Father had been a lumbering phantom even before I had graduated from university and knew I had the option to be a journalist. Many years had passed since mother died. By now he had eked the distance between us until he was only a shadow to me. We spoke only if he wanted to eat, cook or if I went out and when I came home. Sometimes I had to coax him out into the civilised world for medical check-ups that would occasionally end in slow, sometimes aimless walks in the park. I took more comfort in the long shared silences than the want of banter. Sometimes we would hold hands as he did not like me holding onto his arm. He said that it made him look ‘flimsy’. At home, there was always the soft shuffling of his feet on the parquet and the tinkle of water in the bathroom at prayer times.
Years had set into the kitchen. It often looked like it had not been used since mother died. The nooks and crannies that had been worn out from use or neglect were patched up again with new cement and tiles and wallpaper and sometimes, new memories. But there had been nothing that could mask the smell and spirit of my mother. Her baking trays, pots and pans had remained untouched since her passing and so did the faint buttery smell of the drawers. My father cooked and ate with his own cutlery and utensils, taking comfort in the pristine order that my mother had left behind.
His withdrawal from friends and family had hardened. He had become too content with just a salaam for a social life, to a few fellow Muslims at the neighbourhood mosque every Friday afternoon. Each time I left for another aptitude test or interview at the news headquarters, he would pray with his palms raised up high. His face was often contorted in desperation in what I imagined were his pleas to God that I would be swayed to find another job.
I could write in other jobs, he said to me, over and over again. I could write for women’s magazines, or be a teacher and teach others to write like me. I was not sure if he was more concerned about my safety on the journalistic minefield, or that he could not bear spending more hours alone in that old apartment.
I broke the news to him when he was in that calm post-prayer state, as he was rolling back and forth on mother’s rocking chair. His hands were on his lap, the hem of his chequered sarong lifting and settling down with the wind of the rotating ceiling fan.
I sat beside him the way daughters do when about to speak to strict fathers: tentatively, ill at ease, anticipating every word of disapproval even before I could begin. I reached out to his hands hoping to gently halt his rocking, but my hands continued sliding up and down his lap. My fingers connected and disconnected with his in disaffected rhythm. His bespectacled eyes were staring into layers of space beyond my neighbours’ orchids in various stages of flowering.
“Don’t bother explaining to me. I know you’re going away to work. I know you’ll put me in the loony bin,” he said.
“It is not the loony bin, ayah.”
“It’s the same.”
“I’m not able to take care of you alone, even if I do take on another job. You know this.”
“I’m not suffering from anything. I can walk. I can piss and shit on my own.”
“But it’s good to meet other people. When I’m not home, the officers can always check on you. You’ll like them, they’re good people.”
“I can take care of myself. I don’t need anybody. If your work’s so important to you, go. And leave me be.”
His mandate was a perfect square stretched over his face.
“I’ll always come home, ayah,” I said. There was still no response.
I took out an old newspaper clipping, a desperate trump card to revive a dusty feeling. Throughout the whole conversation it had been in my grasp, folded several times over into a compact square. Its edges were uneven and frayed.
Within the news report was a picture of myself about twenty years ago, hoisting a trophy too big for my little frame, from winning a national writing competition that had received close to six hundred entries in the ‘pre-teens’ category. My father was supporting the base of the trophy with his right hand. The trophy was a tacky fist-sized gold effigy of a fountain pen pressed lengthwise into the spine of an open empty book. With his other hand, he held the envelope containing the cheque of my cash prize and his handwritten slip of rehearsed poetry both of us had been asked to perform at the awards ceremony. He was grinning. I remembered my ailing mother exclaiming at the clipping from her hospital bed: how much better my father looked when he smiled. This was moments before the lights were turned off and we were shooed home by irate nurses.
Father looked down onto his lap to examine what was rustling like a dry leaf on the back of his palm. My heart leapt. I saw a flicker in his eyes and released the clipping thinking that he would take it from my hand. Instead he let it fall from his lap; it moved across the floor like tumbleweed before stopping to rest in the corner of the living room.
The old crackling transistor radio then sputtered the first syllable of the call for the evening prayers. The muezzin’s melodious song followed, more loudly now as my father had sprung into his room to smack the radio into working. Within seconds I heard the tinkling of his ablution in the bathroom while I ran to the corner of the hall to retrieve the shred of old newspaper.
My chest was twisted in knots.