After the Rainbow by Mark Radcliffe
Published in The Lumen, Issue 1, 2014
I have no poetry left in me. I manage to dress, to eat, sometimes to wash. I manage to work, but Anna can tell there is something wrong. She says I mumble to myself and I ask her too many questions.
This feeling can cut into my lungs like cold air on a hot day. I have been grieving. I understand this, I think about it. I tell Anna that I am mourning the loss of knowing.
She says that sounds like crap words in a bad song.
I tell her it is the truth. Certainty belongs to the very young and the easily pleased, and I am neither. She says:
“Shut up. You sound like a hippie.”
I say that my self-knowledge imbues me with a certain wisdom and I have stumbled across a fundamental truth; it concerns the ignorance of the human spirit, and not very many people could know about that. Anna laughs at me.
She doesn’t know. There is something rising up inside me, between my throat and my chest and I keep swallowing to keep it down.
* * *
My father was always leaving. Even when he wasn’t there, he managed to leave. It’s not that he went anywhere special, just away, and maybe he’d come back. Once, he and my mum went in to the kitchen and talked with the door closed. I sneaked into the hallway and put the catch down on the front door. When they came back, I stood in front of him to keep him from going again. And he did stay – for about two weeks.
He never came back properly again.
A little while after my father left, a judge said that he could take me out on Saturdays. I knew that I had to look after my father – even if I didn’t want to. A judge had said. I played football with my friends on Saturdays – Martin, Paul, my big friend Robert – and I was the best. But when my father came to get me, we would stop playing, and the other boys would stand and watch. No-one ever said anything.
On these Saturdays, we never went very far; mostly to the pub. I would sit outside in the car and pretend to drive away. He would sit in the pub and pretend to take me out.
One Saturday, when it was hot, he took me to the beach afterwards. I didn’t have any swimming trunks, but he told me I could go in the water in my pants. He said no-one would notice. But they did. One boy, swinging a red bucket piled high with crabs, looked me up and down. Then he looked at my dad – with his purple face, a coat on despite this summer heat – and I think he understood.
Once my father drove me round the coast. The road cut from the cliffs; brown and pink rock hanging over us. His car – as all his cars – was small, old, ridiculous. He’d buy them for ten or thirty pounds when everyone else had given up on them. When they gave up on him, he’d buy another.
We stopped in a place where we could see the sea. He pointed to the clouds and he told me that once, when he was sitting right in this spot, he saw William the Conqueror flying over in his plane with lots of his soldiers. William tried to bomb him – he had to dive for cover. When the bombs stopped, my dad rushed to London to warn the Prime Minister that William the Conqueror was coming. The Prime Minister gave him a medal.
He was old, then; he had a small face, tired but handsome. And he always wore a green hat, with a black band round it and a brown feather stuck through it. He never took it off.
Sometimes my mum would come out with us. On the way home, we’d stop at the chip shop. My mum would queue for fish and chips, and my father would tell me stories: stories from his childhood, or about what stars were. They were proper stories. He had nowhere else to go, and the yellow lights seemed to make him still.
One night, we sat there for hours. He told me the facts of life: men and women and nature. I was nine and a quarter.
Normally when grown-ups talked for a long time, I needed pictures in my head to understand. I’d get bored and colour in the pictures of what they said while they talked. But that time in the car, I only listened.
Even later, when I worried he had made up the things about willies and girls just as he had William the Conqueror, his speech made sense. He only really made up stuff when my mum was not there, and being inside the chi shop counted as not being there.
I had only been away from home for a week when my mum told me that my father had died. When she told me I was sitting on the big bed, her bed, and I cried. I cried because dead means there is nothing you can do to make it OK, because I should have been looking after him, especially on Saturdays; because I would never see him again and that was worst of all.
When I looked up from my hands, the colours – all the colours – were gone. They never came back.
After that, I went away to sing. In church, they said God punished people for their sins. That sins were bad things you do, but not all bad things were sins. That some bad things were necessary. I thought it sounded like making things up.
I sang in church. Not because of God – but because there was nowhere else.
I had always thought he would have been better at being a dad if he had just practised.
* * *
After Anna tells me she’s pregnant, I don’t contact her for a few days. It’s not that I want to make her sweat. I know, absolutely, that there was no possibility of her sweating. That look on her face – cold, almost spiteful – when she told me.
I wait because I hope that she’ll stop being so angry. I’m waiting for a route back into this affair – an affair that used to be mine.
But if I’m to be a dad – if that child is mine – then anything is possible. I can’t not know.
Eventually, I call Anna and leave a message. Something cool, but not too cool.
“Hi, it’s me. It would be good to talk, hope you’re OK, I’ll be in all evening. Don’t worry if it’s late – I’ll be up, I’ve got lots to do.”
I’ve even planned the tone: placating, warm, good intonation. She used to say I had a sexy voice.
She doesn’t call back.
I call again. And again.
I wake up from a dream like ink filling my lungs. It weighed me down, pinned me to the bed. And sitting on my bed, wearing a car coat and his green feathered hat, is my father.
He won’t leave me alone. When he speaks – which he does often, especially when I want a little peace – his voice is not inside my head but on the radio, during Newsnight on the television, on my shoulder and whispering in my ear. He tells me things about me, things about Anna. He tells me that life is what you live with, how you live with it.
He tells me to go see Anna.
And I do. I want to make the effort – practise at being a good dad. I go alone and I take my dad.
Mark A. Radcliffe is a Senior Lecturer in Nursing at The University of Brighton, a novelist (Gabriel’s Angel, Bluemoose, 2010) and long time columnist with The Nursing Times. His second novel, Stranger Than Kindness, will be published in October 2013. It is a whimsical, hopeful tale about bruised and damaged nurses.