Yesterday was the 40th anniversary. We stood out on the beach for it.
The sky was grey, the colour of lead according to what’s left of my father. He sat in his wheelchair, the tank of oxygen at his side on its own little cart, and wheezed in time with the soughing of the wind. At one point, when the light had been unchanging for nearly half an hour he raised a hand and pointed. The breeze tugged at the strips of skin that dangled from it and pulled them out from his hand to stream in the direction he was pointing. Liver spots ran up the back of his hand and along his arms until they disappeared under the welting and wealing all across his torso. “The colour of lead,” he said, his words hard to hear, caught as they were beneath his oxygen mask. “They’d promised us lead.” He turned his head to look at mother then, revealing the pink wrinkled tissue that stood in for skin, where no hair grew and where his teeth were visible just below, poking out of the skin.
Mother said nothing; she cut her own tongue out when she thought she was getting cancer. She sat on a wicker chair that she carried herself, uncomplaining, and kept her hands folded in her lap so that her excess of fingers couldn’t be seen. She usually wears mittens to hide them, and the last time I saw them she had eight on one hand and what looked like the growth of another. She wasn’t wearing the gloves today though, as she wasn’t wearing them forty years ago either. Later, when we returned home, she played the piano, and it occurred to me that I was hearing a piece written for four hands, and it sounded excellent.
I placed the paintings of Geoff and Anna on the beach on either side of father; they’d been his dogs and his seemed appropriate that they flank him. I don’t know who made the paintings, but they’re not bad. You can tell what breeds Geoff and Anna were I’m told, though I don’t know enough about dogs to know what a breed is. I can tell you that they both look hungry though.
There was a brightening in the sky at 3pm, and shortly afterwards a hot wind blew for an hour. When it died down Father nodded and started to push the wheels on his chair. They squeaked, and his oxygen cylinder followed jerkily behind him, dragged along by his determination to go home. Mother picked up her chair too and followed him, the chair on her back and her bent almost double like some odd snail tracking the man-machine merger.
I picked the paintings up, and stared out across the water for few moments longer. Every year they commemorate the anniversary by setting off another nuclear bomb; a little test charge on a deserted (well, it would be, wouldn’t it?) atoll some ten miles away. Every year we greet it, and I wonder if I’m the only one who hopes that this year might be the last?
A sudden drone filled my ears, and I scanned the horizon. Shortly after I heard the noise a dark shape appeared on the horizon, wavered a little as it approaches, and then seemingly spotted me and came in on a direct vector, a painfully straight line. When it was close enough I saw that it was a boat, fairly flying over the water, bouncing from wave to wave. It looked like a rough ride. Two men were in it, wearing rubber suits.
“Who are you?” they asked when their boat beaches. I told them, I showed them the paintings, and their eyes filled with fear. “You all died years ago,” they said. I shrugged my shoulders, shook my head. I pointed to the lines in the sand, the wheels of the wheelchair. I pointed to my mother’s footprints. “You’re all dead,” they repeated.
They took the paintings and left, refused to follow me or see that there were more of us. They wouldn’t let me get into their boat either. Hands quickly raised, a gun appeared from nowhere and they indicated that I should walk back on to the land and leave them to their departure. They left as fast as they came.
I wondered if the anniversary would be celebrated next year?