28 summers

I wake with Mam standing at the bottom of my childhood bed. I’ve been dozing. Trying to settle Lauren, our youngest. At three she’s a baby when sleeping. Fierce when awake. Andrew is five. Sensitive. Gentle.
‘They phoned. We have to go now.’
I kiss Craig. I say I’m fine.
I played out sometimes with Karon Roddam. We weren’t best friends. Just friends. That year Karon lived on Heugh Edge at the top of Cross Lanes. My house was off Cross Lanes. Our living room had a window as wide as the room. We could look out to Darling’s farm and Waldridge Fell. In the distance we could even see Washington. Daddy worked at Darling’s farm when he was at school. The house he lived in was just up the lane. Daddy had lived with his Granny and Croppy Richardson. His Mam and Dad didn’t want him. Sometimes on the way home from school the road would be full of sheep. They would shout and bounce and stink. They left piles of black balls on the tarmac.
Sandra says they’ll meet us there. It’s rained. Sticky dusty August rain. The wipers blur the windscreen. I don’t see any traffic. We pass my old school at the top of Fyndon Hill. I can see Dad’s car parked at the gates, waiting to pick me up. At the Pity Me road there are lights and roadworks. The light stays red until I have to breathe. The car park is quiet. It isn’t visiting time. I park near the main entrance. Next to the disabled bays.
I wasn’t allowed to cross the road myself.. Sometimes Mammy walked me up the lane and watched me cross over to Karon’s house. The bus came once an hour and stopped right outside. There weren’t many cars. One time we visited Auntie Nan. She lived on Daisy Hill. Up the bank from Karon’s house. Auntie Nan’s house smelled like newspaper and polish. She lived next to Mammy and Daddy when they got married. When Colin was born. That day I was allowed to walk down the back lane by myself. It looked down over the wood and the pit and the slag heap. I could see the big wheel that pulled the coal and the miners into the sunshine. The lane smelled of dust and overflowing bins. I counted the gates and walked carefully. Daddy said I could trip over a matchstick.
The corridor is shadows and alcohol gel. We walk quickly but I don’t hear footsteps. Colin and Sandra wait outside. Sandra’s top is inside out. She refuses to change it. I am breathless with the corset of familiarity. We look in through the glass in the door. One of the night staff opens it, breaking the seal.
Karon always had things in jars or boxes. Beetles. Newts. Tadpoles. Daddy didn’t like living things in jars.
‘Nature needs to be outside.’
But Karon always had something. That year it was ladybirds. They were everywhere. Jars and jars. Labels picked off and crawling with ladybirds. Red and black balls that sat on the tip of my finger and oozed sticky yellow. I wanted ladybird jars. They were the best yet. Later I felt uneasy. Like the little black legs had tickled under my skin.
Dad is somewhere else. In open fields. Catching rabbits. Riding pit ponies. His hand fits inside mine. His skin is etched glass and purple where the drip has been. The elastic of the oxygen mask now rests on white gauze. Yesterday it sliced at his ears. His face reflects Andrew’s. Dark spots mark his brow. His hair is white wisps.
The doctor said it was measles. He asked if I’d been vaccinated. Mammy said no. I’d gone to get the vaccination. I’d had the sugar lump. We’d stood in the line watching other children get stuck. Their faces turning purple. Fat tears dripping off dirty noses. I never got to the front of the queue. Mammy marched me home with her arms folded and my hand tucked in them. I had to walk on tiptoes. It was a bad batch. I wasn’t getting it. Christopher Liddle had a bad vaccine. And he couldn’t talk. Or swallow. And dribble ran off his chin. We weren’t mean to him though. They were a nice family. Even though they were Catholics.
I sit at Dad’s right hand. Mam and Colin sit at the other. Sandra hovers. She’s a nurse. Colin’s eyes are unblinking. A lot has been lost in five years. We communicate in looks and whispers. Behind me is a window looking out to the car park. Curtains separate us from others. The side rooms have MRSA.
Daddy had booked three weeks off work. We were going to tour in our four birth caravan. It was the biggest holiday ever. Daddy was the foreman at ‘Vouts’ and between working for them and night jobs he wasn’t home much. They bought a white Maxi car off Uncle Bob to tow the caravan. The works van wouldn’t do it. It smelled of paint and had a coat hanger instead of a hand brake. Colin didn’t come. He was twenty. Too old for caravans. I got to pick my bunk.
My back is aching. Childbirth after thirty has estranged me from comfort. I use Dad’s glass to take tramadol. The water is sour. Colin asks if Dad knows we’re here. I say he does. Craig creeps in. He says that Paul is getting the first train tomorrow. A neighbour is watching the kids. Craig stays for a few hours listening to him breathe. To the plastic valves’ irregular tick. The kids are still asleep. They don’t know we’re gone. I want one of us to be there when they wake up.
