Fiction

The half-life of Ant Zaniolo

THIS IS THE one memory of Ant I fully trust.

I’m in the backyard, in the veggie patch littered with Nonno’s prized tomatoes – the ones he insisted on planting as a house-warming gift. It’s the day I first took the chair from the kitchen and put it between rows of stakes in the vegetable patch. I wanted to smoke outside without Mama being able to see me.

No sooner had I sat down than Mama opened the side gate to see me sitting camouflaged among the soil and leaves, a garden gnome come to life. I held my smoke between my knuckles and, with the same hand, gripped a mug of instant coffee.

I must have looked childish sitting between the rows of plants, as if I was half-assing a game of hide-and-seek.

The screen door rattles and Ant bursts into the backyard, with flushed cheeks and the middle of his scalp completely shaved like a medieval monk. I spray out a laugh, spitting coffee against the tomato leaves. He says: Luca, get the fuck out of the vegetable patch. He says if I’ve damaged anything he’ll kill me. He says I’m a dirty dope-smoking donkey whose sponge-brain isn’t fit to wipe down his sink.

If the tonsure haircut isn’t already a giveaway, Ant is unwell; things between us are not good at this point.

My eyes gleam with amusement. I take a long drag on my cigarette. I stand up. I wait for him to stride over to me, a gangly shuffle through the tomato plants, and grab me by my collar. My cigarette falls into my coffee. My coffee falls onto the ground and spills over his slippers. Ant is almost emaciated at this point, but he is still strong enough to shake me so hard that my head bobbles back and forth.

I’m still laughing.

Ant’s eyes pop so far out of their sunken sockets I consider picking them out, one and then the other, like bocconcini. I see fear, or at least vulnerability, in his eyes and push him hard in the chest. I open my mouth to scream but the sound that comes out is more like a bleat, a long ­mournful wail.

I push Ant again and he stumbles backwards over a divot in the soil and falls onto a tomato plant. The wood of the stake snaps cleanly and now Ant is on his back. There is red everywhere and I think he’s been impaled, before a sweet, rich smell fills the air and I realise it’s the tomatoes he’s crushed. I’m standing over him, torso hunched forward. My face is slapped-ass pink, my teeth are bared.

Mama is crying and hitting the side of my head with an open palm, begging me to stop. I pick up the toppled chair and put it back in its place, tattered brown leather spitting foam from a tear in the seat. Mama asks me why I hate my family and, as I’m taking my mug of coffee to the sink, I reply softly: Not you Ma, just him.

 

I’VE BEEN RESEARCHING trauma lately: the memory loss, the coalescence of past and present, the revisionism.

The thought of not being able to find Ant scares me.

So I’m trying to remember, before the yawning hole in my head inevitably strips the last of him away from me.

 

MY EARLIEST MEMORIES are smooth and convex like freshly paved roads. I can walk along their spines and trace my fingers along each contour.

Ant in the backyard: on a stepladder by the rusted iron fence, trimming the vines that crowned its edges, a fatly rolled cigarette jutting out of his mouth like a bandaged finger, grinning as Mama chides him: A doctor should know better.

Me, seven years old and playing on the clothes line: swinging myself to and fro, until it gives a metallic lurch and obligingly begins rotating.

Mama in the kitchen: the water boiling and the pasta sauce bubbling thickly in the pan, gloop glooping like molten lava. She sings rebetiko music through the kitchen window as a chill creeps into the afternoon air.

 

FROM THE MOMENT he was born, Ant was no one’s boy.

After giving birth to her first son, Aldo, my exhausted Nonna Rosa, rubbed away the tears of an eighteen-hour labour with the back of her wrist and drank in her newborn son. Apparently, Aldo had stopped crying as soon as he was placed in her arms. The big head that had stubbornly demanded a caesarean stared back at her with wide unblinking eyes.

Nonna looked at her baby and couldn’t quite place him. She ran her eyes over his small body as she would a freshly sewn dress, inspecting the seams, admiring her embroidery, looking for herself in every stitch. Aldo’s eyes were liquorice, deep black engulfing the faintest trace of chocolate. His eyebrows were furrowed and pronounced from the start, hooding a bewildered stare.

When the doctor clipped the umbilical cord, Nonna mourned for an intimacy she would never feel again: her first love.

My Nonno Raffaele stuck his head into the foyer of the children’s hospital in Cape Town and proclaimed in Italian, and then English, to the rest of the family, ‘Our fatso has arrived!’

The scar tissue had barely woven itself into my nonna’s skin before she was cut open along the same line so Ant could be born thirteen months later. Unlike Aldo’s birth, Ant’s was gory and nearly calamitous. I would later learn that the placenta had broken prematurely and my father had come adrift within my nonna. By the time Ant was delivered, Rosa had lost so much blood she couldn’t open her eyes. After her second transfusion, she regained consciousness to the sight of a tight-faced Raffaele standing at the foot of her bed.

‘Did I lose the baby?’ she asked, barely aware if she was dreaming or not.

‘No, but we nearly lost you.’

 

IT’S BEEN FOUR years and a petulant part of me just wants to let Ant die.

Not in the literal sense; my father died when I was twenty. But since then, he has come alive in a way he could never quite manage in life.

Since Ant died, Mama goes about her days with the distant, ruminant look of someone who hasn’t yet tamed her grief. She has moments where she grips the kitchen benchtop for balance and starts cursing the saints in Greek. I usually close the windows when this starts. I still prefer this to when she actually takes her antidepressants. I once came home to find her by the stove, burning an empty pan. She was tutting at it like it wasn’t cooking fast enough.

Her soft steps can always be heard as she patters around the house, going between odd jobs that I rarely see her do. Sometimes I’ll call her name as she passes me and she’ll move quicker, as if running from something. When I touch her lightly on the shoulder, she startles as if she didn’t know I was there.

Although there are less people, the house is louder now. A pan can clatter in the sink and the noise will ring like a bell, without thought of who it might bother. The Greek side of my family mills through the house like a line of worker ants. Close relatives still check in daily, usually bringing food in large terracotta pots the same colour as their houses.

Mama’s grief weighs on her father, my Pappoú Andréa, like gravity. I can’t tell if it’s old age or heartache, but he moves slower now, his steps contracting to a shuffle. My Yiayiá Christina weeps long-withheld tears for her widowed daughter, and for every other goodbye diaspora has snatched away from her.

The day of the funeral, I overheard my Theía Virginia tell Mama: grief is like a wave, Irina. Mama’s older sister has a loud, slightly strained voice, as if someone is squeezing her throat ever so slightly. Virginia has adages for most things: some poignant, some platitudes.

Mama’s face was pursed tightly to try to stem the flow of tears, her chin wrinkled like a cheese and Vegemite scroll. Theía Virginia put an arm around her sister and scanned the room of mourners.

I couldn’t tell if she was looking to deter onlookers or encourage them.

Grief is like a wave, Irina.

She was right. Perhaps not in the way a psychologist or a well-meaning friend might mean it, grief is like a wave…you have to let it wash over you, but she was still right. I imagine my family’s grief as a tsunami washing over the past, clearing away anything that it finds useless.

Antonio Umberto Zaniolo, the son of a Calabrian diplomat and a Sicilian dressmaker. Born and raised in Cape Town.

Ahn-TOE-nyo, the reluctant South African schoolboy.

Testa Grande, the younger brother of Aldo, the Testa Duro.

Dr Zaniolo, the gentle genius.

Tony the Lover, Tony the Husband, Tony the Disappearing, Tony the Ghost.

To me, and as far as I know only to me, he has become known posthumously as Ant.

Grief is like a wave.

When it first broke over my family, the demarcations of our history were washed away. The public narrative that surrounded my father was a foaming brine collapsing over our lives, concealing anything lurking beneath. Brilliant neurosurgeon brought to Melbourne for his pioneering techniques in microvascular surgery, something like that.

Cause of death? Depends on who you ask, but for now we’ll say: drowning.

His laconic, detached relationship with patients was viewed as typical for a doctor of his standing. Certainly not a symptom of something else.

At the funeral, once the priest had concluded the service, I sat in the aisle with Mama and Nonno, to accept condolences. I recognised Ant’s medical colleagues by their stoic faces and formal, clipped language. A woman with black shoulder-length hair and sharp, attentive eyes told me, with a kiss on the cheek, that Ant had trained her as a junior surgeon. A man, perfectly bald with hands like cricket gloves, told me that Ant had been like a father to him.

The wake took place in the newly constructed hall behind the church. Despite its newness, the structure amounted to an oppressive dark cube that seemed built to keep out natural light. The space was filled with rows of adjoining trestle tables covered in white cloth, spanning the width of the room.

Mama and I entered the foyer and were immediately greeted by a woman wearing a pristine white apron holding a tray of shot glasses filled with whiskey. Mama picked up a glass between her bony fingers and titled her head back, before raising her empty glass to the ceiling in a bitter cheers to the man of the hour.

She placed the shot glass back in the tray and began sobbing. I put my arm around her shoulder and pulled her shaking body into me. Her breath was warm and acrid. The room, which had been filled with a swelling murmur, found its silence as Mama and I entered. We were followed shortly after by Nonno and Nonna, who had the same expression of blankness on their faces.

As we found our seats, the faces of our family and friends synchronised in a gallery of grimaces.

I felt the weight of exhaustion throbbing through my puffy eyelids. I looked down at the food on the paper plate in front of me: Greek salad, a mushy square of lasagne and a cold piece of fried fish. I bit off a nub of the salty cheese and began chewing it in the hope I would find it edible.

I looked across the table at Nonno, who was receiving hushed commiserations from a woman I had never met before.

Unlike most of us, Nonno must have known this was coming. You could never tell by looking at him, glazed eyes and tie fastened under the red jowls of his chin, but he had a lifetime to prepare for the death of his son. The death of his only other child, decades earlier, must not have served as adequate warning something was wrong in the family.

Nonno’s stoic silence, a trait seemingly spliced into the Zaniolo gene pool, led me to where I am today, writing this.

 

IF I HADN’T found Ant’s notebook, I could have accepted his death more easily.

