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Contemporary Friendship

Don’t ask me what the date is, I don’t have a clue, and neither does my father; it’s not something we discuss anymore. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s early March 2021 because I set off just before the lockdown started, twelve months ago. At least I know the year which is more than I can say for him. Ralph’s been dipping in and out of the previous century like a slowly revolving door ever since I arrived.

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I didn’t pay proper attention to the flu-like illness that was sweeping across East Asia until March 2020. Looking back through my iPhone’s calendar, I can see there were no extraordinary events that took place. My meetings with clients went ahead as normal, I had an after-work date at a London bar that was noticeably quiet and I bought a late-night train ticket to visit my father on Lancashire’s northwest coast. Despite the government’s health advice about contagion, both the Cheltenham Festival and Champions League match at Liverpool went ahead.

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After my elderly mother, Deirdre, passed away three years ago, I started making a regular monthly trip back up north to visit Ralph. Usually I’d leave Euston on a Friday evening and catch the return train on Sunday night. On March 12th, I packed a small suitcase for the weekend and left London. A year later, I’m still here, stranded in the middle of nowhere and waiting to come back to the city.

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The initial weeks of lockdown were easy enough. I missed my life in London, but in hindsight, at the beginning it seemed like an opportunity to unplug and pursue those neglected long-term plans. I was bombarded by tweets about how Shakespeare wrote a masterpiece under quarantine, and Newton outlined his theory of gravity during the plague year. Needless to say, I never rose to those lofty heights. Under the circumstances, keeping myself sane and surviving was the best I could achieve.

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I discovered familiar objects are a comfort during stressful or traumatic episodes. This is fortunate as my old bedroom was full of childhood memories. I discovered two decades’ worth of paraphernalia wrapped up in boxes and stuffed away in dusty cupboards. It was a world of old toys, curled up comic books and assorted possessions that had been untouched for decades.

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My bigger mission up north became to shield my father from the virus at any cost. I feel awful for not noticing before, but he was a tough soul who’d faked lucidity on my previous flying visits. It didn’t take more than a few uninterrupted days together to realise he was drifting. He was eighty-five when I arrived and they categorised him as high risk. Once the lockdown started, I did all the grocery shopping and turned into an officious doorman. I would yell through the letterbox at uninvited visitors who were clearly oblivious to the effects of the deadly pathogen. We made it to my father’s eighty-sixth birthday in August and celebrated by ordering a Sunday roast from a local pub that had reinvented itself as a take-away. 

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In many ways, 2020 felt like I was repaying a childhood debt. Ralph always encouraged me to study and make something of myself and dissuaded me from wasting my time with the local vagabonds. He was firm but fair, so I spent my adolescence in exile in the family home by the sea. My parents were always old in my eyes and more like grandparents. It wasn’t until I was eleven I discovered they adopted me. Growing up with an older generation than my contemporaries made me stand out, I was different. Having a quirky sense of humour helped, and they never picked me on, but I had an odd presence. In drab clothing, they dressed me like someone from Eastern Europe and I used old-fashioned words in conversation. Ralph insisted on me polishing my shoes; a lost art, even in those days.

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Ralph went into a state of withdrawal and anxiety just before his eighty-third birthday when Deirdre died in her nursing home. He’d always expected to go first and allowed her to manage their home to the extent that he never lifted a finger. It has to be said that she was rather territorial, and he avoided any unnecessary confrontations. However, in her absence he realised just how much he relied on her to look after him. I helped tidy up on my monthly visits and kept on top of the situation, but there were repairs and household issues that were being ignored. 

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Like every elderly person, Ralph has good days and bad days. Every day chores and inconveniences send Ralph into a spiral of anxiety and utter confusion. I explain and suggest remedies for problems, but I have to consider his feelings. He’s a proud man who’s in denial about his condition and the state of the world. He sometimes forgets there’s a pandemic and thinks I’m keeping him hostage; stopping him seeing people. I discuss the situation and it dawns on him he’s forgotten and he’ll become defensive and short tempered. Discretion dictates that I retreat to my room until the moment passes, and then I’ll placate him with the offer of tea and biscuits. Often, it’s as though we’ve never even had a heated discussion. He’ll greet me as if I’ve just arrived for a brief stay and I’ll be departing after we’ve finished our drinks.

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Despite my best efforts to care for him, I’ve noticed Ralph’s mental health deteriorate over the last year. He hears phantom music, which he swears, is coming from my room or the house next door. His physical health is also deteriorating; he has aches and pains in places he didn’t know existed. The latest ailments become the basis for long telephone conversations with his dwindling list of friends. They compare notes and advise each other accordingly. I hear him discussing the same problems repeatedly and then later on he’ll start making the calls all over again from the front of his address book.

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Living in proximity with my father for twelve months has caused a certain amount of introspection. I’ve not always been easy to live with and not always been as patient as I could have with Ralph. I’ve done the right thing during the lockdown and often thought about escaping back to London. I miss the freedom to only think about myself and have a late start in the morning after a long night out. “I’m not your carer,” I yelled one day when he was making a fuss about some trivial misunderstanding. He looked at me over his spectacles as though the world had ended and I felt dreadful. The fact is, I am his carer right now and his condition isn’t getting better.

