"Going Without Saying"

Fiction by Fin C. Gray

I sit mesmerized by Lillian Board on our small black-and-white TV. She’s just won the 400-meters race in Los Angeles and I’m in love; she’s the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.

“Aw naw, Johnny!” Mum looks worried.

I turn my gaze from the TV set to see Dad lowering his paper and looking at her over the top of his glasses, which are held together with sticking plaster.

“It’s Kenny Milligan — he’s nearly at the front door!” She draws a sharp line across her throat with one bony finger. Dad stands up as the knocker clatters on the door.

“We’ll hiv tae let ’um in.” He grimaces.

I wonder why “Uncle” Kenny should provoke such alarm in my parents. He’s a jovial regular in the house “for a drink” at the weekends, although he hasn’t been around lately. Dad pulls his braces over his shoulders and walks into the hall. I hear him open the creaky front door.

“Aw Hiya, Kenny, come away in. How ye daein’ pal?”

Mum is shuffling from foot to foot staring at the living room door, adjusting her pinny as Uncle Kenny comes in. He looks different, tired and sad, and his usually perfect hair is disheveled. I’ve never seen him dressed so casually.

“How ye daein’, wee man?” He tousles my hair and gets rewarded with my scrunch-nosed scowl. I notice he’s pressing his finger onto his Adam’s apple when he speaks; his voice sounds cracked and hoarse, almost like a robot might talk. He turns towards Mum.

“Hiya Betty. Yir lookin’ well, hen.”

“Ah’m fine Kenny son. Ye wantin’ a wee cuppa tea?”

“Aye, lovely, hen.” Digging deep into his pocket he takes out a three-penny bit and presses it into my waiting hand.

“Away and git yersel’ a sweetie, wee man.”

I turn, grinning, to Mum, who seems to be glaring at the threepence. “Kin I, Mum?”

“Aye away ye go then, but come straight back hame, ye hear me? Wash yer hans as soon as yer back!”

I race out the front door before she can change her mind, but she calls me back. She hands me a 10-shilling note.

“Git me 20 John Players when yer there. And I want ma change!”

The house feels empty with a strange silence when I come back chewing gum. I walk into the living room. The TV’s off and Mum’s sitting on the sofa, hugging a fat red cushion. She’s staring at the empty teacup beside the chair where Kenny had been sitting. He’s nowhere to be seen.

“What’ll I dae wi it, Johnny? I dinnae want tae touch it.”

I look at the cup, then at Mum, then at Dad. “I’ll take it ben the kitchen,” I say.

“Dinnae you touch that son! Hiv ye washed yer hands?”

She stands up and, protecting her hand with her daisy-patterned pinny, picks up the cup by the top of its handle and takes it to the kitchen. I see her drop it into the bin with a look of disgust.

“What’s wrong wi it, mum?”

“Never you mind. Away oot an’ find yer brothers an’ sisters and tell them I want them in fer tea in half an oor.”

It’s November and the wind is rattling the windows. Saturday morning and I wake up with a fluttering in my belly; Laurel and Hardy will be a double bill at the matinee at the Pavilion and tomorrow I’ll be 8 years old! I give my brothers a shake before padding through to the living room, where I find Mum and Dad looking somber, dressed in black.

“Where are yous goin’?” I ask.

Dad puts his hand on my shoulder, “It’s Uncle Kenny’s funeral the day, son.”

“Uncle Kenny’s deed? When Dad? What wis wrong wi him?” I start to cry.

“It wis cancer, son. In his throat. Ye remember when he wis here a while back? He wis awffy ill then.”

“What’s cancer?”

Mum draws deeply on her cigarette and puts her arm around me, dabbing my tears with her hanky. The smell of her perfume on it is mixed with a warm smokiness, comforting and reassuring me. Her long dark hair is pulled up inside a black hat.

“It’s a terrible disease,” she says, “and there’s nae cure fur it. He was awffy unlucky.”

“But how dae ye catch it, Mum?”

“Naebody kens, son. Some folk are just awffy unlucky.”

