I thought that maybe you behaved badly because you wanted me to tire of you. And I did. I didn’t want to be with you anymore. Tomorrow I would tell you. So we went to bed and my heart had to force itself to beat.
I always remember it as summer. We walked across Finsbury Park and along the old train lines to that café at Stroud Green and ate lunch. It was of course November. Then we went home, lay down and cried.
I was remembering our last kiss. It’s only our last kiss by name, not the last time we actually kissed. It’s just the name that I’ve given to that particular kiss; I’ve labelled only a few. Our first kiss for instance has a name. However, the last time that we kissed doesn’t (probably because its obvious title has already been given to another). But this naming of our last kiss doesn’t defy all logic; it carries a definite title because it is a defining moment in my life. It’s a kiss that, for me, pinpoints the end of our marriage.
It was the day I saw my Dad for the last time. We drove to my parent’s house (do you remember the snowstorm on the motorway?) We picked up my mum and then went to the hospital and sat with him for a few minutes. We drove back to London and when you dropped me off at our flat we kissed (who knows why?). We leaned towards each other (probably habit I guess), and our lips touched, gently biting, your hand was on the back of my neck, I stroked the side of your face, and we kissed. It was sincere. It was a nice kiss. It’s a good memory.
After the argument that Saturday morning in bed (it ended with me saying: “I don’t think I want to be married to you any more,” and you saying: “No. I don’t want to be married to you either”), there was a silence and we looked at each other and said something like: “Is that it then?”; “I guess it is.”; “Oh.” And suddenly all the tension had gone. The months of anger and bad temper; coming home drunk and shouting at me when I asked why you hadn’t called to say you’d be late; telling me I was suffocating you; the feeling I had that I had shared everything and that you would share nothing with me. The argument on the tube; the humiliation in front of your family; the party you wouldn’t let me come to; the fucking toothpaste; hair in the shower; the letters! What were those fucking letters? All the shit you never told me. It all dissipated, washed away by the rain. There was just still, cool, clean air. Is that it then? I guess it is. Oh.
My Dad died shortly after Christmas (I wasn’t there). My mum was at his bed side and held his hand and sang him a hymn that I don’t know. He didn’t wake or say any last words, he didn’t anxiously try to cling on to life. He was unconscious and his short breaths became more laboured. Then his heart stopped, everything stopped, and my mum knew that he was dead.
Five o’clock came and neither of us spoke. And soon it was six and quietly panic arrived in my chest. My throat constricted and the muscles between my ribs were so tense that I could barely shift enough air to keep me conscious. My stomach filled with acid and my heart felt the first pain of its long breaking. At seven we were lying together still, and I knew that I wouldn’t ask you to go. I would never mention it. Maybe we could say nothing and it wouldn’t have happened. You would stay. We would just go to bed and sleep and be in love all over again. But we can’t seem to change the past; the past few months of anger and bad mood; the past week of not talking; last night, I can’t change the fact that I had decided that I would ask you to leave; and today we agreed to separate.
I ought to think about going. You said.
How could you be so fucking strong? I don’t understand. How were you able to say this? Maybe you were more determined to end our relationship than I was.
No, not yet please. I’m not ready. Please wait.
I’ll wait. You kissed my head.
It was the kindest kiss and had the most love that I had felt for so long. You were relieved as well. Maybe you were able to suggest leaving because you hoped that I might ask you to stay a while longer.
Slowly and carefully, so as not to change the delicate balance of emotions that could hold us together maybe for hours, or separate us in minutes, we moved under the covers still clothed. For the first time in years neither of us could take our physical contact for granted. This time in each other’s arms and in bed was borrowed; from whom I have no idea. Whose is it? And then as if the emotional tension couldn’t be sustained, there was sexual tension. Nothing was said or changed, but lying under the covers, lying in your arms fully clothed, with tears in my eyes and heart, was as sexually tense as any other moment I have lived. We played with each other’s fingers and felt the breath on our faces. Maybe it was nine or maybe it was ten o’clock at night. Our lips must have touched for an hour before we could allow any motion of kissing and then the quietest whisper of a kiss on the lips that would not disturb the lightest sleeper. I wondered how long your fingers had been touching the bare skin of my back, so lightly it was almost imperceptible. I could have screamed with the impossibility, the frustration that I felt, but I didn’t. Nor did you. We just lay there silently staring at what we were about to lose. I know why it had to end. I know that our marriage didn’t work any more. But just to take those hours in isolation… It’s somehow criminal, the damage of separation. So wrong!
And my hand too was on your skin. My fingers were on your side touching as though you were made of the most delicate material, tracing your form up to the line of your ribs. And as my attention focused on the point where my hands touched your skin, electricity ran through my fingertips and became burning deep in me. I could never tire of that feeling.
At six in the morning we were lying naked together in bed. I don’t think we’d slept, we were just looking at each other, and it was time to go. Neither of us said it, it just was. You got up and dressed, put a few things into a bag and then came and sat on the edge of the bed next to me.
