Here is a short story of mine, published in 2004 in Dream Catcher magazine.
My father does not see me these days. What he sees, I suspect, is from another world and another time. When I visit him, I am a man he does not know, and if he thinks of me, it is as a person I used to be, not the son who visits him every week and pays the fees for his nursing home.
Dad built an observatory in the garden of our house. He kept a meticulous journal, noting the passage of the planets across the sky, the appearance of meteorites, the seasons of the stars. As a boy, I shared his passion for astronomy and we spent nights there together. He explained to me that we were looking at things that had happened in the past, sometimes just seconds ago, sometimes minutes – but often, the light we observed had left a star tens, or even hundreds of years before the time we call ‘now’. Perhaps, these days, my father sees himself as if from a long way off, looking back at things that happened many years ago – seeing parts of his life like starlight through a telescope.
Tonight, in Dad’s observatory, I scan the sky at random – it is the first clear night in a week. Nowadays, I keep the equipment maintained, but I do not observe much – I prefer to spend time with my wife and child.
My younger brother, Nigel, did not share the cold nights with us in the observatory; waiting for Venus to rise, or counting the sparks of meteorites as they fell to Earth. Nigel never got that close to Dad, even after Mum died. I expect my brother to call me tonight; in this respect, he is as predictable as an astronomical phenomenon. I can rely upon it. For Nigel it is late afternoon, and in a couple of hours he’ll start the evening shift at a refinery somewhere in a Texas desert. I am in the observatory when he phones. Annie, my wife, brings the cordless handset. Clarissa is in her arms, wrapped in a blanket. I touch my daughter’s face, and she nuzzles my finger. But it’s her mother she wants, and she turns towards Annie’s breast, making little chugging noises of hunger.
‘I’d better feed her,’ Annie says, and walks back to the house.
The signal from the phone is crackly, and I move outside the concrete shell of the observatory to get better reception. The stars seem secret and distant without the telescope.
‘Hello, Nigel.’ We exchange the ritual greetings that establish us. His words hiss and spark in the earpiece. I have to move closer to the house to get a decent signal.
‘I’m sorry Martin, but I can’t get back for two months at least, we have production problems.’
‘Dad’s not too good, Nige, they say his kidneys are failing.’
‘I do what I can, but you don’t understand the pressures.’ This is the beginning of a familiar discussion. I can’t resist the pattern of the argument.
‘Family doesn’t work to production schedules, Nigel.’
‘Look, Martin. I’ll do what I can. But it’s not just work, Ruth’s not been well.’ He hasn’t mentioned Ruth for a while.
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘She’s confident it’s nothing to worry about, but I want to be sure. She’s going into hospital for more tests.’
We talk around the subject, but Nigel is chary about saying too much; as if saying it will make the worst happen. He has to get to work. He hangs up. We never say goodbye.
Just after Dad went into the nursing home, I went with Annie to visit Nigel and Ruth in Texas. Nigel drove me out to the refinery at night. He took me to see it although it was his holiday. It was an enormous stagey thing, a theatre set in the middle of the desert – a gantry mounted with fume-puffing nostril-flaming dragons, lit up like a small town. I couldn’t see the stars for the brightness of it. Nigel had wanted me to be impressed, but I hadn’t wanted to be.
We drove back in silence. He was disappointed at my reaction, but he didn’t comment. On our return, Nigel went to say goodnight to his little sons, who had refused to go to sleep until their daddy came home. Annie was dozing in a hammock on the back porch and Ruth made a finger-to-lip gesture to keep me quiet. We went to the kitchen to prepare a nightcap. I like Ruth, she is quiet and dreamy, as if she belongs somewhere otherworldly. She was barefoot in her bright country-style kitchen, pulling down glasses and sugar from the cupboard. She is quite short and had to stand on tip-toe. I tried to help, but got in her way. ‘You’re as bad as Nigel!’ She said, laughing.
‘Annie’s tired,’ Ruth said. We’d just found out that Annie was pregnant.
‘I’m glad for you,’ she continued, ‘You waited a long time for a child.’
