I settle Dad into one of the few chairs with armrests and ask if he’d like me to fetch him a magazine. He shakes his head almost before I’ve finished speaking. It’s his standard response these days: if in doubt, say no.
The street door opens and a couple come in with a little girl. They’ve not yet sat down when the buzzer goes and the screen flashes above the reception desk: Mrs Tracey Palmer to Dr Aziz Room 5. The woman hitches her bag up her shoulder and sidles out. The little girl scurries across to the huddle of toys in the corner and the man flops onto a seat nearby.
He’s wearing a red football top with a name on the back and the figure 8. I could pretend I think he’s the real Steven Gerrard and ask him for his autograph, but all I’ve got to write on is Dad’s repeat prescription form. I could ask Dad about Liverpool’s prospects this season, but he’s turned off his hearing aid against the jangling Muzak, and me.
The little girl shuffles pans on the hob of a red plastic cooker. She has a shock of curly hair that’s almost too big for her, like Crystal Tipps from long-ago children’s TV. She turns to her dad, a wide grin revealing the gap in her front teeth. “What do you want?”
Beside me, my dad’s breath rattles in his chest. Steven Gerrard says nothing.
“Do you want tea?”
No warmth, no manners, but no anger or irritation either. His gaze fixed on an empty space midway between the reception and his daughter, so secure in his refusal he needn’t even feign absorption in his phone or the small ads in the local rag.
“What do you want, then?”
What, indeed? I steal a glance at Dad. I’m relieved, in a way, that his eyes are closed. It would be embarrassing to witness this together, take me back to being a teenager squirming between her parents at a sex scene on TV.
“Peace and quiet,” says Steven Gerrard.
In one smooth movement, Crystal Tipps returns to her pots and pans. Her smile doesn’t waver, like a prima ballerina programmed not to notice the pain in her toes.
She stirs the air in a yellow frying pan with a wooden spoon. I could tell her I’d love a pancake, and tea, and coffee too, but it’s her dad she wants to feed, not me. He sits, immobile, betraying no interest in his child. His mind, perhaps, on bigger problems: his wife’s diagnosis; the bills that can’t be paid. Concerns we couldn’t dream of, his little girl and me.
Dad makes a noise that’s half cough and half burp. His wrists are stick thin in his frayed shirt cuffs and there’s a cluster of bristles under his chin where his razor didn’t reach. People will judge me for it, but I can’t help him if he won’t let me.
Crystal Tipps holds out a blue plastic plate towards her dad. My stomach clenches.
Who could resist such ingenuity? Who could resist that smile?
Staring into space, Steven Gerrard keeps his hands by his side, as if his daughter doesn’t register at all. Whatever his worries, surely he could find room for an imaginary pancake. Surely yes would be less trouble than no.
Crystal Tipps returns the plastic plate to the toy-box. She packs away the wooden spoon and the pans. Spirits away her feelings with the toys.
How many real pancakes will she have to rustle up before she makes sense of this moment? How many squirts of lemon juice, how many spoons of sprinkled sugar before she’s assured it’s not her fault? It could take until she’s middle-aged and watching another little girl fail to charm her father, for her to truly understand.
By then, it will be too late to make him eat her peace-and-quiet pancake. Too late to tower over him, forcing him to swallow every chill rubbery bite. Her father will be too old and fragile, his hands too unsteady to hold the plate, his gums too delicate to chew.
Dad’s head jerks forward as the buzzer summons him from his doze. The screen reads: Mr Herbert Grayson to Dr O’Callaghan Room 4.
“Mustn’t keep the doctor waiting,” says Dad.
Fixing my smile, I rise from my seat. I offer Dad my arm, but he shakes his head, pushes against the armrests and, little by little, shuffles to his feet.
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