*Features adult language and themes.*
“Hi, Dad. How have you been keeping?”
“Simone? Is that you?”
“Yes, it’s me.” Simone bent down to hug her father where he sat. He was in his comfy chair. It was next to the bed positioned at a slight angle away from the room so he could see out of the window. The room itself was homely, it always surprised her. It didn’t look like the sort of room you imagined when you thought of a ‘residential caring facility.’ It was decorated tastefully and furnished comfortably. Over the years he had lived there her sisters had bought a lot of his personal possessions to soften the institutional edges. Photos of his wife, children and grandchildren dominated every even surface in a wide variety of frames.
“Aren’t you supposed to be at school? Asked her Dad.
It doesn’t really matter what the room’s like or the amount of memories that are crowbarred into it. He doesn’t know where he is most of the time anymore. “No it’s Saturday. No school today.”
He looked a little confused for a moment. “Have you said hello to your Mother? She’s in the kitchen.”
“Yeah. I saw her earlier.” Simone sat down on the bed next to her father and held his hand. Mum’s been dead for 6 years. “So, how are you feeling today?”
He looked at her and smiled, there was a little glint in his eye. “What are you a doctor?” It was a joke he had always used on anyone that asked how he was. It still made Simone laugh.
“No, not a doctor, maybe one day, hey? Then I can have a proper reason to ask you.”
Dad patted her hand. “I’m keeping well. I eat what’s put in front of me and sleep as much as I can. Can’t be bad.”
Simone looked around the room and noticed a pile of books on the floor beside the bed. “Still reading lots?”
“I try. It’s getting harder though. They make the print so small now.”
“Maybe we should get your eyes checked? Might be able to give you some new glasses to make it easier.”
“Nah, my eyes are fine, it’s the books that make it hard.” He turned away to look out of the window. A lot of the family were outside playing in the gardens. Simone’s three sisters and all their kids. “There ain’t a lot of point reading much these days. I don’t seem to be able to keep hold of the story as I’m going along, then I can’t recall where I got to… I don’t know. I’m getting forgetful in my old age.” He paused, a slight furrow creased his brow and softened just as quickly as it had appeared. “Those kids look like they’re having fun.”
“Would you like me to read something to you? It’ll be like when you taught me how to read. I used to love that.”
Simone’s Dad looked around the room as if something was missing. “Where’s your Mother got to? She’s said she was making a cup of tea. Seems like ages ago.”
“I tell you what. I’ll see if I can get you a cup of something.” Simone got up. As she was about to leave the room she looked back over her shoulder. Her father was looking out of the window again, watching the kids playing. I wonder if he knows that they’re his Grandchildren?
She made her way down the wide hallways, they felt a little more like a hospital. There was a sterile smell in the air, a mix between alcohol and citrus. She got to the nurses’ station only to find it empty. She peeked around corners trying to find someone.
A nurse approached leading an elderly lady to her room. The old woman gave Simone a dirty, distrustful look. The nurse clocked it and tried to change direction and chivvy her along a little faster. “I’ll be back for you in just a moment.”
Simone lazily picked up a brochure from a stand and leafed through it. It was the best care home in the area, if price was anything to go by. The word ‘quality’ was used in almost every sentence and there was an emphasis put on ‘individual’ care. Simone didn’t mind the cost as long as her Dad was comfortable, but no matter where he was nobody was going to be able to cure the central problem.
“Sorry about that. How can I help?” Said the nurse upon her return as she brushed her hands off on the front of her tunic.
“Hi, I’m Simone Saunders, the daughter of Trevor Saunders, just down the hall there,” said Simone pointing.
“Ah, Simone. It’s lovely to meet you.” Said the nurse extending her hand, then deciding against it and snatching it back. “Sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but you probably won’t want to touch that.” She shrugged and tried to break the tension with a smile. “Trevor talks about you all the time.”
“Yes. Usually a lot of things from when you were a child. That seems to be where his thoughts dwell the most.”
“Yes. How is he getting on, generally?”
The nurse went around to the other side of the desk to open a large file that had her Father’s name on it. She scanned it for a while before answering. “Generally, there hasn’t been much change. He’s been having more trouble reading. He used to get through a few books each month, when he first joined us. He hasn’t been eating as much as we’d like and he does seem to be a little insular.”
“He doesn’t mix with the other residents. He’s taken to eating most of his meals in his room and rarely goes outside or joins in with activities.”
“Is there anything that can be done to help him?”
“We do as much as we can. We make sure there are plenty of people to try and interact with him, we take him new books from the library, we try to get him to do puzzles, simple puzzles, you understand, anything to keep his mind engaged. He has good days and bad days like any of us. If there’s anything you can think of, we’re always open to suggestions.”
“I’ll have a chat with my sisters, they come to see him a little more often than me, living closer and all. Thank you.” Simone was about to turn away when she remembered. “Oh, is it possible to get a cup of tea for Dad? I don’t know if there’s a set time or anything?”
“Not a problem I’ll take him one, shortly.”
