My dad asked me to take him to France, one last time, to buy his cigars. ‘They are cheaper in Calais,’ he assured me.
Long grey waves, white topped, sway us. The captain says, ‘Force 7 Beaufort,’ in a matter-of-fact way.
‘It won’t be moved,’ I assure my dad. ‘65000 tons, rock solid and rock imperceptibly.’
‘Stabilisers out,’ the captain says, yet I know who will win, eventually.
‘Of ships and men, nature has the last say,’ I tell my dad. ‘Steel stretches, imperceptibly, but nevertheless – crystals form and plates weaken, under constant water movement. It’s a law of life. The sun’s energy makes the waves, gives us life and takes it away.’
‘Whatchoo so mawkish about?’ he asks in his broad South London. My mum once said, ‘If you or your brother ever talk like that, you’ll get elocution lessons.’ We had no idea what that meant, but it sounded horrible, so we don’t talk like our dad.
‘A friend just died,’ I explain. ‘That’s where we are at in life, I suppose. School, girlfriends, job, marriage, kids, kids’ girlfriends, divorces, retirement and now bereavement. The way things are. The natural progression.’
‘What? Are we going to fall off our perches, now, one by one?’
‘Afraid so,’ I say, but wished I’d spared the old fellow that news.
‘How’d he die?’
‘His heart stretched once too often, and one last time. A bit like ships plates – they stretch, and contrarily, lose malleability, until deemed by a smart engineer, no longer fit for service. They are beached one last time, on far Asian sands, for a shoeless army of pieceworkers, to rip their guts out with bare hands. That’ll be us, if there is anything worth having when we go.’
‘What are you talking about?’ he mumbles through a mouthful of chips, while admiring the white topped spray in the distance.
‘Just waving goodbye,’ I say.
‘Don’t buy so many‘, I say, worried he might not live to smoke them.
He drove the 90 miles to Dover at 86 years of age, parked up there, with the confidence of youth, but struggled with the slope up to the ship. Once in Calais, I took money from an ATM.
‘What’s that for?’ He shouts. ‘I said, today is on me’.
‘We might need a taxi back to the ferry,’ I reply and watch him concentrate on coordinating unruly feet that, these days, pay scant regard to what his brain is telling them. This outing is too much for him.
We made it. He won’t let me carry the cigars, which are stowed in a large white carrier.
‘You drive home. I’m tired and I don’t see so well in the dark,’ he explains.
He’d enjoyed his last drive in his last car. I took the wheel of the bright blue Rover 200, 1.8 litre turbo. It was designed for the race track. Cars mean everything to his generation. He’d rather risk driving off the end of the quay, unable to see, than surrender his licence.
I look for the exit signs, but am waved down by a young immigration officer. She is smart in her uniform, and confident.
‘Additional security today sir. Sorry for the inconvenience,’ she tells me. ‘Passports please.’
I hand mine over. We wait for my dad to respond.
‘I think he has dozed off,’ I say and lean over to take his passport from his hand. I have to prise it from his fingers, which are stiff and cold.
‘Is your dad OK?’ she asks as she returns the passports.
‘Just tired,’ I say. ‘It’s been a long day.’
She leans through the window space and looks the old man over. She thinks of all the aggravation if she challenges us. She’d rather let me drive home with a stiff in the passenger seat, and who wants his dead dad impounding, pending a post mortem?
‘If you are sure?’ she asks with compassion. ‘Well, drive carefully, sir.’
I let the window whir up and glance down at the bag, tucked between my father’s feet. I decide to test the water.
‘How many did you buy?’
His face falls into a smile. He’s OK, or is that just the muscles relaxing?
‘Never you mind how many,’ he chuckles. ‘Just don’t tell yer mum.’
‘The lass from immigration thought you had croaked it. I wasn’t sure.’
‘200 best duty-free Havanas in that bag my old son. I’ll smoke those bastards, if it kills me.’