You are missing again. I know as soon as my mobile hums on the desk.
“I left him in a deckchair on the drive, just for a bit.” Mum’s voice crackles out of the speaker. “I can’t keep him inside all the time, not when it’s hot. I told him to stay there, but he doesn’t listen. He was asking for his pearl penknife, swears he’s lost it and you’ll be cross at him.”
“I’ll look for him. Just stay there in case he comes back to the house.”
“When has he ever come back? He’s gone to see you. He always talks about going to see Carol. I don’t think he knows me half the time.”
I slap a post-it note on my boss’s computer. ‘Gone for an early lunch.’ The lunches are getting earlier and earlier.
I haul the handbag you said looked like a giant sweetie wrapper on to my shoulder. You could be anywhere. You could have gone walking beside the motorway and got run over by a lorry or fallen over and hurt yourself. My bones are weak. The thought of you lying there, alone. The purple backs of your hands where the hospital jammed the drip in last year. Your feet in those brown lace-up shoes.Always brown shoes with trousers and a jumper, no matter if the crows were putting their tongues out with the heat.
You won’t be anywhere though. You’ll have gone down the same road you always do. The one you think will bring you to my house.
I jog up McCook Street, puffing a bit in the heat. I have not come this way since Charlie and me bought the car. The shutters have come down on the post office and Anderson’s furniture shop where I bought the girls’ cots and their first grown-up beds. They’ve painted the boards in front of your old newsagent’s shop again.
My armpits are itchy with sweat. Mum suffers in the sun too but you just soak it up. That photo of you and her on Castlerock beach like a cartoon postcard: your ribs showing and her cotton belt squeezing her in the middle, overflowing at high tide. We went off to the rock pool and left her sitting in a deckchair. The chair’s feet sinking low into the sand; your handkerchief pinned to her curls and she so happy you had both got away from the shop. Not like us; our serious faces in the photos, intent on something behind the camera. You worrying the shop would get burgled. Me always so careful, pausing and looking for the driest rocks beside the pool. Your dark eyes, watching me, both of us certain I would slip on the brown seaweed, fall in and soak my summer dress and bang my teeth against a metal ring (why was it there?). Us moving to the low rocks, your hand gripping my upper arm, salt and clean air in my mouth. You peeling an apple with your penknife, the pearl handle throwing waves of light on to your hand. The blade cutting a clean strip of red apple peel that spiralled on to a lick of foam and out to sea.
I am free of the town centre now, and run past the pebble-dashed house you said a witch used to live in. I run again, down the turn-off that leads to the big houses with silver and orange fish flashing in their pools behind wooden fences. Lawnmowers burr and kick up sharp, cut grass.
“Is everything alright?” Charlie’s car pulls up alongside me, the girls in the back. He slows down and stops too close, never giving me enough room. Every night he spreads out, dropping papers and a briefcase and cast-off shoes on the living room floor, his arms stretched across the back of the sofa and always asking who’s that on the telly, what just happened?
“Your Mum texted me to say your Dad has gone again. I drove up and down the road but he’s not here. He must have taken a different way this time.”
“I know where he’s gone. I’ll get him. Just take the girls home. They have to go to swimming lessons at five, remember?”
“Jump in. We can pick him up.”
“No. He doesn’t recognise you. I have to bring him back on my own.” I smile down at the girls. “See you later pets. I need to find Granda.”
They look up. Catherine frowning at the interruption to her cartoon flickering from the back of the head rest – the one with the steam engine that has your name. Ellen watching the ticking vein in my neck and smiling with no front teeth, to make everything all right, to paint over the pits and brown spots. The book you bought me years ago is open on her lap. She turns the page so a red apple, which had sat on the head of William Tell’s son, is split into two clean halves by his father’s crossbow bolt.
At the end of the lane, the hedges are high and heavy with Bittersweet berries that look ready to pop in my mouth, but you told me are poison. The lane curves, and all is quiet, not even the sound from the cars on the main road pushes through. I look for you: stooped shoulders, white hair, furrows on the back of your neck – the only part of you that tans.
My phone rings.
“Did you find him yet?” Mum says.
“No. I’ll ring you back.”
“The spuds are on for him. Tell him when you find him. He doesn’t like them reheated in the oven. He says it makes them all dry.”
“Alright, I have to go.”
“You’re going to have to tell him. I can’t do it. The woman from the nursing home came today. It’s all set up. I didn’t tell you because you’d only try and make me change my mind. You don’t know what it’s like living with him. He’s getting worse every day.”
“I haven’t found him yet and anyway, I didn’t think we’d decided. We’ll talk about it later.”
