Eleanor was unable to convince herself that she was entirely blameless for her father’s death.
When he was old, perhaps she didn’t spend enough time with him, letting weeks and even months drift past between those visits to his farm. Not that she’d been avoiding him. Just that she’d been so busy at work, not to mention writing her interminable thesis. It wasn’t as though she had any life of her own.
She last saw him in winter. After a two-hour drive from the city, on Friday evenings he’d pulled up outside his house, bag in hand for a long and wet weekend. He’d hustled down the steps towards her and, for a moment, seemed about to hug her with an abandon he hadn’t displayed before. This was all very odd, as he’d never been that sort of father. Sure enough he stopped, two paces distant, drew himself back on his heels and stared at her through clouded, fish-head eyes. Almost out of habit she jabbered an apology, for whatever offence she may have caused him. He clenched his jaw and his eyebrows bristled, as if he was struggling with one of his mathematical equations, but he didn’t bother to reply. Instead, he turned abruptly and hurried back into the house.
Chilled, damp air from the mountains had drifted through the hallway, settling as thick as morning fog in every room of the old house except the kitchen, where a wood fire crackled in the corner. Sarah, her younger sister, dished up a few measly lumps of rubber chicken—her gifts had never extended to practical, everyday matters such as cooking—and they huddled around the rickety laminex table. Eleanor gagged on her first mouthful and reached for the pepper, just to make her dinner palatable, but there was none left.
The house was a shambles. Worse, far worse than when she had last visited. Or else she hadn’t paid enough attention back then. The chairs were scabbed with rust; the wallpaper was peeling; dust caught in her nostrils. There was a rancid smell, as though someone had left meat out of the fridge. Once, her father could have fixed anything with glue or string or a hammer, but he’d really let his standards slip.
He was staring at her, not all of the time, but only when he believed that she wouldn’t catch him. Now he also reached for the pepper and ground it vigorously, only to discover for himself that it was empty. Hadn’t he just seen her try?
‘You look worn out, Henry,’ she said.
From her eighteenth birthday, he had always insisted on her calling him Henry. As if she was on his level, an academic colleague. Really, though, it was just another trick he had of keeping his distance.
He ignored her—perhaps his hearing was getting worse—and turned to Sarah. ‘Any beer?’
‘No,’ she answered, ever the dutiful younger daughter. ‘I’ll get some more next week.’
He turned back to Eleanor. ‘What’s up?’
Typical. He never asked her anything personal, as if he didn’t care much about her anymore. ‘I’m still teaching French and German.’ She paused. ‘Aber leider wollen die Studenten nicht lernen.’
He grunted but didn’t respond, because he’d never wanted to talk with her in German, his mother tongue. It was only her persistence, at school and university and later in Frankfurt, that had enabled her to learn the language. Every time she’d tried to speak German with him, he had looked away and chuckled as though her accent was poor, not richtig Hochdeutsch, when surely it was nothing to do with her choice of words or her grammar or even her accent, but rather the difficulty lay with some event that had caused him to break with his past and to hide away in the mountains.
‘Hell,’ he muttered. ‘Do I have to beg for a drink?’ He got to his feet and shuffled away.
Eleanor waited until he was out of earshot: no point in having an argument. ‘I don’t know how you can cope with him.’
Sarah glanced at the floor and twirled her hair. ‘He has good days and bad days.’
‘You can’t throw your life away, trying to look after him.’ Eleanor gave up on the chicken. ‘You need help.’
Eleanor had a restless night in her narrow childhood bed. What should she do about Henry? He was even more erratic and unpredictable than last time. But it wasn’t his temper that worried her. No, it was the way he’d stared blankly at her when she’d arrived, as if for that agonising moment he couldn’t quite place her.
She’d waited far too long, hoping that Sarah would come to her senses and insist that it was time he went to a retirement home. Plainly, that would never happen. Sarah had unthinking, almost canine devotion, while their older brother, Robbie, just didn’t seem to care. So it was up to Eleanor, yet again, to act. It was time to intervene.
In the morning, she called all the local doctors listed in the
Yellow Pages. No one was prepared to make a house call except Tom Lambert. He was the last name on her list—scuttlebutt had it that he’d once been addicted to painkillers—and she had only called him out of desperation.
When he arrived, Eleanor hurried down the path and intercepted him as he got out of his car, a bronze Commodore with rust patches bubbling under the enamel. He had grizzled sideburns and a comb-over, a cardigan and scuffed shoes, and a pronounced limp. He opened the boot of his car and hauled out the bulging leather bag of a travelling salesman on an overnight trip. The clasp was broken and his notepad fell into the dirt, and he swore under his breath.
