Gail Ashton 72
What kept you
On the day he died, he’d been thinking about Chinese New Year, specifically Peking Duck and those fried dumplings, oh what were they called, why could he never bring a name to mind when he needed to, and when exactly had he stopped flying his kite on The Chase, its dragon head dipping and bobbing in the wind off the hill and looking for all the world like his old headteacher, that ginger Catholic bastard with the neck like a gizzard and hands that twitched over the cane he always carried. And how he’d said, You? An altar boy? The Lord truly does move in mysterious ways. And if he’d known, he’d have fed the cat early, replied to the text that would have made him so proud, dried the dishes, maybe even left a note – no he hadn’t been drinking, no it wasn’t a crazed axeman, no he hadn’t known a thing about it. So, here he was, all that hammering at the door and him dead, deceased, this mortal coil shuffled off, that’s life isn’t it, or, rather, not, ha ha. It’s not like he hasn’t been here before.
He says, thank you for coming. You tell him not to be so daft. He’s on a drip, so much morphine he’s circumnavigated the globe twice and prevented the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. He looks strangely small in his pyjamas. You play would you rather, sun or moon, ghost or immortal, drowning or guillotine? And what would you most want to be? He says a kite so he could beat the wind. You say, you’ll never beat the wind, that’s why you had the vent hole in the back of your lab coat. I did, he says, so I wouldn’t blow the windows out. What about you? I won’t blow the windows out, you say. No, he says. Most want to be. A cake, I say. Yes, he says. What kind? A giant chocolate one, we say this together, so I could eat myself. Is this when I want to tell him he’s a lion of a man?
He falls over while spectating at a rugby match, breaks his ankle. He’s on sticks more times than you care to remember. He flies out from Jeddah, sits in his kitchen nursing another new knee. I’m not worried about my liver, he says, then, falsetto, it’s me knees wot’s broke guvnor. He makes tea balanced on one leg. Hey, he says, did you know babies are born without kneecaps? His are titanium. Or that knees are as unique as fingertips? Factoid, he says, bass voice, an elephant is the only land mammal that can’t jump. True? Or false? True, you say. False, he says. What about me?
He refuses the offer of an arm when he hobbles up and down the steps in Ashbourne. He hugs you goodbye under the clock. He smells of wet wool. You travel all over the place to meet.
You call him, late. You know he’ll be up. Hello? he says. Craggy Island here. News headline, you say. Man claims he’s Charles and Camilla’s secret love-child. Is he wearing a tiara? he says. You say, there’s a woman just gone past the window, looks like she’s been trudging four days through a forest in search of food. Is it your own reflection? he says. Then, you know I’m a Yorkshireman so why would I spend good money on food when they reduce it all at six? You’re not from Yorkshire, you say, you’re a Geordie. Whei aye, so I am pet. Could you please get off this phone, you say, it’s three in the morning. Could I just say, he says, you won’t get me on this line again, whatever the time. Why not? you say. Didn’t I tell you? he says. My number will be well and truly up by now.
He tells you he has cancer and you burst into tears. Later you tell him that medieval people believed the hare grew a new anus every year. He says he’s planning on doing the same. They transfer him with a near-fatal infection, it’s the middle of the night. They try to falsify his records. Another time he’s on suicide watch, he’s in rehab, you’re eating sandwiches on a school trip, his shirt drying to salt marks in this ridiculous heat. He says, northern, I don’t sweat much for a fat lass, do I? In Hong Kong, he says, I changed me shirt three times a day. In Spain or Portugal, you’d need a fresh shirt for the evening promenade when all the boys eye up the girlies. He says, why did you never visit when we were in Madrid? He knows why, just as you know everything that happened then. He says, is your head-doctor as insane as mine, do you think they have to have a screw loose before they can practise? You ask him how to work this stupid air fryer. He does everything in his, except pigs in blankets. No-one comes for those any more.
You say, how on earth are you going to live? The first place, he feeds a pre-payment meter for no gas just to pay off a previous tenant’s debts. In the last, he adopts a stray cat and croons to it. You say, Mrs Doyle style, you’ve a lovely voice father. You say, if I was calling the Samaritans, I’d hope it was your voice on the end of the line.
I got cake, he says. There’s a fancy teapot too and white tablecloth and tables just like ours set up all over the room. He’s lost weight, cheekbones honed in the dingy light from a window. He has to be back in an hour. He hugs you, tight, in just the same way.
You are standing in the conservatory watching starlings flying home to roost. They are like leaves scattered in a whirlwind of air. The phone rings, goes straight to voicemail. Hello? someone says. I know you’re in there, you miserable fecker. He laughs.
