5am, July 28th 2015
The plane lands. It is one of the first planes to arrive at Heathrow. I have spent the night drinking gallons of water and trying to distract myself with films, while the person next to me snores and lolls over on to my shoulder.
I run to passport control to find I am the first person there. I know from the way people are looking at me that my appearance is properly baffling now: a woman on the edge. I don’t care. I have to get in that pre-booked taxi as soon as I can. I have one hour to get to Dad before the magical 36 hours is up.
The taxi is not waiting for me. I phone the company, my voice brittle with exhaustion and bordering on hysteria.
‘My dad is dying. I need to get to Pembury in Kent as fast as I can.’
I am directed to the upper level of the airport. More running, more frowns from the few people I pass.
I spot the silver Mercedes turning into the taxi rank. I flag it down, my ridiculous shawl flapping in the cold English summer breeze. I jump in, fling my tiny rucksack across the seat and give the driver the postcode of the Hospice. I call my sister to let her know I have arrived. She says she is very tired and may not come. I am knocked off balance by this. Does this mean Dad is more stable? Might I have the whole day with him?
I have spent hours on the silent flight from Singapore imagining what it will be like, watching him die. I have been assured it will be peaceful. Will he recognise me? Will he speak?
I have also spent much of the night thinking about his eulogy. Typical bloody callous writer. Thinking of beautiful words to say about Dad’s death while he still lives. But I can’t help it. It is as though I am running a movie of his life through my mind. Images of him rush past: watching Tom and Jerry with me, teaching me the Greek alphabet, laughing at Blackadder together, teaching me to swim in the Australian sea, giving me my first taste of baby octopus, singing rounds in the kitchen while doing the washing up and using utensils as percussion instruments, reciting bonkers poetry, teaching me how light is made up of the colours of the rainbow by constructing a colour wheel and spinning it on a piece of thread, teaching me to canoe, racing in rickety fours on the Thames with his banking buddies, eating spicy food together on the day I told him I was moving in with my not-yet-husband and he told me, red faced and puffing, (whether from chilli or embarrassment I am still not sure) that he was, ‘Financially prepared for a wedding’, dressing up as a ‘tart’ for a ‘vicars and tarts’ party, showing me how the solar system works by shining torches on my bedroom ceiling, telling me jokes and stories. So many stories. I would not be a typically bloody callous writer if it were not for those bedtime stories. I would not be me without him. How, in fact, can I continue to be me without him?
The driver hits 90 mph on the motorway. When we pull up outside the Hospice at 5:55am I do not know how to thank him, so I give him a hefty tip before flinging open the door and running to the night entrance. There are two cleaners outside, grumbling about how they can never get in. They try to include me in their conversation, but I can’t speak. I lean across them and press the buzzer.
A kind-faced, tired nurse comes to the door and lets the disgruntled cleaners push past me. She smiles. ‘Anna. We’ve been expecting you.’
I can’t say it: Is he still alive? I can’t say anything until I see his face.
It is so quiet. Quieter than the hospital Dad spent so many months in. Quieter than the plane last night. Quiet and still and sombre.
Dad is in a large room. The curtains are drawn. He is lying on his back, his head slightly to one side, his mouth open. His breath is rattling. He is not in pain; his face and brow are smooth, his skin clammy and cold to the touch. I take his hand. The nurse draws back the curtains, letting in the grey morning light, and tells me to talk to him to let him know I am here, and then she leaves me.
I think he might open his eyes. He might wake up and smile sleepily as he did on some of those morning hospital visits earlier this year. One day I arrived on the ward at 5:45am after dropping my son off to watch birds at dawn. Dad smiled then when I told him what his grandson was up to, and said, ‘I like to wake early and listen to the dawn chorus outside my window.’ I think of this as I watch him lying there and I hear a chirrup outside. Can he hear it? Can he hear me? The nurse thinks so.
So I talk. I talk about Thailand: I talk about the people and the food and the language and the warmth of the sea. I know he would have loved it all. I find myself telling him about Martin: the Kingfisher, the book I found on the night he came home after his amputation. I tell him the story and say that I think it is his and Mum’s story, and how funny is that? A book you were given on your fourth birthday was, in a way, a prediction of your adult life.
My sister arrives. She apologies for saying she would not come. ‘I don’t know what I was thinking. I have just been so tired.’
We sit together and stroke the golden hairs on Dad’s poor thin arms and stroke his professorial eyebrows and hug him and cry and tell him we love him. We sing to him, his favourite songs. As we talk and sing, his breathing becomes more laboured. He pauses and tilts his head back a little. I find I am holding my breath with him and at once urging him to breathe again, whilst at the same time waiting for each one to be his last.
The nurse comes in and says, ‘Would you like me to give him something to make him more comfortable?’ I naively think this means it will make it easier for him to breathe, so I agree.
But the breathing continues its shaking pace of shuddering to a halt and then rasping into gear again in an alarming way. My sister and I both start talking at once, knowing without saying it that we are nearly there. We urge him on, as though we are encouraging a woman in labour. ‘It’s OK, Daddy. You can do it. You are nearly there. You can go now. Go down the river. Follow the kingfishers.’ We both say it. Even though I have said nothing to my sister about the story I was telling before she arrived. We both know that is where Dad would want to be. He has talked about it ever since his operation: ‘getting back on the river’.
‘Go, Dad, go,’ we tell him. Even as we want so much for him to stay.
He lets out a high-pitched moan, seemingly in response. His eyes roll into the back of his head and for a second I am sure he is going to say something.
But that is it. No more rasping breath. No more sweating. No more struggling. No more pain. No more Dad.
Time of death 06:55am. 37 hours after I left Koh Toa.
‘He waited for you,’ my sister says.