Dad’s breakfast tray sits on the wobbly old baize-topped card-table underneath the apple tree, his favourite mug steaming in sympathy with its surroundings as the afternoon sun evaporates the morning’s rainwater. Curiosity spiked by a new packet of tablets I spot lying next to his tea, I pick it up and rattle the box at him.
“Gingko Biloba, Dad?”
I see him squint at me as I curl my left eyebrow into a question mark. He’s not exactly the herbal remedies type, nor ever much given to what he’d probably call ‘hippy wisdom’. If not something blunter.
“They tell me they’ll help me remember,” he says. “Whenever I can find where I bloody left them.”
He’s not forgotten how to laugh, but I know it’s not worth pushing him for anything specific about who ‘they’ might be. Anything more than a few days is pre-history now.
This alien summer, we’ve settled into routines. It’s a wisdom born of agriculture: plough a deep enough rut and the banks will offer shade and shelter. Dad soothes his anxieties in a calendar of rituals, its grooves so well dug I could tell the month by him. Aubergines and cabbages planted in May, and the first asparagus cropped. And then sprouting broccoli and tomatoes in June, our respective allergies overlooked.
This allotment garden has self-seeded its own little addictions, habits handed down with the spades and soil sieves. Our afternoons are a harvest of traditions: hoeing for weeds, inspecting for blackfly, brewing more tea whenever no other task springs more immediately to mind. Radio 4 burbles into a patch of chrysanthemums from a mud-stained wireless like a long-ignored wife talking aloud to herself, educating the earthworms about the latest news from Westminster or some far-flung warzone.
He points at my battered baccy pouch and the packet of rolling papers. “May I?”
He’s forgotten he no longer smokes or that tobacco was never green – a little something from the plants in my own greenhouse, whose conspicuous lack of tomatoes he has innocently chided me for. But his fingers still crumble, roll and glue as well as ever: muscle memory more durable than the real thing. It’s too late to worry about what might harm him now, so I hold my tongue and pass him my lighter.
As he takes a first breath, I watch him gaze at the scarecrow by the fence against the edge of the airfield, dancing on the stirring breeze in Grandma’s Land Girl dungarees as if some old Glenn Miller tune plays somewhere, unheard among the bird song.
As the sun slides down into the oaks on the far perimeter, he watches the skies like she once did, an air force sweetheart with one eye scanning the sky for glimmers of a homecoming. Each time he exhales, I see his memories take flight and I wait patiently, fingers silently crossed that some at least might return.
Raised in London, Dave Wakely has worked as a musician, university administrator, poetry librarian, and editor. Since completing a Creative Writing MA, his writing has appeared in Ambit, Chelsea Station, Fictive Dream, Glitterwolf, Holdfast, The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Prole, Shooter, Token and Truffle Mag, amongst others. One of the organisers of Milton Keynes Literature Festival, he lives in Buckinghamshire with his husband and too many books, CDs and guitars. He tweets as @theverbalist.