A girl wants to keep her father alive long enough for him to deliver an important speech.
Derek Thorpe June 2016
My father, Julian, is truly a man like no other. If you have the time to stay a while, it'll give me the chance to tell his story.
We hold hands in the front pew of this crowded hall. His palms are clammy against mine and a bead of his sweat leaks onto the wooden bench. Three of his science colleagues are seated close by for support, and yet he's still nervous. It's almost time for him to take the lectern and talk about his invention and he swallows hard as they wheel it in front of the stage. It's so beautiful; magenta in colour, about six feet long with an open lid for display. I ask what's inside but he doesn't answer. Instead, he pouts his lips as if to kiss me.
But before he begins his speech, I have to take you back a few days, to when I saw him die.
It's confusing I know, but let me explain.
We live in a Horsham cottage outside of London. My parents named me Migdalia. It means 'tower of strength' or something like that. My mother has been dead for a few years, but I didn't know how to cage her soul at the time. My thirteenth birthday fell on Father's day this year and we celebrated both events at the movies three days ago. It was a wonderful show and we were still excited walking through the lobby, eating from our big bucket of popcorn when shots rang out.
A masked gunman burst through the doors firing his pistol about. I still see his greasy strands of hair protruding beIow the mask as the muzzle spat fire in our direction. I didn't quite know what was happening, as I'd never seen a pistol up close before, let alone heard real bullets exploding. The noise stabbed at my eardrums, but when you've never heard something as loud as shots firing, you've got to understand how awful that moment was for me. It's easy to compare the bang with the bellow of a taut balloon giving way to a needle prick. But it went beyond that for me. I actually felt the roar ripping at my chest and the closest thing I can relate to was when I was six years old just after Christmas.
Julian gave my mother a set of fancy cooking pots which she tried to suspend on a flimsy wire in the kitchen. He told her the wire wasn't strong enough, but she hung them anyway. An hour hadn't passed before all of the pots crashed onto the floor while I played close-by. That commotion shook me to my core. Julian came to calm me while mother held her stomach, crunched in two, laughing at my fright. Those bullets were even louder than the stainless steel pots crash-banging onto the kitchen floor, but what they did to my father was even worse than I could've imagined.
The popcorn fell like snowflakes around us. Julian, twisted to shield me but bullets found their mark twice; once in the web of his hand and the other in the midsection. My shrieks bounced loudest off the lobby walls. They collided with the other cries of terror in the crowd, but in the end, mine remained singular and distinct.
If you ask me how I did it, I won't be able to tell you truthfully, I just knew I could. Even though I know lots of big words, it's still hard for me to express what I can do. Julian was about to die and I stopped it...for the moment. I could see his soul trying to leave his body but I, I don't know, I suppose I made it go back in. I had done it once before and I think it had to do with being enclosed in the ambulance. He looked dreadful laying there with his long legs hanging way past the end of the gurney. His eyes seemed to sink deeper into his skull. His cheeks turned sallow as blood pooled like currant jelly on his best shirt. There was blood on me too, but it was most likely his and I did not fancy the thought of losing Julian on Father's Day and being an orphan at thirteen years old. I wailed for Julian inside much like the ambulance wailed for him on the outside.
By the time we reached the hospital, I insisted I was not taken away from him and the medical staff had to work around me. They said the bullet had gone sideways, all the way through, and he began to make his first steps to a temporary recovery, thanks to me. I suppose because the bullet was already out and his condition stabilized, he was not taken to surgery.
But Julian was still going to die, and I was holding the keys to his life. He needed to be told and I was the only soul who knew what to say.
The smell of iodine and antiseptic cleaner hung heavy throughout the public ward, but I confess it had a calming effect on me. The annoying whining and sniffling I heard was actually coming from me, so I stopped, I kissed his cheek and I spoke to my father at his hospital bed.
"Julian, open your eyes, we have to get ready for your speech," I said to him.
"Migdalia Hemmingshire...Precious. What's going on, Love?" He recognized my voice and he used my full name, but his eyes were still shut.
