Alice. I had imagined the experience would be something close to The Green Mile, with the two of us on opposite sides of a glass partition and talking through phones. Instead, we just sit at a table. She wears a standard issue prison uniform and her hair is clumped in matted swaddles. I feel that if I knock on her she'll break apart like china but I keep this to myself. I ask about prison food. Grim. I ask about prison life. Sucks. Ho hum. Rack my brains. Father. She brings him up, not me. How's he doing, she asks. Fine, I say. Just fine.
Just fine. This is the kind of towering understatement that can only be convincingly pulled off with a British accent. Just fine. I had seen him a few hours before visiting the prison. He wasn't looking just fine.
Eleven years ago my father contracted a rare strain of meningitis. Within a day his symptoms were worrying enough for my mother to rush him into hospital. Within 2 days of a diagnosis he was vegetative; mouth slack, eyes half open, perfectly supine on the hospital bed. The doctors were frank with us. His brain had been heavily damaged by the disease and a full recovery was completely out of the question. Waking up was also unlikely. But can he hear us, I asked. Probably not, but you're welcome to play him music, read to him, whatever. There's a slim chance it might make a difference. And so that is what we did. Mother became his full-time carer and we, his three children, were the entertainment. Alice, the eldest of us, talked to him in the evenings. Jeannie, the youngest, bought a vinyl player and would bring new records for him everyday. I, the middle child, read to him. The newspaper, magazines, things I knew he would enjoy. I watched for any movement as I read, a twitch of the eyelid, a curl of the finger, but soon became convinced that there was nothing going on in the inside. He breathed. He pissed. He even blinked occasionally. But my father had died in hospital and now we were caring for his husk until such a time that the husk followed him into the dark too. We kept up this ritual for five years – to the detriment of our own families, even – until Mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and died about 2 months afterwards.
Alice, who had always loved my father to the point of obsession, divorced her husband and moved into my parent's house to act as his full-time carer. I thought nothing of this at the time. I had almost expected it anyway.
Curious thing, the love between father and daughter. I had picked up on out of place comments over the years about how she was his 'special girl' but looking through family photographs years later really brought the reality home. In almost every single one, up until her sixth birthday, she was either sat on his lap or clinging onto him with both arms. My father was a kind man and I doubt he ever told her to just leave him the hell alone, but I'm sure he wanted to occasionally. Even before he'd fallen ill Alice continued to dote on him, bringing him cakes, music, newspapers, photographs, all sorts.
It's no secret that when Jeannie was born Alice kicked up a massive fuss. It started with tantrums. If my father spent too long (anything over 3 minutes, apparently) tending to the new baby, Alice would wail and slam doors. The situation got no better as the two of them aged. Jeannie was a prodigy; proficient on the violin by seven, moved ahead an entire school year by ten, writing her own quartet pieces by twelve which were performed by professional musicians at the town hall. One morning Jeannie opened her violin case to rehearse and found the instrument smashed to pieces and carefully replaced inside the box like a cubist painting. Alice wouldn't admit to having done it but was punished by my parents anyway. She confided in me years later, drunk, that it felt fantastic, fucking the thing up like that, watching the strings fly off.
When Alice moved in with my father, Jeannie and I kept up our regular visits to see him. Jeannie was a fairly well renowned musician by that point but still found the time between tours to bring him records. She mentioned that Alice could be cold with her when she came to the house but Alice always had been cold with everybody, save for my father, so I paid it little thought.
Jeannie dropped me an email last year to say that she would be touring in South America for several months and that she might stay for an extended visit. It was an unusual move for her. We spoke weekly on the phone, so I found it slightly odd that she hadn't just called. I didn't realise she had a following outside of Europe but replied that I would visit our father twice as much now on her behalf and that I hoped she had a good time. And I did exactly that. I began to by him records as well as books and alternated between the two depending on which day it was. Alice usually left us alone, sometimes going out to a friend's place.
It first happened during a play through of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. My father loved that album so when I saw it reduced to clearance in a record store on Oxford Street I grabbed it and brought it over right away. It was muffled but still all there; the anthems of my childhood. I really let loose during Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, now I knew Alice was out of the house, and sung for all I was worth. Look for the girl with the kaleidoscope eyes. I noticed that my father's index finger was tapping in time to the music. Thinking it maybe a coincidence I changed the track to Fixing a Hole. Again, the finger tapped perfectly in time. I had read about what a strange thing remaining brain function can be during vegetative states and wondered just how much was left. “If you can hear me,” I said, feeling as though I was calling out to a ghost during a séance, “tap your finger.” The finger tapped once then lay still. “If you can still me, tap your finger twice.” The finger tapped twice. My blood ran cold. For months, probably years even, I had considered my father naught but a shell and had completely neglected looking for signs of any remaining consciousness. I quickly established a one tap = yes, two taps = no system and began to quiz him. Sometimes the answers were contradictory but for the most part it was obvious that parts of my father, at least, were still alive and well. Are you in pain? Tap tap. Are you hungry? Tap. Are you always awake when we visit? Tap. Do you remember us visiting anything past the last week? Tap. Two weeks? Tap. Month? Tap. Year? Tap. Does Alice know? Tap tap. Then I'll tell her. This is completely - Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap. Alice does know? Tap tap. You don't want me to tell her? Tap. I quickly drew up a chart on the back of an envelope with taps corresponding to letters. Alice opened the front door just before I was about to run him through it and joined us upstairs, trying to engage me in pleasant conversation. I desperately wanted to tell her the news but suspected there was more going on here than I realised. Instead I said a polite goodbye to my father and promised that I would return the next day.
