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Rose Amelia Kelly


Attendance Allowance


My father’s rented bungalow squats quietly on a row of

identical buildings. The bushes are taller than the window

and the grass is overgrown. Parked outside is his surprisingly

clean Renault. The front left tyre is completely flat. I gather

my disjointed thoughts, my paperwork, and my nerves, and

ring the doorbell. While I wait, I notice the recycling box is

overflowing, and make a mental note to check the bin-days.

I am waiting a long time.

When he opens the door, I see he has made an effort: he

wears his smartest jumper, cable-knit, and some oat-coloured

slacks. His moustache has been trimmed, but his chin is

peppered with three days of white bristle. I know it is three

days because I arranged and paid for the mobile hairdresser.

One of many small details about his life that I am

unaccustomed to knowing. He is uncomfortably happy to see

me, pulling me in for a hug and kissing me sloppily on the

lips in a manner that’s made me feel awkward since I was a

small child. What began as a hug becomes a necessary lean,

as he loses his breath and wobbles. He asks me to fetch his

stick, he thinks it might be in the front of the car. I settle him

in his chair before taking the keys. There is a golf club resting

against the wall in the hallway. A putter. I wonder what made

him choose that club. It seems to me that a driver would be

more appropriate for self-defence. But perhaps a putter is the

suitable metaphor for his life – no longer does he have the

power needed for the long shots; he is reduced to small, slow

movements.

I go and fetch his stick, and I’m surprised to discover it’s

covered with pictures of white tigers and has a shining silver

handle. Not exactly his style.

‘Oh, that thing…’ He rolls his eyes. ‘That’s Pat’s.’

Pat is my aunt, dad’s older sister, a voluptuously

outlandish woman to whom the pattern is certainly suited.

Pat feeds the pigeons in her garden and pushes her dog

around in a pink pram. It seems all the necessaries of Dad’s

life are an embarrassment these days.

My visits to the bungalow are rare. For most of the decade

that he’s lived here he didn’t allow me to enter, instead

driving to meet me at a nearby cafe. These days, he has little

choice but to let me in. The first thing I notice, that I cannot

help but notice about the place, is the smoke. Or rather, the

trail in its wake. Every surface is coated in that deep, tarry

yellow, remembered from old pubs, pre-ban. The net curtains

hang in the window like tripe, thick and sticky. His ashtray

takes pride of place on the dining table, next to his knackered

old laptop, plastic and whirring. The walls are such a

remarkable shade of yellow you would think it was paint.

‘Haven’t they done a fabulous job!’ my father declares,

waving indiscriminately.

I look around dutifully. I am less than impressed. He is

referring to the professional cleaners I arranged to come and

deep-clean the bungalow, a ‘deep-clean’ that was completed

two days before my visit. If this is the place post-clean, then I

dread to think what it was like before. I mumble something

non-committal, aware he is expressing gratitude, and offer to

put the kettle on.

The kitchen is the worst room. For some inexplicable

reason there is recycling strewn across all the surfaces as if it’s

been thrown about. Empty milk bottles and Pinot Grigio

bottles lie side by side, fallen soldiers in the same war. I ask

him why; he tells me it’s bin day. Not an explanation as far as

I am concerned, but I leave it. I don’t want to respond because

I can feel a hysterical giggle bubbling in my chest. It’s not

funny, of course. It’s a giggle of the breed sometimes released

at a funeral: inappropriate and unwanted, an explosion of

repressed emotion coming out backwards like escaping

steam.

Making his coffee makes me want to wash myself, then

everything in there, then myself again. There are dishes and

mugs resting on the grey plastic drainer by the sink, but they

are marred with scrapings of unidentifiable food scraps. The

mugs are ringed with stains, brown dribbles down the sides.

When I lift the drainer slightly, I see that beneath it is a thick,

black substance, like an oil spill. I wonder again quite what I

paid the cleaners for. I run the tap, Dad shouts that I should

be careful, that the hot water is extremely hot. He’s right, and

as I wash the mugs and plates, I let it scald me, watching the

skin of my fingers turn red and swollen. I boil the kettle, pour

the instant coffee. He takes his with two sugars and a

generous glug of Elmlea, that sort of buttermilk cream

substitute. It separates slightly, leaving flecks of white fat

whirling around in the hot, sweet liquid.