In those last few years, he was a depressive, volatile man who regularly belittled my mother when he wasn’t sedated to the point of inertia. As for our relationship: I always felt like an oddity to him. A spot of bacteria left in a petri dish that spored into something ugly and inconvenient. As two adults, we never spoke much, but when we did my chest tightened and my lips didn’t curl around my words properly.

I wonder now how much of Ant’s harshness I have inherited, and how much of it was actually mine.

As the last of the mourners left the church, an elderly volunteer began extinguishing the candles in the sandboxes either side of the entrance. Some candles were thin and coloured waxen brown, others were tall and white with red and blue bands painted along their centre. The volunteer, whose lips sunk in around toothless gums, grabbed the smaller candles like they were weeds and dunked them upside down in a small tray of water attached to the sandbox. A smooth, ashen smell filled the air and, for the first and only time that day, I felt Ant’s presence. Not like a warm glow or a comforting hug; more like a curt nod on the stairs as we passed each other in the mornings.

As a child, I used to walk past Ant and play out conversations in my head that we would never have: Luca, how was your day? Luca, where are you off to? They would have been beautiful and boring. Instead, he would look at me with puzzlement, like I had wandered through the wrong door into his life.

I spent my entire childhood, my entire life, fixated on earning Ant’s intimacy. It wasn’t until I saw a church full of people mourning a man no one really knew that I wondered how many times Ant had been let down.

I think the biggest difference between then and now is this: before Ant died, I believed that people burned through life like a wick, until they extinguished. I didn’t think that a person could keep living long after their life had been snuffed out.

To borrow an excerpt from Ant’s notebook:

June 7 1996: Many of my patients come to me complaining of headaches. The majority of these patients will present with other symptoms that point towards a possible diagnosis: dizziness, loss of co-ordination, personality changes. These are the patients we are able to diagnose and, sometimes, treat.

Then there are the patients who suffer headaches so severe they cannot open their eyes, let alone go to work. We will run all manner of tests on these patients and find them to be completely healthy. These patients are often distressed, not relieved, when they are told the cause of their pain is likely psychological.

It took me decades as a doctor to accept that the distinction between psychosomatic and physical pain is an imaginary one. All pain is generated in the brain. Until the source of the pain is identified – be it trigeminal neuralgia or unbearable loneliness – it will continue and likely worsen.

I could see it at the funeral, in the look of helpless terror on my nonno’s face. He had seen the grim reaper come to collect yet another instalment of a familial debt. I can see it now in the frenetic pace in which Mama is going about her daily life. I know she is scared that if she slows down, even slightly, her pain will swallow her whole.

I also know that, for now, I am the least affected by all of this, which is why I have to write about it.

The source of all this pain.

 

SOMETIMES I WILL wake up from a dream and, although I can’t remember it, I know it was about Ant. He has become my waking exhalation, my dissolving memory.

Someone I will eventually forget.

I often dream about reaching into the shadows and dragging him into the light. But he is as elusive in death as he was in life, a child running away from his parents at bedtime. He floats unmoored in my mind.

He is slowly drifting away – but not if I catch him first.

 

IT STARTED WHEN I was seventeen, the beginning of the end. Big Head had been pestering me to sneak into Ant’s study with him for weeks. Neither of us had ever set foot in there, and finally I relented.

We waited for confirmation that Ant had taken his medications: antidepressant and antipsychotic. A snore from my parents’ bedroom signalled that Ant had passed out and our path was clear. Drowned out by the blare of Mama’s Greek soap operas in the lounge, we used our phone lights to sift through troves of hardback literature stuffed into bookshelves and scattered across the floor. Pressed between Lolita and Anna Karenina was an article by the neurologist Oliver Sacks titled ‘My Own Life’. I skimmed the opening paragraph: A month ago, I felt I was in good health…but my time has run out…given the particulars of my case…I am among the unlucky ones. Ant had underlined each of the last six words, so it read like an affirmation. I am among the unlucky ones. Always the fatalist.

High and low across windowless walls, pastorals of valleys and mountainous coastlines formed a patchwork landscape. On Ant’s rosewood desk, two taxidermied meerkats watched us attentively from either side of a banker’s lamp.

‘They look like Timon,’ I said to Big Head.

‘Who?’

Wedged between Gray’s Anatomy and an old prescription for temazepam, I found something rare – a photo of Ant as a boy. The faded sepia image showed my nonno sitting stiffly on a low brick fence, looking like a Calabrian John Cleese, with little Ant and little Zio Aldo propped either side of him. Both boys were dressed in tight high-waisted shorts and long-sleeved white shirts. Little Aldo was wearing a black vest and bow tie, his eyes wide and severe. Little Ant was dressed in a string tie that curled up at the bottom like a tongue; he eyed the camera cautiously. His curly brown hair looked like two-minute noodles crumbled over his head.

Both boys looked scared.

I turned to look at Big Head: a long-sleeved orange shirt with stained arms from where he kept wiping his runny nose, and baggy denim jeans cupping the heels of his lame white sneakers. His hair still hugged his scalp like a beanie. The odd rogue curl sprung out at odd angles like a coil; one in particular would always drop stubbornly back onto his forehead no matter how many times he tucked it away.

‘Look,’ I said to Big Head, ‘have you seen this?’

He spoke without lifting his head from the old anatomy textbook he was reading. ‘In Britain, during the 1800s, the only bodies given to medical schools for dissection were those of criminals who were hanged.’

‘I don’t care. Look at this!’ I held the photo up to him.

‘What about this?’ he continued, ignoring me. ‘It was illegal to execute pregnant women, and so there were no records of what a baby in utero actually looked like.’

‘Keep your voice down,’ I told him.

‘Some doctors would pay body snatchers to dig up and steal the corpses of pregnant women for dissection. Look.’

Big Head held up a vivid charcoal drawing of a torso that had been severed below the breasts and above the knees. The skin of the stomach had been cut down the middle and peeled back to reveal a dark, bulging womb. A white mass was faintly visible floating within.

‘What’s wrong with you? You’re fucked up, you know that right?’

‘It’s interesting,’ he said, looking wounded.

I slid the photo of little Ant into my back pocket and reorganised the clutter as best I could remember.

‘I think I want to be a doctor when I grow up,’ Big Head added. After that, he stopped speaking to me in the study, and I let him be.

 

SOMETIMES, WHEN MAMA was teaching and Ant was at the hospital, we went into the study during the day.

Once, I found a downturned frame on a shelf. The frame was made of brittle clay. Two crudely painted lions stretched along the sides and converged at the top like a sad coat of arms. It looked like the kind of thing a child paints that inadvertently ends up looking sinister and unnerving.

The photo inside was black and white, with a part missing near the bottom edge. My nonno, nonna and another man stood in the foreground. I recognised the location as one of the vast savannahs east of Cape Town where Ant had grown up. My grandparents had their arms around each other and thin, dignified smiles. Behind them, a pale valley sprawled towards the horizon, where it blurred into a cloudless sky.

I stared at the other man’s face. It was overexposed, a featureless smudge in the daylight. Between my grandparents’ waists, a small part of the photo had been torn out; a jagged, childlike silhouette.

‘You should put that back,’ Big Head said, suddenly appearing next to me. ‘You aren’t ready.’

 

WHEN I WAS SIX, my Year 1 teacher, Ms Hosking, asked each student to prepare a thirty-second presentation about one of their parents: their name, background and what they did for work. One boy grabbed the arm of the girl next to him and proclaimed, ‘My daddy fights fires in an ambulance!’

Other children shot their hands up and told Ms Hosking they did not know what their parents did, but they would find out that night. Ms Hosking told us we had all week to prepare, and to ask as many questions as we wanted to.

I felt proud that I knew, without having to ask, what both my parents’ jobs were.

Mama is a teacher and Baba is a head doctor.

This was when I still had the childish imagination required to view Ant as Baba.

I convinced myself that Ms Hosking would be deeply offended if I praised another teacher in her classroom, so I decided to speak about my baba the head doctor. I went home that night and told Mama that even though she was clearly the best teacher in the world, I was going to talk about Baba in my presentation if it was okay with her.

She pinched my cheeks and told me to ask him some questions about his job when he got home that night. I tore a piece of paper from one of my scrapbooks and started writing down questions: Do you have to wash your hands a lot? Does a brain have a heartbeat?

Well past my bedtime, I heard the key in the lock and ran to the front door. Before I could even look at him, Ant had already passed me with a mumbled greeting and a pat on the head. I heard him and Mama speaking in the kitchen, her voice beginning to rise, before Ant yelled ‘Enough!’

Then there was silence.

Ant lingered by my bedroom door, equal parts remorse and impatience, as Mama tucked me into bed. Mama kissed me on the forehead and crossed my body three times, like she did every night. She left the room, avoiding Ant’s eyes as she did so.

As a child, I was always overcome by excitement and disbelief whenever I was guaranteed Ant’s time. When he closed the bedroom door behind him that night, it felt like I had been granted a private audience with my idol. As Ant eased himself onto the edge of my bed, I actually felt nervous.

Back then his dark curly hair was just beginning to salt and he still wore thick-rimmed black glasses that made him look like Woody Allen. Despite spending twelve-hour days inside a hospital, he never lost his ­southern Italian complexion. I remember thinking that his skin was the colour of wet sand.

He looked at me, ‘Mum told me you wanted to ask me some questions.’

‘I have to talk about…’ I suddenly felt underprepared. I had forgotten my questions.

He smiled and the skin beside his eyes crinkled. ‘Why don’t I tell you about my day?’

‘Okay.’

‘Well, before you woke up this morning, I was already at the hospital.’

‘Looking after people?’

He nodded. My eyes widened as I tried to imagine how early he must have woken up that morning.

‘Who were you looking after?’ I asked.

‘Do you remember when your Theía Virginia had a sore back?’

‘Yes! And she was walking funny?’

‘Exactly. So she came to see me and I fixed her back. But after I fixed it, she had to stay in the hospital for a week.’

‘Why?’

‘So I could check on her.’

‘So, Theía Virginia was in hospital today?’

Ant laughed. ‘No, not today. Another person with a sore back.’

‘But, Baba, I thought you were a head doctor for people with headaches?’