Bye. You said, and I sat up and hugged you and we kissed.
My dad had Alzheimer’s disease, and for a few years he’d been visibly fading. Every time I saw him he’d have longer moments of silence trying to find reality, or he’d say something that would betray him for being in another time or place. ‘I’d best be going now,’ he’d say. All it meant was that he’d no idea of where he was or how long he’d been there. He’d just stand up looking for a door and hope that it would all become clear to him. ‘I’d ought to be getting back now,’ he’d say standing in his own living room.
You got up and walked out of the door. I heard you unlock your car and put your bag in. I heard you close your door. I waited while you put on your seatbelt and I heard you move the gear stick left and right, then the sound of the starter motor choking the engine awake. I heard you wait while the fan cleared the windscreen, and I heard the gentle crunch as you put the gear in reverse before I ran to the window. The headlights were yellow in the light before dawn. You backed up a little and then pulled forward out of your space and I waved, but you didn’t look up.
When you try and be scientific to find the exact end of our marriage, lines become blurred: even though we’d stopped living together, we kept strong ties for a couple of years after that kiss; we even went out on some dates. It was two days before the last kiss that we’d agreed to split up. The night before that I knew I didn’t want to be with you any more (for how long had you known that you didn’t want to be with me? You never told me). The week before was (of course) horrible, and the months that before were gently draining the life from me.
When the phone rang it sounded completely alien, like the first sound I ever heard, and at first I just listened to the noise. I sat and made noises in my throat to wake my voice, I didn’t want anyone to know that I hadn’t spoken or done anything all day. I thought it might be you, but I wasn’t sure.
I’m afraid Dad’s been taken into hospital, my mum explained without self pity, but with care that I might be upset.
We both knew that this was going to be the last time he went to hospital. My mum just wasn’t equipped to deal with his illness anymore. And we got stuck in this kind of selfless script, each one trying to avoid their pain by focusing on that of the other. ‘How are you coping?’, ‘Oh fine, I’m sorry to give you such bad news’, ‘no that’s fine, how do you feel?’ ‘no, I’m fine, really, I was expecting this, it must be a shock for you though’. I didn’t say anything to her about us.
I remember lying in bed, leaning from my side to yours trying to discern the smell of your shampoo or any clue that you were still there. I thought of never washing those sheets again, but I did. It was Sunday and I spent the day in bed. I didn’t phone any one, I didn’t watch telly, I didn’t shower, I didn’t eat. I didn’t read and I didn’t think. I felt no happiness and I felt no pain. Like a pre-echo of my death, I was still and nothing more. And then my mum rang.
I said I’d go to see them the next day, and I called you to ask if I could borrow your car. You asked if you could come too and I said yes, so the next morning you came to pick me up. I offered to drive and we set off out of London and on to the motorway.
At first we sat quietly, not bitter, we just couldn’t think of anything to say without being sad. After half an hour we were speeding gently west and then it started snowing. Not just a bit of snow; it was a blizzard. The sky was black and the other cars became shadows. Huge snowflakes raced towards our faces. At first they melted on the road but after a few minutes it became white. We slowed to a crawl and the snow absorbed all the sound. With the noise went the nervousness, and we started to talk.
I only really remember the sorts of things we said, nothing specific, but it was relaxed and easy, as it could only be between two people so familiar. We talked of friends and work and we laughed at things we’d learned to find funny about each other. We talked about your family and about my parents. We laughed at some of the funny things my dad had said the last few times we’d seen him. We talked about my mum and how she might cope when he dies and the hours passed and we moved little, but gradually the traffic sped up, and the road turned black, the sky became grey. We arrived at my parents’ house at two o’clock. My mum had already been to the hospital and had come back to meet us. She was anxious to be back there.
The hospital was a few miles away up the coast and I felt frustrated for my mum to have to travel so far. I walked arm in arm with her into the hospital and up to the ward. We pressed a buzzer and a remote lock clicked to let us in.
A nurse told us that my Dad was sitting in a room on his own with a view of the sea and we strolled down the corridor, greeted on the way by various wandering patients who only had a little, or who had lost their minds completely, all in dressing gowns and slippers.
We came to a room with six or so hospital arm chairs a coffee table and some magazines, like a waiting room, and there was my dad, looking out of the window, waiting.
So when did it end? I think it just boils down to choice, like telling a story, you choose a beginning (you rarely start with the main characters birth, or when their ancestors settled, the dawn of human kind, or the creation of the universe – you just choose a point to drop in that works) and in the same way you choose an end, stop thinking about one thing, and move on to the next.
We drove my mum home. She talked of hoping that he’d be allowed home for Christmas, but I don’t think she really believed it. I promised that I’d go back next week but I never did, at least not until the funeral. I’d said goodbye and had my moment of recognition. I wouldn’t get any more than that and I wouldn’t ask for it.
On the way home you turned your body and your knees to face me and stroked the back of my neck for hundreds of miles. It was eight or nine by the time we pulled up outside our flat. We kissed. Our last kiss (only by name). I got out of the car and you drove away. I stood watching.