"I know you must not be feeling at your best, but in the morning we must check you out of this hospital. You must show up and speak at the conference to present your work if it's the last thing you do." I deliberately said it like that so he'd ask me more questions.
His eyeballs roamed under his lids for seconds before he turned to look at me. "The conference speech, Migdalia?...But I've been shot, Precious. Surely there will be more opportunities for your poppa to tell the world what you helped me to invent." His raspy voice was unfamiliar. It didn't sound like Julian at all until he coughed a spell to clear the mucus from his throat. A passing nurse came bedside. There was a tear in her white stockings and she was very rude indeed. I asked for a glass of water for Julian and she acted as if I weren't even there. I had half a mind to report her to the matron for poor deportment.
"No, Julian. There is no time. Your present condition is temporary and will only get worse. You simply must trust me about this." It was unfair of me to expect my father to comprehend what truly happened. His eyes darted, seemingly unyoked from each other in a blur of confusion, as if I were telling him what the doctors might have told me. So I tried to share a story we both knew different versions of.
"Do you remember that Friday morning two years ago, when the nursing home Nan Hemingshire stayed in called us because she was dying?"
"I do. God rest your grandmother's soul."
"She knew she was dying, but what do you remember she was most upset about?"
"Something rather silly is what I recall. You must excuse my recollection, having been shot recently and all." I was pleased that a shade of his dry humour surfaced.
"It was silly to us but really important to her. She was upset that she might not be alive to hear the Monday episode of her BBC radio mystery episode. She'd never missed a broadcast in three years and she would shush us from talking while she listened."
"Hmm, oh yes. 'Nigel and the Abbey Sisters.' But why are we talking about your Nan now?"
"She survived the whole weekend. Do you recall when she died, Julian? Ten thirty-two AM, Monday morning. Two minutes after her radio show ended. I was responsible for that."
"It was a long time ago, Migdalia. You should not blame yourself for her death."
"No, Julian... I am responsible for her extension. Nan really died on that Friday, but I wanted her to listen to her show again so I...I delayed her true death. I'm not sure how I did it, but I made sure the windows were closed. I realized I could somehow block her soul from leaking out."
"You're saying you kept her alive all weekend? But that's simply not possible, Migdalia. No one can do something like that."
"Well, how come I'm able to do just that to you right now?"
"Do what right now?...I don't understand. What do you mean?"
Julian gnawed at his lip and squinted his eyes to mere slits while I stood silent, allowing him to figure it out for himself. It was necessary for him to understand his plight. The sheer curtain at his bedhead billowed with the breeze and I moved to shut the half-open window. For the life of me, I could not budge it, and after I gave up and sat bedside again he owned an expression that I'd only seen once before. It was a look a parent has when they believe they're about to lose a child. A frozen stare of desperation that leaves a mouth agape and the eyes wider still.
I saw that look not two summer's ago--- we were on the lower level of a double-decker bus in the big city. He wanted to entertain me on an all-day outing in London. The bus had gorged itself with commuters and all the seats and straps were taken. He hugged a pole while he looked at a bus route map of the city and I was close behind holding on the back of a seat. The bus pulled up to a tube station. loads of people started to get off and they sort of dragged me along with them to the back exit. I called out, 'Daddy' many times. Softly at first, but every single father, sitting or standing, looked to see if their daughter was calling except mine. He was so engrossed in the map until I blurted out his name.
That was the first time I called him Julian and I haven't called him 'Daddy' since. He hasn't seemed to mind and I think it now rather makes me sound quite grown up. I'd said to myself that perhaps I'd only call him 'Daddy' again in the event of something truly extraordinary. I didn't know why I was still calling him 'Julian', then.
Whatever could be more extraordinary than witnessing your father's death?
That look of dread when he realized his daughter was about to be swept off the bus by a tide of commuters was identical to the look he gave me from his hospital bed. The moment he acknowledged he had died the day before.
"Do you understand now, Julian?" I mopped the sweat from his forehead and from the corner of his left eye. Sweat from the eyes, he called it. Never tears.