Ant stood up, his tall body casting a shadow over my bed.

‘I am. But I don’t want you worrying about headaches and sore backs. Tell your class about Theía Virginia if you want to, that she doesn’t walk funny anymore.’

‘Sometimes she still does.’

‘Then you tell them that’s because she ignores my advice and still eats too much food!’ He laughed again.

‘Baba. I get headaches sometimes, do you need to fix me too?’

Ant’s smile fell away. ‘No, my boy,’ he caressed my cheek with the back of his cold hand, ‘you don’t need fixing.’

 

I’M AT HOME, sitting with my nonno in the darkness of the lounge. The heat of the day is pressing against the red brick of the house and I can feel it beginning to seep around the edges of the closed blind.

The room smells of Ant’s old recliner: fibrous and dusty, like a sweater once washed and never worn again. The chair is a deep, empty blue, which could just as easily be navy or black, with faded green lines running along its back in no particular pattern. Whenever I close the blinds and shut out the day, the whole room seems to become the colour of the chair: a miserable swamp of nostalgia, the shrivelling remnant of a baby’s umbilical cord.

When my nonno sits in this chair, it’s for keeps. It lurches back on its base, as if ready to catapult his squat body into oblivion, before rocking forward with a contented creak. A Zaniolo isn’t a Zaniolo without something to consume them. This chair was, and still is, what consumes my nonno. When he walks to it, smooth forearms dangled by his sides like a marionette, his troubles nearly buckling his back, he craves the amnesic embrace.

When he was alive, I used to walk past Ant in the lounge. Seeing him in his chair in the dark, I felt a contemptuous pity. This room is the liminal space between past and present; it’s where you waste away.

My nonno knows exactly what he’s doing.

Other times, after dinner, when the waxen light from the kitchen trickles across the house and traces silhouettes in the darkness, I find myself joining Nonno. Across from the clatter of dishes in the sink and Mama’s tired answers to the daily questions of relatives on the phone, we sit in silence. Sometimes the television is on, sometimes it isn’t. It never matters; the silence has the same quality, the static crackle of a blank screen when the signal drops out. This is the silent contract Nonno and I have agreed upon, this pretence of waiting. Nothing happens, nothing needs to. I try not to sit with him for too long. If I look across and see that he’s asleep in his chair, I will ease myself off the tight leather couch with a squelch and join Mama in the kitchen. I refuse to let myself be trapped in the same way as the other men in my family.

I still see it now in Nonno’s unblinking stare, his pupils contracting tightly around cyclical memories. I can see the density of his haunting, thickening around him until he is indistinguishable from the chair in which he sits, the room in which he hides.

I think I have trouble sitting with Nonno, even more so getting up to leave him, because of my familiarity with his wide-eyed absence. I walked past that expression on Ant’s face for so many years; its recurrence in my nonno compels me to stay and sit.

Mama passes by the frosted glass of the half-open sliding door.

‘I’m going to the beach.’ She says the words defiantly, not stopping to make eye contact with either of us.

 

I KNEW ANT wasn’t religious. He seldom spoke about religion, but when he did there was no mistaking his position – it was beneath him. He was the kind of hardline empiricist who couldn’t believe in something that hadn’t been peer-reviewed.

When I was eight, I asked my Yiayiá Christina why she prayed to God before every meal. She told me that we had God to thank for the food on our table, the clothes on our backs, and the air in our lungs. She said that our life and our death are God’s will, and one day, when God wills it, our souls will join him in heaven.

‘That’s enough, Christina,’ Ant interjected.

I still remember the way Yiayiá’s eyes immediately lowered, as if accepting she had spoken out of turn.

 

ANT FREQUENTLY WENT through what Mama referred to as ‘bad spells’. These were times when he abandoned the medication schedule his psychiatrist had painstakingly modified with him over years of treatment and began to self-medicate.

Of course, there was never any warning when Ant was about to enter a bad spell. If my mother dared question why he was suddenly insisting that all doors in the house remain open at all times, and that we only spoke in whispers between noon and dusk, he called her an idiot, a fool and a meddler.

During Ant’s bad spells, Mama would cup my face in her hands and tell me, ‘Your father doesn’t mean what he says when he’s not feeling well. He loves you very much, never forget that my love.’

When I was nine, I guess it must have been during a bad spell, Ant told me that Mama, Yiayiá Christina and Theía Virginia were witches who practised black magic. This struck me as oddly fantastical, until I realised he was talking about the Greek Orthodox Church.

Then, in a manic voice as if imparting secret information before being caught, he said: ‘When you die, your soul doesn’t go to heaven! Your soul doesn’t go anywhere, because the idea of a soul exists only in your brain and when that dies so does your soul. Without oxygen, the cells in your body begin dying, then calcium builds up in your muscles, which makes them completely stiffen. This is called rigor mortis.’

Ant held his arms out in front of him like Michael Jackson in ‘Thriller’.

‘Rigor mortis usually lasts for a day and a half, after which your muscles do the opposite and slacken completely. This means all the faeces and urine stored in your body can no longer be held, so it all comes out at once. Then,’ he particularly relished telling me this, ‘your skin turns green and your organs start eating themselves. Your hair falls out, and your body begins to rot, which makes you smell delicious to the maggots who want to eat you.’

Such was my parochial love for my father that my reaction to the mental image of a green, decomposing corpse being eaten by maggots was one of gratitude.

Even when unwell, Ant was the great gatekeeper of knowledge, and I was lucky to hear from him.

 

MAMA’S FATHER, MY Pappoú Andréa, was gruff and always smelled faintly of ash and talcum powder. He was a deeply intelligent man who had dropped out of school at the age of nine to repair pushbikes in his village in Greece. A love of reading and solitude helped mend the holes in his mind left by the absence of a formal education.

He would grunt in expectation whenever I knocked on the front door.

‘My door always open, why you knocking!’

The hair and muscle of his forearms that pressed into my skin felt like frayed rope when he hugged me.

Pappoú’s indulgence in English was always proportionate to his approval of something. When Mama told Pappoú she had enrolled me in Greek school, he clapped his hands and said, ‘Now that’s a good boy, all right!’ When our extended family would concertina into his white-tiled dining room, through both front and back door, Ant nowhere to be seen, Pappoú would purse one corner of his mouth and say in a low voice to whoever was next to him, ‘Shame.’

After dinner, Pappoú always collected everyone’s dishes and joined Yiayiá Christina in doing the washing and drying. When he finished, he would run one giant fist at a time through the tea towel as if polishing marble, before returning to sit at the head of the long dining table with a trademark sigh: ‘Aaaah-ah!’

It was the same sound Pappoú made when drinking a glass of cold water after finishing in the garden. My cousins and I imitated him whenever we heard it, a discordant chorus of little sighs: ‘Aaaah-ah!’

My pappoú was shrouded by smells that would have been repellent had they come from anyone else. My memories of his storytelling – mythical, historical, philosophical – are each catalogued alongside a unique odour, worn as routinely as the white singlet under his shirts.

After one of our family dinners – I might have been sixteen – Pappoú told me about the Greek tradition of topos.

‘Do you know what means this word?’

‘No.’

I recognised the metallic scent of his hairspray.

‘Aristotle, he say, some things, they happen always. You understand?’

‘Yeah.’

He pressed a weathered finger down on the floral tablecloth.

‘Time straight, like a line.’ He traced his finger between breadcrumbs and red wine stains. ‘But istória,’ he said, switching to Greek, ‘history is not a straight line.’

I nodded.

‘History, people, are like this.’ He started tracing a spiral around a stray slice of cucumber. ‘They do the same things, at different times, over and over again.’

I was prodding an olive pip on the table when I realised Pappoú was no longer speaking.

‘Oh, yeah?’ I said, too loudly, snapping back to attention.

‘You young,’ Pappoú said in English. ‘But in life, you see many people like this.’

‘Like what?’

‘Weak.’

His eyes shifted down the table to where Mama sat across from Theía Virginia and Theío Peter. My father’s absence fractured the symmetry of my auntie and uncle. Mama’s voice echoed in my head: Your father’s just going through a bad spell. He loves you very much. Never forget that, my love.

 

ALTHOUGH ZIO ALDO died when he was fifteen and Nonno is still alive at the age of eighty-eight, they both tend to linger in the same parts of my mind. I picture them both sitting in the twin burgundy leather recliners in our lounge room, unreal and corporeal.

Nonno leaning slightly forward, golden-ringed hands resting atop his polished walking stick. He watches the television in desperate expectation, as if at any moment a news bulletin could flash across the screen and deliver the answer he’s been searching for his entire life.

My Zio Aldo sits across the room from Nonno, watching something else entirely. The agelessness of death has preserved his handsome face, with his thick cropped black hair and wild, bewildered eyes. He is sunken into his chair, arms and legs flush against the leather as if fastened with strapping; his wrists are curled around the ends of the wooden arms, not wanting to let go just yet.

His body is alive with a pain the dead should not be made to carry. Unlike Nonno, if you look closely enough, Aldo’s skin is pallid and his pupils look dry, like desiccated fruit.

He smiles at me without parting his lips. Even though we are close in age, both young men, he acts like he is my uncle. Maybe he thinks he is reassuring me, but I can see the panic in his eyes. Aldo and I have become well acquainted. I have learnt that the dead communicate on a similar frequency to the living. The differences are small but unmistakeable.

Ant once told me, in a prescient moment, that he believed being a ghost was a lot like being on antidepressants: the world as you’ve always known it contracts slightly, just enough to place you outside of it.

Maybe Aldo visited him shortly before he said this.

It is true of my Zio Aldo. He looks at me with a burning simplicity, a singular desire to communicate something terrible. But his lips remain sealed shut, his mouth ornamental like a mannequin’s.

 

GROWING UP, I never slept well. My body would wait until I was perfectly still in my bed before turning on me. I regularly spent nights on end trying to calm myself down.

Often, I would resign myself to a sleepless night and linger by my parents’ bedroom door. I quietened my mind to the sounds of Ant’s medically induced snoring and Mama’s airy murmuring as she debated dead relatives in her dreams.

 

A NIGHTMARE FROM my childhood returned recently.

