Dad died as the dawn broke. Before he went to sleep the night before, I spent my final hour with him. Heart failure and whiskey made him ramble, but I got his gist. I tucked him in, as he had tucked me in once and kissed him goodnight. “Leave the curtains open, would you darling, I want to see the dawn.” Those were the last words I ever heard him say.
Surrounded by his children, it was a good death and with it came a strange release from his paternal authority over us. Afterwards, waiting for the undertaker, we became naughty. My sister, giggling, put on his shoes and glasses and shuffled around, pretending to be him. We raided his pockets for his last thirty pounds and someone went out and bought champagne with it. We played his favourite tunes much too loudly, almost disrespectfully, cocooned in a strange, hysterical grief bubble.
Later, one by one we crept back to see him on his death bed. We smoothed his shirt, combed his hair, inspected his hands, kissed his cold forehead. The grandchildren, some as young as three came in, curious. We answered their questions as best as we could. After a while, we told the children that soon they’d come to take Grandad’s body away. There was a long silence, then the youngest piped up “But aren’t they going to take his head, too?”
Every now and then, on our healthful morning walks, we go off track. Retired life is comfortable, even predictable, but last week, living dangerously, we turned down an unknown path, studded with wild boar hoof prints. The track opened up to reveal a ruin, alone in the field, a byre and a shepherd’s hut with the roof fallen in and a deep open well. I leant over and looked into the depths, but I couldn’t see my reflection. Approaching the ruin alone, I peered tentatively through the byre door and fancied I smelt the ghost of the donkeys that toiled In the surrounding walls and terraces, where stunted ailing carobs and almonds grew untended. Then, just by the door, I spied an old pitchfork propped up for the last time and a lump rose in my throat for he who once wielded it and his lost way of life. I turned back to my man, feeling melancholy for the rich years we’d left behind us and our lost youth and strength.
I arrived home before dusk, anxious in case the four new chicks a friend brought me earlier in a cat box wouldn’t know where to sleep. Little orphans, barely feathered out, rescued chicks, released into a strange flock that morning and pecked into their order. No clue where the bedroom was and no idea which perch was theirs. As darkness wrapped itself around us, they became blind, running erratically into bushes and corners and driven by instinct, peeping to each other in fear. The cats stalked them, I stalked them. All was terror. I cornered each bird one by one, capturing them in a flurry of feathers and squawks, their skinny feathery bodies trembling in my hands. The cockerel tutted inside the dark coop, he wasn’t coming out for a few tearways. The last one caught, I shut them all in safely, cussing softly, relieved at their capture. I waited in the dark until their peeps subsided. Turning, I caught the Hunter’s moon rising behind me, mellow, yellow and calm. My little drama was a scene the moon had witnessed millions of times before.
“Will you marry, me, Mrs Johnson? ” Ted asked, putting two milk bottles through the kitchen window, always ajar, one gold top and one silver top. He asked this every morning as he delivered the milk. My mother gave him a tired little smile and said what she always said “Oh Ted, I’m already married, you know.” Ted nodded at the customary answer and walked away with his head down, back to the milk van, his sadness palpable. I think he really wanted a wife. Ted was a “mongol” as we called a person with Down’s syndrome in the sixties. At eight, I wondered at the word. He lived alone with his mother and we never knew who his dad was, or cared. Ted was as much part of the village as the vast oak tree on the green, Mrs Hurley in the village shop, or the village vicar. He was always immaculately dressed in a clean, pressed checked shirt, a home knitted grey tank top and twill trousers. He had a job on the milk-round and everyone knew him. He commanded his own respect and only got angry if anyone was unkind to him. Ted and his mother taught me what Care in the Community should be.
I didn’t think I had five stray minutes, but why? Most of my minutes are stray. Stray as in “moving away aimlessly from a group or from the right course or place;” stray when I lean on the wall and strain to hear the song of the elusive oriole; stray when I pick up an old gardening book and lose myself in Victorian hot beds; stray when I lie on the sofa and stare out of the window at the clouds. I have an affection for stray animals, stray thoughts, stray people, those apart from the group. So why did I think I didn’t have five stray minutes? Probably because I’m too busy straying.
What if life was just a hologram, and we all created our own reality? A sort of Minecraft where you could recreate the real world, exploring it it all the while for entertainment and educational satisfaction, or even to score points. A game where we choose our friends and partners like chess pieces; a rook to teach us complex moves; a pawn to do our bidding? Maybe we are somewhere else, pressing our own buttons.
My littlest niece once asked me to play Minecraft with her. We built dens and fires from pixels all morning, sitting on the sofa. When I told her I used to do that at her age in real life, in the woods, she didn’t believe me.
She asked, “Real woods?”
“How do you know the difference between the real woods and the Minecraft woods?” I asked her.
She said, “I don’t know.”
Sometimes, nor do I.
On our way to Galway in the van, we saw him, black plastic cape flapping wildly, the wings of a monstrous crow caught in a squall. Soaked, he extended a bony thumb and as we passed, I saw he was an old man, maybe in his eighties, his lined face screwed up tightly against the rain. He was an unlikely hitcher but we stopped, brakes squealing in the wet. I shoved up closer to Joe on the bench seat. The man smelt of wet sheep. “Where to ?” I asked him, “Monroe’s bar, a few miles on,” he boomed out, surprising loudly and cheerfully after his drenching “Drop me there and I’ll stand you a drink and a game of cards.” Later, several pints of Guinness and an unfathomable card game later, he trapped me in a dingy corridor on my way to the loo and begged me to marry him. I told him I wasn’t very good at looking after sheep.