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Return of the Living Dad (short story) *words* = italics
This story starts with a phone call. It wasn’t meant to be a phone call, what I was actually doing was… well; I wanted to hear his voice, on his answer phone, a recording of his voice. Let me start again.
It was the day of the funeral, a sunny day. No heavy clouds threatening to burst, no black-clad mourners, but still an atmosphere of depression. There were only two of us there: my mum, and myself. That was the way Mum had wanted it and I was happy to go along with what she wanted. It wasn’t because Dad didn’t have friends, far from it; he was the sort who could attract friends like a red light would attract kerb crawlers but Mum, Dad and me were very close, with me being an only child. Few tears were shed on the day of the funeral; we’d cried most of those over the last two years as we’d watched him die.
He had this big clunky mobile phone, which had cost thirty quid. It was basic, had big buttons; no camera but it had a torch. It cost as much as an Android phone but without any of the fancy stuff like an Internet connection. It was what he wanted and we gave him what he wanted. He rarely used it but he loved it. So it went into the coffin with him, along with his trumpet and a small bottle of Martell brandy.
As I said, we’d cried most our tears while we were waiting for him to die but when I got home after the funeral I wanted to cry some more, on my own – alone. What’s more, I needed to hear his voice. I had a beer buzz so strong I was seeing near double but I needed to indulge myself. So, I took out my mobile and dialled Dad’s number - after a few seconds it would go to voicemail and I’d get to hear his voice. That was what I wanted, wasn’t it? Maybe, but what I didn’t want was for him to answer. But it didn’t go to answer phone, it just kept on ringing… and ringing… but then…
“Brio, is that you? Where the heck am I, mate? Am I back in hospital? It’s dark and it feels like I’m locked in a box or something. To be honest I’m pretty damn scared. Come and get me for fuck’s sake.”
I went cold. Someone’s got my dad’s phone. They’re pretending to be my dad. But it sounds like Dad, maybe it is Dad, maybe he’s alive; he’s the only one who ever called me Brio. No, some thieving bastard had dug up his grave and taken his phone - I was going to call the police, that’d sort the bastards. I disconnected the phone. A trick, that’s what it was. But what if it wasn’t, what if he was down there, in his coffin, in the dark, confused, alone and afraid… yet alive? Call the police. Yes, they’d sort it out; blackmailers, thieves, and tricksters… a dad alive who was supposed to be dead… they’d sort it. I made to dial 999. I pressed the first two nines and then, and then I thought of all the questions, all the answers, and all the forms to be filled out before they’d even contemplate getting to the graveyard with a digger. By that time, if he was still alive, he’d be dead. Suffocated. How could I live with that? I couldn’t live with that.
My thumb, which had been hovering over the final nine, tapped on ‘back’ instead. I redialled Dad’s number. After what seemed like an era had passed my call was answered.
“What the heck happened, Brio? The phone went dead, the light went off and I couldn’t find it, I couldn’t find the sodding phone. I’m scared, where the hell am I, kid? It’s like I’m in a box, like in a coffin. For fuck’s sake kid, come and get me out of here.”
“Dad, it’s OK (yeah, of course it was, I didn’t even believe that myself). There’s been a mistake. I’m coming to get you, but it might take some time, yeah? Just relax a bit and get some sleep, it could take a few hours.”
I heard his exhale of relief as he said, “That’s good, kid. I was starting to panic a bit there. I thought you and your Mam were trying to get rid of me,” he chuckled as if everything was just hunky dory. “I am feeling a bit drowsy come to think of it. I reckon I could use forty winks. Just keep the Pils cold for when I get back, yeah?”
I wasn’t prepared to question anymore; shoot first and ask questions later seemed like good advice. If he had been buried alive then I’d un-bury him. If he were dead then… if he were dead *then* I’d ask questions.
What followed was hazy. A shovel would be needed. One man digging six feet worth of dirt was going to take eons. The soil would be loose - there was that, close to mining polystyrene pebbles. I could get Mum to help but the time it would take explaining everything to her would outweigh precious shovel time.
The sun was rising by the time the shovel struck wood. I was still thinking he was dead and this was some sort of quantum parallel reality. All the time I’d spent shovelling and digging I’d been shouting out his name, calling with no response. This wasn’t real, the phone call, the whole situation wasn’t real. It was a dream from which I would soon awake. He was dead, of course he was, he was still dead or he’d answer. But I still needed confirmation! I threw the shovel aside, the resultant clang quieting the dawn chorus for a few seconds only. Then, on my knees, I gripped the clasps holding the coffin lid in place, turning them anti-clockwise in excruciating slow spins until finally they were all free. I took a deep breath then pulled the lid open. Dad stared back, eyes blinking against the dawn.
