Your Father’s Last Words
Aiden Clarkson (Keele University, UK)
They were at Sunnie and Yan’s house, in their snug dining room. The food was really good. It was mezze and because Yan kept bringing out more plates and bowls it seemed endless.
‘Oh my god,’ Sunnie said, ‘blah blah blah.’ She sounded like a little kid. Everyone laughed; she was doing an impression of Tomas.
There were eight people around the table. They’d been friends since their early twenties – for a decade or perhaps eleven years. As well as Sunnie and Yan and Tomas and Sarah, there was Chris and Christie and John and Paul.
‘Oh my god,’ Sunnie said again. Then she stacked some small plates as if she needed something to do. Her hair was all piled up and held with a thick band of crimson ribbon.
Tomas reached across the wide dining table to pick up a bottle. He poured wine into his glass, then Sarah’s. He offered it around to each of his friends in turn. He clunked the neck of the bottle on the rim of Yan’s glass and thought, Fuck, don’t smash it. Sunnie and Yan’s house was tastefully decorated but haunted by sex; there were libidinous sculptures on the mantelpiece and photographs of nudes on every wall. It was bigger than any of the other couples’ houses. Yan did something advanced in engineering and was paid very well for it.
Before Tomas could say the thing he wanted to say, Sunnie said, ‘So, everyone – what were your father’s last words?’
Yan touched his cheekbone with three fingers. This meant she’d embarrassed him; Yan and Sunnie’s private language had always been very easy to decode.
John said, ‘But my father isn’t dead,’ and Paul said, ‘I know, love. It’s ok.’
So Tomas swallowed his mouthful of wine, and said, ‘My father’s last words were: “There’s something shining in the garden”.’
‘Wow,’ Chris said. He was a nice guy and overweight. Soft, really, a pushover. ‘Great last words.’
‘Amazing,’ Sunnie said.
Tomas had to nod, and Sarah put her hand halfway up his long thigh muscle, under the table, and squeezed, which was pleasant and distracted him.
‘He was washing up,’ he said. John and even Paul seemed interested. Tomas didn’t like Paul and it was mutual, and so they were always very polite to each other, laughing the loudest at each other’s jokes and backing each other when the group fell into a debate.
‘And he said his last words, and then he walked away from the sink. He went out of the back door and onto the back lawn. He was heading towards an apple tree. As if there was something there, you know – he was going to check out whatever it was that was shining. Massive stroke.’
Tomas and Sarah were the only couple with a child. Their son was fourteen months old and he was with Sarah’s parents for the evening. Chris and Christie were trying. John and Paul had spoken of adoption. Yan sometimes said that he and Sunnie were childless for political or moral reasons, because of the state of the world, because of over-population, because there were unwanted children and the right thing to do would be to adopt. In a private conversation with Christie and Sarah, Sunnie had said it was to do with Yan’s depression – Christie and Sarah had then told their partners, and Chris and Tomas had both independently passed it on to John and Paul.
Sunnie had great big freckles across her cheeks and the bridge of her nose.
The supper club met again a month later. John and Paul hosted. They had a nice flat in the city centre. Great for John when he had to take the train to London. Paul worked from home. Every afternoon he went to the gym.
Of course the beginning of the evening was spent discussing the food, which was delicious. It was lamb, served with a jus that was sweet but also very salty. John cut them all generous slices of fatty meat and they ate it with simple polenta studded with pomegranate seeds, and a grapefruit salad.
The presence of grapefruit gave Tomas a good excuse.
He said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t eat that. I’m taking some medication and I don’t think it’s safe.’
He downed the rest of his glass of wine and poured more.
He said, ‘It’s something to do with enzymes.’
Sunnie watched, Sarah watched Sunnie, and Tomas thought, Speak, Sunnie.
Sarah had always been very beautiful and skinny and English. She tucked her hair back behind her ears and when she did it Tomas felt beguiled and guilty because it was like she was a teacher or a baker or someone else traditionally feminine and completely practical. The boy was with her parents again.
Everyone looked at Tomas.
