Stubborn Chewing Gum

January 25, 2009
She tells him the sun is beautiful. It’s making her garden all patchy in gold. She murmurs this, making sure that she’s louder than his snuffled breathing and stroking his hair, fingering the grey strands.

“The birds, in silhouette, are diving up and down. What a beautiful photograph that would be. There is one cloud in the corner of the sky, a small white puff just bobbing there. There are so many shades of green, all of them luminous. Next door has a circle of dead grass in the middle of the lawn. The paddling pool must have been out. Toys are strewn round the dead grass. A robin had just landed on the window sill…so close. I can see its black, beady eyes.”

“Take it, the photo,” he says.

“I can see it though,” she says.

“I know, just, well, it’s nice to know that there’s a recorded version of it. That the sky is safe.”

“Don’t worry, the sky is safe.”

“Please, Marianne.” The use of her first name hits her hard. She lifts his head up off her lap, supporting the back of his neck and stands up. Slowly she lays it back down.

Her walking feels deliberate when she gets her camera. She feels like a model, as if under scrutiny of the old, blind man. It’s in a red box under her bed. She looks at the carpet on her stairs when she walks down again. It is rugged and stained. It’s the colour no one wants: the colour you get when you mix all the paints together, a muddy green-brown. Strings of it are climbing up the walls like ivy, a centimetre at a time.

Opening the door is hard: inch by inch she reveals him, still lying, sprawled, in the same position. All his hospital documents are on the table behind his head; she’s too far away to read them.

She crouches down gently. “The sun is on your face.” His face is in half shadow. The lines, the creases, are highlighted. They are so obvious.

He understands: “I can’t see it.”

The window is behind the sofa so she balances her knees on the edge and leans over him, terrified of collapsing. She doesn’t know if he has noticed her. With a sudden knock, his walking stick, leaning against the arm of the couch, conveniently placed by his right hand, falls. He doesn’t move. She puts her elbows on the back of the settee; it’s hard and digs in to her bone. Her arms are wobbling; the photo will be blurred. Her back garden is plain: a green rectangle with a tree in each of the far corners; a fence, nails and splinters, and a barbeque porch, grey and old, that doesn’t contain a barbeque.

The camera clicks, a pause of black processing and then the picture comes up on the digital screen. The garden looks the same. The grey clouds; the few daisies and the grey shed all look the same.

She wriggles her fingers under his neck; his skin is hot. As she lifts it up, she slips her self between his head and the sofa and lays his skull down again. Before she strokes his hair again, she catches her breath silently, then resumes. Grey like a wise owl. The hairs are separated, distant, few. They are as coarse as rope. The nits of childhood have gone -- not much hair to hide in. Not much juicy blood left. The clump of hair that Marianne herself had cut out when he was in his twenties, had gone. Or maybe it hadn’t; it’s too hard to tell. Before dinner one day he had stuck gum behind ear. It got stuck in his long locks. He was chewing when she had taken that clump out with kitchen scissors.

“The photo is more beautiful than the reality,” she says.

“The photo is just a distorted version of the reality.”

“That sounds very clever,” she sits down gently on the edge of the blue sofa. His foot goes down, non-fighting, with her weight.

His foot in words: soft skin like a baby’s and wrinkled like a duvet cover - she longs to touch it; cut nails level with the skin of his foot; small black hairs, around four on each toe , curled and pathetic. His foot in words was very different to his foot in reality.

“It’s not; it’s just a clever way of saying it. You know me: I sound cleverer than I am.”

“That’s not true,” she tells him. That’s not true.

His foot in words sounds crisp and clean. It’s not. Years of walking doesn’t leave something crisp and clean. You can’t describe things very well in words.

She strokes his forehead, and repeats that it’s not true, reassuring them both that it’s not true.

He smiles.

It looks painful for him to smile. The cracks on his lips stretch, like an open wound, surrendered to the air. Dry and curled in, like a fish: no teeth.

His breathing is deep and flawed. It comes upon challenges: a snuffle, a rasp, a cough. Each breath moves his whole body.

His eyes, as always, are closed. Shrivelled eyelids protect his shrivelled eyes.

“It’s all in here,” he says and tries to tap his head with his index finger.

“Hey, I know it is.”

“Just a distorted version of the reality.”

“Very distorted -- knowing you.”

He chuckles. “At least it’s sunny today.”

He will pass away half an hour later; at the age of sixty-nine. At his funeral all the black suits will visit and leave coloured bouquets on the grey gravestone. Marianne will look out at the white winter sky and tell herself that she will visit his grave every week and lay a flower by it, like all the other bouquets. She won’t. The flowers -the reds, the yellows and the pinks - that had been given by people in black will all be taken away by grey, grave graveyard workers because they will have died. The colour in them will have drained away.

Some days it will be sunny. The birds will be diving up and down, and the ripples in the landscape, too small to be hills, will be patchy in gold. Other days, however, will be grey and grave. The clouds will suck out all the colour and the grey, grave gravestones will fade into the grey, grave sky. But all days, every day, he will see neither grey nor gold. The old man will see nothing.

For the first few months Marianne will visit his gravestone, kneel by it, maybe take a camera and make sure the sky it safe. She will then, like a story, a magical story, put the sky into words. However, after a couple of months, she will meet a man to move in with, and not forget, no, never forget, but move on from her father. He will just disappear, after all he was like a piece of chewing gum, stubbornly hanging onto a piece of hair. He needed to be cut out.

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