Blue. A deep blue that calms. Warm and cloudless; a bonus summer in mid-autumn.
I stretch my toes in the grass, and the old lounger creaks beneath me. Floral-patterned fabric, faded and cool with damp.
“Uhh,” He responds, squinting upwards, “That would have been 19…” The latter syllable stretching with his memory. “1961. Bridlington. With Eddie Jones.” He blinks at me as if waiting for the detail to be written down. I should write things down.
His face is brown. The straw hat dappling the sun across his brow and failing to protect his nose – red, but red all year round – is also failing to contain a cumulous cloud of white hair.
“We played a whole summer there.” He hums, falters, hums again. “What was that ditty?”
He coughs then, eyes widening in a drawn face. I am on my feet and leaning over the bed for another cardboard bowl to hold at his chin. He spits something thick and black up and pushes a desperate “sorry” out behind it.
“Don’t try and talk, Dad. It’s ok. That’s better.” I wipe his chin and linger, in case of more. The air in the room is stale; the small window too stiff to open and the air outside too cold anyway.
His eyes search the space in front of him. Faded walls, the blue paint peeling at the edges. I interpret a small grunt as my dismissal, cross to the pedal bin at the end of the bed, drop the cardboard in, wash my hands in the little sink, and sit back down.
The chair creaks again.
A blackbird sings. The huge ash tree next-door sways in the wind, twice the height of the buildings around it. Its leaves all whisper against each other and create a roar.
“Look at that,” He sweeps his arm out towards the house, standing brilliantly white against the blue sky, and laughs. “What a castle.” There’s a small, red, weather-beaten birdhouse up in the eaves. It’s never housed anything to my knowledge.
“It does look lovely in the sunshine.” I agree. “The garden is beautiful.” It is. Grass short and lush, with explosions of lavender and fuchsias along the path.
“Oh, it’s a knockout.” He locks his fingers across his stomach. The pigment is fading towards the fingertips; brown becoming pink. “Your mother works miracles.” He shuffles down in his own lounger and closes his eyes. “Your mother,” He says again. I reach out to feel the delicate skin of his hands; bones wrapped in brown paper.
I take a pale, swollen hand in mine as he spasms, the cancer a storm tearing through every organ. His eyes search, and then fixate on a point above him. He makes a muffled sound behind a dry tongue.
“What was that Dad?”
“Rats.” He shakes me off with abrupt strength and waves towards the ceiling. The hallucinations grow darker. At first, some made him laugh out loud and I longed to gather the sound around me like a blanket and go to sleep.
“No. No rats Dad.” He tries to show me again, and I take his hand. “It’s ok. It’s just a dream.” I squeeze, my fingers leaving indentations as if he’s no more than putty. His body misdirecting the liquid he takes in, inflating his limbs into caricatures. “It’s just a dream.” He nearly sees me.
There is a rattling from the corridor outside as a nurse pushes a trolley from room to room. Pots of jelly, egg and watercress sandwiches, hot water and tea bags.
“Can I get you anything darling?” He is looking at me again.
“No, I’m fine thanks.”
“I can go over the road and get you a Cornetto?”
I chuckle. “No, really I’m fine. Can I get you anything?
“You’re joking.” He closes his eyes, puts on his ‘showbiz’ voice. “I’ve got it all, kid!”
“What about a drink?”
“Goes straight through me.”
I laugh. Stretch out, deciding I know better. I go into the kitchen to get him a glass of water. I stand in his sun. “Here.”
He opens one eye. “You’re trying to drown me.”
“You should drink a little bit Dad.” He opens and closes his mouth, a fish on the rocks. I dip the small sponge in a dish of water and wipe it around his cracked lips. He grunts. I dip it again and squeeze the end into his mouth this time. He chews on it urgently and I have to pull it away.
He chokes. More black sludge. Another apology, barely intelligible. He closes his eyes. I sit down.
“What’s wrong?” He croaks, surprised. A cloud crosses the sun. His cheeks are sallow, hair lank where his hat was.
I wipe my face. I am crying in the garden.
“It’s a beautiful day.” I say. “It’s a beautiful day in autumn.”
He frowns at me. “I can see that.”
A spasm shakes him in the lounger.
“No,” I shake my head, desperate. “It’s so warm, the flowers are still blooming. We’re on the old loungers looking up at the house. The birds are singing.”
He closes his eyes. A rat skitters across the grass and under the bed.
“Dad?” I smooth the sheets across his small frame. “Dad. We’re in the garden. The grass is soft. It’s sunny and warm. The house looks so pretty. Like a castle. Everything is lovely. Can you see it?” The room is quiet. His breathing shallow and sporadic.
His eyebrows rise. “Oh.” He says.