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Gone to the dogs

by KnoxOverstreet 

Posted: 06 August 2005
Word Count: 1385

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I get palpitations. I mean I hope they are palpitations. I once got worried enough about them to read a leaflet, and they have all the symptoms of being palpitations. They always start with that sinking stomach feeling you get at the start of a roller coaster ride. You know, that gravity shifting feeling that all roller coasters have to begin with. After a long climb up they have to start with a big drop to get the cart moving fast enough to complete the ride. It’s a feeling that’s both pleasurable and rather upsetting at the same time. Anyway, I’m getting that feeling now.

I’m sitting on the side of the bed, with one leg folded up under me, the other touching the floor. My wife is crying into my neck and I can feel her tears starting to soak through my t-shirt. She is crying because my father is dead. Actually she’s crying for lots of reasons. She’s mostly crying for all the things she had neither the time nor the presence of mind to cry for over the last few years of our marriage. So really she’s crying because my father’s death gave her the chance to cry for them.

My dead father is lying in the spare room. He has been dead nearly an hour and we haven’t phoned the doctor yet. Not that there’s any urgency now; it’s all procedure from here. Forms and phone calls and hymns and careful conversations.

My mind is already fast-forwarding beyond this predictability and I am looking abstractedly out of the window. My wife can’t see this, and my body is engaged enough that it doesn’t matter, but I am not crying. I’m still seeing my father’s death with some detachment. I will cry, but only in a couple of weeks when I am on my own and I am watching some cheap soap opera on TV about a father and a son having some kind of relationship experience. Then I’ll cry until I become too self-conscious to continue. But I will cry; I will miss my Dad. This isn’t one of those stories about misunderstandings and all-too-late forgiveness. I loved my Dad as much as the English are allowed to love anyone.

He died of death. What I mean by that is he got steadily more and more ill with flu and colds until they kind of became one illness. Doctors came and went and antibiotics were administered, and he moved in to our spare room. He stopped getting up a few weeks ago, and his breathing got more and more laboured and liquid until he died. I’m summarising, but that’s pretty much how it happened. He didn’t have cancer, or anything with an identifiable name, he was eighty-two and he just didn’t live anymore. I sat with him as he died. I listened to his gurgling breaths become more spaced apart and watched as his skin dried. In our spare room, with the wallpaper we never got around to changing, his soft folds of skin dried and relaxed. There is a rose by our front door that has petals that dry like that as each bloom dies.

Right at the end he made an attempt to cough, almost as if his brain had suddenly realised, too late, that it was about to be starved of oxygen. His eyes opened and fixed on the ceiling and he shuddered with his half-cough and died. I watched, alone and in silence, wondering where he was going. I think I half expected to see something creamy-white and ephemeral leave his body and drift upwards. Because nothing like that occurred and because his eyes stayed open, I can’t be sure at exactly which moment he did die, but I know I was there when he did. I looked down and saw I was holding his hand.

Sometime during the last twenty minutes of his life I had reached out and grabbed his hand. His fingers had, without me noticing, curled around my palm and held my hand back. As I looked at our hands holding, a vivid memory, never previously recalled, came into my mind. If could keep anything to remind me of my father, it would be ready access to the moment I saw our hands together.

When I was about seven, and my parents had been divorced about four months, my Father took me to a dog track. He was always trying to find ways to make our weekly trips out exciting or unusual in some way and would often turn up at the door and say we were going to the dockyard to see the ships, or to his friends house who restored classic cars. I don’t believe his heart was really in any of these outings; he wore a look of a man defeated, beaten by life, during most of that time. But I think he reasoned that I liked animals, and this was something we could do together on a weekday evening that would give me more to talk about with my friends at school than a trip to the zoo.

The evening started well. I enjoyed the bustle and hubbub and the dogs being paraded by their owners. I had a can of coke and my Dad a beer sitting at a melamine counter overlooking the course. There were lots of avuncular men in thick sheepskin coats, winking at me and talking cheerily with my father. They smelled of wood shavings and oil, a smell that reminded me of my granddad’s old wooden toolbox. Then we went right down to the trackside, and I was tucked in amongst all these coats and the smells of toolboxes and cigarettes, and the first race started. As soon as the dogs left the traps the men began screaming. All the thick, smothering coats around me screaming and shouting and jostling and smelling like wet dogs and oil. I lost my footing as they surged forward, I screamed too, and tried to push back away through the crowd. My father called my name but I wasn’t stopping. I pushed on through the thick legs, desperate for the safety of an open space, away from the coats and the big men shouting and cursing. Some of them stood aside, got out of my way, but many ignored, or could not see my tears and shoved me as I tried to pass, as eager to get to the front as I was to get away.

Back near the stairway to the stands I waited until my Dad appeared from the crowd. I can't remember exactly what he said but I know we went straight to the car.

On the way back he was silent, and he drove too fast. About ten minutes before we got to the house he told me a story. It probably took no more than two minutes to say, but the words were buried and preserved in my brain, untouched until the moment of his death.

He said that when I had been born he would sit by my cot and put a finger into my hand and I would grip him tightly and that he knew what life meant just from that grasp. That even when I would cry and fuss he could put his fingers into my hand and I would stop and concentrate on holding him. That he knew I was his son and that his reason for being on the earth was clear. That he felt so complete in that moment that he feared he would have to die, with nothing else left to do.

We got home and he had a row with my mother in the front garden after she asked why we were returning so early. I remembered the timbre of his voice in that argument and the frailty of the words between them. We stuck to parks and zoos after that.

Whatever he thought had passed between us in those early days of my life, I think passed between us again as he died. I did not want to remove my hand from his, knowing that it meant the rest of my fatherless life would begin from that moment. I must have sat for half an hour before I heard my wife weeping behind me.

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Comments by other Members

Dee at 10:42 on 06 August 2005  Report this post
Knox! Welcome back! Where have you been? What a lovely surprise to see some of your work uploaded.

I liked this. Itís a warm and gentle portrait of a father-son relationship. I was once told that flashbacks donít work in short stories, but I think this one does. Thatís exactly what happens when someone dies.

and because he eyes stayed open ~ his eyes

Great story. And itís good to see you back. Stick around this time.


KnoxOverstreet at 13:21 on 06 August 2005  Report this post
Thanks Dee. I saw this as the start of something longer but still don't have a clear view as to where it's going (I have ideas but none of them really takes me right now). It's still a first draft so some stiff editing is required.

I've not been on the site for ages. Just too busy with work and all the things that mean I get no time to write any more. I'll try and make more of an effort..

Anj at 20:04 on 07 August 2005  Report this post

This engaged me completely. I wasn't sure about the opening para, it seemed to drift - I appreciate, having read the rest, that it is the kind of drifting that goes on at moments such as this, but it still made, for me, a vague start.

I wasn't sure, from "the last few years of our marriage", whether or not the MC and his wife were separated?

I really liked your MC, that he admitted to feelings that he wasn't supposed to be having, that he wasn't crying, that he would over some cheap soap. When the flashback began, I expected some tale of gentle-pleasures-remembered, but the unexpected turn to the flashback was so much more powerful.

I found the image of his Dad holding out his fingers for the MC-as-baby to clutch really moving, come to that I found the whole piece really moving.

Yes, it could do with some editing, but to be honest I was too busy reading to note where and when. Sorry not to be more help ;)


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