Excerpt: The Ghost Garden
This should never have happened, he should never have died. I can’t help but set the cogs in motion for the most prominent question when grieving for a loved one.
Chapter 12: “What If?”
I’m still pondering the “What If” question a week later. I’ve returned to the shop, against everyone’s advice, yet somehow, my soul has left it for the time being. Dave has moved in the maisonette, on the understanding that I can use the loo and kitchen whilst I work. It’s been a few days only yet already there are piles of dog do from his untrained Jack Russell whenever I enter. A mountain of crusty dinners plates, dog hair and cigarette ash covering every surface, and the furniture I’ve left behind chewed beyond recognition. I’ve cleaned when the shops been empty, which for this time of year is commonplace, yet, he never takes a hint.
I know with an absolute certainty that if Dad were alive Dave would not dare take advantage as he is, yet he’s not. Dad’s brothers are back down south, my own, despite promises to visit every weekend has already cancelled the next four, there’s just mum and I.
Mum. Such a fragile state. Alternating between complete hyperactivity and laziness. Relying a little too heavily on alcohol to see her from day to day, making a few too many prayers to goodness knows whom, for them to take her too.
Now and again, a little flash of mum comes back, and it’s comforting to know she’s still there, for now, I cook, I feed and I clean hoping this will cure all else.
With a little too much time on my hands, and no one to fill the gaps, I ponder.
“What if the ambulance hadn’t been twenty minutes late?”
“What if I’d listened better when Dad told me he felt tired in an afternoon?”
“What if I’d marched Dad back to the doctors when they diagnosed him with indigestion?”
“What if I’d stayed over for the antique fair, maybe I would have noticed whilst mum was heating up dinner in the kitchen?”
“What if I’d insisted on a full medical, if I’d listened more at the book fair?”
As the day wears on I’m convinced dad’s number wasn’t up. I’m driving myself insane with all the questions, doggedly tormenting myself with situation after situation. A part of my emotional state, my brain if you will, wants to process events logically. This new puzzle needs a solution, and whilst asking the questions, however painful, my conscious mind is telling me that if I get the correct answer, the puzzle will be solved, and everything will be ok.
Except it won’t. It never can be. Dad can’t come back to life no matter how much time I invest in this mystery, I haven’t looked that far ahead though, so for now the questions continue, right until bedtime.
The days are drifting into a blur, I turn the light off in the bedroom. Mickey is snoring soundly on the right hand side of the double bed. The curtains are wide open, and the light from the traffic’s headlights outside gives an intermittent glow. I’ve the window open slightly at the top, so the traffic can be heard. Lately I like to feel that people keep on living, keep on going as normal. My back is rested against the large oak headboard; I’m hunched in my duvet, my left arm free to hold a cigarette. I never used to smoke in bed; however, the bedroom seems the only place I can relax since leaving my home. The chill in the air is biting my nose, I like it. I’m staring at the curtains moving slowly in the breeze, my mind almost blank. Staring at fixed objects has become commonplace in the last two weeks. A single thought, event, or situation sending me reeling backwards into the past. My mind receiving hugs from memories long gone. A safe place.
Tonight though, it’s not so safe, I’ve not gained any satisfaction from them and I’m no closer to solving the riddle. My frustration manifests itself in tears when I hear a voice.
“Stop It”. It’s Dad.
I know no one will hear me above the traffic and the TV downstairs, so I don’t feel foolish when I ask.
“Stop what? The smoking?”
I see a haze, a haze that I’ve not seen for years. A particularly hot summer, the waves rose from the tarmac of our road. This haze is taller, in the shape of my dad, yet I don’t see him.“No, the thinking.” “I can’t stop thinking Dad, it’s all I have left of you.” “No, it isn’t. Close your eyes. I want to show you something.” “Where?” “The garden, we always meet in the garden. Close your eyes, picture it. You’ll see it.”
So I do. It’s smaller than I first imagined. I begin my journey to it by walking down worn polished wide limestone steps. There are stone banisters on either side, trees pruned to follow the flow as I descend. When I reach the bottom I am stood on a lush green lawn, there is topiary everywhere. Hedges in cones, candy twists, triangles, squares, balls, no animals though. I can hear water and assume it’s from a babbling brook just out of sight. My dad is stood waiting.
