Our Happiest of Places

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
David Thom


Photo Credit: Moti Krispil/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Moti Krispil/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I cannot remember clearly how it happened, I don’t know if what I remember is right. I suppose all memories are like that, remain like that; they don’t belong to the time they happened, they belong to us. I remember rain, lots of rain and a little boy with his father and a pleasure I cannot remember happening since—if it has, it hasn’t stayed in my mind.

“Come on, Dad, we’re nearly there, they’ll all be gone by the time we get down there!” I yelled back at my father, letting go of his hand.

“Ok, son, slow down though, eh? These rocks are slippery so be careful, and don’t go too far,” my father shouted back (he always emphasised the be).

“Yes, Dad,” I shouted back happily with a smirk from under my baseball cap.

We had been coming to the same place for summer holidays since before I can remember. That year my dad took me fishing for the first time. No fancy boats or lessons. No apps or internet to tell you the best places to go; this was the eighties. It was just me and my dad, off the wild rocks on the outrageous North Atlantic coast with two rods and a bag of feathers. Mackerel were our prey. I remember wanting nothing more than to bring some home to an expectant and, I think that day, proud mother. When I think of childhood memories, spending countless hours on those rocks with my father and then on my own when I was a teenager, I see them as gloriously happy and sunny times. But like all the childhood memories I have of those holidays in west Cork, they are distorted by the artistry of the heart, turned poetic by passing time. But I like to think not that night. That night was and has stayed ferociously happy in my memory. It was grey when we left our holiday house and raining by the time we got to the rocks but we didn’t care. Like all good Irish men we already had our raincoats on. I was still young but had a lifetime of rain already. My father who couldn’t even light his pipe anymore looked like a drowned rat. He waited patiently so I could, as I would retell the story in later years, pull a leviathan from the sea.

“Come on, son, time to go. We’ll come back tomorrow.”

“Ahhhh, just one more, Dad, pleeeeeease?” I said, pulling my line in. Without waiting for permission, I threw it into the sea again, further I thought than I had done the whole evening. I focused as my rod bent with the retreating waves as it had done every time that wet evening. I watched with life-depending intensity but this time, oh no, not this time… it didn’t straighten! My dad was already dismantling his rod when I roared, “Dad, Dad, look I have one! I have one!”

“It’s probably just caught in the weeds,” he said as the rain dripped off his nose.

“No, no, come ‘ere I can feel it wriggling it must be a fish it has to be a fish come on and feel it!”

My father duly obliged. He took the rod and felt its weight and lo and behold declared, “You’re right son you have one on the line there. Now don’t panic.” He bent down to my level and handed the rod back to me, my heart racing. “Reel it in nice and slow like I showed you. That’s it, good boy.”

After a few adrenaline-pumped seconds I could see it glimmering through the water, wildly leaping to get off my feathers. But, alas, this was to be that mackerel’s last day in the foam of the North Atlantic and it was the first day I would bring dinner home to my mother.

We gutted it right there on the rocks, my dad showing me how to break its neck. He held his rough, scale-covered hands around mine as he pulled his penknife down its belly, the tobacco grinds from his pipe mixing with blood and fish guts as he thrust my fingers to pull its insides out. I was awestruck at the wonder of it all. I was a master of life in that moment, the only fisherman. We carefully climbed back up the rocks, my hand in his. I loved him so much in that moment. I felt like a champion, as if life would never be as good as this again. At home my mother grilled it with lemon, parsley, and garlic and I ate the whole thing, chips on the side, too. It was the greatest moment so far of my short life. But most of all in that place, that night I was my father’s son.

*

It’s different now, though. My parents live there now, not in the same house we rented for another twenty-odd summers after that night but just down the road. They live in a beautiful house surrounded by rolling violet-and-green wild hills that change colour every day. They are happy there. They can sit at their kitchen table and off in the distance watch the haze of the Atlantic crash on the shore. It is a million miles from the dreary suburban monotony of most of my childhood, the one that dominates my memory. It is, my mother says, the only place they can live, because it is the place she says, “where we have always been happiest.”