Ant is wearing a baby-blue hospital gown. He is lying on a high single bed, bathed in dusty sunlight. Sweat has darkened the cropped grey curls on his forehead. His brow is furrowed in pain.

Above his bed, there is a portrait of a sullen-faced archangel on the wall. It is holding a spear in one hand and a severed head in the other. The earth behind the angel is barren and grey. Dead trees stand cruciform.

When I look at Ant again, I begin to cry. Monstrous black serpents have slithered out from beneath his bed. I see the sadness in the angel’s eyes as the serpents thrash and hiss before they plunge into Ant’s open mouth. The serpents reappear through his nostrils and tear through the white flesh of his stomach until he is completely eviscerated. I scream, but my voice chokes in my throat.

Before I can reach Ant, the serpents are gone, and so is he. Dust particles dance in the sunlight. I turn to see him standing by the door, still in his gown. There are serpents hanging all over his body, although I see now that they are catheters. There is a nasal tube wrapped around his head, a golden yellow tube cradling from the bottom of his gown and a cherry red transfusion bag attached to his right arm, hanging on a metal stand next to him.

I wake up now, as I did when I was a child, face wet.

The archangel from my dream is standing at the foot of my bed. It is holding Ant’s severed head by a fistful of his hair. Four mournful eyes beckon me.

I think back to myself at thirteen, still skulking by my parents’ bedroom door.

After those nightmares, I could never go back to sleep.

Each time I tried, the black serpents would start creeping behind my eyelids.

 

I FOUND ANT’S journal by mistake.

I was eighteen. By then, I had been making surreptitious trips to his study for over a year. Ant had just entered what he called ‘retirement’, a phrase Mama refused to adopt. She preferred ‘a well-earned break’. It was to be the last of his ‘bad spells’. During that year the air in our house was heavy and disorienting. I always found it hard to concentrate when Ant was around. He was at home all the time.

Our shadows overlapped on the stairs. Mine, bounding upwards two steps at a time. His, stooped, reaching cautiously for the handrail. If he hadn’t taken his morning medication yet, he would see me and flinch. Sometimes
I would see him descending from the landing and run up as quickly as I could, gripping the handrail as I went, denying it to him.

 

MAMA WAS CUTTING carrots in the kitchen; her knife rapped on the wooden chopping board.

Tak tak tak tak.

A large pot of Napolitana sauce bubbled on the stove, the kitchen windows began to fog with heat.

Tak tak tak tak.

I was sitting at the kitchen table, a biology textbook splayed open while I sketched the brain of a goanna.

‘What’s this, boy?’ Ant said, peering over my shoulder.

Tak tak tak tak.

My hand slipped and the sharpened lead of my pencil snapped on the paper.

‘Homework.’

‘I see that. What subject is it for?’

Tak tak tak tak.

‘Biology.’

‘Biology? These are pretty pictures.’

Tak tak tak tak.

‘It’s a diagram.’

Tak.

‘I can see that. Of what?’

I could feel my face reddening.

Mama looked over her shoulder at me.

‘Tony, come over here and tell me if I’m cutting these too thick.’

I wanted to answer his question. I wanted him to know that I had an answer.

‘I’m comparing the–’

But Ant had turned away. He was now leaning over Mama’s shoulder and inspecting the carrot slices piling up on the chopping board.

‘Good, Rina.’

The words I didn’t get to say were heavy in my mouth.

I returned to completing my homework when Ant turned back towards me. He cocked his head to one side before drawing a breath.

‘Clear this up.’

Mama kept her gaze low as she placed the food on the table.

With each mouthful of penne I bit down into my fork and savoured the jarring sensation of steel against my teeth.

We ate in a long, static silence.

Eventually, Mama started speaking about a boy in her class.

‘So, I arrive at work this morning and one of my students, Tully, was there again. Sitting on a bench outside the classroom in the freezing cold.’

Ant winced and shook his head, as if the topic was inflaming his prostate.

‘Have you met his parents? How does he get to school?’ I asked quickly, though my mind was already floating upwards, into the study.

‘His mother gives me a bad feeling. At our parent–teacher interview, I tell her that her son has to ask his friends for lunch money most days. Her response? Oh, he must be eating his packed food on the way to school, he is a growing boy.’

Mama made a show of rolling her eyes. ‘So then I asked her: how is it that you don’t know if Tully is eating his lunch on the way to school. Don’t you accompany him?’

Ant broke off a piece of bread from a ciabatta loaf and wiped the sides of his bowl with it. Every so often he looked up at Mama from beneath the thick bushels of his eyebrows, his pale blue eyes shining.

‘Do you know what she told me? That he walks to school alone. Oh, sometimes my boyfriend takes the car to work in the morning,’ she said, mimicking the woman in an airy, juvenile voice. ‘He’s eight. Pay for a bus ticket, or better yet lose your boyfriend. A grown woman, can you believe it?’

‘So, how’d you leave it with her?’ I asked.

‘I told her that a child that age should not be walking such long distances by themselves every day, and – and – to guarantee he had food in his lunchbox each day or I would contact someone who would. The hazomára doesn’t even know I have been making her son sandwiches every day. She doesn’t care that he’s not eating. Christ, I mean the only way I know this boy is being fed anything is the fact that he keeps showing up alive at the crack of dawn.’

‘You can’t save this boy, Rina,’ Ant’s voice rose like a swelling wave. ‘You’re not a social worker. All you can do is refer him to child protection.’

‘Because the foster system is such a good place for a child?’ Mama’s voice was strained; she sounded more like one of her students.

Ant got up, went to the fridge and took out a glass container of leftover barbecue meat.

‘Luca, do you know how many foster children were abused by their carers last year in this state alone?’ Mama redirected the conversation to me and I could tell she was afraid of challenging Ant.

‘I don’t know,’ I said.

‘Hundreds.’

A scowl set into Ant’s face as he sat back down.

‘What makes you think he isn’t being abused now?’ he said. There was something acrid behind his words.

Mama paused; her fork hung between mouth and plate. She looked as if she might cry. I pitied her intensely in that moment.

Ant picked up a sausage and placed it on his plate, swiftly cutting it in two, longways, with a single slice.

‘Luca,’ he said my name slowly, emptily, as if calling out to a busy waiting room. ‘You never finished telling me about your biology assignment.’

 

AFTER DINNER, ANT drifted into the lounge room and I took a dishtowel and joined Mama in the washing up. She lathered the sink with green dishwashing liquid before turning the hot water on at full pressure.

‘Ma, you forgot something.’ I reached over to plug the sink as running water gushed down the drain.

‘Oh, thank you my love.’

Her hands and forearms had become as coarse and pink as the rubber gloves she refused to wear.

‘Jesus Christ,’ I pulled my hand away and the bowl I was holding clattered back into the sink.

‘Careful, it’s hot.’

Her hands moved under the bubbling water.

‘The sink’s gonna overflow,’ I said, closing the tap.

‘Oh, I suppose you’re right.’

I took her hands in mine and kissed them. Her palms were hot and wrinkly, and some of her skin was flaking away in little white ribbons.

‘Are you okay, Ma?’

‘I’m fine, Luca. Fine, really.’

I stood there, hoping I might prompt a different response, but instead Mama said: ‘Actually, I don’t think I need my dishwashing assistant tonight. Go finish your assignment.’

‘Buy a dishwasher, we can afford it,’ I said, lingering by the door.

‘Go.’

I walked by the doorway to the lounge. Ant was reading the paper while a panel on the television spoke about racism in Australia. The voices remained monotone, contending minor points, agonising over crucial distinctions, before fundamentally agreeing with each other.

Ant always wore quietness like a veil, but he hated utter silence. If he was driving, he was listening to a concerto by Mendelssohn. When he was burrowing through a patient’s skull in a snowstorm of bone fragment, he preferred Pink Floyd.

‘Night,’ I said.

‘Come watch something if you’d like. I’m going to bed soon,’ Ant said, not looking up from his newspaper.

‘I need to finish my assignment.’

Ant licked his finger and turned the page.

‘You should write about the amygdala.’

‘What?’

‘For your assignment.’

‘That has nothing to do with my topic. ’

‘Two small clusters of cells located at the base of the brain.’ Ant folded the newspaper in half and put it on the coffee table. ‘I once had a patient whose amygdala had been completely destroyed by a rare genetic disorder.’

He raised his eyebrows at me and I realised he was waiting for me to respond.

‘Baba, you’re not listening to me,’ I mumbled.

Ant looked at the television absently before reopening his newspaper.

‘Do some research, tell me what you think.’

 

ONE OF THE many well-meaning psychologists I’ve seen in my life suggested to me that I place too much importance on the meaning of my dreams. Dreams are your mind’s screensaver, some pretty imagery for your subconscious while your brain repairs itself, he said. I understood his intention but did not find his words helpful, or reassuring.

If nothing else, being Ant’s son taught me how to project meaning into empty spaces. In this way, I turned my childhood into a cornucopia of absences. I would scavenge scraps of the attention Ant afforded me, savouring it, making it last. Inevitably, when I had picked these bones clean, dreams, pictures and books seemed no less ridiculous totems to me than the man himself.

After our conversation that night, I walked upstairs and opened the door to Ant’s study, not caring if I gave myself away. Big Head was standing by one of the bookshelves, arms crossed tightly over his chest. He was wearing tight, knee-length shorts, a woollen grey V-neck jumper and ankle-cut Doc Martens: a school uniform from a whites-only Capetonian college that no longer existed.

I expected a deadpan remark about keeping him waiting. Instead, he picked up a familiar-looking picture frame from a pile of books.

‘Have you seen this?’

I was about to respond that I had when Big Head picked up the book on top of the pile and replaced the lion frame face down. It was a black leather-bound notebook. His eyes moved from the notebook to me and back again.

‘What is it?’ I asked.

‘Here,’ he said, without moving.

He thrust the notebook towards me. ‘Here,’ he said again. ‘Take it. You need to read it.’

And so I did.

 

MAY 25 1994: Although the Groote Schuur Hospital has become gradually desegregated, my European colleagues’ aversion to treating blacks and coloureds still persists. It bears remembering that, when the Group Areas Act was carving Cape Town along racial lines, many of my fellow surgeons were receiving first-class educations in Britain and Holland.

