I’ve decided to sort medications by colour, because my mouth can’t make the shapes I need it to to pronounce their names. My father doesn’t mind, I don’t think, when I count them onto a plastic saucer: ‘One pink one, two blue ones; should these be off-white?’ There are some days when counting colours makes him laugh – or at least, he makes the face that used to prelude a laugh – but there are also some days when his eyes tip back as I’m speaking. On these days I imagine I can actually hear him thinking, speaking, over me – ‘She’s at it again.’ – but I don’t let him interrupt. When he has swallowed the pills of the hour, I ask:
‘How’s the pain on a scale of one to ten?’
He thinks hard about this as though I’m posing an intricate mathematical equation. But I know that what he’s really doing is comparing the pain to how it was the last time I asked him this question; the last time I gave him his medication; the last time I wrote his numerical response in the chart (the one that the nurses asked me to keep). When he has thought longer and harder than altogether necessary, he says:
‘I think it’s probably a six at the moment.’
I nod and bend at the waist to write the number eight in the paper chart that sits at the end of my father’s bed. Since we reached stage four he’s started to operate on his own numeric scale, as though he can trick himself/me/everyone into thinking that he isn’t dying, but I’ve cracked his code now.
‘What do you fancy to eat?’ I ask, standing up straight again.
‘Do I have to eat?’ he replies, already sounding annoyed by the answer I haven’t given – knowing that it will be the same answer as always. These are our exchanges now; back and forth along the same line of questioning, posing queries that are so much bigger, so much more important, than they actually sound on the surface. When I ask my father what he wants to eat, he hears: ‘Are you going to eat today?’ When my father asks whether he has to eat I hear: ‘Can’t you let me die already?’ Thank God that the translations are never voiced.
‘You know that you have to eat, Dad.’ I hate how much I sound like a disgruntled parent when I speak to him now, as though our roles have not only reversed but distorted too (my father had never been a disgruntled parent). ‘What about something from the chippy?’ I push. ‘Something greasy and unhealthy, something that your doctor would hate?’ I try and turn the disgruntled tones into something lively, something less desperate and tired but I know that my father hears: ‘I will do anything to get you to eat; please, just help me.’
He sighs, and winces. Expelling air isn’t as easy as it used to be.
‘Do you have to push all the time?’ His tone has changed into something that almost cuts me, and I blink hard three times to buy myself the seconds to process this. There are times – few and far between, thankfully – when my father can’t help but say what he means, and this is surely one of them. I have two options, I know: I can persist with trying to be funny, trying to be light-hearted, trying to be fine. Or, I, too, can be honest.
‘Yes,’ I say, choosing option two. ‘Yes, I do.’
He sighs again – minus the wincing – and says:
‘Can we have chips and curry sauce for dinner?’
‘Fish?’ I suggest.
He shakes his head.
He shakes his head.
‘Anything more than just chips?’
He shakes his head.
‘Then yes, we can have chips and curry sauce,’ I concede. I cannot always push.
Thirty minutes later – because these days it takes around twenty minutes to prepare myself to leave the house – I walk into the chip shop, head down, counting out the money that our dinner will come to. The woman behind the counter shouts at me – ‘First customer of the day!’ – which pulls my attention up. I don’t recognise her face, but I can’t remember seeing anything in the window about Mark needing new staff either. She smiles too wide for someone working in the local chippy in the middle of summer; it’s blistering in here and I don’t understand how her face isn’t running off over the fryers.
Before I decide how to answer Mark himself emerges from the room that exists somewhere behind the front space of the shop. He walks out, head up, wiping his hands on a damp cloth and when he sees me he nods and gives me a thin smile – a lips pressed together but with no real happiness sort of smile, which is an expression people wear around me a lot. He rests a hand on the new woman’s shoulder:
‘I’ll take this, Moira,’ he says, as though I’m likely to be a tricky customer. ‘Chips and curry sauce twice?’ he says – to me, not Moira – and I nod. Mark smiles then – a real smile – as he grabs a greaseproof piece of paper and opens up the chip compartment. ‘Creature of habit, your dad is,’ he says.
‘Something like that.’
‘Couldn’t persuade him to try something different?’