"So we won't be together for much longer?"
"No. This is why we have to get out of here and get ready for your big speech. You need to buy a suit and get your materials together. You have to look nice in front of your friends and your enemies."
Although my father Julian is a brilliant chemical engineer, he sometimes needed to be pushed in certain areas for his own good. Like how I pushed him to buy a decent suit for the speech. Either way, he's going to need it; Being debate team captain made me sort of practical like that.
My mother, Delores used to take advantage of his good nature. Julian loved her very much and would do all that he could to make us happy, but he didn't understand females very well. I wanted to tell him that you can't always please us one hundred percent of the time, so just do what makes you happy sometimes, and ignore us the rest of the time.
Mother was employed as a bookkeeper for an aluminium factory in Cornwall near Uxbridge. She worked odd hours and meals were sort of sporadic. I had to teach myself over time, how to cook using those same noisy pots. More often than not, she introduced me as 'my gifted one'. But although her words were wrapped like a present as they left her mouth, I'd see them fall like pellets of manure, fertilizing her garden of resentment. A tangle of barbed thistle seemingly ever-present between us.
One winter I caught the flu and couldn't go to school for two days. On the second day, I think she forgot I was still at home and she returned with a gentleman guest. I could hear them playing music and clinking glasses so I peeked out, only to see her clad in a short white petticoat, dancing for this male guest. He was fat in the face and in the tummy, with a scruffy beard and thick fingers. They went into her bedroom and closed the door. The noises I heard coming from the room I could tell they were no longer dancing.
Then Julian came home early to check on me. He brought me a lolly and I thanked him. I didn't answer when he asked why I was listening to saxophone music as I was afraid of what might happen when he left my room and opened the door to his. My fever was still high, but I wanted to hear clearly how my father was going to thrash this gentleman caller in his bedroom. I pressed my ear against the oak door of their bedroom, and even with my congested sinus, I could smell the odour of the scruffy man's cologne oozing through the crease. It was surely a close cousin of turpentine.
I could not believe my mother convinced Julian, this unkempt, pudgy man, with fingers as thick as a garden hose, was her new tailor. She explained her lack of clothing away because she was being measured for a new dress.
I didn't even scamper when I heard the door opening. My father sat on the armchair outside his bedroom, back erect, briefcase by his ankles and waited for them to emerge.
"She's with her new tailor. Just giving them some privacy," he said. "Run along back to your bed and get better, Precious."
I turned off the radio and meandered to my room, but not before I witnessed this rotund gentleman-caller leave the house; hair tousled, shirt only half tucked in and with my mother's own personal inch-tape draped around his neck.
He was no more a tailor than my father was astute. And my father was miles from astute.
I was almost over the threshold of my door when my mother emerged, hands akimbo, in a full-length towel robe. She stood before Julian as if to admonish him for coming home early but then became aware I had been home the entire time. Her posture softened as she shifted to look in my direction, searching for a phrase that would bleach her maternal and marital stains in one go. I had little in my arsenal to show mother my disdain, apart from faking a cough that produced loads of thick mucus into my palm.
Over the next five months, my mother left the house, mostly on Sunday afternoons, with the pretense of being 'measured for a new dress'. She kept saying her measurements were changing as she was becoming slimmer.
And indeed she was. When she died of the cancer during that summer, all of the dresses in her wardrobe fit loosely, and none of her new ones, if they ever existed, could be found.
I did not know how to save her then. Perhaps if her spirit longed for some benevolent event within reach I could have tried.
But there was none... and I did not.
My brilliant father Julian is an awkward chap in some ways. Perhaps because he is tall and lanky, limb coordination was something he was not blessed with. He dressed in a haphazard manner and this is as kind as I can say. Apart from his constant white trainers and blue threadbare dress trousers, his shirts were selected with a blind grasp, seldom appropriate for the occasion.
But where he was sparse in the coordination department, he more than made up for it in his vision. It's the beautiful way he saw things in three-dimensional space that blended together perfectly.