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I always intended returning to London after it was all over. The promise of a vaccine arrived at the end of the second lockdown. It gave me some hope of relief and peace of mind concerning my father’s vulnerability. It was a joy to order a taxi and wear our masks to attend the appointment. The atmosphere at the clinic was light, and it was overwhelming to see so many people all at once. Humans in groups of over two are still a novelty for me after a year institutionalised in my childhood bedroom. I’ve missed the noise of lots of voices, all talking and chattering. Laughter is infectious and I want to know the joke and join in. Accents are amusing and turns of phrase are delightful. I look forward to the hubbub of the city and the glorious ethnic diversity it offers. Ever the dapper gent, Ralph insisted on dressing up for the occasion and wore a natty scarf and felt hat. I accompanied him, looking like a dishevelled hermit in a hoodie, jeans and battered sneakers. He rolled his eyes and sighed at my appearance, and commented to the nurse about the lack of decent care nowadays. She must have thought I was letting the side down.

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Ralph’s second vaccination happened as a matter of priority in the first week of 2020. His anxiety about the virus evaporated, even though he wasn’t sure why things hadn’t returned to normal. I tried to explain and yet he remained unsure when he saw me return from the supermarket wearing a mask. I talked about my plans to return to the city with a sense of expectation and excitement. This was supposed to be my time to exit, and yet the sadness on Ralph’s face suggested he had other considerations. 

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The weeks that followed under the third lockdown witnessed Ralph fading into a cloud of confusion. He got upset about forgetting to operate the washing machine and was bewildered by the remote control for the television. He started retreating inside himself and avoided my attempts to engage him in conversation. We’d always had a healthy rapport, but now our brief exchanges were reduced to comments about the weather or the state of the roads. 

More worryingly, my father would start conversations that petered out half way through. I recall he started talking about the half time score at a football match. His favourite team were winning, and he wondered if I’d mind scampering up the steps of the stand and joining the queue at the food vendors to grab a couple of hot-dogs. He said he was chilly and wished he’d brought his woollen hat. I had frowned in response, and he offered me a banknote and asked if I’d grab two coffees as well. I refused the money and retired to the kitchen to prepare to hot drinks. He thanked me on my return, sipped his beverage, and no more was mentioned about the sports fixture.

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The world was a less frantic place when I was growing up. There were days of week when things happened that marked the passage of time. Deirdre always did the household laundry on a Monday. Tuesdays and Thursdays were when I had soccer training after school. We had fish on a Friday and on a Saturday without fail, Ralph and I would attend the home matches at his beloved soccer club. His team had been top of the league when he was a lad and he still referred to their glory days with fond affection. On Sundays we’d hear the church bells at ten o’clock in the morning and watch the neighbours pile into their car wearing smart clothes and shiny shoes. We didn’t get involved in the local church, but it was always the day when I had my shoes inspected and I’d spend the afternoon burnishing them to a smooth lustre. As the entire world jumped on the hamster wheel of modern life, a lot of those ways of tracking time disappeared. Isolated in my father’s house for a year, we’ve both drifted without life’s anchors to keep us in place. The weekly tides have ebbed in and out, and we’ve been oblivious to the subtle motion of time passing by. 

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As February approached and engulfed us, it became clear that both the number of Coronavirus cases and the number of deaths were increasing. A speedy return to London life looked unlikely for me. Any dialogue with my father became sporadic and took on an increasingly surreal tone. He mentioned situations that weren’t happening except in his mind and the mind of his younger self. In retrospect, the events he constantly referenced were from a time before my arrival. By that I mean, before I was adopted and accepted into my parents’ household. It was as if he was preparing for my inevitable departure by blocking me out of his current life. 

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March arrived and by now Dad was answering his own questions. He often recounted funny moments from his marriage and amusing incidents from his past. He developed a two-way dialogue with himself and laughed at his own responses. His view of the world was like a revolving kaleidoscopic that constantly revealed shifting plains of existence. Every so often it stopped mid-rotation and various fragments of memory would gather into startling new combinations. The arbitrary alignments of random events and people would add further confusion to his mind. He’d question the veracity of a particular instance, and the grains of truth within his consciousness would disperse once again. I had no choice other than to be patient as he chuntered away in non sequiturs and then listen as he questioned himself with alarming clarity and candour.

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It’s like spending time with two distinct individuals. Sometimes, in his lucid moments, one father has a startling recall for details, even if the other father can’t remember what he had for his breakfast. The lockdown is still in place, and hope of a return to normal seems as far away as ever. New variants rear their misshapen forms and put increased pressure on the health workers of the world. Concerns about the efficacy of the vaccines have been broached and I’m under increasing pressure to remain here. I can’t leave Ralph like this, and there’s no reassurance that the global position is sufficiently improving. For now, I’ll sit tight with my two fathers and make sure we’re all safe from harm. We’re all so much happier since we learned to tolerate each other and now I’ve come to accept that Dad and me make three.


The End






March 12, 2021 21:02

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2 comments

H L Mc Quaid
09:13 Mar 17, 2021

Hi Howard, A great character study. We get a deep sense of the conflicted narrator and the proud, but declining father. I like the little touches, about dusting off the memories from childhood and the longing for the vibrancy and diversity of London. And I loved this: "...we’ve both drifted without life’s anchors to keep us in place. The weekly tides have ebbed in and out, and we’ve been oblivious to the subtle motion of time passing by." It's well written. Only one typo I caught, a curious 'to' here: I refused the money and retired to th...

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Howard Halsall
09:59 Mar 17, 2021

Hello Heather, Thank you for your feedback, I appreciate your positive reaction and you know, I think you’ve got a great point about the title. The existing one is a bit glib and maybe detracts from the story. I’ll have think and come up with something more in keeping. I hope you’re well Thanks again HH :)

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