In the dark I hold his hand. It’s not quite yet his time. There’s still a clammy grip, and if I squeeze he squeezes back. All those years when nothing was said when it should have been collide with this moment when words are too much. He is comfortable at last, and perhaps there is comfort even in the hold we have never shared until now. The stillness is charged with the tense calm of a place that is used to this last, long wait. Down the corridor Brother John moves between his other patients. He won’t hear. I lean forward, and whisper what I have never said to my father before. He squeezes tighter.
And I hold on. We’re in Greenwich Park, and I’m three, and I’m on his shoulders, and he’s running fast, and his hands hold my ankles. I want the exhilaration to go on and on, but no less than the memory now it evaporates.
His hand ruffles my hair. The sweets he’s brought lie untouched on the end of the bed. Late last night when the phone had rung I had been awake, and had run to answer it. “Hello, old man,” he had said. “I thought your mother would answer.” “She’s asleep,” I had said. “Well I suppose she should be. And so should you.” And he had laughed. And so had the woman. And from upstairs my mother had called “Who is that?” and I had hung up and she had come down and asked me again and I had told her and not spared the detail about the strange woman in the background. I knew from her look before she packed me off to bed with a forced and unconvincing smile that I had stumbled into an adult world that I did not understand and didn’t want to. And here he is now. And he can ruffle my hair all he likes. I’m saying nothing. And I’m not having his sweets. Not yet, anyway.
His hand holds hers. My mother is away because my grandmother is ill. A few hours earlier he had come downstairs with a waft of Aqua Velva and told us that he was going up to the squash club. And I had waited and waited at the window for him to come home and long after midnight he had. And the woman was with him. And they had gone upstairs. And now they’re going back down the drive to his car.
His hand makes a fist. We’re having a couple of pints in the Mount Pleasant Inn. It’s the new Sunday ritual now that we’re at college and my mother has turfed him out. He buys us pints with the money he doesn’t have and we sit talking about rugby because that’s what he knows and the local deaf club is all around us and their hands are flapping about and every time you go to the jacks you’re interrupting a conversation and the dialogue of the deaf isn’t theirs. “I’m not proud,” he says, “but I flattened him. He was asking for it.” He’s telling us about the time he was propositioned by a squaddie in Oxford. And he looks at me. Not my brothers. And I say nothing.
His hand holds out the slice of soda bread. He’s taken to making it, and it’s always burnt. I’m home to see my mother, and I’m staying with him in the house we’ve bought so that he can be close to her. “I’m not proud,” he says, “but it was what we were all taught.” Earlier he got off to a dodgy start when he told us that he has just voted for Sinn Féin in the local elections and we told him he is a fool to think his vote could make up for the crimes they’ve persuaded him his unloved country has committed. But the flare up is over, and he wants to be conciliatory. He’s expressing regret for his past homophobia. It’s a new word for him. And he looks at me. And my brothers don’t. And I look away.
He holds out his hand and receives the wafer. The as yet undiagnosed Parkinson’s has stormed his stubborn defences in the few days since my mother died, and we have all but carried him to the altar rails past her coffin. Later, when he has gone to his hotel room and my brothers and I are drinking too much, Peter says what we have all thought. “You know, I worry that when she was lying there and he kept coming to see her and she couldn’t move or say anything she was screaming inside ‘Fuck off!’” I say something unconvincing about redemption. He did all he could in the end, and she knew it. I’m convinced, I think. But Peter isn’t.
Another hand presses on my shoulder. “It won’t be tonight,” says Brother John. “You should go home and get some sleep.” He is infinitely patient and gentle and he has eased things so much for my father. And he’s gay of course. I let go of my father’s hand. As I get up, Brother John places a ring in mine. “His fingers are quite swollen, and this was very tight. I wouldn’t want to forget to give it to you.” I mumble inadequate words of thanks and stumble out to the car. I turn the ring over in my pocket. “I’ll put it on when he’s gone,” I say.