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If He Wakes

By Margaret Wilkinson

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HER FATHER’S ROOM IS cold, then hot. From his window, overlooking a suburban garden, he surmises he is not in town. White clouds lie motionless in the sky. How did he end up here, he thinks, and why? Although he has trouble walking, he decides to leave. He wants his hat and his coat. Anna imagines every detail: he’s going to catch a train into town. Hail a cab. He has the nagging feeling that there’s somewhere he’s meant to be; someone he’s meant to meet. In town is the apartment he left, full of his belongings, his souvenirs that represent a lifetime of collecting. Her father needs these things, Anna thinks, his old copies of Scientific American, for example. And his silver plated claw cutters in case he is served lobster for lunch. After lunch, which is meatloaf, not lobster, her father has a sleep. When he wakes (if he wakes) he will stare out the window watching the sunlight descend the aluminium sided houses opposite, whose residents are less than pleased to live next door to a nursing home.

The shadows lengthen, but it still may not be too late. Not if he leaves now. She imagines him crouching on the window sill. He is on the first floor and it is an easy drop to the lawn below. He creeps across the well-tended grass and climbs a suburban hedge. Soon he’s on a dark avenue bordered on either side by very tall, closely-planted fir trees, slipping on the needles in his haste. And suddenly he sees, without riding the train, or grabbing a cab, the beautiful shining asphalt city he so thoughtlessly left – the post office steps he falls down when he is no longer coping, his old office and waiting room, the restaurants he loved. The Greek diner with the wobbly tables, is of course gone, as is the bakery, the dry cleaners. Anna knows this. The synagogue is now a bank; the bank with its lead-lined security boxes, a chicken restaurant where seating downstairs in the vaults makes conversation impossible.

Anna is six. Her sister is five. Their father, in his prime, gathers together two small saucers, a basin, some sawdust and a jug of water. They are going to do an experiment. He places the two saucers on the table and carefully fills them to the brim, one with sawdust, the other with water. (This is how we understand the world around us. This is how the world behaves.) He asks Anna to add more sawdust to the sawdust saucer. She does so and the sawdust stands up in a heap. Then he asks her sister to add more water to the water saucer. Water will not stand up in a heap. Some of it runs away over the edge of the saucer and drips onto the table, and down to the fitted carpet. (Because water flows, we call it a liquid.) He asks Anna’s sister to try and pick some water up in her hands. More water spills onto the table, the carpet. (We cannot pick water up as we pick up other things.) Then he pours the water from the saucer to the basin. (We can pour water from one vessel to another because it flows.) ‘Which way does water flow?’ He looks at his two daughters. Anna shrugs her shoulders. ‘Down,’ her sister calls out. ‘It flows down.’

When Anna arrives, he isn’t in his room. Alone with his things, she wonders what she would take as a hypothetical souvenir. A tea cup and saucer so recently trembling in his hands? His pillow? Pillow case? The leftovers from his lunch tray? A scrap of paper upon which the name ‘Didi,’ is written in a jittery hand? She waits for him and when he doesn’t come, she opens the door and looks down the corridor. And there he is, slowly advancing. She recognises his much admired nose, his big sorrowful eyes, his disappointed mouth; the past written on his face as it will be written on hers. His skin is thin and papery as if he’s been mummified in the cool, dry atmosphere of the chicken vault which used to be a bank. The moment he sees her, his features droop a bit more and she wonders, is this real or fatuous posing? You never know with him. Catching sight of her, he walks more slowly, more painfully, gripping a wall-mounted handrail tightly, one foot raised in its ugly black boot with Velcro fastening. ‘How are you?’ she asks. He doesn’t seem to recognise her, but takes her hand and holds it firmly. He’s play-acting, she thinks. He must be. His hands are cold and she is, for a moment, trapped in his icy grip. He searches for her name.

