The train was packed with the fug of wet commuters. Saturated umbrellas dripped puddle trails across the grime-smeared floor and an angry rain spirit whipped the windows from somewhere in the darkness outside. There was a close silence despite the rhythmic roar of the wheels on the tracks; glued together the passengers shook and shunted like one giant beast.
Upon boarding at London Bridge he had pushed himself to the last remaining seat – the impractically slender middle seat of three – earning tuts of disapproval from his neighbours as he heaved his rugby-player bulk in-between them. He tried to settle back and let the train’s motion gently rock him to a half-sleep, but he was frustrated with a physical agitation that he would ordinarily try to out-pace. His phone in his pocket was still hot from his mother’s voicemail.
‘No need to call back. Just to let you know your father has been in A&E. He walked into the conservatory glass – didn’t realise it was there. He has a nasty cut on his nose but it looked a lot worse than it is. Well, there was a lot of blood. He doesn’t remember anything of course. Anyway we’re home now – no need to rush around.’
It had been seven years since his father’s slips of forgetfulness became too frequent to ignore – almost the moment he retired. The house was full of cards saying ‘sorry you’re leaving' and ‘we’ll miss you’; the new pair of slippers that he’d been gifted, lay unwrapped in the hallway. The gaps between the retelling of an anecdote had become too small; he forgot the names of people he hadn’t seen, then those he had. The word ‘dementia’ was passed around, all of them saying it but no one knowing what to do with it. His father woke every morning having forgotten which life he was living. He forgot that he didn’t need to be able to find his suit jacket because he didn’t work anymore; that the green Rover wasn’t on the drive because it had been written off thirty years ago; that his sons weren’t going to come home from university because they had their own houses, jobs, wives, children. It was four years since he had sat with his mother at the kitchen table, her frustration and loneliness finally spilling into angry tears.
‘This was going to be our time, to travel, to enjoy ourselves. Now, he goes into these cruel rages –calling me horrible names…’useless’, ‘weak’. He forgets all about it the next day. But the worst of it is that he knows he’s not right. I found him on his knees once, praying, crying ‘God, what is wrong with me?’ Your dad…crying. I told him to get up. I couldn’t bear to see him so pitiful.’
The train came to a halt at Cudlingham. The driver announced that they were going to be stuck for some time due to ‘an incident further down the line’. There was a collective groan. Several people reached for their phones. Cudlingham – they came here as children to wade in the river with a bucket and net. He remembered his father in his broad panama and sky blue linen shirt with sleeves rolled up, his voice booming – ‘Oh well done Stephen! Good catch! Don’t let it get away!’ Another memory was pushing at him, a stronger memory. The two recollections were woven together so tightly one could not be unpicked from the other. He was running, panting heavily towards the stream where his mother stood with her back to the water, pacing with panic and fury, the two bored black labs lying at her feet.
‘He’s round the corner. He won’t come out.’ She gestured angrily to the river, pointedly looking in the opposite direction. His naked father was joyously floating on his back and gently pushing himself along with circling hands, his blanched white skin just visible beneath the disturbed river silt.
‘Stephen! This is bloody brilliant! No one knows I’m here, I’ve bunked off school, don’t tell. Come and join me!’
He squeezed his way off the train. The cold air and rain were instantly refreshing. Home was five miles away, but his irritation was making him fractious. It didn’t seem too far. With pragmatic determination he turned on his phone’s torch and set off along the footpath that cut across the fields.
His father was a man of hard work and industry. He remembered peering through the banister spokes, listening to glasses clinking on news of a promotion – a QC. He would try on his ash-streaked wig, running fingers over the wiry hair, curled tight like springs. He thought of his father wearing it askew, with sunburnt cheeks, holding a mock-trial over who had broken the kitchen window with a mishit cricket ball. If things were going well, Stephen and his brothers could get away with anything – bad manners at the dinner table, a poor school report – his father would say with a wink and a half-smile, ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘there’s always next time lad, always next time.’ On a bad day, they would hide behind the door or under the bed for fear of being hurled over their father’s knee for a slapped backside. They would run to their den inside the forsythia bush where they stored their rations – soft digestive biscuits and boiled sweets – trying to outlast their father’s volcanic temper as he raged at their mother inside the house.
The path became increasingly sticky with mud. He slipped into a vast puddle that sucked the shoe off his foot and claimed it. In the darkness, he struggled to wrestle it back, wobbling on one leg, his top-heavy frame threatening to upend him. He felt ridiculous – like an overweight flamingo. His fingers wrapped around the shoe’s hard edge. It released an indecent squelch as he wrenched it upwards, at which point the thought of putting his foot back into the oozing black leather became so grossly unappealing that he took off the other shoe and his sodden socks. He felt a thrill at the cool, smooth mud moving between his toes and gingerly continued along the path, clutching his shoes in one hand, and his torch in the other.
His father had these shoes; shoes he would sit on as a child while his father, a mountain, thick-set and ruddy, would smile down at him from high above, his large stomach trying to burst out of smart suit shirts overhanging a straining waistband, shaking with chuckles, striding like an Irish giant as his two giggling boys clung to his legs. He would go and visit him tomorrow. He will make himself go.
His suit jacket snagged on a jutting branch. Already saturated with rainwater, it had become oppressive and cumbersome. He hung it as a sacrifice on the malicious branch, marvelling at the relief from losing the weight from his shoulders and the air cooling his sweat. He placed his shoes and socks underneath, resolving to retrieve them the next day. He felt a sudden wildness, like he was back on a boy scout adventure. Turning off his phone light, he quickened his footsteps and hunched to dodge the overhanging branches. Picking up a branch to use as a staff, he let out a bark-like laugh as he imagined himself as a stone age man tracking through rugged, ancient lands.
Further along, the overflowing river seeped into the path. Reasoning that he was too far gone to go back, he began wading through, the bottom of his suit trousers waving and wrapping themselves around his ankles. He stopped and removed them, not thinking now, and flung them carelessly into the bush.
Here was the spot; he pictured his dad, wide-legged, commanding him and his brother, pointing with a child’s fishing-net that was tiny in his hands. He stepped into the river, wanting only to stand in his father’s place, persevering as the sharp riverbed stones needled his feet, realising too late that the water was much deeper than he thought. His foot met the soft mucus of an algae-covered rock, causing him to slip into the cold water that rose up and pulled him under. His arms swung in desperate circles, fighting against the attack of the icy, needling river. Reaching up, he broke through the surface in rasping gasps, as his legs gently flailed, unable to find a foothold. With a soft, panting doggy paddle, he made for the bank on the far side, grasping an overhanging tree root. Finding a surprising satisfaction at having reached his target, he swam to the other side. He swam round and round. Smiling, and realising how ridiculous he must seem, his body shook with giant chuckles. Feeling at peace, he rolled onto his back and stared straight up into the falling rain. He circled back with his arms, his feet taking on the shape of strange, white rock formations in the water.
‘You’re right dad. This is bloody brilliant.’