I have a sense of anxiety that nothing can ever be completed.
We still write or phone from time to time.
It could just of easily have been the day way met.
Ashes become ashes and dust becomes dust.
And the rocks compress my blood into oil; my flesh to coal.
And lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood, and the stars of heaven fell unto earth.
My dad smiled at my mum when we walked in and he looked at us shyly. When my mum introduced us I felt anxious, I really wanted him to know who I was. He shook my hand trying not to meet my eye so that he might escape being found out for having no idea who we were. He was uncomfortable and stared at the view outside. He didn’t want visitors.
I pulled up a chair directly in front of the window trying to block his view so he’d be forced to engage with me. You and my mum pulled chairs round him so one way or another he’d have to look at someone.
I tried prompting him into conversation, but he couldn’t acknowledge me for more than a couple of seconds. He focussed his attention on my mum. He didn’t seem any clearer about what she was saying but she was familiar and safer than a stranger like me. But I persisted and he started wondering how long I’d been there, maybe he’d been talking to me for a while, or even all day. Who knows, maybe I was his best friend.
That’s where the money is. He gestured out of the window.
There was a large tanker far out in the channel and a couple of smaller yachts nearer to the shore. On the horizon to the right, out of his view, there was a trawler.
Boats, he said, that’s where the money is.
Then he had a moment of doubt and looked at me, but when I caught his eye he turned away. Had he been talking to me? It had probably been a mistake. He started to stumble, starting sentences but not finishing.
My mum wanted him to put on a cardigan that she’d bought with her. He stood up and we helped him put it on, but he didn’t want to sit down afterwards. He just stood looking at the door.
Come on Dad sit down, I’ll help you. I said
Oh? Yes, OK then, good. I wondered if he’d even understood what I’d said. But having helped him down he started talking again.
Gesturing out of the window again he explained:
They come up here you see, at night. Tunnelling under the foundations. Destabilises the building you see. The whole thing’s going to fall down. You should get someone. We need to get help.
My mum cut him off, not wanting him to panic.
We’re fine no one comes up here we’re all fine. Look who’s here to see you!
My father looked around shyly at me and then spotted you.
Gosh aren’t you lovely. He said in sincere amazement then turned back to the window, probably wondering if he had mentioned the boats.
Your teeth look good Dad. I said.
Uh? Yes. Yes.
I thought my joke was lost on him as his gaze fixed far out to sea and then he suddenly got it and laughed.
They’re false! He said laughing at me.
I know. I said laughing back. And he laughed more.
My mum wanted to speak to one of the nurses and hobbled out of the room. When did she become old? I hadn’t noticed before.
She’s is lovely, he said gesturing after her, but I have a wife and children back home you know.
But she is your wife! For a moment I thought I was playing a role on a comedy or setting him up for a punch line.
Is she? Oh.
I don’t think he believed me and perhaps was reminded that he was talking to a complete stranger. He stood up.
Where are you going? I asked.
Oh, I ought to be getting back now.
No, no. We’ve only just arrived. Sit down for a bit. Look out of the window. Have you seen the boats?
You and I got either side of him and helped him sit.
Have you been reading at all Dad? I asked.
I thought that maybe I shouldn’t call him dad as it might add to the confusion, but I couldn’t resist; I had an agenda: I wanted him to recognise me, but he didn’t.
Reading? No. Nothing to read here. I don’t really have the time.
He couldn’t read at all of course; his concentration wasn’t good enough.
My mum came back and you helped her sit down. She told him about the things that she’d brought, slippers and some razors that she’d given to one of the nurses, a warmer jumper and some sweets. But he didn’t really care. I don’t think he knew what she was saying, or perhaps he just didn’t realise that she was speaking to him. Then he stood up again.
Oh well, he said, I should be getting back. The boys’ll be wondering where I’ve got to.
He’s tired. We’d better go. Said my mum.
I couldn’t believe it, we hadn’t been there for ten minutes, he didn’t even know who I was. I’d need at least an hour to build up some sort of rapport with him.
My mum took his arm and they propped each other up for the walk along the corridor to the day room. You and I walked behind and you held my hand. After a moment I let go and moved in front of them, walking backwards (it was a little childish and a little clownish, but I wanted to see his face). He stopped and grinned at me pointing.
Oh look, he said, it’s, um it’s..
It’s your son. Said my mum.
Oh. I see. He said, still grinning at me, but I’m not sure that he did.
As we got to the day room, my mum fended off a couple of curious mad people pleased to see us all. You held her arm and I walked my dad in, guiding him towards the seat with the best view of the sea, but he wanted to sit at a table to the left of the room with a view out onto some trees. I sat him down and he pulled a newspaper from the table towards him. I’m sure he couldn’t even see the print.
Goodbye Dad, I’m going now. I said.
Oh right, good. Yes, thank you.
I kissed his head and he glanced up at me and smiled a little.