Short Story: Focal Point, by Gill Hale

by ali on February 22, 2012

This is the seventh short story in Eight Shots of Fiction by Gill Hale and Ali Luke.

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Hilary sat by her father’s bed and watched the slowly shifting diagonal on the cover, where the light from the window met shadow. In ten minutes, when she’d finished this cup of tea, it would make a better composition. The line would bisect the neat nursing home quilt; her father’s chest and face would be featureless in the shadow and the sun would fall full on his left hand. That would be the focus: the light pitiless on every age spot and skin crevasse; the lax, old man’s tendons failing to grasp the pale material. The rest could blur into the darkness.

The tea was bitter, stewed. The light fell as she’d imagined it and she sat still.

In her mind, a portfolio of pictures formed a slide show. A bouquet of small dusty hands, ebony skinned, pink palmed, reached up to the wonder of water from a village tap. A scientist’s sterile fingers gripped a blue-lit test tube. At a Basque festival, dancers raised their arms as they swirled. The show’s sound track was her father’s harsh breathing and, beyond the window, the voices of local school children enjoying their lunchtime break. The children were muffled, but nothing muffled his breathing.

She sat alone. Twice a week, for months now, this had been her duty. It was quiet today because her father was asleep; if he was awake he would be angry at not knowing who she was and the kind little Filipino nurses would have to settle him again. They said he’d been out of bed during the morning, but he was tired now, his body finally failing, following well behind his mind. They were so kind, Imee and Chona. She never knew how to respond.

“Talk to your father about things from your childhood. Happy memories you shared. He still has some long-term recall,” Dr Sayer had said, almost a year ago.

She’d looked blank then; she didn’t want to think what her face would show now.

“Holidays, birthdays, Christmas, that sort of thing,” Dr Sayer went on, maybe a little impatiently. To catch the essence of Dr Sayer on camera you would need sharp focus but a slow shutter speed; Dr Sayer’s precise movements were blurred by haste.

She’d always gone to her grandparents for the school holidays: good memories, but hers alone. Christmas had been… generic. She talked to her father about the village, about local people he’d known. She should have talked about her mother, but the words dried up. She’d caught her mother unawares once, and the lens had seen past the perfect make-up and controlled expression to capture haunted eyes.

She wondered what Imee and Chona made of the frequent silence in the room, the missing warmth. Was it just a stereotype that she imagined them coming from loving, sprawling extended families?

Her father coughed, shifted uneasily. The sun was on his face now; she went over to the window and pulled the curtain across half the frame, smothering the rays. In the schoolyard, children lined up in rows, a pattern of red sweatshirts against the drab building. She’d been older than that, first year at secondary school, when her mother had found she was pregnant again. Hilary, who’d given up long ago pleading for a brother or sister, had been thrilled. She’d not realised that her parents, in their thirties when they married, hadn’t planned for even one child.

Hilary’s mother had been several months into the pregnancy before the truth became apparent: not the menopause at all, quite another cause for her various symptoms. Too many months, Hilary now realised, for any option but having the baby.

She remembered that time in an odd kaleidoscope of other, random, pictures from the year – new friends, French and Latin, the laboratories and a crazy science master, a bus ride to school every day. In between learning ‘vocab’ and discovering the elements, she’d seen her mother swell and grow more tired. The baby had come in the Easter holidays.

“A baby brother,” Granny said, but there was something not quite right with her voice.

It turned out that this was because there was something not quite right with her brother, too. To Hilary he was just about perfect; to everyone else, the extra chromosome seemed to be a really big deal. Down’s Syndrome. She had to look it up in a book in the school library, because Granny wouldn’t talk about it.

They called him Michael, but not as if the name made him welcome. Hilary called him Mikey and loved to give him his bottle, coaxing the milk into his too-small mouth. Her mother grew pale and untidy and sad. She was a woman who’d always perfected her appearance before Hilary stumbled down to breakfast; now she forgot to brush her hair until mid morning.

