This is a story I wrote for a competition. It was my first attempt at writing for a prize and I’m afraid it was a bit of a rushed, last minute effort. These things happen. Although there is a lot about it I would probably change, I thought I’d put it up here in its bare bones for public record. I may do something else with it later. Spoiler alert: I didn’t win.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” He demanded. “The first time we’ve spoken in nearly three years and you do this?”
“Oh yeah? And whose fault is that?” I countered.
I looked at my father’s face. His cheek was starting to swell and there was a thin trickle of blood escaping from his nose. I am not well practised in the art of punching people, in fact the first time I ever attempted it was a complete disaster, and I paid for it, but I was particularly pleased with the result of my latest effort. My hand hurt like crazy though. I kept it balled in a fist to hide my discomfort. Our eyes remained locked for several seconds whilst we each contemplated our next moves. Finally he shook his head, breaking the trance.
“Come on,” he said. “Help me clean this mess up.”
I exhaled, to the great relief of my lungs, and set to righting the kitchen. Together we picked up the table and chairs which had been knocked over in the scuffle. Dad grabbed a cloth and started mopping up the spillages whilst I took the mugs to the sink. The handle had broken off of the one which celebrated the ‘World’s Best Grandpa’.
“A gift from Alice and Toby,” he explained.
“Sorry,” I muttered.
He said nothing.
I made a show of rinsing out the mugs as an excuse to hold my throbbing hand under the cold water, flexing my fingers experimentally. There was a note above the tap that read ‘Turn Me Off’. I looked around the kitchen. There was a similar note taped to the oven.
“Do you want another coffee?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
“Dad – ”
“I think we need something stronger,” he said and left the room.
He returned with two glasses and two bottles: scotch for himself, bourbon for me.
“You remembered,” I said.
“Remembered you have inferior taste buds? Yes, I did.”
We each poured and drank in silence. I have never been a fan of neat spirits; I prefer to mix whiskey sours or add Coke, but I thought better than to ask. I noticed him tenderly touching his cheek with the tips of his fingers.
“How’s the face?” I asked.
“Fine,” he replied, withdrawing his hand. “You punch like a girl. How’s the hand?”
I realised I had been absent-mindedly massaging my knuckles and inwardly cursed myself.
“Fine. Your old bones are like sponge.”
He chuckled. I could not remember the last time I had heard him laugh. It was infectious. Pretty soon, the combined effects of retreating adrenaline and advancing alcohol had us giggling like children. It was as if all the bad blood between us, all the animosity and resentment, was floating away in a giant bubble.
“So,” he said, regaining his composure. “Will you help me?”
The bubble burst.
“No of course I won’t help you,” I said, thumping my glass down on the table. “I cannot believe you, of all people, would even ask me.”
“For Christ’s sake,” he said. “I thought you, of all people, might understand.”
“Can you even hear yourself?” I was getting angry again. “Do you seriously not see the irony in what you’re asking me, of all bloody people, after the way you treated me for the past eight years? And now you want my help, to do the very thing you’ve given me hell for. Are you really so blind to your own hypocrisy? Are you really that naïve? Do whatever you want old man, but you will get neither help nor blessing from me.”
I slammed the door as I left. The last time I slammed a door in his presence, I got smacked for it. I was ten.
I realised the second I was outside that I had left my coat behind. My car key was in the pocket. I hesitated for a moment but decided there was no way I was going to ring the bell and ask for it back. Plus, I reasoned I was probably in no condition to drive so I martyred myself to walking the ten-or-so miles home in the cold evening air. My martyrdom lasted roughly fifteen minutes before I called for a taxi. Following through has always been a problem of mine.
I ignored three calls from my father whilst waiting for the taxi to arrive. After giving the driver my address and settling myself in the back seat, my phone flashed up with a message:
You left your coat.
And then another:
Where are you? How are you getting home?
As if he cared.
GFY, I replied.
What does GFY mean?
I switched the phone to ‘silent’ and put it away.
My flat seemed smaller and emptier when I got back. I paced around it for a while with no real agenda. I felt lost and confused. I turned on all the lights and blasted music out of the stereo but neither brought me any comfort, so I returned the rooms to their previous dark and silent state. Eventually, I decided to mix a strong whiskey sour and run myself a bath. Once in the water, my anger started to drift away, leaving only sadness in its wake. I wondered if we had blown our best chance at resolution, but what choice had he given me?
The warmth of the water’s embrace began to wane. I had probably stayed in too long. I have been advised not to take baths when I am feeling low: they cause dangerous memories to float up to the surface. With the fingers of my right hand I began to trace the scars on the underside of my left forearm. There were three in total, snaking out from wrist to elbow like the roots of a tree. I looked at my right arm for comparison. The skin was clean and unblemished. Like I said: following through has always been a problem of mine.
