by Dan Crego
Dan has started, and occasionally finished short stories for a while now. This time it’s serious.
“Writers, unlike most people, tell their best lies when they are alone.”
― Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys
My father sits in his chair and carefully slices the apple into about six or eight pieces. He puts down the knife, one of a silver-plated set that was our “best”. It lies next to the apple slices on the plate, balanced on the right arm of the armchair. The room is quiet, the TV is turned off, dormant behind the heavy doors of its cabinet.
I close my eyes, and I can see him, his right hand holding the knife between thumb and forefinger, poised over the plate; his cheek slightly bulging from the last slice he has placed in his mouth. But I can’t see the room clearly. Sometimes, it is the living room in the small flat over the hairdresser’s shop that my mother owned. We lived there until I was eleven years old. Sometimes it isn’t.
I close my eyes again, and Dad is no longer in the flat over the hairdresser’s, faint smell of peroxide, hairdryer and stale beer (a shampoo for ‘body’) rising through the floorboards, but in our 1930s semi a mile further west and a couple of small notches up the social scale. It is a classic inter-war semi-detached house, with the two reception rooms ‘knocked through’, and a small ‘sun lounge’ or conservatory added onto the kitchen, overlooking the garden. Dad looks relaxed (not a frequent state of mind for him), he is happy and concentrating. Our dog, Sandy sits by the chair, pushing her nose against his arm and wrist, ingratiating herself. Dad looks at her, raises a forefinger, says ‘wait’ and then gives her a slice of apple which she gobbles down. The room, is divided into ‘lounge’ and ‘dining’ areas, the patterned carpet imprinted by the weight of the heavy reproduction furniture and the Ferguson Radiogram at one end of the room. A menorah on the sideboard waits patiently for Hanukah; Sabbath candlesticks take pride of place on the centre of an oval silver-plated tray. All are watched over by Tretchikoff’s Green Lady, her face reflecting love, acceptance and detachment.
On Friday nights, my sister and I wait eagerly. Dad brings us our comics – not available locally until the following morning, but Dad through some mysterious alchemy connected with his working ‘in town’ can source them twelve hours ahead of the rest of the Universe. He stands there in the hall, wearing his overcoat and carrying his homburg hat, filling the hall with his presence, with his male-ness, with the romance and allure of having just journeyed from the centre of the city. He was in no hurry to remove his overcoat, to hang up his hat; he was content simply to watch his children, marvel at his family, imbibe that precious commodity, his home life. I didn’t understand it then, but I understand him better now.
Was he the quintessential 1950s Dad – “Hi Honey, I’m home”? Not really. But it wasn’t co-parenting either. My parents’ roles, particularly my father’s, seem like an English, suburban north-west London version of the American dream - a scaled-down version. Our Ford Consul had chrome and even fins (sort of), everything reduced proportionately to meet the aspirations of a Britain not long out of rationing and austerity.
Almost thirty years later, I am sitting in a quiet room in the basement of a hospital, next to my father. He died a few minutes ago. I look at my father and see the familiar features, even his expression. But everything now is different. His soul has departed; I am alone in the room. How can this be?
I look at my father and imagine him eating the apple. But imagining is not living. Here, in this world which we did not imagine, but has to live in, soon it will be time for my tears. Soon it will be time for me to make the arrangements for the funeral; time to make the phone call to Israel and to cope with the grief at the other end of the phone; time for me to walk with my wife behind the coffin under the bright blue winter sky, listening to a beautiful voice singing Hebrew songs behind us; it will be time to say goodbye. Soon the grief will seem unsupportable.
But now is not yet that time. I sit in the chair in the quiet room from which my father’s soul has departed. The mystery of life and death is here. I imagine the apple, I imagine my father alive, content, in his own home with his family. The Green Lady bestows her benediction; Sandy the dog looks up at her master; the clock ticks; a shout from the alley behind (this, according to Joyce is God); distant rumble of a goods train on the west coast main line. All is still there, as I sit in the hospital basement room: in his noble philosopher’s face, the high forehead, the acquiline nose, receding hairline, long-ish grey hair. I remember the apple. I remember my father.