‘I was thinking,’ Sunnie said, ‘about that conversation we were having – about our fathers’ last words.’
She acted as if she was doing Tomas a favour, covering a slip he hadn’t meant to make. Tomas realised that she was trying to protect him from something which he did not want to be protected from. And Tomas felt Sarah stiffen beside him, affronted, because of course if anyone was to protect him from anything, even something from which he didn’t want to be protected, it should of course have been her and not Sunnie. Everyone knows, he thought. We all know exactly what’s happening.
They all nodded.
Sunnie said, ‘I realised I never told you my father’s.’
I’ll drink, Tomas thought – just lots of drink.
‘Well,’ Sunnie said, ‘it’s no secret that my dad was an alcoholic. Which, you know, in his culture, it was a big thing. He was and he had been for many years an awful drunk, a complete liability.’
Chris and Christie didn’t look comfortable and John and Paul didn’t look interested. Yan held his chin in his hand.
‘Every day he used to drink this – ’ and she outlined what he would drink. ‘And then he used to do this – ’ and she outlined what he would do.
‘Come on,’ Tomas said. ‘We don’t want your life story. Get to it.’
‘Oh my god,’ she said. ‘Well, he was waiting for the liver but they couldn’t get him one, or wouldn’t give it to him. Because he couldn’t promise not to drink. He sat there in a bed in the hospital, completely yellow with his eyes sunk in. And he said his last words, which were: “Don’t clean me up.” I was trying to get the blood out of his beard. He’d been having haemorrhages in his stomach.’
‘That was his problem all along,’ said Yan, ‘Wasn’t it. Don’t clean me up.’ He waved his hands dismissively.
Another month passed. Now Tomas was looking thin. It was a sign of his failing health, obviously, but also he thought that it was good to look so skinny. He’d let his hair grow a little bit as well. He and Sarah waited for the boy to speak. The waiting and what they were waiting for brought the truth of his diagnosis home to Tomas. Something about time, the way language defines things and so makes them static, the way the boy in his arms felt ancient.
Or sometimes Sarah held the boy and looked at Tomas, and he felt very young.
It was Chris and Christie’s turn to host dinner.
They cooked insipid pink fish in a crust of salt. Their house was in a nice suburb and it had a view of a church. There was no connection between them and the church other than that they could see it from their bedroom window, but still it had become the final piece of evidence in a prosecution being designed by Sarah, her case being that they were intrinsically conservative.
Because it’d become summer since their last supper they ate on the patio, on green metal chairs with loose curves and a kind of simplified Parisian feel, at a plastic table covered by a chequered tablecloth. White wine for everyone. The fish tasted brackish, and portioned out and plated up it looked like cross-sections of a water-logged lung.
It was as if Sunnie had been struck dumb by Tomas’s appearance. He would have liked to have pulled out a tooth and plonked it on the table before her. Top that.
‘How’s the boy?’ Chris asked.
‘He’s really great,’ Sarah said. ‘He’s eating like two horses. He’s mad.’
Birds sang in the trees. Later insects began to bite and they ran out of things to talk about. Tomas wondered if it was him, if he was the reason why no-one would speak. Eventually, Christie said, ‘Right. I’ve been gearing up to this for the last week.’
‘I know what’s coming,’ Paul said, and laughed in a way which made him seem like an idiot.
‘My father drowned,’ Christie said, ‘or perhaps had a heart-attack.’
‘Make up your mind,’ Yan said.
She laughed. ‘That’s terrible,’ she said. Chris looked at her and smiled.
‘What happened is,’ she said, ‘he fell off a white-water raft on a white-water rafting trip. It was at work. I was very young. I think that white-water rafting was quite new back then. The water was so cold that he went into shock. So they always said that he might have had a heart-attack before he drowned. Or I suppose it might have been during.’
‘That’s so sad,’ John said. The late evening sky was pretty, Tomas thought, like a painting of itself. And John was right, it was so sad.
‘His last words, apparently, were: “keep going, everyone”. They’d just got through some particularly close rocks.’
