Ian looked up from his
fathers photo on his laptop. An old man was pushing his wheelchair
towards Ians table in the coffee shop, wearing a rainbow coloured scarf
and a thick brown winter coat. A cup was perched on his legs and rolled up and
down the coat as the wheelchair squeaked closer. Ian wondered if the drink had
been spilt but the coat was unstained. He recognised a faint tang of urine, too
familiar from visits to his fathers nursing home.
The wheelchair stopped at his
table. Ian moved his laptop closer to his seat. Three chairs were free around
him and he did not want the coffee shop to complain he was hoarding space.
What do you know about
radios? the old man asked him.
Ian lowered his screen. The
wheelchair was parked in front of him, the old mans hands resting on the
wheels. Its seat was so low that he felt like a giant looking into a goldfish
Not much. I listen to my
favourite stations on the Internet, Ian said. He wondered if the old man
was about to ask him for spare change.
I know all about
computers, the old man replied. I was asking about
Sorry. Of course. I mean,
we all do. Ian told himself off for his staccato-like cynicism.
The wheelchair rolled backwards
on the floor. A woman holding a sandwich leapt out of its way.
Ian jumped up from his table
and flapped his arms like a scarecrow. Try your brakes, he
Just testing. The
old mans hands disappeared to the backs of the wheels. The wheelchair
returned to the table and stayed still.
Glad to see youre
steady. Ian sat down. In his fathers nursing home, he had sprung up
and down from the visitors chair as if he was sitting on a coiled spring,
while his father looked up at him from his own wheelchair.
Youre all talk and
no action, the old man replied.
Ill have a look for
radios on Google. Ian typed Radio on his keyboard.
You dont seem very
happy, the old man said.
Fine like my radio.
The aerial snapped off and I threw it in the bin.
Ian scrolled through the links
to online stations and clicked on Shopping. Now he could be useful, like
handing his father the newspaper. What kind of radio would you
The old man frowned. Why
are you asking me about radios? Are you a salesman?
Im only a
Youre not a
nobody if youre speaking to me. The old man picked up the cup from
his lap and rattled it in the air.
Ian remembered the cues from
the nursing home. Perhaps I could get you a tea.
Milk and five
Ian smiled. His father had a
sweet tooth and the nurses had suspected he was diabetic.
Laughing to yourself is a
sign of losing your marbles, the old man said.
I was wondering about the
Make it six if the
Ian excused himself to order
the tea at the counter. Scooping a dozen sugar sachets onto a tray, he returned
to the table.
The old man took the tea with a
trembling hand. Thats the trouble of getting on, he said.
You forget what you were thinking. Do you know any old people?
Ian was not surprised by the
sudden confession of self-awareness. His father could complete crossword
puzzles but complained that he couldnt remember the day of the week.
Not me, he replied. Not anymore.
Growing old sucks.
Ian opened the sugar sachets
for the old man, hating himself for being so guarded. His father said that he
was the champion keeper of secrets, while they were still capable of a
A couple sat down at a table
next to them. In their twenties, Ian reckoned, the young living with regrets
yet to come. They spooned marshmallows into each others hot chocolates.
old man said.
The girl shifted her seat to
block their view. Ian blushed, embarrassed that he had also been caught
Do you like to listen to
the radio? Ian asked the old man loudly, hoping the boyfriend would not
call them Peeping Toms.
The old man slurped on his tea.
I like Radio Havana.
As in cigars? Ian
regretted returning to the subject of radios. His father had needed
reassurance, not confusion.
Cigars are for smoking.
Radio Havana is short for Radio Havana Cuba. The Cuba is too much of a
mouthful, like their cigars.
Ian typed discretely on his
laptop to check if the old man was being delirious. The station even had its
own website. You must be learning Spanish, he said. His father
spoke French until he started mixing up the tenses.
I cant speak a
You like to salsa?
Ian was aware of a mock Spanish lilt in his voice. Being patronising was too
easy with the old.
Im in a wheelchair,
like you hadnt noticed. The old man tapped the arms.
Oh. The retort was
station? Ian asked brightly. He had learnt the futility of forcing a
conversation down one track when minds could only wander.
Have you ever heard of a
station called by a girls name?
impertinent. The old man looked into his cup, his head hanging down on
Ian thought he had fallen
The old man raised his head.
Dorothy was my wife.
twice. Ian wished he could sink underneath the wheelchair.
She died two years ago.
Bowel cancer, which means you go without being able to poop.
That sounds blocked
up, Ian said. His own mother had died of a heart attack, taken quickly
without any farewells or the embarrassments of incapacitation.
When I die, Ill go
on a potty.
More practical than a
The old man shook his rainbow
scarf. Dorothy flew to cloud cuckoo land with the painkillers they gave
her. She couldnt feel a thing. Im talking about baby
Ians father had insisted
he could use the bathroom by himself until the nurses found him spread-eagled
on the floor with his trousers around his waist. Baby wipes are
practical, he said.
Do I look like a
baby? the old man scowled. I can look after my own bottom, thank
you very much.