Simone looked down the hallway towards her Dad’s room then decided to go the opposite direction. As soon as she was outside she fished in her pocket for her cigarettes and lighter. The first inhalation was soothing. The tension in her shoulders loosened a little and the pounding in her chest slowed. He’s getting worse.
“Those things’ll kill you, you know.”
“So will breathing if you give it long enough.”
“Fair point.” Simone’s youngest sister, Julie, gave her a hug, she had to reach up being a lot shorter. “Have you got a spare one?”
“Since when did you smoke?”
“I don’t smoke.” Simone gave her a quizzical look holding up the packet of fags. Julie rolled her eyes. “OK, so I don’t smoke habitually. I just have the odd one now and again.” Simone offered the open packet and lighter, Julie picked a cigarette out and lit it. “I always feel like I need one when we come here.”
“I know what you mean.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I love Dad to bits, but it’s hard to see him in this place. It’s hard to see him as less than he was.” Julie had always been the outspoken sister. Simone had a direct attitude towards people but still had a small filter between her brain and mouth. Julie had been born without this vital piece or equipment. Nearly every thought she formed was voiced at its time of conception.
I love her for it. Everyone knows exactly where they stand with Julie. There’s no subtext, no bullshit.
“He does seem to be worse than the last time I saw him.”
“Yeah. He doesn’t really know who I am anymore, but at least he’s comfortable, you know. This place is great. Anyway, how have you been Mol?”
Mol. Only her sisters called her that. “Busy, you know.”
“All work and no play?”
“I try to play now and again. But work is fun too. It keeps the wheels turning. How’s Dave and the kids?”
“Dave is good. He’s trying his best, the kids are the kids, they grow like weeds and ‘need’ new things more and more. They’re all getting to that age where their friends all have things we can’t afford to buy them. Oh, thank you for the Christmas and Birthday presents, they loved them.”
“Good, I’m glad.” She should have dumped Dave years ago. He was a small time businessman, of sorts. He changed vocations more often than he changed his underwear, but he managed to keep the family going. Julie worked as a cleaner to supplement things but Simone always got the impression that life wasn’t as smooth for Julie as it could be.
Julie stamped out her cigarette having only smoked through half of it. “I better get back to the monsters. Grace is in the gardens too if you want to say hello.”
“Yeah I’ll come with you.” Simone put her own fag out and they went along a path that skirted around the building towards the gardens. The day was bright and fresh, a hint towards the onset of spring. She heard the kids long before they turned the corner and saw them playing on the grass. Julie’s two, Tilly and James were 10 and 12, they were chasing after Grace’s two eldest, Oliver and Rachel. Grace was sat on a bench rocking a buggy that held the newest edition to the family, Katie, who was only 4 months old.
Julie went over to the buggy and picked up a bread bag. “Come on kids, let’s go down to the pond and feed the ducks.”
Simone waved at all of the kids with a wide smile on her face as they chorused a greeting and waved back at her. They all followed Julie leaving Simone alone with her middle sister. Before Julie disappeared behind the trees she shot a meaningful look back at her sisters. She knows there’s something up. Clever girl.
“Hi Mol. Julie’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer isn’t she.”
Simone sat on the bench next to Grace. “It’s why we love her.”
“It’s nice to see you up here.”
“Please, don’t start, Sim. I make it up here as often as I can.”
“As often as you want.” Grace also had the family trait for straight talking but she preferred to use it for manipulation.
“Someone’s got to work to pay the bills.”
“Don’t use that as a shield. We’ve offered to help you pay for Dad’s care.”
“I don’t want Adam’s money. It’s a family matter. We can deal with it.”
“Adam is part of the family.”
No he’s not, he’s just your husband. I’ve only met the bloke two or three times and he has no interest in our family at all. He barely has an interest in his own kids. “Well, I’d rather take care of it.” Adam was a banker in London. He tended to stay in the city during the week and only come back to see his wife and kids at the weekend if they were lucky. It left Grace to be a full-time suburban mother. She had everything she wanted and needed and was bored by it all.
Grace looked into the buggy as Katie grumbled a little in her sleep, she carried on rocking her back and forth. “It’s no good, Simone. You can’t hide behind the money forever. You can’t just pay the bills and think you’ve done your bit. It’s not fair on Dad.”
“You mean it’s not fair on you?”
“No it isn’t, but I’m more worried about Dad.”
“Dad doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. The most important thing for him is to be comfortable and feel safe. From what I’ve seen, he does.”
Grace sighed. “You don’t get it do you? The money doesn’t replace emotional investment. Don’t think you’ve done your best by Dad by paying the bills. It doesn’t show you care if you never come and see him.”
“I guess you see yourself as the martyr that takes time out of her busy life to come up and see him all the time?”
“I don’t see it as martyrdom. It’s the right thing to do.”
