It’s a sombre affair when you have to clean out a loved one’s house. I wasn’t close to my father. He left my mother when I was young, and I never saw him after that. All that remained of him to me was the ghost of his former self. The man who read stories to me as I slept. I didn’t know the foul smell on his breath was alcohol. I didn’t know what he did to my mother, she kept it to herself. When he didn’t come back, I cried, and my mother consoled me. I told her it was her fault he had gone. All she did was apologise. I didn’t realise why she walked with a stick, and why she was blind in one eye.
As I sorted through his things with my brother, I kept finding reminders of my childhood, keepsakes he held onto long after he’d left us. My brother was only three when father left. He didn’t know why. So, when my father got back in touch, he visited. Kevin said I was cruel for not going too, he was dying. It was taking too long if you’d asked me, and I didn’t want to see his face again until it stared back at me blankly from his coffin.
Before my mother disappeared, I visited her daily. Alzheimer’s hits like a hammer. First it takes away the small things, certain words, you know something’s off, but not anything that would leave you concerned, as if a chisel chipped away at a sculpture. You look at it, it appears the same, though you know something isn’t right.
It then takes away recent memories. Like a bookcase, shaken vigorously, the books on the top come tumbling down, though the ones at the bottom, they don’t move much and stay in place. She’s just getting forgetful in her old age, is what I thought. The routine stays, and as long as that’s not interrupted, you may not even know something is wrong.
Then it takes away cognition.
“I saw your father the other day,” she said to me a few weeks ago.
“You did?” I said, trying hard not to tell her she didn’t. I’d done that before, but it only ended in upset from both of us.
“He was still as handsome as I remember,” she said, looking past me wistfully.
I held her hand, turned it over to reveal the large scar that ran down her arm. It wept blood, as if she’d been toying with it.
“Do you remember how you got this?” I asked, hoping she’d remember.
Her eyes met mine, there was a recognition there. Her lips quivered, as if she were fighting between smiling and frowning. She blinked.
“Do you remember when he read you stories at bed time?” she asked.
I let her hand go, if she did recall, she was pushing it to the back of her mind. Who was I to make her feel pain when a happy memory had surfaced?
“Yeah, I do,” I said, and I smiled.
“It wasn’t long before you were reading to him,” she chuckled, “I remember when he came to bed, he’d tell me how proud of you he was. You had a very active imagination.
“Do you know when he’s coming back?”
“I don’t, mum,” I said.
“I miss him so much. What was his name again?”
I thought about it for a moment, not wanting to utter his name, as if it gave substance to the man, “Edward.”
“Do you know where he is?”
“Yes, I do.”
“What’s it like there?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “I don’t see him.”
“Because of what he…” I stopped myself, it wasn’t important to be right anymore, “Kevin visits him.”
“That’s nice. Does he talk about me?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where’s Kevin, I haven’t seen him in a long time.”
“He’s busy, sorry, mum.”
Her posture deflated, as the happy memory turned into the memory of neglect of my brother, and the moment of lucidity disappeared.
“Who are you?”
She smiled, as if she had seen me for the first time that day.
“I saw your father the other day.”
No one saw her leave. How do you lose a fully-grown adult that walks with crutches? That’s all I could think about as I rifled through Dad’s stuff, throwing away anything that wasn’t of any monetary value.
“What the hell are you doing?” Kevin shouted at me, as he saw me chuck stuff into a black refuse bag.
It was symbolic for me, I was throwing away the trash, it was cathartic.
“Why do you care?” I replied, making a big deal about dropping a pint glass into the sack, hearing it smash.
“Give me that!” he shouted, ripping the bag from my hand, “if you aren’t going to be respectful, you should leave. I can do this.”
“Fine,” I said, leaving him in the living room to pick up the left over remains of a foul human being.
I walked into his bedroom. It was small. The whole building was. It was a council house, a prefab built after the war to house the elderly. I’d driven past it many times as a kid, my mother said they were going to build nice houses there one day, and maybe she would live there. They never did, and she never moved in. The care home was where she lived, a multi-tenant office block turned into dorms for the old and infirm.
His bed was made. I wonder if he did that after he woke for the last time. I’ve got to hand it to him, he never let his disease take him, he took matters into his own hands. Exactly how I’d expect someone who treated his wife like he did to act.
As I saw the book on his night stand, it was as if the strings holding me up were cut. My legs felt wobbly. I didn’t expect to see it again, and not out in the open, like it was something he cherished, as opposed to just kept.
“Weren’t you supposed to leave?” Kevin said from the doorway.
I turned back, holding the book in my hand.
“I can’t believe he kept it,” I said.
The front cover shined in the dim light, revealing fingernail marks from years of use. The Boy and the Moon and Other Bedtime Stories.
“Get out!” Kevin demanded.
I did, but not without the book. That was all I had of my father that reminded me of who he was to me. It was mine and mine alone, and mine to do what I wanted with.