Soon after mother died he made his best attempts to entertain and distract me from my dour mood. He was unaware my mother did no such things in his absence. He did not detect she and I were almost strangers under the same roof. I didn't dare tell him the truth because I cherished the time he carved out for me.
On the third occasion we played 'princess jewelers', it was on the floor of our drawing room in front of the settee. We decided to make a tiara and brooch for the new debutante; Migdalia of Hemmingshire.
"Which bag shall we open tonight, Princess. The red, green and crystal bead-bag or the yellow, blue and orange bead-bag?"
"The red, green and crystal bead-bag, kind Sir," I sang with all of the glee a little girl was allowed to have.
What happened next changed everything.
Julian tugged and tore at the plastic wrapping in all of the wrong places and the coloured beads exploded from the clear sack along with a shower of laughter. They swirled into my first place debate trophy cups, they bedazzled my tangled hair, and some even slithered between the creases of the settee cushions.
But they also fell into an empty candle holder sitting on the coffee table. His laughter died away before mine, as he stared and stared at the alignment of the coloured beads inside that clear candle holder. All I saw were pretty beads in a tube, but he saw an arrangement of elements repeating itself in a way that made him more excited than I'd ever seen.
I wasn't too upset that my tiara and brooch were not made that evening because we danced the most awkward, uncoordinated waltz in history. I had to stand on his shoe tips to keep him from treading on me. I did not know then the cause for his celebration but I was happy for my father's happiness.
After a few days when he'd drawn out the molecule on paper he said it possibly could be the strongest material ever produced, and it might just be the key to constructing a tower into outer space where people can travel to new cities by elevators tethered to earth.
I had no knowledge of such things, but I grew to understand this new molecule Julian obsessed over was an enormous step forward indeed. He was out of work at the time and he asked a chap named Angus, one of his science engineering friends at Southampton University, to listen to his short presentation. Angus was a smart dresser and I suppose perhaps he was good looking, with his long hair and all, but I didn't fall for any of his antics.
All day at school, while he visited the University, I prayed for luck to hug my awkward, brilliant father.
I met him in the Croydon markets that afternoon. He appeared in the distance with his shoulders square and a smile renting his lips.
"How did it go today, Julian?"
"Smashing. Angus loved it. He thought it was brilliant. And get this...of all the coincidences in the world. He said he came up with the exact idea two days ago. Isn't that blooming crazy?"
"Wait, you mean he, out-of-the-blue, had the same brilliant invention as you just two days ago? Did he show you his work?"
"No, but I gave him a copy of mine to see how close they were. He offered me a temporary job as a lab assistant."
A sharp drizzle caused a stir among the open-air merchants as he told me of his day's success. I scowled at him from under the canopy of a cobbler's stall, but he decided not to take shelter from the cloud burst and saunter about in the downpour. I did not want to be disrespectful to Julian in his numb bliss, but I had to vent in some way among the simpler farmer's market folk. So when he asked me what homework assignments I had for the night I replied with glib.
It didn't take long for Angus and his friends to show their true intentions when they started to promote the research as their own. I urged him not to trust them so much, but Julian's good nature was trampled on for the umpteenth time.
There is just so much a little girl can do before she intrudes into the affairs of her father.
Research papers were being authored by my father's colleagues with scant mention of Julian's contribution and soon the day came when his association with the team was to be terminated. Julian pretended he was still employed by dressing and leaving for 'work' at the same time, trying to save face for me not to worry. It was weeks before he admitted the truth and I didn't speak to him for two whole days. He didn't understand it was the lack of trust not the loss of the patent that cut me the deepest.
Then three months ago, a request came from Angus to help with the patent application. There were problems they could not solve. I did something that night that frightened me and I know it must have terrified him.
I told him if he helped those shits with the patent application, without insisting his name be the sole inventor, that I would hold my breath forever. Julian thought I was being too petulant and pressed ahead. When I passed out in front of him as my lips turned blue, I got a nasty gash over my eyebrow when my head hit a table edge. It was unfair, but I used my medical condition to make him promise to present his original work at a big conference and challenge the patent claim held by his greedy friends. They stood to be publicly shamed by the university and their peers, but sometimes Julian needed to be coaxed in the right direction.