Hilary looked at her father’s hands, in shadow again now. She couldn’t recall ever seeing him hold Michael. Hilary held him all the time, took him out in the pram, smiled at the neighbours who said, “Your mother’s so lucky to have such a good helper,” and glared at the ones who made sad noises about his handicap. She hadn’t had a camera then. One of her most precious possessions was a dog-eared, badly composed snapshot her grandfather had taken of her staggering a bit under the weight of Mikey at three months.

Because Michael had thrived. He put on the pounds. He cried less. After they’d stayed with her grandparents for much of the summer her mother began to look groomed again. In September Hilary went into the Second Form and they learned pottery in Art.

In October she caught the flu that was going around her year group and brought it home.

After an uncomfortable few days, the rest of them threw it off. Michael developed a chesty cough that wouldn’t shift. He cried and coughed night after night. The doctor prescribed antibiotics and said reassuring things; it was a bit of a chest infection but Michael was strong enough now. Her mother grew exhausted again, until one morning she was weeping silently over the breakfast.

For the first time Hilary could remember, her father said he was taking a day off work.

“I’ll stay home!” she volunteered.

“Certainly not. Your education’s important.”

Hilary didn’t argue; looking back she couldn’t remember ever arguing. But she’d arrived at school to find that the boiler had failed, and that those who could go home were being encouraged to do so. A quick run back to the bus stop and she was at her house again by ten o’clock. She hurried up the stairs to Michael’s room, calling, “We’ve been given the day off! The heating’s broken.”

There was no sign of her mother. Her father turned, his hands gripped around the bright little pillow that went in the bouncing chair and that Mikey loved better than a toy. Her father’s fingers looked large and ugly against the pattern of ducks. “Hilary,” he said quite calmly. “I want you to go and phone the doctor. Michael’s taken a turn for the worse.”

Through all the distress and the talk of chest infections and vulnerable babies, through the sad little funeral and the sympathy at school, it never occurred to her to doubt what her father had said. But, for some reason, that image stayed with her of his grip around the pillow.

She was earning her living as a freelance photographer before she allowed herself to think, to really think, about why she so often focussed on hands. Then she blamed herself for having such ugly thoughts. She was busy, socially and professionally; she travelled to countries where far too many babies died before their first birthday. But somewhere, at the back of her mind, the suspicion grew. Her father choosing to stay at home; Michael’s sudden relapse when he’d been getting better; the way the doctor spoke to her father about post-natal depression and asked him about her mother’s state of mind…

She tried to talk to her mother once but how could she come out and say it? Did Dad smother my baby brother so you could have your life back? Did he take the pillow and press it down over Mikey’s mouth and nose till the problem went away?

She photographed hands on guns and hands on knives, healers’ hands and pleading hands. Her problem never went away.

Her mother died suddenly of a heart attack, the questions unasked.

Last year, Hilary had taken an unusual assignment, travelling to Switzerland with a freelance journalist to do a feature piece on an artist – an artist who was noteworthy not just because his work was innovative and growing popular, but because he had Down’s Syndrome. The article was inspiring; it was read and reprinted widely. For Hilary, it turned confused memories and a lifelong sense of loss into a furious need to know.

Back in England, she went to see her father for the first time in a couple of years. The house was indescribably dirty and he didn’t recognise her at all. Her first thought hadn’t been guilt or concern or even what to do next. It had been, “I’ve waited too long. Now I’ll never know.”

There was guilt, too, though. The shadows on her image of him might be her own creation. She worked hard: found a doctor, a good consultant, a caring Home, sold the house to fund it long term. She’d been relieved to find this place, where kindness was still considered an important part of treatment. And she’d visited, with just her ambiguous feelings as company each time she sat out her hours.