‘You sound like your mother,’ he says finally. ‘Aren’t you ashamed?’ He bangs his stick on the floor. He looks around. There is somewhere he’s meant to be, he thinks, someone he’s meant to meet.

‘I hear you’re not eating,’ she tells him. She opens her coat feeling very warm, despite his coldness, waiting for whatever will come next. She tries to time her visits so as not to run into her sister. She is not sure what the nurses in their butterfly uniforms, or the drab-suited carers, have been told. She is fearful of their condemnation and worries that they talk about her behind her back.

‘She didn’t need to know,’ they all whisper when she passes. Everyone blames her.

As soon as she hears the words ‘thought’ and ‘experiment,’ Anna tunes out. She would rather be riding her bike. ‘Can a particle exists in all states at once?’ her father asks as she edges to the door. She is ten years old. Her sister is nine. It is a beautiful day. Bars of yellow light lay over the fitted carpet. Her sister steps on one.

Her father is saying the name, ‘Schrodinger.’ Anna is putting on her coat. Then a cat is mentioned, the consolation of ordinariness, fur and whiskers – and she hesitates. A cat, according to her father, is put into a lead-lined box along with a radioactive sample, a geiger counter, a hammer and a bottle of poison. Is she paying attention? He goes up to her and takes her by the shoulders. She looks at the carpet. The amount of poison needed is carefully calibrated to the weight of the cat. ‘If the cat weighs x pounds and it takes y number of drops of liquid cyanide per pound to kill it, how many drops of cyanide does Schrondinger need?’

Anna shrugs her shoulders.

‘I know, I know,’ her sister says.

‘In one hour, which is the amount of time the cat must remain in the box, the radioactive sample has a 50% chance of decaying,’ her father informs them. They don’t have a cat. Is he trying to tell them they are getting a cat? Anna would prefer a dog, but wants to please him. If he wants a cat, she thinks, let him have a cat, a cat would be nice. Anna feels a mixture of interest and disinterest. Should she stay to hear the rest of the story? Or not? Her mother’s knives clatter in the kitchen. Then there is the smell of frying onions. ‘She didn’t need to know,’ they will whisper.

Her father is a man of science. He towers above her. For years she thinks, or has been told, that he is an ophthalmologist, a medical doctor who can diagnose and treat, perform surgery, and cure eye disease; then she learns he’s not an ophthalmologist, he’s an optometrist, who is after all a healthcare professional, sight-testing, prescribing and dispensing corrective lenses; finally she hears he’s not an ophthalmologist, or an optometrist, he is an optician, a mere technician who sells and fits lenses and frames in a shop – a shop with a waiting room, he claims.

‘If the geiger counter detects that the radioactive sample has decayed, it triggers the hammer, which smashes the bottle, releasing the poison and killing the cat.’ Although this is upsetting, there’s a cartoon simplicity to the experiment Anna likes. She thinks hard about what her father is saying and tries to understand droplets of cyanide slowly or quickly falling. He speaks in the reverent tone he reserves for science – and all the while, while he is talking about cats and boxes, geiger counters and cyanide, he is on the way to his future. And she to hers. She’s already thinking about something else. What souvenir, for example, she would take from Schrodinger’s experiment. The hammer?

‘Only when we open the box will we know if the cat is alive or dead.’ The sentences continue to roll out of her father’s mouth. ‘Because at that moment the superposition of the cat collapses.’ He looks hopefully at his two daughters. ‘Who remembers what superposition means?’

Anna shrugs.

‘I don’t have all day,’ he tells her. There is somewhere he is meant to be, someone he is meant to meet. ‘I know,’ her sister says. Anna doesn’t want to have anything more to do with this nasty experiment. Now he’s talking about wave particles, which is boring.

‘These particles do not obey Newton’s laws,’ he says. ‘The rules we use to explain the ordinary world cannot be used to explain electrons or atoms. Who remembers what a wave function is? Anna?’