I closed my eyes and tried, unsuccessfully, to drown the phantoms. Until the day I die, I will always hear the dialling tone; the beeps as I input the only telephone number other than my own that I have ever committed to memory; the repetitive ‘brrr brrr’ of the outgoing call; and the excited greeting from my mother as she answers the phone. This final haunting sound never fails to make me feel sick. The water had turned cold. It was time to get out.
I checked my phone after climbing into bed. There were no new missed calls, but the last message was still waiting for me:
What does GFY mean?
I began to type:
Never mind. Home safe. x
My thumb hovered over the ‘send’ button. I deleted the kiss. Then I deleted the rest of the message. I put my phone on the table, rolled over, and hoped for sleep to come quickly.
I was jolted awake by the sound of my phone hitting the bedroom floor. It had vibrated itself off of the table. I picked it up and groggily checked the screen. My father was calling.
“Where are you?” he asked, as if nothing had happened.
“Your car is still outside.”
“My key is in my coat pocket. I took a taxi. I’ll collect it tomorrow.”
“I could drive it over for you.”
“Fine,” I said, stifling a yawn. “Whatever.”
“What does GFY mean?”
I glanced at the clock.
“Dad, it’s 2:30am. Does it really – ”
“It’s not the same you know.”
“You and me. It’s not the same thing.”
I could feel my heckles rising. I wanted to hang up and go back to sleep. Things were simpler when we ignored each other. Then I remembered how happy I had been when he called to invite me over, how different he had seemed: older, more vulnerable. My hand still hurt. I felt bad about punching him. I took a deep breath and exhaled.
“Okay,” I said. “Tell me how it’s different.”
“You were just depressed. I’m dying.”
“Just depressed?” I repeated, incredulous.
“Well, weren’t you?”
“Yes, but that doesn’t…you can’t just dismiss it like…ugh, you’re infuriating!”
“Anyway,” I said, gathering myself. “You’ve been diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. You’re not dying.”
“I may as well be,” he said. “They don’t know how quickly it’s going to progress. I’ve already started forgetting things. I could completely lose my mind. I don’t want to live like that.”
“So, there’s something wrong with your brain that you don’t understand? It’s threatening to destroy your life and the thought of that terrifies you? You’re right Dad, that’s not the same thing at all.”
“It’s not the same!” He snapped. “You were being selfish. You did what you did with no consideration about how it would affect anybody else. Your poor mother…” He tailed off.
I had heard the ‘selfish’ remark from him previously, several times in fact, before we stopped speaking. He knew it hurt me more than anything. It was a sure-fire way of goading me into an argument.
“That’s not fair,” I said quietly. “I did think about her. I called – ”
“Called her to say goodbye whilst you were bleeding to death in a bathtub? Very thoughtful. How could you do that to her? To the woman who gave you life?”
“Don’t make this about Mum,” I said. “She understood me. She forgave me. We were closer than ever afterwards. It was you that pushed me away.”
“I couldn’t forgive you for what you put her through.”
“No. You couldn’t forgive me for what I put you through; for how it made you feel. You go on and on about how selfish I was, but you were just as bad: demanding that I should feel the way you wanted me to feel, that I should be grateful for this life I never asked for, that I should continue existing so as not to cause you pain. And then, after she died, you wouldn’t even speak to me. How selfish is that? And now you’re doing it again. Suddenly, ending one’s life is no longer the most selfish act imaginable, because it suits your interests. You’ve changed the rules. And you want me to help you do it, because I’m the family’s suicide expert, right? I can finally put my skills to good use. Well, I’ve got news for you Dad: I failed. Remember?
He was silent.
“I assume you’ve said nothing about this to Michael?”
“Michael has a family,” he replied quietly.
“Thanks for the reminder, Dad.”
“I didn’t mean – ”
“And what about Alice and Toby? Don’t you think they’ll miss the ‘World’s Best Grandpa’?”
“They don’t have to know how I died. Michael could tell them it was a heart attack. I would rather they remember me as I am now than some gibbering idiot.”
“It might not come to that,” I said. “We don’t know – ”
“I’m scared James,” he said suddenly.
I had never heard him admit that before.
“I know,” I said.
“What if I forget her? What if I forget your mother.”
“You won’t,” I said. “She would never let you, and neither will we.” I paused. He needed to know the truth. “I didn’t call her to say goodbye,” I said finally. “I called her because I knew she would save me. I didn’t want to die. Not really. And neither do you. That’s why you called me. You see, none of it is selfish. It’s about fear: fear of losing what you love. And right now I don’t want to lose you. Neither does Michael; neither do the kids. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we’ll get through it together, okay?”
He said nothing.
“What does GFY mean?”
“There’s no point in telling you. You’ll only forget.”
“Go fuck yourself, James.”
I laughed so hard I could barely breathe.