His hair is all grey. I find this odd. He also has a new haircut. Odder still. “Tell me who cut your hair dad and I’ll get them for you”.
Dad smiles as if I’m being too silly, he’d have laughed heartily at even the slightest joke when he was alive. It seems he has something serious on his mind.
“We’re not here for that Tinsey. It’s the questions; you need to stop punishing yourself. I can help.”
“The what if? Of course if I’d gone back to the doctors, I may have been saved, but I didn’t. Just like any person who is knocked down by a bus, or in the wrong place at the wrong time, ending in their death. Regardless of circumstance, our number was up.”
“So everyone in 9/11 their number was up?”
“I can’t answer that, but I’d say so, yeah. They„re good people. It„s not those you should be sad for, it„s the ones they left behind.”
“I can understand that.”
“I knew I was going to die Tinsy, I did. I was 90% certain. Ten percent of me thought I was being a hypochondriac, but I knew my time had come. I was never meant to grow old.”
“No, I can’t imagine you old.”
“I’d have hated living but being dependant on others too, you know that.”
“I do. But mum. Poor mum.”
“I know. You’ll help her, I can’t get through I don’t know why. Maybe it would be too much. Tell her, about the garden.”
“So right now, I want to show you something, I want us to do something. It may seem strange but it will answer a lot of your questions, and hopefully remove the bitterness.”
“I trust you Dad, I always have.” “Always?”
I know Dad’s referring to the one and only adult argument we had where I disbelieved a point he made, it was not long before he died. I regret it every day.
“I was in a bad mood; I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.” “I know me neither.”
I’m walking alongside Dad, until we reach a structure resembling a mausoleum, except there’s nothing morbid about it, only beautiful.
It only has half a roof, the clematis and honeysuckle creeping up the walls makes it seem as if this is how it is meant to be.
We enter, there’s one solitary stone pew, the rest is empty. Spotlessly clean. “Sit down,” dad motions with his hand, I take a seat, it’s comfortable, Dad sits to my left.
“Right this may seem odd, but we can bend time and space here. Objects are what we want them to be, do you understand?” He asks slowly, as if talking too fast would make my brain explode with the information.
“Kind of, but if everything’s the way you want it to be, why the hell did you choose that hair?” Dad smiles as if I’ve not quite got it.
“I didn’t, you did. Believe me, when I look in a mirror, I’m twenty five years old again, some part of you, wanted to see me old, and older than I was when I died.”
I realise I have been thinking a lot about how Dad would look if he were left to age. The answer satisfies me for the time being, so I shrug.
“So now,” says Dad, “we’re going back to the time when I died. Yet this time you’ll be present. Not your mum. Just me and you. I’m going to take it to the two hours before, so you can be prepared. You know what’s going to happen. Twenty past four, ok?” “What if I manage to save you?”
“We’ll discuss that if it happens, now can you see the clock?” Dad points to a high point above the entrance, a basic white plastic kitchen clock with large black numbers appears.
“I see the clock, its ticking.” “Nothing else it knows how to do but tick along, time. Now, what else do you need?”
“A telephone.” I’m getting into the swing of this now. My heart’s beating a little faster, as if I’m on a live version of the Krypton factor, the thought of actually winning, overwhelming.
The telephone appears. This is also white, plastic, and basic. I’d have thought I would have imagined a black Bakelite 1950’s phone, but no.
I move over to the phone, and immediately dial 999. Dad is sitting comically, watching the clock, his back straight, hands folded in his lap.
It rings once and then someone answers.
I quickly give mums address, and then they ask what the problem is.
“My father, he has chest pains, I need someone here.”
“Can he breathe?” the voice crackles on the other end.
“Can he walk and talk?”
“Can you put him on the phone?”
“I think you should drive to A&E. there’s a wait but this doesn’t seem too urgent.”
“But he will die of a heart attack in ninety minutes?”
“You can’t possibly know that, take him to your nearest hospital. I’ll phone ahead tell them you’re coming.”