“Hell, mate. It’s not even light yet. Can you come back later, at a civilised time?” He was alive - chin grey with stubble, saliva dribbling from the corner of his mouth and a warm cheery smile emanating from both his eyes and lips.
I laughed. I laughed because it was easier than crying. Dad returned a look of confusion. “Glad you find it funny, kid. Seeing as you’re here I don’t suppose you could help your old man up. Jesus, I’m stiff and I don’t mean in a good way, if you know what I mean.”
I managed to drag him out of the grave, his funeral gown - or whatever it’s called - starched and muddy. Two years of pancreatic cancer had rendered him more bone than muscle or fat, and if I’d had a bag that’s what he’d have been; a bag of bones. I’d become normalised – if there was such a word, and if there wasn’t I don’t care – to his lack of weight. Many a time he’d shifted in his death bed, revolving from north to west in the night and I’d had to pick him up and put him back so his head rested on the pillow rather than hanging over the edge of the mattress. He’d scream when I did this because his kidneys had broken down, passing acid unfiltered into his joints. The screams had been enough to cool my blood – an animal in pain - yet he’d always had a smile and a thank you afterwards. He didn’t know he was dying, that was probably why he could still smile. The reason he didn’t know? That wasn’t because he hadn’t been told, it was because he’d been told when he’d had a kidney infection, and when you have a kidney infection it makes you confused. A four-centimetre anomaly, those were the words I remember from the doctors, in the pancreas. That had been like an icicle being inserted into my heart, right there, between the ribs. All he’d remembered were the words ‘renal infection’.
“I’m going to sue the bastards,” he said, but he didn’t seem angry, more relieved to be out of the grave. “Christ! Buried alive, in this day and age.”
“Never mind that for now, have this.” I passed him a can of Holsten Pils and he snatched at it like he thought I might take it back. He popped the can and drank as long as he could before having to speak. “Now, let’s get you back home and in bed. We can call the doctor out,” I said.
“Bed! Are you having a laugh? I’ve been sleeping longer than King bloody Arthur. Bed, my arse.”
When we got back home, he was able to get out of the car unaided. I found that hard to understand. As a dead man he seemed a lot fitter than before he died. He walked ahead of me and up the garden path with purpose, and as I let him through the front door I asked, “Want something to eat? You must be starving,” which was literally what I meant as he had pretty much starved to death. His disease had taken his appetite. We’d tried everything to get him to eat and he’d have bursts of eating a fair bit at times but those times got fewer as it got harder to interest him in food. “You’ve got to eat,” Mum had reprimanded. “I’m not going to starve, am I?” was one ironic reply.
“Not really hungry, to be honest, son, I’ll just watch the telly for a bit if you don’t mind, and have a few more of these,” he said, holding up the empty beer can before crushing it in a single fist and dropping it in the hallway bin. “Where’s your mam anyway? I thought she’d be here.”
“Asleep probably; it’s early yet and she was at a funeral yesterday,” I said, my head still buzzing. Was this really happening?
“Oh, a funeral you say? Anyone I know?”
“Yes, Dad, it was *your* funeral. I’ve just dragged you out of the grave, remember?”
“Oh, yeah, of course you did. Don’t you think you’d better wake her up and give her the good news? You got that other can of beer? On second thoughts, can I upgrade to brandy?”
Jesus, that’s a thought. How was I going to tell Mum? She was devastated of course when he’d died, yet relieved; the suffering was over - or had been - for all of us, me, Mum and Dad. There were times when we’d even spoken of ending it for him, to put a stop to his pain. Some extra morphine tablets left ostensibly ‘lying around’ perhaps - now this. “Mum, guess what? You know we thought Dad was dead and we buried him and all that? Well I just dug him up and he’s downstairs drinking brandy.”
“Got any crisps, Brio? Lager's making me peckish all of a sudden. I really could kill for a packet of cheese and onion,” asked Dad, flipping through the kitchen cupboards.
“Oh, and Mum, he’s drinking brandy and eating sodding cheese and onion crisps!”
When Mum finally stumbled down the stairs she was barely able to stand. “Did I dream it? Tell me I dreamt it and he’s still dead, please.” Her eyes were red-rimmed and her pallor lard-white except for her rosy cheeks; the aroma of alcohol explained that.