‘I know,’ her sister says. ‘A wave function shows all the positions an atomic particle can be in. It can be in all positions at once, which we call superposition. We don’t know which until we measure it.’

‘Good girl,’ her father beams, leaning forward and giving her sister a hug. ‘Now, who can tell me about the Copenhagen Interpretation?’

Anna’s father knows Schrodinger personally, or feels as if he knows him, and refers to him as ‘Erwin.’ (He is impressed by Erwin’s unconventional morality, living as he does in Oxford and later in Dublin, with both his wife and mistress, even fathering daughters from different women.)

From Schrodinger’s lab Anna’s father takes a souvenir, a test tube commemorating their alleged first meeting, which he carefully hands around at Christmas. Before his death in 1961, Anna’s father claims to meet Schrodinger again in Vienna. It is at this meeting that her father catches tuberculosis from Erwin, which ends his hopes of being an ophthalmologist forever, but he isn’t bitter. Before Anna is born, half her father’s right lung is removed to a jar he keeps in the hall closet behind the hats and winter scarves, where it floats, pink and speckled grey, in a disinfectant solution. (She is frightened of this closet for her whole childhood and never hangs up her coat, irritating her mother.)

It was while in a sanatorium that Schrodinger formulated his famous wave equation crucial to the understanding of the behaviour of subatomic particles and light. (Anna’s father, being a trained optical worker, could tell Erwin a thing or two about light.)

There is a painting in their front room, a dark scene of men around a campfire, firelight inexpertly illuminating their faces. Schrodinger painted that, according to her father. Many years later she reads a quote concerning quantum mechanics. ‘I don’t like it,’ Erwin Schrodinger says, ‘and I’m sorry I had anything to do with it’.

Care assistants change his food and water, warning each other in their own language, which is not his language, about him, or so she imagines. They walk on either noisy or soft shoes, discourage weeping in daylight and turn a deaf ear at night. Sometimes they remove a limp body from her father’s corridor, or elsewhere.

In the mirror his reflection trembles. He changes the expression on his face from neutral, to thoughtful, to pitiful, this problem-solver, this amateur, this science buff. He can (could) solve all sorts of number problems, but he cannot solve the problem of his life. At night the back garden of the nursing home, called a yard, is floodlit. Something soft and heavy falls to the ground from the window above his own. Another resident escaping.

Alone in his room he senses a door creak open, then closed. He turns slowly around. There’s a strange antiseptic smell. Are they coming to sedate him? There is a woman, even here, a resident, who has peaked his interest. One afternoon she is sitting in the dayroom which is crowded with armchairs. He enters, makes a show of looking around for a seat, choses a chair beside hers. A moment later he’s told her he’s a retired ophthalmologist and is helping her with her eye drops. Then he takes her hand. ‘May I?’ He still has a headful of hair which some women find attractive. No paunch. Anna watches from a visitor’s chair. She’s come to tell him she is leaving the country, but he’s ignoring her. He looks instead at the woman beside him, who’s called Edna.

Edna wears a dress with scalloped shoulders. She has terrible blue-black hair, age-freckled hands, silver nails. He asks her about her favourite foods, which is a hot topic of conversation among the oldsters disappointed with their current meals.

Her father sends back cold eggs, underdone toast, as if he were in a hotel restaurant. His favourite foods: peanuts in the shell, salami, fried scampi, blue cheese, lobster. ‘Do you like lobster?’ he asks the stooped little old lady with blueblack hair who is sitting beside him. ‘How about science? Do you like science?’

