He is thinking Jesus Christ, you weak imbecile, must you make everything so complicated, even bloody pouring me a drink. The oxygen mask covers half his face and he cannot be without it, but she knows what he longs to say if able. She stands by the bed and tips from jug to glass, a glinting transfer, and feels him narrow in the way she grips the jug with one hand and the lip of the vessel with the other. If water splashes her fingers, he winces. If it’s hot, she adds ice cubes, but he overlooks this consideration. She’s pouring it wrong, that’s what it is. So she makes sure he can see every movement of her actions, every ripple of her muscle as she tips water into glass. It is important, even at this late stage, that he knows she is capable of rebellion.
After she’s poured the water she helps him sit up and counts out pills onto his palm. She does it silently, training her eyes on the white torpedoes and not on her father’s plasticised face into which the tablets will shortly disappear. One for the heart, two for blood, three for pain. And a partridge in a pear tree. Every day, the same refrain drums through her head. Soon he won’t be able to swallow and she’ll have to inject him. The engine of his body is shutting down, clamping off wires leading to unused flesh, driving all heat and energy to the centre.
Today he holds the pills in his mouth for several breaths. She leans forward on the bed. Maybe today is that day his gullet will stop working. She imagines pills nudging pink wet flesh, hooking themselves into hidden folds, fizzing medicinally into places they don’t belong. Maybe he’ll choke and she’ll have to do something, but she doesn’t quite know what.
“Are you all right, Dad?”
His eyes are closed but the skin of his crow’s feet tremble, those creases left by an unhappy marriage and children who have faded into twice-yearly, gritted-teeth visits. Except this child who is watching to see if she needs to stick her fingers down his throat.
Eventually he gulps them down. She watches his neck and tries to see through his body to the tablets, shipwreck debris, spiky sea-mines on their way to a belly that now vessels plain foods such as porridge and cereal and milk, but had once plumped around wine and steak and cheese, and secret desserts shared with women who were not his wife.
“Gone,” he says and opens his mouth to show her.
She nods and feels like a gaoler. Which, in a way, she is.
“I think he needs a feeding tube,” she tells her brother when he calls that night. She can hear the screaming circus of his family in the background, well-fed and loved children asserting themselves in a way she finds unsettling. She’s sitting on the landing outside Dad’s room. He’s sleeping, or pretending to sleep. She doesn’t temper her voice. She hopes Dad hears her.
“So get the nurse in and she’ll sort it out.” Her brother is bored and wants their father to hurry up and die. He’s the eldest and saw the worst of Dad with their mother. She’s the youngest, the baby, and memories of before their mother left have turned some elements of the past into frosted glass.
Dad makes a noise, maybe a fart, and moves on the bed. The house is too hot. The heating is kept on even though it’s summer, for he doesn’t have the meat to warm himself now. She thinks of the holiday they’d had when he’d gone without sun-cream so his tan would quicken, deep and true. His skin had flaked. Shards of him spilled over the hotel washbasin and loungers. Whenever he changed his shirt, white dust clouded the fabric. One day she’d walked out of the sea and used his towel, and crumbs of her father slid over her body. Maybe it was then he started to disgust her.
“Yes, I’ll get the nurse in,” she says. “He doesn’t want to eat.” He’d refused the soup she made for dinner. Red-orange tomato, from a tin, the sort he disdained when he was well. She wants to tell her brother that she understands his distance and why he moved to another country, but she doesn’t have the courage for that conversation. Instead she tells her brother that the soup was Heinz and hopes he will understand the small victory, the strike-back for when they were children.
Marcia, the nurse, is kind. She remembers the woman from school; good at science, hair worn in bright coloured braids, bursting from her scalp like glorious tentacles. She remembers Marcia sitting at the desk in a wash of sunlight, smiling at a textbook open at the human digestive system, as if life as suddenly made sense for her.
