My Old Man
At 5am it's pitch black and Uncle Tom, my dad and I – a wide-eyed twelve year old – skirt the perimeter of the airfield under cover of lingering night.
Tom's ssshh warnings, finger to his lips, heighten the sense of danger. He wraps his coat around the barbed wire fence to stop a bisection and we crawl through, my father's boot holding down the bottom wire to widen the gap. The red warning flag hangs limply in the dark, the 'No Trespass, Bombing Range, Live Munitions' sign unreadable and ignored. Then single file we go, weaving out across the lupin plains and cratered dunes, forbidden military lands, waiting for dawn and the hunt to begin.
At daybreak the first quail blast out of the lupin on panicked wings and Uncle Tom wheels like a pirouetting matador, a scythe of shot from his twelve gauge scattering among the birds. Twenty metres away and slightly forward, my father takes the edge of the shot in his head – a tiger's paw raked across his scalp, perfect parallel striations, forehead peppered and ballooning out, a pink leaking party balloon, tumbling him backwards into the sand.
Piratical in makeshift bandages, wrapped in Tom's bloodied strips of shirt, he stumbles back the way we came, trailing red splashes a blind hound could follow, headache big enough to curse the moon. Uncle Tom and I listening in retreat for sounds of the approaching jets.
Gunshot and bullet wounds interested the police, so did poaching out on the bombing range, so discreet Dr. Singh is called and quietly does the needful, probing and plucking grey metal from their lodgement up against the skull, chuckling and bobbing his head with pleasure as each piece of mashed shot falls – ting... ting – into the enamel pot. "We'll leave some there for keepsake, too deep in." says Dr Singh and later my sister would count the healed grey lumps in his head, seven in all, while my old man relived the story over. "Careful not to push too hard," he'd warn, "or I may go all unpredictable with the pain of it!" My sister would push a little harder, carefully, watchful for some change. And suddenly he would roar and gnash his teeth and grab her arm to his mouth, his dentures clacking away in a fury of near misses while she shrieked and flailed her arms and writhed in his lap.
My fathers hands were scarred – old cancerous lesions, cheese-grater welts, turkey-wattle scars from the war, a white latticework of wounds from that time the home brew in his garage exploded. "God not the brew!" he cried when we heard the boom down in the basement, and he rushed downstairs, more wounded than the shotgun blast, fearing the worst. There we found him, fumbling about and opening up his hands on the glass, living yeast like an alien invasion over everything and us kids licking the frothy beer off the furniture in delight.
At the end he couldn't remember his wife Anne, married fifty years, but the war years were rolling back in his mind and on his midnight stumblings to the bathroom he was weaving down a galleyway on the Oranje, a rough night at sea, the ship with it's groaning wounded soldiers climbing up the sides of huge Atlantic rollers and shuddering down the other side into green troughs, bow embedded in the icy seas and struggling to shake itself free, propellers clear of the water and whining, he waking the house with his nautical cries or back in the sheets sobbing for his lost comrades.
"God, Noel, you might have been killed!" my mother cried that time the home brew exploded. Yes, indeed. But he might have preferred it like that, shot through with flying glass from the ruptured vat, a firing squad of yeasty shards tumbling him down into a brown swamp of the failed brew, or out there on the bombing range at dawn with his Winchester and his son, taking his chances, exulting in the tang of cordite and fast quail wings and the euphoria of endless open spaces warm inside him, a bottle of the brew in his carry-all, before a blast of buckshot, two inches lower would do it, brought him down.
Better surely than this, forsaken in a state bed, larynx opened up to go the distance, dying slowly of everything – heart, cancer, liver, regret – his seven grey gunshot pellets shining through the pallor, gnarled hands flapping the covers, watching another evening fall, listening for the sounds of a car that might bring his son, waiting tired for the end.
Here's the last snap ever taken of my father. Our fingers are intertwined, a communion much deeper than flesh. He smelt of his forbidden pipe tobacco and fresh hospital soap – and something else. Does remorse have a fragrance? He is looking at my face as though to indelibly remember what might already be lost, for the darkness both of night and mortality pressed heavily. You could feel the oppression of his sadness, picked up through the osmosis of love and clinging like the scent of the hospital soap.
Later driving north and home you pull over onto the curb, face screwed up in your sorrow, a contortionist's weeping mask and stare out at nothing. Then on into the balm of distance, through urban heartlands with their backyards of trash and shame; past billboards of Carribean holidays where pinup girls loll and smile on flawless beaches, past scrap metal yards and junked cars bleeding rust into the lifeless earth, a graveyard with it's wistful rows of faded plastic flowers. Then a bridge over a swollen, braided river and out into countryside and stubbled fields where mallards swoop for grain. And now an oil-slicked marshland where long lines of cormorants stand, black silhouettes against the bright sheen of water. Their wings were outstretched in perfect unison, an avian ballet, craving the consolation of the sun.