The old man had, I don’t know what else to call it, he had gravity. He had something that pulled people in to him, though fuck knows why. He was a lazy sonabitch. My ma, she loved him all his life and all hers too. I mean, all the time they were together he kept her close to him, wouldn’t let her leave his side. He was traditional I guess. Backwards maybe. But when he finally went and she was free, could do whatever she wanted, go wherever she wanted, I’m not sure she wanted anything but him.
So he worked in the garage he owned, in the space under the flat where we lived. Our building looked out on to a concrete square of open space and because he never had more than three or four cars on the go at any one time he used to park them next to the kiddie park, right in the centre of the square. There was always space. When it was nice out he’d work there instead of in the shop, only moving a car inside if he needed to work under it and had to use the pit.
Every morning my ma would ask him what he wanted for dinner that night. ‘Tares (TAHR-ees she’d shout) what you hungry for?’. Then she’d take her basket and spend the day finding the best of everything. Potatoes she’d get from the plastic buckets outside the corner shop, greens from the Qwik’n’Fresh, away the opposite side of the square. All round the square we had shops; a couple of general stores, a grocers, a newsagents. There was a hardware place when you could get anything from mouse traps to detergent.
I used to watch her from my bedroom window walking slowly around while the old man fixed cars in the centre. She’d talk to Mrs Malhotra for a while, pressing her thumb on courgettes and potatoes as she did. On Fridays she’d stop at the newsagents as well, get the old man’s cigarettes. Two packs of Marlboro Red to last the week.
And that was their life. Working the cars, doing the shopping. Their whole world in that block.
Like I say, the old man had something about him. He didn’t do much of anything, just fixed cars all day, shouting out to anyone who walked past. Stopping, every time, to talk. Took him twice as long to fix cars in the summer but he could talk to anyone, would talk to anyone.
When his brother got sick the old man gave up his own kidney to keep him safe. Spent a week at the hospital recovering for the transplant operation, laid up on a thin mattress and eating shitty food but still talking to anyone he could. That week that he was away from home threw my ma completely out of sink; she didn’t know what to do with him gone.
His brother, my uncle, he got better for a couple of weeks after the operation, but then he got worse really quick. Tore the old mans heart out that he died. He didn’t work outside for a while after that.
About that same time another garage opened up a couple of blocks away and the little work he had had seemed to dry up. So the old man stayed home all day instead, sitting in the armchair as ma fussed around him.
My ma still did the shopping, still cooked for him like he was working a twelve hour day in the garage, but he just sat there drinking and eating and smoking and old watching movies, so he got fat really quick. Fat like Elvis. And just like the King he died pretty soon afterwards. Not from clogged arteries though. He caught the cancer like everyone else. Two packs a week.
A couple of months after the doc told him about the cancer you could already see him going. Funny how that happens; you hear about it and then you see it, like the body doesn’t know until it’s told its sick. He still drank, still smoked, but he lost all that weight he had, and lost it even faster than he’d put it all on. Shrunk in on himself. My ma would bring him blankets he was so cold all the time.
And then he was gone.
After that things kinda seemed to fall apart. Not in an end of the world, final, cataclysmic meltdown kind of way. Just the way the always do, slowly and without you noticing.
People in the neighbourhood drifted away.
Developers moved in on the block
The shops my ma had used at all her life were closed down and so she started walking to the ones the other side of the river.
I couldn’t watch her from the window anymore, circling the block. I couldn’t watch my father working, there in the centre.
We’re selling the flat now, and the garage underneath, moving across to the other side of the river. Easier for my ma.
You know what his name means, I mean, what his name meant? Antares, it meant ‘star’. Centre of her life.