I was regretting the night before. The Singapore slings were too sweet and I felt sick after each one, and resented finishing the night off in the shitty bar where my friend’s boyfriend worked.
She was in fairly good spirits, full to the brim with food that I paid for; handing my card over without even looking at the receipt on the little tray.
We had pulled over on the way to the restaurant which was by one of the district’s most famous lakes, so I could take a call from my brother. I talked to him in low, conspiratorial tones, embarrassed by the proximity of my friend and the subject matter of the conversation I was having.
It was serious. That was the bottom line. Get on a train tomorrow, or you’ll miss him. You’ll regret it.
It was past one in the morning when I finally got into my car to drive the long dark road home. The last hour in the neon lit bar had sobered me up, and I was tired but fairly clear headed. As I drove, I tapped at my phone and got it to make a call for me.
I got a groggy, sleepy answer. “It’s me” I say quickly, “I’m driving so this has to be quick; can you book tickets for tomorrow to London Euston please. I’ll be too tired when I get home to do it.”
After we hang up, I turn my CD player off, and drive in silence in the dark. I don’t notice any stars.
The next day, I am awoken by my much-hated phone buzzing on the side.
It’s my brother again.
Things are bad. When’s your train?
When we get to the train station, the vacuous bitch in the ticket booth tries to argue about the spelling of my surname. Bank cards don’t accept apostrophes, but my railcard includes one.
I talk to her in a way that I would be embarrassed to be overheard doing, and eventually she prints them out for me, stony faced.
The journey to London will be two and a half hours, which isn’t too bad considering we have almost the entire length of the country to span.
My stomach sits the whole day empty. Every time the train goes through a tunnel, my pale, sharp little face flashes back at me from the window.
When we finally arrive, I walk quickly in and out of the people that make the crowd.
Out of London Euston, right towards Euston Square, onto the underground, circle line to Hammersmith. It feels like it takes an age.
Off at Hammersmith, walking, walking, one lonely little french girl among thousands of people of every creed and colour, all talking in the same indistinguishable twang. The twang of the man I am almost running to see. As I approach Charing Cross Hospital, I notice that I am incredibly hot. The smells are overwhelming, but on the final stretch of pavement in front of the entrance a faintly floral scent descends onto me. It is pleasant, but strangely funereal. My stomach lurches, and suddenly I have the strange sensation that I might actually vomit. I comfort myself with the thought of my empty stomach.
As we walk inside, following the signs for the critical care unit, I see a bearded man. I recognise him as some reviled cousin or another. I ignore him, and hurry past into the lift up to the eleventh floor. I walk in an infuriating circle on the eleventh floor, seeing not one member of staff until finally I almost run into my aunt. “I’m lost” I mutter, trying not to look as though I hate her although I do.
“Who are you?” she says, but then breaks into a wry grin. She thinks she’s pretty funny, this one.
She shows me where to dump my backpack. Then we stand, helplessly at the ward doors as the bell rings. No one answers. I start to get irritable.
Finally, another aunt appears, and opens the door for us. I kiss her cheek, and follow her down the corridor. I’ve seen this so many times. It was part of my job to see this. But this is surreal. My own family.
I walk in the room, and am unable to take in all of the faces, but am very aware of all the eyes on me. I don’t look at the man in the bed yet. I go straight to the sink in the corner of the room and wash my hands, don gloves and an apron. The faces I notice are the as of last year estranged faces of my sister and her husband, my adoptive mother’s teary eyes, and my widower uncle. The other faces fade into the fuzz of obscurity. I walk towards the bed. I don’t feel like I am IN my body. I am making it move, albeit slowly, over to that bed, but I feel strangely loose and light, as though I’m not really strapped in to this vessel I am driving.
Mum moves aside for me. I look at him properly.
His hair, which was always combed neatly back, stuck up in tufts. He looked thin. A plastic mask covered his entire face, darth vader style but with a window. a tube fed oxygen into the mask. His hands hung lifelessly either side of his body.
“Hi Granddad” I said loudly. “I got here at last.”
I put my forefinger on his forefinger. There is a device on his, monitoring his blood oxygen.
I hook my finger around his. I squeeze. I chance another look at his face.
