A strange elation settles on us when we leave UCLH. We are like kids let out of school early. We are demob happy.
‘Let’s go out to lunch!’ Dad says, his eyes shining.
He has already devoured a mound of congealed macaroni cheese bought from the hospital canteen, but he looks so excited at the idea of going out. In any case, I realise he most probably has not had a decent meal for months. The food at Stanmore was bland at best; completely inedible at worst. The food at home has not been much better since Mum became obsessed with iceberg lettuce and ham for every meal. And Dad is a foodie, so this has been torture.
‘There’s a Turkish restaurant near here – or there used to be,’ Dad is saying. ‘I think it’s called Tas.’
My sister Googles it and we see it is nearby. Not near enough for Dad to hobble to though, so we hail a cab. We are giggly and giddy as we speed down backstreets, Dad reminiscing about going out for evening drinks, passing landmarks he has known so well from his working life in the City. It is as though we are running away. Playing truant. Cheating on someone.
It is early and it is Tuesday, so we are the only ones in the restaurant. We are welcomed warmly with cries of ‘Merhaba!‘ as we are shown to a table. Dad picks up the menu and is already trying out his Turkish, reading out the names of the various meze, attempting to remember the bits of vocab he has picked up over the years. I have recently been to Istanbul, so we quickly get competitive. This is what we do: talk endlessly about language and food and drink, interspersed with bad jokes we have told and retold so many times we can finish each others’ sentences. My sister rolls her eyes, but she is smiling and laughing along.
It feels like a celebration as we work our way through plate after plate of meatballs and aubergines and yoghurt and cheese and olives and stuffed vine leaves and marinated red peppers. We share a bottle of wine, acknowledging how ‘naughty’ this is for a Tuesday lunchtime. We almost forget what it is that has brought us – Dad and his two daughters – out for a meal. We have never done this. Never gone out, just the three of us. Mum has always been there, taking centre stage, fussing over whether we will be too late or too early, scrutinising what Dad is eating, complaining about what she is eating, draining all the joy and energy from any time we have ever had together as adults. Maybe that is why we feel naughty – because we are cheating on Mum?
We admit ourselves defeated by the food. Dad insists on paying and then he gets up to go to the bathroom. He labours down the stairs, dragging his useless leg behind him, refusing all offers of help. The laughter and smiles fade as we watch him go.
The next time the three of us will be together will be the day Dad dies.
But we don’t know that on May 12th 2015. All we know is that we have had a lovely lunch, laughing until our sides hurt, eating until our bellies ache, drinking in the middle of the day, celebrating life in the face of death.
For a few hours, we have escaped the inescapable. We haven’t been cheating on Mum. We have been cheating on death.