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A Warmer Reality

A Warmer Reality

Man in early forties tries to come to terms with his father's indisposition

---“It’s not him, is it, Jack? It’s just not him.”

My mother’s despairing words were a mournful poem that reverberated inside my head whenever I visited the hospital. She was so right. The wizened shell inhabited by something totally alien was a parody of the father I had known. Those chafing images implanted in my head threatened to bury the good that had gone before.

Sitting there, in that clinical cleanliness, the odour of Lysol and fresh laundry invading my nostrils, I would gaze at that haggard face. Concave cheeks stubbled white, and flesh hanging in flaccid curves beneath red, lachrymal eyes clouded constantly with suspicion, while saliva silver-speared from a slack mouth. It filled me with total despair.

I railed at life’s unfairness while praying that my memories of him, that warmer reality, would remain unsullied.

Such good memories. The kindly brown eyes set in that strong face were a constant balm. Always a ready source of stories, he was full of homely wisdom and guidance.

His stories always had happy endings and were full of dry humour. When I was nine years old he took me to see our local football team, quickly assimilating me into an unshakeable devotion. I learned to accept his joking cynicism when results weren’t good. “If they played in our back garden, I’d draw the curtains,”

Comfort emanated from my parents’ sense of unforced togetherness, a natural constantly reassuring affection that would stay with them well into retirement.

On the local beach, my father would build me a speedboat of sand with such meticulous care that I tried to continue with my own two children.

Sprints across the hard sand at low tide always appealed to him. Came the day, in my early teens, when I beat him. He stood there, panting, arms spread, smiling his delight in defeat.

“You’re going to be a star, son.”

I never quite lived up to that expectation, but my efforts in lower league football, he followed in all weathers and was never critical.

My entry into university had him full of praise. “You’ve got more brains in your little finger than your mother and me together.”

Yes, all the way a smooth ride. Loving parents. And when the lovely Linda suddenly became very special in my life, my father’s approval was so genuine. “That’s the idea, lad. Keep beauty in the family.” And he would grin across at my mother and add, “Just like I did.”

“Oh, Harry,” she would mutter, blushing, but clearly delighted.

Presenting the pair of them with a couple of boisterous grandchildren was the icing on the cake for them. To me, their love was manifest in every aspect of my life.

So, this aberration forced upon us was impossible to accept, and my forty comfortable years had left me ill-equipped to cope with it.

The demons marching into his head had been so gradual. An unrecognised rising tide, like the darkness, descended on the man he had been. It soon became clear that my distraught mother could no longer cope.

One bright summer afternoon, I called in at their tidy little flat, always replete with the aroma of fresh cooked cake or scones.

“Oh, thank God. I’m glad you’ve come, Jack.” My mother’s face was a mask of worry and tension. “He’s in the bath and can’t get out. Too heavy for me.”

“How did he get in?”

“Struggled somehow. What are we going to do?”

“Try to stay calm, mother.”

“But he’s so—so different.”

Different? Oh, yes. A difference I could no longer ignore. From the bathroom came the sound of muffled oaths and frantic splashing.

As I entered, angry eyes glared up at me, before he hunched his frail body in frail modesty, his pallid skin flaccid as an old apple.

“What the hell you doing here? I’m in the bloody bath.”

“I can see that, Dad. But you can’t get out, can you?”

“Yes, I can. Yes, I can.” His hands crooked on the bath edge as he floundered like a beached whale.

Much cursing and swearing followed, while I wrapped a towel around him and lifted him out of the water. Mumbling incoherently, he shuffled away to get dressed.

The worry on my mother’s lined face dug further into my composure.

“Never like this, was he?” she sighed. “And the bad language. Oh, Jack, I don’t know what to do.”

She flopped into a chair, her right hand clutching her left elbow, as she always did when tense. “This morning he suddenly wanders out and starts pruning the roses right back.”

“In July?”

“I know. But yesterday was worse. I thought he’d set the house on fire.”


