47

by Robin K Hickson

The snow rose like jet exhaust over the arete, obscuring the view of the corrie below Ben Macdui. I turned my face away as ice crystals scraped by skin, somehow finding their way past the balaclava, my eyes saved by the swimming goggles that my father had assured me were the perfect substitute for the more expensive mask that the school had advised. I could imagine him laughing to himself, right now. I grinned. At least my mates had seen the funny side too.

They were standing behind me in a huddle, securing the last of the gear, conversations restricted to near-kisses as the storm howled and harried. The group lead raised an arm, and I crouched down to my knees, backing up to the pack. I slid my arms into the loose straps, pulled them tight, and pushed one cramponed boot beneath me, then the other, and stood up, balancing myself against the wind with a couple of small steps. As I pulled the belt tight, shifting the backpack higher onto my shoulders, I looked around for the last time. I was proud, and I knew my Dad would be proud of me too. Seventeen years old, and I’d survived a three day winter hike through the Cairngorms, including a major storm that had stripped away half of our tents and gear.

I felt like a survivor.

The train ride home was a victory parade. For large parts of it, I leaned out of the carriage door window, enjoying the secret pleasure of the comfort of the compartment at my back, contrasted with the stream of cold air across my face as the munros and glens flew past. Seven short hours and several station changes later, we were nearing home ground. I recognised the flat terrain and the drab industrialisation well before local landmarks confirmed our location. As the train slowed, I already started to imagine my Dad’s face as he waited for me on the platform. That lopsided grin asymmetrically balanced between deep sideburns. The crows’ feet tracking both eyes, so that you could always tell he was laughing well before his lips cracked open and he chortled, broad shoulders shrugging and shaking.

Bedford, announced the platform signs. We slid beneath the station canopy lighting, and I leaned further out, my arm outside the door and reaching for the handle as I searched the platform. It was late evening, and the station was quiet. No more than a dozen figures watched the train arriving, their faces lit a sickly yellow by the filthy sodium strip lamps. I couldn’t yet recognise my father, but then a flash of familiarity behind the glass doors that fronted the platform elicited a double-take. My sister. And next to her, my mother. Holding hands. Their faces melted by refraction. I couldn’t move.

I knew then, immediately, that it wasn’t refraction of the glass that caused their expressions to be elongated like Edvard Munch’s Scream, that drained the blood from their skin, leaving them looking empty— no, not merely empty. Excavated. Eviscerated. It was pain. Grief.

Somebody pushed past me; our group leader, a friend of my father’s. He crossed the platform quickly, reaching my mother. Their heads leaned close, as if midst conspiracy, eyes sighting my way. I felt guilty and jealous at the same time. Whatever it was, they knew and I didn’t. I forced myself to move, the few yards between myself and the three of them a tunnel, a narrow funnel beyond which no others existed, no universe at all, just that umbilical connection between terror and release. For once I reached them, I would know. Understand. And it wouldn’t be as bad as I feared.

The group lead met me halfway back. I searched his face for a clue to the climax as he started to speak, but his expression and tone were both neutral; compounding my agony.

“Robin, I’m afraid your father has been taken ill. He’s in hospital.”

And with those few understated words, my life ended at 17, and another life began. Same body, same mind, but everything else died, along with my Dad. He was 47 years old.

 

I remember vividly the thoughts and images in my head. The way he looked, wired and grey, impossibly inanimate, as he lay on the bed. The expressions of the staff, as they chased me out and beyond the curtains.

‘He’s not ready,’ I remember them saying, as if I had rudely interrupted the creation of their clay masterpiece.

I remember my mother’s face, crumbling, disintegrating, as the doctor told us there was nothing else he could do. Our husband/father/friend had passed away. Passed away? Passed away? What does that euphemism even mean? Is he coming back?

I remember the white lines of the silent motorway strobing beneath the headlamps of our neighbour’s car as he drove us home, cruelly emulating a pulse.

I remember a refrain that kept pace with the pulse. There is no god. There is no god. There is no god. There never was.

I remember climbing into bed in the early hours of that morning, wondering how I could do something as normal as sleeping, when the world had ended.

I remember waking to a fresh horror. An impossible terror: I’d never see my Dad again.

My new life fed on pain, a parasite of the old life. Every morning I awoke to the horror of that same first thought. He’s gone: and not gone as if he could return. Rather vanished. Extinguished. Was he ever real? Could I prove it?

Give it time, family friends said. They never said how long that time would be, but in their own time they stopped visiting.

You need to be strong for your mother, they said. But who was going to be strong for me?

You’ve got your whole life ahead of you. You’re wrong. That life’s gone too.

Five years later our first child was born. And with it, like a malignant afterbirth, a new truth. Another painful understanding: because now I could never go back. A little piece of my father was preserved. A spark, carried in this tiny, vulnerable body. Until then, I had always somehow maintained a bizarre hope. Build a time machine! Slip through a wormhole! But after this new life was created, I had to let my father go all over again. If offered that time machine, I would be forced to destroy it — to remove the risk that our child might never exist. And with that knowledge, came the pain of betrayal. I cried that night with pride, with love, with fear, with guilt.

Another five years on, and my beautiful girl had somehow created three sparks, three fragments of my father. Yet I tortured myself every day with questions. Would they look like him? Would I recognise mannerisms that survived the genetic lottery? Did I want them to? Could I bear to look at them if they did?

Yesterday, my wife and I sat on a shop sofa beneath bright lights, inhaling the smoke and perfumed scent of candles atop the coffee table. From the dressing area, our youngest daughter stepped into view, her eyes bright — laughing without a smile, as her grandfather might have done. She turned a complete circle, the wedding dress glittering in the too-bright lighting. Tall, elegant, beautiful.

He would have been so proud, and I wished for the millionth time that he was here to share this moment with us.

Today, I’m 47 years old myself. And I try not to think about ageing.