The third bell. Jacob seized my elbow and steered me to our seats, but it was plain that the first tics of irritation would not be long in coming. He sat rigid through the first movement, fidgeted through the second, then upped and left as its notes died away. I sat on, translating the soar of the chorale into the tap tap tap of his fingernails as he waited for me to come home.
* * *
I've heard it said so many times that it is the old who find the necessary adjustments of life the most difficult, but that wasn't the case with Papa. I watched him rapidly shift focus as the effects of his illness wrenched him almost body from soul. Our shared reality for so many years was him, me, us, and then, Jacob, the varied combinations of our little histories. When he became ill, his condition became the reality for both of us, with everything else a poor second. He was trapped inside it, living it, breathing it, just. I was banished, to watch from beyond its razor wire. Jacob, predictably, skirted the situation. When I told him I must care for Papa on a more permanent basis, that visiting him at home each day simply wasn't enough, the truth we had both sidestepped for so long finally found voice."Stef, if he comes, I go." Words delivered like mitraille. "I can't live with him."
My father, and my husband. My husband, and my father. It didn't take a genius to see that there was no house big enough to contain their respective resentments. That didn't stop the desperate, the optimist in me trying to appeal to his better nature.
"Jacob please, I don't have an alternative."
"Yes you do." His face was implacable. "Put him into a nursing home. You don't have to bring him here."
I thought of Papa being cared for by strangers in starched uniforms, without notion of who he was, how he was. They would feed him, clean him, shout at him, to him, of him. They would never begin to understand him.
"I won't put him anywhere." I told Jacob. "He is not an ornament, a piece of frippery. He's my father."
In spite of, or perhaps because of my resolve, the arguments spiralled; neither of us was prepared to bend to the only answer the other would accept. Our marriage was built upon the unsecured tiers of so many differences. We both knew it, had always known it, but still the space Jacob left behind resounded so with his own echo. Papa's coming filled a space, but it wasn't the same space.
Over the months, I watched as the illness took a deeper and deeper hold of Papa. He grew thinner almost daily, and his skin began to hang from his frame like grubby waxcloth. Even his hair, once almost a symbol of who he was, took on the illness, and I found clumps of it compounding the treachery by lying lifeless and grey on his pillow. Still though, his spirits did not subside, although increasingly they found voice in anger, as he railed against the injustice of what he had come to. One morning, after another sleepless night for both of us, he launched into me. "Steffi, you think this shit in my bed is good honest shit?"
Although accustomed to the habitual smell by now, I reeled as he shoved a handful of it under my nose for inspection.
"It isn't, you know. This shit is me, going into meltdown." He tested it in his fingertips. "You think you can tell us apart, this shit and me?"
"Papa, for goodness sake!"
He started scrabbling at it, scooping it up in his hands, flinging it around, smearing it all over himself. "Look at it! What do you think you'll do with this Steffi? You think you'll scrub it off, wash it down an English drain into an English sewer?" He threw his head back, and started wailing. "This, this is not shit for English sewers. This is me, dissolving! You think you should wash me down an English drain?"
"Papa, stop this. Now!" He was beyond hearing, beyond reason.
"Steffi. You ever eat yourself?" He began fisting the shit into his mouth, missing, daubing it across his cheeks and down his neck. And then almost without pause, he was retching, spitting, crying out in garbled Polish while clawing at his eyes with the fingernails it had never occurred to me to cut.
"Stop it!" I said again, snatching at his hands, but what I hit first was the shit, and much as I wanted to, I couldn't reach into it. Instead, I let go, turning for the window and pushing it open. I gasped as the clean air hit me, its undernote of musk rose seeming oddly misplaced. As I drew my head back in, I saw how the thorns had grazed the glass.
When I turned back to Papa, the fight had all but evaporated. Unchecked tears drizzled their way through the mess of his face as he cast around for the side of the bed. When he found it, he collapsed onto it, his backside in more of his excrement.
I let him settle for a moment, then pulled his nightshirt around him. He offered his hands.
"This shit, Steffi. It doesn't feel so good you know."