I shook my head and nodded to the lounge door. “I know you don’t believe me so take a look yourself. In there.”
She slipped past me with a look and with a brandy breath which might kill my dad if he weren’t already dead, and half-cut, himself. She pushed the door open gingerly and poked her head around it; she didn’t say anything but the audible intake of breath was enough to confirm to her that I’d been right.
She turned and faced me. “How can this happen? We buried him. He hadn’t moved for nearly a week, not eating, not drinking; the doctor confirmed it. Not breathing! I can’t go through that again. I can’t, I can’t!”
“Is that you, Rita? Come into my arms, you bundle of charms and stick to my heart like a glue pot.”
She gave me a look of resigned dread and said, “If he isn’t dead soon then I swear I’ll either take his life… or mine.” Then she went into the room to see him. I followed.
“Alright, Love,” he said turning. “Have you missed me? Come over here and give us a smacker,” his arms wide like the petals of a Venus fly trap.
“I can’t,” she said. “I… I just… can’t.”
He looked hurt and I could understand why, I also understood Mum’s reluctance; it was less than an hour ago that he’d been cold in his coffin.
“She’s right, Dad. You must be ill, and we don’t want Mum to catch anything, do we?” Nor can we afford another funeral, I thought. “Best call a doctor first, give you a once over, eh?”
He relaxed and settled back in his armchair, and with a wrinkle of his nose said, “yeah, you’re right, Brio. We don’t want you ending up six feet under as well, eh Reet?”
So we arranged an appointment with a locum. Me and Mum sat outside in the waiting room, but not for long; Dad hadn’t been in with the doctor five minutes when he came running out, well shuffling out, as fast as his withered limbs would allow. Walked straight past us, he did, not looking left nor right. Like a heat-seeking missile he headed towards the exit; and like heat seeking missiles we followed in his wake – except of course he wasn’t giving off any heat, or warmth for that matter. When we were all outside he turned and faced us, shaking his head in fury and disbelief he said, “Told me I didn’t have a heartbeat; told me I should be dead. He even told me I wasn’t breathing! Bloody foreigners. Doctor bloody Ragamuffin…”
“Raganathan,” I corrected.
“Whatever, if they can’t understand English they shouldn’t be working for the Health Service. Come on, let’s go home. I need a drink.”
“But did he suggest anything, Bri?” asked Mum. “Did he prescribe anything?”
“What do you think, Reet? He had no idea what was wrong with me. He said I should go straight to hospital.”
I feared this would happen. And when we got to the hospital they’d discover they can’t find a pulse either? “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” I reached out and held Dad’s hand. It was as dead and cold as a belly of pork from a supermarket fridge and I wished for all my life I hadn’t made the gesture. “Don’t you feel cold, Dad?”
“No, not at all, but I am feeling a bit peckish.”
This remark made Mum’s face light up, “That’s got to be good news. Maybe you’re improving.”
I did wonder at how the dead could improve but didn’t make my thoughts heard. “Well, how about we visit the chippy? I haven’t had fish ‘n’ chips in what seems like years.”
Dad shook his head, “I’m not *that* sort of hungry,” he said, then began to wrinkle his nose and twist his head about like a spaniel sniffing for drugs. “Anyone else smell that? Like rotting fish, rotting something anyway.”
I looked at Mum, she looked at me and both of us made negative gestures. Dad wasn’t taking heed anyway; he just elbowed past us and went back into the surgery waiting room. Like new born ducklings we followed mother duck, with me wondering why my dad could smell non-existent rotting fish in the doctor’s surgery.
The place was half full, the various patients sitting as far away from each other as was possible, perhaps so as not to catch anything which would add to their current maladies. One woman, a shrunken white-haired old lady with a down of soft white mustache to match was not alone anymore, however. She was pressed as far back into her moulded grey plastic seat as if she wanted to become part of it. The reason being that a dead man was bending over her; his hand pressed to her chest. “It’s cancer,” Dad told her. “Isn’t it?” When she didn’t answer, he continued. “You might not know, but it is. Give it me, I can take it away.”
“Dad, come on. You’re scaring the shit out of her. Leave her alone,” I said.
“Be quiet, kid. I know what I’m doing. I can eat it, I know it. That what I can smell, the rotting fish. Only it isn’t fish, it’s the big C. I can eat it and I won’t be hungry anymore. And she can live again.”
