Old Benjamin, a bit glum from the winter cold, pushed the door to the pub open with a strength that came more from his will than his arm. As the door creaked back into the room, his head lifted to see Danny the landlord with his belly pushed against the bar while he pressed a pint. Ben’s famous wry grin emerged on his face, deepening his aged lines and glistening his eyes with teary moisture brought on from the cold outside. He looked around the room and saw the same old men he had drunk with for some years now, all men who covered their individual tragedies with a kind of circular conversation that would always begin with ‘the other day’, and end with ‘but he’s a good fellah’.
A fire was flickering warm in the small of the room. He ordered his whisky and sat down close to the glow. Solitary behind his glass he gave a few slow glances at the murmuring drinkers. Michael caught his eye.
“Why are you sitting over there on your own, you silly bastard Ben? Come over here and tell us a story, you old perv!” Michael said in his loud crass voice.
“I’m meeting my daughter, go and take another incontinence pill before you piss yourself.”
The other men chuckled and knew they would not be speaking to Ben this evening. Even in their sad old boisterousness they understood that under no circumstance was Ben’s visit with his daughter to be interrupted.
A slow warm blood flow began to rise in his body and it tickled him into a shiver. The warmth made him think of his childhood home, his mother’s strong stout body relaxed on the sofa, his father’s eyes drooping in front of a book. His memory was still intact, but these memories had a silence that was always interrupted when he thought of the various shames he had brought on his parents, and the shames that followed. He thought of how he’d lived his life. He had lived it largely for pleasures that were understood only by him. He’d enjoyed his youth with an intensity that adult life could never have lived up to, deliberately putting himself in precipitous places, and rarely ever considering consequences. Or at least, if he did consider, it would be a short-lived consideration, shrugged off by a kind of fatal egoism. Despite his knowledge of this, Ben had never lost his mischief; even those who hated him thought there was something invaluable in his grin. And he was a good father. He loved his daughter.
As he lifted his glass to his lips and tilted his head back to deepen the gulp that would tingle is his mouth with reassurance, Lola walked in through the pub door. Little Lola, he thought. Well, not so little anymore. She strode in, her bright face reminding him of her mother. He didn’t lament the passing of childhood in his daughter; he loved the woman she had become. Her grace, beauty and kindness replenished the meaning in his life that he had lost due to his self-inflicted misfortunes. Lola caught the look of her father and saw the look of frightened love that an old man had still preserved after all the years. She was wearing her work clothes, a black suit that pronounced her blond hair in such a way to make her look infinitely youthful. She was beautiful, and made all the more beautiful by her seemingly incorruptible nature. Ben often speculated whether his unhealthy behaviour in life had granted her with wisdom, but this thought would quickly feel shameful, so he would ignore it.
“Don’t get up, old man, you might break something,” she said in her sweet light voice, a voice with a sympathetic humour. She walked up to her father and gave him a little kiss on the side of his cheek. His head bowed after he reciprocated.
“My dear, there would have to be something to break. I am practically air these days, just a walking pair of old eyes.”
Ben, when he spoke to his daughter, would speak quietly, as if the conversation was so precious that it had to be whispered.
“Nonsense dad, you’ll outlive us all.”
Her body gestured towards sitting opposite him, but then with a sudden swiftness she moved round the table to sit beside him. He had seen a disturbance beneath her eyes and knew that this trouble was the reason for the desired closeness to him. She knew that he knew she was troubled, but as both their characters insisted on humour in the early moments of conversation, the perturbation would not be broached until they had settled into quiet giggles.
“What have you done today, dad? You haven’t been in here all day have you?”
“I’ve been desperately planting things in the garden. Age brings a passion for gardening,” he said, and thought of adding that it also brings on a sharp awareness of the grave. But knew his daughter didn’t like when his humour got too black.
“How’s life in the urban jungle, are your pockets jingling with gold yet?”
“It’s ok, but I’ve been thinking I might change careers.”
“Something of your soul at stake? You used to say you wanted to be a teacher, what about that?”
He thought of adding that he was so proud of her whatever she did, but knew this would sound out of character, and seemed an unnecessarily obvious communication.
“Yeah, maybe something like that.”
“Well, you’re still as young as April, you can do what you want.”
“I’m 35 now, dad.”
“Still, that’s half my age.”