Until two weeks ago, when she’d finally gone through boxes from the attic that she’d hastily stored at the time of the sale, things put away by her mother over many years. There was a jug that her grandmother had prized, old school photos of Hilary, several copies of her first published photo. At the bottom of one box, was a jumble of Michael’s few possessions: the little ‘for best’ outfit granny had bought him, a pristine teddy and the duck pillow…

A soft sound at the door: Chona looking in, smiling, collecting the empty tea cup.

When she came for her last two visits, she’d brought the pillow, screwed up in the bottom of her bag. Rambling and strange as her father’s thought processes were, she could often see some twisted connection to reality. The first time had been like today though; he’d never really been awake.

Last week had been different.

“He having good day,” Imee told her, pleased for her. “Say the dinner too cold.” Only Imee could have been so happy about being grumbled at.

Hilary had sat down, gone through the usual routine of who she was, why she was here. Only this time, it had had some real purpose. Some talk about their old home, the village, the pub he’d liked, the Bird in Hand, and then an outright lie. “I met old Doctor Wetherby last week, father. You remember him?” Doctor Wetherby had retired to the south coast twenty years earlier, but that was the sort of detail her father was always hazy on.

“Wetherby?” he muttered, pushing absently with the back of his hand at the damp corner of his mouth, where spittle leaked when he talked. “Oh, Wetherby. Useless on the tee.”

Hilary took the duck pillow out from the bottom of her bag and held it up where he could not avoid looking at it. “Did Dr Wetherby ever know about this? Did you tell him why you were holding Michael’s pillow that day?”

It was hard to say what she’d expected. Confusion? Sudden guilt? A hint of years of remorse? She settled for his connection with the conversation; it was better than she’d hoped for. Her father gestured irritably. “Old fool Wetherby. No good talking to him. The man had no idea.”

“What did he have no idea about?” Hilary asked, trying not to let the tension bleed into her voice, trying not to break the spell. A day as lucid as this might not come again.

Her father shook his head. “Had to be done, you know. Couldn’t go on like that, years and years of it, no kind of life. Had to put us all out of our misery.” He wiped at his mouth again, impatiently. “You should tell them to bring me a cup of tea. They never bring tea. I haven’t had a cup of tea for weeks.”

He was losing his brief focus, already looking at her as if he was puzzled she was there, but she’d heard enough. Her anger was physical, a choking sensation in her throat. But she squashed the pillow back into her bag, and did nothing, because they wouldn’t be alone much longer. It was three-thirty; within a few minutes Chona came, bringing the usual afternoon tea.

But today Hilary had planned her visit carefully. Today she’d come earlier, made sure she was sitting here at three, when the staff got together for their meeting before the afternoon round of the patients’ hot drinks. When Chona had waved on her way past, it had been the last time anyone would look in for half an hour at least.

Hilary hadn’t brought the duck pillow. There were more than enough pillows here and, however fitting it might have been, she didn’t want to use Michael’s.

Her father’s rasping breathing was still an eternal rhythm in the room.

They would talk of vulnerable old men and weak hearts.

She took the pillow that they sometimes used to prop him up. It was solidly packed with some non-allergenic fibre. Her hands were tanned against its pale cover, her grip firm. She stared at those hands for a long, long minute. There was the tiny pattern of cracks in slightly dry skin; a raised vein; a healing scratch where she’d brushed against a wire fence; the freckle that might be a first age-spot. The picture they made was so clear in her mind that she could see the gloss surface of the print and the way the close-up showed the texture. Another one for the portfolio, but these were her hands, part of her own life story.

Every picture tells a story, but you had to choose what story you wanted to tell.

Quite slowly, but quite decisively, she placed the pillow on the floor.

Ten minutes later, Imee came in with the tea, and woke her father. Hilary shook her head to the offer of another cup. “I have to go,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ll make it next week.”

“We look after him for you,” Imee said, untroubled.

Outside in the sunlight, the children were coming out of school, the little ones holding a hand, the older ones chatting or scuffling a bit, all with that indefinable lightness of step that spoke of escape. She took out her camera, and photographed their feet, bouncing, skipping, running to freedom.

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