T/W - death, animal hunting and implied racism.
My father died today.
But I won’t remember a faded man in a hospital bed rasping for breath. Not if it can be avoided. As my Range Rover crunches through the rain-showered gravel of his drive, my mind crunches through my favourite memories of him coming home. That sound will always mean one thing to me – that he is alive and has returned. Though it can never be true again, it can always be a comfort.
I swing open the split, stable-style door. The man never rode a horse in his life, but he thought a country house should be quaint, and he liked to have the breeze through in the summer. The leaves are changing now though, and a nippy little wind is getting up. I pull off my waxed jacket in the kitchen and arrange it over a wheel-backed kitchen chair. I’ve always hated those chairs, so ugly and uncomfortable. Today they match my mood. My jacket drips onto the rustic terracotta floor. I take my boots off. Force of habit. And open the door to the dining room. My childhood heights are still marked in pencil on the frame. Age 7. Age 8. Age 9. I stop counting and stand in the doorway, age 51. I wonder why he never rubbed them off. Not even after Mum died.
But that’s not why I’m here.
I mount the stairs, my stocking feet detecting the rough, sisal runner I hated as a child. It reminds me of him in a way; tough, practical, bold - worn. And it was no fun to slide down the stairs, bumping your behind, if the floor covering gave you carpet burns (and your father clipped your ear).
"It's hard-wearing, will last years that." He'd say when I complained.
The fact that it's still here proves him right.
I push open the door to the left as I arrive upstairs. I’m in his room. It still smells of Old Spice. I can’t believe you can still buy that stuff. Maybe it’s coming back in style. He always said that everything did if you waited long enough.
My parents’ wedding photo stands proudly on the dressing table in its silver frame. My mother looking bashful in her white, lace gown and my father proud as punch in his 1b uniform. I can see it in the photo, just as I remember it, badge and all. But where is it now?
I mouth the words he used to say. “This will be yours one-day son, but not yet. Not just yet.”
He was hell-bent on getting me into the military. But I wouldn't take his hand-me-down until now, and I am far past the age for enlisting.
I cross the navy carpet and open the pine wood wardrobe. There it is, on the shelf above his shirts and suits.
I reach up and take down his green, wool, beret with its bronze Marines cap badge.
The lion stands proud over the crown, above the globe with laurel wreaths surrounding it.
My Father died today.
He wasn’t one for sentimental talk. In his final hours, he simply told me to go to his house and take anything I wanted. He hasn’t left a will, but I was all he had. And my mother, I suppose, but they haven’t spoken in years. She found his hobbies distasteful. As do I, but it wasn’t a reason to abandon him in his dotage.
There is only one object I want from his house right now. The rest can wait until things settle. Most of his belongings will be difficult to re-home. I certainly don’t want them. They aren’t. . . to my taste.
I get off the train and take a taxi the last few miles to Pinecone Lodge. Lodge. Even the name of his house has connotations I disagree with.
The key is stiff in the door. The lack of visitors over the last few months, since he moved in to Shady Acres, is apparent. The lawn needs attention. So does the pond. Shady Acres – it sounds like a ghost story, not a retirement home. But the food is good and that was the thing he cared most about, even if he couldn’t kill it himself.
The hallway stretches before me, it runs the full width of the house. Doors to the right and left conceal private museums of differing themes ranging from the grim to the grotesque. My prize is not on the coat stand. I don’t know where to start. Perhaps in the kitchen.
The antlers opposite the stove are a gentle reintroduction to my father’s collection. His first eight-point buck. He was 19 when he shot it, the same age my grandfather joined the Marines.
“They start the killing young in this family.” My grandfather used to say. “When and what are you signing up for, Boy?”
I never had an answer. I’d just nod and bite my lip.
The kitchen reveals nothing, and I move to the study.
It’s darker in this corner of the house; I flick the switch to my right. The ceiling light is pretty dim and I step in to look for the lamp. The lamp. I sidle up to the sideboard and, with great reluctance, force a hand out, inch by inch towards the pull cord. My fingers graze the teeth of the poor, degraded animal holding the light fitting up between them. The white stripes on its head glint as the bulb illuminates. Glassy eyes stare upwards, following the snout of the badger, pointing at an unnatural angle.
The ghastly lamp now lit; I can scan the room better. I wish that wasn’t the case. It’s a wretched menagerie of death. A stuffed squirrel climbs the wall to my left. A ferret to my right. Lifeless eyes stare meaninglessly from every corner. Birds with wings outstretched, in an endless voyage to nowhere, are crowing no more. A fox, with a foreleg lifted as if it might plod across the carpet, maintains its sly expression. This is his British Room. And, in pride of place above the log fire, the head and neck of a deer, stuffed and mounted on a shield with his own name on a brass plaque below.
William Fenton, Master of the East Barlow Stag Hunt
I look around the room, crypt, whatever it is. Between the grisly victims are shelves of books, my father’s desk, a leather sofa, not much else. I cannot see what I’m looking for. I go back to the hallway and take a few deep breaths.
The next door opens into the lounge. His African Room. My most dreaded part of the house.
The light streams in through the front window and I have no trouble seeing the death on display. But there it is. Hanging in a way my father would think of as comic, from the left ear of a black rhino’s head. The head is enormous. I don’t know how he brought it back, or got it stuffed and mounted. At least the horns are not too huge.
I reach up and take down his green, wool, beret with its bronze Marine’s badge and its Big Five hunter’s badge.
The African Big Five are depicted in pewter, snarling, as if they are the threat. I look around; they're all here. The rhino’s head, the elephant’s tusks, the lion’s paws, the buffalo’s horns, and last, but not least, the leopard-skin rug – complete with head and bared teeth.
My father died today.
My wife, with her deep mahogany skin and perfect corn rows, was not welcome in his room. But she would not leave me there alone and waited by the snack machine all day. I sat with him for hours. The sun rose and sank again, and his spirits lifted and fell. As I switched the lights on in his room, he pointed to his shelves.
“Up there,” he said, “top shelf, bring it down.”
I reached up and took down his green, wool, beret with its bronze Marine’s badge, its Big Five hunter’s badge and its RSPCA inspector’s badge.
The RSPCA badge was silver with a lion and a unicorn facing each other across a crown and shield.
“That first badge was your great grandfather’s. He killed men. I think he was proud of it.” He shook his head.
“That second badge was your grandfather’s. He killed animals. I know he was proud of it.”
I recalled his house, and how I felt sick when I went there as a child.
“That third badge was mine. I saved as many as I could, and you should know I’m proud of it.”
He sank back into his pillows and sighed.
“Dad, why did you keep the other badges, if you didn’t agree with what they represented?”
“Each one of those badges carries a lion.” He coughed. “You’re from a line of strong men, who did what they wanted in spite of their fathers. It seems you’ll be the same.”
My father took my hands in his and we held the beret together until he breathed his last.
I called my wife as the monitor flatlined, and the nurses came in to tend to him.
“He’s gone.” A tear escaped my eye.
“I’m so sorry my love. I’ll be right there.”
She appeared from the waiting room, walking as swiftly as her rounded belly would allow, glowing through her tears.
I reached out to hug her and put a gentle hand on her stomach.
“I know what to call him.” I whispered. “Leo”.