I had forgotten about the beachcomber. I had forgotten about his long coat dragging through damp sand; his insolent beard, gorsey and stained as tide-abandoned foam. I had forgotten his permitted perimeter; the way he granulated then seem to wink out of existence, leaving me alone, a child at the land’s edge.
Father died not how he may have wished, with patrician dignity and surrounded by acolytes, but sat upright, propped against a folded bolster pillow – do they make those anymore? – and arguing about walnuts with my aunt Dorothy. Someone, she explained to me over the phone, someone, knowing him diabetic, the idiot, had brought him a bag of the things to nibble whilst he convalesced from a midsummer cold. Dorothy is eighty-eight and two years my father’s junior. She had assumed the role of matron, cook and chief-taster during his mild infirmity. She had been scolding him for such reckless disregard for his health when he raised a finger to reprimand her – I imagine with some erudite and withering epigram, probably in Latin – then tipped to the right, as if the raised finger had suddenly gained appallingly in weight, and stayed there, like a tree that inclines a few degrees but can fall no further. His last words were ‘these nuts are none of your concern’. As I say, not how he would have wished to go.
Dorothy, for all her querulous caretaking – she’s eighty-eight, I tell myself, give the old bird a break – is not one to ignore humour when it’s cantering around the room waiting to be acknowledged, black as a Spanish bull. She laughed when she told me down the phone of Father’s passing, laughed about his final words. And I laughed, too. Silly old goat. He’d always seemed to me as one in secret anticipation, primed for the moment when his wit would coincide with audience and circumstances to provide him with a killer put-down, the kind of thing everyone seems to think Churchill was so good at. But he always bottled it; when confronted with a gauche in-law’s Elton John-themed charcoal sketches or the egregious mispronunciation of Van Gogh, the most he would allow was a wry smile and raised eyebrow, indicating that he had thought of something dazzling but that etiquette denied him the pleasure of speaking. However, ‘these nuts are none of your concern’, it now seemed, was his actual punchline. Like the Great Gonzo raising his trumpet to give a mighty, singing blast, only for the bell to fart and bubble.