Edna doesn’t know about science or lobster, but says she likes popular music. He says he likes popular music (which is news to Anna who has never known her father to like popular music). When cups of tea are served, he’s awkward, charming, helpless. Edna steadies his cup for him. He asks if she likes cats. She does. Meanwhile, across the lounge, a woman her father recently took up with then abandoned, glares at them. Carelessly, he lets his paper napkin slip from his knees. He might be wondering if Edna has a radio in her room. He knows how to build radios and can explain how radios works. Edna listens to him patiently, her eyes shining. He will ask, when they are alone in her room, to examine her eyes. He is concerned about the mist she says she has noticed settling over all the electric lights in the home, the overheads and table lamps, which might be the onset of macular degeneration – or dust. It is unlikely they’ll be allowed walking privileges, but if they are he’ll take Edna to the sea at sunrise and sit beside her on a bench, soothed and spellbound. He is half in love with her already. His daughter tries again to say goodbye. She is relocating to a faraway place where the wind grabs people’s hats from their heads, where she will have to imagine her father in her life. But he is preoccupied. Whatever is unresolved between them will stay unresolved.

‘I might be old,’ her father says, ‘but I’m not dead.’ Or is he at this moment floating down a corridor, his arms outstretched, frightening those care assistants (more than you might think) who have second sight and can apprehend his ghostly form walking through walls, plate glass windows, doors? Now she sees him lying in bed with a peaceful expression, dying as we would all like to die – a butterfly sprouting from his lips; his eyes big and sorrowful one moment; empty the next.

When Anna was a girl, her father wished to be buried at sea. From an old sea chantey he liked listening to, he got the idea of having himself wrapped in a jacket made from a material used to protect exposed objects. ‘Wrap me up in my tarpaulin jacket and say a poor duffer’s laid low. Send for six salty seamen to carry me, with steps mournful solemn and slow,’ he sang.

‘Where’ll we get six salty seamen?’ Anna and her sister used to joke, when they still joked, when they still talked to each other.

For all Anna knows he is already dead – and no one’s told her. He’s in a new nursing home now, his fourth or fifth, in a country she left many years ago. Anna cannot contact him because her sister will not reveal where he is. Nor does he have a mobile phone. (If he had a mobile phone, he would be ringing emergency services, threatening to kill himself. He’s done it before.) Neither her sister, nor any of her other relatives, want her to contact her father. They close ranks against her.

Anna has not spoken to her father in two years. She goes through many e-mails and finds the name of the last nursing home he resides in, discovers the telephone number online, and decides to ring. But she doesn’t ring. Every day she finds another excuse not to ring. She calculates the time difference. It’s too early. Too late. Until she rings, she does not know whether her father is alive or dead. She phones the home. He’s alive. She phones the home. They are very sorry, he’s passed. Can he be both alive and dead? As long as she postpones calling he is. She might be afraid to learn that he is indeed dead. Or she might be afraid to learn that he’s still alive, stewing, seething with neglect, pretending not to know, or remember her, when he hears her voice.

‘Dear Dad, How are you?’ She writes a letter he will never answer. Or maybe he will answer in his jittering scrawl. He will say he cannot help himself and he dreads to think what the end will be, but wants to stop hiding, stop telling lies, stop leading a double life. ‘Are we going away together or not?’ he’ll ask, thinking she is someone else.

In her father’s late middle age, he takes Anna, for a birthday treat, to one of the elegant seafood restaurants he likes, where there’s candlelight and the waiters all wear short red coats. One comes forward and greets them. He is a close-shaven man with a puffy face whose hands will shake when he serves dinner. Her father pats him on the back and calls him Dominic. It is Anna’s eighteenth birthday. Dominic wishes her many happy returns of the day. As they are lead to their table, Anna wonders if the other diners will think she is his date, her handsome, clever, well-dressed father. Never. Maybe.

The table is laid with silver and the napkins are linen. When they order lobster, elegant little forks like silver picks, lobster scissors, claw crackers and tiny bowls of cut lemons and melted butter appear. Her father wears a smart and expensive suit. (How can an optician afford such a suit?) The waiter, Dominic, solemnly ties a paper lobster bib around his neck.