The line goes dead.
“Aspirin,” I mutter. Aspirin appears. Yes, you guessed it, plain white bottle. Clean and shiny though. Minimalist look here.
I give Dad four to be on the safe side. As well as his heart attack, Dad developed a blood clot. This should thin his blood. I’ve read about it.
“I’ll ring them back in half an hour, ask them to come.” I say to no one in particular. Then a thought dawns on me? “Am I allowed to take you to Scarborough Hospital?”
“Of course,” answers Dad, “just imagine it.”
I’d driven Dad to the hospital against his wishes only two months before. Whilst moving house, he tore the ligaments in his left arm as he lifted a juke box from his van. His arm was a bloody mess, only on the inside. It was plain to see.
I remember telling Dad that he needed to have it checked out, or he could die. “Don’t be so silly,” he’d said. “I’m serious Dad, a blood clot could form. Blood clots are serious. “ I scared him enough for him to hop in the car and let me take him to the minor injuries unit. I need not have bothered. The Asian doctor told him to go away and rest it.
We both left feeling a little foolish. It contributed to his death.
So here we are again, the hospital, the waiting room. There are others walking around, when we are called through to a cubicle.
Dad is told to remove his shirt, and lay on a stretcher, with a pulse monitor on his index finger. He obliges without a word. The nurse disappears and leaves us alone. The same white clock is on the wall just outside the drawn curtain, we’ve twenty minutes left.
Neither of us wants to start an in depth conversation as Dad’s due to die any minute, we don’t want to be mid sentence. So we stick to the light stuff.
“She’ll have gone to get those sticky things Dad.” “Yep.”
The nurse does come back; she places a band around his arm that begins to inflate, as it does, she rustles behind the curtain before wheeling in a new machine.
When the band deflates, the first machine beeps and flashes. Without a single change of her facial expression, the nurse continues with her job.
“These might feel a little cold, but if you can just relax and breathe normally, we can monitor your heart rate.”
Once Dad’s all stickered up, she leaves for barely a second before she returns with a doctor.
“Well, Mr James,” he begins, “seems you’ve had some activity in the heart region of late. Have you noticed any shortness of breath, chest pains, and numbness in one or both arms?”
“Yes,” Dad nods. “Only last week, I was saying to Tinsey, I was stuck at a car boot, I had all of that, I had to get out, I couldn’t breathe. I thought it was claustrophobia and a panic attack.”
“Most definitely a heart attack.” Says the doctor. I wait for my Dad’s answer, but there is none, when I look over he’s gasping for breath. “Oxygen quick!” orders the doctor. “Take him to resus, NOW!” I’m pushed out of the way by the stretcher, at least three more nurses, and one doctor arrive to follow dad’s stretcher. It’s made clear I am not allowed to follow.
A strange feeling for someone watching their loved one die, but at this minute, I feel quite serene. I have complete trust in the doctors, and know he could not be in better hands. He has to survive.
If only, if only the ambulance crew had arrived earlier. Mum tortured herself with this daily now. It’s a full half an hour before anyone talks to me again. It’s the doctor. The first one. “Would you like me to call anybody?” His first words.
“Why?” I ask.
“I’m very sorry, but we couldn’t save your father. We helped him past the heart attack, but we couldn’t find what else was stopping him breathe.”
“It was a blood clot, “ I say.
“The post-mortem will tell us,” he carries on regardless, “but if it were a blood clot, once this size, even if we’d been perfuming open heart surgery at the time, we still wouldn’t have been able to save him.”
As he finishes the sentence, the whole hospital drifts away. Dad and I are once more in the garden. This time sitting on the grass. Dad lies on one elbow, and chews a piece between his teeth. His hair is a dark brown again.
“Do you see?” he asks between chews. He seems much calmer and happier now. “Yes, I do. Mum though, when will mum see.” “In time, you need to tell her.” “I’ll try, it’s not easy.”
“No. Your mum will have to let go sometime, although she is destined to be with me. You though, you need to live your life. Get out there, stop being so scared.”
“I know,” and before I can ask what Dad meant about mum, he’s gone, and so am I.