Looking at him now, in the dim light of his room, I realised I had never seen him smoke before. He inhaled, deeply and heavily, as if he knew all there was to know about the deadly effect and wanted to make the most of it. Part-addict, part-philosopher. His inhaling was physical, fatal.
“Dad”, I whispered. “Remember how you told us off near that cinema? Me and Richard?”
His eyes flickered for a second, as if recognizing the memory. Then he looked carefully at me. There is so much irony, disappointment, contempt you can read into the eyes of those who do not say anything. So I wondered, like all of them had before me. Richard, Olivia, Martin. The memory: did he or did he not?
It was not that I wanted him to stop smoking, there was no way he would listen, not now and not ever. It was just that I had never seen him do that before.
They told me I should keep talking, despite anything. Despite his reaction and what I saw or thought I saw in his eyes. And so I did. Rather uneasily at first, I talked about that one particular evening, as Richard and I were standing in front of the cinema and he, although he hated films all his life, happened to be stepping outside. With his left arm starched around the waist of a pretty office girl. We stopped dead, cigarettes dangling from our cold November fingers. As it turned out, he had won the ticket in some dodgy office lottery, walked out half-way through the film show and immediately saw us. Smoking, swearing, telling crude jokes.
We knew straight away, before he even opened his mouth, that we would not be spared or get off lightly. Indeed, for weeks afterwards we could not smoke anywhere, not even in our school backyard – fearing he could still find us anywhere in the town.
I said all that, chuckling and giggling and whispering, looking at him all the time – in the dim light of his hospital ward. Of course, I wondered: did he care, did he listen, did he understand a word I was saying?.. But then I realised something. Something a lot more important: for all these months of dying and then surviving and then dying again – he was still the dad I feared. Like on that long gone day he caught us red-handed. I stared at his cigarette, identifying the culprit. Smoking rendered him different, again. Dangerous. Fearless.
And again, he inhaled deeply.
Corner Cafe, Brighton