This is a true story and not a very cheerful one, you might think, though it does have its moments of redemption.
On Good Friday this year I left Orkney for a month, my longest absence since moving here six years ago. I did not want to leave Orkney behind, or Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin), or our dog, Roscoe. In fact, saying goodbye to Roscoe was in some ways the most emotional and difficult part – perhaps because it is impossible to explain absence to a faithful hound.
But I was on important family business. My father, Clive, aged 82, in Lincolnshire, had undergone a planned but serious hospital operation three days earlier and we had agreed that I would care for him for four weeks when he was released home. After that he was due to go to his sister’s for a further fortnight although, pre-operation, he clearly thought he would be sufficiently recovered for that to be unnecessary.
I flew from Kirkwall, via Edinburgh, to East Midlands Airport. At Edinburgh Airport I got some lunch and listened to a BBC Radio 4 programme I had downloaded about the hymn I Vow To Thee My Country. This was a favourite of my late mother and I found myself, sat in Costa, getting tearful. I don’t think anyone noticed in the airport hubbub.
At East Midlands Airport I was met by a taxi driver for the 60-mile journey to my father’s house in Pinchbeck, just outside Spalding. He was an engaging and chatty travel companion.
One of the subjects I raised was the distance between the home I had chosen, in Orkney, and my father’s home, more than 600 miles away. This is something over which I have carried some guilt ever since we moved.
“You cannot live your life for other people,” he said.
I arrived at my father’s house and found his brilliant neighbours, who were going to be out for the evening, had left me a home-made curry to heat up.
The next day I went to Morrisons supermarket in the morning, stocking up for my father’s release from hospital, trying to choose food and ingredients I thought would be good for him and would suit his medical condition.
Back home I had a quick lunch and then I was off to the Pilgrim Hospital in Boston to visit my father.
His ward was on the fifth floor. He was in a room of four beds, each containing an elderly gentleman. I knew he had undergone a major operation but I was not prepared for how tired and pained, how old, he looked. He greeted me and asked how my journey from Orkney had been.
But there was not much more conversation as he dozed, and he was not up to reading the newspapers and magazines I had brought him. He did not sleep much either because, I think, he was not comfortable with his level of pain or with his position in the bed.
The nurses – brilliant, ever cheerful and patient – visited a number of times to try to make him more comfortable and to complete their checks.
My father had been speaking, before the operation, of going home on the Monday after my arrival. It was clear to me he would not be well enough. I asked the opinion of one of the nurses, who agreed with me, but she said he might be well enough by the end of the week.
As he dozed through my six-hour visit I read a little and was able to take in the surroundings. The windows had a commanding view across the flat Lincolnshire countryside. The crows came and went in the trees. The pigeons chased each other.
And the smell. What is that hospital smell? A mixture of disinfectant, warm bodies, I don’t know. But when I think of that afernoon I can still smell it.
Towards the end of my visit my father asked me to find his watch in his bag and put it on for him. This was a mistake. With little else to do, he checked the time every two or three minutes.
Eventually I said I should go home for dinner. “Yes, you don’t want to stay here,” he said, or something to that effect.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said as I left and moved to shake his hand. He clasped my hand unexpectedly strongly.
Walking out of the hospital I could not find a working car park pay-terminal, and while searching got caught in a sudden downpour that soaked through my clothes. While sheltering back inside the hospital entrance I met some helpful folk who pointed me in the right direction.
On my drive back to my father’s house I stopped in the village of Surfleet to get fish and chips, at the wonderfully named Cod Squad. There was a conversation with the friendly guys behind the counter about my Scottish bank notes, which I produced to pay, and why I was visiting. They wished me and my father all the best.
I knew that when I got home I would be into a round of telephone calls and conversations about my father’s condition so I decided to eat my supper in the car in the lay-by to get a few minutes to myself.
That night I was not early to bed but I did not worry because I did not have to be up early in the morning, hospital visiting did not start until lunchtime.
I slept soundly until… suddenly, I was awake, my mobile phone was ringing. It was 1.15am. There was a nurse from the hospital at the other end. Could I come to the hospital now?
“Why, what has happened?” “You just need to come now.” I was told to go through Accident & Emergency to get into the locked hospital.
By the time I was out of bed, visited the bathroom, dressed, and got the car out of the garage, it was close to 1.30am.
The journey to the hospital was relatively quick, about 25 minutes, there not being much traffic. On the way I did not, for some reason, want music so for distraction I listened to a talk station, Talk Radio. They were discussing that night’s big boxing match and how one of the boxers had been rushed to hospital. Hmm…
I left the radio on but wondered to myself, as I drove, why I had been called, presumably it must be something serious? I got through A&E, where they seemed to be expecting me, and made by way through the hospital.
In the lift I noticed the clock said 3am. How can that be? Oh yes, I thought, we are moving onto British Summer Time tonight, the clocks are going forward.
As I walked into the ward I caught sight of one of the staff make a small head and eye gesture to a nurse to indicate my arrival. The nurse showed me into a side room and a doctor was called in. I was starting to realise what was happening.
He told me so carefully and sympathetically what had happened to my father that I remember saying to him, to be sure: “So, he’s dead then.”
Yes, he was. I will not go into my father’s personal medical details but there had been developments, complications, during the night. He died at about 1.30am, about the time I was setting off for the drive to the hospital.
The doctor, who was the surgeon who carried out the operation, was visibly shaken himself at this turn of events.
Did I want to see my father?, the nurse asked. Yes, I said. I was thinking to myself, here I am, aged 58, and I have not seen a dead body, until now.
My father was still on the ward, in his bed, surrounded by a curtain. Despite having seen him hours before, when he was clearly seriously ill, I was struck now how small, how diminished Dad looked. I touched his hand, I think I told him I loved him – not something we ever said in life.
I collected his belongings from the nurse, including his watch, and was shown out of the hospital.
On the drive back many thoughts went through my mind. One was the realisation that my father had died on Easter Sunday, which seemed ironic; another was that the car I was driving, my father’s, probably no longer had valid car insurance with his passing.
I rang my wife when I got home and then wondered when would be an appropriate time to ring my father’s three siblings. I needed to tell them soon, but was there any point in waking them? My calculations were complicated by the clocks changing.
Eventually, through the early hours, I spoke to everyone and then, at about 7am, went to tell my father’s neighbours, who were very close to him. There was shock, some tears and cups of tea.
The end of my 48 Hours.