“Do you really want to do this now, John? Do you really want to do it here, in public?” Chloë asked.
This row had been festering for some time.
Every Sunday, Chloë and I dressed in our Sunday best, packed some food into an insulated bag, and walked across town to the dingy little apartment where Chloë’s father lived alone, and had done since his wife died half a decade before. I say lived, but that may be too strong a term. He wasn’t housebound in the traditional sense, nothing physically wrong with him. Sure, he needed the aid of a stick to get around but, for goodness’ sake, there were so many people, so much worse off than he was, who managed to get around reasonably well; some even on crutches or using mobility scooters. No, it wasn’t physical. In the strictest sense, it wasn’t mental, either. His doctor had had him tested for the early signs of dementia, and he had sat with therapists and shrinks after his wife died. None of them found any reason for his solitary, hermit-like nature.
This week, I had rebelled. I refused to put on a three-piece suit and tie, just to visit some miserable old sod who had demonstrated, on numerous occasions, that he wasn’t prepared to do the same for us. What am I talking about? He hadn’t visited us in five years. In the early days of his bereavement, we had tried really hard to help him. We had arranged picnics, theatre trips, trips to the few places he had enjoyed with his late wife, places they had never been. We even booked him on holidays with us to places he had talked about having enjoyed in his youth, before he even met Chloë’s mum. He said he was content to stay at home with his memories and his book. Yes, that’s right, his book. Not his books, his book. Funnily enough, I had never seen him read the book, never seen a bookmark in it, never seen it not neatly placed between the ebony bookends on the shelf above his chair. He had a pair of bookends shaped like African heads, their backs flattened to allow them to give good support to books. He had never been to Africa, he bought them from a friend, who had bought them from a friend, who had bought them from a friend, who had been to Africa.
Perhaps those bookends summed up his life. He had never been anywhere, I mean really been anywhere, but he had a friend who had a friend who had a friend who had been to some pretty amazing places.
Maybe that was part of the root of his trouble. No memories and only one book. Perhaps he was facing the inevitable; a sad, unfulfilled end to a sad, unfulfilled life.
It could have been so different, though. Before he met and married Chloë’s mum, he was seen as a man with a future. Good results at school, a good degree, and the offer of a career with an international company that would have taken him all over the world. His new wife didn’t want that. She was a stay-at-home kind of person. She had no interest in foreign travel and certainly didn’t want any husband of hers to have a job that wasn’t routine and predictable. She wanted to know that if she had dinner ready for 6pm; and she wouldn’t have it at any other time; her husband would be at home ready to eat it at 6pm. Every day. Without fail. The two weeks he had off work each year, he was required to spend decorating or undertaking DIY projects, directed by her. On the rare occasions they actually went away, it was to places where Chloë’s grandparents had taken her mother as a child. Gradually, over the years, the adventurous spirit that Chloë’s father had enjoyed as a young man deserted him, as did his fight and just about everything else that had made him the man he had been, that had defined him.
Over the years, she had worn him down, emptied him of everything he had been, and left him as he is now.
“He’s just a miserable old bugger!”
“Don’t you dare talk about my father like that,” Chloë responded.
Oh sh… did I say that out loud? I didn’t mean to.
So now, every Sunday, we go to see him, taking food with us. Of course, he always complains about the food; it’s never good enough, never the right thing, always too much or too little. He complains if we arrive five minutes later than he expected us, or five minutes earlier. The only certainty in his life is that he will complain, but do nothing to improve his lot; even though we all know that he is perfectly capable. She had worn him down that far.
And I am married to her daughter.
And I am complaining rather a lot these days, too.
And I don’t really want to bother with anything.
Oh my God! Is that where I’m headed?
“Yes, I do want to do this here and now. I think my sanity may just depend on it,” I said. “I truly believe that unless we look at where we are going, and at least think about changing direction, I could end up like him.”
“But we know where we are going; we’re going to my father, like every Sunday. You’re the one changing things by going looking like something the cat dragged in. We are doing what we always do; what we can depend on; what we are comfortable with.”
“That, Chloë, is exactly what I’m afraid of,” I said, mournfully.
This short story was written in response to Kreative Kue 6, issued on this site a few days ago.