(63) Not Once Have I Looked At His Headstone (Numbers)

My father turned sixty-three on the fourteenth of march, the same age as my mother who had celebrated her birthday a month earlier. February is a cold month, often miserable, sometimes snowing, but I, for one, admire the structure of its name, the letters as they lay, its sound so much unlike any other, except perhaps diary. March is one of those words like one of those numbers that seems solid to me, unbreakable. It sticks there like a lump in the calendar’s throat. Pi day at four-thirty-two in the afternoon. My father is good with numbers, less so with words—‘It’s my dyslexia!’ His handwriting may be preferred to his wife’s, her feminine wrist, his belying the building sites roamed; spiky, yes, like an electrocardiograph.

I was not with my father for his birthday this year, for the first time in as long as I can remember. Three days previous, he and my mother tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, so all celebrations, albeit muted, were postponed indefinitely. Instead, I called him during a smoking break at Monday’s work. In the slanted sunshine and beyond a cute churchyard pressed with names of the brave, I listened to them. ‘We’re fine,’ my mother said, seizing the phone from his hand—‘Just fucking bored.’ And she – reinforced by his agreement – relayed to me details of huge insignificance, and I nodded through it all. I told them to go for a walk. It was a beautiful day. The churchyard sang and birds could be heard to trill through the traffic. The mobile phone picked up every frequency of my father’s cough. It was louder than anything else being said, so that I grimaced and pulled the phone away from my ear. ‘I can’t sleep, son, the coughing keeps me awake.’ ‘I think it’s his sphincter.’ ‘Yeah, she thinks it’s my sphincter.’ ‘All his sphincters are fucked.’ Now my father is sixty-three.

My grandfather died at sixty-three.

How old was he? I do not know. It was not something I knew at the time, but something that I learned much later. Not from his headstone, for not once have I ever looked at it, but something of remembrance past. So affected by his demise was I that I memorised the number: sixty-three.

His death was the denouement to my first year of secondary school – an experience that also scarred me – and a year during which I became fixated with age, numbers that followed one another as infinite as months, as I cursed my own compelling me to grow up and attend a school I did not like away from the friends I had made. It is really something to lie in bed and obsess over Peter Pan, the enchantment of Neverland. I wept, wept, wept! So it is sixty-three, is it? And I lied in bed, solaced only by my own eleven. I would not ever forget sixty-three; it was the age that men in my family died. My own father, and he was only a son to my grandfather, the inherited algebra of family, was thirty-eight. Twenty-five years before I had to worry, because why should it not be consistent? Numbers were consistent. The top group of mathematics; it was something I was sure of.
Time, inescapable and encompassing, drew my father towards sixty-three. Time, wrought and brazen, pushed me along with him, love- and childless. The age at which my father did things – met my mother, married, bred – were measured against my own.

There are many numbers that have no meaning to me, but if one were to, in a pub or fairground, ask me about the number sixty-three then I would not pause but declare it solely the age at which my grandfather died and there was nothing more to it. Not once before in the history of mankind had the number sixty-three been used.

Less than two years ago, I learned from his wife that my grandfather was not sixty-three when he died. So much of what I had been certain of, had been obsessed with, disintegrated in my hands and fell between my fingers. It was as though I had been living a lie, and yet it was only a number! Only a number! But it was only a number upon which I rested a kingdom of grief, of anticipation, of me becoming the oldest man in the family – and that was something, even if my measly consciousness determined it to be nothing. What had been imminent was now twelve months further away!

Nineteen-ninety-seven was quite the year: Labour government, a dead princess, a summer holiday with edges that were rounded into the shape of a pentagon. Peacockgreen curtains draped in pink vines dangled and swung over the tumescent golden sun of five-past-nine. Take me to the west coast, where the limbs of this backwards isle extend toward elsewhere! My hormones were not yet enough to be aroused by the eastern valleys. All I was sure of was Sixty-Three.

And now I must wait another year. I do not know when my grandfather was born, nor do I know when he married my grandmother, I have a slight inkling of when his first-born arrived, but most of it is a mystery. There are only certain numbers left. Waiting is an unfair word. One must prepare their defences. He looked so old. In Kodachromatic captures, when I was one and he was (um) fifty-four, he looks like a grandfather, he looks like my grandfather, older than my father looks now, older than my father will ever be.

And so at last their bar graphs overlap, the victory of a son over his father, inevitable unless the family is struck by a tragedy. And thus he lives on, and the numbers continue. The numbers continue. It is a simple sentence. It is simpler still in life. But, for now, he is here, he is there. Until eventually he leans into me, and as he wilts away from this existence and I take his place. The numbers continue.