“I had just popped out to the shops. Bless him, he wants to help. He put a pan of milk on the gas hob. Forgot about it, and it boiled over. Burning milk made smoke, and a neighbour saw it coming from the open window. She phoned the fire brigade. A fire engine was here when I got back. Oh, my heart stopped.”

“So what happened?”

“No damage. The fireman was lovely about it.”

My father shuffled back into the kitchen, clutching his pants. “Can’t fasten this button.”

My mother adjusted his clothes with the affection I had so cherished. “I was just telling Jack about the firemen yesterday.”

His head shook angrily. "Bloody firemen. If they hadn’t come knocking at the door the milk wouldn’t have boiled over.”

I knew my mother couldn’t go on with his mood swings and incontinence became another factor. Eventually, confirming dementia allied to the Parkinson’s the doctor agreed to his hospitalisation.

But whatever malevolence snagged his brain only got worse.

Each visit was a journey into the unknown, always fearing the worst, and generally getting it. My kindly, gentle father had been taken over, it seemed, by something unkind, unpleasant and uncaring. Insidiously, the grim had overlaid the best of what he had been.

When he spoke, his once strong brown voice gurgled through a constant blanket of phlegm, and his utterances bore little resemblance to the kindly man we’d known.

“Where the hell is it?”

“Where’s what, Dad?”

“The bloody carpet I sent you for.”

There had been no mention of carpet. “Sorry, I forgot it.”

“Jesus Christ, I’m never going to get the dinner ready now.” Foul language and blasphemy had been anathema in his good years. Now he glared up at me, mouthing incoherences and obscenities as though I was some aggravating stranger.

“What was the final score?" He would gargle.


“In the bloody match. Are you daft or what?”

It was mid-July, way out of season. “They won, Dad. Two-one.”

His head shook. “Don’t be so bloody stupid. They were getting beat two-one at half time.”

Anything for a quiet life. “Sorry, Dad. They won three-two.”


Such lighter moments were rare. Most visits were filled with tension.

But if I was stressed, the effect on my mother was devastating. His aggression, a cruel antithesis to their lives together, seemed particularly aimed at her.

As if his behaviour at home had not been hard enough, this entity unseen made her the butt of much of his unpleasantness. Helplessly, I saw her slowly crumbling under the stress of it all.

She would give him a kiss of greeting and hand him a bag of grapes, which he would grab, like an angry vulture, his clawed fingers ravenously pushing grapes into his slavering maw of a mouth.

“Oh, aren’t you hungry! I hope they’re feeding you here.”

He glared at her, with eyes belonging to some other wilder being. "Better than you could.”

“Harry, you loved my chocolate cake, didn’t you?”

“Load of bloody muck.”

Her lip would tremble as I, hurting with the unnaturalness of it, desperately tried to intervene. “Come on, Dad. You’ve hurt her.”

It became so bad that I tried to persuade her to cut back on her visits.

“I can’t not see him,” she would sob. “Does he blame me for putting him in here?”

“Not true, Mam.”

“But we were always so close.”

Here was the hurt. That comparison between what they’d had and how it was now. All the joy in their lives together besmirched by this travesty.

There were a few bright moments for her. On one occasion, he had looked up after her nervous kiss, and said, “ You haven’t been to see me for ages.”

“I was here yesterday, Harry," she replied, with a puzzled glance in my direction.

“By hell, time flies. Are you missing me?”

Thankful for his apparent calm, I nodded encouragement to my mother, and said, “Of course she is, Dad.”

His eyes suddenly darkened as he turned to me. “ I wasn’t talking to you, you little bugger.”

“You know I miss you.” My mother whispered, “I’ve been poorly, dear.”

“You could move in with me. Can you cook?”

It was wonderful to see the brief smile on her face, as she said, “You know I can.”

“Yes, you always tried.”

Encouraged by his lighter mood, she asked, “Do you remember where we met, Harry?”

His face creased like a walnut as he thought. “Met? Met? Harrogate, was it?”

“Oh, not Harrogate, Harry. We said we’d never mention that.”

Puzzled by this exchange I asked, “What about Harrogate?”