I drove home in a flurry of emotions. I hated that man who called himself my father. I was glad he was dead. But I regretted not seeing him before he died. I wish I saw him and told him what I thought. I would tell him how much of a coward he was for treating my mother the way he did.
My wife was waiting for me when I arrived. I hugged her and held back tears.
“How did it go?” she asked.
“Not good,” I said, “I upset Kevin.”
I gave her the book and walked straight into the kitchen and poured myself a drink.
“It’s the book I used to read with dad.”
I almost spat out my drink.
“Yeah, that book is the only good memories I have of him, and they were a lie.”
“They weren’t though,” she said. She approached me and put her hand on my shoulder. “Those stories were something that you shared. That was him. Whatever happened outside that, it doesn’t change this.”
She gave me the book.
“Maybe you’re right, but I don’t want to see it right now.”
She took it away from me. I sat in the kitchen, waiting, wanting my phone to ring with news about my mother. She had been missing for a week, and they’d not even had a single sighting of her. I was glad my father was dead, at least he couldn’t hurt her anymore.
“Can you put Jason to bed?” my wife asked me, “Have you even moved?”
I looked back at her, and at the half empty bottle of whiskey that sat next to me.
“Sure,” I said, and stood up, feeling the room gently spin.
Jason was already tucked in when I arrived.
“Can you read me a bedtime story?” he asked.
In that moment, I felt my father in me. Sitting next to the bed, feeling the warm alcohol on my breath.
“Where did you get that?”
He was holding my book.
“Mum gave it to me. Can you read me a story from it?”
I mustered a smile that was almost a grimace. It was as if the spirit of my father had infested the house and forced his hand on me, much like he forced his hand on my mother.
“I’m not sure,” I said, trying not to sound irritated.
“How about I read one?” he said, turning the page.
I put my head in my hands to stifle a scream. Even after his death he was getting his way.
“Once upon a time,” Jason started, “there was an old man. The old man had two children – two lovely boys. He hadn’t seen them in years. The old man became sick, and knew he didn’t have much time left. He picked up the telephone to phone his children, but only one answered. His son came to visit, and he moaned about his older brother. He said how mean his brother was for not visiting the old man. The old man said it wasn’t fair.”
“What’s wrong daddy?” he asked.
I hadn’t realised it, but I was crying. My father had written to me in the book. I hadn’t thought to open it.
“I’m okay,” I said, wiping my eyes. I was glad Jason was reading it, I’m not so sure I would have done.
“This story is boring.”
“Carry on,” I said, “please.”
“The old man said there was a lot about him the brothers didn’t know, and he understood why the older brother didn’t visit. He told him to love his brother, as when he was gone, he was the only family he’d have left.
“The old man was getting weak, and decided to visit someone special to him. She was very ill and didn’t remember too well anymore. She lived in a big castle with lots of other men and women who couldn’t remember anymore. He pretended to be her brother, so they’d let him in.”
“Do I have to keep reading?”
“Yes,” I insisted.
I looked down to see my hands had gone cold and white.
“When the lady greeted him at the door, she looked scared. She asked him to leave. The old man used all his might to push himself into the room. The lady wanted to scream, but the old man put his hand over her mouth.
“I don’t want to read anymore.”
“Carry on!” I shouted, then calmed myself, “I’m sorry, son, please, just a little more.”
“The old man asked the lady to be quiet, and when she agreed, he removed his hand. The old man asked if she remembered him. She nodded in agreement. The old man asked why she didn’t tell the truth, to tell his children that he wasn’t a bad man. She laughed at him. She picked up a knife and ran it down her arm. The old man pleaded with her to stop. She screamed, and the old man left.”
Jason was crying.
“Please don’t make me read anymore.”
“What’s going on in here?” my wife asked as she ran into the room.
“Everything’s fine. Jason was reading me a story.”
“What type of stories are in that book of yours? If I knew it was going to be scary ones, I’d never have given it to him. Your dad was really horrible, wasn’t he?”
She grabbed the book off Jason and flicked through.
“Very funny,” she said, “is this your idea of a joke?”
“I don’t know what you mean?” I was confused.
She shoved the book into my hands, “take a look for yourself.”
I opened it up, and flicked through to the first page, then the next, then the next. The book was blank.
Jason continued to cry.
“I…” I said, not knowing what to say.
“Leave him to me,” my wife said, before waving the air away in front of her.
She didn’t like it when I drank.
I remembered reading from that book as a child, and I remember my father being excited about what came next, I assumed he was humouring me. When he left, so did the book.
When I was driving home, I wanted to burn it. To symbolise that he meant nothing to me. I can’t now, there’re answers in there; I need to know. All these years, I thought of him as an abusive husband, but maybe I was wrong. My mother is still missing. I wonder if I’ll find out what happened to her.
My wife doesn’t trust me to read to my son anymore. She’s hidden the book. She says it’s evil. I know where she’s put it, I’m pretending I don’t.
She’s going to visit her parents on the weekend, leaving me to look after Jason, she’s asked me to promise. I don’t like lying to her, but I need to know. I need my son to read me a bedtime story.