Author Topic: If


« on: April 03, 2020 »
A few nights ago my wife and I watched the space station hurry across the sky. Bearing witness to a structure the size of a football field 250 miles closer to heaven, with people inside it doing god knows what at the moment, had me uncharacteristically awed.

Another international space station

Yesterday came news that it’s unlikely I will be seeing my father again. Sitting in a parking lot while my wife was in the surgery getting her stomach prodded for signs of appendicitis (that’s a negatory), my younger sister informed me via Whatsapp that cancer had been discovered in his bones and lymphatic system. He’s 82¾ years old.

Details are still sketchy. We know nothing of staging, prognosis, chemo or hospice. There will be consultations next week with the doctors to "make a plan." That phrase in particular rung with a certain finality, because we’ve all heard about the mice and men. All we can do is hope, and for the Christians in my family, pray.

I’d fly to Ohio, but, you know. Talk about a race against time.

Quite early this morning I felt like having a ride. I often do, though lately I’ve been walking instead, figuring this would be a particularly bad time for one of the council’s many unfilled potholes to grab a wheel and land me in the arms of the beleaguered NHS. (Potholes and I have a history.) Unfortunately, I’ve picked up an injury which makes walking painful. Langster to the rescue!

This is not my favourite, but it’s been very dependable: much more so than the Litespeed, my preferred option for iffy rides, but out of action due to its as yet undiagnosed condition of making the wrong kinds of noises. Having recently performed a minor operation involving handlebar tape and brake cable, I was keen to get the Langster on the road again, if only to re-establish its credentials as backup bike.

Button that up, you’ll catch your death of cold

As spouse insurance, I put on a helmet. This is almost unprecedented in the modern era: I don’t wear a lid. However, after my off in 2017 I’d bought one and even used it. Once. Unlikely as a tumble seemed – my plans were to take it very easy indeed – I had made the mistake of previously informing she who must be informed that I’d not be doing night rides for the duration. Well. You see my predicament. I figured the helmet might come in handy as a rhetorical device if it came to that.

On went my iPod.

Each star is a setting sun

All was calm, all was bright.

Soon I was honking up Haremere Hill. (For those unfamiliar with the lingo, note that ‘honking’ is not meant to be onomonopoetic: it’s the simple act of getting up out of your sadde whilst pedalling. It’s also the closest thing to going for a walk on a bike.) This is the same hill where I once watched a woman crawl towards the centre lines with her tibia poking out of her leg. Every square inch of land has a history.

My father was a high school history teacher. I grew up in a house with a wall full of books of many sorts, not just the approved stories of the past. I still remember my amazement on picking up Portnoy’s Complaint as a hormone addled teenager: Was this even allowed?

In the middle of the kitchen table was a sugar container with holes on either side: one for pouring, the other big enough to admit a generous spoon. Both my father and I had a sweet tooth, but his were false, after a car accident. Nobody policed the sugar, so I followed his lead by using a heavy hand over the Cheerios. Whenever the subject would arise, which wasn’t often, he’d joke about not needing to worry about his teeth. I didn’t worry about mine, either.

We shared a certain closeness when I was quite young. He would take me on walks in the woods behind our house, where we’d stop and take stock at a tree which had broken about halfway up, forming a natural if unusable slide. In the heart of my teen years we fought heatedly over many forgettable things.

One of my indelible memories is of a mostly silent argument deep one icy winter. He’d tracked me down outside and confronted me gallivanting without a hat and enjoying the invincibility of youth, in my case augmented by a genuine immunity to the sort of temperatures that pack most people into coats like duvets. That part of his face which was visible underneath hood and above neck wrap was red with vasoconstriction and upset at my seeming foolishness.

By the time I was leaving home for good we were barely on speaking terms. Years later I would change my name, feeling no great attachment to his.

Near his three score and ten, he apologised for being a distant father. This hadn’t been one of my complaints (though it had been for my two sisters). I believe I somehow bungled my reception of the apology: I could see it in his manner in the aftermath of his confession.

After the text broke the news, I gave him a call. The first thing he always asks is what time is it over here. He was upbeat, joking about bucket lists. He said he’d had a wonderful life, the honest truth of which is not for me to assess. He didn’t really talk about death as if it was knocking loudly at the door. He’s the last survivor of his family, having watched both parents, two brothers, and a sister die before him, most of them not old.