Their conversation continued to be relatively light and playful. She would poke fun at the young man trapped inside the old man’s body; she knew he didn’t mind her making fun of his old age. He would prod at her sometimes naive speculations about life. Her mind could often wander into a dreaminess that, to her, would seem real. As the talk softened into honesty, Lola’s lip began to tremble. The disturbance had welled up into her body now, and Ben recognized it as a violence that he could no longer ignore. A silence broke out between them as if in preparation for the fragility that would soon be revealed.
“What’s happened, Lola?” Ben asked with a delicateness that only the grumble of an aging man can achieve. She let out a small sob that sounded more like a pant. She had a stoicism that often prevented her from gushing with tears, but this time it seemed that what troubled her could overflow.
She sobbed the words through lips hardened by the strained face of a woman in sorrow: her recent husband had run off with another woman.
Ben immediately held his daughter’s hand and kissed her head but said nothing. While she sobbed, he wondered why she had come to speak to him about this, considering her knowledge of his behaviour with her mother, but then realized it was obvious. He felt a splinter of violence pierce his mind and he fantasized about wringing the neck of the man who had broken his daughter. In his youth he had always reacted with violence to such instances. In fact, he had always reacted to things with a kind of performance that would dramatize his life. These performances had given him energy, the kind of energy felt by all actors. He thought of uttering some consolatory lines of poetry to his daughter, but stopped himself, as he knew she would find this insulting, he could not fool her nor wished to. There was no poetry, nothing artificial in her sobs.
“I’m sorry, my dear.”
“What are you sorry about?”
His words played a dance upon her ears, a reassuring contradiction that only made sense in the moment. She looked up at him with quiet eyes, a face innocent with beauty that only a father could understand. He knew of the word “adultery” but didn’t understand it. It seemed like a word invented by people with a desire for power that they didn’t have. But nonetheless, he felt the pain that his daughter felt, and hated the man who had caused it. Again, violence sprang to his mind as the only reaction that would suffice; revenge was an attraction with a vibrancy that he felt fitting. But he also knew that it was an act of artifice that could have no consequences but the ones he had known, and which only led to more frequent artificial acts.
She kept repeating the word “why?” with a discordance that stuck like a dagger in the heart of her father. The tears had subsided now and only a look of childhood wept upon her face.
“Are you asking me about love?” said the old man in a slow and deep grumbled voice. By now, he was used to people asking him of such lofty subjects. Age brings a face that beckons to be asked questions, questions that can only be answered equivocally.
“Yes, why not? Just say something,” she sobbed. He thought for a moment about the myriad responses that he could give her. Her mother.
“Why did you do that to mum?” she blurted, without really considering her question, and retrospectively regretted bringing it up with an old man.
“I…” he paused to prepare his words carefully. “The day I married your mother was the best day of my life. I loved her… I didn’t really know what I was doing.”
He drew a deep breath and realised that whatever he said was stupid. He looked at his daughter, the tears still wet upon her face. She was nestled into his armpit now. He knew that his daughter had not come to him for answers, only for the comfort of his fatherly love, which had no explanation other than his unconditional feeling. As her head slowly lowered into his bosom, he looked up to survey the room again. Much time had passed, and his fellow drinkers had left the pub. Danny had retired to the kitchen in order to provide space for Ben and Lola’s conversation. Lola wept.
Lola and her father sat in the pew for a good hour before they left. They sat holding each other in a silence that was occasionally interrupted by Ben’s impotent attempts to console his daughter with wise words. His sentences were always half finished, and lacked honest vitality. But she knew her father, and that was enough to console her. The pub was empty, and to Ben it seemed there was music in the room. But there was no music, and he regretted thinking there was.
“I need to go home now dad. I’ve got work tomorrow.”
“Alright my dear. I’ll see you when the sun is shining.”
She stood up with a sturdiness, a resilience that Ben had always admired in the women he had known. He felt shrivelled and shrunken in his old age, but his will lifted him from his seat and he made a slow stagger to face his standing daughter.
“I love you, and forget the rest.”
“Ok,” she responded with laconic quietness.
Lola walked her father to his home that stood lonely only a few minutes down the road. She kissed him goodnight and walked away swiftly to catch the tube. Ben stood outside his front door and rummaged in his pocket for his packet of cigarettes, which he had been hiding from his daughter all night. He took one out, lit it, and listened to the slow crackle of the cigarette as he inhaled. The stars stood bright above the houses. A tear came to his eye when he thought of his daughter suffering, but he wiped it off and thought to himself: “If there is a god, he has a sense of humour”.
He laughed. Felt shame. Felt anger. Felt tired. Went inside. Sat on his sofa, still puffing his cigarette. He died.