‘It was difficult to think of having a child with Dad’s illness, but now he’s settled…’
‘Annie said that she hadn’t wanted to leave it any longer.’
‘We couldn’t really. Annie’s thirty-eight next birthday.’
‘It must have been hard looking after your dad.’
‘Sometimes. Giving up our home was difficult, but at least we could afford help.’
‘I suppose it would have been impossible for your dad in a strange house.’
‘Yes, but it got to the point when even his own home was strange. He’d wander around, thinking he was in a hotel.’
Upstairs I could hear my brother’s tenor voice, singing ‘Five Little Ducks’ and two high voices giggling along to the ‘quack, quack, quack…’
‘You know how it is, Martin…’ Ruth said, pouring hot water over rum and sugar, ‘When you’re walking along the street, then suddenly you feel something pulling through your head, and it’s as if you are somehow getting taller, then you’re floating up above the world, like you are looking down on yourself?’
‘Yes, I think I do. For a moment you could be pulled right out of your body, forget gravity, drift above the earth…’
‘Yes, that’s the sort of thing!’
We smiled at our mutual understanding. She continued, ‘If I said that to Nigel, he’d have me report to the doctor instantly.’
She looked at me, one tanned arm resting on the counter top. She was wearing a checked seersucker shirt and blue jeans, as any outdoor woman would. She loved camping and hiking with the boys.
‘Nigel may not have said anything, Martin, but last year I had a bit of a scare.’
‘I’m sorry Ruth. I didn’t know.’
She looked up at the ceiling and smiled. ‘It’s OK now, I didn’t want a fuss, but I have to be careful. They gave me some drugs to thin the blood.’
‘I’m surprised that Nigel didn’t say.’
‘It was at the time you were having problems with your father. He didn’t want to worry you.’
‘I’m really sorry Ruth.’
‘We live with what we have to. I was hoping to have another baby. I’d have liked a little girl, but they said I’d best wait and see. I might need an operation.’
‘That’s really tough, Ruth. You’re a great mom…’
‘And I want to keep on being a great mom.’
She carried the rum toddies out onto the veranda and we waited for Nigel.
I call it a night in the observatory. Annie is drowsing on the sofa, but she looks up when she hears me and smiles at Clarissa sucking sleepily at her breast.
‘I’ll make us some tea,’ I say.
With the light on in the kitchen I can’t see the observatory, just my own reflection looking back into the house where I grew up. Since my father went into the nursing home, we have modernised the kitchen in anticipation of a young family. My mother would not recognise it now. But if I come downstairs, early in the morning, half-asleep, I think I see the kitchen as it was when I was a child, with the yellow painted cabinets and the matching lino tiles that my mother said were squares of sunshine. It seems as though not all of the light from those times has left the house.
I take the tea into the sitting room. Annie has managed to put Clarissa down. Annie crosses her fingers and smiles, looking towards Clarissa’s bedroom. It used to be mine, when I was a child. I snuggle up to my wife on the sofa. She smells of the baby.
‘How was Nigel?’ She asks.
‘Much as usual. Too much work. He can’t make it here as planned.’
‘Did he say anything else?’
‘Work mainly. But he said Ruth hadn’t been too good.’
‘I wish we could visit them. Ruth would love to see Clarissa.’
‘We shall do, love, but it’s hard to leave Dad at the moment.’
‘I know, but he’d understand.’
I try to remember when I last had a reasoned conversation with my father. There are moments when I see a glimmer of recognition, of understanding about the life I recount to him. One time I had talked about Nigel. ‘Nigel?’ he had asked. ‘Where’s Nigel?’
‘He’s gone to America.’
My father had looked confused, afraid almost. ‘No one tells me anything. I don’t know what the world’s coming to.’
Then he added, ‘He’s a good lad Nigel. He’ll do well. Deirdre says he’ll do well.’
Deirdre was our mother – she died when I was fifteen, Nigel was twelve. She had a brain haemorrhage and died three days later. The day before she was taken ill she had bustled around in the kitchen, making a chicken pie, singing to the radio.