“No. He’s going in on Tuesday. The home’s coming to get him. I want you to tell him now, before he gets back to the house. He’ll take it better from you.”
I take a left turn. This is the way you go. Past your father’s old farm that was miles from the town when you were young. I get a second wind and jog up the hill, towards the telegraph pole I used to always mistake for a tall man. Yellow fields full of oilseed rape flake away from the road. This is the way we walked on Sundays to get out from under Mum’s feet. You talked about milking the cows in the morning, the steam rising off metal buckets, then coming back from school to find your father lying dead in the yard. He was an old man then, had married late. Afterwards, your mother could not carry on, not on her own with a young son to look after, so the farm was sold and you had to move into a bungalow, your first sight of an inside toilet. Your mother lived there until she died. You said she clung on, that I came from a line of long livers. We all live too long.
I look for you and there you are at the bottom of the hill. Walking and digging in your trouser pockets for a caramel so the change wrapped in your red handkerchief falls out and bounces, flashing and turning on the tarmac.
“Dad,” I shout. You look up, eyebrows drawn down. You don’t like loud noises. They remind you too much of the hospital and the man raving in the opposite bed. I run down to meet you. Sweat pricks my back and under my top lip. I am more liquid than solid.
“There you are love, I was looking for you,” you say.
“You’ve gone a good bit from home.”
“Sure if you lived closer I wouldn’t be as fit.”
“Come on home Dad. Mum said to tell you she has the spuds on. They’ll dry up if you don’t hurry.”
“I hate that. Why does she always put them into the oven? I’d rather eat them cold that all hard.”
“At least she hasn’t put curry powder on them.”
You laugh and the wrinkles at the corners of your eyes meet the ones at your mouth.
“Do you remember when she did that to the stew? I thought my tongue was going to fall off.”
“You embarrassed me that day. You kept laughing and I had to nod and chew and say it was lovely.”
I slip my hand into yours. It seems smaller, or else mine has grown. I can almost see the top of your head now. If I had kept my work shoes on I could rest my chin on your crown.
“A woman came to see Rita today. Big nose, frizzy hair. Who was she?”
“I don’t know. We’ll ask Mum. We’d better walk home now in case she’s getting worried.”
“I wasn’t allowed into the front room to see the woman. Rita said I had to keep an eye on the marmalade oranges in case they boiled over. Do you remember us eating marmalade sandwiches at the beach that time? You made us sit on the rocks to stop sand from getting into them.”
“And you took the skin off the apples with your pen-knife. You’re the only person I’ve ever seen peel anapple like that. You did it so fast I thought I’d seen a magic trick.”
“Did I have a knife?”
“It’s in Mum’s jewellery box. I told you I put it there so you wouldn’t lose it.”
“I’ve never used a knife in my life. Da wouldn’t have one in the house.”
“Do you not remember the one with the pearl handle? I’ll show it to you when we get home.”
You stop and drop my hand.
“I never had a knife.”
“You’re making a liar of yourself, saying I had a knife. Da wouldn’t have knives in the house.”
“Look, just come with me. Mum is waiting for you.”
“No. I’m going to walk on. Carol will be wondering where I am.”
My bones ache, become porous and dissolve. A wave will soon rise up and throw us both into the pool. Only the brown seaweed will know where we have gone.
“What was that?”
“Dad. I’m Carol.”
“I know. What are you telling me for?”
We walk to the end of the lane towards the big houses. You are shaking. I think of your knife skidding on a shined apple, not denting the red skin but slicing into your hand.
“Let me rest for a bit,” you say and sit on the wall beside Donnelly’s drive.
“Is my head right?”
“Sometimes I don’t think it is. I keep getting my days mixed up. Rita said to just look at the top of the paper but then I never remember which one is today’s. You’d tell me wouldn’t you? I wouldn’t want to go on if my head wasn’t right.”
“Dad,” I say. “You don’t need to worry.”
“I know who that woman was. She’s going to put me into a home. Rita wants me in a home.”
“Mum wouldn’t do that.” The lie slips out, the taste of metal in my mouth.
“I don’t want to leave my own house. You won’t let her will you?”
I look up at my own eyes in your face.
“All I want is to die in my own bed,” you say.
You sag against the fence. Your eyes are half closed. The bruises on the backs of your hands have spread, your blood close to breaking through the skin.
“Sorry Dad. Take my arm.”
Walking home, past the wooden fences, the silver and orange fishes merge and diffuse into pearly waves. You pull a shiny caramel wrapper from your pocket. “Present,” you say and press it into my palm. Your hand digs tight into my upper arm, to stop yourself from falling.
I will not tell you yet.