Although our wards now closer reflect Archbishop Tutu’s rainbow nation, the racial tethering of apartheid still holds fast in the hearts of men and women. White patients prefer to be seen by Indian doctors rather than black or coloured doctors, and my white colleagues regularly interrogate their black patients as if they are criminals when taking their history.

Only last week, a twelve-year-old coloured boy from Khayelitsha township named Cyrus Mymouna presented in the emergency department for the second time in as many days.

Cyrus first presented to emergency with an abdominal stab wound, a monotonously common injury in townships. I was receiving a referral from the emergency consultant, Ashwin Mansour, when Cyrus’s mother marched him through the door, gripping him tightly by the wrist. Her cheeks were wet as she cursed her son under her breath. Cyrus was shirtless and smiling, a toothy, self-satisfied grin. The laceration was a narrow pink slit, just above the navel, and it peeped open like the eye of a newborn baby. A rivulet of blood was dripping from the wound and lining the waistband of his soccer shorts.

I thought nothing about the boy as I left the department. Ashwin treated Cyrus, stopping the bleeding and stitching up the wound.

Although stabbings make up the vast majority of emergency admissions, most stabbing victims from townships do not make it through our doors. It is not uncommon for a person requiring emergency care to present to a medical centre in a township on a Friday morning and still be waiting in line by Sunday night; often, they are dead by then.

It was lucky for Cyrus’s sake that he was seen by Ashwin, a coloured doctor, and not a white one who may well have turned him away for wasting time and resources.

Ashwin informed me that, upon being admitted, Cyrus had bragged to the nurse treating him about entering the territory of a rival gang. Cyrus and his friend were chased away by a group of boys wielding planks of wood, bike chains and machetes.

‘Changes to personality, chronic headache, poor hygiene,’ Ashwin said, handing me Cyrus’s file.

‘What kind of personality changes?’

‘Boy was meek, easily led astray, his mother said. Not much fuss to anyone. Now he seems to have a death wish.’ Ashwin sighed, ‘Someone will grant it soon enough.’

I met Cyrus when he was admitted to the hospital the next day. By then, the boy was barely able to see me. His condition had changed dramatically overnight. Swollen lumps covered his face and clustered in the corners of his eyes. White pus and scarlet blood trickled down his cheeks each time he blinked. His skin had become waxen, as if a biblical insect had laid its larvae within the boy’s face. His mother wept, thrusting him in the direction of the emergency nurses.

She kept screaming, ‘Look at him! He’s dying! Look at him!’

Eventually, Cyrus’s mother told me that after returning home from the hospital, Cyrus tried to return to the scene of the stabbing armed with a fragment of rusted iron. With complete indifference, he remarked to her that he was going to kill the boys who had attacked him. Had she not stopped him leaving the house, he certainly would have been killed.

Cyrus’s mother sat with both hands clasped tightly in her lap, staring helplessly at her son.

‘He is a good boy, a really good boy, but lately he has been acting strange.’

I recognised the fear in her voice. The growing inability to recognise a loved one whose personality has been altered by a brain injury.

Cyrus was perfectly still and quiet as he sat on the side of his ward bed. His head was slumped forward in disinterest. I had to continually remind the boy to look up so I could examine him. The swollen lumps around his eyes were still seeping blood and bacteria. I told him he could keep his eyes closed if it was painful to open them. He responded by giggling hysterically.

A slight chill swept my body as I twisted the boy’s arms back and forth, testing his reflexes.

‘Why are you laughing, boy? Why? Shame!’ his mother had cried.

My body was tense as I finished examining him.

Cyrus continued to laugh before letting out a long sigh and falling silent. When I had finished, an intern parted the blue curtain concealing Cyrus from the rest of the ward and handed me the results of his CT scan.

Given Cyrus’s headaches, abrupt personality change and increasingly reckless behaviour, I expected the scan to show damage to the brain’s frontal lobes, where personality is constructed, usually caused by a traumatic head injury or brain tumour. I assumed the deformities on his face were the result of a skin infection caused by his unsanitary living conditions.

The large scan in my hand was checked with images of Cyrus’s brain from every conceivable angle. Initially, the CT scan was indistinguishable from any other scan of a normal, healthy brain. I clenched my teeth and looked up at Cyrus. He had tracks of drying blood running down his face and throat, he was gently humming a tune.

‘Let’s go!’ he suddenly declared to his mother.

‘Hush now, boy! Let the doctor do his job.’ She clasped her shaking hands in her lap.

I examined Cyrus’s scan again. From the underside view, the twin hemispheres of the brain unfurled like the wings of a grand translucent bird. I traced my finger down the ridged contours of his cerebral cortex, then stopped. At the base of Cyrus’s brain, where grey matter tapered into nothingness, were two tiny black holes like puncture wounds. Cyrus’s amygdala, the part of the brain that processes fear and survival instincts, had been completely destroyed.

Cyrus’s subsequent test results were unclear. I still do not know what attacked the boy’s brain and immune system. I only know that the condition was non-life threatening: at least, not medically.

In simple terms, he lives in Khayelitsha without the chemical ability to process fear. There is no way to quantify just how dangerous that is. As a neurosurgeon, there is nothing I can do to restore a part of the brain once it has been destroyed. Cyrus will not be fazed the next time his life is threatened.

Writing this journal entry, I am struck by the tragic benevolence of this case. Cyrus’s mysterious brain injury means he will be immune to the trauma of poverty and gang violence. It also means he will be unable to identify a threat to his safety until it is too late. His life will likely be briefer, but far less painful, than any of his friends or family members.

If I were a spiritual man, I might be inclined to think that Cyrus’s aberrant brain was God’s way of protecting him from the pain of being born in the shadow of apartheid. But I imagine God, much like anyone who lives in between the mountain and the bay, has little concern for what happens in the townships.

In my career, I have often heard it said that doctors do not believe in God. But I have known many surgeons – Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims – with quiet, unwavering faith. Though none of my colleagues have ever been outspoken about their religion, I doubt even the most pious among us would feel close to any benevolent God after a patient dies in the operating theatre.

Conversely, I think there is a kind of nihilism specific to neurosurgery. Whenever I expose the brain, I am overcome by a mixture of awe and relief. It is profoundly reassuring that every aspect of human consciousness – our lust, our perversion, our trauma – can be reduced to physical matter: neurochemistry.

If my profession allowed for such frank conversations, I would tell many of my terminal patients that there are far worse things than death. When genetics or circumstance renders life untenable, there is no weakness in loosening the grip on something so painful. Perhaps it is easier for me to see the silver lining on behalf of my patients, whose illnesses have rendered death a kinder proposition than life. These are thoughts I keep to myself. Friends and family of my patients would be horrified to know the doctor charged with saving their loved ones would often prefer them to die.

For all the suffering Cyrus Mymouna may have experienced in his young life, he will never feel fear again. Perhaps, in years to come, he will consider himself among the lucky ones.

I lost any interest in church and God and angels long before I became a doctor. Long before I knew what an inoperable brain tumour looked like on a CT scan, before I recognised the look of despair on the face of a parent told that, with treatment, their child may get six more months, I learnt that God had no place in my life.

I have never prayed. Not when my father punched my mother with his belt buckle wrapped tightly across his knuckles. Not when my brother Aldo, always the more successful sibling, hung himself at fifteen from the two-storey playhouse in the backyard. Not when my father turned to alcohol, and away from me, his remaining son.

My mother prayed to God to understand why. I never needed to. I knew why.

 

AT FIRST, CATHY was all hair. She was a golden shock of curls disappearing behind a closing door. She was a strand of straw coil caught in the upholstery. She was a thin streak of colour amid collective hairs shed in the shower drain.

Then she was a fourth set of cutlery at the kitchen table, and then there she was.

Mama was not the type of woman to allow competition for her son’s affection. She tolerated my bringing girls to the house, so long as she never had to see or hear them. As long as they came in through the laundry via the side gate, left the same way and preferably didn’t stay the night, nothing needed to be said.

Nonno would often tell us, in the tone of voice you can easily ignore, that he hand-picked each brick that he used to build our house. Looking at it now, pale red and lethargic like a Calabrese uncle, I still don’t find it impressive.

In my teenage years, when I wasn’t smoking in the backyard or riding my bike to a friend’s house, I was hovering by the front fence either welcoming or thanking women. Ant would always regard me suspiciously when I walked back inside. He never seemed to need more than himself and he rarely expressed affection to any of the people in his life. It seemed too close to dependence.

In fact, it was soon after Cathy, beautiful, fleeting Cathy, started spending all her time at our house that I lost interest in Ant completely.

Cathy would come over before dinner and kiss Mama on her warm, bony cheek. Mama would offer her face to Cathy as a priest offers a hand at communion and Cathy would take it with magnanimity, cooing through the house, turning to Ant to ask: Signore, come sei stato?

Cathy’s parents were from Napoli and I worried Cathy’s attempts to impress Ant with Italian were futile in the face of my father’s bastard dialectic. But Ant was never rude to Cathy. He would look at her, eyes narrow, as if straining with the effort to understand her.

In the patter of Cathy’s feet on our carpet, the gentle ebb of her voice through the house, there was a peace I didn’t know to be possible. Not to say that much changed. Ant’s mood changes were usually imperceptible at first, like a drop in temperature or a last breath.

I wish I could recount this properly, and say: here, this! This is how happy I was. But there are no specifics. Like my father, I am not an overt person. There was no Cathy-smile that grew on my face whenever she was around. I would talk about her quietly with the same gravelly drawl in which I spoke about everything; you had to imagine the excitement in my voice. But it was there.

Looking into the past is like cracking open a hatch and letting ghosts stream into your head. Nothing is real until you decide it is, and you need to decide. So I have decided that Cathy’s presence in our house for those truncated years was like the release of a valve, a gentle decompression, a cleansing of the air.

Mama recently found a photo of Cathy and me together. We’re at a wedding, or a christening. The room visible behind us is typical of a woggy function centre: panelled wood and vast space. We’re sitting at a white-clothed table: Cathy and Luca.

