I was not the first. I knew that when it happened.
But you feel like the only one it’s happening to. Because it’s happening to you, and there’s only one you.
My father died when I was 23. He was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in July and died in February the next year. For the seven months that he was ill, my mother, sister and I existed on the edge – he was going to die, and it could happen any day. My reaction to watching his deterioration – to the radiotherapy, to the hospital horrors, to the sight of blood and nurses and tubes – was rage. Why did this have to happen to my father?
I watched my father die. At home. In his bedroom. And then the undertakers came for his corpse. When he died, I felt alone. And I wanted to rip the world apart.
The majority of people around me at the time made the unsolicited decision to not discuss the death, to not ask me about it. It was treated as if it didn’t happen. An omission. Or even worse, like it was every day. Part of life. Which continues. As a result, I raged within, drifted in and out of reality, hovered above myself in social gatherings. When somebody did speak to me, I felt like I could eat them. They knew nothing of my pain. They were not me.
I returned to work a week and a half after my father’s death. I was working as a barista and there’s no paid grieving time off when you work for Costa. I had graduated with a Master’s in Writing only two years before, I’d failed in any kind of publishing or editorial job and was surviving on (badly paid) freelance writing gigs and hospitality work. The majority of my colleagues were vulgar and self-centred; the customers enraged me to the point that I had to take time to breathe in the toilets. The smallest thing would set me off, the simplest request. My father had just died and now I was being asked to make a coffee extra hot?
My friends looked at me with fear. They weren’t half-orphans, not yet, so they lived with the fear that they would be. And my presence was a reminder of that fear.
While suffering with people who ‘didn’t get it’ or who found it ‘uncomfortable’, I saw how my mother’s friends flocked to her. They brought food, flowers, beer, themselves. They sat with her and talked about my father. They knew him so they had that advantage, but they also gave my mother space to talk and breathe and mourn. They were present.
I moved to Edinburgh a couple of months after my father died. It felt both too soon and necessary – I needed to get out. When new friends asked me why I moved, I would spin my usual vague story – ‘I’ve just had enough of Cardiff.’ When people would ask me what my parents did for work, I would talk about my mother. I later learnt that these people took that to mean my parents were divorced. I hid my father away from this new world. This was not because I wanted to forget him; on the contrary, I wanted to feel it, the pain that I felt I deserved. In truth, I was testing these people to see who I could trust, who I could offer this truth to and not be let down. My guard was up.
Here’s another truth: even though I wanted to talk about it, I didn’t know what to say. Even though people in my life did try, I bit off their heads and spat it back at them. I was a beast of contradictions.
I only spent a couple of months in Edinburgh before the desire to run came back to me. So, I applied to go on a month’s residency in Finland. By this point I was suffering with severe anxiety. I panicked when my phone went off – who’s dead now? – so I would hide it in another room, leave it for hours and then creep back, terrified. I couldn’t eat. The idea of anything new made me vomit.
I existed in an ever-moving world. My sympathy, my mind, my presence was required by others, but I was elsewhere with nothing to give. Paralyzed, drifting, numb. Then one minute that feeling changed to extreme panic and terror and my stomach would cramp. On the cycle went. So, against my fears of doing something new, I accepted the Finland residency, booked my flights and set off.
I arrived in Helsinki at night, where a sleepy taxi took me to what seemed to be an abattoir but was in fact the dreary cheap hostel where I would stay for the night. When I found my room, I sat on my single bed and began regretting my decision. What was I thinking? I had already felt so alone, and now I’d just made myself even more so. Took myself literally to the middle of nowhere with people I didn’t know. And I had spent all of my money and my mother’s money for what? Time to grieve?
I woke the next morning, anxious. I had only completed half of my journey – I still had the residency to get to. Since my father’s death I imagined every worst-case scenario. I sat on the edge of the bed, bag re-packed, coat thrown over the chair, counting the minutes to call the taxi. Telling myself it was too early. Just wait. But I hated waiting. Waiting made me think of hospitals and months suspended in limbo. I tried taking myself through every step of my journey – but it was unknown and that terrified me. Like all the months we spent thinking today might be the day. When one thing goes wrong, anything can go wrong.
I got on the train and couldn’t find my seat. It didn’t seem to exist. Like a missing thing lost for so long you’re not sure it even existed. It was a double-decker train which made my stomach swish. I think it was my excitement. My body had mangled the feelings of excitement and anxiety together. I took a seat, one by the window and watched the snowy trees until my mind was blank and I felt content for the first time since my arrival.
When the train pulled into Tampere station a woman wearing a light pink raincoat was waiting for me. “Are you Thomas?” she asked. Beside her stood a small woman with dark hair who had a calm expression on her face. I found out she was another one of the residents. She came from Canada and, I found out when I saw her looking at postcards, that she worked in collage. The woman in the raincoat worked for the residency. The three of us made small-talk as we rolled past ever-long roads full of trees and fields paved with snow.