Marcia steps into the house with her medical bag and pats her arm, murmuring she’s a caring daughter, returning home to look after her father in his final days.
“You do know these are his final days,” Marcia says when she doesn’t reply. Her eyes are like arrows and flecked with gold.
They go into Dad’s room and the feeding tube is inserted swiftly. Yellow plastic glides up the nasal passage towards his brain. A sun-coloured worm, linking him to life, and he grimaces as if he hates the temerity of it all. But it’s done quickly and Marcia is gentle.
“Say thank you, Dad,” she says when Marcia packs up her bag. He turns his face to the wall.
Marcia leaves her with a box of powders, high calorie, to mix with water and put down the tube.
“Lots of different flavours, Dad,” she says. She reshapes his pillows, expensive bags of feathers beneath her hands, and sits him up. “Maybe your body will get a sense of what’s going down the tube. What do you fancy – chocolate? Vanilla?”
No response. A faint tremble to his body, like light under the sea.
She pours banana milkshake through the tube because she remembers drinking it with her brothers as children and because she knows he hates it.
The tube has to be replaced and Marcia comes out again. It’s too close to his stomach wall and causing pain. The tube is fixed and his body is replenished. Then, in a way that doesn’t make sense to her, he starts to sleep more. The fight to eat, to swallow, has gone, and now he breaks free. He slips from his moorings.
When he sleeps his skin changes colour. She thinks of crème caramel, the inside of her only lover’s elbow, her mother’s pearl earrings. Memories open like shells while her father bleaches life.
He doesn’t wake up. He has left no instruction and she can’t think what he’d want her to do and what she’d do instead. She doesn’t know whether to feed him or not, to call Marcia or not. She is not heartless, despite everything, so she continues to inject him with pain relief. He doesn’t move when she pushes the needle into his skin and flood his cells with morphine, the nullifier, the blinding cloud he needs to keep from shrieking.
In the days of before, it had been vodka. A bad day at work – vodka. A screaming row with Mum – vodka. He didn’t think his children knew or could detect it on his breath, or that they’d noticed the way the skin around his nose would raspberry at about five in the afternoon.
She wonders if he misses booze. She sits in the corner of his room, sipping wine, hoping he’ll wake up and see her.
On the day of the storm, her brothers arrive. The older picks up the younger and she hears the pop of gravel over thunder as the Landrover crawls up the driveway. Marcia has moved in and says hello when they bring in their bags.
Her brother’s luggage surprises her. She is used to their impermanence and the way they flow in and out of her life depending on their own tides. A wash of contact at Christmas, an ebbing away when they hook into a new relationship.
They don’t go to see their father straight away for it is expected to take a few hours. They sit on the landing outside the bedroom while Marcia sees to him, big men filling small chairs. Sharp suits at odds with faded sofa fabric and blemished wallpaper. They all drink wine.
Eventually Marcia calls them in. His breath is now a burr, ratcheting up and down. Marcia moves around the bed silently, switching off machines and quietening the space into which, shortly, their father will die.
“He’s lost weight,” the younger brother says.
“He’s going to lose a lot more shortly,” the oldest says. Marcia winces, but she doesn’t know the aortal chambers of their family. Their father is like a greenstick fracture beneath the family’s skin.
Then a moan, and a bubble appears at the corner of Dad’s mouth. They watch it form, all disgusted, and then it bursts. Nothing more. The room falls quiet.
“Well, that’s that, then,” the older brother says.
Which, in a way, it is. They stand at the end of the bed and Marcia leaves them alone. Then, because they are still his children, they reach for each other and link hands.
Rebecca Burns is a novelist and short-story writer. Her two short story collections, Catching the Barramundi and The Settling Earth, were longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize, the UK’s only award for short story collections. Published by Odyssey Books and Next Chapter, her novels The Bishop’s Girl and Beyond the Bay are available for purchase online. Quilaq, her latest book, was published by Next Chapter in July 2020.
© 2021, Rebecca Burns