Paul leaned forward and asked a general question about rafting. Chris answered. Tomas offered a few suggestions.
And to their amazement just then she started to cry. Sunnie was closest to her. She just sat there dumbstruck. So Christie had to stand up and walk over and put a hand on Sarah’s shaking shoulders.
The end of the cycle. Another month passed. Everyone gathered at Tomas and Sarah’s. Summer was still going. Nice bees moved among the flowers in the garden, and an occasional wasp cruised past. They ate in the dining room with the French-window open onto the lawn so they could smell the lavender. Sarah had prepared everything because Tomas was late at the hospital. They’d even discussed cancelling.
‘Don’t give me any of your shit tonight,’ Tomas said to Sunnie, who sat across the table from him. ‘I’m a tired man. My fuse is short.’
Everyone laughed. Sunnie stuck her tongue out and there was food on it. They were eating burgers, hotdogs, hot buffalo wings, French fries. The boy was asleep in a cot upstairs.
‘You look really young,’ Paul said to Tomas.
‘Thanks,’ he said.
Paul said, ‘Like when an actor loses loads of weight for a part.’
Chris said, ‘You’re definitely getting an Oscar.’
‘The nurses fawn when they see him,’ Sarah said. ‘Honestly, they do.’ She appealed now to the others, to try to persuade them to say that they believed her. ‘They’re all over him. They put their hands on his head.’
A little while passed. John said, ‘I know that my father isn’t dead. But my mother is. Will she do?’
They discussed it and decided that she wouldn’t do.
Paul coughed and said, ‘My father’s last words weren’t as interesting as everyone else’s. He died of pancreatic cancer and the last thing that any of us know that he said is: “I’m scared”.’
‘Cheerful,’ Yan said.
Dessert was ice-cream.
After it Sarah started moving plates and ketchup bottles and pickle jars from the table to the kitchen.
‘Please,’ Sunnie said to Tomas, ‘can you show me your son? I’m desperate to see him again. I know we’re not meant to risk waking him.’
She said it as if Sarah had laid down strict rules.
‘Ok,’ Tomas said. Yan smiled as Sunnie rose from her seat.
As soon as they were in the boy’s room, away from the other adults, Sunnie put her hand on his back and then another on his chest.
‘Hey,’ he said. The boy was asleep.
She said. ‘I’m not proud of this.’
The boy woke up and looked at them and made a little noise. Now Sunnie’s hands were at Tomas’s belt. He said, ‘We have no time.’
Horribly playfully, Sunnie said, ‘Can he speak yet? Will he tell on us?’
Tomas had hold of her breast. He dug his fingertips into it.
Later, everyone left. He kissed Sarah. She’d just closed the French-windows.
She said, ‘It’s like being trapped in a car after a crash, waiting for it to go up in flames.’
He said, ‘For fuck’s sake.’
There was a moment, but the argument didn’t spark. He said, ‘I’ll clear up. I’ll be in bed soon.’
In the kitchen he sorted things slowly and as he did so, when he could, he looked out of the kitchen window at the back garden. There was a thick bank of ivy at the bottom where the plant had swallowed a wall. Before he died he wanted to know what the boy would say. What would remain. The dishwasher needed to be stacked. He felt very tired.
In frames hanging on the wall there were photographs of the boy, and of Tomas and Sarah. He washed his child’s plastic cups in hot water in the sink. He looked into the garden again and waited. To make sure he looked away and then back.
Sarah brought the boy down a little later, once the noise had stopped.
Tomas said, ‘I’m sorry.’
He was brushing up broken plates and glass. There were spots of blood on the tiles like dark coins. Sarah had the boy in her arms and the child made a truffling, snorting sound. As best he could he craned his weak neck to look at Tomas. Language felt a bit useless – too endless and not fully attached to anything. He’d cut his thumb on the jagged stem of an irretrievably destroyed champagne flute. He said, ‘I think I’m done with the supper club.’
Aiden is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at Keele University in the UK. He also teaches at Keele as a GTA in the University’s Writing School. He lives in Manchester and is writing a novel.