Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Scarf

I thought all I had left of him was a beige cashmere M&S scarf. This scarf is soft as cat fur. It goes everywhere with me.  A gift, one Christmas, he’d left it in a flat box, slipped between two others, on my Mum’s front step. He’d left gifts for several years after I stopped seeing him. We threw all the others away – on principle, you know? But I couldn’t bring myself to part with the scarf. Then one Christmas, all through Christmas Eve and the next day, I opened and shut Mum’s front door, snagging the holly wreath, letting in a chill. But the step remained empty.
     That was the end of 2000. Tonight, as I returned home across town through a windy drizzle, I knotted that scarf around my throat; pulled it up over my mouth. I remembered our phone conversation, a week ago.
     It was as though no time had passed at all. The first thing he said to me, after ‘Hiya love,’ was ‘There’s a fella here I’d like you to meet. History Professor. I’ve told him all about you. He's two beds down from me.’ That’s so Dad. Twelve years of painful nothingness between us and now he wants to show off his ‘clever daughter’ to the man in the other hospital bed. It was sad hearing him in the ward. The nurse talked about him being up and about on his Zimmer frame as though that was a good thing.
     Zimmer frame?
     The second time we talk, he tells me ‘You always were your mother’s daughter.’ Asks me what we are doing about Mum's house. ‘We’ve got to go for probate,’ I say, not mentioning the protracted grief, trauma and health problems my sisters and I have endured since our mother's death. 'But then I think it’s best that we sell it as soon as’. ‘Very sensible,’ says Dad. ‘You want shot of that millstone.'
      I’m stunned by the mysteriousness of my Dad’s life: it lies behind a door I’ve never opened - I never even so much as curled my fingers around the handle. Dad gave himself another family, another wife and stepchildren, even grandchildren. How did he do all that... without me? I know virtually nothing about the last twenty years of his life or the people in it – just a few names. In my mind, my father has stayed the same man as the one he walked out as in 1991, wearing the same clothes, holding the same attitudes, and with the same mistress. He's occupied some ethereal space in the back of my mind. I've had vague images of a hump-back bridge, a quiet leafy lane and a bungalow, paintings of landscapes from our old house hanging on its salmon-coloured walls. 
     But for my Dad, of course, life moved on. For over half my own life-span, he’s lived another life – full, not empty and containing something approximating love. The mistress became his wife, the blonde bit of stuff became his step-daughter. Then what? Holidays to the South of France? Afternoons out to stately homes, with a cream tea for afters? Cosy nights on the settee front of the box? The question mark he left for us, his three children.
     I’m not angry with Dad. Not now. Not today. Too much time has passed, and there is so little time left. It’s funny, he sounded like my Mum on the phone – that same softening of the palette, that child-like laugh. Is that how all people sound when they’ve reached a certain age or degree of illness? And a Zimmer frame. Bloody hell! That’s a far cry from his purple Porsche blasting 120 down the motorway. Dad shouts at the doctors, and argues with the nurses about his medication. That man could argue his way out of any situation. Any parking ticket. Any hotel bill. Any extra-marital affair. My Dad, the self-made man, unmade. He falls over on the living room carpet. Is at the mercy of medication and heart monitors, bad hospital food. He loves his food, my Dad. Butter spread thick as cheese.
     I want my Dad to be happy. Not lonely under thin white sheets. Scared. Still I wonder how he lived all that life without me. How it became normal, to make me into a memory. It’s not nice feeling erased. So of course, I erased him, or tried to. I know when I’m not wanted.
     When something has gone, it’s gone. And if it was never there, nothing will ever, ever, make up for it. Some people understand this more than others; they’ve learned it by experience. Yet so far, a couple of phone calls to my Dad have made a difference. Everyone has such a different relationship with their parents - and some people are better at being parents than others. Some are just plain rotten. But good or bad, the relationship simple or complicated, your mother, your father – they made you what you are today. Call it biology. Call it blood. They bloody know you.