take their mind off finality before we had Strictly?

The Living Room is our waiting area, our canteen, our hub. From here we take it in turns to set off for Dad’s room, naively padding off down the fleur de lys-lined corridors in expectation of some new some drama or development, only to return with more cups of tea, more biscuits that no one wants. On some planets, the days last longer than the years.

Occasionally the nurse will take one or two of Dad’s visitors aside and explain how bad he is, how the body is shutting down now, and it is only a matter of time, nil by mouth, and the main thing is just to keep him comfortable. (The word ‘comfortable’ is pronounced in a special loaded way, that we quickly understand to mean something like ‘palliatively terminal’.)

Here we are, on the verge of this momentous event: the death of our parent, our symbolic half-orphaning. And yet: the stasis, the central heating, the biscuits. The clock on the 100-dollar bill is forever stuck on ten past four. Maybe Dad is holding out till our sister Simone gets here, as I gather is traditional in loving families, but she is still out at sea, similarly becalmed perhaps, doing something worthily environmental in the Antarctic, and no one has as yet managed to get a message to her.

Speculating on whether my sister will get here in time, my younger brother Rick – the real gambler among us – proposes a sweepstake: closest to the time of Dad’s departure wins the kitty. I pronounce the idea tasteless in the extreme, but stick a fiver on Friday at 5pm. That long biscuity stretch between tea and dinner is always a killer, in my book.

Dad was certainly loved and admired, especially by those who did not really know him, and he is a charismatic draw even now. Along with the chic, mistressy women of a certain age, a stream of distant relatives and workmates have come in to pay their respects, scoff a few custard creams, and riff anecdotally on the good old days. (‘The funny thing was,’ smiles one, ‘he seems to have actually done some of the things he was always bragging about.’) (I doubt this.) After staring out of the Living Room window for a few melancholy moments, we watch them sweep back up the long winding drive in their midsize SUVs, with the indecent haste of those who think they have something to live for.

That Sunday night, Dad was turned one last time before the night nurses came on – an event which my older, plumper brother Dom – who secretly believes he has a great singing voice – always greets with a brief excruciating burst of ‘Niiiiiight Nuh-urse!’ We all said again how much more comfortable Dad seemed since the staff had introduced the syringe driver (one of a number of technical terms which we bandy about now with the practised ease of end-of-life specialists). It was time to gather our things and make our way back to our respective families for another evening of kids and telly and red wine. Rick switched off the light and we headed for the door.

‘Hey! Was that Kathy?’

It was Dom who spoke, but we’d all seen her: a short, jangly figure in dark jeans and flowing jacket; a beanie over long tresses, face obscured, slipping down the dark corridor in the direction of Dad’s room.

‘But it can’t be…’ I say.

No. That’s right,’ says Rick, affecting a Captain Ahab squint and the accent of a Scooby-Doo villain. ‘Not when she’s been dead these fifteen years!

We all laughed, but we were in truth a little spooked. Kathy and the rest of us were ‘estranged’, as people say. We had done our best to make her feel part of the family, or so we said. But it was, you know, #awkward? I guess it always will be when you find out your dad has a daughter from another relationship he’s kept secret from the rest of his children for 20 years (both the daughter and the relationship, I mean). Even more #awkward, perhaps, when you discover that your mum – then married to your Dad for the best part of thirty years, and whom you might have expected to take a dim view of all this – was actually in on the secret too, almost from the very beginning.

Nor did it help, to add one final layer of #awkwardness, that Kathy had always struck us as a touch, well, kooky, what with her pet lizards and her interest in alternative spiritualities, not to mention the drug and arson charges. What was she doing here now, with Dad?

‘Hey!’ came a hoarse shout from behind us. Startled, we all turned around in the dark.

‘I can’t see my jigsaw,’ said an angry, scratchy voice.

Rick and Dom were ahead of me, but I caught them up at the door of Dad’s room. I peered over Dom’s fat shoulder to see what was going on. Kathy was kneeling on the floor at Dad’s bedside. She had both of Dad’s bony hands in both of hers, in an awkward parody of a dance hold. Dad’s usually complacent features were frozen in an expression that only my Dad could have come up with, somewhere between sheer, unbridled horror – and irritation at the inconvenience. Yet none of us moved forward.

Kathy was repeatedly murmuring some forceful words into Dad’s ear that she was reading from her phone. Our instinct, if we are to be honest, was primarily curiosity.

Accept, O mighty and terrible Lord of Darkness, this sacrifice which we offer for the fulfilment of our desires and the destruction of our enemies. We praise and honour thee, Morning Star, and all thy nameless and formless ones, that we may be strengthened in mind and body to do thy will. Condemn him to the Pit, Infernal Majesty, that he may taste the dark and bitter fruit of Thy disdain…

‘Morning Star,’ said Rick. ‘Wasn’t that a race horse?’

The question of whether it was appropriate for Dad’s illegitimate daughter – or anyone else – to be saying Satanic last rites over our father on his deathbed divided the family. It was the only topic of conversation at family brunch, which took place next day as usual around the spacious granite-look ‘breakfast bar’ (as she insisted on calling it) in Mum’s new place. Though she had finally decided to leave Dad 18 months ago – about 12 months before he got sick, as it turned out – provoked by yet another revelation of misappropriated family monies or historic infidelities, who could remember now, and deciding that this was, it really was, the final, irrevocable, definitive and utterly last last straw – Mum still liked to be kept updated on Dad’s condition, even if she refused to visit herself. Ironically, her elegant semi-sheltered flat was just a five-minute drive away from the Home, and we all joked at the time she bought it that it would be easy to for her decamp thither when the time came – assuming she could afford it, of course. But now that Dad was there, this thought prompted an obvious question. ‘How does he pay for it? That’s what I want to know,’ Mum kept asking – and, as his children, and if we are honest, we were quite keen to know the answer ourselves.

Mum loved nothing more than to sit around a meal table and preside over the interactions of her beloved progeny, or as many as she could cajole into attendance. This helped her to maintain a fiction that was very important to her, namely that her children (and their own respective families) were a united, happy throng who met up all the time and got along marvellously. In the way of things, alas, the truth was that we had all rather drifted apart, and rarely met up; even our respective children had little to say to each other, and when we did get together, some tension or squabble inevitably arose that quickly saw us split apart again. (‘Just because we’re siblings, there’s no reason we have to get on,’ as Dom, the bluntest of us, liked to say.) Dad’s decline was therefore a great boon for Mum, as it brought us together frequently and forced everyone to behave rather better than usual, so sustaining her illusions of sibling togetherness. And then, of course, the drama of the Black Mass spiced things up nicely.

Some people in the family group (notably Rick and, half-heartedly, myself) argued that Satanism (or Wicca, paganism or whatever) was a perfectly respectable, actually rather ancient and much misunderstood faith tradition. If Dad wanted to head out mouthing the Our Father backwards, or forcing down a defiled host or whatever, then so be it; it was still a free country. ‘Or at least it was, last time I looked,’ said Rick, never a man to leave a cliché unturned.

But Dom, the one remaining mainstream religionist amongst us (albeit a rather limp Anglican) argued that the whole thing was sacrilege, blasphemy, a desecration. These are not the sorts of words people get to use in earnest very often, and I noticed that Dom took a rather feverish pleasure in rolling them around his mouth and trying them on for size.

Others were more concerned about the issue of consent. Dom’s wife Libby, who was a social worker or something, argued this case with the support of Rick’s wife Janet, who took as usual a bitterly opposing view to that of her own husband. (Rick and Janet’s entire relationship, such as it was, seemed to be founded on this principle of perennial disagreement.) ‘OK, fine, freedom of religious practice, or whatever,’ she said dismissively. ‘But did Dad really want this or was it being foisted on him? He hadn’t exactly looked exactly overjoyed at what was going on.’

(He’s not your dad, I thought irrelevantly.)

Then again, countered Dom, Dad often looked like that. And maybe Dad’s expression could have just been down to his sudden realisation of the gravity of the situation – prompted by hearing the first words of a familiar rite?

‘Well, if he ends up getting consigned to Hell, so much the better,’ was Mum’s hot take. Hell was all her ex-husband was good for, she said, and if Kathy wanted to send him there, good riddance. But wait, I said: Was Hell for a Satanist punishment or reward? If Kathy and Dad were saying some sort of dark rite in order to send him ‘downstairs’, that must surely mean Hell was actually his desired destination? In which case, if she wished to thwart him, shouldn’t Mum be wishing Dad to Heaven instead? But then, what if her prayers got him in to the right place for the wrong reasons, so he squeezed in amongst the righteously saved after all? That, we all agreed, would be so Dad.

It all turned, ultimately, on the relationship that Dad had with Kathy. Were they in this black magic thing together? Or was she angry with him like Mum, and attempting to inflict her own dark revenge? Because none of us had really had much to do with Kathy – or with Dad in recent years, if we are to be honest – or with Satanism, come to that – it was hard to know. Had Dad and Kathy seen a lot of each other? Had they been to meetings together? Who knew?

Oddly, after Kathy had slipped out and we’d all gone back in to say one more goodbye to Dad (and check that she hadn’t slipped him anything dodgy, perhaps), she was not to be found anywhere. We assumed she’d be waiting for us in the Living Room; it did not occur to us that any visitor would do otherwise. AJ, I fancy, would have offered her a spot in the sweepstake. But when we got back there, we found the room empty; even the jigsaw woman had gone. And when we went to check with reception downstairs, we found no reference to Kathy, no video-entry record even, and this despite the home’s repeated proud boasts of its robust security procedures.

‘It does make you worry for poor Dad, when any old dodgy random can wander in off the street and help themselves to the residents’ valuables,’ said a pious Dom, sounding for all the world as if he gave a shit.

‘Kathy isn’t any old dodgy random,’ I said, matching his tone.

‘No,’ agreed Rick. ‘She’s our dodgy random.’

But what if Kathy had hung around that night? Would anything really have got said? There was still that howling distance between us, after all, that ‘estrangement’. And also, if we are to be really honest, none of us wanted to risk upsetting Kathy either, in case she put the hex on us or something.

From what I could gather from my cursory background reading about the dark arts, it all seemed to be about bending the world to your will. The rest of us poor saps are mere victims of circumstance, I learnt, cravenly submitting to whatever indignities and obstacles reality (and other people) have in store for us. The black magician, on the other hand, takes what they want from the world, makes reality their bitch. And when I thought of my dad, this kind of made sense. Not just because he had at least three biographies of Aleister Crowley in his ‘study’ (which self-regarding humanities fraud does not go through a Crowley period at some point?), but because of his default way of negotiating the world.

Take, for example, his attitude to timekeeping. Dad was always late, but never in an apologetic or embarrassed way. No, Dad’s late arrivals were imperious and condescending, as of one who believed that punctuality was a bourgeois contrivance observed only by the meek and the mediocre.

They say that children don’t develop a sense of urgency till they’re eight or nine. I learnt much earlier, I think, because I always had to try and keep my dad to time. He didn’t apparently set out to be late, but somehow he always did just enough to ensure that we would be.

Sometimes on the way out to the car, for example, he would stop to look at the vegetables, and then go back in and give my Mum a note about their watering needs. Never mind that he never did a day’s gardening in his life. Or he might remember some papers he needed, or a change of shirt, or ask one of us to go and fetch his squash racket or his snooker cue, in case he went for a frame or three with the boys after work.

And, of course, we all ran around after him, fetching him things, anticipating his needs – keys, jacket, hat, shoes. (He insisted on driving in a pair of comfy old suede slip-ons that he had to change into as soon as he got in the car; he could never be persuaded to just wear these out of the house, but chose instead to change out of his shiny tight work shoes in the idling Morris every morning, while the exhaust-smoke filled the garage and the seconds ticked by at a rate that was alarming to all but him.)

Unlike the rest of us, being late never made Dad panicky and sweaty and irritable. It seemed rather to animate and empower him, setting in play an escalating drama whose climax would allow him to prove once again that the world was weaker than him – that it still cravenly doted on him, and would always forgive him.

A couple of years ago, I bought a women’s magazine at a train station because I was attracted by one of the cover lines: ‘Why are you always so late?’ The feature went through the usual reasons for persistent poor timekeeping – self-sabotage, esteem issues, imposter syndrome. I wondered if my dad’s case would be covered?

Lack of self-esteem – as so often – seemed to be the key explanation. You don’t love yourself enough, so you make yourself late subconsciously-on-purpose, so as not to perform at your best; this, in turn, gives you more reason to beat yourself up. Hmm. My Dad certainly used the low self-esteem of others for his own ends, and doubtless he caused self-esteem to plummet in a few people close to him too. (My mother, obviously.) But I don’t think such things troubled him much personally: indeed, the only reason I can imagine for my Dad to beat himself up would have been if he got off on such things. But that was unlikely too: Dad liked to be indulged and cossetted, not punished; not even ironically.

Other people, the piece went on, need the impetus of being really up against it to get themselves energised and do their best stuff. These are the high-adrenaline, seat-of-the-pants types, who thrive on ridiculously tight deadlines. But manipulating the deferral of deadlines – and making his various editors feel grateful to receive his copy at all – was one of Dad’s core skills, so no dice there.

No, the closest the article got to my dad was when it talked about people who arrive late because they want to make an entrance or prove a point. Perhaps they’re on a bit of a power trip and they need to show the other person who’s boss. But what the article didn’t consider was lateness as a default MO in negotiating the world. Of lateness as the inevitable outcome of a mindset which holds that the world owes you a living. Of lateness as pure narcissism.

Dad – who often made a joke of waving and blowing kisses at strangers whenever we drove through an unfamiliar place, as if to show that he was known and revered everywhere – clearly believed that there was a greatness to his lateness.

On school days my dad often offered to drive me in. He was often at home; he seemed to be always between newspapers and would constantly bemoan the instability of his profession, though I think now that his frequent job changes were probably more to do with his crap timekeeping and his habit of seducing his co-workers’ partners. Eventually, he went completely freelance and took to writing articles and books at home all the time. He was a writer who hated writing, though he puffed and preened over his every published word – his latest poker column, his facetious new op-ed about the implausible dimensions of policemen’s helmets, his nakedly autobiographical novels about adultery in the suburbs, the latest instalment in his endless series of trivia spin-offs that began with Fabulously Freaky Facts for Boys and Girls! Even having to spend time with me was apparently preferable to getting down to the work.

I always said Yes when Dad offered me a lift because it would get me half an hour of precious alone-time with him, and because it meant not having to run for fifteen minutes to catch the bus. (I was a naturally bad timekeeper too, albeit a boring, sweaty, apologetic one.) Because Dad was always running late, anyone he gave a lift to was also always late, but I never saw it this way; I genuinely believed every morning that today would be the days we arrived with time to spare! Not a bad bit of magickal thinking of my own, perhaps.

Dad always dropped me off on the bypass, in a layby by a gap in the school fence. This meant having to run across the big field in full view of the school buildings, like a sort of reverse escapee. There could be no sneaking in, no avoidance of scrutiny, and every chance of humiliation. How I wished at such times for an effective cloak of invisibility! The kids at school said I must be a Pikey, who lived out on the layby with the travellers in their caravans. Or else I slept under a bridge because my parents were druggies and alkies. These were poor jibes, looking back, but they did their job.

My teachers weren’t much help. They couldn’t conceive of an adult who was systematically committed to ensuring their child arrived late every day. Why wasn’t I making more of an effort? Did I go to bed at a reasonable hour? Was I unhappy at school? Was everything alright at home?

The appearance of my sister Simone in the Living Room brought a new dignitas to proceedings. As soon as Simone had managed to pick up on one of our messages via satellite phone (or some-such: Dom is the technical one of us), she bid a hasty farewell to the whales she was saving, and got herself choppered back to the Falklands, thence to the Patagonian mainland, and thence – via Ushaia and Zurich – to Heathrow. (A lot of carbon, alas, but needs must.)

Simone was the best of us. She cared more about politics and social justice and making the world a better place than the rest of the family put together. While we brothers indulged in our shabby little schemes – chasing short-term market gains, accruing designer kitchen appliances and German cars, and hauling ourselves up various lucrative if less-than-life-affirming greasy poles, Simone was espousing causes and fighting for change, tireless in her refusal to accept that things were basically already about as good as they were ever going to get. She was the moral core of an otherwise vacuous bunch (and here, if we are being honest, we should probably include our Mum, as well as, very obviously, our dad); she was an oasis of truth and justice in a barren tundra of shallowness and greed.

Simone was, yes, the best of us; this was not something we found it easy to forgive her for.

She looked magnificent today as always, tall and strong and righteously glamorous, but also somehow floral and fragrant and endearingly petite. It was obscene of her to look so good, especially as by her own account she had not slept in 36 hours. She came accompanied by her latest paramour, a man known to us only as The Dentist, on account of his being a dentist. Not that he seemed too bothered by our poorly concealed disdain. The Dentist was clearly in love with my sister, not just as a person but as an idea. She was to him, as to all the other saps before, a paragon of what a beautiful human being could achieve (beautiful on the inside of course, though the outside sure was a bonus), and he was happy just to carry her bags and things upstairs, hang on her every word and stroke some part or other of her whenever permitted.

It was a shame that Simone’s boyfriends all took on this simpering, worshipful stance. At this point in time especially, we would have valued a robust external view on the state of affairs as regarded our deathbed Dad and the evil one. But then, did you know that only 1% of people can lick their own elbows?

Simone for her part announced that the only right and proper course of action was to speak directly to Kathy. (How we hated her self-regarding appropriation of the words ‘right and proper’, how we smarted at the smug way she took up the phrase and wielded it against us, like a baleful incantation.) What was Kathy’s relationship with Dad? What had prompted her visit? What the devil had they been up to? We needed answers.

In theory, this made a certain sense. But in practice, no one really knew how to approach Kathy. The texts Simone sent to the ancient mobile number we dug out for her went undelivered. As far as we knew, she lived still on the coast, about a hundred miles away, and driving there on the off chance seemed a fool’s errand.

Not that we were against fool’s errands per se, of course; here we all were in the Living Room again, after all, scoffing custard creams and hanging about for a man who wouldn’t die. And so, in the end, tired of the biscuits and of standing around and feeling unpleasantly warm, and to escape my siblings for a while, I agreed to take on the job.

I used to think that Dad’s infuriating anti-punctuality had something aesthetic or philosophical or even spiritual about it. There is a purity to willed waiting, after all; like the Living Room, it forces one to confront the flow of hard, inexorable time. There was, perhaps, something of Bergson or Beckett or even the Buddha in it. Or was this me just projecting my scattered litcrit musings onto my father’s crapness?

Accompanying Dad on one of his tardy arrivals was always a memorable experience. You, of course, would be red-faced, cringing, self-abasing, as you tried to sneak into the back of the gathering, desperate to minimise disruption and avoid attention. There is a special energy – we have surely all felt it – that hits you when you enter a room full of people who are already settled and focused into full expectant meeting mode, and who look over at you, the shameful intruder, with the full force of their pointed peer compliance. Most of us experience that communal glare as a self-conscious agony, a hideous blast of shame that leaves us feeling exposed and humiliated, desperate to crawl away. My Dad, on the other hand, bathed at such moments in a kind of ethereal glow. He seemed almost, well, aroused.

Rather than trying to conceal his lateness, Dad would glory in his audacity, interrupting the speaker, drawing attention to his own gracious manifestation upon the scene, taking extra excruciating time to get himself settled, making such a spectacle of his triumph over the petty constraints of time that it was the turn of everyone else to feel self-conscious. (Unless, of course, they were just embarrassed on his behalf, a thought which did not occur to me until much later.)

He was late – but it did not matter. He was late – but none dared challenge him! He was late – yet all eyes were on him, rather than the speaker. He was late – yet he had won!

Dad’s belated epiphanies were – to Dad, at least – confirmations of his victory over the banal conventions of the workaday world. Of mind over matter. Of magick over muggle.

It was, if I am honest, a guilty pleasure to sit back in an empty train (empty trains: almost as good as empty cinemas), and stare idly out of the window as I trundled down towards Kathy’s pile on the coast. The sun beat through the windows, pleasantly oppressive at this late September time. As I flicked absently at my book (a tedious history of pagan thought) and enjoyed the unseasonable blast and glare, it was tempting to think the weather a blessing on my mission. Simone, leering distantly down on me from the ivory citadel sited atop her moral high-ground, had ordained that I go and meet Kathy, and so I went. Quite what I was supposed to do when I got there – confront her? ask for an explanation? beg forgiveness? – was not clear. My head told me that all three might be necessary; my heart wondered if any would be possible.

Before leaving for the train, I ducked out of that morning’s brunch and headed straight to the Home to check in on Dad instead. (These were superstitious days, and I always feared that I might pay with guilt later for an untimely absence now.) Dad was actually better than I’d seen him for days. They’d propped him up with an extra pillow, and though he was dozing with shallow, unconvincing breaths, there was a new colour to his cheeks. I stood and surveyed my old man, grateful if I am honest for a chance to observe at close hand this working 3-D model of the patriarch.

I say ‘model’ because in my mind Dad had long since ceased to be this ‘Dad’. There was no performative sarcasm now, no self-satisfied glint in those penetrating, glacial-blue eyes; nothing of the old high energy of his crashing self-involvement. This whole deathbed posturing was far too passive and timorous to be anything to do with my actual dad. Except perhaps in the willed delay of it, in the stubborn need to string out this awkward phase for the maximum inconvenience and discomfort of everyone else, and the optimum regard for himself. But of course, it is impossible to sink in the Dead Sea.

Outside, on the barren lawn, a crow pulled at a clothes peg. In the reflection of the window, I saw Dad sit up, open his unpupilled, porcelain eyes, expose his pointed, blood-tipped teeth, and snarl something cruel. He cackled hoarsely. His head was completely bald now, almost muscular, and it glistened like a bullet. His heart was a fist. A snake emerged from his mouth, and his blanket was a golden vestment. He was eagle, nymph, jeremiad, hierophant, necropolis, Nebuchadnezzar. The lion bowed down before the goat, and the cockerel lay with the toad. And the gates of the eternal opened, and a shriek of ineffable anguish arose from the mouths of the unsaved.

‘Anyone for a cuppa?’ said a nurse, breaking the spell.

‘See you later, Dad,’ I said to no one. And then, because the nurse was still there, fussing with beakers and bedclothes, I found myself planting a kiss on the old man’s forehead.

‘Aw,’ said the nurse, oddly crow-like. ‘Are you sure you don’t want a biscuit for the journey?’

It was, as I say, a guilty pleasure to be on this train, alone and unfettered on this Saturday morning. Not only was I was exempted from the duties of the Living Room; I was free also of the attentions of my children and the obligations of family life. In this I was a chip off the old block – though I regularly protested my New-Man credentials and carried out the occasional ostentatious chore, I had secretly failed to move past a belief that the drudgeries of running a house and bringing up a family were not really for me. Mum told me once that after she and Dad were married a year or so, when she was heavily pregnant with Dom, their first, my Dad had announced that ‘nappies and little ones aren’t really my pigeon, dear’, and promptly excused himself from all domestic duties thereafter. No one could get away with such blatant chauvinism nowadays, but it was depressing to consider how little my thinking had really evolved beyond his.

I loved my two children, of course I did. But in my case this was a thing one thought rather than felt. I was not lucky enough to share in my wife’s utterly embodied pleasure in our children’s every doing and being. But here’s a fabulously freaky fact: when I was a young boy, I was besotted, obsessed with my dad. He was this wonderfully funny, twinkly, charismatic man who could as soon look at you as pull off a stunning magic trick or perform a funny dance or rattle off one of his infinite supply of fantastic but true factoids…

The average speed of a sneeze is 100mph!

No one really knows what colour the dinosaurs were…

Lions and tigers will go crazy for catnip!

There are astronaut footprints on the moon that will stay there forever.

Dad knew the colour of hippo sweat, the name for a baby porcupine, the special word that means ‘fear of peanut butter getting stuck to the roof of your mouth’.

But best of all were his jokes. He told me the one about the bacon and egg frying in the pan.

Egg: ‘God it’s hot in here.’

Bacon: ‘Good Lord! A talking egg!’

I thought this was the funniest thing that had ever been said, and promptly wet myself in hysterics. I repeated the gag endlessly to family and friends, and bored my dad silly with requests to repeat it, until one day he sat me down, looked me right in the eyes and with great solemnity said: ‘Never ask a man to repeat a joke. You’ll jinx it.’ I thought at the time he was imparting a vital life lesson rather than, say, just trying to shut me up.

Perhaps even at the time, I knew there was a certain desperation in my histrionics. From very young, I think I sensed at some level that my dad had only very limited time or attention for me (or for any of his children, or his wife; there was nothing especially repulsive about me). I remember once when I was six or seven spending an evening writing a series of letters to my dad. Dear dad here is a picture of a rocket that I draw for you, I wrote, and over to his special armchair I went to deliver it, over to where he sat emitting pungent cigar smoke from behind a giant broadsheet. Dear dad, you make me largh so loud when you do your funny dancies. That one was hand-delivered too, five minutes later, with another bespoke drawing. I was ecstatic with love for him, I wanted to write and write and send him letters all night.

But by the time of my third or fourth delivery – a note, I believe, of my admiration for my father’s new haircut, also illustrated – even my little six-year-old self could sense that my letters weren’t really welcome. Dad was bored, I was tedious; he was rolling his eyes at Mum who, as always, said nothing. I saw that my letters, intended as an expression of pure love, were somehow repulsing the object of that love. And this is how it always was, for me and perhaps for all of us: struggling to gain a tiny foothold in our father’s magical orbit, a small precarious purchase on his attention – while always painfully aware that this very need for his attention was, unless carefully concealed, the thing most likely to drive him away. I thought for many years that all parents were like this; perhaps they are.

I fell asleep on the train and I saw my father again. What do you want most from this world? he asked portentously. I want a life of ease and freedom from discomfort, I said. You have no ambition! he thundered, and I believed him even unto my own self-loathing. I walked down the train’s long corridor, advancing back through ploughed fields on a day out of time.

On reaching Kathy’s station, I had a sudden urge to see the sea, and thought of strolling down the steep street to the front. But I feared that if I diverted from my mission now, I might never find the strength to continue. ‘Netherwood Close,’ I said to the taxi, and we drove through a painfully banal conurbation until we reached the converted carriage-house that was Kathy’s last-known address.

She had no idea I was coming, of course, not at least if we are to consider only conventional methods of communication, since all our messages to her had bounced back. But I had a sudden vision of her elfin features staring into a bowl of chastened water and intuiting my arrival. Outside the house, I quickly regretted sending the taxi away. The place was hidden behind a thick screen of overgrown bushes and rampantly architectural conifers; fighting my way through this evergreen mess made me think of the prince in Sleeping Beauty, and I was sorry not to have my sword about me. The bell-pull was rusted up and did not sound. But then, as I discovered on lifting the letter-flap, the front door was on the latch.

It was more completer-finisher pedantry than blind courage that got me through the door. True, I was nervous, and a little disgusted (the smell coming from the house was not wholesome), but the swarming vegetation behind me was almost as oppressive. In any case, and if I am honest, thoughts of my brothers’ mockery and Simone’s silent moue of disapproval if I were to return empty-handed were enough to spur me on. I edged through a musty hallway and along a short corridor, which opened into a big room that was part kitchen and part dining area. The light was dim and there was clutter everywhere, but the house was not overrun, Haversham-like, by cobwebs and parasites and rodents, as I had feared.

Kathy sat in the far corner, bent over a computer. I did not see her at first, because she was so still, but a flash of movement on her screen alerted me to her presence, and I found myself moving towards her. I assumed, I don’t know why, that I would find her dead. But she was not, unless I was. She looked up and smiled, not unpleasantly, and without surprise. Soon she was clattering about by the kettle, mutely scraping grounds from a cafetiere, and I sat listening to her esoteric cacophony of necklaces, bracelets and rings, ornamented with skulls and crosses and other symbols I did not understand. I noted the dreadlocks in her long hair and her unexpected but cosy-looking medieval pixie boots, from the tops of which little wisps of wool lining spilled over most endearingly.

I can’t say much more than that really, because then she turned to face me once more, and her blazing eyes captivated mine, and I was aware of a tremendous wave of power pushing me outside of myself. The whole room glowed white for an instant, and a sparrow fell dead at my feet. Now I was far, far away from me, and the studded globe span far beneath, and all was dispersion; and in my mouth I tasted ashes and flowers and the tears of the world.

‘How did you get on?’ asked Simone, as if innocently, in the Living Room next day.

‘Oh you know,’ I said, rummaging among the Bourbons. ‘She’s fruitloops, isn’t she?’

‘Yesss,’ said Rick, scenting failure on my part and, with a wink to Dom, a promising opportunity to humiliate a sibling.

‘Well, she basically said that she and Dad believe in this stuff, and we should just let them get on with it. I think.’ Behind me, the jigsaw lady broke into a coughing fit. Anxious nurses came and bent over her as she hacked and heaved, but she was not to be consoled. In the end, they wheeled her away, still coughing violently, her livid eyes fixed on mine.

‘We’re going to be late, Dad!’ the child-me used to hiss in a panic, as we hastened towards some important appointment or other.

‘The grace period,’ my Dad always said at such times. ‘Never forget there is always a grace period.’ It was a cornerstone of Dad’s timekeeping philosophy, that every start time has some built-in latitude for the savvy sorcerer to exploit: when people said nine, for example, they really meant ten past. No doubt this was true in the case of fluid social events like parties and book launches – who does not despise the dinner guest who arrives bang on the hour? – but to my bourgeois brain it seemed a less appropriate strategy for other time-sensitive scenarios, such as catching vital connections or not missing important exams. But then Dad had a knack of missing one train or plane, and somehow getting upgraded to first class on the next, which of course did nothing to dissuade him from his theory.

Sometimes magick was just a sort of perceptual sleight of hand, it seemed, rather than a true manipulation of the miraculous; sometimes magick was just… magic.

I remember Dad telling me a story about Aleister Crowley’s first invisibility spell. The Great Beast swept round Mexico City in an outrageous set of vestments, he claimed, and no one batted an eyelid. This was a certain kind of invisibility, Crowley argued, since the magician had managed to normalise the outlandish. And for Dad – always a great hider-in-plain-sight, and a man who told us that there were certain parking spaces that only we could see, so long as we continued to believe in tooth-fairies – this was no doubt good enough.

(I cannot resist adding another Crowley anecdote from the biographies, which has him ‘parading around the Café Royale in full regalia, not catching anyone’s eye, until a visitor or tourist asked a waiter who he was. “Don’t worry,” said the waiter; “That’s just Mr Crowley being invisible.”‘)

Wiggle room. Latitude. The benefit of the doubt. In everything he did, as slowly we grew up and came at last to judge him, we saw that Dad lived always in this fuzzy zone between responsibility and reality – and made sure to drag us all in there with him too. I think he liked to believe there was a moral grace period for all of his misdeeds, that people would always cut him that extra bit of slack because it was, well, him. But though its devious spell can work many selfish wonders, I did not know if charisma could out-charm death.

I had not wanted to return to Dad’s room again. I had no more goodbyes to say, no more craven platitudes to murmur for the nurses’ benefit, no more toxic sarcasms to fail to drip into his ear. Dad’s soul was at auction, and I had no wish to join the bidding.

And yet: here I was again. It was the Monday. For some reason I was earlier than everyone else, and as my car drew up the head nurse ran out from reception: Dad was in his final crisis, she said, and I should hurry.

I slammed the door shut, and ran full pelt for the room, striding up the stairs three at a time rather than wait for the agonisingly pedestrian lift. Dad, when I reached him, was gurgling alarmingly. His face was contorted and his skin was an angry red. His eyes when he opened them looked through everyone in the room, scanning desperately for a delegate for his pain. I put my hand on his, and his breathing began to slow.

‘It’s OK, Dad,’ I said. And then I added, of all things: ‘You can let go now.’ It was the most assertive thing I had ever said to him, and if hearing really is the last sense to go, then he would have known I meant it. In all my life, and after everything, I had never told him what a shit he was. I’m not sure any of us ever had; not even Mum, not really.

In time I was left alone, and the room became taller, and the windows smaller, and everything grew darker, and I looked around for the way out, but there were no corners, and the room was a cylinder that reached up to a tiny and ever-shrinking canopy of black sky, miles above, as high as the summit of Mount Everest (where, you might be surprised to learn, you can actually get a mobile signal!). The white floors were a beach, but the beach was kiss-me-quicksand; and I could only walk round and round the room, and every step took me deeper into the burning lime, and I wished for my knees to squirt a nasty liquid (like a frightened ladybird can!) but there was only a donkey. And the donkey invited me to ride on him and I climbed with relief onto his back, only to find that the donkey was him and he bore me forward deeper and deeper into the golden abyss, until my mouth was full of sand and I was gasping for air, and my face dissolved into a million jigsaw pieces. Then I saw the window was open a tiny crack, just enough perhaps for the thwarted soul of a deposed monarch to slip through into exile. The hounds bayed, the crows cawed and the sand dunes barked (because sand dunes actually can!).

Some ants explode on being attacked, believe it or not, while jellyfish can sting even when they’re dead. On returning to the car park later, and much to the amusement of my siblings, I discovered that I’d forgotten to put my hand-brake on. The car had rolled back into a concrete bollard, leaving a large and expensive dent in my side.

By some unspoken agreement, we each went into Dad’s room separately that last time, as though each of us had words for our late father that the others should not hear. This was perhaps true, in a way, but it was not secrets we had to hide from each other, more the craven hypocrisy of our respective farewells. It was hard enough to listen to oneself utter these empty good wishes and vaguely Christian clichés at the deathbed, let alone have one’s leering siblings listen in.

In the Living Room, gathered again for one last time, Simone wept magnificently. Such soulful shuddering! The Dentist hovered around her, inadequate but hopeful. Dom briefly grazed a few shoulder-blades with a clenched palm, in the manner of one who has never knowingly hugged before. Mum did not appear; nor did Kathy. Dom was making short work of the Luxury M&S Belgian Biscuit Selection which had been wheeled out in honour of the occasion.

‘You’re so lucky to have been there,’ sobbed Simone at last. She sounded almost jealous. ‘I mean, it was lucky for him,’ she added hastily. ‘You know: that he had… someone.’ The words ‘better than nothing’ hung in the air, unspoken yet palpable.

‘Oh, we’re all so lucky,’ said Dom piously, his lips studded with biscuit crumbs. ‘It’s like you knew just what to say.’ His voice, I noticed, had suddenly begun to sound just like Dad’s.

‘I don’t really think I said anything,’ I said. ‘Not anything that made a difference.’

‘Well, I’m just surprised he didn’t try and take you with him, the old devil,’ said Rick drily. ‘He always did hate to be alone. By the way: you owe me a fiver.’


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