The main reason for this visit is to fill in some benefit

forms and to get an idea of the latest prognoses for his various

illnesses. The longest form to be completed is for the oddly

named ‘Attendance Allowance’, an amount of cash he should

in theory be eligible for, intended for things like cleaners,

perhaps a gardener. General maintenance. Dad gets angry

and tired when filling in forms, so here I am. It rather

helpfully provides me with an excuse to ask him all sorts of

personal questions to which I would rather not have to know

the answer, such as: can he wash himself, does he have any

trouble using the toilet, etc etc.

As I turn the pages, I am overcome with a sense of

injustice. Why, for goodness sake, am I responsible for this

grubby and sad job? I am obviously not yet enough of an

adult for this sort of thing. My younger brother and I are the

products of his third marriage. I feel a wave of frustration

towards my older half-siblings. If only they were not so

utterly inept this would be their responsibility, and I could

continue merrily on my way as the overgrown teenager,

avoiding real life by overstaying my welcome in higher

education. My half-sister (manic-depressive recluse) is fifty

years old now. Surely at fifty, one feels enough of an adult to

manage their elderly father’s decline with some grace. My

half-brother (alcoholic), is just two years her junior; wouldn’t

one’s late forties be just the sort of age to swoop in bravely

and help? As I think this, I disagree with myself. I am certain

that none of us have a fucking clue what we are doing.

I persevere with the questions. We are both uncomfortable.

When we complete the section about his illnesses and

medication, he produces a printed list of his prescriptions. It

is two pages long. The section about bathroom habits proves

to be particularly hard. As he tries to describe his difficulties

whilst also not giving me the details neither of us wish to hear

aloud, he breaks down. I go over and wrap my arms around

him. He doesn’t smell like he can’t wash. He just smells like

my dad.

At this moment my subconscious mind provides me with

a contrasting image. In this memory, I am around nine years

old. In a previous life, my father belonged to an exclusive

health club, and would take my brother and I swimming then

buy us posh sandwiches and extravagant hot chocolates. I see

him preparing to dive into the pool, tall and strong with

tanned skin, muscular shoulders and hair still mostly black.

He dives, barely disturbing the water. In the present, he wipes

his eyes and shrugs me off, asks if I mind if he smokes. I

should mind, particularly as one of his more serious medical

issues is COPD, but I say I don’t. We both need a break.

I put the forms to one side, smooth out my jumper, take a

sip of coffee. I ask him if he needs me to pick anything up for

him – I could walk to the nearest shop. He puts his head to

one side, looking like a bashful child about to ask for sweets.

I know what he wants before he says it: fags. We have

bonded, in the past, my father and I, as secret smokers. For

years after my mum and brother thought I’d quit, we two

would secretly enable one another. When I was a teenager,

he bought me packs of twenty B&H Gold, shining, sharpcornered and sophisticated, while my mum took a photo of

me round the local newsagents, shrilly informing them that

I was, in fact, only fourteen. Our history of conspiring has

now left me in a complicated position. His smoking habit is

unequivocally killing him: worsening his already terrible

health, stealing his breath, his comfort, his minimal funds,

his last few years. It is also, however, one of his few

remaining pleasures. His life is entirely encased in these

yellow walls. Naturally, I cave. I pick up my coat and take

his keys. He gives me the empty pack to ensure I get the

correct brand.

Outside, the fresh air is so delicious that I barely feel the

cold. My coat and scarf stink. I resist the temptation to smell

my hair; I know I’ve been doused. I walk past the melancholic

bungalows, through the alleyway and around the corner to

the small newsagents. It’s such a relief to be doing something.

The life admin I’ve completed thus far certainly counts as

‘doing something’, but walking, picking up an object and

coming back with it, that feels productive in a way that fills

me with gratitude.

Inside the newsagents I wait calmly. I would happily wait

all day. There is a delivery driver ahead of me in the queue.

He’s receiving payment from the elderly woman behind the

counter, but there is some kind of negotiation going on, and

she is counting out pound coins extremely slowly. The

woman frowns, hands over the stack of coins and a few notes,

signs his clipboard. She is so clearly irritated by his presence

that I am taken completely off guard when she beams at me,

warmly stretching out her hands, palms up, asking me what

I need. This slight, maternal gesture is enough to break my

fragile resolve, and suddenly tears spill down my cheeks. She

takes my hand. Hers feels warm, dry and crisp.

‘What do you need?’ she says again. Her accent is lilting,

gentle.

I hold out the empty pack of cigarettes which she takes,

squinting at them before turning around and sliding open the

cupboard door. There are so many things I need at that

moment, things I’d like to tell her. I’d like her to hug me, to

make me tea, to feed me something she’d cooked for her own

children. While she looks for the cigarettes, I grab a bottle of

Pinot Grigio on a whim. His other, simple, harmful pleasure.