You are standing in the conservatory watching birds fly east into a rising sun. They are like rags fluttering in a turmoil of rosy air. The phone rings, goes straight to voicemail. Get off this phone, he says. Go write another book on Chaucer.
You say into an empty receiver, we’ve got snow again. The line clicks and hisses. You take the dog for a walk, come back to hot chocolate and radiators blasting through the ozone layer. He will say, I hate snow, what’s it for, no bugger can go out in it.
He said, in t’north, winters were so cold the washing would freeze on the line. Our kids thought it was great. He’s banging on the door, a huge pair of jeans held up in front of him. He says, oo er missus, me trousis have gone all stiff agen. Don’t cry, he says, there’s a pint of cider with our name on it. He’s driven miles to look after you. He says, in Hong Kong the apartment walls were so thin I had to pee sitting down. Too much information, you tell him, but he’s made you laugh. Another time he holds up the traffic so you can make a quick getaway after the Harvest Festival. He hands you tissues, says, sometimes you remind me of one of my kids.
He sends you letters on thick cream paper, black ink, large italic hand. He says, what idiot thought to put a rehab centre right next to the brewery? They call him The Professor. You call him your friend.
He’s trudging up a snow-covered hill in Leek, Christmas time, and you’re so angry with him you leave him and drive home, except it’s not there at all, it’s in the woods near your house. He’s wearing a check shirt, usual waistcoat, no anorak or warm fleece though there’s an easterly whipping in off the moors. What are you playing at? you say. Taking photographs, he says, but there’s no camera in sight and one of his boots has fallen off. Snow has settled into crevasses, sits on branches like an ermine coat. You can’t tell what day it is. You say, what happened to that eucalyptus in your garden? She sold it, he says, had it felled and gave it to the rag and bone man. You say, why is it that I’ve never believed a word you say? It’s true, he says, I can show you the hole it left. Here, he says, come closer. He takes your hand, slips it beneath the left lapel of his waistcoat. He says, if I get a black shirt I might be able to serve in the café and I won’t have to leave. Did I tell you how scared I am? Your fingers touch the wall of his chest, feel the slow give of a ribcage, pass through bone into dry hollow. There, he says. Did you know a heart beats at least once every minute? You recoil, try to step backwards, but he places a large rough hand over yours. A heart is the size of a fist, he says, on average anyway. Close by, a robin calls, the sound sweet, clear as winter air. His hand releases you. The next moment he’s leaning against a silver birch high up on the bank. You know, he says, we’ve been married for forty years and she won’t give me a stick of furniture. You say his name, once, twice. He seems not to hear. Tomorrow, he says, I’ll send you chocolate. I know you girlies like things like that. A blackbird darts through trees, peep peep it calls. He says, where have all the birds gone? You can’t make him out at all now. Isn’t it funny, he says. I can’t hear a single note. Do you think all the birds have gone and died?
You will want to tell him about the woman in the van, how you thumped on the side as you squeezed past and she burst through the door shouting, oy, what do you think you’re doing to my property, you think you’re so hard, just look at you, and you bow with a flourish, having lost the plot, again. And if you’d told him, he would text you: let your mind wander in the pure and simple, he’ll say. Be one with the infinite. And it will be your wedding, almost Christmas again, here’s your old friend back after all this time, in his waistcoat and boots, looking after the band, your aunty, the dog, taking hundreds of photos, mostly of you looking almost glamorous in those black and white shots he likes so much. And from nowhere, the surprise of it, you look right at him, say I love you, he takes your hand, says I love you too, why you’d think there were violins. He stays right till the end though he’s miles to travel, and you and your sister help him load the sound equipment into the car. It’s midnight, freezing cold, thick with stars, and he says, that psychiatrist who said what I want you to do is go out every night and look at the stars, know your place in the universe? And we both say, why, you’d just want to shoot yourself. Though neither of you did, in the end.
Someone’s at the door, knock knock. Who’s there? you say. A letterbox flaps and he shouts, are you there, Moriarty? And you open the door, say, Mr Bond, I’ve been expecting you. All those times, those excuses, reasons for not turning up, you know every last one of them. He says, sorry, I seem to have lost track of time, you’re not ready for me. No, you say, I am, I’ve been expecting you for ages.
Someone’s at the door, knock knock knock. Who’s there? you say. You open the door to a flurry of snow. It’s me, a voice says, Mr Nobody. There’s no-one in sight. You say, come on in. What kept you?
Gail Ashton is published by Cinnamon Press and has brought out three poetry collections, most recently What rain taught us, edited Meet Me There, a collection of writing about place, and has an experimental memoir, Not the Sky, forthcoming. She lives on the Cheshire/Peak District border with her wife, her sister and their mad dog.