I prefer to keep my
behind to myself as well.
Try to keep to the
subject instead of making propositions, the old man said. I was
talking about Dorothy.
Ian knew he was telling a half-truth.
I moved into the home
after her funeral. The Council said I couldnt live on my own without
help. Dorothy probably had a hand.
Dorothy sounds like a
lovely wife. Keeping track of the moments of clarity with his father had
been like savouring an unexpected gift, except that Ian had too often sent the
present back unwrapped.
The old man stared up at him
from his wheelchair, his face moonlike. I couldnt stand the
Marriages. You always
know what youre missing. Out of the blue, his father had expressed
a wish for grandchildren. Ian had replied that the weather was warming, not
wanting to remind his father that his son was single and childless.
Dorothy knew what she was
missing for fifty-four years.
sweethearts, Ian smiled. His parents marriage had lasted three
years less, but he stopped himself from giving a comparison. Staying together
wasnt a competition.
I was too young to know
better. The old man squeaked in his wheelchair to inspect the couple at
the next table for a second time.
He was a disapprover, not a
voyeur, Ian thought.
Everything had to have a
purpose with Dorothy, the old man continued, tracking the girl as she
tapped on her phone screen. I couldnt do anything I wanted without
asking her permission first.
I know the feeling,
Ian said helplessly, clutching at clichés.
You dont know at
all. Looks can fool you. Dorothy hated anything she couldnt
Like bowel cancer, Ian
Radio Havana was my
vengeance. I found it on my radio when I was fiddling with my knob, the
old man said loudly.
Ian checked the next table,
hoping he would not have to ask the old man to lower his voice. The couple were
glued to their phones.
understand why I wanted to listen. She said we couldnt even follow what
they were saying with their funny voices.
The music must have been
nice, Ian replied, cautious of appearing to take sides. Gardening had
been his fathers own Radio Havana when he wanted to escape his
The battle axe hated the
music even more. She preferred the Beatles, the old man said.
Ian conjured up an image in his
mind of the reason-loving Dorothy listening to the Beatles while wielding an
axe. Perhaps they were both meandering. Hows the sugar in the
tea? he asked.
I take seven
Seven is a lucky
number. Remembering the number of sugars you took didnt matter when
the ability to count was fading away.
The old man creaked his head at
the ceiling, the rainbow scarf slipping down his neck. Dorothy is
floating up above and telling me to be rational in my radio choices. Im
not giving her a moments peace until I join her.
I hope thats not
anytime soon. Youve got Radio Havana to listen to. Ian looked up at
the ceiling in tandem. His father had stopped believing in an afterlife when
his mother had died. He said God was a sadist for making her die and then
letting him live.
Radio Havana? Never heard
of it, but I like to salsa. The old man tapped a rhythm on his
You could buy a radio so
you could listen.
The tapping quickened into a
tango. A nurse at the home said a new radio would cost three hundred
pounds. He offered to buy one for me.
Someone was making money off
old people, Ian suspected. He looked up the price of radios on his laptop.
Forty pounds, he said, reading his screen. Fifty if you want
Batteries? This is the
first time Ive been out in a year and a plug is all I need. I wanted to
go to the cashpoint for the nurse, but I needed the toilet. The old man
paused. And a cup of tea.
Ian clenched his fists. He was
angry at himself for not realising why the old man carried the smell of urine,
angrier still that all he had managed was disjointed small talk. The visits to
his father were repeating themselves. Ill buy the radio, he
The old man started crying,
tears running down his face unchecked.
On the next table, the couple
stopped scrolling on their phone screens and looked across. Their raised
eyebrows questioned if Ian had upset the old man.
Ill be a
minute, Ian said. He had to struggle not to run to the counter.
Am I going back to the
home? the old man asked after him.
I was cruel to you.
Heres my apology. Ian returned to the table with a handful of
The boyfriend was talking to
the old man. Ian handed over the serviettes and waited while the old man wiped
his nose, readying himself for the punch from the boyfriend that would be
Your dad says youre
the best son hes ever had, the boyfriend said to him.
We only met in the coffee
shop. You better get on with the punishment I deserve, Ian replied,
turning his cheek.
I wish I was a son like
you. I dont even see my dad for his birthdays, the boyfriend said
and shook his head.
His girlfriend wrapped her arms
around his shoulders and led him out of the coffee shop.
Why is everybody talking
about my son? the old man asked, his eyes open wide at the couple
leaving. He lives in Cuba and says hes too busy to travel to see
The old man had been surrounded
by sons, caught in the tragedy of excuses. Ian blamed himself for steering a
conversation that should have become an act of oblivion. Lets get
the radio later, he said. You need a passport first.
Am I visiting Dorothy
upstairs? The old man straightened his scarf. Ill tell her I
didnt mean to be rude. I just didnt like the poop.
To Ian, the old man looked as
if he was drowning. Were not visiting Dorothy, not before its
too late for either of us. He reached behind the wheelchair and unclicked
the brakes. You and I are off to Cuba.