Down the road, there is a beach of white sand, palm-fringed, a great ocean of blue. I wander from room to room of my Airbnb, grief leaking from me—a slow drip. I check my phone, again.
Finding some resolve, I wedge a book of poems and two cameras into my backpack, lock the door to my coastal bungalow and head out. Despite the brilliant early-Spring colours of the tropics, all I make are black and white images; the familiarity of monotone, jetties and beaches hiding under thick grain, the white noise of waiting. I listen to local stories of crocodile snatchings, shadows moving beneath the glint of moonlight, barely a ripple breaking on the surface. Bodies dragged into the deep, by prehistoric monsters, stashed in cavernous hollows. In north Queensland, snatchings become lore. Death doesn’t always come quickly, I am told. It is only certain. You cannot beg for less suffering. You cannot plead with time.
I message my oldest brother. No word.
No one in our family wants to discuss the physicality of death. Instead, we make funeral arrangements, draft eulogies and wonder if we have the courage to deliver them. I feel a kinship with my half-brother, for most of my life a stranger, connected through a bloodline we have both worked hard to ignore, now sitting across from me, hair the same way it was when I met him briefly, 32 years ago, bushy fringe sweeping his face. We have spurts of recognition, of closeness, followed by mute silence. Nonchalance over Mexican food, causality, the state of the world, the grief-stasis. Stilted suggestions, followed by short, sage nods.
Dad should be buried in his tartan.
Yup I’ve got that here somewhere.
There’s a vest and some pants, I think.
Probably should get a bagpiper.
I lurch at the thought of it. I used to joke that the sound of bagpipes triggered my PTSD; the puffed-cheeked whine, the squeezing from a reluctant bag, the accompanying snare, the march, the solemnity, the ritual. My father’s whims and moods locked in the drone of this insufferable Scottish pride, reminding me of his grip and his iron will.
We laugh about the never-ending stream of Burns recitations, rolls of masking tape and the handmade signs around his block of flats reminding other tenants to shut the gate, bring in their bins; their visitors to park outside. How women would leave baked goods wrapped tightly in chequered tea towels outside of his door. King of his domain.
It would be any day now.
Penning his first poem at the age of fifteen, Robert Burns wrote more than 550 poems and songs in his short lifetime, one of which is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as one of the three most popular songs in the English language. Consumed by a passion for poetry, women and drinking and having amassed considerable debt, the Scottish Bard was forced into menial jobs to support his family and his art.
I seem to be one sent into the world, to see and observe, he wrote.
I tap his leg slightly to wake him.
It’s your daughter Jim, she’s come to see you, the nurse says.
His current girlfriend and I clean out the flat and I stack together newspaper clippings, birthday cards, self-made CDs, albums of family history – some that I had never seen. She pushes a BBC box set into my hands, A History of Scotland. I shake my head. I came for the photos, for shreds of my childhood. I don’t even own a DVD player. But I take it anyway and place it into the carton along with the Scotch he will never drink.
Scotland is too big right now. It looms large somewhere on a horizon that I can’t bring myself to look at.
We navigate around the small armchairs, mismatching, an ancient television. A keyboard covered in thick dust, hidden under the cabinet. Do you want this? she asks. I don’t. Laminated signs and certificates cover an emergency exit blocked by a chair and a lamp. A dresser full of glassware, commemorative mugs, spoons, souvenirs. A small table, a chest freezer. A kettle that kept shorting out.
Fetch the plates pet, he’d tell me. Flick the kettle on, would you?
Each visit a new, grateful start, years of difference a silent energy around us, its own force.
His police baton and whistle. His bedroom with two single beds, where she had watched over him before the fall. His wardrobe packed with crumbling boxes, leathery cases that contained photographs from battalions, regiments, academies.
A few years ago, he corralled me into his room where he had unpacked several cameras.
Would these be of any use to ye?
I had examined them carefully. A couple of vintage models with quaint viewfinders as well as two point-and-shoots. I recognised the Olympus from family trips and parties. Sliding the plastic hood to unveil its lens, it whined to life, ready-light dim in the daylight.
I push a roll of Fuji 160 into the empty chamber, press the teeth through its sprockets and snap the door shut. I attempt to take the types of shots he would have taken; sweeping vistas, holiday portraits, trying not to think too hard about lines or framing. I blanch at the compulsory flash; its rude interruption attracting attention, announcing its presence.
I don’t know how they will turn out.
It’s strange to think that he won’t be coming back to the flat. I have slammed its front door; I have walked up its stairs with cake and a heavy sigh. I have imagined the fall that triggered the sharp careen towards death.
By the time I was born, my father was already old. On the brink of fifty, my earliest memories are of scotch decanters and button-down cardigans. Black hair thinning, his patience finite, his criticism well-aimed, his irritation clipped. We spoke in hushed voices to not disturb the violins, the complicated symphonies, whatever temperamental musical thread was keeping him tethered to contentment. Even in contemplation he was frightening, like an electric charge, a live wire that could belt you across the heart if you interrupted it. Music both fuelled and disarmed him, wrist poised, chest and brow raised, we would wait for the upswing of his hand.
When I quit teaching to become a photographer, I showed him my recent work, hopeful for a glint of pride, but he shook his head.
Such a shame. All that music education, for nothing. All those lessons. And your degree…
I hope you’re making some money from it.
I wonder what it’s like to drift in and out of ephemeral consciousness, making peace with the end. Wondering what happens next. Wondering if the afterlife is a stale hospital room with nurses busying themselves around you. No. Still here.
I wonder what it’s like to die alone.