She looked so uncomfortable. “Nothing. Nothing. He’s just rambling.”

My father turned angrily to me. “Will you be quiet? I’m chatting up this lovely lass.”

It was a joy to see my mother’s pleasure. ”Ah, he thinks that I’m—”

I nodded. “Yes. You just enjoy it. You deserve it.”

She did enjoy it and I was so thankful for that one. But it wasn’t long before her anxiety finally took its toll, and on a chilly winter’s morning, she suffered a massive stroke. For two weeks she lingered in a coma, but finally, she was lost to us. My first bereavement and I needed all the support of my family to cope with it.

After their loving years together, they were deprived of the gift of a last decent good-bye. My father’s stories always had happy endings, but not his own. The cruelty of life at that time seemed insurmountable.

My father never once questioned her absence, and that seemed to be for the best. But then a doctor came up with the fact that hospital policy dictated that patients had to be informed in such circumstances.

A friendly nurse advised me as we walked towards his room. “It’s just in case a member of staff unknowingly lets it slip. No telling what the outcome would be then.”

“So it has to be done today?” My mind was in a whirl as to how I should go about the task of letting my father know he had lost his beloved wife.

“I’m sorry, Mr Rogan,” the auburn nurse said, the sorrow in her eyes was genuine as we neared his room. “He’s in there now. Been fairly quiet. Could be a good time.”

My father was slumped in his arm-chair. The nurse closed the door behind me. “So you aren’t disturbed,” she whispered.

I was already disturbed with thoughts of how he might take this.

My father looked up at me. “Don’t cut those bushes down, mind.”

I took a deep breath. “All right, Dad. I just—”

His lined face twisted angrily. “Do you hear what I said? Don’t cut those bushes down.”

“Okay, Dad. Okay. How are you?”

“How the hell do you think I am?”

I shook my head, feeling utterly useless. “Dad, I have to tell you something.”

“Tell me something? I know already.”

“Know what?”

“What a sly little bugger you are.”

How difficult could it get? “Dad, it’s bad news.”

“Bad news? You’re full of bad news. What’s up? Team get beat again?”

“No, Dad. Just try to listen.”

“Try to listen. Try to listen. What the hell else is there to do?”

“Dad, it’s about Mam.”

His head turned to me. “Where the hell’s she been lately?”

“She wasn’t well, Dad. Remember I told you?”

My father’s slack lips smacked together in disgust, but his head just shook from side to side.

I struggled to find the words that would give me a way in. “Well, she got really bad. Had to go into hospital.”

He raised a finger, bent and gnarled, and pointed. “Look at that bloody big ship out of the window there.”

I heard my own voice echo irritably in the small room, “Dad, please, listen. Please.”

“Don’t you get ratty with me, lad.”

“Mam died, Dad. She had a stroke. I’m sorry.” My words rushed out, as my exasperation, along with the pain in just speaking that hard truth, hit me. Anxiously I perused his face. It remained emotionless and blank. His hands clawed at the chair arms, and he rocked backwards and forwards, his ubiquitously moist eyes staring beyond me.

“You all right, Dad?” Please show me that you feel something.

“There’s somebody at the door.”

“No, Dad. There’s nobody.”

“Are you bloody deaf? There’s somebody at the sodding door.” His flare-up, made me flinch.

“All right, I’ll look.” I stood up and opened the door, closer to tears than I’d been since the funeral. No reaction. Fifty years together. Good lives torn asunder, and ending with this—this nothing. It hurt so much.”

“Who was it?” he croaked.

“Oh, the postman. Wrong door.”

The nurse appeared in the doorway as though on a signal. Her bright eyes asked me the question, and all I could do was shrug. “No reaction.”

“Well, you tried.” The nurse turned to my father. “How are you, Harry?”

My father looked up at her, and there was some confusion on his face as he replied, “I’ve just had some very bad news.”

I couldn’t withhold my gasp as the nurse’s surprised eyes turned back to me.

Then my father’s head shook, as he went on. “Buggered if I can remember what it was though.”