As usual, my chin is tilted upwards, showing as much contempt for the camera as possible while remaining placid. For once, Cathy isn’t smiling with her teeth, but you can feel them pushing against her lips. Her face is tilted slightly down and her blue eyes are playfully chiding the camera with that eternal expression of put that thing away. The photo cuts off at the edges of our shoulders, but I think I had my arm around her.

Mama holds the photo out to me with an extended arm, as if she cannot bear to let it close to her. I know all she can see when she looks at this picture is another ending, dormant and inevitable. Something a psychiatrist might have called a genetic predisposition.

I’m not so mawkish. I look at the photo and wonder if I was ever happier than I was then. I doubt it.

I remember now. The photo was from my cousin Taso’s sixteenth birthday, which means it was taken not long before Ant last went to Italy.

 

THE NIGHT I first read Ant’s notebook, I woke up to Big Head standing at the foot of my bed. He was a lonely addition to the retreating ghosts from my dream. The margins of his silhouette blurred into the bruised purple of the night. I waited for my eyes to adjust, thinking for a moment he had disappeared.

The shadow spoke: ‘Are you awake?’

‘I am now. What do you want?’

‘Have you started reading it?’

His voice was emotional, urgent.

‘Not yet,’ I lied. ‘Can’t this wait till the morning?’

‘I wouldn’t be here if it could.’

I sat upright in my bed and brought my knees to my chest. ‘The middle of the night is the worst time for your cryptic bullshit.’

Big Head stood silently.

‘I’m going back to sleep,’ I sighed. ‘We’ll talk in the morning, I promise.’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘You’re not listening to me. I have school tomorrow. Get out.’

The floorboards creaked where Big Head stood.

I rolled onto my side and closed my eyes.

When I opened them again, Big Head was standing next to me. In the gloom of night, his pale skin glowed. His cherubic features had sunken into his cheekbones, which now cut severely across his face.

It occurred to me that I was probably still dreaming.

‘I need to show you this. Let’s go,’ Big Head said, caressing my cheek with the back of his cold hand.

 

THE ELECTRIC FENCE was barely visible between the hedges and the mauve of the jacaranda branches. In the anaemic winter sun it was no more than a silken thread deftly lining the property, dozily glinting in the light before disappearing amid the greenery.

Across the road, small children squealed in the park. Some ran from their nannies, looking back provocatively as they approached the edge of the grass. On a concrete slab in the middle of the park, a dying fire burned inside a gallon drum. A grill sat partially on top of the drum, leftover morsels of sweet, charred meat sticky between its bars. A stray kitten with a dirt-clotted coat paced around the pyre, mesmerised by the smell of burnt flesh. The lunchtime brai had just finished, the children were returning to play.

The adults were black and the children were white.

Over the treetops, into the distance, the sawed-off summit of Table Mountain cut cleanly across the blue sky. Its cascading shelves of rock descended towards the city beneath.

On the far side of the park was a bench with the words Nannies Only painted on it. There, a woman named Mavis in an emerald green dress tended to a young boy named Aldo who was squirming to go play. Mavis placed Aldo on her lap, spat deftly into the palm of her hand and rubbed at the dirt caked onto his kneecap.

‘Yuck!’ Aldo cried out, while trying to wriggle free.

‘Sit still, Aldo. I’m nearly done.’

Behind Mavis and Aldo, out of sight and slipping out of mind, you busied yourself playing in the sandpit. You scooped out a hole in the loamy sand, soft and pliable from the morning rain, and loaded it onto the back of a yellow toy truck. The truck matched the colour of your raincoat, and you noted this as you felt the cool, grainy texture of the sand on the palms of your hands.

Mavis stood Aldo up in front of her, examining him from head to toe and tutting disapprovingly.

‘Eish, you are a dirty boy, isn’t it?’ She tucked Aldo’s shirt into his shorts and pulled them up beneath his chest.

‘Mavis! I want to go play, please!’ Aldo announced, stomping a foot on the ground.

Mavis’s eyes followed the boy as he ran to a tree and began trying to climb it. She briefly turned to check on you, still loading up your truck, before swivelling back to Aldo.

‘Get down Aldo! You must behave, otherwise I will take you both home!’

Aldo hugged the trunk and tried to scuttle up its rough surface before falling flat on his back.

‘I warned you, boy!’

Aldo sprang to his feet, poked his tongue out at Mavis and ran to a swing that had just become free.

The park had emptied. Most of the children had been taken home.

That day, it was Aldo’s turn to be a normal boy, which probably meant it was your turn not to be. The two of you rarely had good days at the
same time.

Mavis ran her hands across her lap, neatening her dress. The chain on the swing began to creak with movement and Aldo’s little body wriggled impatiently in the seat as he tried to go higher, faster.

‘Five more minutes then we’re all going home,’ she called out.

‘Mavis!

‘I can see you my boy, careful now.’

‘Mavis! Mavis!’

‘You’re being silly now Aldo, what is it my boy?’

‘What’s he doing?’

Before Mavis could respond, Aldo started screaming.

You were standing in front of the gallon drum. You were wearing a taxi yellow raincoat and your cherry red galoshes. You were staring at the hungry flames as they licked and crackled at the grill. Tucked under your right arm was the small kitten, brown and yellow stains pocking its fur. With soft, sandy hands you placed the kitten in the gap between the grill and the gallon drum, and then dropped it.

You turned around with a blank smile and toddled into the arms of your nanny, who pressed your face deep into her bosom and cried out for God’s forgiveness, again and again.

 

DURING THE DAY, I could hear Big Head in the study. Drawers opening and closing. Chair legs scraping on floorboards. Loose papers rustling. The noise was rhythmic, repetitive. No one commented on the sounds coming from the study. No one seemed to care.

Sometimes I gently knocked on the door to check if he was okay.

He told me he wanted to be alone.

When I asked if Big Head needed my help, he told me not to come in.

I was silent and then he said, in his odd, formal tone, ‘Please go away.’

The next day I didn’t bother knocking. I twisted the wooden doorknob, but it caught stubbornly. On the other side of the door, the movement stopped. I tried opening it again, but it was locked.

‘Fuck you,’ I said. ‘Grow up.’

 

SCHOOL FINISHED AND the summer that followed it passed with a dazed blink. I spent most of my time at home, in my room, reading the notebook.

Sunflower light beamed through my shutters, intensifying into fecund orange before blotting away.

Memories whirred on the axis of my mind until they all bled into one and became indistinguishable from each other.

I pored over words I was never meant to read, secluded myself inside margins I was never meant to inhabit. With each page I turned, the world around me receded while the notebook gladly filled the empty space.

It was around this time that Big Head slowly began disappearing. I was so used to hearing the dull shuffling sounds from the locked study, I began to suspect they had stopped everywhere but in my head.

When I closed my eyes at night, my ears would ring. When I listened closer, the ringing sound sharpened and became something else. At times, it mimicked the shrill hiss of an alley cat on the street below, or the abandoned wails of an infant crying in the dead of night. The noise would increase to a point where it felt like it would slice through my eardrums and rend open my brain.

One night, when the sound became unbearable, I jumped out of bed and looked down at the street below.

When this happened, the part of me that was bearing witness to my deterioration returned my stare from the empty footpath. I saw myself, wild-eyed, peering through my bedroom shutters like a paranoid hermit. In this moment, it dimly registered somewhere in me that I was not alone.

A hand gripped my throat and my breath constricted.

Again, I saw myself from the footpath, although this time the shutters were up and I was fully visible in the window. My mouth was agape in a comic circle, my eyes bulging in panic. In the neon hue of the streetlight, a familiar cherubic face glowered at me as his hand tightened around my neck.

 

WITH EACH BLINK, the sky reddened and the setting sun bled across the ocean. The white Jeep ran between the water and the coastal rock face. Inky clouds were smeared across the sky, light like magma burning through their seams.

In the driver’s seat, X’s hands were fixed tightly on the wheel. Every few minutes, on a straight stretch of road, he would roughly wipe his palms on his trousers before quickly replacing them on the wheel. The convertible plastic roof was retracted over the backseat, where you were sleeping.

Next to you, Aldo couldn’t sleep. He flinched every time X moved. He watched you fervently as you dreamed. Your head was lolled into your shoulder and you made tiny squelching noises as you chewed the insides of your cheeks. Your big brother stared at you and the force of his gaze was meant to be an impermeable beam, a force field against all monsters.

The dark mass of clouds began to recede. Blood-coloured water lapped angrily at the rocks and sprayed onto the road. X swore angrily as he wiped the water from his eyes with the back of his hand.

Aldo felt something hairy crawling on his face.

X stared at him in the rear-view mirror. The salt-rusted glass cut his face along the bridge of his nose. His eyes were unblinking and severe; Aldo looked away.

Those eyes followed Aldo everywhere. They kept Aldo alert to their presence, alert to the fact he could never go far. He lived on a leash, given the illusion of freedom until his tether became taut.

Sometimes, when Aldo was doing his homework, or kicking a soccer ball, he could forget. But never for long. His body could not forget the feeling of being turned inside out and dragged along the dirty floor. No matter how tightly he curled up in a ball, or shut his eyes or crossed his legs, the feeling would not leave him alone.

The car passed a dead springbok on the side of the road, its bloodied ribcage reaching out from its severed torso like an embrace.

The road approached a sharp inland bend. Aldo closed his eyes and imagined the car continuing straight, soaring into the air before plummeting into the ocean. He imagined unclipping your seatbelt, then his, as cold water rushed around the two of you. He imagined swimming to the surface, evading the drowning grasps of X as his lungs filled with water before he eventually popped like a balloon. Aldo imagined wrapping an arm around you and swimming to the surface. You would rise above the water, two blips in a swirling dark mass, and breathe hungrily, everything starting anew.

Aldo blinked open his eyes. The sun had set. The sky’s brilliant ember had turned to ash and the light was nearly gone. X turned the wheel and switched on the headlights.

Aldo watched the ocean fall away.

