“Dad, you forgot your pills last night. You have to try to remember to take them twice a day.” Rachel emptied three small pills from the Tuesday compartment in the dispenser and transferred them to the following Monday, the first empty box in the sequence.
“What’s the point of all that time in the hospital, and the expense, if you don’t keep up with the prescriptions?” She picked up her father’s empty whiskey tumbler, which lay on its side on the carpet beside his fireside armchair. “Did you go to bed last night?”
Joe slouched in the chair, a rug pulled over his legs. His brown wool cardigan was buttoned incorrectly so that one side pulled down and the other up. His slippers and the bottoms of his trousers were muddied, from walking in the garden without putting shoes on, and his grey hair was unkempt. He looked at Rachel through bleary eyes, whose whites were now a jaundiced yellow. He looked hung over but she knew he was being overwhelmed by the pain in his back, since he’d forgotten to take his codeine last night.
“No, love. I fell asleep by the fire. I just can’t seem to drag myself upstairs these days.” He stared into the burned out fire as Rachel tucked the blanket more tightly around his legs.
“That’s the drink, and you shouldn’t be drinking on this medication. You know that. Would you like Richard to organize a bed in the study for you?” Joe didn’t answer. He didn’t like Richard and wouldn’t accept his help.
Rachel was only thirty but had the gait and dress sense of a much older woman, something of a throwback, in her herringbone tweed skirt and pastel blue cashmere cardigan. She had bustled through the front door soon after 7am, dropping her shopping bag and handbag in the hall, and bent to pick up the post on the doormat, sifting through the circulars and personal correspondence to see if Joe had received any bills. Since he’d deteriorated, she and Richard had taken over paying his bills, after wresting control of his day-to-day banking from him.
Today, as always, she’d spent time the kitchen, cleaning the surfaces and cooking Joe’s bacon and egg, though he rarely ate anything for breakfast nowadays. Now she moved around him, wiping the dining table with a damp dishcloth and shifting chairs into alignment. Nothing had been used since yesterday, but Rachel needed to feel she was making a difference. She moved efficiently, cleaning up his dirty ashtray, opening the curtains and a window, and checking he was still coping, before she went in to work herself.
Each morning, Rachel tried to be in and out of Joe’s house in fifteen minutes. She rarely entered his bedroom, which she found hard to do, but it was a choice between paying a cleaner out of his pension, or doing it herself. She begrudged spending money on Joe, even if it was his money for now, and anyway, she knew it would be hard to retain anyone for long, given Joe’s living conditions. Really, he should be in a home or a hospital or hospice, but he was a stubborn old sod. She decided to leave the bedroom for the weekend.
“I have to take Emily to dance classes after school, so I’ll look in on my way home, about five thirty. Richard’s going to stay in tonight so I can take you to Hampstead for your reading.” Rachel stood looking in the mirror as she put on her coat and headscarf, reminding Joe of her mother.
“We’ll be leaving at six, so can you get yourself ready by the time I get here, OK?”
This had begun to create friction, as Joe might agree to prepare for an outing, only to fall asleep or become distracted, so that he was not at all ready when Rachel returned at the agreed time, and in a rush to leave.
“For God’s sake make an effort, dad, when you’re shaving. Last week at that college dinner, it was pretty embarrassing seeing you with bits of bloody toilet paper stuck to your chin.” She hated criticizing him. It seemed like bullying, now that he was so frail, and she felt it was somehow out of place, when she’d spent her whole life in fear of him. But since he’d become sick, she had effectively become the parent and he the child.
Really, Joe had it coming. He was always a bully himself, and she got precious little attention from him when she was growing up. What little time he did spend at home was given to her older sister, Emily, not her. When Emily died, Joe was just not there for Rachel or her mother. Now that he needed her and she felt nothing for him except a vague contempt, it was easy to push a little harder. She wanted to make him realize that he owed everyone, even if he was past the point when he could give any of them what he’d failed to give all his life.
Rachel’s life had swerved in Joe’s direction once he was diagnosed with myeloma. The family had assumed that she would look after him, despite her anger, and though her mother, Ellen, was in greater need of her company. Chloe, Rachel’s younger sister, was living overseas, and Joe’s second wife, Maria, didn’t involve herself. If Rachel could have shared the responsibility for Joe, or passed it on, she would have done so.
Ellen was at least independent though, and she loved her grandchildren. If it wasn’t for Ellen baby-sitting for her most weeks, it would be twice as hard for Rachel to spend so much time cleaning up after Joe. But Ellen wouldn’t want to hear that – she’d have lain down on the motorway rather than help Joe. Rachel understood the source of her mother’s anger, which seemed as strong now as it had been ten years ago, even though Ellen wouldn’t discuss Joe with the children.