He sat shivering, his lips bloodless, as I wiped him down with paper towels. Then I hoisted him up and guided him to the shower, where he clung to me as I sponged him down with warm water. Afterwards, I soaped him all over with my Evelyn soap, wrapped him in my bathrobe, and cradled him to me as I walked him into the sitting room. He seemed happier, relaxed even, but then, without warning, he shoved me away and started jabbing his finger into my face.
"Steffi," he said, "you must not forget the shit."
His sudden burst of energy sucked on what little I had left; I simply couldn't believe we were back to this. "Papa," I said, "I won't forget the shit."
"Promise me," he said. "You have to promise me."
"For God's sake! I promise."
"There is no need to shout," he said, feeling his way around the wall until he reached his chair. "All I am asking is that you package it up, this shit, and all the shit from now on. We must find boxes, then you must mail them out to Kracow authorities for me."
He slapped at the arm of the chair with the flat of his hand, and for the first time in many months, he came alive. "And Steffi, we must make labels, big letters. Here is Andrze Nopp - Polish shit for Polish drains. You must explain that half of it is me, my body disintegrating, and then, if they choose, they can sort it out. They still have people for such things in Kracow, no doubt. And when I am gone, you will send the rest of me to Kracow also, my ashes, and they can be raked into the earth. That way, I am not buried in two places, and together, my shit and my bones, we will make good trees for Kracow."
He was so animated – almost my father of a life ago. How was I to answer him?
"Steffi, you understand?"
"No." It was the truth, so why did I feel like a Judas? "No I don't."
The sun died, but whether I was the cloud or he was, I couldn't tell. He reached out for me, his face rigid with intent. "My shit belongs to Kracow drains. Without Kracow drains, I would not be here. You would not be here."
It was plain that this was real, but still I had no inkling. I opened my mouth to say so, but he shut it.
"Where do you think we went when the Germans came to find us? Huh?"
"I… Papa! You're telling me you hid in the drains?"
He shook his head. "No. We didn't hide. We lived. We lived in the drains. So many sewer rats. My family, Matka's family. Others also. For many many months. Until our good neighbours became the resistance and helped us out of Poland."
His face wore the days he was speaking of, a whole chapter in his life he had never shared with me.
A day or two later, we had a visitor, Papa and I, when Jacob came to call. I thought I was happy to see him but in spite of our years together, our months apart had created palings we were neither of us confident to breach. "We have the nurse once a day now," I said to him, "but Papa will not let her touch him, so I've become her patient instead, and she sits and drinks tea with me."
Jacob shifted on the sofa, wresting my duvet from beneath him, and flashed me an awkward smile. "Do you want me to come home?"
seem to be coping," he said, looking around. "How is Andrze?"
I glanced across at the drifts of untouched mail and newspapers on the table, the surrounding fug of several-week dust. Looking at Jacob, it struck me how closely he resembled the muddle - unsorted, uncared for.
His own question seemed to catch him on the hop, almost as though it had asked itself, and I saw the panic button hovering.
Did I want him to come home? Did I want him in this equation?
Too quickly, he read a 'no' into my silence and looked at me ruefully. "I need to collect some things," he said, "more clothes, bits. Then I should say goodbye to your father."
"You could stay a while longer," I said, anxious to stretch the moment. "Have a drink with me…"
Again that little spasm across the eyes. "No. I really think I should go."
He took the stairs two at a time, but in seconds was thundering down them again. "When did you move him into our bed?"
I don't want you in the equation. "I can't put him in his own bed," I said. "The mattress is ruined. I can't get rid of the stink in the room."
He erupted. "Stef. He's in our bed!"
His anger slid off me. "So what? What difference does it make?"
"So what if he shits in our bed?"
Oh, how one question can work to answer another. "Then we won't have a bed," I told him.
So many months, and now, my father lies captive to a battalion of official pillows and the spurious comforts of dripfeed diamorphine. This illness hasn't done with us quite yet, but it has taken him beyond conducting, beyond bouncing naked on the side of his bed. Very soon, I have whispered to him, the trees in Kracow will have good earth in which to spread their roots. And very soon, I shall begin the search for my own good earth, in which to spread the remnants of my life.