Come Back in Ten Years

  • 05 Nov - 11 Nov, 2022
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

I tried to think of what Dad would have chosen when he was asked to do this. Even though he was born in India, his parents had been born in what became Pakistan. But there was an elderly man waiting behind me at the counter, and no time to think about partition.

‘I’ll just go with number seven,’

I said.

‘Number seven with chips,’ said the man behind me, laughing.

Mr Nair was Indian, of course. He didn’t look much older than me, and he moved his hands a lot when he talked, as if he were showing off his wedding band.

‘The good news is, your heart is absolutely fine,’ he said. ‘There’s no sign you have what your father has. But the condition tends to develop as you head towards middle age, so you’ll want to get checked again in ten years or so.’

‘Ten years,’ I said helplessly, ‘okay.’

‘Do you have siblings? Uncles and aunts on your father’s side?’

‘He has two sisters. They live in India, though.’

‘Oh, what part?’

‘One’s in Mysore and the other’s in a town outside.’

Mr Nair smiled. ‘My family’s from Kerala,’ he said. ‘Right next door.’ He inhaled as though he was going to say something else, then paused. ‘Well, they’ll want to get checked, if they haven’t already been.’ He raised his left hand to look at his watch, flashing the gold band at me again. ‘I’m afraid we’re running a long way behind today, so unless you have any more questions about your heart…’

‘The things they can do these days,’ Mum said. ‘He was in and out in an afternoon.’ When she finished pouring the wine she reached over to do up Dad’s buttons. He kept his hands meekly by his sides while she worked. ‘It turns out your father’s heart’s been working harder than normal his whole life. His valves are on the small side, so the muscle’s been getting bigger and bigger, pushing all that blood about. Too big.’ Buttons done, she patted him once on the chest.

Afterwards I bought an Americano and a cheese toasty from the hospital cafeteria and sat looking out at the carpark. Patients walked, hobbled and wheeled by, in various stages of recovery or decline. I saw Dylan Foster with one hand in his father’s and the other holding his lion. They were moving at funeral pace; the father listed to one side as he gripped the little hand, not looking at Dylan but staring straight ahead. I thought about Dylan’s baby sister, about what it would be like to grow up in grief’s shadow without knowing what it was or who had put it there. Eventually they got into a blue hatchback and drove away. After that I focused on the rainbow slick that had formed on the surface of the black coffee. Probably the machine hadn’t rinsed the detergent from the cups properly. A vibration against my thigh told me I had a message. It was early morning in New York, and I wondered if it was from Regan. But it was a BBC news alert that read, ‘Paul Simon announces his retirement from music.’ I immediately called Dad, who didn’t answer. Then I traced my finger through the toasty crumbs on my plastic tray, watching sick people and their carers go back and forth beyond the glass.

Three days earlier I had gone to a quiz night at a vegan restaurant with a girl from work called Diane.

It was the first time since Regan left that I had done something like that. In fact, we weren’t there for the quiz. We were there because Diane had wanted to know what vegan cheese tasted like, and I, not quite sharing her enthusiasm but eager to convince her I was interesting, had pretended that I did too. When we discovered the quiz was on, we decided to stay and join in. The host informed us that teams traditionally chose names involving a veganism pun. Diane came up with Tempeh Tantrum, which went down extremely well when the scores were read out. We came last, but there was a brief blush of satisfaction when, in the music round, I recognised the instrumental intro to ‘The Boy in the Bubble’ and casually wrote it down. I told her about Dad’s obsession, that my parents had kept a cassette of Graceland in the car when I was a kid, that I could never forget those opening bars because they meant the album had gone all the way around and was beginning again; it was the signal to press eject and change it for something else. I thought for a moment that she looked at me with something like desire, or at least a warm sort of curiosity, and briefly our eyes met.

‘This was really nice,’ she said afterwards as we unlocked our bikes.

‘Yeah, let’s do it again,’ I said.

‘Or we could just go to dinner and make up puns,’ she said.

We hugged for a little too long, but that was all.

That night, the night after my ECG, Dad called me back and I told him my heart was okay.

‘Well, you look after that heart,’ he said. ‘You’ve got a long way to go.’

‘Did you hear Paul Simon’s retiring from music?’ I asked.

‘From touring,’ he corrected me. ‘I’ve read all about it on the iPad. I don’t think he could go on without Vincent. You can understand that. But the timing isn’t great: I was going to get your mother tickets for our anniversary next year. I was going to surprise her, show her all the places he was playing and let her pick one. And then we’d go and see him in Rio or Tokyo or Melbourne or somewhere.’

Later I lay in bed and decided I didn’t want to go to dinner with Diane. I was tired, but my eyes kept opening to watch the grey light around the edges of my curtains. I unlocked my phone and opened Regan’s message thread. She had a new American number; all our old messages were somewhere else. The ones here were dry and friendly: what we were doing, her new job, pictures of her new flat mate’s dog. I hadn’t told her about the hospital. I wrote and deleted a few things, then sent her, ‘I’ve changed my mind.’ Then I turned the phone off so I wouldn’t get her reply until morning, by which time she would be asleep. I imagined Paul Simon in his home studio in Connecticut, with his fingers hovering over the ivories, realising what he was going to do, walking over to the landline and calling his manager and saying, ‘Have Joshua draft a release. Paul Simon is retiring from music. You heard me right. It’s been a wild ride and my life’s work and I’m sorry the gravy train is pulling into the terminus, though in fact as I recall you’ll still get residuals, so you don’t have a whole lot to complain about. Don’t ask me what’s next, but I’m done. No more piano. No more guitar. No more special guests to draw the young crowd.

No greener rooms. No more stadiums and no more concert halls. No more singing for my supper. Are you getting this?’