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This is the last conversation we will have.

Silk: ‘Where did it go?’

‘I didn’t go anywhere. I’m right here.’

A half-smile – he is king of the half-smile – a patient grandfatherly smile that tells me I am not interpreting him correctly, but that he has the time to teach me how to read him.

‘Eva. My girl. Did it know I loved it?’

‘Yes. I know.’

Birds perform evensong in the horse chestnut outside his bedroom window, inviting me to escape through the half-drawn curtains from one scene to another, leaving Silk’s deathbed backstage. We used to do that together: clamber in and out of ground-floor windows, trailing mud and paint. Never use demarcated exits, he’d tell me; six years old, no idea what ‘demarcate’ meant, but swearing suspicion against all maps and signposts. I look over my shoulder at the tree. Don’t take this exit, I want to tell him. Stay with me. But I can’t – not when the Silk I know has been forced to surrender pronouns and poetry and can no longer implore me: Eva, only a selfish love exhorts a man not to go gentle into that good night. The horse chestnut is weak, holding up rain-soaked leaves. I think of the pink blossom Van Gogh painted from the window of his madness; I hear the trill of wood pigeons and remember a line from a nature documentary. When the birds stop singing, that will be the sound of extinction.

Whistling pierces the bedroom, inside our walls. It’s Silk, his cracked lips pursed. He does it again, a brief wood warbler, a party trick for summer picnics that is so loud and so sustained by the silent house it is like the ringing of crystal glass.

Silk plucks at my hand.

I don’t want to understand. It might be the last thing he ever teaches me, apart from how to manage death.

But after another nudge I inflate my lungs for an off-tune bastardisation of the roundelay outside. He laughs, does it himself, pitch-perfect. I copy, once, twice, until finally I am good enough and he folds his lips together, shutting a suitcase.

Then follows the procedure of medicine, blankets, pulling curtains to shut out pockets of polluted dusk, pockets I release at his protest, before finally burrowing my hand into his ready fist: goodnight. A creaking floorboard tells me that I am walking away from him, and as with every time I leave him, I think: this could be it.

‘I love you.’

In the dark, he might have been winking.

 

This is an excerpt from the 2019 shortlisted book by Kim Sherwood.  Read more

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