The clock is ticking. The time to launch my crowdfunding campaign is getting closer although it looks like it will be delayed by a few days. So I thought I would entertain you in the meantime by sharing the first chapter of my book. If you would like to read more, please join my Facebook group. As a cherished member of my launch team, you will be able to read the entire book before it is published on the 6th March 2017: the third anniversary of my father’s death.
So here we go.
I pressed my face against the cold plane window and looked at the dark November clouds as we left the South West of England behind us. In three and a half weeks, it would be Christmas and on Sunday, my husband Ben would open the first window of the advent calendar without me. We had decided to cancel our family trip to my Mum and Dad’s. I was alone. The official reason was that our children both had colds. The truth was that Ben and I didn’t know how advanced my Dad’s illness had become.
The stewardess pushed the trolley down the aisle and offered refreshments, but I wasn’t hungry. I knew in my heart Dad only had a few months to live, even though Ben kept on saying Dad would live for another ten years, and Mum kept on about how strong Dad was.
Everyone wanted to keep upbeat and optimistic, but I wanted to be real. I needed the truth. I always had. It was no use lying to me. I was a walking lie detector. And I knew deep down that Dad had only months to live, maybe even only weeks.
My body felt raw and painful.
The flight touched down and finally, I was here; back in the city where I grew up. Paris, the city of lights. And with it, butterflies in my tummy.
My brother picked me up at the airport and zipped down the motorway in his expensive company car. I sneaked a look at his now almost completely grey hair. I used to love his auburn hair so much as a kid. My little brother. We had been so close as children, but not much of that was left. We got into a stupid argument and ended up not talking for two years. We had made up, but our relationship was never the same.
We drove in silence. Then Philippe started talking.
‘I need to warn you Ange.’
My chest tightened and I struggled to breathe.
‘Dad… is not the same.’
Then Philippe lost himself in silence again. I dared not prod him. I would know soon enough.
Philippe dropped me at the corner of Boulevard Raspail and Rue de Vaugirard, where my parents lived. He lived only a ten minutes drive from there.
‘I need to shoot off’ he said, kissing me on both cheeks, the engine still running. ‘Claire has had a long day.’
He disappeared into the night, his tail lights turning into two small red eyes. I took a deep breath, then stepped into the elegant marble hall and made my way to the lift, my heels echoing loudly. Memories of my childhood flooded my mind; of how much I loved my Dad, and those special moments when he took me to Hospital with him to see his patients. How the nurses greeted him with a huge smile and then adored me. Tears welled up in my eyes as I paused in front of the lift, grateful for the extra time it allowed me to compose myself. It was out of the question to cry.
I don’t know how long I stood in front of their front door, but finally I gathered the courage to ring the doorbell. Mum opened the door in seconds and let me in. She pecked me on both cheeks in a much warmer way than usual, then, without a word, she led me into the living room where Dad sat in his wheelchair, his impeccable white shirt contrasting with his dark brown corduroy trousers.
I paused, despite myself.
‘Ange’ he said “At last, you are here.’
‘Of course’ I murmured, the words struggling to come out of my constricted throat.
He clasped my hand. I bent to kiss him. I could smell his cologne as his head approached mine, and I struggled to hold back the tears.
‘Oh Dad’ I said to myself ‘Don’t be afraid’. But the words wouldn’t come out.
When his eyes finally locked with mine, my heart skipped a beat. I had never seen fear in my Dad’s eyes before. But in this moment, he looked at me like a passenger on the titanic, dignified but in no doubt about the end. Dad was always dignified.
Over supper, Dad ate in silence, listening to the small talk Mum and I were having, smiling occasionally. He could still feed himself, without making a mess. He just had to do it ever so slowly.
When we were finished, Mum put Dad on the mini lift to take him upstairs and put him to bed. It was late. I pretended Dad was boarding a flight and I was the attendant, and we all had a good laugh.
As I waited for Mum to come back down, I browsed the familiar antiques. A delicate clock from Napoleon III’s time, fragile china figures, marquetry boxes decorated with mother of pearl. There was old furniture handed down generation after generation, smelling of years of polish, and leather-bound classics from Shakespeare to Rabelais that smelled of centuries past. Dad had inherited them from his rich father. Mum came from a poor family. She didn’t have a brass farthing to put to her name. Their antiques contrasted with the modern style of the flat with its smoked mirrors, black book shelves, triple glaze automated windows and marble flooring. It was the clash of two eras.
I just had time to send a quick text to Ben to tell him I had arrived safely when Mum rushed down the stairs, making a bee line for the drinks cabinet and serving herself a whisky.
‘What do you think, Ange?’ she asked, slumping in the sofa next to me.
‘I don’t know.’ I shrugged.
The last thing I wanted was to discuss feelings with her…especially my feeling of impending doom. Talking about emotions with her had always ended up in drama in the past. Mum and I had a difficult relationship.
‘Your father is a strong man’ she said, tucking in her upper lip. ‘He will beat this thing’ she added, sipping her whisky loudly, her knuckles whitening from holding the glass too tightly.
‘Sure’ I said, avoiding eye contact with her.
The truth was, that I had a bad feeling. Dad’s brain tumour was inoperable and he had just been put on an aggressive course of chemotherapy; the same course my aunt Eve had been put on months before she died of lung cancer. My mum was a nurse by training. Surely she knew what was going on? Or was she still clinging to the fact that Dad’s brain tumour was non-cancerous?
Earlier, when Dad helped set the table, he’d wheeled himself into the kitchen then stopped dead in his tracks. He couldn’t remember what he had gone there for.
‘It’s ok, Dad.’ I said. ‘It happens to me all the time.’
Then during dinner, Dad had stopped in mid sentence. He opened his mouth several times to try to finish what he was saying, with the look of someone drowning on his face. After what seemed like an eternity, he laughed and said he couldn’t remember. We all laughed, but it had not stopped the awkward silence at the table. It was clear he wasn’t himself.
‘He gets up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet’ Mum hissed angrily, her eyes now cold and small. ‘He knows I can’t pick him up if he falls. I am not strong enough. He does it on purpose.’ She added, her face now reddening with anger.
‘How can you think such thing, Mum?’ I asked, gasping.
‘He’s always had a problem with authority.’ She added, clenching her jaws. ‘Especially with women.’
‘Mum.’ I said, repressing a laugh and resisting the urge to tell her how much I understood him, as Mum could be so castigating. ‘He doesn’t remember!’
‘You think so?’ She asked, her face relaxing and her eyes watering.
I opened my arms and hugged her. She put her head on my shoulder and sobbed uncontrollably. I stroked her soft straight short hair, my hands shaking gently, and felt her tears against my shirt. I froze and breathed as quietly as I could so as not to disturb her. I could not remember the last time we had physically touched, let alone hugged. She had never been a cuddly mum; not with me, anyway. We were like cats and dogs. Always fighting. And yet here she was, abandoning herself in my arms. Vulnerable. Emotional. For the first time in her life, she had let down her armour. I didn’t know if she would ever do it again and it didn’t matter.
‘Good night Ange’ she said, as she hurried towards the stairs and started climbing them.
Quickly, she composed herself, wished me a good night again, and walked up the stairs. I remained sitting on the sofa for a while, taking everything in, then made my way to my bedroom.
Have a great week end.