Two doctors would have said “he is near death,” so that I could visit – but they didn’t care. There was a piece of paper, all ripped and falling down, with numbers and names scribbled in biro on its edges on the wall in the hall. That was how we had to live our life. It was the tablets of stone to us in the hostel. And “No breaking of curfew under ANY circumstance” was what it said near the bottom.
So that was that. Or no, actually it wasn’t. There was no way I was going to leave my dad to that place, to just let him sink between the cracks in that dingy gaff behind St. Pancras. I’d always been scared of that hospital as a kid, when I played football in the green next to it I was always looking over my shoulder at it when we were shooting towards the coroner’s court – I preferred to have it where I could see it – the yellow light leaking out of one or two of those huge windows, the rest of them staring black and blankly at me. Shadows and figures, clank of the fire escape, a patient having a cheeky roll up out the window, strange metallic machines and signs pointing towards unpronounceable wards, where unspeakable things happen. And he was there, in its very belly.
Well no way, father. He was always working for me – the first time I remember seeing him come in from work he was smiling, put down his heavy cloth bag as I ran towards him, and I could smell the deep, warm, sawdusty smell, feel the scratch of his stubble. He put me back down and said we could ride the bike in a bit, but he was going to have a bath first. A woodyard in Bethnal Green, each day from so early in the morning to when I got in from school. But sometimes it wasn’t school I got in from. He was there, working for me and mum, and I was down the canal, on the rec, out at the marshes, sometimes at the studio my friend had in Dalston, or over the tower block at Haggerston – Sarah lived there, God almighty. So close to heaven, that flat. The sixteenth floor. With her, there.
But this isn’t about me – I’ve had 36 years so far to think about me. Who am I? A fucking prick who saw my friend get bottled, the Holts bottle cracking over his left eye, the blood appearing suddenly, his face going white and his eyes confused – he looked to me. I took my right fist, I say that as at that point I saw it was clenched, it felt like a fucking rock on a scaffold pole and I took this thing and took two long strides towards this man, this boy, and stuck my eyes onto his, latched onto his mind so he knew what was going to happen, and who was going to do it, and in that half second all the thoughts came to help me do this. My mate, Andy, his tooth chipped in school. Him crying after being shouted at by a teacher. Him there, looking a right fool on mufti day – in perfect school uniform, shorts and all. And me, chased by Trevor for kicking his ball over the fence, accused of saying something that… I fucking didn’t.
The hand – the face – the hand – the face – the hand – redness – the hand – sounds – the hand – space… the hand – the face – the hand – the pavement. End.
I deserve every single fucking day in here, and more. If they want to let me out, I will be thankful. If the law says I can go, I want to take that up. It doesn’t mean that I have been forgiven; it doesn’t mean that the debt is repaid. Not a day has gone by without me deeply regretting my behaviour, without wishing I could tell his family how sorry I am. I can only begin to imagine what I have put his family through, and it goes without saying if I could turn back the clock, I would. It was the actions of a young man, a terrible, tragic mistake by a stupid, stupid young man, who understands now how his behaviour has affected others. I know the damage I have caused and all I can say is how sorry I am. I know I deserve to serve a life sentence.
But my father didn’t deserve that. There was a fly in the room when I got there. I said, “Alright dad?” and he looked over and smiled. That really kills me, that. How can he still smile at me? I’ll never be a man like that, but I can try. I can try and do something better, something other than rot in that room, letting people do everything for me. The fly filled the silence. It got stuck between the two grimy window panels and had started to go mental, rattling itself around in there, couldn’t see the way out was the way it had just come in. The park outside was lit by those dingy orange lights – I looked out, but there were no kids playing there. I imagined myself looking out, what that would have looked like to the young me. Scary old bloke peering from the shadows. Hammering the windows and falling to the floor.
I waited there for four days. The walls have that old flock textured wallpaper, with this horrible pale green slapped over it, all peeling edges showing the flaking plasterwork beneath. I saw a woodlouse amble across the floor and into the wall, could hear the pipes pinging and groaning, some of them warm, but where they were taking that warmth, I never found out. The brown lino on the creaking steps down to my father’s room, almost tripped me up every time – I’d be in there with him. Posters warning me about Yellow Fever, Lung Cancer and MRSA. All torn away and falling to the floor, all ignored, all telling their message to the filthy hand-stained wall opposite. Occasionally, someone would glide by me as I waited for the coffee machine to chug out its fearful brew (like water drank from an ashtray) and they would be pushing a trolley, or moving a set of boxes on a sack barrow, further down the sloping corridors into the heart of the place. They went by as if on rails, they never saw me, never spoke.
My dad continued to lie there. He seemed peaceful. At least he must have been compared to me. Those bloody pipes and their noises, the doors slamming in some distant part of this place, blocking some corridor like a blood clot – they made me think that they had come for me. But they didn’t. No one came to see me. No one came to see my dad. I was glad I was there. On the fourth day the metal curved chimney that I could see from our window coughed into life, letting a breath of white smoke out, then I could see the shimmer of heat haze from it. I managed to unjam the window and force it upwards. That icy freshness of an autumn day entered the room, and it felt like we were about to put on our boots and head out for a walk on the marshes. He left that day, died at 11:32, my hand tracing along the veins that stood out from his papery skin.
Someone came in and wrote it down, and left.
The pain of being inside is excruciating at times but it is nothing compared to the agony I’d be feeling if I hadn’t answered his call. I know I have done right, it feels right.
I can feel these things – ever since that night in 1976. That was the last time I did something as a reaction. Now, I have time to think. I think – shall I make him a cup of tea? Shall I go to the class? Shall I steal that pillow? Shall I tell him what I really think? I work out all the threads that tangle around these questions, some more of a mess than others, and get them straight in my head. I lie on my bed looking at the cracks in the ceiling and imagine them as the links in my internal decision-making diagram. If I do this, then this, then that… Life used to clatter away like a runaway train, but now it is slowly disappearing over the crest of the hill, a trace of steam left behind, the faint chug-a-chug sound that rocks its passengers to sleep, quietening.
So I have to do what is right. I went to the Grand Union pub around from the hospital after that, it was already busy, some of the city boys, some tourists, no faces I recognised. Even in the dark corners. I went to the payphone on the bar, called the police, handed myself in. I had three pints and a whisky, to my dad. They were in no hurry to see me again.
At the court later on, they wanted me to say sorry and promise not to breach my licence again. But how can I apologise for doing what seemed to be right? How can any of them, these ones sitting on the bench who have done what others said was right for them their whole life, who would never admit making a mistake, who have never lived my life, how can they take away from me the one action in my life that was good?
I answered his call, the man who did all for me, I was by his side, and I miss him. I can see two cracks in the ceiling now – they are intertwined, they move across the whole ceiling together, then out the window, out there.