 

THE SAVANNAH WAS pale green and dappled with tawny brown grass. It looked as if it had been coloured in by the rushed hand of a toddler. Shrubs with thorny leaves and stumpy limbs squatted low to the ground, rationing whatever nutrients they could acquire. The taut branches of leadwood trees contorted like elegant ribbons to salute the cloudless sky. When Aldo was ten, your father had pointed to the leadwoods and told him that most of the trees in the valley were dead. Their bark was like armour so termites could not chew through it.

Aldo thought that there was something unnatural about the dead remaining among the living, indistinguishable from each other.

On the northern side, the valley ascended gradually into a plateau. Here, there was a wooden lodge overlooking the entire savannah. X pulled the key from the ignition and the Jeep’s rattling motor fell silent.

‘Up, we’re here.’

Inside, the morning sunlight attained a sickly quality as it passed through the windows. In the lounge, there was a Persian rug littered with clumps of dust that looked like crouching rodents. Small wooden cars, painted red and green, sat idle in traffic along the floor.

On a mantelpiece above a disused fireplace were several photos of your father shaking hands with men in suits. Most of the men were dwarfed by his hulking physique; they smiled at the camera sheepishly.

On the opposite wall was a large golden-framed portrait of your parents presiding over the empty room. They appraised the camera as if it were an esteemed guest, eyes shining with welcome, shoulders square, back straight. Your mother’s hair was teased and sprayed into a bouffant, her baby curls gelled down on her forehead. Her lips were slightly parted, perhaps to sigh or ask a question. Your father stood behind her with both hands on her shoulders. His jet-black moustache was shaped like a hair comb. His bald head blended slightly into the colourless backdrop, and there were wrinkles in the corners of his eyes that hinted he might have been smiling.

Aldo and X had disappeared. You wondered where they went, but only for a second. You knelt down and picked up a red car, your favourite colour. You traced it along the constellations of flowers on the carpet, pretending they were roads and obstacles. From their place on the mantelpiece, your parents watched over you while you played.

In that moment, your father was finishing his meeting at the consulate in Cape Town; as you took a sharp corner in your red car, your mother was packing her weekend bag full of blouses and her best summer dresses. They would soon be on their way to you. You weren’t to know this.

Across the room, a door had come ajar. If you looked up you would have seen Aldo standing naked in a puddle of his own clothes. There was the faint jangle of a belt buckle coming loose from its clasp before X noticed the open door and quickly closed it.

In the not-too-distant future, it will be you standing among your clothes.

But these weren’t thoughts for a four-year-old to worry about.

You swerved your car and landed it upside down with a satisfied ‘Blam!’ Your small voice floated through the room, extinguishing in the emptiness.

On the mantelpiece behind you, between dignitaries and emissaries, one photo stood out. It had a clay frame with two lions painted along its edges, greeting each other at the top. It looked like a souvenir from a safari gift shop. The photo was taken on the front porch of the lodge, overlooking the valley below. In it, Aldo eyed the camera from beneath an overgrown fringe, fidgeting with his hands, and one leg turned into the other as if he needed to go to the bathroom. Behind him, three old friends stood arm in arm, with thin, dignified smiles. Your father was wearing a beige button-up shirt with rolled-up sleeves; there were dark sweat patches in the armpits. Your mother was wearing a loose-fitting summer dress, baby curls stuck to her forehead in the heat. X was wearing a khaki shirt, unbuttoned to his sternum, exposing his tanned olive skin and a fine layer of chest hair. He had one hand around your father’s back, the other gripping onto Aldo’s shoulder.

 

DECEMBER 23 1999: All my life, the boy from the past has been chasing me. As I write these words, I know I am unwell. In a way, this is the ideal time to be writing to him.

Between the procession of nurses, social workers and the occasional visit from the psychiatrist, I wait for him.

My wife is pregnant with our first child and I am in a psychiatric ward. Once, when I was a teenager, I tried to kill myself. It seems I am still bad at it.

In my study, at around three in the morning, I sedated myself with half a packet of benzodiazepines and some whiskey. My thoughts quietened and all the tension trickled out of my body. The pulse of my heart beating against my chest softened to a point where I could no longer feel it. As I sat back in my chair, the body that disgusted me so much ceased to be mine. The cold flushes that rippled my skin each time I remembered a place I had been touched were replaced by a soft, soothing warmth. I thought of my past, my grieving mother, my violent father, and Aldo: forever fifteen, forever hanging from the playhouse in our garden in Vredehoek. I thought of the ghosts that I lived with as my body began to dissolve.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out a small white pill with a score down the middle. Half was enough to gently smother my breathing and stop my heart. I decided against taking any chances and tried swallowing the entire pill, but it caught in my throat and began dissolving. A sickly sulphuric taste filled my mouth. I reached for the open bottle of Scotch on my desk to wash down the tablet. The pelagic calm that I felt after taking the benzodiazepine was replaced by a searing fury. I hated God for not even allowing me dignity in my own death. I brought the neck of the bottle to my lips as my mouth filled with the acrid chemicals of the barbiturate I had just taken.

I must have lost consciousness at that point. Irina found me face down on my desk covered in my vomit, my face smeared with blood. She has become a shallow sleeper since her pregnancy and the sound of my skull hitting the wood must have woken her. I was told she cleared my airways with her index finger, the way I have shown her to do if necessary, and called an ambulance.

Once the remaining contents of my stomach had been suctioned and I regained consciousness, a young man arrived at my bedside with a wheelchair. He had dense stubble spanning from beneath his eyes to his prominent Adam’s apple. His skin was flushed an angry pink. Small yellow pustules dotted his cheeks and forehead. He gave me a pained, almost apologetic look.

I remembered the self-righteous disapproval my colleagues and I had for patients with severe brain injuries caused by suicide attempts.

When I first moved to Australia, I treated a boy who’d sustained a subdural haematoma by jumping from a three-storey balcony. When I looked at that boy, I felt little empathy, more so a flicker of irritation at the loss of a ward bed for a young woman with a meningioma or an elderly man who had suffered a stroke.

I did not see myself in this boy. I did not see myself at three when I threw a kitten into a gallon drumfire, although my nanny, Mavis, insisted I did not do this and my parents refused to discuss it. I did not see myself at nine when I ran into the backyard to the sight of my brother gently swaying in the afternoon wind, his body slumped forward, his neck strangled by a noose. I did not see myself in this boy, or any other. Not even when I was thirteen and I sliced my wrists open with my father’s shaving razor, and then again, at fifteen. That boy lives in the crater blasted into my consciousness.

Occasionally, the centre cannot hold any longer and memories escape like fragments from a dying star. There was a boy, learning Afrikaans with his nanny and sharing all of his limited Italian with her in return. He had just overcome his shyness and begun playing with the children in the park across the road. He would have vivid dreams about a long, sprawling valley full of plants and animals. He was at one time an innocent, polite boy.

Now he is here, sitting cross-legged in the far corner of the room, between the self-locking wooden door and the white wall covered in scratch marks. He looks at me with the same curiosity as the staff. In his creased grey jumper and tight navy school shorts, he blends into the monochrome room. The door clicks open and the boy momentarily disappears behind it as the nurse walks in. She has a high, airy voice and a gap between her two front teeth that her tongue pushes up against whenever she speaks. Between her thumb and forefinger is a small plastic tub filled with tiny white pills like snowflakes. The boy watches me as I extend my arm to receive the medication from her.

Do you have some water? Let me get you some water.

My face and neck ache as I tilt my head back and let the pills skittle to the back of my mouth, where I swallow them in one dry, abrasive gulp.

Oh, the nurse says, Dr Zaniolo, would you like to come into the common area? We’re about to decide on what our Friday movie will be.

Over her shoulder, the eyes of the boy in the corner dance with excitement.

No, I say. The force of producing the word makes my body sag like a punch in the stomach.

That’s okay, she says cheerily, I’ll be back later to check on you.

She walks towards the door; the boy’s eyes follow each step, pleading silently for her to stay. When the door closes behind her, the boy looks at me accusingly.

I close my eyes and when I open them the boy is standing up and walking towards me. From beneath the brown ringlets of his hair, his eyes glower red. I crawl back on the bed until I am curled up in the corner. The boy steps onto the bed and prizes my hands away from my face. He takes a fistful of my hair and raises my head so that I am forced to look at him. There is a violent cracking sound. I shut my eyes and an iridescent light fills the space behind my eyelids. The colours behind my eyes feel as if they are cleaving through my brain.

The smell of dry grass and sea salt fills the air and I realise I am no longer holding my breath. The wind has ebbed away into a gentle silence and been replaced by the shiver of swaying reeds and the occasional squawk of kelp gulls. I open my eyes and I am standing on the lip of a steep hill. Stretched out beneath me is the savannah I spent my childhood summers exploring. From the top of the hill I can see the groundskeeper. He is wearing a khaki shirt and shorts, taking high deliberate strides towards me through the knee-length reeds. Behind me stands my parents’ neglected country lodge. The stacked wooden logs that make up its walls, once a rich mahogany, have been darkened by rot. Engulfed in the shadow of its own misery, the lodge sits in sullen silence.

I turn to the valley below and see that the groundskeeper is standing still, his head cocked to one side as if waiting for instruction. Then he turns around and, although X
is faceless, I recognise him. The skin on X’s face has been smoothed over where his features are meant to be: there is a flat oblong ring of bone in place of his nose and a thin stitched line in place of a mouth. His eyes are yawning black caverns. The ghost tries to smile but the pain of his stitches pulling prevents him. He turns away from me again and walks over to a leadwood tree. Its limbs have been severed, making it look like a crucifix.

A piece of rope has been looped around it. Aldo’s toes hover above the ground, tracing circles in the grass as a gentle wind blows.

The boy from the past is standing beside me and pointing to the savannah. I follow his small finger back to the leadwood, where two ghosts now sway gently in the breeze.

You’re next, he tells me.

 

OUR FAMILY TRIPS overseas were never something I looked forward to. When I was six, my parents first took us to Greece, the homeland from which my mother had jettisoned herself; returning to Italy, much less South Africa, was not something Ant ever discussed.

I remember having to present to my Year 1 class about a smooth rock I found on the side of the exit road from my mother’s village. She told me that Halatsi was home to the oldest amphitheatre in the Peloponnese. I later found out that most of the marble that made up its benches had since been pillaged and sold by locals. I told the class that I imagined my rock might be a chip from a Minotaur’s skull or a man turned to stone by Medusa, and they nodded in marvel.

