Dad peers out into the dusk through the locked window. Malignant grey clouds loiter over the hospital. The room smells of school dinners and medicine. He fiddles with the complex cords that work the blinds and turns to Mum who lies motionless on the high bed, plastic tubes penetrating her arm and nose. A beige machine reckons silently on the wall.
Father Peter rises from a chair by the bed and beckons Dad to the door. Dad steels himself in the way he’d learnt as a child in the war. Sometimes you have uncomfortable moments; he’d already had a difficult conversation with the Doctor today. The priest firmly squeezes Dad’s shoulder and bends over him as if sheltering him from the weather.
‘She has made her peace with God,’ he says in a soft Irish voice. Dad nods once, he was
brought up not to waste time on unnecessary expression.
Lively female voices approach, Dad’s droopy face wakes up as two thirty-something women exchange polite words with the departing priest. A whistling porter pushes a grim-faced old man past in a wheelchair. The sisters stand on either side of Dad as if they’re expecting to hold him up. Angie half hugs him, Theresa half kisses him. They’re both taller than their Dad.
‘Did you come together?’ he asks.
‘No, we bumped into each other in the car park,’ Angie says.
‘Not literally!’ Theresa quips with a sniff. Her centre-parted hair is perfectly straight.
‘How’s Mummy?’ she asks. Dad makes his mouth a bit wider without smiling and lowers his head. The sisters’ blue eyes meet as they enter the room. Angie is wearing thick glasses with red plastic frames.
Mum stirs as her daughters approach, Angie gets there first and gives a gentle hug.
‘We saw Father,’ chirps Theresa. One side of Mum’s mouth moves slightly.
‘I’m glad I’ve got that out of the way,’ she says, feebly.
‘Sorry we’re so late,’ Angie says, ‘that car park is ridiculous.’
Theresa joins in. ‘You wouldn’t believe it. They’ve introduced a one-way system so you have to go all round the hospital before you can get where you want to.’
Dad has positioned himself in the chair next to his window.
‘I’ve been telling them for years, they’ve got it all wrong. If they’d listened to what I said in the first place…’
Mum’s eyebrows interrupt him. They said, ‘Not now, Love.’ A mournful siren floats past outside.
The door opens again and a third child strides in. John is wearing a grey pin-striped suit and a red and blue striped silk tie. Mum smiles. Dad lifts his head.
‘We were just talking about that ridiculous car park,’ explains Theresa while her older siblings squeeze each other. The sisters’ position in the chairs next to the bed prevent John from getting close to Mum, so he speaks from the end where the Doctor usually stands.
‘You’d have thought they’d let you use a credit card in the car park. I had to walk all the way to the shop and back to get change,’ he said.
‘I brought you these, Mum,’ he announces and offers an apologetic bunch of pink carnations. The sisters play pass the parcel with the flowers. Mum inhales their fragrance as if they are the last bunch of flowers in the world. Theresa fusses around looking for water and instructs her sister to plump up Mum’s pillows.
‘Are you still busy at work?’ Angie asks John as she tucks Mum in.
‘You know how it is,’ he replied, ‘one meeting after another.’
‘Did you get that Board thingy sorted?’ Angie doesn’t know the terminology but her brother does something important.
‘Yes. I think the new structure will work really well. We’ve brought in a bit of new blood.’
Theresa fusses with the flowers. ‘You’re running out of juice,’ she says, frowning at the last purple drops in the Ribena bottle.
‘It doesn’t matter now,’ protests Mum weakly but the wheels have already been set in motion.
‘I’ll go,’ said John whose standing position looks temporary anyway.
‘I’ll come with you, I could do with stretching my legs,’ says Dad, and the two exit. They both start to speak at the same time, son deferring to father whose rubber soles squeak with each step.
‘I was just going to say about this Rooney nonsense, it’s getting out of hand.’
‘It’s all these agents making money out of the game.’
‘Aye, in my day…’ And so they continue.
When they arrive at the shop John spots some painted wooden cars. He looks down at
Dad’s white head and thinks of the car park Dad had built for him in the shed at night when he was five. Who’ll look after the old man now, he wonders?
‘I’ll get these,’ he asserts and pays for orange squash and a Times, drawing attention to his twenty pound note by apologising for having nothing smaller.
As they turn they catch each other’s eyes. They quickly start a new conversation. The newspaper headline is about NHS reform and both men have lectures prepared on the subject. They pass a huddle of nurses gossiping around a station. Smiley yellow faces and coloured graphs are displayed along the corridor. Father and son are still debating when they re-enter the ward. Theresa frowns as if to say, ‘You’re not talking about politics at a time like this, are you?’
‘Is Danny back on his feet again?’ Angie asks her brother.
‘Soon, the plaster comes off on Friday. He’s more bothered about getting back on his bike.’
‘Remember that time when you fell off the shed roof and we all had to go with you to the hospital? asks Theresa.
‘That was when Mummy was pregnant with Joy,’ Dad says.
‘That’s right and we all had to pile into the back of the old Rover,’ says John.
‘And I had to sit over the hole in the back.’ says Angie.
‘And are your rug rats behaving themselves?’ John asks Angie.
