The vending machine was broken and had stolen my money. I tried pushing against it subtly and then not so subtly and still I was money-less and chocolate-less, and, worst of all, when I complained to my sister I was told to be quiet and have some respect.
‘I’m going for a walk then.’
‘Be back soon, Mum will worry.’
It was cold outside and in my effort to show my annoyance, I had forgotten my jacket. It was getting dark and I had no idea of the time or how long we’d been there. I walked around the car park reading the registration plates and making up little phrases with their last three letters. DBR – Dwarf Brain Reaction, PFX – Prince Finds Xylophone, FDB – Fox Dies Bleeding.
And then there was our car, parked all crooked and unlocked. In the panic, Mum must have left it like that. I sat inside it and felt the leather and I could see my breath in front of me. Pulling the seat forward so my feet could reach the pedals, I looked in the glove compartment for money or cigarettes, or something I could get into trouble for taking. But there were only insurance forms and my parents’ driver’s licenses. In the photo, my dad looked like somebody who would work in a chemist – his eyes were all red and his hair hadn’t been combed. I could tell Mum had prepared for her photo. Her lips were bright pink and her hair was combed so it curved neatly around her face.
I left the car because it was even colder in there than it was outside, and I walked around the back of the building where there were windows. Mostly the curtains had been closed, but in one room I could see an old lady with tubes coming out of her hands, and there was a teenager asleep on the chair next to her bed. It made me feel sad and a bit sick so I kept on walking around in the cold. My hands were all pale and, under one of the outside lights, green. I couldn’t feel my ears burning.
Going back inside through a different entrance, I wasn’t sure where I was. As soon as someone looked at me I intended to ask for directions, but everyone was too busy holding flowers and texting and looking serious. So I got in a lift and pressed all the buttons, planning to have a look at each floor until one was familiar. When I got to the third, a woman as old as my grandmother got on, followed by a doctor who looked nearly as young as my sister. She had one of those things to listen to people’s hearts around her neck.
‘Which floor are you going to, young man?’ the old woman said, frowning at me.
‘Eight,’ I told her, lying.
‘Then why are all the buttons pressed? You know that wastes time. The lift is not a toy for you to play in, it’s not just…’ The doctor put her hand on the old woman’s arm, leaning in to whisper something to her.
‘You came in this morning, right?’ Her voice was soft when she turned to speak to me. ‘With your mum and sister? I think your dad is on the sixth floor, not the eighth.’
We had already passed the sixth floor so I got off on the eighth as planned and left without saying anything to them. I took the stairs down to the sixth floor, my shoes squeaking on every step. As I walked along the corridor, I could see my sister waiting for me, pointing her finger and tut-tutting.
‘This is so typical of you. Where were you?’ She stood with her arms crossed. ‘Say something!’
I thought of telling her about the time Dad and I were driving down by the old church, and I saw a fox ahead on the side of the road. I was going to say something to Dad about that fox but he was giving out about how selfish I was and how I was always interrupting, and then there was the sound of a thud like a bag of sugar falling onto carpet, and the fox was under the car and there was the sound of Dad braking and the smell of burnt rubber, and we both got out of the car even though Dad told me to stay put.
The fox was twitching and there was blood around his face and I noticed how small and dark his pupils were, and how they looked like they were circled by honey. It’s Tails from Sonic, I thought, peering at the fox and listening to his wheeze. I never knew a fox would wheeze but I could hear him, clear as clear. ‘Get in the car,’ Dad said, but the fox’s black beady eyes looked at me and Dad’s voice seemed far away. I stepped closer, wanting to stroke its tail – so thick and full that it didn’t look real. Just the blood looked real. I could still smell the burnt rubber, but thought it was the smell of Tails. I thought it was weird that a dying fox should smell of a racetrack. ‘We can’t just leave,’ Dad said. ‘It’s not fair on the poor creature.’ And then, ‘Get back in the car for God’s sake.’
Dad knew I wouldn’t leave. It was dark and the road was empty and the branches of the trees that surrounded the Pitch and Putt Club were beating against each other as if applauding. Dad went down a dirt path looking at the ground. I took another step towards the fox. His paws were curled up and his claws arched in to meet each other. He had long dark whiskers and, under his chin, some wiry dark hairs like a little beard.