It hits me then, and I turn away, looking out of the window choking on my emotion.
I continue to look away for several minutes. I wipe my eyes on my sleeve.
When I look back, I stare at his hair. He always combed it back, smooth against his head. I reach out my gloved hand, and stroke it a little, trying to get it to lay flat. My sister sobs.
I go back to squeezing his finger. I clearly don’t notice how hard, because the nurse in the corner of the room walks over to reapply the monitor. I popped it off like an idiot.
Realising that my disgusting human sadness has trickled onto my gloves, I march away, peeling off the gloves as I walk.
“Where are you going?” mum asks, looking concerned
“I’m not going anywhere” I croak “i just got snot on my gloves”
My sister, her husband, my nephew and my uncle all chuckle.
“You haven’t changed” says my brother in law kindly.
I put new gloves on and as I do this, the door opens. I see a face I know very well.
I go over immediately to kiss my grandmother on the cheek. “Hi Nan” I whisper into her soft curly hair. “‘ello mate” she replies in the twang that I have come to love.
Relatives gather and fuss, putting an apron on her, laughing as they try and help her put on the latex gloves. Eventually, primed and ready, she is wheeled over to his bedside.
Almost immediately she begins to talk in a low, loving voice to him, as though deep in conversation.
She strokes his hand. “Come on mate” I hear her say gently “Jump up and pull all these wires off you, show them what you’re made of”
It’s too much. I look away again, choked by the situation. My sister catches my eye. Her gaze feels alien to me after so long apart. But I don’t detect any resentment in her eyes. Only grief.
“Shall we get coffee? tea?” she says directly to me. Briefly she looks away “Mum? tea?”
We walk out of the room, single file, to the Costa on the ground floor. As I walk out, I glance over at Granddad in his bed, at Nan stroking his hand, at my mum who looked on from the side. That’s the last time I saw him alive.
It happened so fast. It was quite strange, to be outside the hospital next to the busy road, sipping crappy tea out of the cardboard cup, talking to my sister and her family as though we had never fallen out, never argued.
My Uncle quietly sipped at his latte whilst trying to fix his car outside; thankful, I think, to be out of the hospital where his own wife died a few years earlier.
My mother eventually joined us, thankfully taking a cardboard cup of her own from my sister. We stand out there in the strangely balmy evening, talking how we used to talk. Mum telling me various things that this or that aunt said or did, what Granddad said to her the last time he was awake the day before.
Then it happens.
My cousin walks towards us, gravely.
“Michael said to come and get you all” he says, his voice thick.
I dump my half full cup in the nearest bin. We all walk, quickly.
We’re in the lift. We’re walking out of the lift. I hear someone say “He’s gone”.
My mum turns to me, anguished “he’s gone” she repeats, her voice strangled and small.
We walk towards the room at the end of the ward, with windows looking out over the city.
The glass panes that separated the room from the rest of the ward are obscured by a royal blue curtain.
For a moment, I get the terrible sensation that I can’t breathe.
But all too soon it is time to go. To look behind that curtain. To see what is gone, to see what is left. Is anyone ever ready?
I walk in. People are crying. “He’s still warm” someone says across the room, maybe to me, maybe not.
“You can kiss him if you like, he’s still warm”
Mum hovers around.
Eventually, I make my way round to his bedside. I kiss him on the forehead. As I do this, an Aunt snaps “Don’t kiss him on the mouth!”
Then time feels like it slows down a couple of notches. My Grandmother is being helped to her feet. She takes his hand, and lays her head on his chest. “What am I going to do without you?” she whimpers, in a version of her voice that I have never heard before (and don’t wish to again).
This causes something in me, some final shred of reserve to snap, and tears start to freely roll down my cheeks. I stand there, arms by my sides, at the end of his bed watching on as my grandmother sobs into his still chest.
A nurse tells us that if we leave for a moment, get a drink or some fresh air, her and her colleague will clean him up, get him looking more comfortable, and then we can come and say a proper goodbye.
My sister sobs uncontrollably. I call my brother. His flight back from abroad isn’t until tonight. He didn’t make it. I tell him that Granddad has died. I keep my voice flat and unemotional, as I know that emotion makes my brother uncomfortable.