‘Yes, they’re fine. I never get a moment’s peace. Jane’s still doing her dancing and Billy’s starting to show an interest in football. You’ll have to take him to the match one of these days.’
‘Have you still got the executive box?’ Theresa asks.
‘Yes, I don’t go as often myself these days; I let some of the other guys use it.’ Then he looks at Dad. ‘You’ll have to come sometime.’
Dad murmurs something about not having the time these days and looks at the pink floor.
There is a moment of silence.
Theresa mixes some orange squash and forces Mum to take a sip through a straw.
‘We’ll have to start planning Christmas soon,’ says Angie. No-one adds anything. A tea trolley clatters past the door. Angie’s head moves sharply.
Mum tries to lift her head.
‘Make sure you don’t forget… the sprouts,’ the words barely have the strength to find their way out.
‘I know. It was a disaster last year when Dad had to do it by himself.’ Angie adds. It goes quiet again. A door slams in the corridor and footsteps hurry past the door.
‘Is Joy coming tonight?’ Angie asks.
‘You know what she’s like; always late.’ Theresa says, adding a critical sniff.
‘She’s probably driving round the one way system, trying to park.’ said John.
‘How far on is she now?’ asked Theresa.
‘32 weeks,’ says Angie. ‘She said it was due near John’s birthday, January anyway.’ The conversation stalls again. No-one looks at Mum, adding to the tension.
A frayed nurse bustles into the room and barges past the sisters. She lifts Mum’s limp arm and counts against her watch.
‘You really mustn’t overdo it, Mrs Potter,’ she yells as if the old and ill must always be deaf.
The door bursts open again and a heavily pregnant young woman clatters into the room laden with a noisy bunch of flowers and two large bags. A waft of strong perfume follows in the wake of her big hair.
‘Can you believe that car park? It’s miles away, took me ages to park, I can’t reverse properly with Bump, and they expect you to have £3.50 in coins! Anyway, I brought these.’ Joy quickly squeezes her sisters and shoves her loud orange and yellow bouquet in front of the carnations.
‘Last ones in the petrol station, were they?’ She grins at her brother. ‘How are you?’ she asks Mum as she pushes past the nurse and bends down for a hug. Mum nods and tries to smile. Ordinarily the youngest child would have said, ‘Well you look awful,’ but for once even she knows to hold her tongue.
The nurse shouts, ‘Not too long now!’
She hurries out, widening her mouth and eyes slightly as she passes the Doctorly suit at the end of the bed. John can’t stop a stupid grin from crawling across his face and turns his head before Theresa can see him. He focuses on a notice above the bed about personal possessions; clipart images of a wallet, a mobile phone, a laptop and a pair of false teeth. A thief might sneak onto the ward and steel someone’s false teeth. If they do The Trust is NOT liable (NOT in red.)
Joy chats loudly with her sisters about her pregnancy while fighting her way out of her coat and long scarf and moving round to Dad’s side of the bed.
‘God, it’s boiling in here! And are you alright?’ She asks brightly.
‘I’m alright,’ he mutters without any conviction.
She snatches the unopened newspaper.
‘Is this today’s? I think there’s something in about our Bernadette.’ Dad sits more upright.
John explains while Joy dismantles the paper.
‘Yes, there’s something on the interweb. She’s been banging on about global warming again.’ His tone is dismissive and Angie’s eyes looked upwards. Dad suddenly has lots to say about how it was about time someone talked a bit of sense into that crowd. John watches the eye conversation between his two nearest siblings. Angie is expecting the worst; Theresa is working out the practicalities.
Joy thrusts the relevant cutting in Dad’s face: “Bernadette Potter Challenges Minister on
‘It’s a shame she had to be in London. Otherwise we could have all been here,’ says Angie sadly.
‘Always letting the side down!’ jokes Joy. Theresa frowns. Joy asks her, ‘And what have you been doing? I haven’t seen you for ages.’
Theresa replies, ‘Oh, you know, working hard, studying at night.’
Dad perks up, ‘Have you got the results of that last assignment? The one about project management…did I tell you about when I…’ A terrifying alarm bell interrupts them.
‘Is that the time already?’ Joy complains, ‘I’ve only just got here.’
The sisters all stand and wrestle with their coats and bags as though the credits are rolling in a cinema.
Angie kisses her Mum softly and squeezes her right hand. Her eyes are filling up.
Theresa leans over, whispers, ‘God bless,’ and sniffs. Joy gives a hug that’s just a bit too strong.
‘I wish we’d had a bit longer,’ she says innocently. Her sisters look at each other. John leans down to give his mother an awkward kiss on the forehead.
Mum’s eyes close slowly like velvet theatre curtains.
The four siblings hurriedly say their goodbyes to Dad and funnel out through the door.
Their voices fade into the distance.
A toilet flushes in a nearby room.
Then there is silence.
Dad wraps his fingers round Mum’s left hand; it is limp and cold. The fourth finger still carries the gold ring he’d put there half a century ago; now it seems a couple of sizes too small. He pats the back of her hand twice and returns to his spot by the window.
His children are waving their goodbyes and dispersing in the car park below.