“In Australia, there are birds that scream and shout,” he said. “Raucous and loud as anything you’ve heard. It’s not a place for gentle tweets and chirps.”
He was an old man then, remembering days that had shone with the colour that his life no longer held inside that beige North London room.
“The tropics are a wild place and the creatures that live there are as bold as the weather and vegetation that surround them … but I felt alive there,” he said. “A little of that bright intensity might have seeped into me just for that time.”
He let out a tired breath.
“I wanted to be like one of them – those tough, brown men with their brittle barks and sighs. Nature attacked them but they took it and moved on … bones like rods of iron, skin cracked and dry that would never soften – no matter how much liquid they poured in at the end of every day.”
He smiled at his memories. “I was just a pale boy to them. Not made for that place.” He turned and the light from the window washed the subtle meaning from his face into its glare. “But they were kind … in the way, I suppose, that you’re kind to a clumsy child.”
The soft chirrup of a sparrow in the tree outside brought him back.
“Those birds,” he said, and shook his head. “As brazen as vultures, they were … strident … and as big as dogs, some of them. … It’s a different world out there.”
I didn’t tell him that I’d been to Sydney. That I’d sunned myself at Bondi Beach and danced at Mardi Gras parties. That I’d kissed one stranger with a sequinned headdress and done more with another with a studded collar and wide, bronzed shoulders.
His tropical adventure was different to mine.
His tough brown men were clad in a masculine armour that mine would have shaved and moisturised.
“You should go there sometime, Mikey,” he said as he began to melt slowly into sleep. “Everyone needs a bit of wildness in their life.”
And then he might have winked at me. Just as the sleep had properly swallowed him.
I held his hand and watched him drift, hopefully into some happy times that he’d lived before the illness had crept quietly in.
He had loved me, my grandad. He had loved me through the anger of adolescence and family friction and the wholehearted immersion into a life he couldn’t really understand.
I hadn’t told him everything but I’m sure he had known more. He wasn’t blind to the world.
But, whatever he had thought, he had never been against me. He had never been ashamed or given up. I was always Mikey and he had always loved me. And that was all I’d wanted. From anyone.
I watched the laboured breathing tug at the body that, flimsy as it was, had become his unwieldy weight to bear.
And then, when it finally stopped, when it was over and he was truly still, I didn’t call Joe. I didn’t call anyone. Because there was no one to call.
No one to know.
No one who knew me the way that he did.
So I stayed with him and thought of my times and his. Ours together and apart. Our colourful brash creatures.
Wild times for two pale boys.
I saw him then. I saw what we were and what we both had been.
Then I let go.
So that I wouldn’t remember how it felt to have his hand cool in mine.