I heard the news from a nurse with a piece of tinsel tied around her waist: my father had become a hypochondriac. Headaches had pointed to non-existent tumours. A sore ankle had indicated osteoporosis. He’d had self-diagnosed cancers in all the main organs, suffered a non-productive cough he blamed on contact with livestock, and all over South-East England he’d been insisting on second opinions. I hadn’t seen my father in nine years. The catalogue of invented catastrophes caught me by surprise. I stared at the nurse’s clipboard and told her the truth: the only ailments I could remember him admitting to were sinusitis and a general malaise.
Searching her document for something plausible – it seemed crucial to find something plausible – I saw with an odd jolt of joy the words IN-GROWING TOENAIL. If you were going to make something up, why would you opt for an in-growing toenail?
That one might be real, she conceded.
But this heart thing?
Not even a little bit?
At this time of year, she said, some dads like parties. Yours? He’s more fond of crises.
You’ll boot him out?
We’ll run some checks. It’s Christmas.
It was Christmas Eve, to be precise. An inflatable snowman was passed out against a corner wall, half-strangled by someone’s stethoscope, and fake mistletoe hung down in doorways, optimistic doctors underneath it. The waiting area was full but I couldn’t hear anyone complaining. English people like to complain, but the main thing we like to complain about is that our complaints don’t get heard, so it works out as a sort-of draw and mainly we stay quiet. This is especially true at Christmas. It’s the season for biting tongues and trying to get along.
The nurse and I talked for a while. She said my father had insisted that she call me. She said parents were a nightmare and that she owned a small brown dog. In the centre of her face was a big blurry nose into which all her other features fell. She smelt warm and sweet – chocolate on trees, slow-burning Christmas candles, mulled ciders sipped by an open fire. When she smiled I was impressed by her central incisors.
What’s your dog’s name? I asked.
Potato, she said.
I thought to myself: I could love a woman with a dog called Potato. A woman with a dog called Potato is exactly what I need.
I grew up in a village called Byfleet, a graveyard blessed with a bus route. I think my parents were surprised that I dreamt of being a dentist. They offered me astronaut, surgeon, CEO, Prime Minister – a variety of higher stars on which to hang my hopes. I rejected each of these ambitions. For three Christmases in a row, I begged for the same gift from Santa: Tooth Fairy Let’s Learn Dentist Set.
It’s not the Tooth Fairy’s time of year, my father protested. And I reminded him, politely but firmly, that the Fairy worked all year round.
I kept submitting unsuccessful requests for the dentist set; we didn’t have much money. My mother’s income was small and my father’s non-existent. I became known in the village for my swift, efficient paper rounds.
When I was thirteen my father, noting that I could not catch a frisbee, somehow concluded I would become a famous poet. I don’t know, I told him, and he looked disappointed. I hurled the frisbee into the trees and fast-walked to fetch it.
Open wide, I tell people now, and they open wide. Bit wider? I venture, and they open a bit wider. But there is only so wide a human mouth can go, and therein lies the beauty of my job. The world has been scaled down to a manageable size – a pink universe of tappable, mappable teeth.
We are strangers. This was my first thought as I stood in the doorway. But the longer I looked at him in that narrow bed, wearing his paper gown and reading his book about glue, the more I came to realize that he wasn’t just my father, he was my future. I too would lose battles with long spiralling nasal hairs. I too would find the skin around my neck transformed into unravelling rope. Dark slurs would appear under my eyes. Fur in my overlong ears. My chest would sink to my belly and my arms would grow wistfully thin.
In the moment before he looked up and saw me, I desperately sought out distinguishing features, bricks to build a wall between the current him and the future me. The best I could come up with was this: I would never ever wear the baseball cap he was wearing. TRY ME I’M DRUNK, said the slogan, and underneath was a squat green arrow pointing south.
Hello, I said.
Hello, he said.
I told him it seemed weird to wear a hat in hospital.
You’re thinking of funerals, he told me, and produced a thin green tissue with which he theatrically wiped one eye.
My father always made extraordinary efforts at Christmas. He had trained as an actor and this was when it showed.
Christmas Eve, for me, will forever be associated with sausages. I would climb onto the headboard of my bed in the deep end of the night and from there I could make it onto the wardrobe. From the top of the wardrobe, unseen, curtain pushed to the side, heart beating light and fast at the thought of my own courage, I could watch through the dark as my uncle parked his truck. My father would step out and greet him: a special handshake they’d learned from a movie they liked. Sometimes my uncle would come into the house. When that happened I needed to shift from mute observation to careful listening. The sensory switch was difficult to master. Other times the two of them would stay outside, having a quick drink, the whiskey bottle balanced on the bonnet of the truck. I worried it would fall.