I regard Alice across the prison table. She doesn't look guilty, but then I'm not sure what guilty looks like. She doesn't really look anything except tired. All the prisoners affect the same expression, the kind of lines that possess a face when the owner knows a decade or more of bars and gruel and living in a miniature cell are all that lies ahead of them. Alice is used to prefer larger spaces. Her bedroom in the family home was the largest of all by far until Jeannie made a strong case for using it as a rehearsal space for her band. The motion was carried almost unanimously by our family and Alice was displaced to the box room instead. No great assault followed but I picked up on strange happenings for years afterwards. Jeannie's bike going missing, her cat turning up dead in the garden, her makeup burning her face after it had been laced with some kind of weak acid. My father suspected Alice was behind these incidents too and practiced a kind of coldness with her from then on. She never quite recovered from that. Dad was the only thing she seemed to value and now he was Jeannie's protector, taking her to London for concerts every weekend, buying her new instruments, holding enormous parties at our house for her school friends which Alice invariably ruined by getting drunk and starting wild fights.
I returned the next day to my parents' house. Alice had left the key on the doorstep with a note inviting me to let myself in. I had coerced my wife into phoning her a few hours before and pretending to be a bank manager, asking her to come into the Hammersmith branch. She had obviously fallen for it. Now armed with a tap-to-letter chart I entered my father's room. Are you awake? Tap. Would you like try this chart out? Tap. He was perfectly still for a minute or two while he looked it over then his finger began again. D-O-N-T T-E-L-L A-L-I-C-E I won't, but what's wrong? N-O-T S-A-F-E His finger spasmed for a few minutes uncontrollably. Obviously the effort needed to move it was almost unbearable for him. It began again: H-E-L-P H-E-L-P H-E-L-P H-E-L-P H-E-L-P H-E-L-P H-E-L-P H-E-L-P Alright, alright, but what is it? What's going on? More spasms then the finger was still. I stayed there several hours until Alice got back, waiting in vain, then pocketed my chart and left. It wasn't impossible that my father was delusional. The meningitis had certainly fried parts of his brain, that much was clear from the MRI scan the hospital had performed. If so then that was somehow even worse; trapped inside a failing body, unable to communicate or move, haunted by delusions of a broken mind. I raised the issue with my wife that evening. She was horrified I hadn't told her before. Having always been suspicious of Alice she suggested setting up a camera in my father's room so we could get a better idea of what was going on. It seemed like a betrayal somehow but, laying in bed that evening, all I could see what that single manic finger tapping the same message out, over and over and over:H-E-L-P.
I purchased a lightweight surveillance camera marketed to nervous home owners the next day and took it over with me to my father's house. Alice wasn't distant as usual and spent of the time in my father's room with me trying to make conversation about work and the town hall renovations. Perhaps the bogus phon ecall from my wife had spooked her, I don't know. She used the toilet for a few minutes and I stashed the camera behind a tower of books and whispered to my father that I was taking care of everything. His finger jolted wildly for a few seconds though I had no idea what it was he was trying to tap out. I was out of town on a work trip for a few days then returned to the house, excited to play the camera recording back and confirm that my father was simply suffering from delusions. Again, Alice was close at all times, disappearing only once to make a cup of tea, during which time I grabbed the camera and stowed it into my coat and promised my father, again, that everything would be fine. The resulting tapping was even more hysterical, vibrating up and down so fast that it was little more than a blur.
Back home and I put the little memory card into my laptop. Nothing was out of the ordinary. Alice came in, changed his sheets, brought him water, washed his hair. I couldn't believe how gentle she was. She hadn't even been that affectionate with her husband. I sped the video up. There was a flash of movement, then everything returned to normal. I wound back a few hours. Just after midday. Something enormous entered the room. A cart, I realised, pushed by Alice. On the cart was a human figure. Alice left the room then returned with a tray of shining implements. She angled the cart so the figure was directly facing my father, then she twisted his head so he was forced to stare straight at it. Alice was wildly gesticulating at my father, her arms open, obviously shouting. Then she laid a plastic sheet out before the cart and took one of the implements from the tray: a shining scalpel. I froze the picture for a moment and scrutinised the bound figure on the cart. Black pigtails. Slightly plum. Jeannie.
And how is Jeannie, Alice asks. Better, I say. Recovering. Alice smiles half-heartedly. In truth, Jeannie will never be fully recovered. Some trauma leaves a mark so deeply on the inside that it's all I the mind can do to shut off. Jeannie can speak again, can even walk again, but refrains from both if given the chance. Instead she prefers to stare at the hospital's television or sleep. The doctors are optimistic in general but they don't expect her to even return to work or motherhood. She'll likely be moved to a psychiatric ward and remain there for the rest of her life.
Alice raised the scalpel to her face. Jeannie thrashed about trying to turn away but the binds kept her looking straight ahead, just like my father and his disease. Then Alice went to work on her face, pushing the scalpel into what must have been the area around her right eye, and when she brought the scalpel back it was covered in blot after blot of red matter. Jeannie thrashed about again, screaming probably, and then there was blood pooling at the base of the cart. Alice gagged her and continued working on her face, moving the scalpel down to her mouth, squinting concertedly like a surgeon. And in the background, probably seen by Jeannie too if she had any vision left to do so after so many of these episodes already, was my father's finger, up and down, up and down, like a furious nodding donkey, a hysterical noiseless shriek: tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap.