I heard her wails and screams coming from downstairs and I knew. My heart sunk, my shoulders fell, and I knew what was coming. I went to the window of my dank, damp bedroom and looked out from my second storey apartment. I thought I was looking for peace or was it freedom. Mostly though it was to escape from the bleak sink estate hinterland laid out before me.
It was murky, gloomy and suddenly even more personally miserable than was usual. A freezing winter fog was now rolling in from the North Sea. The sparse patches of grass that remained on the fringes of the common areas were turning white with a heavy frost. I could see the silhouettes of some of my friends hanging out in the distance. I recognized their profiles, I knew their body movements. I heard their faint laughter and it made me feel sick.
That night I thought that my life was over, well I knew it was. It was finished, what was the point, I didn’t want to care about anything. Outside the remaining street lights that were not cracked or smashed to pieces, shone a hard orange into the cocktail of fog and darkness. I could not focus my eyes on one particular thing; all I could see was a watery, neon haze, as my eyes began to well up with a fierce unleashed emotion.
I had been to the hospital earlier that day; it was the same unpleasant, dreadful, heartbreaking trip my mother and I had taken for the past three months or more.
My mother would look at herself in the small round mirror set in a pale wooden frame. She would roughly buff her hair, purse her lips, put on some cheap lipstick, and then we would be ready to go. It was a brave face and only now I realize what hurt she disguised from me. We took a brisk walk to the bus stop, to patiently stand for ten minutes in driving drizzle and cold. In Edinburgh the cold penetrates deep into your bones, into your soul. We exchanged some idle chat and then fell into silence as we approached the vicinity of the hospital.
I thought I knew what she was thinking; I expected it was the same as I was thinking. I hoped and begged to my god that this time when we entered the wretched ward that my suffering father would be sitting up in bed. He would be smiling, beckoning us close, and exchanging warm familiar hugs. But how could I feel what she was feeling. He had been my father for sixteen years; he had been her soul mate for more than twenty six years.
When the bus pulled away and left us alone, it stood there before us. The grey demonic façade sucked out my youthful optimism and thrust dark thoughts upon me. Steam rose from outlets on the roof of the Victorian building; the insipid yellow light emanating from the small rectangular windows making it look yet more evil. As we walked closer it became even more like hell than I could imagine.
Inside the tombstone tinted, depressing edifice, laid my father. Unconscious now for over ninety days, he had suffered a stroke one year earlier. He had fearlessly fought on, bravely resisting, before finally succumbing to the massive internal war going on inside his body.
It all came out of the blue to me, well when you are sixteen you don’t do strokes, you don’t understand. When you are sixteen on a sprawling housing estate you do football, you try to snog girls, and you get caught stealing apples from the better class gardens around the corner. You go to your best friend’s house to listen to Free or Family, Paul Rogers, Paul Kossoff or Roger Chapman. But it wasn’t going to be ‘all right now’ in fact it was the end of the world for me.
As we entered the bleak, sanitary, Dickensian entrance to the hospital others were exiting. Some were miserable, many were despondent, hanging their heads, down, negative, pessimistically going back to wherever they came from, to suffer, with their thoughts. Occasionally a smile would break out, someone had good news, but it wasn’t ubiquitous, no, it was very rare.
The smell would hit me as soon as I had entered the creaky brass and dark wood revolving doors. I wanted to go round one more revolution and head out, but I had to be brave, I had to show my love and character. I had to face the facts, hard and real as they were. My head hanging low as I lumbered heavily through the once magnificent lobby of the huge Victorian sanatorium. I was momentarily carried away by the wonderful mosaic of tiles I marched over. The still bright enamel tiles took me away for a moment to a Mediterranean spa; a villa in ancient Naples, with the relaxing sound of trickling water, as the smell of the olive trees briefly brought summer into my head.
The artisans who crafted the decorative floor must have known they could draw you out of your agonizing depressed state, just even for those few seconds. Enough to help lift your spirit alleviate your suffering, allow some humanity, some light to break through the endless and thick black thoughts.
The smell was that familiar smell; it was a smell of sickness, of trouble, anxiety and death. It was the smell of disinfectant, of antiseptic, of drugs: of pasty, bland, second rate food and old urine. The cocktail of smells always hit me like an arrow through my heart. All my hopes, all my optimistic thoughts, my prayers, my secret wishes. Those little in between thoughts and dreams, were smashed when I smelt the familiar deathlike smell of the hospital.