* * * * * * * * * *
We made it home the next day after self-discharging from the hospital against the doctor's advice. After the police questioned Julian about the shooting we left the ward and traveled by taxi wearing his hospital gown and his threadbare blue dress pants. The staff was not happy, but we were steadfast, insistant and most of all, together. And that's all that mattered.
We had two days to get ready; one to practice the speech and the other to buy the suit. I wasn't sure if I could keep him alive for much longer, as his soul was much different from Nan's.
He must have been parched that morning as he went directly to the fridge and drank orange juice straight from the half-full plastic jug.
"How are you feeling mentally, Julian? You need to be sharp and have your wits about you for when you're up on stage."
"Migdalia let me show you how sharp your father is. While we were in the ambulance to the hospital, It occurred to me why I only drink straight from the plastic jug when it's half-full?
"I wasn't aware you did that. Is that even true?"
"It's true and it drove your mother 'round the bend. Look, when it's full, the whole jug is the same cool temperature as the juice, including the hollow handle. That's when I pour it into a glass. But when the level is below the handle, my brain seemed to re-wire to drink straight from the jug because I also love the feeling of the cold juice flowing through the hollow handle and my grip. I don't know why that came to me in the ambulance."
I decided then, Julian was brilliantly Renaissance and also weird. But he was my kind of weird.
I was oddly happy that night. Although my father was technically dead, I'd never felt as alive with him before that day. The air tasted like a sparkling drink straight from a Highland stream and there was a levity in my thoughts. I slept, but I dreamt it was a hilarious joke in the charade and pretense of resting. He also let me use a swear word without getting upset. I called Angus and his university friends, 'the shits' earlier, and he let it go.
I felt rather grown up.
I watched him write the speech from undercover on the settee. I knew he was unaware I saw him 'sweat from his eyes' and mop the tears from his manuscript.
"Julian, can you truly build a tower from Earth to Heaven?"
"Yes, I can, Precious. Do you know why? Because I am going to rename my invention the Migdalia Molecule. Everything makes sense to me now."
When I woke from my strange dreamed-filled rest he was gone and did not return to our cottage for quite some time. I asked where he'd gone and he said he couldn't have gone far as he depended on me to get on to the next day. He held papers and pamphlets with my photo on it but hid them behind his back until he could shove them away out of sight. His cheeks were glossy and wiry red veins clung to the whites of his eyes. He seemed to understand the sad nuance of our bond and I had no further questions of him.
The next day, which was also yesterday, we sat outside our cottage and waited for the bus. Julian still did not feel the need to be well dressed. He had always been very frugal with the money he saved and a new suit seemed like an unnecessary expense. I managed a persuasion by reminding him of the temporary nature of his existence and that he might not even have to change clothing between his lecture and his own funeral.
"This is kind of a touchy subject, Julian, but since we will not be together for much longer what do you suggest I do with the business of living? I still want to study philosophy at Edinburgh University. Do you have insurance?"
I seemed to catch him off-guard with my question. He averted his gaze and scratched the back of his neck. He did that every time he was about to skirt the truth.
"Yes...Yes, I do, Precious. She's called Aunt Iris and she lives in Stratford. You can stay with her and let out the cottage. That should keep you until your 'A' level exams. I can write you a letter that will explain everything." He stammered.
It was odd how he'd given me wrong information. The house in Stratford was Nan's old house, not mother's sister, Iris. He was acting strangely. But then, so would I if I'd known I was going to die shortly and leave my daughter all alone.
The bus pulled up and we rode in silence for the most part. I was preoccupied with Julian's cryptic answer about my future without him. When we reached our stop, he simply crooked his neck and we stepped off the back stairs right into a men's clothing store. It reeked of foul cologne and It didn't take long before a sales assistant approached with a smile.
A pudgy chap with a scruffy beard, an inch-tape draped around his neck and fingers as thick as a garden hose, shook my father's hand.
