The smell was overwhelming. Not the sharp sting of hospital bleach, as I had expected, but a sickly sweet lavender smell that clung to the folds of my sweater. The room was warm and bright, the large windows overlooking acres of rolling hills dotted with sheep.
My father sat in a recliner chair, the upholstery made of practical orange vinyl. The curve of his spine tilted his head forward towards his chest. He looked up as I walked into the common room.
I kissed his papery smooth cheek and noticed his eyes glisten with moisture.
“Hello, Poppa,” I said. “Happy birthday.”
The other residents (don’t call them inmates, my mother had warned) shuffled into the room behind walking frames. My father seemed younger and more alert than the others. I wondered if he felt out of place.
“You’re late,” my father said, his forehead collapsing into a frown. “I’ve been sitting here since 8 o’clock this morning waiting for you.”
“It’s my fault,” I said. “I slept in. I’m still on Sydney time.”
My mother sat on one side of him and I sat on the other. I took his trembling hand in mind and ran my fingers across his knuckles. The trembling subsided.
“Aunty Edna is here,” my father whispered. He nodded towards a white-headed old lady sitting at a nearby table who sang to herself. “But she doesn’t talk to me.”
“I thought Aunty Edna lived in New Plymouth,” I said.
“She does,” he said. “When she’s not here.”
The birthday cake was served in the dining room. The tea was strong and black. I had lost my appetite. When my father thought no one was looking, he stole the blue icing flowers from the top of the cake and shoved them into his mouth. My mother pushed the cake out of his reach.
“I wish you lived here,” my father said. He started to cry. At that moment I stuffed my own sadness into a metal box and shut the lid.
“Tomorrow, we’re taking you out to lunch,” I said, intuitively realising my only defense was to change the subject. “Where do you want to go?”
His eyes hardened. “Somewhere cheap,” he said. “Your mother is spending all my money.”
A middle-aged, tired looking nurse came over to check on my father. “He’s a cheeky one,” the nurse said, patting my father’s arm. “He thinks he’s the boss around here.”
My father grinned with a flash of defiance, and I glimpsed for a moment the man he used to be. But all too soon, the spark spluttered and died.
“I’m going home tomorrow,” he said. “Get your mother to pick me up at 8 o’clock.”
I saw my mother grimace, lines of worry etched around her mouth.
“You can’t come home just now,” she said, her voice threatening to crack. “You need the nurses to look after you.”
“We’ll be back soon,” I said. “Give me a kiss goodbye.”
He stood up, revealing a physique in better condition than I had seen in years. He had lost weight and the painful arthritis in his knees seemed not to bother him.
“Don’t forget to order the plants,” he said. “If it’s sunny tomorrow, I’ll spend the day in the garden.”
“What will you plant, Dad?”
“Lavender,” he said. “Your mother always liked the smell.”