The Christmas tree fills the bay window and still holds my gaze even though the presents are gone. There are only six days left of 1970 and I’m excited because Mum says I can stay up for the Hogmanay bells. Dad’s been reading The Daily Record and I’m waiting for him to finish so I can pore over the cartoons. When he throws it to the side of his chair I grab it. I lie flat on my belly behind Dad’s chair and I smooth the paper flat. Lillian Board’s picture is smiling at me from the front page. She must have won another race! Then I see the headline: “Lillian Board — Dead at 22.” I read the words over and over and touch her picture. I can feel tears welling in my eyes. I can’t read the report properly through the watery glaze, but I see the word cancer jumping out from the columns.

I was 22 yesterday, and I’m on my way to visit Mum and Dad in my new car. Anne, my wife, sits beside me smiling. She’s wearing her new summer dress and looks beautiful with her dark brown hair cascading over her bare shoulders. She has just had her picture taken in her postgraduate gown and we’ve a copy to give to my parents. We pull up outside the house. Mum opens the door wearing that familiar floral pinny and comes to the gate. She’s frowning and looks like she’s about to cry.

“Will ye hiv a word wi yer dad, son? He’s goat it intae his heed that he’s ill, but the doctor says he’s fine. He jist disnae believe anybody.”

“Aw, Mum. What does he think is up?”

“Jist talk tae him, will ye? I’ll away tae the shoap and get some messages. You’ll come wi me Anne, hen, won’t ye? Oh yer lookin’ awffy braw hen, is that a new dress?”

I go indoors and find Dad sitting at the kitchen table with his head in his hands. Edith Piaf sings “No Regrets” from the radio by the window. There’s a bowl in front of him and I can smell the familiar aroma of the soup pot on the stove.

“Hiya Dad. Any left for me?”

“Hiya son. Help yersel.” He smiles unconvincingly and his eyes have a scared, haunted look. I fill a bowl and sit opposite him.

“So what’s new?” I ask him.

His mouth flattens and his cheeks pucker as he undoes the top buttons of his shirt and shows me his left pectoral muscle. It’s covered in thick gray hair and he cups it and exposes the right side so I can see the difference.

“See ah’ve goat a lump son. I ken it’s the big C but they’re tryin’ tae keep it fae me.”

“Dad, doctors cannae lie to you. And you know Mum would never lie to you. What does the doc say it is?”

“A cyst. Whativer that is. But I ken that’s how Uncle Wullie’s cancer started and Uncle Jim’s. It looks like ah’m nixt, son.”

“Oh, don’t be daft, Dad. A cyst is nothing to worry about — they’re easily dealt with.”

“Ah cannae go through what Wullie and Jim went through son, I jist cannae.”

“Dad, stop being daft. You gave up smoking years ago. You’ll be fine.”

He smiles at me. “Ah ken son. It’s jist an auld man bein daft.”

“Auld man? You’re 62, Dad! Tell me that when you’re 92!”

As we’re leaving to drive back to Glasgow that evening, Dad squeezes my hand so hard I think he may restrict the blood flow. His other hand is cupping the back of my neck. This half embrace feels odd.

“Ah love ye son, ye ken that, right?”

I smile and hug him.

The following Friday, we’re lying in bed. Anne tells me she’s got a big box of toffee to cheer Dad up. I kiss her and turn over, exhausted from my day. I wake up at 3 a.m. feeling parched and go to the kitchen for a glass of water. As I’m heading back to bed the buzzer to our flat sounds. Who the hell is that, at this time?

I pull on my dressing gown and open the door to the communal hallway. I can make out the shape of a peaked cap through the opaque glass of the main door. I open it and two serious-faced policemen are standing there.

“Mr. Grant? Mr. Michael Grant?” one of them asks.

Am I about to be arrested?

“Yes, what’s up?”

“I’m afraid we have some bad news. Can we come in?”

After they’ve gone, I go into the bedroom, dazed, and shake Anne. She props herself up on one elbow.

“What’s up?"