The first place we stopped at was Skegness. I was still tired from the measles. Daddy told me, ‘Watch you don’t slip down the grate in the road.’ Mammy had cooked a ham shank to take with us. We ate it with tinned potatoes. After tea I sat on the caravan steps and ate the scraps of meat off the bone. Mammy said it was nice to watch me eat. Daddy said it was the fresh air. We went for a walk on the cliffs. Down on the sand it was crawling with red ladybirds. I wished for the sea to wash them away.
I squeeze Dad’s fingers. Sometimes he squeezes back. His eyes are still closed. Our space smells of damp and vegetables. Someone is snoring over the footsteps of the night staff. A stomach growls. We giggle. Sandra wipes Dad’s mouth with a glycerine stick. No gag reflex means he can’t drink. If he lives he’ll need to be tube fed. Mam still thinks this will happen.
We went to Wales after Skegness. Places with funny names and wooden bridges. And waterfalls and rivers where you could see the pebbles at the bottom. We moved lots. Never on one camp-site for long. There were fires in rubbish skips and caravans were parked too close together. I made friends and played hula hoops and skipping ropes. I got a Welsh girl outfit and had lots of pictures taken. Then waited for my face to appear in shadows. Days were long and hot and spent outside. Daddy said he wanted to leave work and travel the country in a gypsy caravan with a horse. He said he wanted to live outside forever.
Morning arrives. Sandra goes home to let Craig come back. She says not to let them move him. The night nurse comes. She asks if she can wash him. Make him comfortable before her shift ends. We don’t want to leave him. But politeness prevails.
The fairground was in Wales. There was a helter-skelter. Daddy said it was too big for me to climb so he came with me. I sat on his knee on the coconut mat. Round and round until we couldn’t stop laughing. At the end we shot off across the grass and he held my hand tight and we ran to do it again. There was a merry-go-round. The horses were red and blue and smelled of gloss paint. It was hot on my legs. My horse had a twisted golden pole through its chest. I held it for my life. It lasted forever. Each time it went round Mammy and Daddy waved and I waved my fingers back. And pretended to smile. Then they were gone. Then they were there again. Daddy sitting down beside a wall. Mammy leaning over him. No waves. No smiles. We went in the car to a town. Mammy took me into a furniture shop. Daddy stayed outside. I could see him through the window smoking his pipe. There was a dark wood dining table the size of my bed. Under the glass it was carved deep with flowers and birds. I wanted to climb inside.
We stand in an empty side room while she does her job. We don’t say words I will ever remember. I wonder if the kids are awake without me. The door opens. Her eyes are wide. She says we need to hurry.
I started junior school in September. Everything was different. I was on the same table as Karon. The teacher had a slipper in her drawer. Anthony Wilson was sick on his desk every day. The top of his desk had a bleached white stain. Mornings were assembly in the hall with Mr Hall singing hymns off the overhead projector.
He exhales.
I got into the choir. Daddy said I couldn’t hold a tune. He laughed when I sulked.
Mam says, ‘Is he ticking?’
We had our own pegs for coats and borrowed black plimsolls for PE.
I can’t hear.
A man came into our classroom. He played some notes on a tape player and we had to write down which was higher. I guessed. He gave me a clarinet.
I put my head on his chest. It’s still.
On Tuesday nights there was film club in the hall. I watched Elvis Presley in ‘Kissing Cousins’. I drank orange squash from a Tupperware container. I ate ‘Tudor’ crisps that left acid on my fingers. We giggled a lot. Mammy picked me up at the gate. Her face was pink and crumpled. She said Daddy was poorly. She said we had to hurry. Next day it was Daddy’s birthday. He was forty five.
We leave the ward so they can move him somewhere private. I phone Craig. I tell him I’m fine. I pass Sandra on the corridor. She gives me a cigarette. I sit in the passenger side of my car and smoke half of it. A wasp bangs his head against my windscreen. My shoes are wet from the dew on the grass. I tell Paul I’ll pay for a taxi. He says, ‘What’s the point?’
Daddy was in bed for a whole week. His head was damp and left wet patches on his pillow. He slept a lot. I tried to tell him about school and he tried to listen. The doctor said he had flu. After a week another doctor came. She was very cross. Two men came and carried Daddy downstairs on a chair covered in a blanket. Daddy winked at me when they carried him to the ambulance. Mammy went with him. I stayed home with Colin and we watched the blue lights through the glass door.
I see Dad one last time. Covered with a green sheet. ‘Durham University Hospital’ printed across his chest. His arms are on top of the sheet. His mouth is slightly open. Mam tries to close it. He doesn’t have his teeth in. The room smells of someone else’s sickness. We wait until it feels too awkward to stay. I kiss his forehead. Cool. Like leather furniture.
The doctor said Daddy was going to die. Daddy decided he wasn’t. He came home for Christmas. He couldn’t talk or get out of his chair or cut his turkey. He watched outside through our front window.
The television news reports flooding in Bodcastle. Houses are ankle deep in water. Cars float down the streets. People are in shock. I sit in Dad’s chair and watch the sunshine.


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