“We’re here,” the woman in the pink raincoat said after an hour.
Two enormous cabins sat side-by-side. One yellow, the other blue. As we walked up the path between them, I looked out at a wild forest. I spotted a statue, presumably made by one of the previous residents, and beside it a circle made of stone for fire gatherings and telling stories. A large barn – “mainly used by the artists that work with wood, but this is a text-based residency so I doubt we’ll need to use it,” – sat beside the forest. This was their giant back yard with a small hill, a large table and a barbecue (another thing that wouldn’t be used as it was November), a small hut that was the sauna, and piles of wood. I was to live in the yellow cabin which I would share with four other residents. As soon as we stepped inside, I was told to take off my shoes – “don’t want the floors getting wet from the snow” – and shown to my room. It was enormous, with a large desk overlooking straw fields covered in snow, an armchair with a floor lamp and plenty of room for me to ponder. The first night I worked in my room, drinking a bottle of wine and watching my reflection in this new place.
The next day we all met formally. I made my way to the blue cabin made up of a massive kitchen, a huge studio space (where we all had our designated desks), a lounge area and the rest of the bedrooms for the residents. The cabin kept snaking and curling along – a space for yoga, a small library, numerous toilets, a kind of peaceful maze where you might find yourself levitating.
There were twelve residents in total and three formal members of staff. I recognised the woman from the train station. Beside her sat another woman, cross-legged, fierce looking but with the edge of a smile. In the middle of them sat a handsome man. He was the director of the residency and when he was listening to you it was as if everything else around him dimmed. Behind the director sat another woman. She looked like she was maybe a year or two older than me. She had short hair and a sort of aloof countenance – like she was floating.
We all clustered together to introduce ourselves and share our work. We had come from all over: Columbia, Japan, China, America, Britain, France. Everyone’s work was completely different. A lot of the projects incorporated art in some way – whether it be a flag or a collage or a piece of glass – and a lot of people had come to experiment. I read from a story I had been working on about grief and sex. I read a sex scene and a lot of eyes widened, to my surprise. I had thought that a writer’s residency would be the best place to read a sex scene.
“And is…this…what you’ve come to work on?” one of the other residents’ asked. “No,” I replied. I had come to work on my ‘political fantasy novel’. An idea I started in my undergraduate degree but had no idea how to write. My aim was to accomplish 1000 words a day. I had sat on this project for too long – I wanted to make a dent.
I quickly fell into a routine. I would wake every morning around 10, have a cup of green tea and a cigarette on the porch, and then I would begin work. Some days, those 1000 words were accomplished in an hour or two. Other times I would go for a walk, smoke too many cigarettes, and work until it was dark. But I loved it. For the first time in a long time, I felt like a writer again. I, therefore, felt like myself. Not bruised like a piece of fruit and morphed into a new shape, not performing as someone else, not wearing a mask. Me.
When I walked, I would think about my characters and their grief, which led to me thinking about my father. I replayed the last three days of his life over and over, the scenes etched behind my eyes like a constant film. I remember howling in those fields. Loud, guttural cries of anger and anguish and all the pain that had been smothered for a year. And nobody could hear or see me. I had time to feel it. Out there, alone, time to breathe.
On one of those days when the writing wasn’t going well, I went for a cigarette. I was angry at my words. I kept using the same ones. How many times must you say ‘cracked’, Tom? Get a new word for ‘splayed’. “Hey,” came a voice, “you’re Tom, right?” The woman in the back, the floater. She approached me and said, “I liked your story.”
“Thank you,” I replied, “I think the sex scene was a bit of an odd choice.”
“Nah, we need some sex scenes around here. Most of those introductions can be so dull. You made it more interesting.”
I thanked her again, offered her a cigarette. Twenty minutes passed, we smoked and talked, she told me she was married to the director, that she was an artist and had moved to Finland a couple of months ago.
“What’s it like living here full time?” I asked.
“Quiet,” she replied.
We departed, but we agreed we would speak again soon. This may sound odd. Of course, we would speak again – there were only sixteen of us in total – but what we meant was: I want to talk to you again.
One day, I divulged those dreaded words: my father is dead. And she asked me questions. Questions. As in sentences that end with a mark. I answered them and she listened. I felt safe. She asked me how he died. A simple question but nobody had asked that before. People just muttered, “I’m sorry”, as if I could mould those words into some sort of artefact that would bring me comfort.
I still traced around details. I still dealt with it like an inevitable truth – he just died – like I had been taught to do. It was nothing, I seemed to suggest, until I caught her eyes. Until I saw her staring at me. Looking at me. Seeing me. Until I gave in to what it meant. My father died. Died. Dead. Like, no longer here.
She probed me. “Did he ever read your work?”