Shadows stretch credulity; a brake lever becomes a fang. Near the modest summit of Haremere Hill, over the sound of music, I heard the beating of wings against the canopy of leaves above the road. Bats? Some creature of the night other than me. I did a leisurely spin to and fro down a stretch of the now ultra safe A21 and headed back. The helmet wasn’t uncomfortable as I’d spared myself a throttling with the straps. A plan suddenly landed in my head, a way of appropriately capping this ride.

As I glided by The Assumption of Blessed Mary & St Nicholas, which is quite a mouthful of holiness, I passed another bloody piece of earth next to the church wall. In 2016, while walking her husband to the station for the train into London for his job as a chef, Emma Beeney was struck and killed by a generator flying off the back of a flatbed truck. It also hit her husband, who survived. She was 40, and left behind a large family. Flowers are offered here every year.

"We always fear most what we cannot see, cannot imagine," wrote David the other day. She never saw it coming; anyone who knows her story cannot unimagine it.

Closer to Burwash, my final destination bar home sweet home, I paused long enough for a photo op with one of the lions guarding the old glebe.

The village was silent as a tomb with visitors murmuring six feet over. I’d turned off my ipod, and could hear signs of life inside houses. A few windows were lit. In one I saw a woman sitting on a couch facing nobody, not even a television.

The Bear Inn was naturally closed even for takeaway at absurd o’clock. Or was it? On the far right of this picture you’ll see something that I didn’t when I took it. After downloading the night’s take from my camera it made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.

AirPods? Bluetooth still works in a spectral presence?

Well, it was time to face my fear.

You may laugh. Don’t, until you’ve stood in my shoes, facing Rudyard Kipling looking real as life on his bench in the High Street in the smallest of hours, shrouded in darkness.

There are no ghosts except the ones we make. I do not now and have never believed in the spirit world. But I am still capable of being deeply creeped out. Victoria Atkinson’s sculpture does the trick, at least until you apply flash. It’s a wonderful work of art, but a terrible jolt to the system when you first spy him quietly waiting for your fevered imagination to animate him.

My innocent goal was to loan him my helmet. Then I pictured a cheeky tourist patting him on the head like Benny Hill, passing on the virus to my helmet and thence to me. Vanishingly unlikely, but in these times, prudence trumps valour. “You and me,” I said to him a few times as I approached.

It was strangely calming. I compromised by hovering it over his head, a brain bucket halo.

Thank goodness he didn’t wink at me.

"You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din."
you’re a better man."
"Let's agree to agree."

My parents gave me an inscribed copy of the poem 'If' as a parting gift when I left them, precisely my 18th birthday. "If you can keep your head" it begins. Good start.

Rudyard famously lost his only son to WWI: the horror story of his and Carrie’s life. Fathers aren’t supposed to lose their sons. Sons lose their fathers all the time.


« Reply #1 on: April 04, 2021 »
A year and a day later, my father is still around. Immunotherapy is going well. If I don't see him again it may have more to do with Covid than cancer: air travel is out of the picture for now, jab or no jab.

I don't remember the last time we talked. It could have been right after he got the news. "You’re still alive" "Yep" [not an actual conversation] might be better than nothing, but even this reminder of mortality hasn't rendered us suddenly more voluble. My mother is still the only one who calls, or picks up.

Kipling's poem is about being a man (women are also welcome to measure themselves against his list of virtues). It has aged just fine. I'm not always so sure about myself.

You can't hear me, but hello, dad. I'm sorry we didn't hit it off.

PS. Prompted in part by the recent appearance of R.B., I meant to do AN IDIOT'S GUIDE for April Fools, and may still get around to it, perhaps as soon as next April. (I actually ran the idea of a jokey cycling manual past the real Richard. He wasn't enthused.) Meanwhile there's this, from the archives. And this:

If you can keep your head when motorists pass close
   without a care if you're alive or dead;
If you can trust yourself to go your own way
   but accept that you may get lost;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting
   at red lights easy as it’d be to go through,
And stake your claim on your sliver of road:
  it's a start, my friend.