x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Moving Messages by Carla McKay

When you're eight, there's only so much reality you can bear. Which is why, instead of crying for my father who is dying in hospital of cancer, I am lying in an unfamiliar bed in a neighbour's spare room praying (not that I believe, even then) that he doesn't die before 12 noon the following day. The reason, according to my friend Tina, is that people who die on April 1st before midday are April Fools. Her witch mother Eva has got wind of the fact that it is near the end (and hence Tina knows, too) because my mother has been summoned to the hospital and I'm staying with the Hakins, whose 12-year-old daughter Judith is my heroine even if she never plays with me.

My father is, in fact, the person I love best. It's he, not my mother, who plays silly games with me and reads me stories on his knee every evening when he gets home. Even now he is sending me instalments of a story he has made up for me and which he types in hospital on his portable Olivetti. It's unthinkable that he should die; even more unthinkable that he might be considered an April Fool by people like Tina and her snobby mother who has airs and graces because she lives in a detached house in a better road than us.

The next morning I watch through the front-room window as my mother walks up the Hakins's garden path, elegant as always in a wasp-waisted navy suit. "Daddy's dead," she tells me without preamble. I absorb the fact that he is now officially an April Fool but I manage to say breezily, "Oh well, that'll be one less place to lay for breakfast." Later that day, I am sent off to play with Tina in spite of my protests. We climb trees in her garden for a while and then get called in for a drink and a biscuit. Eve tells me off for accidentally touching more than one biscuit in the tin. I wander out of the kitchen only to overhear Tina whisper loudly to her mother, "She hasn't even cried yet!"

I didn't, in fact, cry properly about my father's death for another eight years. In 1960, there was no talk about letting people grieve and my father was simply never mentioned again in our house. The man who replaced him made sure to tell me that he had been "seeing" my mother for a year or so before my father died and whilst I didn't understand until later what he really meant by that, I knew it wasn't intended to comfort me.

It wasn't until I was 16 and home for the holidays from my boarding school, where it was common knowledge that my father was in prison, since I never spoke about him, that I stumbled across some of his things. In amongst various letters and old passports, I found a small white card headed "Streatham Crematorium" and his name, date of death, and then the stark words "Plot 265". That's when I did eight years' worth of crying and resolved to go and seek out Plot 265.

It was a complicated journey for an untravelled, unworldly teenager, but I got there and located the plot where presumably my father's ashes were deposited. The plots either side of his - and stretching on down the rows - all had plaques with names and dates on them. Some had urns and plastic flowers and even photographs. Plot 265 was empty - just an empty space. That's what his life was reduced to.

I confronted my mother when I got back. "What were you thinking of?" I raged. "Not him, that's for sure. And not me, either. Didn't it occur to you that his only child might want to visit his grave, to bring flowers, to mourn like other people do? His plot was the only empty one there - what kind of message does that send out?" "Maybe that I didn't love him enough," she said and turned on her heel.

It's now almost exactly 50 years later and I am in Bangalore where I have been attending the book festival and giving readings from my latest thriller. I'm a household name in the crime fiction world and my novels are popular because they are so vile - right at the far end of the grisly spectrum. I give the readers what they crave. Why merely stab or shoot someone, I intone at these events, when you can torture them in the most imaginative way and then crucify them in some horror dungeon? Of course, it's even more titillating that I'm a woman and my victims are more often than not middle-aged women like myself. Usually there's a debate about whether female crime writers' novels are more gratuitously violent than male ones and I'm the first to agree that they probably are.

On the breakneck journey back to the airport in the early hours, I catch sight of a building with an illuminated blue sign which reads "The National Bureau of Agriculturally Important Insects". Amusing though this is, I find my eyes filling with tears as I recall how my father was crazy about all kinds of creatures, especially insects, and all the happy times we spent crawling about in the garden on all fours, searching for beetles and ants. Looking at my watch to check the time, I see with a start that it is April 1st. The fact that this building drew itself to my attention and reminded me of my father on such a significant date is a 'message' I decide. I've always looked out for 'messages' from him and conclude that this is an important one.

As soon as I get back home and have had a short sleep, I telephone my mother who is now living in sheltered accommodation, which she feels is undignified. "I'm coming over," I say. "Where have you been?", she asks petulantly. "Can you bring me some more teabags and some of those biscuits I like? Oh, and I need a proper feather pillow - the ones here are like concrete slabs." Half an hour later I am at her door, clutching the pillow but not the teabags or the biscuits, which she won't be needing. I let myself in to her flat and walk slowly towards her armchair where she is dozing. "Here's your pillow," I say softly, pressing it firmly over her face. "April Fool!" Vote for this story at our online poll: www.thenational.ae