Simone got up from the bench, she had anger left over from the last conversation she’d had with Grace, it flashed through her with fresh intensity. “I don’t care what you think of me, Grace. The bottom line is this. I have the money to pay the bills and you have the time to spare to come and visit. Our lives are very different but they are a result of the choices we made. I’m happy with those choices. If you aren’t then I suggest you need to find someone else to blame, because I’m not taking it.” Simone turned to leave and took a few swift steps.
“He doesn’t remember anyone else, Mol. Just you.” Simone stopped. “Do you have any idea how much it hurts? I come up here two or three times a week, he has no idea who I am and all he does is talk about you.” Simone could hear Grace crying and wiping her nose. “It’s not nice to have proof that there was a favourite daughter. Maybe you should still be doing something to justify that.”
Katie woke up and started to cry. Simone refused to turn around and walked towards the car park.
* * *
She was halfway home before she made an illegal u-turn and went back to the care home making one quick stop. Her sisters had left by the time she got back and her Dad had been put into bed.
As she entered the dimly lit room he looked up at her and smiled. “Simone, how lovely to see you.”
“Hi, Dad. How are you doing?”
“What are you, a doctor? How come you’re here so late?”
“Just felt like coming by to see you.”
“Why would a young woman like you want to waste her free time to see an old codger like me?”
“Because you’re my Dad.” She sat on the side of his bed and gave him a gentle hug.
“You should be out there finding yourself a good man, someone that can look after you.” He chuckled to himself.
“There aren’t any men out there good enough. None better than you.”
“You were never the family woman, Simone. I never saw you settling down. Settling for anything. You definitely never needed a man to look after you. You were always the one destined to look after everyone else.” He looked away for a moment trying to grab the thread of a memory. “I think your sisters were here earlier.”
“Yeah, they were.”
“I don’t know. I can’t seem to keep things clear in my head anymore. The days I remember everything are the worst. I know precisely how much I keep forgetting, then I drift off again.”
Simone held up the bag she’d bought with her. “I’ve got you a little present.” She took a box out and showed it to him. “I thought you could do this to while away the time. No memory required.” It was a 500 piece jigsaw, the picture on the box was of a lion, her Dad’s favourite animal.
Simone’s Dad smiled, his big uneven teeth poking out from behind his lips. “Ain’t that something. I guess if I do forget doing it I’ll just think someone else has been doing it for me.”
Simone pulled over his bed table and started clearing it. “I thought we could start it together.” Her Dad pulled himself up to sit in the bed and put the lamp on while Simone opened the box and tipped the pieces into the lid.
“Need to sort the outside pieces first and find the corners.” Simone smiled. She remembered doing puzzles with her Dad when she was growing up. “I used to do jigsaw puzzles with your Mum. We did a lot of them together. We used to tease each other about who would get to put the last piece in to finish it. As the puzzle went along and got close to being finished she used to steal a piece and hide it somewhere. We got to the end and I used to think that there was a piece missing, then she’d present it with a flourish and put it in. She always had a triumphant look on her face when she tricked me. In the end we used to start taking pieces and hiding them as we went along.” He looked away as though the memory was floating in front of his face. “It stopped being about who got to put the last piece in and became a competition to steal the most pieces without the other one noticing.” Simone smiled at him as he told the story, a tear welling in her eye. “It’s the memories of your Mum that I miss the most, but forgetting that she’s died and thinking she’s just in the other room is wonderful too.”
“I wish there was something I could do to help.”
“You do enough, Simone.”
“No I don’t. I don’t see you as much as I can.”
“You come and see me as much as you should. I’m an old man that forgets you’ve been to see me anyway. What’s the point? There’s a moment when you aren’t coming to see me anymore, just to visit, but because you feel like you have to. I’d rather see you less for the right reasons than see you more when you don’t want to be here.
“You have your own life to live and I’ll be damned if I’m going to be a reason to stop you doing it. There’s already plenty of reasons out there.”
Simone leaned over and gave her Dad a big kiss on the cheek. “See, that’s why I’m not married. No others out there like you. Thank you, Dad.”
“Nobody can get through life alone.” He looked down at the pieces they’d both been sorting while they talked. “Looks like it’s time to start putting things together.”
* * *
The outline of the puzzle was laid out as a rectangle on the bed table encircling the box of pieces. Simone sat in the chair next to the bed watching her Dad doze in and out of sleep. It was getting late, but it was Sunday the next day and she didn’t have anything to do.
Simone watched her Dad sleep for a while, the look on his face was peaceful and she could never guess that there was anything wrong. He was just like he used to be earlier. The one bloke I could always count on for advice. I wonder how much of it he meant?
As the lights in the hallway were turned off one by one Simone grabbed her bag and bent over her Dad to turn off his light before kissing him goodbye.
As she leaned across him his eyes snapped open and went wide. For a split second he looked afraid. “Oh, it’s just you. His eyes half closed, sleep threatened to pull him back under. “Come on Simone it’s late. You can’t sleep in our bed tonight. I don’t want to hear anything about monsters or witches, you have to go back to your own room,” he muttered
She gave him another kiss. “OK, Dad I will.”
He closed his eyes again. “Straight to sleep, now. You’ve got school in the morning.”
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