‘It’s sick,’ I told him. ‘Those poor little things. Innocent. What did they ever do to you? What did they ever do to anybody?’
And he just stood there, leering over this glass case filled with dead butterflies.
‘They’re beautiful, Graham,’ he said. ‘Can you not see that?’
‘I can see that they were,’ I said. ‘Before you killed them.’
My sister, Laura, says that I hate my dad’s butterflies because when were little he always put them first. It’s true, he always did. Weekends, he’d be off on his bike, or on the bus, with his net flapping and his brown satchel over his shoulder, to Seven Barrows, or Iping Common, or Pewsey Down – I can tell you the names, because they’re all written, in faded blue ink, in pedantically neat handwriting, on the labels in the butterfly cases. Every weekend. Never mind Laura’s piano exam. Never mind that I’m playing cricket for the first team.
Even when he took us to the seaside, all he’d do was bung us ten pee apiece for ice-cream and leave us on the beach while he went dashing around the sand-dunes in his stupid baggy shorts, waving his net after a Clouded Yellow or some fucking thing.
But that’s not why I hate my dad’s butterflies. It’s not even why I hate my dad.
‘They’re Chalkhill Blues,’ he said, running his fingers over the glass.
Then he set aside the case, struggled to his feet, and shuffled over to the window. He stood there, looking out.
That’s what they all do here. They all stand at their windows, looking out, listening to the clocks ticking. If you asked them they’d probably say that there’s nothing else to do, and start crying – but they’re just looking for sympathy. Watch a DVD, why don’t you. Read a fucking book.
Anyway I reckon my dad prefers staring out of the window. Sometimes he’ll say ‘Red Admiral, there!’ or ‘Cabbage White on the geranium’. Because that’s all you get round here, butterfly-wise: just the shit butterflies that everybody knows, because the lawn’s all manicured and there are no proper plants, no comfrey or ragwort or even stinging nettles. ‘First Orange-tip of the summer!’ he said, a few weeks back. I reckon that’s as good as it gets for my dad, in here.
We put him in here as soon as we could afford. Me and Laura. No arguments, no regrets. Sometimes I want to say: now you know how your fucking butterflies feel. Just another dead thing kept behind glass.
He stood at the window, now, and said: ‘Did I ever take you to Royston Heath, Graham?’
‘No, Dad. You never did.’
‘I should’ve. I should’ve.’ He sighed. ‘Late July, that was the time. That was when I should’ve taken you.’ He looked over his shoulder at me. ‘I’d have taken your mother, you know. If she’d ever wanted to go. I offered,’ he said.
I was hardly listening. I don’t remember my mum. My dad turned back to the window.
‘’Fifty-six, that was the year,’ he said. ‘You’ve never seen anything like it. Chalkhill Blues covered the down like a fall of snow, that July. Every collector in the south of England was there, seemed like. All the guesthouses were full. I had to share a twin room with a collector who’d come all the way from Trowbridge.’
He talks like this, my dad. When I was a kid, after I’d left the cap off the toothpaste or forgotten to feed the rabbit or something, he wouldn’t really get mad – he never got mad – but he’d sigh and say: ‘I might as well be talking to myself’.
That’s how he seems to feel now. He must have woken up one morning, looked around him, maybe at his brain-dead nurse with her wobbly arse or at the other inmates, the droolers and lobotomy-jobs he has to spend his days with now, and decided: I might as well be talking to myself.
Suits me. I was busy doing my shopping-list in my head. Catfood, we needed. Nappies. Tin of spaghetti.
He carried on talking, anyway.
‘They’re beautiful, Chalkhill Blues,’ he said. ‘A sort of sky colour. A washed-out sort of sky. A blue dress that’s been through the laundry too many times.’
‘Very poetic,’ I snorted.
But actually he’d made me think of a dress just like that, a dress that Laura had, when we were kids. Maybe my dad was thinking of it too. Must’ve been him that put it through the laundry, after all.
‘But the thing about them,’ he said, ‘is how different they all are. You’d notice, if you ever looked at them properly. All the ones in that case. There’s no butterfly,’ he said, ‘that has as much genetic variation as the Chalkhill Blue. You get some that have streaks instead of spots. You get some that are half-brown and half-blue. All sorts. That’s why the collectors go mad for them. That’s why we were all there, at Royston Heath. Each one was different, you see. You never knew what you might get.’
He sighed again. I thought: he’s going to start talking about mum. It’s these places, they make you morbid like that. She wasone of a kind, I expected him to say. I never thought I’d find one quite like her.
But he didn’t say that.
Instead he turned away from the window, and said: ‘We’re a lot like that, you know. People. All different.’
And I wanted to say, you lot fucking aren’t. You lot in here. You’re all the same, you all sit around all day brooding over your bloody memories, whinging about your kids or your grandkids, resenting them for daring to have a life. Staring out the fucking window, counting down the clock.
But all I said was: ‘Yeah?’
He nodded. He sat down in his chair, and lifted up his case of dead butterflies again. His case of Chalkhill Blues. He held the case flat in his lap, and looked down at it.
He looked like he was waiting for one of them to flap its wings or something.
Then he looked up.
‘I’m sorry, Graham,’ he said.
Oh Christ, I thought. Here we go. The grandstanding apology. The deathbed plea for absolution. Like I said: old people, they’re so fucking morbid. Like anyone cares any more. It was a long time ago, I’m over it, I’ve turned out all right, no thanks to you and your bloody butterflies, sure, but come on – can’t we just forget about it all now? It’s done with. You’re done with. Can’t you just let us get on with our lives?
‘No worries,’ I said, shrugging. ‘Nothing to say sorry for.’
He just said: ‘Graham.’
Then, when he said hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, I thought for a second he was talking about another of his fucking butterflies. I thought it was a Latin name or something. Then he explained.
It was what killed my mum, he said. It’s a genetic disorder. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. It’s where your heart muscle gets too thick. You get arrhythmia – your heart can’t keep to a steady rhythm. Now, that’s not too bad in itself. But sometimes, you get unlucky, and you die. No warning. You just die.
We’re unlucky in our family, it turns out.
‘It’s like I said, Graham,’ my dad muttered. ‘All different, we’re all different. It’s in the genes, the chromosomes. You don’t know what you’re going to get.’ He looked up at me. Tears in his old eyes. ‘I once netted a Chalkhill Blue,’ he said, ‘that had both male and female sexual parts.’
Now I lie awake in bed, listening to my own heart. It’s always been a bit off the beat, always a bit ready to play a boom-diddy-diddy instead of a boom-diddy-boom. I used to put it down to stress, over-eating, too much coffee. Now I lie awake and listen to its unsteady tick and wait for it to simply stop.
I’ve got a bad case of the Chalkhill Blues.
‘Why the hell didn’t you say?’ I asked him.
‘I thought it was best if you didn’t know,’ he said. ‘I didn’t want you living with the worry, the fear. I’ve always thought you should, you know, live in the present. Enjoy the summer while it lasts. Chase butterflies as long as you’ve still got the strength.’
I called him a stupid doddery old fucking bastard and asked him why the hell he was telling me all this now.
‘Because you put me in this place,’ he said, ‘and I wanted you to know what it feels like.’
And he picked up his case of dead blue butterflies.
Chalkhill Blues was read by David Rees at the Liars' League Leeds Rhythm & Blues event on Monday August 15th, 2011, at the Milo Bar, Leeds.
Daniel Gillan is a pseudonym.