‘What are you doing Dad?’ I asked.
Dad was bent over in the garden outside the kitchen window, holding the end of the long pole used to prop up the washing line with one hand while with his other hand he picked something up from the ground. He was sniggering quietly.
‘Shhh…’ he said, and pointed up to his and Mum’s bedroom window, where I could see Mum’s elbows leaning on the sill. The summer sunlight shone on the leaves of the apricot tree, the soft, pale orange fruit ripening around the window, and Mum’s hands holding a paperback.
I looked back at Dad, who was draping a wriggling brown worm over the end of the pole. By this time Annabel and Ellie were standing around me, eyes wide. With a look combining glee, concentration and triumph Dad raised the pole carefully up until the top of it was level with the sill, then jerked the pole so that the worm landed on the sill. Mum shrieked and dropped her book into the garden.
As much as he enjoyed teasing Mum, Dad relished making his audience of four delighted children laugh. Whether he was coming up behind Mum as she washed up, pretending to cuddle her, then dropping a bloody plastic finger from the joke shop into the soapy water, or sitting at the kitchen table after our evening meal with the smallest of us on his lap, telling terrible jokes, these times were when he seemed happiest. As we grew older his favourite joke could still be relied upon to make us giggle, if reluctantly: ‘What happened to the boy who stood on a hot cross bun? A current ran up his leg’.
We also realised that Dad had a strange way with words sometimes, and would answer the question ‘what’s the weather like there?’ with something like ‘oh, blue clouds,’ not hearing his error. We lived in a ‘three-florey’ house, he said, and once mentioned that he wouldn’t go to India with a barge pole. We began to call these unconscious slips and muddles of speech Dadisms, and collected them to enjoy together later.
Now they are coming thick and fast. As the spring goes on and his confused state settles into permanence, every call or visit from him contains something absurd. Bodgana and he have had another argument about money, he says on the phone, and he’s told her she needs to get a job.
‘I’ve told her there are big adults and small adults, the small ones eat less food so they get paid less, and the big ones have to work for a living. She bridled at that but I said to her that’s how it is.’ He pauses for a second.
‘By the way, how did it all come about, how did we get her, this Polish girl? She seems to have a semi assistant role, does some cleaning around the house for money. How did it all start?’
‘Well… you married her Dad. You met her at the tennis club and you married her.’
‘Ah of course’, he says, pretending he had known all along. ‘So it all built up from there, right.’ I put the phone in my bag and walk along platform 2 at Victoria Station, unable to stop myself laughing out loud.
He calls again.
‘It’s been suggested to me that Beata and Olly are my kids. I must say I’ve had a suspicion about that. Now the thing is, where are they going to go to school? Bodgana wants them to go to a Catholic school round here, what do you think about that?’
‘Err, which school is that, Dad?’ I ask, on the spot.
‘St Trinians’, he replies.
He comes over, bringing all his Income Bonds statements, even though he wanted my advice about a tax bill. He spreads them out in front of him and I take a thorough look, noticing that in 2007 he had £86,000. He complains about Bodgana.
‘Oh god, she’s a foul-tempered creature,’ he says. ‘She stomps around the house like a corpse with no ears and no eyes. You know,’ he gestures around his body vaguely, ‘no pleasant attachments’.
Even for Dad this is unexpected. Irrepressible laughter forces up inside me and I try desperately to keep a straight face, covering my mouth with my hand, feeling miserable. I think this is the first time I have laughed at him without his knowledge.