Her photograph is on the bedside cabinet in my father’s room. She looks out at me, smiling the way she did when I was a little boy. She has her arms around me, and Nigel is on her lap. Opposite is a picture of Nigel, with Ruth and their two little sons. Ruth is dressed as she was that night we talked in the kitchen.
I am awake in the early morning, but it is light outside. Clarissa has slept six hours, which is unusual. I get up, not wanting to disturb Annie. I peep in through Clarissa’s door. I always do a double take, expecting the room to be as I left it as a boy, surprised to find it decorated for a baby. Clarissa is awake, still occupied by her thoughts. What can babies think? They have no words. I try not to disturb her, but her hearing is acute and she turns her face to look at me with that wide-open look that babies have. Someone once told me that babies seemed to suck in the world through their eyes. I can never return to the time before she was born. When I held her, warm from the womb, she had fixed me with her infinite stare. She got me. I know now that babies are not born as blank sheets; Clarissa was in there from the start.
Seeing my face prompts her to realise that she is looking for something, for someone. She is hungry again, making that little choking sound that will soon turn into a full-throated cry for food. I change her nappy quickly and take her to Annie.
Dad’s last entries in his astronomical journal look quite ordinary. His records, in waterproof ink, are of the rising and setting of planets, the appearance of significant stars, observations of planetary disks. The last one said ‘Mars disk clear, ice cap retreating. Spring has arrived in the North!’ Can there be a North on Mars? To him, the beginning of a Martian spring was almost as real as a spring here would be. As a small boy, I could share that conspiracy of another reality, but as I grew older, I found it arbitrary.
The sense and naming of directions is all relative – even what we think of as past, or present or future. And without some common reference, these observations are useless.
There are gaps in the journal entries. Before his disease, he seldom missed a night, even to say that the ‘seeing was poor’. Once he started forgetting he lost his hold on time – the hour of the day, the season of the year. Spring on Mars was as real as spring anywhere.
After breakfast, Nigel phones. I do not expect him at this hour; it is the middle of the night where he lives. But I find out immediately this is not an ordinary time for him. It is the kind of time where those close in to a series of events lose their synchronicity with the rest of the world.
‘Ruth is in hospital. They think she might have had a stroke.’
Nigel is in tears. I imagine him, as he was when he was twelve years old, blubbing, red-faced, his nose running. Then, at fifteen, I had not known what to do. I did not hug him, did not know how to comfort him. Now I am as at a loss as I was then. Notwithstanding the thousands of miles between us, I do not hug him, I stutter over the words that I should say, words I have never learned. Annie takes over now. She says what ought to be said.
Afterwards, she makes us coffee.
‘We’ll have to go out there,’ she says. ‘Ruth is critical.’
I remember Ruth in her kitchen, that night. She had looked in my eyes as if she was searching for something, but she had not found it.
I go to see my father. Annie will sort out the flights.
When I arrive, Dad is in bed, he doesn’t want to get up today. He looks at the ceiling, or maybe it is just the white space he stares at.
Mum joked that my father was the only daddy who could come good on a promise to bring home the moon for his little boy. He’d bought me my own telescope. I was disturbed by her words, knowing what my father had told me about the science of it. It was as if she had said I would meet God for real at Sunday school.
I try to explain about Ruth.
He does not speak as I tell him that I’ll have to go to America to be with Nigel, nor does he look at me. His skin is a putty shade, and he has a smell about him that I have not noticed before, earthy and musty. His body seems to be forgetting the order of things, slipping out of the pattern that keeps body and soul together. I wonder if somewhere inside of him is a kernel of self that I would recognise as my father.
I leave him another photograph, this time of me, with Annie and newborn Clarissa. Maybe he will recognise us, or see some resemblance to something he remembers. But I have to go. I kiss him on the head; he does not respond.
I walk out of the nursing home and it seems that part of me is being pulled from my body, unfolded and spread out as if I had wings. I look down upon myself, walking to my car. I see myself get into it and drive away.
When Clarissa is old enough, I’ll show her the telescope, and tell her what she can and cannot see through it. I can imagine this future.