I wonder if he will die alone.
In the belly of an endless loch near Inverness lurks a mythical prehistoric beast that I was told would snatch me from the banks, if I didn’t behave. The Picts carved its likeness into stone, St Columba claimed to have confronted it in the name of God. Locals claimed to have seen it rolling and plunging on the surface; hoaxes arising and debunked in religious-like fervour. Expeditions were launched; sonars sending pulses of sound waves through the water, emerging with inconclusive data and no proof of its existence.
Their readings, however, did detect a large moving underwater object that couldn’t be explained.
It was always strange to hear my father’s tongue in its own environment. Scotch and bagpipes and castles and folk dancing and Robert fucking Burns and sitting rooms and too much sugar and old men’s knees. Drunken songs, slurry toasts. The camaraderie of clansmen. At home he only spoke with a lilt, his accent was cultivated, not broad, but here his tongue blended back in, enveloped into the sea of song.
O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low road, And I’ll be in Scotland a’fore ye,
Pears and liquid ice cream melting into juice. Confused images dripping onto his gown, sticking to the corners of his memory.
Your father pushes down his emotions, that’s all. My mother was picking up pieces of glass and china with her fingers, soaking up water from carpets with old towels. When it gets too much, they just all burst out at once.
Legs and eyes stinging under the dinner table, white hot, rage snaking along the fuse line. Slick cane. Pencil whip discipline.
When I was eleven, waist-deep in Summer seawater, a bluebottle jellyfish wrapped its tentacles around my thigh, leaving thick red marks that faded well into Autumn.
The word welt has a certain violence to it.
We just have to choose the high road, she said. Rise above it.
Sightings of the Loch Ness monster have more to do with depth perception and scale. In the vastness of your surroundings, it’s easy to lose sight of proportion. But in the place where light gradually diminishes, its shadow is still there, skimming the depths.
The word Gemini is Latin for twins—those born under its sign said to be intellectual, quick-witted, charming, and like their Latin etymology, duplicitous and mercurial. As I thumb through a pile of round-edged photographs, I marvel at how even in the faded print, the colours and the laughter and the wine would swirl around him like a fairground maelstrom. In every image, we are laughing.
I am told that a crocodile can wrench limbs from their sockets and strip muscle from bone in mere seconds. You will never outrun it. It could shackle you with fear and stun you with rage.
The violent ballet of the death roll.
In the nursing home, he is tended to by forgiving, nurturing hands wiping away pureed vegetables, cooing softly as if he were a child. Checking that his socks haven’t fallen off, that his bed is the right height, if he is warm enough or would he like another blanket? We scold him lightly when he won’t drink his thickened water, face squinting, screwed up as it pools in the cracks of his mouth. We hold his hand, pat it. Angels of mercy. Holding a sip cup of cold milky coffee to his mouth until he sucks on it, content. Good, Jim. You drank it all! Well done.
He is coming to me in dreams.
If you’re here, Dad apparently remarked to my eldest brother, then I really must be dying.
I half-smiled, trying to imagine my father croaking his sarcastic humour from a hospital bed, regret forming in the creases of his eyes, seeping into the space between them, parched mouth forming the shape of confessions that would never come.
There are photos sellotaped to the wall by his bed. Dapper, even in his declining age, Scottish pride beaming the illusion of health. Dad in a kilt. Dad in a tux. Always a dinner, with a band. Laughter. Marquees in clan colours in King George Square. Dad with his arm around another woman – a singer, I am told. Always with the ladies. His girlfriend smiles, rueful.
Jean Armour, patient with Burns’ womanising, his drinking, his writing, his celebrity.
His hand is gripping my arm, as if he expects me to evaporate at any moment. I am sitting still; a kind of poised panic, my mother bending awkwardly in a half crouch between the two visitor chairs. I am tilting my head away, partially from vanity, caught between obligation and wanting to appear flattering. In hindsight, I am a little ashamed that our last photo together is of this. I’m not sure why it matters.
Pain changes the shape of your face, distorts it.
My father who always loomed large, booming, thunderous, now shrivelled in billowed folds of his grey pullover and shapeless purple slacks. My peach blouse is also too baggy, there is a thread loose in the elastic rim of the sleeve. I shrug off his arm, but his fingers still grasp for me. My mother is trying to pull his hand away, but he won’t let her, but still she doesn’t let go. She has rings and bracelets—a mother’s wrist. She is holding her reading glasses in her other hand.
There is a wide shot with a birthday cake. My mother as well as his girlfriend and two nurses are singing – mouths caught mid-song, enthusiastic, in the way that faces are around anyone with a terminal illness. A cheap birthday banner covers the wall behind the television, creased from years of buoyant farewells. The sum of his years reduced to sloppy mango and passionfruit glaze and three candles. We sing to him, and he claps, bright-eyed. We eat the cake on paper plates, our fingers glazed and sticky, then wipe them on cheap paper napkins, fibres sticking to our skin.
It’s nice isn’t it Jim?
The cake. Nice cake?
Oh! Yes. Very nice.
Together, we exhale; the labour of treading water with its slow ache, needling us from within.
Sitting a comfortable distance from the shore, I half-heartedly flick through the pages, before landing on Burns’ A Prayer in the Prospect of Death.
Where human weakness has come short,
Or frailty stept aside
Do Thou, All-Good-for such Thou art
In shades of darkness hide.
Perhaps we gather in solidarity in order to stare into the face of the declining beast; a reclaiming of power. Maybe it is easier to take the high road after all; to choose a path of forgiveness, or compassion.
Maybe it’s the same thing.