It’s all I can do to persuade him to eat, I think but don’t say because these sorts of details make people uncomfortable.
‘He knows what he likes,’ I say instead, but from the expression Mark is wearing now I’m wondering whether he heard the first thought after all. ‘Besides, he deserves a treat,’ I add, by way of softening the tension.
Mark prepares the rest of our evening meal in silence, portioning out two sizeable orders of chips and filling three polystyrene cups with curry sauce, even though I only ever pay for two. While he is putting everything into a carrier bag I count my change again – largely to make sure that I have no reason to wait around after the handover – and I promptly pass it over to Mark when he pushes the bag along the counter towards me. The exchange happens smoothly enough, and I turn to leave.
I knew this was too easy. When I turn back Mark is wearing a sad expression again and it makes me uncomfortable, so I nervously smile – too wide, given his own obvious sadness, but the grin is out there before I can reel it in, so I just hold it as best as I can instead.
‘You know you have people here for you, don’t you?’ he asks, doing a fine impersonation of someone who really cares. ‘Your dad, he’s a good man, and people round here, well – we care, Est, that’s all I’m trying to say.’
I loosen my smile and nod. ‘Thank you, Mark, that’s kind.’ He shrugs. ‘I’ll let dad know you were asking after him. Maybe you can pop round some time?’ I say, knowing that Mark – or anyone else – never will.
‘Yeah,’ he starts. ‘Yeah, I’ll do that some time. Tell him I’ll call.’ When he says this I hear: ‘I haven’t called so far so it seems unlikely I will.’ I turn and half-step out the door to the shop, thanking Mark for the extra serving of sauce as I go. He says something else then but I’m too far out of earshot for it to be comfortably audible, so I make educated guesses at what he’s said during the journey home; something about people being here for me, something about how much they all care.
There is a doctor’s appointment listed on the calendar underneath today’s date, but my father is refusing to attend. The nurses have been here for nearly forty minutes, trying to convince him to relax, to make it easier for them to move him from one bed to another. He says that he can walk but everyone in the room knows that he’s bluffing. Nurse One – she’s wearing a name tag but I can’t see it – is new, or rather new to us, and she doesn’t quite know what she’s doing; whereas Nurse Two – Sandra – stands with her hands on her hips and bored look on her face, which isn’t entirely dissimilar to the expression my father has pulled on too.
‘Do we have to go through this every time?’ Sandra asks.
‘I’m not going to make it easy for you, just because I’m a cripple,’ my father jibes and even though he’s trying to be playful, there is still something cutting about his tone.
‘Cripple, huh?’ Sandra starts. ‘So you can walk yourself, huh?’ Before my father can cut in with a reply Sandra tuts – loudly and dramatically, to be absolutely certain that it’s heard – and says: ‘Harrison, don’t you start with me today, okay? You’re one in a long line.’
‘And I thought what we had was special!’ my father snaps back and I am somewhere between embarrassed and delighted to see him being such a cheek for someone other than me. When they have run out of ways to antagonise each other my father finally admits defeat, loosens his body, and lets the two nurses slide him over to the transport bed for his trip to the hospital. I’m always wary of taking up space in an official vehicle so I drive myself, following them all the way. I start from track one of Queen’s Made in Heaven and I try not to cry while I’m driving.
By the time I have caught up with my father – who is already sitting in his consultant’s office, waiting – my face has paled, and you can hardly tell that I indulged myself in an outburst for half the journey here. In a wheelchair in the centre of the room, it looks as though my father is holding back tears himself. I sit in the sturdy seat next to him and reach over to grab his hand; it feels as though I might break it, if I squeeze too hard.
‘You alright over there?’ I ask; he hears: ‘Are you with me, dad?’
The first tear falls then – just one from the inside corner of his right eye and it dribbles down his face, diving off from his chin and landing, no doubt, somewhere on his shirt. It would have been wonderfully theatrical if the only situation weren’t so bloody tragic. My mouth drops open to say something but when my father squeezes my hand I stop, I hear: ‘Just give me a second, Est.’ He takes a deep inhale, as though gearing up for something, and then says:
‘This is so unfair.’