‘I could use a cup of tea,’ he drawled, and picked at his teeth. She already regretted calling him. If he was as rude as this to Henry there’d be trouble. She took him to the kitchen, made him his bloody tea and left to hunt for Henry. After searching the entire house, she scouted around outside and found him in the shed, rummaging through a dusty pile of old books. What should she tell him? As far as she knew, he hadn’t seen a doctor for twenty years, not since he’d sliced open his arm on the barbed-wire fence. But she might as well be frank, as he’d find out sooner or later. ‘There’s someone here to see you,’ she said.
He drew himself up to his full height and stared at her with those rheumy, bloodshot eyes. Six foot three, with a barrel chest and arms that could throttle an intruder. She flinched, but didn’t back away. ‘I’m worried about you, living all the way out here. Time you had a check-up.’
‘Nothing wrong with me,’ he blustered. ‘Don’t waste your money.’
Like a lion tamer, she stared him directly in the eye. ‘If there’s nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to worry about.’
It was surprising, even troubling, how easily he relented and followed her inside. As if she was now the parent. Or else he’d already lost interest in what they’d been arguing about.
Lambert was in the kitchen, wiping his nose with a torn handkerchief that he hastily stuffed into his pocket. Henry ignored him and retreated to the corner, where he warmed himself next to the fire. Meanwhile Sarah drifted in from the study.
‘Could you girls leave us alone?’ asked Lambert.
‘They don’t have to leave,’ Henry snapped.
‘Papa, it’s all right,’ said Sarah, and patted his wrist. ‘We’ll just be next door.’ She took Eleanor’s hand and dragged her into the living room.
Sarah’s old piano still took up half the room, and Eleanor wandered over and opened the lid. Some of the ivories were cracked and broken, so that the keyboard brought to mind a row of decaying teeth. She tapped out a scale and, even though she was almost tone-deaf, she could tell that the piano was horribly out of tune, and some broken strings buzzed like those of a sitar. Obviously Sarah hadn’t touched it for years: what a waste of talent.
‘He can’t look after himself, can he?’ asked Eleanor.
‘Of course he can.’
Eleanor didn’t want to argue, but she had to bring her little sister to her senses. ‘I don’t believe it. No, he’s entirely dependent on you.’
Robbie was brash and headstrong and had always clashed with Henry; Eleanor herself had rarely fought with him, but nor had she ever felt especially close – but Sarah and Henry, they had always shared a special bond. Both of them were introverts and they would sit at the kitchen table, each reading in silence, utterly contented with each other’s company. Like minds. Henry had been a great mathematician and Sarah alone had inherited his incandescent flash of genius, transmuted into musical ability. Robbie was successful in business, if you doctoral thesis, but their achievements had only ever been within the bounds of normality, and the result of effort rather than inspiration, whereas by the time she was a teenager Sarah had toured Japan and America and Europe, and had been lauded by revered elders like Abbado and Giulini and Ashkenazy.
Finally Sarah looked across at her: puzzled or annoyed, or both. ‘What of it?’ she countered. ‘How many times do I have to tell you? We’re happy here. We don’t need any interference.’ Eleanor persisted. ‘You have to think about yourself for a change.’
Hardly words of reproach, but they caused Sarah to respond with uncharacteristic venom. ‘Why don’t you stop thinking about yourself? What does it matter to you, if I look after him? After all he’s done for us?’
‘He shouldn’t let you put your life on hold.’
‘I’ve had enough of this.’ Sarah turned on her heel and hurried off.
Rather than call after her, Eleanor settled on the old green couch, mulling over the distance she felt not only from Henry, but now also from Sarah. Maybe she was jealous because she was forever the interloper, because she wasn’t equipped to understand them.
Poor Henry. Sarah was covering up for him. He was unshaven, had stale breath, that whiff of mildew about him. And the longer Sarah insisted that she could look after him, the more she would ruin her own life. Perhaps she had a self-destructive streak. Regardless, Eleanor had to persuade her that she had done enough and there was no shame in seeking professional help.
Henry’s voice echoed through the hallway. ‘Get out,’ he roared, ‘and don’t come back!’
Eleanor hurried to the kitchen and found Henry skulking next to the fire, while Lambert was already out the door. She caught up to him in the garden, next to the clothesline, with Sarah trailing behind her. ‘That’s the last time I’m coming here,’ he said.
‘What happened?’ asked Sarah.
