At this point it’s probably best for all concerned if I try and keep the literal transcriptions of what he tries to say down to a minimum. All you need to know is that my father sounds as bad as he looks, which, as my mother revealed in her earlier phone call, is not good. He’s lying in my old bed, his ashen face peering over the blankets, his eyes dull, set inside sunken sockets. From the wall an Australian soap is showing on the television, the sound is turned down so that the only noise that can be heard is awful wrench of my father’s breathing. He tries to speak, but it is not easy; every word is a struggle for him. He talks in a slow whisper, reluctant to let the words come out, as if he knows that there are only a finite amount of words left inside him and he wants to make sure that none of them are wasted.
Though a shower of coughs and splutters and bits of lung, he says: “John… you came…”
“Yes…” I reply.
“Please… sit down…” he urges.
I look around the room but the only chair available is a small child’s chair. It is the one that I used to sit on when I was kid, the one I used to sit on when I was playing with my little tin typewriter. As I grew older this chair was left abandoned in the corner of my room; I never threw it away – nothing was ever thrown away in our house. I pull its flimsy frame closer to my father’s bed and lower myself on to the tiny chair, a little afraid that it will collapse under the extra poundage that I have accrued in the intervening years; as I do so the cabbage smell grows stronger; I try my best to pretend that I haven’t noticed it.
“You’ve grown a bit…” says my father.
“Yes…” I say, patting my stomach. “Too much good living.”
My father looks at me: there is no expression on his face as he does this. He lies in his bed and studies my features; I have no idea what he is thinking about. Then, finally, he mumbles: “What a bloody mess… eh? What a bloody mess…”
Under normal circumstances I’m pretty sure that I’d be making a joke about that last comment, something like: ‘Surely I don’t look that bad!’, but now is not the time for humour, how could it be? I simply nod in agreement.
Then he says: “Your mum tells me that you’re doing alright for yourself… magazines isn’t it?”
“Not quite,” I reply. “But something like that…”
My father tries to smile. “We always knew that you’d be a writer…” he says.
“No… I’m not a writer… I just work in publishing, that’s all…”
Without any warning my father breaks his gaze and turns his eyes towards the corner of the room: “Go into the bottom drawer of the cupboard.” He tells me.
And I say: “What for?”
Before he can answer he has a particularly powerful coughing fit: this time it really is worthy of a mention here; when it has finally subsided he says: “Just do it…”
I stand up and open the drawer as instructed. Lying inside among the bric-a-brac is a stack of pages. The pages are blue-lined and have evidently been torn from a school exercise book. I recognise them instantly, although I really don’t have any right to. They are covered in my handwriting, or rather the handwriting that I used to produce when I was much younger. I raise them to my nostrils – I can’t resist doing this – and they smell of me.
From his bed, my father makes a noise resembling a chuckle and then says: “We kept them for you…”
There are about two dozen pages in all, each one covered in my juvenile handwriting. I inspect the first of the pages: at the top, written in faded blue Biro and underlined are the words: THE MONSTER FROM MARS by John Price, aged 8 3/4. Two or three pages along is similar underlined title, this one reads HOW I SPENT MY SUMMER by John Price, aged 9 1/4. I look towards my father in astonishment, “Why did you keep these?” I ask.
He tries to laugh again. “Look at the end of each story…” he tells me.
I do as he says and begin to laugh myself.
“And then we all went home and had our tea…” says my father.
And then we all went home and had our tea. If there is one sentence in the whole written language which best sums me up, this is probably it. And then we all went home and had our tea. I laugh even louder: this was the way that I used to end most of the childhood stories that I wrote while locked away in my bedroom, locked away from him. I would invariably start off full of energy, providing elaborate details of events and characters, giving painstaking thought to dialogue; but as the day wore on, tiredness and fatigue and boredom would set in and I’d find myself hurrying through the final few pages. My hero would build a rocket ship and head off to Mars, there he would meet all manner of nasty slimy monsters and do battle with them; then, with the story building to a tense climax, I would run out of ideas: my hero would escape with the minimum of effort and, in my immortal words, find himself heading home for his tea. It’s the way that my seven-year-old mind chose to resolve matters… and if I think about it, the origins of a pattern that I have been adhering to for most of my adult life. As the Everton fan once remarked when his team lost to a second-half Ian Rush hat-trick in the 1984 FA cup final after they had led by a goal for the whole of the first half: great first half, bit of a shite second. And, perhaps, this is why I ended up doing what I ended up doing, the reason I found myself anchored to the ephemeral world of partworks. I may have despised working in this particular branch of publishing, I may even have been ashamed of some of the truly dreadful titles that I have contributed to over the years, but it’s taken my father and a stack of old pages torn from a school exercise book to make me realise that maybe, just maybe, I’ve been doing the right thing all along.
Now I’m thinking about my job again: and now I suddenly know what I’m going to do when this is all over. In actual fact, I’m going to do exactly what I told Carol I was going to do on the day that I was unceremoniously slung out of GP: I’m going to get another job, a similar job, in another partwork company, a similar partwork company. I’m going to do this because this is what I do. I’m going to be just as bored… just as frustrated… just as pissed off as I always have been; but at least I’ll know that what I’m getting all worked up about is the right thing.
“Thanks…” I tell my father.
“No need to thank us…” he replies. “Like I said: we kept them for you. We knew that you’d want to have them one day.”
I stay with my father for a further twenty minutes: you have to laugh really, at the way the human mind works. Because I’m sitting in this absurd little child’s chair now and what I’d like to do more than anything in the whole world is utter just one simple word: Why? And he’s lying there on his death-bed, also, I imagine, wanting to utter just one simple word: Why? And yet neither of us knows how to say it, how to introduce the word into the conversation, how to stop ourselves from talking around in circles.
So we talk about life, we talk about death, we talk about football, the weather, we talk about anything, anything that isn’t important. I sit in that chair and smell my father’s cabbage smell and look at his grey, shrunken features, and he occasionally coughs and I occasionally reach down to the foot of the bed and hand him a tissue. And then, finally, when it looks as though we’re about to run out of things to say, there is a knock on the bedroom door and my mother appears holding an old Kodak camera in her hands. She asks if I would mind posing for a picture with him, and of course I can’t refuse. I don’t know why she’s doing this, I really don’t understand why she would want to have a photograph of me looking like I do and him looking like he does. There is no logic to her request, but I do it nevertheless. I bend down on my knees and hang my arm limply around his bony shoulders and smile. And when the camera flash goes off it’s like someone has fired a bullet at me. And I feel like falling to the floor.