Birthday phone call
‘Hello stranger’ dad says, his chuckle dry and good-natured, the laugh of an overgrown kid.
I’m sitting on a bench along the Southbank with my back to the Thames. The piercing cold London weather nips at the gaps in my jacket. Gaggles of tourists with cameras the size of the Hadron Collider stand around me in clumps and point at city landmarks in the distance. Their photos will form iconic evidence of their visit to the City, and make lovely postcards for the natives.
My phone clings to my right ear, a high-spec listening device, tuned solely onto dad’s voice. I only have a very limited amount of time to talk to him.
‘How are you dad?’ I ask and mentally kick myself for wasting precious seconds on such a stupid question.
‘I’m OK. You know, tired.’ He doesn’t laugh this time.
His face appears like an epiphany in my mind, looming. At 68, his wrinkles look like they’ve been Photoshopped. I’m haunted by the vision. He’s pale for a black man. Ashen. Sick looking. Not well. Thin.
‘Have you had a chance to think about what we talked about?’ I chance.
The pause is heavily pregnant.
He sighs. ‘No.’
Which means yes, he has. But he won’t elaborate, even now.
The chilly breeze takes its own breath, grows still and pensive. I zip my jacket up all the way to my chin and try to light a cigarette one-handed without him hearing the click of the lighter.
‘Really?’ I try again.
‘Florence.’ That’s his way of saying: enough is enough.
‘Why are you sitting outside in the cold?’ he asks.
I close my eyes. He always had the ability to know exactly what I was doing, listening out to find out whether or not I was indoors. If I was safe or in any potential danger. If I was feeling up or down, or in between things. If I was lying or faking. Hesitant or cocky. Unsure. Certain. Sad. Angry.
I take a tentative drag of my cigarette.
‘I needed some air,’ I say.
‘You work too hard,’ he says. I picture him nodding – sage, random words.
He scoffs and then a brief silent interlude. I take the miniscule chance to try to listen out to what might be going on around him. For a sign that things are actually better where he is. Wherever he is. Because the way things were left, it has to be better – for him – and one day, soon, for me too.
I can’t put it off any longer.
‘Happy Birthday, dad,’ I offer.
He chuckles again. ‘Thank you.’
‘I wanted to send you...’ I stop. Pointless. I embarrass myself.
Somewhere, further down along the Embankment, the sounds of a jazz band floats and rises with the breeze. The saxophone is intrusively peppy, until it becomes nuanced and then essential to the music surrounding it. The tourists hovering around me respond, grow quiet and reflective, lower their cameras. Couples take each others hands. Parents throw an arm around a child. Eventually, everyone starts to take more photographs and selfies.
Dad was always camera shy.
‘Florence. I want to help you get a place of your own. I just...can’t.’
My mind starts to race with all of the things he wants to say to me right this moment, other than this discussion about me leaving home, one of the last things we talked about.
How I was OK with being alone because I didn’t see it that way, more like my chance to indulge my independent streak.
How it took him to get seriously ill before I learned precisely how proud he was of me through third parties – even though I thought I’d sensed it through the smiles he wore when I talked about being promoted at work.
How I didn’t trust his partner to be 100 per cent honest with me, even though she purported to love him. Even though she said I could trust her. Which is usually a precursor to not trusting anyone.
How he should have told me how bad things were. But didn’t. So only he is to blame.
My heart settles itself onto the top of my stomach.
‘Don’t cry, Flo.’ An uncharacteristic shortening of my name. A very necessary, heartfelt set of words that catch me out and make me feel a million times worse.
My time’s almost up.
‘Dad’. I don’t say anything else.
‘Don’t work too hard,’ he chimes. ‘They don’t pay you enough to care so much.’
Whispers of the jazz carry Take Five by Dave Brubeck my way.
Dad hears it too. He sighs contentedly.
‘I won’t,’ I manage.
‘Good.’ The line crackles.
‘I’ve got to go. I’m sorry,’ he says.
‘I am too, dad.’
‘Until next year,’ he says.
I can picture him smiling through the pain, the chemo, and the inevitability.
He hangs up first.
I put my mobile away and make a promise to try to visit his memorial plaque tomorrow, on his birthday.