Those words linger in mind. “Where we have always been happiest.” They stay there at the front of mind; I can feel them pressing against my forehead. By ‘we’ she means all of us, even me and my sister. She imposes her happy memories on me. I am selfish and I know it but I cannot stop it. Those memories, hers and mine, stay there now especially as I return home again. Not to my childhood home, but to their home, their happy place. I am returning home because my mother needs me. My father is ill. It is the summer and my mother is all alone in her happiest of places. I am a teacher, no work for months, I have no excuse so I come home.

Other memories come back to me as well as I land at the airport. The way we used to drive down here from Dublin—it took seven hours back then, stopping for elevenses and lunch, always a picnic. That was before they built the motorways, of course. It still takes my parents that long to drive the same route though. Age slowing them down. I can see my sister and me fighting in the back seat, despising each other’s existence as only a brother and sister can. And I can see myself, a little boy, blonde hair, anticipating the two weeks ahead, the adventure, the beaches, ice creams and fish and chips. But most of all the break from my real life, of the long, grey, friendless summer that each holiday was a long-awaited break from. I was a shy child, introverted. I can see flashes of cheese and tomato sandwiches with dry crusts, flasks of tea and beakers of milk, the car stuffed with food and suitcases. My parents arguing and making up. The rain, the sun, the wandering western sea.

But as I walk through arrivals a more recent memory does not become reality. I am on my own, no girlfriend, no wife. Just me. Strangers embrace their returning sons, daughters, brothers and sisters and I am sick, sick with envy. I look around for my father, but as with when you wake in the blissful few seconds before you remember the awful thing that happened the day before, the memory of why he is not here comes flooding back. I walk on past strangers’ heartfelt reveries. Even if he was here I think to myself there would be no outwards show of emotion. Only a solemn hand shake and a ‘how are you?’ The silence in the car would eventually be broken by small talk about the football and asking for the hundredth time how my flight was. To an onlooker it might seem that we are strangers, but it’s our own way. In those words that have never been spoken, if you look close enough are, “I love you son it’s good to have you home,” and “I love you too, Dad.” But not this time. This time I buy a pack of cigarettes and head for the rental cars.

I haven’t been back for a while, more than a year, and now I’m going to spend the entire summer here. That thought hits me as I am driving down the dual carriageway and I break into a sweat and pull in at a service station. It’ll be me all alone with my mother who will be worrying herself into an early grave before my father goes. My sister can’t come, not yet. She lives in Australia now and the kids are still in nappies. She’s going to wait and see how ‘things play out.’ Those are her words by the way, not mine. That’s how she describes her response to her father’s impending death. She is her father’s daughter if nothing else.  I, on the other hand, didn’t get that far away from Ireland. England is as far as I went. Originally London and now Reading because I can’t afford London. How clichéd is that? Irish, both kids emigrated: Australia and England. I’ll be telling you my name is Patrick next. My girlfriend decided to take the news of my father’s impending death as a chance for us to ‘spend time apart,’ ‘a break’ she called it, so we ‘can grow.’ I told her that if she was that cold and had so little emotion in the face of a man about to lose his father we must already be related. “But Patrick you don’t even like your dad!” she said as I packed to leave. An accusation I denied, of course.

“Of course I do, he’s just my dad that’s all, and we’re not supposed to get along. Anyway, how would you know what it’s like?” I retorted. She had never known her father and any chance of reconciliation when or if I returned died with those words.

But now here I am sipping on a Styrofoam cappuccino from a machine on my way to a place I don’t want to be. I know how my mother will be. She will momentarily switch her worry from Dad to me, worrying about my job, my lack of a girlfriend and things like if I have a pension yet. Then reality will strike her again, and the thought that soon she will be alone, alone in her happiest of places will flood her mind and she will be silent.  I’m smoking as I get a text from her, she is going to the hospital to see “your father—meet you there?” I know it probably took her five minutes to write that text. ‘Ok’ is all I can write back.

*

He is much frailer than the last time I saw him. His hair is all grey and much thinner. He was a big man in his pomp but now he seems so much smaller, the disease that is taking him has devoured him already. ‘There’s not much left’ I think. But whether I am referring to him or time I don’t know. He is sleeping with a tube up his nose, one of those tubes that has two more sticking up the nostrils. I can hear his breath wheezing up and down. Nothing new there, though. In a quiet room full of people you could always hear my father breathing; it was like that for most of my adult life, the result of a lifelong dedication to tobacco. I stand there watching him sleep. He is much worse than my mother had told me on the phone. I suddenly feel her hand on my shoulder and we hug. She leads me out of the room to the canteen and we sit in the plastic wooden chairs, depressed sad-looking people everywhere, including us. I’m surprised it has a canteen, it’s a tiny hospital. I hate the place already.