‘I know, dad, I know it’s unfair on you but—’
‘Oh, arses to me, Esther. I’m done for and we know it, but I’m not the one we’re talking about.’ He snatches his hand away in a gesture that feels spiteful, but I can’t stitch that together with his speech. ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you still looking after me?’
‘We’ve always looked after each other,’ I say without thinking and my father looks physically pained by the answer. ‘After mum—’ I pause, swallow hard. ‘After, you were all I had, and look at everything you did for me. You were there, always.’
‘Because I’m your dad.’
‘And I’m your daughter.’
‘Not my bloody carer,’ he says, spite leaking out again. ‘You need to get a life, Esther, before it’s too late.’ I can’t help but feel that he’s being dramatic, but that observation obviously won’t help. ‘When did you last go out with friends, or out on a date, eh? Christ, do you even have any friends left?’
‘Dad, you’re being—’
‘I’m being honest, Est,’ he says, his tone softening. I am desperate for someone to come in; desperate for this attack to be over with. ‘What will happen when I’ve gone, do you ever think about that? When I’m not here anymore and you’re not wiping my arse anymore, what happens then? Who do you have left?’
The consultant walks in with blushed cheeks and I wonder how much he’s heard.
‘Morning, campers,’ he says, and I hear: ‘I heard everything but it’s not my place to get involved.’ He closes the door behind him and immediately turns his attention to the now-open folder that he’s holding as he walks behind us and loops around to sit at his desk. He is quiet for an unnerving amount of time and I can feel the tension swelling between me and my father as we both wait; I look across to him but his eyes are stuck on the man in front of us. ‘Okay,’ Mr. Turner says. But he doesn’t expand on this for another twenty-something seconds. ‘Okay, there are some changes here.’
I hear: ‘Things are a little worse than the last time we saw you.’
‘I think the best thing we can do for the time being is to keep you in overnight to run one or two tests, and then we scan you first thing in the morning,’ he says, sound chirpy and awkward. ‘How does that sound to you both?’ He is still looking down at the papers in front of him when my father says:
‘It sounds bloody terrible.’
Mr. Turner looks up, smiles; he was expecting this.
‘Mr. Harrison, it’s just a precaution.’
It’s clumsy wording because we all know that it isn’t. The scan that found the first tumour was just a precaution; everything that’s happened since has been carefully considered and decided upon with very clear intentions.
‘Cut the shit—’
‘It’s fine, Esther,’ Mr. Turner cuts in. I’ve never understood why he addresses my father so formally but I get first-named at each appointment; it makes me feel like a child, as though I’m merely putting on grown-up clothes so I can come to all the fancy meetings – which I suppose isn’t entirely untrue. ‘I understand your frustration, Mr. Harrison, but doing another scan will put us all in a better position for moving forwards.’
‘How long?’ my father asks, curt but somehow dignified.
Mr. Turner exhales hard and the air causes a ripple across three sheets of paper. ‘It isn’t an exact science,’ he starts. ‘I can’t possibly give you an exact day, or week, or month.’ I take note of the fact that he hasn’t said year, which I think he did the last time the two of them had this conversation. ‘Scanning you will help us to determine the recent growth increase, and from there we can work out a rough timeline of what happens next, including where we go from here treatment-wise. The scan itself is nothing that you haven’t had done before.’
My father drops his head and closes his eyes. When I reach across to grab his hand he pulls it away in the same spiteful gesture from earlier. I lean back in my chair and wait for whatever thoughts are brewing in his head to spill out. Braced for accusations and sniping, it feels like a physical hurt when he lifts his head and instead asks again:
‘Mr. Turner, I just want to know how long.’
The consultant concedes, looks down at the many sheets spread out before him – second- and third-guessing himself – and without looking back up he says:
‘It really is impossible to say at this point, Mr. Harrison.’
And I hear: ‘It could happen any day now, we think.’
C. S. Barnes is a Worcester-based poet and author who spends most of her time drinking tea. She has recently gained her Doctorate degree in Creative Writing and now spends her days wondering what to do with it. Barnes’s debut short story collection, The Women You Were Warned About, was published in May 2017, and her debut poetry pamphlet, A Z-hearted Guide to Heartache, will be published by V. Press in July 2018.