‘Mademoiselle?’ He unfurls her bib, his too-sweet breath lifting strands of hair on the back of her neck as he bends close to tie it. There are fishing nets arranged tastefully on the walls and French curtains the colour of sea water at the windows. Her father examines his claw cutters and snaps them experimentally in the air. Then he begins cross-examining her about the biology class she is taking.

Halfway through the meal, a lovely young woman brushes past their table, turns, stops, her eyes bright as jewels. ‘Look who’s here. Look,’ she cries. Or is it him, her father, who cries out to the young woman? Anna remembers every detail of her eighteenth birthday dinner, but not this one.

The woman takes her father’s hand, lightly kisses his cheek – a butterfly kiss on the cheek, nothing more. He stares at her abstractly as if trying to remember her name. A current patient? He invites her to join them for a drink. He clicks his fingers in the air to summon the waiter and orders the woman (although she protests) sizzling prawns which are brought to the table in a frying pan along with a Beefeater Gibson. Anna, whose birthday it is, shrinks back and looks around fearfully, as if she were the intruder, the uninvited guest. There are little rolls on the table. Her father slits one open with the point of his knife, butters it and begins to eat slowly, speaking to both his daughter and the young woman, who he calls Didi, in a tone of light irony.

Didi turns sweetly pink, her glamourous little eyeglasses (fitted by Anna’s father) steaming slightly in the moist atmosphere of sizzling prawns. The whole arousing, disturbing sense of her, this Didi, alarms Anna, while her father, unaware, explains the difference between shrimps and prawns.

Anna has already taken a souvenir, a lobster fork, and wishes she hadn’t, but it is impossible to put it back. Without saying a word, she gets up and makes her way unsteadily between the tables to a ladies toilet where she is sick.

When Anna returns to her seat, she sees that Didi’s eyes are filled with tears. ‘I don’t understand,’ her father is saying. ‘What is it you want?’ When they see Anna, they both begin laughing. ‘We’re just discussing dessert,’ her father explains. Didi doesn’t stay long after that, but the meal is ruined. Her glamourous cats’ eye glasses need readjusting. Anna’s father slips his diary from a breast pocket.’ When would you like your next appointment?’ he asks. Then he walks Didi out of the restaurant, and gets her a cab, leaving his daughter alone at the table.

Anna doesn’t tell her mother straightaway. She waits a year. Two years. Three. At night she lays awake thinking. If not her, who will blow the whistle? While she waits she becomes convinced this is not the first time, nor will it be the last. Not for one moment does she think she’s got it wrong. Her mother might even suspect and would be glad to know. Her father cannot be both a husband and another woman’s lover. In the end, Anna decides to tell. She breaks her mother’s heart, according to her sister. After which her mother complains of sleeping badly, her broken heart beating uneasily. ‘Please,’ she says. She cannot say more because she is crying.

No one knows where she got it. You need a license to buy it. But it wouldn’t have cost much. Anna’s mother is not a big woman. In human beings a fatal dose can be as low as 1.5mgs per kilogram of body weight. (Liquid cyanide, decanted into a thin-walled glass ampoule, and covered in brown rubber to prevent breakage, could be carried in the mouth, shaped like a false tooth. Or hidden in the filter of a cigarette as depicted in spy films and novels.) Anna’s mother looks surprisingly old when she is found, old and forlorn, her chin sunk on her chest.

Recently physicists’ have a new theory, her father would be interested to know. Or perhaps he already knows. When Schrodinger’s box is opened, the observer and the cat split into two realities. In one, the observer sees a dead cat; in the other, an angry cat.

She decides to phone the nursing home. ‘Hello, I would like to enquire about my father,’ she practices saying, clearly and calmly, so that when the phone is actually answered by a nurse, or care assistant, in a different time zone, many thousands of miles away, she will not panic.

She dials, or rather punches in the numbers. The phone rings its foreign ring, then it is picked up.

‘Hello,’ she says. ‘Hello.’ 

© Copyright Margaret Wilkinson, 2018. All rights reserved.