‘How are you?’ she asks, how’s so-and-so? The job etcetera… etcetera… blah blah.

I cut her off. “Mum,” I say with purpose. “Why didn’t you tell me how sick he is?” and with that I can see the tears in her eyes. The anxiety is eating her.

“Why didn’t you tell me he was this bad, Mum?”

“I didn’t to want to worry you is all, Patrick. I know you broke up with your girlfriend and you’re not having a great time at work, Patrick, I just wanted to…” she trailed off, crying hard. Mums are like that, though, aren’t they? Their world will literally be falling apart and they will be worried about you. She was never good at taking care of herself, my mum. She knows I tell my sister more than I tell her. She knows my sister tells her more than she tells me. Even though they live thousands of miles apart, telling my sister anything is the quickest way for my mother to find out.

There is a long silence before she speaks again. “He won’t wake up again today, love, let’s go home and have a nice cup of tea. I think I just need a nice cup of tea and I’ll be fine.” All the world’s problems, all you need is a cup of tea.

“Ok, mum, I’ll follow you.”

She smiled and left. As she walked out, I walked back into my father’s room and sat beside him. I watched his face, his big nose pointed up in the air, his chest struggling up and down. I don’t cry anymore or can’t, I’m not sure which. But there watching him, so helpless, I felt them coming, stinging my eyes. I touched his hand. In years past he would have physically pulled himself away from any non-essential physical contact with me, with another man. He had reduced us to airport handshakes and man-hugs. But now he could not resist. I had a sudden urge to hold his hand and so that is what I did. My mind focused on a vision of his mother, my granny, years ago, older than he is now, and dead in a hospital bed. I remember feeling how tragic it was. Her own husband, my grandfather, had died years before and she had lived all alone in her big house for years. I didn’t feel bad that she was dead, she had a long life, most of it happy. But I felt sick with guilt that she was all alone when she died. It had been sudden and we couldn’t get there in time. All I felt was guilt. Not so much that she was alone when she left this world, but that I was not there. The two things are different. One is remorse, one is selfishness.  I resolve there and then that I will not let that happen to my father and when he is gone, to my mother.

*

We find ourselves at their kitchen table. Drinking tea, watching the glorious Irish summer lash against the window. It is mid-June, and it is nine degrees outside, “six with the chill factor,” my mother reminds me. We have our jackets on inside—“your father doesn’t like the heating on in the summer, waste of money,” she reminds me.

“It’s good to have you home,” she says, breaking another silence. I can’t say it to her. I don’t have the heart to tell her that this isn’t my home, her happiest of places is not mine. It’s not where I grew up. This place existed for years in her mind, with every summer visit she built it until eventually with retirement they found it and bought it. This house is them; it is their whole life together, their marriage, what they always wanted. Their daily routines are etched into the place; the path from the firewood basket to the door, the tea mug stains on their bedside tables from their morning cups, the coffee cup stains on the sitting room table from their lunch cups, the dinner already being prepared mid-afternoon. But this time it’s me she is cooking for, not Dad. She hasn’t had to change her routine, not yet.

I bring the dog for an afternoon walk around the country lanes they call home. The rolling green fields endowed with gorse and heather. It is June and the foxgloves and irises are everywhere daring to bloom in the cold Irish summer bringing the countryside alive with their colour. We walk for a long time. The dog a few feet in front. She doesn’t like me, never did, she is loyal only to my father. I throw the tennis ball but she shows no interest. Every now and then she looks back at me, turning and raising to see if he is there behind her but then she realises it’s me not him. I can see the disappointment in her face. It breaks my heart. We walk further and further until I realise where we are. It’s raining again but I don’t feel it. It’s cold but I don’t care. I remember being there with him again. I stop short of walking down the grassy path to the rocks.

“Come on, Dad, we’re nearly there, they’ll all be gone by the time we get down there.”

I turn and walk away, the dog as soaking and miserable as I am as we walk away from my happiest of memories.