Each time we arrived at Eleftherios Venizelos Airport, the heat ran through Ant’s thick hair and matted it to his skull like a glossy net. He would charge between service desks, muttering angrily to himself while my mother walked behind, the skin of her arms and face splotched with sweat rashes and a glazed look in her eyes.

There was some freedom in Halatsi; death and diaspora had scattered my mother’s relatives into the wind. Only her godmother, Fofo, still lived in the town. Her apartment sits behind a corner of the town square; we stay there knowing nothing is required of us except warmth for the empty beds.

As a boy, I would wake up early in the morning to the caw of a rooster and Fofo would take me to the small courtyard behind her building to feed the chickens. I would cling tightly to the back of Fofo’s pant leg, eyeing the chickens in horror. Fofo dipped into a plastic bag full of the week’s food scraps to produce some stale crust or lettuce, which she would place into my palm. The birds disgusted me, feathers wet with grease and heads jerking side to side as if constantly overhearing conversation. Despite Fofo’s assurances that they will only touch the food, the chickens’ beaks were coarse and sharp, prodding against my skin. I ran upstairs to Mama and tearfully presented my upturned palms like a miniature martyr. She would make a fuss and take both my hands in one of hers and peck them with little kisses.

From maybe the age of ten, I would go for walks in Halatsi at every opportunity. A steady ebb of conversation, which would rise and fall in turn with the wind, drew me towards the platía. Here, teenagers sat at the front of cafés yelling and gesticulating around frappés and card games. Old men in flat caps sat on benches, wrists crossed atop walking sticks, watching the world in deep silence. The laughter of the village boys rumbled from the town square most nights. On trips to the grocery store, kids and adults alike stared at us on the streets. Their eye contact was long and unwavering, without self-consciousness. There must have been something in our posture, a wideness of the eyes, marking me as a stranger: a xéno.

I felt a deep longing for the communality of those boys and girls. The weeks spent in Halatsi could feel endless and cyclical, the town could be circled within half an hour, yet the locals’ eyes never dulled, their voices never faltered. I felt a peculiar loneliness, sitting in the platía, reading out Greek shop signs, my accent robbing the words of their rhythm as they met the air.

On weekends, foldable chairs would be lined up in rows at one end of the town square, and the space in front became a makeshift stage. Men who spent their weeknights at home with their wives, falling asleep in front of Greek soap operas, were reborn as crooners, bouzouki players and rock lotharios. On nights like this, in what is the only display of romanticism I ever saw from Ant, he would put on his best leather jacket and fitted jeans, lock arms with Mama and stroll down to the town. They would drink beer under the olive trees that lined the square’s edges, smoking and watching microcosms of Greek life play out in front of them: the misty-eyed yiayiáthes in the front rows, letting themselves be transported back to their own youths; the smiling families on holiday from Athens, revelling in the nostalgia of their home town; the young people, too cool to act as if they enjoyed the music, flirting with each other by fountains and lampposts.

 

THIS IS NOT a discussion I can have with Nonno and Nonna, and it hurts Mama too much, so I’m having it here. My family have become detached from the moorings of reality and now they remain adrift, numb. To them, there are only the facts of what happened; consideration of anything else would be to diminish the memory of Ant.

But I know this is part of the problem, and although I haven’t said this to them, I think we are all to blame for what happened. I have lost interest in deciding to what extent; there is no game in culpability, no joy in connecting omission to consequence. I think on some level my grandparents know what they have done, and that’s why they have inoculated themselves from the truth. Mama has her medicines, Nonno has his chair and I have the rest of my life.

Only I can look backwards, not because I am strong or even a good person, but because I too was complicit in my inaction, and Ant deserves to be understood.

Before Ant’s last trip to Italy, when Cathy and I seemed to have a kind of happiness that needed no witness, I noticed a change in my father. Ant was to leave a week earlier than Mama and I, to attend a neurosurgery conference in Rome. We were to meet him after on the sprawling golden beaches of Sperlonga.

About a month before Ant was due to leave, he started acting strangely, even by his own standard. He would walk into the lounge and growl at me to change the channel, no matter what I was watching. Before I could respond, he’d snatch the remote from my hand and throw himself into his recliner.

Dinner became a nightly platform to berate Mama and the quality of her cooking. The pasta was shit, the sauce was cold, the Parmesan tasted off.

Initially, God bless my mama’s singular devotion to her marriage, she took his rudeness as constructive: Okay, just let me microwave it some more for you. Oh? The cheese smells fine to me, what do you think Luca? before Ant slammed his fist on the table, picked up his bowl and left. For those last weeks, Ant would take his dinner from the table and walk it out to the vegetable patch, where he would eat in rushed, joyless mouthfuls, before dumping his plate in the sink and going to bed. You’re a grown man, Mama would call after him. Pappoú’s voice echoed in my head: He’s not a man.

The day before Ant left, the two of us sat watching daytime television. Some affable guy in a khaki shirt and akubra was squinting in the sun and telling us the best time of year to grow parsley.

Fuck off, Ant said suddenly.

I put this shit on for you, I remember yelling in disbelief.

I know you’re trying to kill me.

I realised he wasn’t talking to me. He was looking wide-eyed at the television but somehow through it, beyond it. The look in his eyes reminded me of a terrified child; as if something he had long feared had finally come for him.

Fuck off, just leave me alone.

I don’t remember what I said to him. I only remember my intense aversion to my father in this moment. I know I did not ask if he was okay or comfort him. I looked at him, strapped to his chair with fear, and sensed that something within him hungering for primacy had finally thrashed its way to the surface.

I let Ant eat dinner in the garden that night, quickly and sadly, a child sent away for misbehaving, and didn’t say anything.

 

THAT NIGHT, I had a variation of a familiar dream.

I was standing by a small church just outside of Halatsi. It was a tiny, white cobblestone building, wreathed by violet bougainvillea. Inside, the church was cool and cavernous. There was a single room, adorned by a red carpet and wooden benches either side. At the altar, a golden chalice sat empty next to a microphone on a stand. The dark-grey walls were lined with icons of wild-eyed saints who stared into the empty space with fervour. I felt a prickly sensation at the base of my skull as I traced my fingertips along the coarse stone.

I stopped by an icon I felt I had seen before: an archangel with soft, sad features stood in the foreground of a dreary grey landscape. In one hand it held a spear and in the other a severed head with a comically self-pitying expression. It looked like an Old Testament depiction of the Last Judgement: a hapless sinner facing a bloody reckoning.

I heard the echo of footsteps enter the church, and I turned to see Big Head walk in. He was dressed formally, ready for school: ironed white shirt, dress shorts and a string tie that curled up towards his collar like a tongue.

‘Long time no see,’ I said.

He smiled at me sadly.

‘Where have you been?’

‘It doesn’t matter. I won’t stay long.’

‘What do you mean?’

He smiled again, that same smile, the one that said there was nothing to be done.

Big Head pointed at the icon I had been looking at, to the severed head.

‘Look,’ he said. ‘It’s nearly over.’

 

THE NEXT DAY, Ant left for the airport with a peck on the cheek from Mama and a grunt towards me.

I identified his body six days later. In the photograph they showed me, his eyes were wide and impressed, as if in the early throws of an awesome high. His eyelids and mouth were lined with the raw pink of burst blood vessels, which exploded as his body was logged with seawater. A morning jogger found him face down on the foreshore, lower back arched slightly into the air and arms limp by his sides, as if he’d plummeted into the sand from outer space. There were no signs of physical trauma; the police thought he’d walked into the ocean and misjudged the strength of the tide.

At the time, none of us knew there was no neurosurgery conference in Rome. So it was with a strange ease of acceptance that I heard my father was not in fact smoking at a café in Rome, but drowned on a beach in Australia.

 

CATHY AND I ended our relationship soon after.

Our family never got to return to Halatsi, to the town poised in perpetuity in my mind. There was never another chance for Ant to stroll to the platía with Mama, grinning to the music as the bouzouki wailed and Mama spun herself under his arm with an ironic ópa!

Or maybe they are sitting under an olive tree, Ant smoking with Mama’s arm locked through his, gently persuading him to come dance with her. He might have smiled with his eyes and told her I don’t dance. He didn’t dance, but he might have for her.

 

AUGUST 8 2016: You don’t mourn like you thought you would.

At the funeral, people embrace you and before they let you go they tell you that you’re brave and strong, and that your father would be proud of you, which is a clear sign they didn’t know him.

Once you return home that night, after the protracted goodbyes outside of the function room behind the church, your mother falters at the front door as if scared of what might be behind it. For a moment, after crossing the threshold and before turning on the lobby light, you think you feel him again.

The stillness in the house is indistinguishable from when he was still alive, and you’re momentarily tempted to go looking for him. As if reading your mind, your mother turns on the light in the kitchen and you think she is about to make herself a cup of tea. Instead, she walks into the lounge and does the same thing. Eventually, she makes her way upstairs and soon the entire house is illuminated.

You climb the stairs to find her and, though you are exhausted, you leave the handrails for someone else, preferring to walk in lockstep with your grief. In the upstairs hallway, your mother is walking into each room and wafting smoke from a kandíli; a blessing.

What would Ant say? you ask.

That I’m a witch! your mother declares. Her tears are flowing freely but, as always, her voice is defiant.

You wonder what there is left to defy.

Your mother reaches Ant’s study and hands you the kandíli. It’s silver, with ornate carvings, and you feel silly taking it but you do anyway. You open the door, improbably expecting it to be locked. You walk inside and silence blankets the room like an outage. You set the kandíli down on Ant’s desk, between his two meerkat guardians, and the ancient sweetness of frankincense fills the room.

You are struck that even here, in Ant’s place of personal refuge, his absence is untraceable; things are as they were. You run your hand over the loose scraps of paper Ant had been meaning to shred, and for a moment you are disembodied by sadness.

You pick up a piece of paper at random: an article, with the words I am among the unlucky ones underlined. You scrunch it into a ball, lift the lid of the kandíli and put it inside to burn.

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