‘I’ve just given him a cognitive test.’ It was so cold that Lambert’s breath fogged up his glasses, and he took them off and polished them with that filthy handkerchief. ‘At least I tried, but he didn’t let me finish.’
‘And?’ asked Eleanor.
Lambert put his glasses back on and peered at her with obvious sympathy. ‘He couldn’t remember his age, or write a short sentence, or copy a simple drawing. I’m sorry to say this, but your father could have dementia.’
Somehow Eleanor had expected this, or something like it. Still, hearing it from a doctor, that devastating word dementia, caused her heart to shudder.
‘I can’t yet be certain.’ Lambert lowered his voice. ‘There could be some other reason for his confusion. I’ll refer him to a specialist, who can run some tests.’
Henry appeared at the doorway and eyed them all suspiciously, each in turn. Surely he couldn’t have heard them from inside. They’d closed the door behind them – or had they? He strode towards Lambert and thrust out his chest, ready to throw a punch, until he broke off eye contact and looked away wistfully towards the mountains. ‘You can tell me straight,’ he said, ‘what you’re telling them.’
That afternoon, there was a violent rainstorm that ended as abruptly as it had started, the sort of downpour that cleared every scintilla of dust from the air so that you could see the ranges with miraculous clarity. Henry wandered in from outside, his coat drenched and his nose burnished red from the Antarctic wind. He opened the pantry and took out a loaf of rye, and ransacked the fridge for a hunk of cheese and a jar of gherkins. After he shrugged off his coat, he joined Eleanor at the table as if nothing untoward had happened. He sawed away at the bread with a blunt knife—he’d always had trouble with knives, missing all those fingers on his right hand—balanced a lump of cheese on the bread and took a bite. His jaw muscles bulged and great knots of sinew rose and fell in his throat, as though he was a snake devouring its prey whole.
He turned to Eleanor. ‘You should make your sister play the piano again. She won’t listen to me.’
‘She’s busy enough.’
He left the table, rummaged through the cupboards and opened a bottle of wine. It was unlike him to be drinking in the afternoon. ‘What are you saying?’ His speech faltered. ‘That I’ve become a … burden to her.’
Random thoughts collided in her head, as if it was a bag full of loose change. Should she tell him it was time to shift to a nursing home? Make friends with other oldies, instead of rotting away in isolation on the farm? That he couldn’t lean on Sarah forever? To settle her nerves, she poured a glass of wine and gulped it down – a cheap, metallic red that set her teeth on edge.
‘Henry.’ There was a tremor in her voice; she couldn’t help herself. ‘Can I take you into town next week?’
‘Why?’ He hacked off another slice of bread.
She hesitated. ‘The doctor said you should have a few tests.’
He took another bite. ‘What for?’
‘Just a precaution.’
‘So they can put me down like a dog if I piss in my bed?’ He grabbed her wrist. Unnerving, his manic stare. ‘I won’t be locked up in a kennel.’
He took his coat and marched outside, leaving her alone at the table. Damn, she’d hashed it all up. Stupid, stupid. Should have shown more tact.
She cleared away the leftovers, washed and stacked the plates, wiped the benches – anything to keep herself busy and distracted. When there was nothing more to do, she trudged to her old bedroom, drew the curtains and threw herself on her bed. The window frame rattled with distant thunder and raindrops splintered on the roof – another storm front had arrived. The room was an ice-box, and she wrapped herself in blankets, tight as swaddling bands. It was strangely comforting that the contours of the mattress still fitted perfectly around her, as if the bedsprings remembered her shape.
Fatigue overwhelmed her, and she was ensnared by unpleasant dreams. The deputy principal told her she had to spend the weekend supervising a school camp and, when she refused, he fired her. She was evicted from her apartment because she couldn’t pay the rent. She had to pawn her collection of teacups, but dropped them on the way to her car and they shattered on the pavement.
She woke, unsettled, and lathered in a cold sweat. It was dark outside so she must have slept for hours. She lay on her back, staring at the contusions of cracked plaster on the ceiling, her joints aching as if she’d come down with the flu. So exhausted, she couldn’t get out of bed.
If Henry was still outside he might catch his death of cold, or become confused and lose his way. Should she run out and find him, coax him back? Perhaps she was worrying too much, because the rain had stopped and the wind had eased and, besides, he’d never been lost before. So she dozed off again and now her dreams were pleasant, about a holiday at a beach somewhere up north, with white sand and warm water and coconut palms. One of these days … Until suddenly she woke again, this time in shock, to the sharp and unmistakable report of a shotgun.