No. But we did watch Gladiator together and that had a huge influence on me. But we did watch Road to Perdition together and I felt like his son. I eventually told her everything, through the snatched moments we had on the porch smoking cigarettes. These moments would usually be disturbed by another smoker, the conversation descending into common literature and the weather. In those moments we looked at each other to express our exasperation.
It seemed like we were hooked on the same peg. Stranded on the same island. Stuck in the same space. Limited. And offering up what we could.
You still exist. You’re still alive and present in this world, yet you are anchored to the world of the dead.
I painted the horrible picture of his last few days. He didn’t want to die in the hospital. I knew that. And when the doctor gave us the decision to bring him home or leave him in the hospital I said, “he comes home.” So, my mother, my sister and I nursed him. We sat around the bed, and we waited for him to die. I told her some stories I wouldn’t tell another soul.
“You must have loved him very much,” she said, “to do that.”
“I did what had to be done. He was my father. There was no other choice.”
“There was another choice,” she said, “but you chose to stay.”
There was one day where I found her, alone at the table by the barbecue. A long tablecloth dusted with snow sat beside her. And then she told me. She told me, maybe, what she had always intended to tell me. She told me what she really wanted to say the first time she approached me. Maybe she smelt it on me.
She told me that her own father had died a year before and that he had been her best friend. She, my new friend, had lost the person that got her. Her story was very different to mine and I do not feel it is my place to express any intimate details. All I will say is: she existed in a world that demanded her presence and was floating in another with her dead father.
“I’ve smoked all of your cigarettes,” she said. “I should replace them, and we should get wine.”
We drove to the shop together (the only one was twenty minutes away) and we still talked. There seemed to be an endless amount to talk about now. Not just our dead fathers, but our similar feelings of existence, our complications with art, our desire to find a path for ourselves. I felt like I could scream, and she would understand why, like it was justified, like I wasn’t being weird or selfish or going on about the dead dad again; I was being me, I was feeling what happened to me, I was grieving.
Over the course of the residency, my novel turned out to be about grief. There was still the political fantasy core with lots of characters and themes, but death loomed over everything. What they lost infected every action, decision, thought. Their dead hung in their organs as ghosts. My desk in the studio had become a plethora of papers, dog-eared novels and post-it-ed noted books. I had the space to stretch my fictional world out along the walls. I could spread my arms wide and see the fields in front of me and watch foxes.
There existed another half-orphan now. And with that came validation. My grief was real. The residency was drawing to a close and I was somewhat glad to give up the perpetual darkness of Finland’s winters, but I would miss the time I had to grieve, the fields I could scream in and, of course, my friend.
There are three endings to this story. I could tell you about the final days, how I discovered I had begun to miss home – what home was – and how I thought of my time in Finland as a lesson, one I would take forward. I could tell you about how, when I returned to Edinburgh, I felt rejuvenated and free. How I got stoned and went to my friend’s art party and left early to mindlessly go grocery shopping. I could end on this positive note.
It’s a fine story – it has a beginning, middle and end. The protagonist has learnt a lesson, he’s changed. It has a happy ending. But it’s not the end.
So, I could tell you about the second ending – the one that goes beyond the first – I could tell you how I was back in the UK for a month and my anxiety returned full-throttle. I could tell you about the film that began to replay, the distrust in people, the fury. It could end here; I could tie a perfect realistic bow upon a story of grief. Because grief is everlasting. Grief, you grow to live with. Like an amputation or a lost sense – you grow to live with it. You grow to feel like it’s always not been there.
But I’m going to tell you the third ending, which takes place in Finland, in the foyer of the blue cabin where I was among the last five to leave. We crammed our suitcases into the corridor and were each handed a marker pen. “Find a spot and off you go,” the director told me. It was only then that I properly saw the walls – names and dates of all the previous residents. They went from floor to ceiling, some on their side, some upside-down. I wrote my name. Made my mark. I’ve always written things down to make them feel real.
When my stuff was in the car the other half-orphan approached me and said, “I’m not very good at goodbyes.”
“Me either,” I replied. “I hate them.”
“Then let’s not say goodbye,” she said. “I’m terrible at messaging and phone calls and all that so I won’t say ‘I’ll speak to you soon’ but, you know, we will speak again.”
“We will, at some point in the future,” I said.
“I’ll think of you,” she said.
“I’ll think of you too,” I said. “And, one more thing: thank you.”
Thomas Stewart (he/him) is a Welsh writer. In 2021 he was awarded a New Writers Award from Scottish Book Trust. empire of dirt, his debut poetry pamphlet, was published by Red Squirrel Press in 2019. Based on a true story, his second pamphlet, will be published in November 2022 by fourteen publishing. His work has been published in Poetry Wales, Butcher’s Dog, fourteen poems, Best Scottish Poems 2019, The Amsterdam Quarterly, And Other Poems, The Glasgow Review of Books, The Stockholm Review of Literature, among others. / Twitter: @ThomasStewart08