(Liz Milne, University of Chester, UK)
It wasn’t until my father died that I really got to know him. I had gone to clear out his home; what should have been a solemn and carefully planned occasion reduced to a scrambling rush to comply with the council’s one-week grace period following a bereavement.
I let myself in with Dad’s keys—kindly police officers had brought them to me having broken into his flat following my request for a welfare check when my daily texts and phone calls had gone unanswered: ‘Very sudden, madam, but peaceful, sitting and watching his shows,’—and stood for a moment in the small, grubby hallway of his home. A lump rose in my throat. He would no longer shake his head and say, ‘I couldn’t give a bugger, love,’ in response to my chidings and encouragements to be a little more house proud. That’s not to say his flat was filthy; he cleaned and he tidied—his kitchen in particular was a miracle of shining cleanliness that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the telly—he just prioritised the areas he used.
I fished out the small notebook and pen I’d brought with me and jotted down ‘sweep, mop hall, wipe skirting, scrub door,’ then tucked it away and moved into his bedroom. The room was redolent with the indefinable scent of my father: a familiar smell of soap, aftershave and, not unpleasantly, a faint clean tang of masculine sweat, comfortable and unforgettable, taking me back to my youth when he loomed over me, laughing, shouting and roaring: a god-giant to the small girl child who sometimes quailed under his stern hazel eyes, topped as they were by fierce and unruly brows.
I wasn’t ready to tackle his bedroom yet.
I remembered what the undertaker had said. Notebook. ‘Clothes for funeral. Underpants.’ Apparently, people often forget underwear when selecting clothes for their loved one’s burial or cremation. This would be cremation. It seemed stupid to care about what you wore to be reduced to a pile of ashes, but I supposed conventions must be upheld.
The lounge was easier. Less intimate. I sighed heavily and pulled off my coat, rolled my sleeves up and set to work. All his electronics would be coming home with me for now, but his furniture (the squashy orange sofa from which it was impossible to rise quickly or gracefully, the slightly battered nest of tables—drink rings and cigarette burns on the one he used the most—and the television stand and bookcases) would be collected by a scrap collector that I’d found in the local free paper. I’d had no idea that rag and bone men still existed: thought they were like Enid Blyton’s England, mostly forgotten, long gone, and seemingly no longer necessary.
The lounge didn’t take long, nor did the kitchen and bathroom. The piles of neat cardboard boxes (save) and black bin bags (chuck) steadily grew. It was something of a shock to see how quickly a comfortable home could be reduced to an empty shell.
Finally, the rest was done, hall skirting and all. Time to tackle the bedroom. Opening the wardrobe, the evocative smell hit me afresh and this time tears would not be choked back. Wet-lashed, I sorted through old tattered polo-neck t-shirts: ‘my scruffs’ Dad called them. One was covered with paint stains. Paint stains? Dad didn’t paint. I laid aside his favourite suit, a shirt, some socks and his good black shoes. I didn’t forget underpants, but needed to hunt for a pair that wasn’t peppered with tiny holes and on which the elastic was not perished. It felt wrong, as though I was judging him.
I continued my task, binning the old clothes, piling up garments to be given to charity and saving a few, the good-quality pieces, for the kids to grow into—Who am I kidding? I saved them for me, so that when I miss him particularly badly, I can go, bury my face in his clothes and pretend, just for a while.
He kept his papers in a low, wide cabinet that fitted perfectly under the window. His laptop and a previously unseen-by-me—and surprisingly sophisticated—printer were on top of the cabinet, a nearby office chair showing where he used to sit and type up his correspondence. A few pages were strewn near the printer. I picked them up and glanced at them, my attention sharpening as I realised what I held. This was no boring business letter, nor was it even one of his dry scholarly geology pieces. He wrote the latter from time to time, at the request of one of several universities or one of the mining magazines to which he subscribed.
This was a story, a three-page story about a little girl and her horse, the adventures they got up to. I read the story, quickly drawn into the skilful and charming tale. I didn’t realise that I was crying again until a tear fell onto the page, blurring the ink in a small distorted splash.
The fourth page was a picture. He had painted after all. This one was of a tree, the bare winter branches twisting and striving upwards, set against a beautiful soft sunset in which pink, orange and yellow blended in a subtle fusion, softening into a darkening blue-grey sky. The tree, mostly silhouette, was picked out in soft brown rather than harsh black and the whole was attractive, soothing and… dainty.
I opened drawer after drawer. There were more, so many more. He had written and painted and written some more: painstaking corrections, slow and careful editing showing in draft after draft just how he worked to perfect each story, to finish it, only to enclose it in a folder and tuck it away in a drawer, never to be read.
Some of the paintings were story illustrations and these too had traceable histories: rough sketches, primitive painted drafts, final polished pieces; also hidden from all but their creator.
I had never seen this side of my father, never glimpsed the inner artist, never known that such delicacy lived in those gnarled and broad-fingered hands. I stood there, in the unpicked ruins of his home, bitterly regretting that despite all I had known of the most important man in my life, it had been so much less than the whole truth of him.
I stood for an unknowable time, silently saying goodbye.
Liz Milne is a Zimbabwean-born writer. She returned to education as a mature student, gaining a BA (hons) which she enjoyed so much she is undertaking an MA in Creative Writing and Publication. She plans to try her hand at a PhD next, just so that she can say ‘yes’ when asked if there is a doctor in the house. Her favourite animals are tigers but she can’t afford to feed one, so she has two cats instead.