I didn’t know what to say, but whatever I said wouldn’t have made a jot of difference because the woman had passed out. Christ, I hope he hasn’t killed the poor old girl. Other patients began to creep out of the room and I knew that once outside someone would be reaching for their mobile phone and the cop cars would be wailing down the street in minutes. As I turned I noticed one of the receptionists already on the phone, her voice low and hurried.
Dad had been silent for a few moments. He let go of the woman and turned to me and Mum. “Take me home, son. If I eat anymore I’m going to upchuck.”
Back home Dad slumped down in an armchair, his lids heavy but for the first time in years he had a rosy glow to his cheeks. “I think I’ll have a brandy, Reet. A few glasses of the nectar then I’ll be going to bed for some shuteye. Do you want to join me?” he asked Mum, barely managing a wink of a heavy eyelid
“I really don’t have the energy, Bri. I’ll stay down here and watch a bit of Jeremy Kyle, if that’s alright with you,” she said, turning on the Sony flat screen with the remote control.
“Don’t need much energy to sleep, Reet, now do you? But suit yourself, I’m off.”
After he’d dragged himself from the armchair; upstairs and into bed, Mum said to me, “What’s going on, Brian? Is he alive, or is he dead? Apart from anything else I can’t afford another funeral if he pops off again.”
That was something I hadn’t thought about, putting Dad in the ground hadn’t left a whole lot of change from £5k, and both Mum’s and my credit cards were maxed. “I can’t answer that, Mum, no more than you can. We’re both going to have to wait and see, but either way there’s a hole in the ground at the cemetery with an as-good-as-new oak veneered coffin at the bottom of it; that is if hasn’t been noticed yet.”
Mum puffed out her cheeks and said, “That is not a priority for me at the moment, Brio, but you do what you think is right. You don’t mind if I join your dad? So long as it’s not rumpy pumpy he wants, I could use a lie down after all.”
As it happened Dad’s disturbed grave had been left undisturbed. It seems you could even steal a freshly buried corpse these days and it’s too much trouble for some people to report, which was fortunate for me. You see, I had an idea Dad wouldn’t be alive again for long, as much as I loved him. And although he was walkin’ and talkin’ at the moment I had to be practical; we couldn’t fork out for another wooden box.
The coffin now resided in our cellar, and Dad’s grave was just that – a grave, albeit an empty one. Even so the police did pay me and Mum a visit. It didn’t last long, just a follow up. Doctor Raganathan had informed them of a visit from a Bryan White, who’d had no heartbeat and was inexplicably ‘dead’. I’d informed them that I was Bryan White – I shared my Dad’s Christian name – and as they were talking to me I was obviously not dead. They went away scratching their collective heads, I assume thinking the same as my dad - that the doctor had a problem with the English language. That paperwork was going to be a right mare. The cops never returned.
Mrs Timlin - the woman at the surgery who Dad had mauled with his undead hands - now seemed fine, and if she ever did have the Big C, like Dad had said, it seemed we’d never know. But she would always cross to the other side of the road if she ever saw one of our family heading in her direction.
Two weeks later and not a great deal has happened since. It was like Dad had never died at all. He’d stay up all night drinking until he dropped off, in the armchair usually, in front of the TV, still not eating. He couldn’t get any thinner, as he was all gristle, skin and bones anyway.
Then one day, no different to any other, while watching Jeremy Kyle ridicule some jobless council tenant who really didn’t need ridiculing any further, Dad announced he was *starving* – not 'starving' but *starving*. My mother greeted the announcement with delight and clapped her hands in anticipation. I on the other hand had visions of the Mrs Timlin episode and pointed this out to Mum.
“Don’t get your hopes up, I think he’s got his mind on rotting fish,” I said.
“Do you smell it too, Brio?” said Dad his speech slurred and his eyes reddened by brandy.
“No Dad, you’re the only one who smells rotting fish, remember? Does this mean a visit to the doctor’s surgery?”
“No, not this time, son; the surgery’s closed. The hospital should be open though.”
I really didn’t want to do this, and said so. “It’s weird, that’s why. We’ll be noticed. They have CCTV cameras at the hospital, you know. It’ll only be a matter of time before someone complains about you groping them, and it’ll be me they’ll be looking for because you’re dead.”
“I am not dead,” he protested. “It’s a condition, a special one – a syndrome. That’s what I’ve got. Isn’t that right, Reet?”
“Yes, son, it’s a syndrome he’s got,” seconded Mum, delighted to have a word for it, even if it was the wrong word.