The woman takes the bottle, frowns at the label.

‘These are two-for-one,’ she says, pointing to the fridge.

I must look like I need two bottles. I follow her direction

and collect the second one. I wipe my eyes and pay. All the

while she focuses that smile on me, I feel solaced, thankful. I

walk slowly back to the bungalow, getting my breath, wiping

my face, squeezing my cheeks.

Once inside, I can see my father is tiring. His face is very

pale, his skin flakes like stale pastry. I have come to

understand that the trick is to ask him, or remind him, of a

time in his life when he had the energy and vitality he now

misses. The present is of no use, it represents only discomfort,

disappointment, loneliness. I search my brain for a suitable

question. Coming up with nothing new, I remind him of the

health club. This triggers him off happily, and he proceeds to

tell me about all the receptionists that fancied him. Yeah, he’s

that guy.

One of the most frustrating elements of his situation now

is that he shouldn’t be here. Up until he retired, he was paid

extraordinarily well. He is renting this miserable bungalow

because of his penchant for expensive whiskies and cigars,

half a cow for dinner each day (hence all the fun health stuff),

posh cars and ridiculous spending sprees. These habits

cannot possibly account for all of the money, and although I

have no evidence, the only thing I can think of is quite an

extreme gambling habit. Indeed, without prompting, he

gleefully informs me that the most he made in a month was

£63,000. Towards the end of his career his yearly salary was

£175,000 plus commission (he worked in telecommunications

for a huge, household name of a company).

I smile, make an oohing noise. A muscle under my left eye

twitches. I offer to put the kettle on again. I need to get out of

the room before I remind him of all the times I’ve had to order

his shopping online with my last twenty quid.

I should try to enjoy it. My brother and I have no idea how

much longer we will have the chance to be annoyed by him.

He is seventy-seven now, with the body of a ninety-year-old.

Once, he was a talented rugby player, he could throw the

javelin like a champion. He was in the RAF; he’s travelled the

world, lived on tropical islands and spear-fished his own

dinner. He made money as a teenager as a lookout for

associates of the Kray twins. He had no formal education past

the age of fourteen, yet he worked his way up the business

ladder, earned himself a position of status in the world. He

grew up in central London with no money, living in one room

with his two sisters and mother. He cared for them when his

father died in a freak accident when he was six years old –

stealing cartons of cigarettes from Marylebone station and

selling them at school to pay for food. He took a job cleaning

a local dentist’s office, nicked the appointment cards and

forged them for his classmates to bunk off. He was evacuated

as a baby during WW2. He has a moustache that makes him

look like Des Lynam; I used to think he presented Match of the

Day. My mother once loved him.

On the train home I look through the photos on my phone.

After Dad fell asleep, I’d tidied his place a bit, gone through

some documents, made sure there were no important letters

he’d not told us about. Rifling through the papers on his desk,

I found an old photo, and took a picture of it. It was a photo

of both my parents, at some sort of party or dinner. It must

have been something posh – my mum wore a long blue dress

with a silk shrug, and had her hair gathered at the back of her

head. She looked so young. Happy. My dad wore a white tux

jacket, with black trousers and waistcoat, a black bow tie. His

hair was thick black, his moustache wider than it’s been in

years. I could see my own face, written across theirs. Years

before I existed, yet there I was, smiling from their faces.

My dad was approved for Attendance Allowance two

weeks before his death. The night before, he was posting on

Facebook at 3.30am. I discovered after he died that he

regularly trolled Piers Morgan on Twitter. I’ve never been

prouder. As is the way with these things, there’s been an

explosion of information and emotion now he’s gone. Dad

and I had a thorny, messy and magical relationship, but now

all his transgressions are forgiven, as if they never existed.

The stories I’m being told push him firmly into the category

of superhero, right where he belongs. I’m already learning

remarkable things about him that sound as if they’re made

up. But they’re true. My dad is a remarkable man.

His death was very sudden, despite all his long-lived

health complaints. I think when someone you love dies it’s

natural to second guess yourself, to constantly question

whether you could’ve done more. I’m ashamed of the way

my father was living in his final years, I would’ve loved to

make him more comfortable. But in a way, I’m also strangely

impressed. He lived absolutely on his own terms from

beginning to end. Because, as he liked to say – ‘J.F.D.I. Just

fucking do it.’

William Frederick Michael Kelly

12/12/1942 – 27/04/2020


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