“Leave it, Rachel darling. There’s just no point going back over old ground.” Ellen had barely spoken to Joe since the divorce, even when Rachel told her of his cancer. To Ellen, his behaviour after Emily’s death was unforgivable.
It had been six months since his diagnosis, and Rachel had found herself drawn into his illness, first as occasional chauffeur to hospital visits, or to pick up his weekly shopping, and later, when he couldn’t keep house for himself, as his daily skivvy. It was in her nature to be a carer. Since her early teens, Ellen had leant on her, and then she’d married Richard, who was pretty dependent in his way. Perhaps she’d chosen him for his self-pity. He certainly didn’t give her the protective support she craved. Like Joe, Richard was only really interested in himself, but unlike Joe, he hadn’t the charisma to make that attractive on any level. Richard’s best feature was his dedication to the children. Needless to say, Joe disparaged Richard to his face and behind his back, and Rachel often wondered how much longer she’d have to put up with the depressing dynamic between these two men. She knew that Joe’s death wouldn’t make everything right in her marriage, and she knew she couldn’t pretend that the current daily tension was just between her father and husband.
Emily had been gone over ten years, though her name lived on in Rachel’s daughter. Naming her child Emily had been discussed with Ellen, but Joe had not known until he attended her christening, and he had turned white when he saw her name in the order of service. Rachel chose the name in memory of her beloved older sister, who had fallen, or jumped, from Lambeth Bridge, while high on cocaine, and drowned.
Emily had been three years older than Rachel, and always more confident, and very daring even as a small child. Rachel had looked up to her throughout their childhood. She was a great performer in social situations, while Rachel had hidden in her shadow. Emily was the more beautiful, alluring even, while Rachel had only begun to lose weight and develop her looks when Emily died at 20. During their teens, Emily’s popularity and Rachel’s shyness were opposing forces.
“Oh come on Rach, let’s go to the rowing club disco on Saturday. Freddy’s going to be there and I know he wants to get serious.” Emily would be grinning into the dressing table mirror, while stroking her eyelashes with her mother’s mascara. At fourteen, she didn’t seem to care that Rachel, then only eleven, would be too young to get in to the disco, or that Ellen wouldn’t let her leave the house.
“Freddy’s brother is fourteen, so he’d be ideal for you, and he could bring you home, in case I’m occupied.” She cared about Rachel’s well-being to a point, but Emily had only one objective in life, and that was to push the boundaries for herself.
“You go. I’ll be fine.” Rachel would say. And that was usually what happened.
Emily died when Rachel was studying for her A levels, and Rachel’s life just seemed to fall apart. She took to staying in her room, staring at the walls, only venturing out to buy chocolate and biscuits. She slept most of the day, dropped out of school and had to repeat her final year. Despite everything, she managed to pull through the exams, and got accepted to do psychology at Oxford Brookes.
During her gap year, Rachel became pregnant, by a boyfriend she didn’t love, and the baby was due just before she was to start her college course.
Ellen, who was herself drifting hopelessly through her grief, offered to take care of the baby in Bayswater during term-time and Rachel could come home at weekends from Oxford, until things worked themselves out.
After a year of commuting at weekends to London to be with Emily, Rachel couldn’t bear being alone in Oxford without Emily any longer. She had been dreading talking to Ellen about taking Emily away from Bayswater.
“Emily loves her Gran, don’t you,” she said, “and it’s been wonderful knowing you’re looking after her so well while I’m away, but I can’t bear being there all week and her not with me.” Ellen sat stiffly in silence. She’d obviously been expecting this would come sooner or later. “Richard and I have worked out our lectures and we can manage her this year, and there’s a crèche on campus.”
“That’s fine, love, when you’re both settled in jobs and have an income, but it’s not an ideal environment to bring up a small child as students.”
“Mum, I know how much you love having Emily, and it’s great here, with the nursery and the garden, but she needs to be with her mother, now she’s learning to talk and walk. I don’t want to miss out on her growing up.”
Ellen smiled, resigned already to the change. “Emily will miss me and I don’t know how I’ll manage without her,” she said. Her whole body sagged and she looked suddenly much older. She stared out of the window.
“We’ll come home every couple of weeks to see you, and if you don’t mind the sofa, we’ll always have room for you in Oxford. It’ll be handy if you do come to stay, too.”
Emily spent the next two years in Oxford while Rachel and Richard both graduated and Richard found a job. Ellen came to stay as often as she could, but she was so depressed and had begun drinking heavily. It wasn’t good for Emily, and Rachel did whatever she could to put off the visits without being confrontational.