“It’s a disease where you don’t breathe and don’t have a pulse. Whatever you call it there’s a headstone at the cemetery with your name carved on. That’s going to read like ‘dead’ to anyone other than the members of this here family and I am not going to the hospital with you,” I said, prodding his bony chest.
“I’ll go on me own then.”
“Dad, the hospital is sodding miles away. And you can’t drive in the state you’re in.”
“Reet can drive me,” he said, trying to raise himself from the chair.
“No, she’ll be recognised as well, and so will the car number plate.” And then I had an idea. The surgery was closed because it was Saturday, and Saturday meant football. There would be thousands of people at the local stadium, most of them strangers.
It hadn’t taken Dad long to find a victim, if that was the right word. It may have been the opposite of a victim. All we knew was that he ate their cancer. We didn’t know if he ate all the cancer. He may even have made the victim worse – somehow. We just didn’t know until later. What did happen was that after Dad had eaten he would sleep, and lately he took to not sleeping in bed. He said it didn’t feel right anymore. So he took to going down into the cellar with his brandy and his phone after he’d ‘eaten,’ to sleep it off. But he now sleeps so long we think he is proper dead, and each time Mum and I think ‘is this it? Can we finally bury him?’ But then like Lazarus he’d arise once more and he’d be *starving*. I’d be lying in bed, drifting off when I’d hear that coffin lid slide and topple to the earthen cellar floor and my skin would turn to ice – he was awake again, and when he was starving he was *starving* and he had to feed. As I said earlier, we didn’t know what happened to his victims, until later…
One day, when Dad had been dead long enough after feeding for us to believe, once more, that he really was, I saw old Mrs Timlin. I was in town, walking down the Parade, not thinking about anything much at all, when I spotted her. She’d seen me before I’d seen her but this time she hadn’t crossed the road to avoid me. On the contrary, she made it a point to speak to me. Weird thing was that old Mrs Timlin wasn’t as old as I’d assumed. It was just the strange way she dressed, not like mutton dressed as lamb but lamb dressed as mutton. Why would anyone want to seem older than their true age? I was confused but to become more so.
“What did he do to me?” she asked, her eyes bright with youthful humour. “That old man you were with in the doctor’s, what did he do!”
“Dad? I’m sorry if he upset you, he’s been very ill.”
She looked genuinely concerned. “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. I do hope he gets better.”
“Time heals…” I started to say but couldn’t finish the platitude.
“But what was it he did that day, the day he put his hands on me?” she asked again.
“I apologise, he wasn’t in his right mind. He told me that he’d eaten your cancer. He says a lot of things we don’t understand…” I said, hoping to sound feasible.
“Eaten my cancer?” she looked away, her smile gone as she appeared lost in thought. “Yes... cancer. I remember now,” she said, emerging from her reverie.
“Sorry,” I said. “What was that?”
Her smile returned, “Whatever he did, please thank him for me, I feel better than I have in years… well, better than in my whole life! You’re a lucky young man to have such a wonderful dad.”
“Yes, I know,” I mumbled as she walked away.
That *was* Old Mrs Timlin, wasn’t it? I asked myself as I sleepwalked my way home. I found it hard to deny to myself that I’d even quite fancied her, apart from her peculiar outdated dress sense.
Let’s think this through, gather the facts, I said to myself. Dad dies, but wakes up undead, for want of a better term. He doesn’t eat food yet gets hungry. He eats cancer raw, like sushi. Sleeps, then does it all again. The only person I’ve met who he’s fed off seems not to have cancer anymore but also looks much younger. It was the smallest experimental sample possible I know, but I was willing to bet on my dad’s life his other recipients (rather than victims) were also cured and possibly looking younger.
The baby’s crying. Mum – Reet – picks him (it?) up but he cries on. She offers her nipple and I look away. I don’t want to see my mother’s nipple – haven’t wanted to in a very long time, but that’s not why I look away. The reason I look away is because I know the baby is going to refuse the proffered teat because it feeds only on cancer. Don’t blame the beast for being a horror, I tell myself; it is what it is. Mum hands the screaming thing to me and I take it. It is wet (pissed itself) but the nappy is not warm as you’d expect from fresh urine. It is ice water, only fluid because of the heat of the room. As I cradle it my hand enfolds a foot, a foot as cold and dead as a butchered pig’s trotter.
This then, is my baby brother - Son of the Living Dad - and we must feed him, if we want him to live.