Outside my mum cries sporadically. Then, finally, it is time for us to go back.
He is already a different colour, there behind the royal blue curtain.
There is more yellow in his skin. Nan says her final goodbyes. She kisses his cheek. I watch various other relatives say goodbye. I step backwards at one point and trample some old relatives toes. I don’t remember her name, but I apologise.
A much detested female cousin sits next to her mother, weeping. I offer her some tissue. She turns away.
Eventually I step forward. I need to make this quick. His fingers are almost translucent now, like a figurine carved from wax. I step over purposefully. I squeeze his hand once, then lean down. “Cheerio Granddad” I rasp quietly, and kiss him hard on his cheek. He is cold to the touch now. He’ll never be warm again.
I leave. I say goodbye to my mother, I say goodbye to various other relatives. I kiss my grandmother. Then I leave. Back to the tube. Off to Farringdon where I have a suite booked at the Malmaison.
On the tube, there is some sort of school trip or youth group of children from Northern Ireland (by the sounds of it). They’re laughing and joking, enjoying an exciting trip to London. I smile at them gently.
My chin has begun to burn by this time, as after kissing my grandfather goodbye, we were all told to wipe our mouths with an antiseptic wipe due to the infection that he had towards the end. My skin has never liked alcohol.
By the time I get to the hotel, I can already feel contact dermatitis rearing its ugly head on my delicate skin.
As soon as I drop my surname at the desk, one of the women recognises the name from the booking, stares at me for a moment (I clearly don’t look like the sort of person that books that suite at the last minute-although to be honest I would have gone for a standard room if the arsehole on the phone hadn’t made it abundantly clear that they didn’t have any standard bookings available)
She asks me if I have any preference over it being a room high up or low down in the building, front view or back view. “I’m just going to sleep” I say testily. It’s such a comfort to stay somewhere where I can speak in my mother tongue. All Malmaison reception staff speak French. It’s strangely comforting.
“I’ll find you the quietest suite mademoiselle” she says kindly.
I stare at my face in the mirror in the lift. I look like utter shit.
I take a shower as soon as I get in the room, and then order steak frites from room service. I eat it, miserably, every bite; knowing that I would have to make the long journey back home in the morning and that I won’t want breakfast. My night’s sleep is fitful. The room is too hot for me, even with the air con and the window ajar. the pillows are too soft.
I toss and turn.
In the morning, I catch the train as soon as I can. I can’t even get a seat. the train is declassified, and the aisles are packed with people standing, because the train is filled with West Ham supporters on their way to the match against Manchester United. they sing, obnoxiously happy. The train is unbearably hot, and the proximity of so many drunk men sets me on edge.
As I stare out of the window, I see that the day is sunny and pleasant. The sky is unfettered by clouds, an expanse of pure, yawning blue.
I think back to the curtain behind which he lay. I wonder where his body is now. Is he alone now, as well as cold? Where did his thoughts, his memories, his personality go?
Can it really go nowhere? Is it not energy? Energy, scientifically speaking cannot go nowhere. I’ll settle for somewhere.
I think about him, as he was when he really was him. He would laugh at the expression on my face as he chewed spring onions whole (I like the burn! he would say). I remember the prank he played on me when I was nine. I used to like to comb my grandmother’s hair, and Granddad often got his comb out of his pocket to give to me to use. One day, he passed it to me, and on the first stroke, about nine of the teeth came tumbling out into Nan’s hair. I looked up at him guiltily, my mouth an ‘O’ of shock. He tutted at me. “You’ve gone and broke it” He said, crossly.
“I’m so-” I began, but he was already laughing. I realised then that he had done it on purpose, that it had already broken before he gave it to me. Nan laughed too. He loved making you think you were in for a real roasting, and then just laughing at his own joke.
I have these memories now, to sustain the rest of the road. I’ll hear the laughing in my head, but never out loud again.
This is the first death of someone pivotal in my adoptive family. And He is the only grandfather I have ever known, adoptive or not.
I’ll miss him the longest, because he has been the first to go.
This post is dedicated to my Grandfather, 1925-2016.