“Hi Richard, how’s the day going?” Rachel had the phone squashed between her ear and her shoulder as she opened the car door for Emily outside the dance studio. “Could you meet me at Joe’s at six on your way home? I want to move his bed down into the study, and I can’t do it on my own.”
Emily, like a sprite in her pink leotard and tutu, jumped into the back of the Volvo, still flouncing and swinging her arms after the class. She had an oval face and a shock of black hair, and every day, it gave Rachel a sharp pang, seeing her sister’s looks replicated in her own daughter. Emily hadn’t bothered to change out of her ballet slippers, which would need replacing before the end of the term at this rate.
“For God’s sake, Richard, not that again. I know he is, he’s my father isn’t he? He still needs looking after, whatever you think. And you’re doing it for me, not him.” Rachel was sick of defending her father to Richard and vice versa. It would be easier for her to keep them apart, but she sometimes needed Richard’s help, which meant walking the tightrope in an effort to keep the peace.
“OK, love. See you there. You know he’s got that bloody reading at Waterstones tonight, so you’ll have to take Emily home and I’ll take him, unless of course you’d prefer to… No, no, I thought not.”
She hung up, knowing full well that If Richard had to take Joe to his talk, she’d suffer for it. Richard would spend the night whinging about Joe’s bullying manner. Even though he was dying, he could still spit nails, and Richard didn’t deserve that. But just as she wanted to hurt Joe for all his carelessness over the years, so she wanted Richard to toughen up, and stop suffering for his placid weakness and lack of fight.
They got to Joe’s by 5.30, in just enough time to get him spruced up and ready to leave before Richard arrived to help move the bed. Rachel was hoping Joe would be dressed in his suit and just needing a once-over, so she would have time to cook Emily some fish fingers and chips at Joe’s before Richard took her home. Richard was apt to hit the wine and leave her in front of the TV till seven or eight, and not notice she hadn’t eaten. Richard worked in Human Resources, but dreamed of becoming a best-selling writer. He’d been trying to work on his novel in the evenings after work, and wasn’t getting anywhere as far as she could tell. At various points over the last two years, when he was sober enough after dinner, they’d talked about the plot, which she thought sounded two-dimensional. He was working through his father’s role in German politics, re-casting him as some sort of Nazi strategist, in a complicated plot-heavy thriller, despite his Jewish origins. As subtly as possible, Rachel had fed him her ideas, and he’d gone away happy for a while. Perhaps she should get co-author credits.
“Dad. Dad. Wake up! What the hell have you been doing all day? As if I need to ask.” Joe was sprawled in the armchair, and he stank of whisky and cigarettes. He had a damp patch on his shoulder where he had been drooling in his sleep.
“I’m completely bloody sick of your drinking. I’m sick of trying to make you comfortable and you not helping yourself one bit.”
She heaved at Joe’s arm to lift him out of the chair, though he wasn’t making any effort to lift himself. She gave up. Joe smelt as though he’d wet himself, and his half-closed eyes were sticky with mucous.
“Leave me alone. I’m not going to the fucking talk. I’ve got nothing to say. Get off me.” Joe didn’t slur his words, but his eyes were slow. “Hello Emm.” He added as Emily pranced into the room and tried to spin on one toe.
“Emily, take this into the kitchen and put the fish fingers under the grill. I’ll be in in a minute to start the cooker.” Rachel gave Emily the bag of food and waited while she left the room.
“How dare you. Who do you think you are swearing like that in front of my daughter, your own granddaughter?” Rachel was red in the face. “Do you think I want to waste my time coming here to look after you when you can’t be bothered? I hate you!”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be out of your way soon enough. I didn’t ask for your help,” he said with a grimace. “I can manage. You’re always bloody interfering. You were always the same, even as a child.”
“You selfish old bastard. You never cared about mum or me, did you? All you cared about was your bloody career, and screwing around.” She’d tried to keep the lid on her feelings. She hated swearing, and Emily was bound to be listening.
“What did you do with my glass?’ Joe stood up and searched the table. Rachel stepped across him and took his half-empty whisky bottle.
“Hey! You give me that bottle back or you’ll feel my hand.” Joe made a grab for it, and she stepped back out of his reach as he swayed and fell back into the chair. His impotence disgusted her. If he’d tried to slap her, she’d have hit him without a thought.