Sooner or later my uncle, who was in the business of importing and exporting low quality meats, would open the back of the truck and hand my father some plastic gloves. A final swig of whiskey and then they would set to work. I watched for five minutes. Ten. I climbed down. I lay in bed. My blood was buzzing. I was thinking about the clouds their breath made in the air. Dragons. Maidens. The question of whether one’s eyeballs could pop out during kissing. My bedclothes never felt so warm and delicious as in those moments. A swimming pool you return to after a quick chilly wee.
On Christmas morning I would come downstairs carrying a glass of water that had grown bubbles in the night. I was ready to take the usual satsuma and Yo-Yo and felt tip pen set from my stocking. My father, as on every other year, would casually invite me to come and look outside. We would walk towards the front door, cold air brightening the hallway, and he would drape his arm over my shoulder, which I loved.
Reindeer poo, he’d say. Certain as God is my witness. See it? All down our driveway, the little buggers, yet again.
I’d look at the sausages and nod. Probably saw our chimney was blocked, I’d say.
Absolutely, my father would reply. Left the pressies on the doormat instead. Resourceful beasts, eh?
My mother sometimes pitched in with a comment, a cigarette hanging from her lips. A very uniform size and shape, she’d say, the words emerging drily from a corner of her mouth.
True. Very true.
One year, he told me that Rudolf meant famous wolf in German, and that this was proof that Germans didn’t know an arse cheek from an elbow. Other years he told me jokes.
What do you call a reindeer wearing ear muffs?
Don’t know. What do you call him?
Anything you like. Can’t hear you.
Every year our neighbours’ Rottweilers were called upon to help clear our driveway, and every year my father conspired to get these burly dogs dressed in elf outfits. Nature, he’d say, watching them eat, their little green hats hanging from elastic around their necks, a crackle of awe in his voice. It was explained to me that dogs were colourblind compared to humans, heard sounds that humans could not hear, and were in possession of entirely different taste buds – taste buds which perceived fecal matter to be a delicacy, like caviar, like Grandma’s trifle, unpopular and rare.
It was hard to think of a time of year when he looked more happy. He smelt of cloves and sprouts and meat, whereas my mother smelt of disinfectant, of the holiday brochures she read in bed each night, of sore throat sweets and frequent overlong naps.
When he took off his cap I saw he still had flames for hair. Did he dye it? He must have dyed it. The only man in England to die his hair ginger. Either that or he had a persistent gene I didn’t have. My hair was light brown, unremarkable: a potato, a dog. Could I legitimately disown him? Was he an impostor after all? There are certain ethereal things which, if you place your faith in them, return the favour by explaining everything else. Genetics is one. God is another. The big bang. Novocaine.
I handed him another tissue. Which way does that window face, would you say. . . ? South, yes, of course, south. And those spectacles, you’d use those for. . . ? Reading, right, got you. Short or. . . Astigmatism, yes, I see.
Word by hard-earned word our dialogue constructed a conversation.
He asked about my life and I told him the main things: single, happy, gainfully employed. He winced a little at the word employed and I asked if he was in pain.
This heart thing, he said. Got to catch it, got to catch it. The beat! Quick beats like you wouldn’t believe. And the staff here! Mainly they’re good, don’t get me wrong. But all I get from the male nurse is a sarcastic tone, like he’s keeping a secret the rest of the world knows. I’d rather hear the speaking clock. Sarcasm’s the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people, when the privacy of their soul is coarsely and intrusively invaded.
Would you like some water? I said.
His face crinkled in distaste, as if he’d bitten into something sour. You know I’m no supporter of water, he said.
Some of your symptoms might be dehydration, or anxiety.
Tell me, he said. How many children have you got?
Not yet. One day. It’s a big undertaking.
Exactly right, he said, though it hadn’t even been exactly right to me, and I was the one who’d said it.
Do you still live with Bernice, dad? I heard you might be with Bernice these days.
No! Bernice? Me? God no! Every woman I’ve had has let me down. Got myself two allotments now. Parsnips, sprouts. Healthy foods. Fruit trees. You name it, I grow it, and in the winter there’s my acting work.
Probably, he said, but the uncertainty in his voice told me this: he had no memories of the time we’d eaten Japanese pears with my mother.
I asked him what his other symptoms were and he said, as well as the irregular heartbeats, that he could taste putty in his mouth and was tired all the time.
I looked around the room. He’d always been one of those people who get described as an eccentric, but now he was more than that: he made no sense to me at all. I asked him about his book on glue.
Brilliant, he said. Can’t put it down.
