Rose Amelia Kelly
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
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,
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
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
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
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,
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
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