All text copyright Stephen Coates 2006 - 2015


“The Trans Pennine express will now be leaving. We’d like to apologise for the delay and for any inconvenience caused to passengers”

The announcer didn’t sound particularly sorry and as the train started to move nobody really paid any attention anyway – well, certainly not me - who had other things to think about. But then, of all the many inconveniences caused by late departures and arrivals over the years, I couldn’t have realised the particular significance of this one - though there may have been a clue a little while later when, gazing out the window at passing fields, I felt overcome with a strange, gentle but intense feeling of unexpected contentment.

My sister met me at the station with open arms.

“He just died.” She said and started to cry.

The time I last saw him, the window by his bed was open and the spring breeze wafted the sound of Astrid Gilberto’s ‘How insensitive’ into the room from the little radio on the ledge. The handsome, skinny, black French man in the next bed was depressed and defiantly resentful with the loudly cheerful nurses. But who could blame him? This was a waiting room - and for him, dying with cancer before his time - what point was there in social niceties?

My father's skin seemed like a membrane wrapping his shrinking body but it had become strangely beautiful in its detachment. The purple and blue bruises, the copper-green wriggles of veins, the parchment like transparency blended organically with the plastic, plaster and bandage fragments of various recent,fruitless, surgical interventions. As with apparently anybody whose body is fading, his eyes had assumed a dark, bright luminosity.

Things were said – too personal to record here where they might seem clich├ęd or banal – but which of course in that place had a poignancy and depth amplified by the context and our previous emotional reserve. But profundity jostled with non-sequitorial nonsense, dream seamlessly mixed with reality as the morphine ebbed and flowed. Expressions of affection were chased down labyrinthine corridors by peremptory instructions dryly issued to imagined companions. The ward itself became superimposed upon a room in our family home and floating names from the past attached themselves to passing visitors. However, it was a mistake to try to empathise by pretending to concur with his hallucinations for he could at any moment open his eyes, stare straight at you questioningly with complete lucidity.

I tried to keep him alert by talking about things from years ago. Childhood holidays, favourite relatives, a shared love of old English dance band music. We sang "I’ll see you in my Dreams" and a few other old favourites together a few times. He fell asleep again and so I sketched him as the afternoon slipped away. Then, just before it was time for me leave for London, he opened his eyes and said:

“Thank you”

I was shocked

“For what?!”

But he just looked at me and the distinctions of parent and child seemed to disappear. I suppose it was simply just one person being grateful with another for having been alive. No need for explanations or protests or polite humility. And, amazingly, that would be the last time I spoke to him.

The funeral was held at the Church that had been such a significant part of our childhood. I had rarely visited it since but the old words slipped out as easily as if I had said them only the Sunday before. So many turned out for the wake that we were startled into a re-evaluation of the respect in which his peers and a wider community of acquaintance held him. My friends Glen (who feels like a brother anyway) and Jed - who had known him since we were all children - came up with us to say goodbye. Afterwards, we climbed the hill onto the moor behind the house and drank and laughed with my sisters and the kids.

Who knows what the soul looks like? And who knows how another really sees or really feels themselves to be? At the hospital, I had spent some time with his body. The priest had gone but I was thinking of that traditional Catholic vision of the final journey to the Pearly Gates and suddenly a very palpable image of my father appeared in my mind. But strangely, I didn’t imagine him struggling up the steep road towards St Peter on crutches as I last remembered him. Nor striding purposefully toward his maker as I recall him from childhood – a tall, strong, implacable defence between me and the world. Nor, even as he must have been in his prime - in soldier’s uniform in some train carriage - before I even existed or before even my Mother knew him.

[ LISTEN - I'll See You In My Dreams ]

No. It was most peculiar. What I saw was a dirty faced, dark haired, eleven year old boy in short trousers turning, looking up and then running wildly up a green hillside toward a brightness on the skyline.