The doorbell rang and Rachel turned to go and open it with a mixture of relief and trepidation. She began to cry as Richard looked from her red face to the whisky bottle and reached out to hold her steady. She brushed past him and turned before he could comfort her, and opening the door to the under-stairs cloakroom, she quickly emptied the remaining whisky into the toilet.
“Right Joe. Richard is here and we’re moving your bed down to the study. Then we’re going to take Emily home, and you can get a cab to your bloody reading, or not. Please yourself.” She went into the kitchen and began pushing the frozen fish fingers, which Emily had arranged neatly on the grill pan, back into the Birds Eye box, which she stuffed back into the carrier bag. Emily looked at her mother and said nothing.
“What’ve you been doing to her, you old fucker?” Richard stood over Joe, clenching his fists and showing a rare attempt at confronting Joe.
“Leave me alone, Nancy boy.” Joe didn’t bother to look up to see the effect of his insult, but he knew it had hit home, as Richard retreated to the doorway.
“Right, let’s get that bed moved and get out of here.” Rachel barged Richard into the hall, and towards the stairs. She had heard Joe’s comment but said nothing. She too knew it was only said to hurt, but she couldn’t defend Richard on this one.
That evening and the following day, Joe pervaded Rachel’s thoughts. She couldn’t come to terms with his coldness and lack of appreciation for all she’d been doing for him. Despite the years of his inconsiderate behaviour, and of his desertion when she needed him most, Rachel couldn’t face the possibility that Joe didn’t love her. It seemed possible that he was overwhelmed with guilt, and that he saw her as an extension of her mother, and someone he couldn’t avoid in the way he had Ellen. The only answer she could come up with was to leave him to decide whether he would engage, and not visit him every day. She knew he’d be on the phone when the food ran out, or he couldn’t get a replacement for the bottle she’d poured away.
They had only once tried to talk about Emily since her death. Rachel and Richard had brought their daughter Emily, then three, to see Joe on his sixtieth birthday. Chloe was over from Paris, but she had made the decision not to see him. Chloe had a much tougher approach to Joe than Rachel did, and would never forgive him for the past. She was a chip off the old block really, and she’d told Rachel over dinner with Ellen that Joe could burn in hell for all she cared, though Rachel thought she said this mostly for Ellen’s sake.
Joe hadn’t seen his granddaughter since the christening, and now, as she played happily at his feet, he tried in his way to interact with her.
“Does she remind you of me at that age, dad?” Rachel asked. She knew he had little recollection of her early years, when he’d been in Westminster or his constituency almost all the time, and as she now knew, living with his secretary.
“I remember you when you were about four, looking just like this one. You were in awe of Emily then. She could do no wrong in your eyes, and we had the devil’s own job trying to separate you,” he replied.
“Why would you want to do that, dad? Did you think Emily was bad for me or something?” Rachel’s irritation was quickly stirred.
“No, love. It’s just that she was far too willful. Your mother couldn’t handle her, even then, and we just wanted you to have space to grow up as your own person.” Joe looked at Rachel a little longer than usual, as though he were inspecting her after years of not noticing her. Rachel blushed.
“So when I was a teenager, and Emily was living away, becoming harder to… you know, to predict, was I my own person then? Do you remember, dad?” She saw Joe disappearing into a reverie in front of her, hardly listening, and no longer looking at her.
“When Emily fell into the river…” Joe’s voice thickened.
“When she jumped into the river, dad.” Rachel could feel her anger bubbling up.
“We don’t know that, love. We don’t know at all. With all those drugs and drink inside her.” Joe looked suddenly terrified by the notion of Emily’s suicide, almost as though he hadn’t considered it before. “I blame myself for not being around enough, you know. I might’ve helped her.”
“And do you blame yourself for not being around for me and mum when she died?” Rachel had wanted to say that one thing for so long, and yet it didn’t feel in any way satisfying now.
Joe bent down again to Emily without looking at Rachel. “I think I know someone who might like a chocolate biscuit,” he said, and he went to the kitchen to fetch the tin, cutting Rachel off in the process.
For three days Rachel held off visiting Joe after the incident with the whisky. He didn’t call her, and she actually had a few hours each day without thinking about him.
On the third day, she was sure he’d need more food, and she had begun to regret the fact that they’d left him completely to his own devices, when the phone rang. The moment she picked it up she knew.
“Hello. Is that Rachel? Hello dear. It’s Mrs. Warburton, your dad’s neighbour.”
“Hello Mrs. Warburton, is everything all right?” She tried to sound calm.
“I was worried, so I used my front door key to check on him.” Her voice was even more shaky than usual. “Rachel dear. I found him in the chair. He was stone cold, dear.” There was a long silence. “The ambulance is there now, if you could come.”