Even if a brick-laden lorry had been barreling towards me, I could not have been moved from where I stood.
My mother's lover was actually a real tailor.
And here he was shaking my father's hand welcoming him into his store. The man certainly did not show any inkling of recognition, as I suspect he only saw him once in the bedroom many months ago. But did Julian know who this man was? They parted and Julian went to a rack of suits.
"What colour suit did we decide on, Migdalia?" He slid wooden hangers along a rail looking for his size.
"Black." I was distracted by the presence of my mother's former lover wondering what she might have seen in him.
There was a mirror fastened to a wood panel separating the suit racks, and Julian and I stared transfixed into each other's faces. He had no reason to stare at me for such an extended period, but I could not read precisely the meaning of his expression. His eyebrows were elevated which furrowed his forehead, his lips threatened a smirk, but his eyes never flinched the entire gaze.
"Do you like this one, Precious?" He asked moments past.
"Yes, Julian, it's nice."
He went to a dressing room in the far corner while the overweight store owner stood outside, rocking on his heels and gripping the tape measure around his neck. My father's long arms were flailing over the partition while he changed into the black suit. When he finished, my dead mother's lover eased in to assess the fit.
They had not been in there for more than half a minute before the store owner coughed or sneezed and made some other inappropriate noises that stopped as quickly as they started. Something or someone heavy hit the floor behind the curtain with a thud. It reminded me of the sound the crocus bags filled with discarded boots and shoes made when the cobbler at the Croydon markets tossed them onto the hard dirt floor outside his tent. Julian stepped out of the dressing room shortly after the thud and headed to the cashier.
"I'll take this and wear it away with me. Please bag my old clothes," he told the attendant.
When the transaction was over the pudgy gent' had still not come out of the dressing room. Julian walked past me with the same expression in the mirror except there was now a definite smirk on his lips. I craned my neck and saw the upturned shoes of the thick-fingered tailor, sticking out from under the closed curtain, laying on the floor.
I suspect Julian did recognize him after all. The thrashing had come nearly three years in the lag.
Riding back on the bus I rested my head against his shoulder and admired my father in his new black suit. It did not matter to me that he still wore his white trainers with his new dress trousers. There was nothing more that could be said or done, but it did not stop me from smiling through the journey; that short bus trip home... and the longer one we try to live each day.
Being outside, it was harder to keep his soul contained. It had become so restless and I was rather tired. I loved my awkward father tremendously. He is all that I have and I don't know how I will survive on my own without him. I am going to miss Julian very much.
And so, here we sit in the front row, hand in clammy hand. His introduction is over and he readies himself to claim what is rightfully his. I've become so fatigued holding his spirit, in order for him to be here. It was more work than I anticipated, but show me a daughter that would deny the gift of three final days with her departed father.
On stage, he makes another pouting kiss gesture to the open tubular model on wheels, representing his invention--- and he begins.
"Ladies and gentlemen, my daughter Migdalia was an amazing person and if you have the time to stay a while I'd like to tell her story. Even though she's no longer with us I've felt her cool touch around me for the past three days coaxing me to continue our quest which we began together. I am aware of when she's holding my hand as she now knows I like the cooling sensation through my grip. A father should never have to bury his daughter but it's fitting that we will do so in this tube made from the material she helped to discover. Her soul will be able to travel back and forth on the tower she will make possible."
"There are three 'shits' here pretending to be friends of mine. But one of you, I know, shot her dead in the theater on Sunday. I know those bullets were all meant for me but through her spirit, no one will stop me from my presentation lecture tomorrow. We will see who shows up there, and God help you when I figure out who killed my little girl."
"She helped me yesterday to choose this one and only black suit I'm wearing and in the process taught me how to slay the demons that crouch in my life."
Wait, Daddy...What? I'm the one who died...?
"I know, Precious, you were confused as to who was really dead over the past few days but I was afraid if I let you know the truth, you'd leave me sooner. When you could not close my hospital window, I knew it then. Goodbye, my Precious. Thank you for being so grown up when I was not."
"...Wait for me by the end of our tower."