He waited for me to laugh, which I did. But then it occurred to me that the only reason he was reading or pretending to read A History Of Glue & Its Uses was so that he could deliver the line about not being able to put it down. For some reason the idea of this – that he was carrying around a prop which would enable him repeatedly to deliver a rehearsed joke – filled me with incredible rage. I opened the book, hoping to calm myself, and saw among the shifting text on the title page a blurry library stamp. It told me the book was three years and two days overdue.
That hat isn’t funny, I told him. TRY ME I’M DRUNK. It isn’t funny.
I’m only entertaining, he said, taking it off and bowing his head.
My mother died nine years ago, December 12th, and my father didn’t turn up for the funeral. He warned me he wouldn’t be going, and I tried to change his mind. He said he wasn’t cut out for funerals, and I said no-one was cut out for the task of burying their wife. He seemed to take that as my acceptance, whereas I’d meant it as an accusation: we all do things we’re not built to do. Responsibility, I said, and he let out a tight laugh. What other real-world things aren’t you cut out for, Dad? Funerals, jobs, money, what else?
At least I’m myself, he said.
Meaning pulling teeth. Meaning a family full of whores to the system.
I stayed away for a week. The week became a month and the month became a year. Once you’ve missed one Christmas the others slide easily by. People use their teeth every hour of every day – if you burn up in a fire they’re among the few things that will outlive you – and yet I have patients who skip their check-ups for whole decades at a time.
I asked my mother once, when I was small, if Father Christmas really existed. She frowned and told me I should talk to my father.
I asked my father and he said, Course.
I pointed out that I’d heard otherwise from some boys at school. That Pete had said, he’d said, what had he said? Something about Santa being a symbol. I had heard that and thought of music lessons.
Nonsense, my father told me. Kid like Pete Dribble is just bitter no-one gifted him a better name.
He pronounces it Dribbelle, I said.
Wouldn’t you? Knew a Jap girl once called Suki. Married a Bob Dicker. So she became Suki Dicker. Suki Dicker! Dickair, she began to call it. A name crisis is the only kind of crisis where anyone wants to be French. Father Christmas exists.
After 35 minutes in the hospital room with my father, I wanted to leave. It is common in these kinds of situations to say: I had to get out of there, he was driving me nuts. This, though, was not my problem. My problem was that I felt, sitting alongside him, stifled by my own massive sanity. He told me about his travels, his meetings with producers, the big American TV break that could come at any time.
HBC, he said.
HBO, I corrected.
I went off in search of coffee but ended up standing in the car park, enjoying the cold and the silence. After a while the nurse with the nose and the nice incisors wandered out and I waved. She came and stood with me, fingers rolling cigarette paper. I fell in love with her, fell into a love which was uncluttered by actually knowing her. She told me a story about Potato’s emotional attachment to a cat called Paws. She said she too tended to get embroiled in inappropriate relationships. A doctor? No, no. A man who worked as a Crime Scene Cleaner. A man, she said, with marital entanglements.
As in. . .?
Yes, he’s married.
My life is complex.
Mine too, I said. In the mornings, anyway.
As a little girl I always thought I’d save myself for marriage.
It transpired to be his marriage, she said.
Do you have any mouth problems? I asked.
I don’t think so, she said.
She told me she was born on the 24th of April, and that the 25th of April was the date on which the highest proportion of the world’s rich people were born. Twenty-four hours, she said. So fucking close!
We stood there for a while watching cars trickle by and I tried to maintain my end of the silence. I gave her my card and explained that there was a new deal on tooth-whitening I could do for her, and when I realized how that sounded I went off in pursuit of grapes. I returned an hour later and reclaimed the spot at my father’s bedside.
He looked at the first grape as if the secrets to all human life might be engraved on its thin shiny skin. The rest he plucked and ate without looking down at all. Next to the book about glue, a John Cheever paperback had appeared. A recollection rose up: my father taking part in a village hall adaptation of a Cheever short story. He played a corpse. The Surrey Herald called it a stiff performance. The parents of a girl I liked saw the piece and asked me about it over a meal at our local Harvester. My ears burned with shame. They weren’t embarrassed – they thought amateur dramatics was interesting – but I knew having a father like him made me unusual, and therefore vulnerable. Back then I read science fiction books in secret. I worried about school reports that described me as a dreamy child. Dreamy was what my mother called my father during long conversations with her friends.
Tomorrow, I said. Christmas Day. What are your plans, Dad?
Tomorrow? he said, his hand in the bag that had held the grapes. Let me think. Tomorrow.
Come and eat with me. It’s Christmas.
