Times are changing. The Chinese restaurant no longer had the Covid temperature check gate that you had to walk through with the pictures of customers who had walked out without paying.
Now the place seemed somehow less inviting, like there was no reason to be here except an ordinary meal.
A masked waitress gave us in-your-face service. I had to slow her down to stop her ordering our drinks for us.
We argued over the menu. Afterwards I took in the ambiance. It reminded me of being on an aeroplane, the staff patrolling the floor like flight attendants. I often feel like I’m on a plane when I go out to eat. Or in the terminal. Perhaps it’s being in a new place that makes me feel like I’m going away.
The staff seemed over it. I wondered how much they were paid in their economy. It can’t be easy being Chinese.
Dad began talking about his myelodysplastic syndrome. At first I didn’t understand. He was circling his finger around his beer glass as if it would sound a note and saying something about “it” not being contagious. I traced this topic to the book he had been reading. “Book, pamphlet”, he extrapolated. Mum figured out that he had spent the afternoon reading the medical pamphlet on myelodysplasia for his appointment earlier this morning.
He liked to read and understand the literature on his medical complaints. Gave him something important to do. When he wasn’t sleeping. It was good that it wasn’t contagious. I checked with mum whether the conditions was hereditary. No. That was good too. Myelodysplastic syndrome means your cells lose shape. Technically it’s a form of blood cancer but it rarely develops into cancer proper. When it did it was called myeloma and you died. The name sounded spaz, like you’d gone spastic with playdough. I’d forgotten dad had that.
The problem affecting his mind was the Parkinson’s disease. It had taken a cognitive turn and he was not quite his old self. He was taking the new drug rivastigmine for that.
Mum said the Queen had myeloma. “Did she?” asked dad, his complaint taking on a higher status.
“So the Queen died of cancer?” I asked. But I couldn’t get a straight answer. Whether this was just mum or the inconsistency of old people I couldn’t determine.
The waiters brought the uncared for food. I shovelled it across to dad. He could still eat pretty well.
I tried to be patient and listen to dad. To puzzle out what he was thinking. This guy who had done so well as a lawyer in Hong Kong and made so much money. I couldn’t raise a cent.
The restaurant had set the table with hot dinner plates and a fork, spoon and napkin. No little bowls or chopsticks. Mum had it in her head it was a good restaurant because it was run by the same people who ran the place they liked in Oxford. The place they couldn’t get to because of dad. So we’d come back here again.
But I could see this was just an average Chinese restaurant in Bicester set for a roast dinner.
I noticed the Chinese characters round the wall skirting. They were basic, like a Chinese ABC. But I couldn’t translate the ones I recognised. Dad had paid for lessons once. He was pointing at some of these characters.
The low muzak reminded me of being on the runway. Everything seemed very bright, life too real, all the promise of the years traded away suddenly for an unrealistic prospect of a teaching career, whose application process had been made impossible. I had been made to fall into line with a crap world rather than change it.
Dad expressed admiration for the lantern hanging over the table. There was another standing on the table for some reason, unlit.
Mum had dad’s pills prepared. Every night he asked the same questions as if it was the first night he’d taken them. He liked to interrogate the process, to get to grips with it all. She went through the process impatiently, misinterpreting his questions in a negative light.
It had been dark for hours and a few stars were out in Britain. Most were obscured by light pollution. I thought how strange it was that, all these years later, I was now driving dad around in the same car that he never used to let me drive after university.
As I drove us through Weston-On-The Green, I went over today in my mind. I thought of the many days I haven’t written down, made of minutes and hours that spoke miracles. Every day is a book.