And then the walk, the cautious, painful, tearful and agonizing walk. From the heavy revolving door the long walk to the ward, ward number eleven. We turned left breaking from the endless, poisonous, corridor of fear, and entered the bleak ward. My mother’s steps quickened, mine slowed. She could not wait to see him again she knew he might not always be there. My father lay there motionless, still frozen in time. He was in the far right hand corner bed, the last bed on the row. The wards were all the same, row upon row of beds lined up like battery hens; ten beds on each side of the ward they lay there and faced each other. Most awaiting the same ultimate fate as the battery hens, the termination of their life.
The same pale yellow covers on each prim, proper bed, the tired looking steel bed frames could have been cages for most. The odd patient could sit up, the lucky visitors able to communicate with their loved one, how envious, how jealous I was.
A surly grey haired doctor beckons to my mother; he needs to speak with her. At sixteen I am not welcome to be a part of their huddle. As I walked towards the bed, my nervous body trembling, thumping with a combination of hope and fear, my heart jumping in my chest, hoping just hoping he would have his eyes open and look at me. Just for one last time, please god, just for one last time, oh please dear god just ten seconds, and let me tell him I love him so much before we have to part.
But it is the same story again, the same face, a familiar face, the face of my comatose father. Pallid and brutally unresponsive, it is him, but it is not him, he is alive, but he is not living. He is a vegetable, he cannot hear but I speak anyway, I spend the forty minutes I have talking to him. I tell him it is cold outside, he is better in his warm snug bed, I tell him the score from last night, our team won, they are doing well dad, I tell him. I tell him that the dog is good and it misses him, it sits patiently, obediently, beside his chair, waiting for him to get back. For him to come home.
I swear I see a movement on his face, a smile, but, no it is just me, just my wishful, delusional mind playing a nasty trick on me. I notice that the visitors across from my father’s bed are looking at me and I become self-conscious, I am just a young boy, I do not really have an understanding of what is going on. Spiritually I have not even reached my infancy.
Then the bell rings and I know I have to go, the nurses will expedite me out of their realm. Even though we cannot communicate I don’t want to leave him. But I have to leave my dormant dad. Fragile and failing my father has to be left alone.
In his corner bed, my poor dad, unconscious and alone again. He fought for his country in the jungles of Burma, he raised a family, he obeyed all the rules, but here is his reward, it hurts so deep, you cannot imagine the pain. Before I leave I stroke the covers, I try to make some modicum of human contact. It is shocking, his strong, big muscular body, his barrel chest, his huge sturdy shoulders are now like fragile twigs on a winter tree. Like a bamboo fishing pole he bought for me one great summer, I still see it now, but it is fading. His body has withered away, underneath the razor thin yellow blanket, he is just bones. The poor man, he deserves so much better, his generation gave us so much, but asked for so little in return.
It is December the 24th 1973, it is Christmas Eve, and now the snow is falling in large shavings. Powdery, gentle, fluffy flakes, they make their way softly down, there are millions of them. The street is starting to turn white and the roofs of the rows of council houses are being blanketed in a chalky emulsion from the sky. A lone car goes carefully, gingerly by and leaves two rows of black in the slushy road. But the tracks are gone quickly as more and heavier crystals of ice flakes, pile down from the sky. I didn’t even notice it, it just happened as I gazed aimlessly and blankly staring blindly into the winter night.
She opened the door to my bedroom and cried out loud, I knew he was dead. I couldn’t say a word, I knew he was gone, but I didn’t realise I would never speak to him again, except for my one way conversations with him.
She needs my comfort, but I am only an immature teenager, what can I do, she screams her sorrow out loud, it is a distressingly real now.
She falls to the floor in front of me, her love of nearly thirty years has gone, the only man she had ever loved in her sheltered, innocent, working class life has gone. She is alone, she has me, but I am now both a burden, and a substitute for her emotions.
It is Christmas 1973, my father is dead, I am sixteen my heart is smashed to pieces, my soul mutilated beyond repair. We should be happy at this time of year but the pain is immense and evergreen, how can I ever face Christmas again.