*

June becomes July and the foxgloves are all gone, their green skeletons blowing in the wind with curled and sun-singed purple tinges blowing in the mid-summer breeze. The weather has improved—it’s in the mid-teens now—but my father has not. He is slowly getting worse, weaker, sleeping longer, breathing heavier.

My mother and I fall into a routine. We have breakfast early and I drive us into see him. We sit with him for a while and then go and have our lunch. Sometimes we go home, sometimes to a café, never to the hospital canteen. In the afternoon, I bring my mother back and leave her there. I return to the house and walk the dog. She has not seen my dad in months now and she can’t forget. She is so lonely. I return to the hospital in the late afternoon to collect my mother and say goodbye to my father. I can tell he hates being there. It’s affecting his mind, the boredom. I bring him books and DVDs but they only work for a short while. He is grouchy, but then again he is dying.

One Sunday afternoon she says she can’t go back, that she needs a break, some fresh air. She’ll take the dog. Would I mind going to see him on my own? I can tell by the look in her eyes she needs the break. She walks out with the lead in her hand before I can think of an excuse not to. The dog is immediately happier, but I know it won’t last.

I hesitate as I get out of the car. I have a cigarette and eventually go in. He is asleep and snoring. Not like the boom he used to let out but a low, deep gurgling snore. I watch him sleep. I have seen my father asleep so many times and never watched. It’s not something you normally do, is it? Watch someone else sleep, especially your dad. As I look at him I feel that urge to hold his hand again. It’s old and wrinkled with liver spots now. But it still feels the same as it always did. Safe and warm. I close my eyes and when I open them again he is wide awake, staring right back at me. He withdraws his hand sharply, not saying anything about it.

“Where’s your mother?” he asks. I decide to be honest with him. “She needed a break, Dad.”

He understands but he is disappointed it’s me here not her. The routine keeps him going, just like the dog. There is silence for a while until he asks, “How are my tomatoes doing?” and then goes on about the broad beans and then the courgettes and the lettuces. He asks about them all: the potatoes, the apple trees. They are fine, I keep saying. Mum and I look after it all in the evenings, after dinner, and I do some in between walking the dog and collecting Mum. He never once asks about me, my life, how I’m doing, and I’ve had enough of it. I have been back over a month and we haven’t had a real conversation, not even about football. This might even be the first time we have been alone since the day I arrived home.

“I’m grand by the way,” I say sarcastically with more than a little sanctimony in my tone.

“No, you’re not,” he shoots back, darting a look at me and I am stunned. I was expecting a ‘that’s good’ or no reply but not that, not the truth.

“What?” is all I can say.

“You’re not grand at all. I can tell you know? You think I have no idea, you kids, you and your sister, you think I have no emotions, but I do, you know? I’m your father, I wiped your arse and cleaned up your puke. I can tell.”

I can’t let it go. I can’t be happy that in all these years he is now actually reaching out to me, being honest. He might even start talking about his feelings. “I’m grand, Dad, honestly, leave it out will ye?”

“Grand? Bollix you’re grand.” He has stunned me again; he never swears. “Your mother told me.”

“About what?”

“That you’ve no job, your one, that girl you were with, she’s gone, that you’re living in some shithole in Reading.” He pauses. “For fuck’s sake, Paddy, Reading! I was there was once, you know? Awful kip.”

“It’s all I can afford,” I say, hating myself for it.

He sighs and looks at me straight in the eye. I can see the disappointment he has in his only son. “Jesus, man,” he says. “It’s all I can afford,” he says, mimicking me. “You still don’t get it do you?” He is exasperated with me.

“Calm down, Dad, I’m fine, honestly.” I’m not. “You’ll make yourself…”

“What?” he shoots in. “Sick? I’m dying, you eejit. In case you hadn’t noticed. I’m riddled and my own son is sitting here telling me he’s grand when he hasn’t even started living his life yet! For fuck’s sake,” he says, looking up at the ceiling. “Give me strength. At least your sister went and saw a bit of the world. But all you did was go on the piss and become a teacher.”

I stand up to leave, not because he is wrong but because I realise I’m a self-righteous, self-indulgent little prick and I know he is right and I can’t stand it.