It would have been amusing if it hadn’t been such a cruel forgetting. There was some solace in believing that the insidious thing that held his brain captive had eased the hurt he might have felt.

For three months I endured his rancour or his silence, depending on the mood of the day. That final day, in late June, my father was on the corridor, leaning forward in his chair, watching my approach. He looked even more haggard if that was possible, but his eyes seemed unusually alert. He gurgled on phlegm for a moment, but when he spoke it sent my head spinning.

“Where’s your mother?”

She had never once been mentioned. I went for the easy option. “Coming later, Dad.”

“She’s dead, isn’t she? You’re a little bugger sometimes.”

I sat down close to him, worrying what storm might blow up. “I thought you’d forgotten, Dad.”

“What! Are you stupid or something?” And suddenly his face showed an infinite sadness, slack mouth, drooping at the corners, and in his reddened eyes real tears shone like lost diamonds. “I hurt her, didn’t I?”

His observation staggered, yet thrilled me.

“Not on purpose, Dad.”

“I would never hurt her on purpose. Never. You know that.”

I wanted to hug him, to envelop this returned memory. “I know that, Dad.” And I reached out to place my hand over his bony claw clutching the arm of the chair.

“Where’ve I gone, son?”

“What do you mean, Dad?”

“I’m away so much.” He paused, and his eyes searched into a misted past before he said, “But I went for her.”

“Went? Went where?” Was he starting to ramble again?

“To Harrogate.” He coughed, a noise like a bubbling pan. “God, this chest of mine.”

“Harrogate, Dad?" I recalled it being mentioned months earlier, to my mother’s embarrassment.

“To stop her.”

“Stop her?” Sounding like the little boy who had once sat enthralled by his stories.

“Where's my slippers?”

“On your feet, Dad.” Please, don’t slip away. ”What about Harrogate?”

“What? Oh, yes, she was too young. That Mickey Dolan was a hot-shot lady-killer, all right. With his big flash car and money. Drove her down there.” He stopped, body arching forward, head shaking.

“Go on, dad. Why did --”

“I took the train down. Had to keep her out of his clutches. Lasses can be funny, you know. Innocent as snow on a tree but melting in the glare sometimes.“ His face turned to me, his eyes brighter than I’d seen them for so long, a half-smile on his thin lips. “I brought her home. She knew she’d made a mistake.”

He stopped, his head turned back and forth as he perused the empty corridor. I feared that he was about to slip into his twilight zone.

His face, solemn and slack, turned to me once more. “Christ, I thought the world of that lady.”

A heavy weight lifted from inside me, as he gazed away down the corridor, where others had come to sit.

Catching him in this rare receptive moment, I took the chance to tell him of the two-day trip Linda and I had in mind. “We’ll be away this weekend.”

“Doing what?”

“Getting away to Paris.”

He regarded me with something close to disgust. “Why the hell are you bothering with a crazy idea like that?”

“But, Dad. I’ve never been to Paris.”

“Paris? Paris?” A faint smile began to lighten his face. “I thought you said you were getting a parrot.” And he chuckled, his body beginning to shake with it. Mesmerised, I chuckled with him. So, we sat there, heads together, closer than we’d been for years, sniggering like sneaky schoolboys.

People down the corridor, puzzled by our loud giggling, looked, with frowns on their faces, but it only added to my delight.

The following morning came the urgent message from the hospital, but by the time I arrived, it was too late. Harry Rogan, my father, had passed away,

“Pneumonia can be like that,” the nurse said, as she gave her practised condolences.

Tears didn’t come then. I just felt grateful that he had beaten the demons.

So often I relive and treasure that last day with him. Whatever malevolence had impinged on his mind had been dispelled. Or had such malignancy, aware of the end, simply abandoned a hopeless case? I prefer to think of it as his victory over the dehumanising spirits that had assailed him.

I realised that those final moments, as we sat chuckling together, our heads touching were as good an end as I could have hoped for.




This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

Copyright © Copyright redwriter 2019
The right of redwriter to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Design, and Patents Act 1988

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