My father was 83 when he told me he'd slept with men. I said I didn't know, would never have known. "Really?"
"I am old," he said, "I am dying. You think I'm making this up?"
"Why tell me now?" I said.
"Why not," he said. "It was that book you were reading."
Around us was the scent of dried roses, other flowers, pot pourri. Come to think of it, yeah, sort of feminine. Dad saw me look.
"Jesus, son. You are so blinkered. Would you rather smell an old man's piss?"
I mumbled something and slid in an apology, but when Dad saw I was avoiding his eyes, he grunted, pulled himself up and called me a little wanker.
"You never knew? You must be blind, boy. Remember Jose, the writer, and Martin? Don't you remember there were always guys?"
"Very small dick."
"A great man, a great writer. I was going to learn Portugese, read him in the original."
I went quiet. I didn't want to, but my old man had this uncanny knack of moving goal-posts. Shit, not goal-posts. Dad could move the damn pitch, end us up in another stadium. And now he tells me he's been playing for the wrong side. Did this explain my brother, gay, but camp, too, limp-wristed, "delicate"?
"And now you're thinking of Tom, right?"
"How did you know?"
He leaned forward, pain all over his face. "You are transparent, son. You're there right now, thinking, fucking hell my father is queer, my brother is queer, is it genetic?"
"So now you're going to lie to an old man?"
"David, if you like fucking women, you like fucking women. It's no big deal, son, no big deal. Really."
"What about mother? Didn't she count?"
He goes silent. I see a great confusion rise up. He's angry, guilty, frustrated, but most of all weak and old. And waiting.
"I loved her."
"Oh good. Let's be grateful for small mercies!" Immediately I feel cheap and nasty. "Sorry."
"Hey," he says softly, "you're shocked. That's OK. But I loved your mother. When I married her, I thought she was all I would ever need. I never stepped out of line, not for ten years. Then one night she guessed. We were in Bogota, a literary conference. I was flirting with a young chap, a poet. I thought it was just intellectual 'play,' but Sarah saw right through to the truth."
"What about AIDS, things like that?"
"Oh son, what about love, things like that? And anyway, back then there were only whispers. The band played on."
"Wasn't she hurt?"
"Not exactly. She had a kind of sadness, is how she put it. But I'd never cheated, never brought the wrong thing to the table. She said it was more like choosing the wrong career or taking the wrong book on holiday."
"That it was just a fact, like going blind, or losing your hearing, or your teeth. No point in crying, no point in wailing. Just deal with the facts, make do."
"What about her?"
And suddenly as he stares, his eyes wet with memory, letting me realise, I can see it all. Jack B, the playwright. Thomas, the faithful friend. William, the gardener. Those soft moments, those delicious pauses, the musical changes in the air when people entered. My God, how stupid was I? How incredibly na´ve?
He laughs. "It's not a disease boy. There are no rules, you don't catch it. It's a fact, like a tree, like the morning, like rain, or these roses. Stop damn apologising!"
"I thought you were happy."
"We were happy, damn happy. We read together, talked together, went for walks together. We were soul-close, real, deep, the best of friends, and there were our boys. It wasn't torture. Hell, I knew about the men in her life, she knew mine, and through it all we had the books, the music, the breaks at the villa. It was good, son."
I stood up, just to change something, to breathe differently, think. Out in the corridor someone jerked past, shaking, stuttering, dribbling a little, pants not quite hanging right. I shouldn't have, but I felt disgusted. I looked away to the outside. Two old guys, wheel-chaired, cardiganned despite the bright sunny day. They were laughing, an old man's careful laugh. I imagined tears in their eyes.
Suddenly I was remembering some army thing, World War II, how the men loved each other, Brothers in Arms, A Band of Brothers. Shakespeare had it on the button. And I wondered why I had made less than a good job of my life, never let go to love fully, never went naked long enough to be loved.
And here we were. Tom, thousands of miles away, just hearing, four-wheel-driving it back across Mongolia wondering if he'll make it here in time, and me, the arsehole, the failure, the one without the backbone, the deep truth, three shitty marriages, two lost kids—and I was the one to be there as the old man slipped into his last weeks.
"You all right, Son?"
"Why not? I'm eighty-damn-three."
Yes, I know you're eighty-bloody-three old man, but I didn't realise you'd go, not really, truly, finally go. What do I do now? Kiss you? Tell you I'm scared? Tell you I envy you the truth, the fullness, the richness of your life? Tell you I'm scared I'm going to be a lonely old man, that I don't even like reading? What can an old queer do to help someone who never had a way to lose? I turn round. This silence, fifteen seconds, maybe, seems like an age. I feel sick, full up, as if suddenly I understand things and they will burst up from me and I won't be ready.
I'm managing a laugh in my voice. I tell him he's an old poof, then kiss him on one cheek, the other, then his lips, softly, a son's true love, light and accepting.
Then I crouch down by his knees. I ask him to tell me about Jose, a poet. I want to remember.