“When are you going to work it out son?” he calls, as I walk down the sterile corridors.

As I walk back to the car all I can think about is how since I have come back here, to their ‘happy place’ all I have thought about is myself and how I don’t want to be there. I speed out of the hospital car park.

*

After that day my father takes a turn for the worse. My mother knows something has happened between us and it weighs on her. I come home late that night after driving around for hours. I don’t talk and go straight to bed. He can now only talk on really good days. My sister books flights, hoping he’ll hang on a few more weeks so she can see him.

I don’t spend any time alone with him for a while. His words hanging over me, I walk the country lanes of that place. I walk them in July and find myself in August, the late summer sun putting stars in my eyes as I walk around the bend. My actions are hurting my mother but I still can’t get over myself. I am stuck on the now, on why things happen, feeling sorry for myself. My father is light years ahead of me and I never saw it. He is just smarter than me, older and wiser.

Each day the doctors tell us it could be days, maybe weeks. My mother is in some kind of denial or maybe she is just prepared, smarter and wiser than me. She stares at nothing and everything, at her awaiting seclusion. We continue our routine, too afraid to talk about it. Then one day she breaks the monotony and asks me to go in alone. We drive to the hospital together but as we got out of the car she looks at the sliding doors, the nurses outside smoking. I can smell the smoke mixed with the disinfectant wafting out the doors. I look at her and don’t need to ask why.

I sit down by my father and stare at him asleep under his oxygen mask. I don’t hold his hand this time. I watch, paralysed or maybe blocked. Something always stands there in my mind blocking my emotions. He has had troubling breathing on his own for a while now. I know there’s not long to go. Somewhere in his sleep he knows I am there and slowly his eyes open and he is awake. He is thinner still than when I first walked into this room months ago. But this time I do not move my hand, he moves his. He looks around the room as if confused for a while and then he sees me. His eyes lock on mine and he smiles and he moves his arm to the edge of the bed, the palm of his hand facing up. I can see my hand moving towards his. I am so scared to touch it but he takes my hand in his and I let go. Whatever has been holding me, whatever has been blocking me finally collapses and I weep and sob as he dies around me. I lower my head onto the bed and weep more, his hands still rough, in my hair.

He tries to talk but he can’t summon the strength to lift the mask off his face so I lean in and all he can whisper is ‘I’m glad you came back,’ over and over again. I have been here since we argued but I know who he is talking about now and who he is talking to. He’s talking to the boy who was his son that day, who for a brief moment he made master of all of life. I can feel his weak heart. He knows I am the one who is sorry. Sorry for wasting my life so far and that I have figured it out. I tell him and he smiles. He is happy, in pain and happy. We stay like that for a while. A son letting go and a father happy in the thought his son will live life past that day. I watch him fall asleep. I watch him sleep his last sleep. Somewhere in the time between his eyes closing on his last light and the late summer sun fading outside he takes his last breaths into his wasted lungs and the last thing he feels is his son’s hand in his.

*

The swiftness of death often belies the lifetime it took to arrive. It distorts our memories and leaves us with feelings of regret and happiness. Regret over what might have been and happiness of resolution. I really don’t remember leaving his hand back on the white sheets and walking past the nurses and I don’t really remember cradling my mother as we wept hopelessly together or the silence on the other end of the phone as I told my sister. I know these things happened but they are only visions now in my mind.

But I know I was wearing a black suit and white shirt and black tie with nice shiny shoes as I walked down the grassy path to the cliffs. The late August sun was shining down on the wet rocks and the wild green ocean was glimmering in front of me. In my hand only a rod and a bag of feathers, the best-dressed fisherman those rocks had ever seen. As I launched my line into the waves one more time I could feel all the moments to come pour over me and all the moments that had been wash away. With the sun warming my cheeks I could feel my own words, “Come on, Dad, we’re nearly there, they’ll all be gone by the time we get down there.”

And I can feel my mother’s memories.

I am in my happiest of places. I am in our happiest of places and I know that none of us will ever be alone in that place again.

pencilDavid Thom is originally from Dublin, Ireland, but has not lived there since 2007. He is currently not living anywhere. He and his wife are on a round-the-world trip (which they hope will never end) seeing the world and hoping to find a place that they might call home one day. Email: david.f.thom[at]gmail.com

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