‘Get back in the car!’ Dad was holding a jagged rock and his face was flushed. I was already crouched beside the fox and I reached down to touch the fur of his tail. It wasn’t as soft as I thought it would be, in fact it was wiry like the hair of old people, and I could feel the bone under his fur. The fox just looked at me with his eyes that seemed made of honey and then Dad pulled me back and moved forward. I tried to walk away but my feet were planted to the ground and my eyes were wide open as my dad shut his tight, and hammered down the rock.
‘The doctors said we can go and see him now. Mum is already in there, would you like to see him?’
Dad was lying flat in the bed, and Mum was busy stroking his hand and pushing his hair back. The air in the room was dry and tasted of antiseptic. Nobody talked, we just listened to Dad wheezing, long and heavy. Between each breath I counted the seconds, one Mississippi, two Mississippi, wheeze. And his eyes were a little open, the corners all shot red. ‘It’s not fair,’ I whispered, but everybody heard and they came to hug me, saying things I couldn’t take in. I wanted to tell them it wasn’t fair on the poor creature, but I just sat in one of the chairs and watched.
In the waiting area, I fell asleep. When I woke my uncle and cousins were there. My aunty was holding flowers and the white of the lilies stood out in the room like they were fake, or alien.
‘They’re only good for boils and burns!’ I said, my voice louder than I expected.
‘What’s that dear?’
‘The lilies, they’re only good for boils and burns. Well, the roots and leaves are. Dad’s not burnt.’
‘Oh, I brought them to brighten up the room.’
‘Dad thought it was cruel to rip flowers from the earth, especially that kind.’
‘Jason,’ my mum said, her voice tired. ‘That’s enough.’
I don’t care what anyone says, I told myself, I was right. Dad had told me. He had been in the garden and I’d brought him a cup of tea that Mum had made him. He was bending over on his knees, scratching at the earth with his fingers.
‘You have to,’ he said, ‘get the hole nice and deep. Otherwise they’ll never grow.’ He huffed as he dug again. ‘I know it’s all boring to you but one day you’ll appreciate how beautiful lilies are.’ Huffing some more, he continued to work and talk. ‘You know the great Monet painted them. They found huge canvases filled with lilies in his studio when he died. I was your age when my dad told me that, and I was thinking at the time what a bore he was, and now, here I am, planting the same flowers and probably saying the same things he did. It’s a strange old thing, is life.’
‘How’s the tea?’ I asked.
‘Perfect,’ he said, taking a sip.
I remember sitting then and watching him sift again through the dirt with his fingers as if playing the piano. He was looking for stones and when he had a handful he threw them over the wall and onto the farmer’s track. Then he trimmed the roots of each lily, the little shoots of green shaking from the clippers as if receiving a shock.
‘They have a medicinal use, you know?’ he continued. ‘The roots and the leaves are great for burns and boils, all skin conditions really.’
‘Is that so?’ I enquired, nodding and staring.
‘It is! So don’t go wasting your time with lilies for girlfriends, unless it’s for the acne.’
Then he was laughing with his eyes shut tight and his face up to the sky. It was the laugh only he laughed, the laugh he kept for one of his own jokes that my sister and I called laugh-less. Then he went back to preparing the spot for the planting, whistling and tapping his foot against the ground. I imagined the rhythm sinking into the earth as I sat watching and thinking that all things going into the ground should grow.
I saw my aunty drop the lilies. They seemed to make gasps and screeches; one even stole my sister’s crying. Another had the voice of the doctor from the elevator. I bent down and picked them up, stroking their leaves and putting them against my face. The larger ones shook as if they were sobbing.
That is my memory of my father’s death. I remember the lilies, remember hoping no-one would stand on them. I even thought about re-planting them to see if they would grow like all things should in the ground. But later, my sister told me, I hadn’t held the lilies at all. She said I’d been the first to Dad’s side after the doctors had done all they could. She said I climbed up onto the bed and lay across him as if I had wanted to become him, wanted to sink into his body and leave with him. And I’m not sure, one way or the other, except for the lift and the fox and the lilies. That’s what I remember.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!