“It’ll help pass the time,” I told Dad, one afternoon when I’d gone to visit him after his first couple of days in the nursing home.
He’d suffered a pretty bad stroke – left him paralysed down one side. Physiotherapy hadn’t helped – wouldn’t help; obstinate to a fault, as he was. Seemed hard to envisage, sitting there in his wheelchair, that this was the man to whom I’d yelled, ‘Push me, Daddy...higher!’ on the swings in Chestnut’s Park. The man who’d painstakingly taught me to ride a bike...took me cycling all over London and beyond; Epping Forest, Alexander Palace, Richmond Park...fashioned me dolls’ houses from cardboard cartons, and miniature furniture from matchboxes.
“What’ll help to pass the time, love?” he asked.
“Watching the fish,” I answered. “Do you remember when you used to take me fishing on Clapton Common? That funny little net I had. We used to ride there on our bicycles. Wouldn’t dream of using one in London these days; way too much traffic. Heaven forbid!”
“They let me feed them, yesterday...the fish. Greedy little devils! Mind you, that there fish-food smells evil. Glad I’m not a fish.”
“Is the food up to par in here then, Dad? That meat-pie you had for lunch smelt good, and there wasn’t much left on your plate when I arrived, so I guess it must be OK. Well...is it?”
“It’s alright, I suppose. Not like your mother’s cooking, naturally. Wish she was here now...give anything, I would.”
“I know, Dad. It must be lonely for you. Have you made friends with anyone yet? How about that man sitting by the window? He looks a bit like Uncle Jake. Don’t you think so?”
“Old what’s ’is name, do you mean? Blimey, no! More often than not, he’s away with the fairies, They keep him drugged up to the eyeballs, so it’s not surprising. They’re always offering them to me – those happy pills, but I tell them what they can do with them. Poor old sod. He can’t. That’s the trouble; this godforsaken place is full of them...old people, I mean.”
“But, Dad – you’re not exactly a spring chicken, now are you? Be realistic. So, just what do you do all day? You’ve got the newspapers there, I see, and is that your jigsaw puzzle on the table? How about me helping you to finish it? There’s not much left to do...just that elephant’s trunk, and the monkey’s tail."
“Kid’s stuff, and any rate, can’t see too good, now, love. That bloody stroke of mine saw to that. Can’t do damn-all, when it comes right down to it. Ready for the knackers yard, that’s me.”
“Dad, don’t talk like that!”
“That one’s an angel fish. Pretty isn’t it? That black one over there’s a guppy, and those tiny, brightly coloured ones are neons. Hope they let me feed them later on. It’s about as exciting as it gets in here...apart from when old Mrs Chivers has one of her choking fits, and one of the staff shows off their expertise performing the Heimlich technique, or Stan, over there...the one with his trousers at half-mast, does one of his Hitler impersonations with the loo-brush.”
“There you are, you see...you do enjoy watching them...the fish, that is. Nice bowl. One of those self-cleaning jobs. Must have set them back a bit and I understood these places were always pleading poverty.”
“I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be a fish...nothing else to do except watch us, watching them; dreaming, perhaps, a few, of how it used to be, when they had their freedom; were at liberty to go where they wanted, when they wanted."
“Shouldn’t think they’re the least bothered, Dad. They only have a memory span of five seconds!”
“I know what you mean, love. Not a clue what they’ve just had for lunch, some of ‘em. Meat pie, did you say it was? And so, they have no choice but to get on with it...life – such as it is. Swimming around in ever decreasing circles...waiting for somebody to pull the plug.”