Yes? He looked either very happy or very sad. Eat with you, is that the idea?
Usually I go round to Jack’s place.
My business partner. But he’s got three kids. He’s not going to mind if I say I can’t.
Well then, my father said. Well then. Well.
My mother had been married before, when she was 21, to a guy called Stephen. He was a marine biologist and she described him as a Different Sort Of Man. He could be cold and distant, she said. Your father can be distant but in a warm way. Also: Stephen wasn’t fond of food. She said that, like many scientists, he considered meals to be a distraction. He ate only to keep upright and alive.
Stephen was a serious smoker. She said he always held his cigarettes between forefinger and thumb. She began to smoke in earnest around him. She felt close to him when smoke was between them. I suppose it’s possible that if she hadn’t had that first marriage, she wouldn’t have died of a heart attack in later life. She might have died of something more interesting, something my father could have built a story around.
Always reading those holiday brochures. There were never any newspapers in our house. At some stage my parents must have decided to live outside of events.
I remember my father telling me that sledging was for adults only, that if a child went sledging the sledge would take off into the sky and never return the child home. I remember him signing me up for a six week origami course at the local library, where I made a paper gum shield I’d originally planned as a boat, and how I meanly pretended I hadn’t enjoyed the course at all. I remember receiving on one birthday, to my supreme joy, a large white plastic tooth in which to store my toys.
On Christmas morning I was warned by a doctor in a lime-green paper hat that my father, after being told there was no longer a bed for him at the hospital, had locked himself in the bathroom. Hopefully he’ll come out of his own accord, the doctor said. You’re his son. He could stay with you?
I went for a walk, purchased some chewing gum from a newsagent’s. It occurred to me that I hadn’t bought him a present yet. I considered a packet of Revels, a Twix. I bought the Twix but it turned out I was hungry, so I ate it.
The only other shop I found open was a printing business with a special sale on stationary products. I have always liked stationery products. The heft and weight of a hole punch. The outer simplicity of a stapler. I tried out one of their best ballpoints on a pad where a few dozen people before me had opted to sign their names in different colors, at different angles. I wrote HAPPY (there was no room for CHRISTMAS) and purchased the pen for £4.99. Christmas paper was part of a wider Buy Four Get One Free deal. I made a number of purchases. The day was storybook simple: big cold sun, flat blue sky, a fluffy cloud as sketched by a child.
I returned to my father’s room. His books and spectacles on the side, his medical notes on a clipboard at the end of the bed. I flicked through the notes and saw the words Keep out of general ward if poss. Also: Onychocryptosis? No sign of act penetration by sliver. Likely to be a small callus under nail plate itself, rather than in-grown. On the floor was a battered overnight bag. Some more books, a photograph of my mother. I found his passport. There were authentic-looking stamps for Thailand and Vietnam. I began to feel a bit unwell.
I thought about school friends who had liked my father. How they’d appreciated his efforts to amuse them. How they enjoyed the Slow Walk Race he instigated on my seventh birthday. How I didn’t enjoy those parties quite so much. How there are times when you want a parent to tell you something true.
I began to decorate the hospital room. I dressed the skirting boards with tinsel. I scored ribbon with scissors. I held my breath and sprayed twigs with silver spray. I arranged the twigs in an empty vase. I made a lopsided origami reindeer from thin red card, a snowflake from Epson Bright White Printer Paper. The reindeer on the book about glue. The snowflake taped to the window pane. Neither of them was much like life: caricatures, simplifications, delicate fictions I’d forgotten I liked to look at. The ballpoint pen I placed on top of the pillow, wrapped in golden elves which were trying to escape the page. I ran Christmas lights along a shelf. I said Let there be light, and there was light, but only on 9 lights out of 18. I found the faulty bulb but the box contained no replacements. Didn’t matter. The room rhymed. I was pleased with it.
I found the lavatories and peered under each cubicle door until I saw a pair of shoes with shredded laces.
I said, Dad? I’ll be having to head off now, Dad.
You OK, Dad?
Thanks son, a thick voice said. Thanks for coming, I appreciate it.
No problem, I said. You’ll stay here?
Be yourself, he said.
I pinched my nose against possible odors and slid a business card under the door.
I explained some of this to the nurse when she came into my surgery for root canal work. I placed a rubber dam around her tooth and told her a version of the things he’d said. She didn’t interrupt. No reaction in her eyes. I focussed on her excellent, minty fresh mouth. I enquired after the health of Potato. She made a noise. Blinked. Moved her feet. Happy.
Bit wider, I said, and she opened a bit wider.
That’s good, I said. No more. Perfect. That’s fine.
Image by Pinkmoon