The soundtrack to dying is not that of Death’s winged chariot hurtling from the sky, but rather one of nurses’ trainers sticking on worn lino, of saline drips ticking over, of low, urgent voices in hospice corridors.
One appears to be afforded a room to go about the business of dying, but on the strict understanding that the world must carry on around your grief. Medical staff bustle down corridors. Cleaning staff shunt vacuum cleaners against the wooden door separating the living from the almost-dead. The grieving are afforded their space, but for goodness’ sake don’t let it spill out into the communal areas. It has been a long time since I last saw my father.
He is not the man I remember. It is as though someone has attached one of the whining hospital vacuum cleaners to his mouth and sucked the vital fluids from his body. Thin cheeks sag against clenched teeth. What weight he has left has sunk to his stomach, bulging, ulcerous, and putrid.
I am not sure why I am here, other than it seems to be universally accepted that I should be. Family, nurses, even the cab driver appear to believe that there must be some meaningful interaction to be wrung out of our last meeting. Perhaps even I thought there might be something – why else would I have travelled so far?
Instead there is nothing but the determined lack of dialogue that has marked the last twenty years. Probably for the best. Our conversations were like rivers in flood – angry, dangerous, and only heading in one direction. I can still recite our lines, as though practising for some ill-received play.
Away at university one year and you get yerself pregnant!
It’s not like it was planned…
Oh, that makes it much better…
I’m not asking for your charity, Dad…
… never been so ashamed in my life…
The sounds were loud then. They quietened, then stopped altogether.
There is nothing for me to do here, no guarantee that he will even die today. He could go on for days, weeks even, the cantankerous old sod.
I rise from my reluctant vigil and collect my things. If I hurry I can be back up north by lunchtime tomorrow.
My father’s blankets have slipped down around his torso. I pull them up around him as a parting gesture. As I do so, my forearm brushes his fragile, nicotine-stained fingers.
He mutters something as I touch him. Perhaps it was in his sleep. Perhaps it never happened at all. Regardless, it is enough of a sound for me to take home with me.
Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, and Shooter magazine. He is an absentee member of the Glasgow Writers Group, a PhD student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.
Not necessarily in that order