So. I’ve gone and picked another story about a dying father. Not a Moses figure this time. Not a dignified paternalist, a giver and upholder of the law, or even someone of good moral standing, but a real bastard; a wife cheater, child abandoner and peripatetic odd-jobber – night-watchman, barman, sometime soldier.  This man is always on the move, forever in flight from his last mistake. Or the last person he hurt. The opposite of ‘the good father’ (holy or otherwise), he has no conscience and, in consequence, virtually no insight into his own actions.

You’re not meant to like the father in Mavis Gallant’s short story The End of the World. But I’m more interested in what he deserves. Can a bad father expect the same consideration in old age as one who is meritorious?

Gallant’s story takes a long a hard look at this question. Her bad father has finally come to a stop (in a hospital bed in a convent in an unnamed French port town) and he is dying from a lung hemorrhage. His son Billy has traveled all the way from Canada to be at his side, and what he wants, or so he thinks, is an apology. If his father would only say sorry – for abandoning his family, for f***ing up his kids’ lives, for failing to set any kind of example – he’ll finally find release.

‘It’s as if there’s a stone wall between this father and son,’ said Melanie, ‘with a pebble hole in it through which they can see one another well enough, if they bend to squint. But they can’t communicate.’

Mavis Gallant has done of wonderful job of conveying unsaid feelings (mistrust and anger on the part of the son, evasiveness and self-absorption for the father) within the constraints of a minimal, almost perfunctory, interaction. Most of the dialogue between the two men concerns the day to day business of the hospital stay – the nurses’ incompetence, how the night passed, what the other patients are about. All the while the father refuses to talk about the past, whilst the son stoically refrains from asking the impossible questions he’s been wanting answers to for decades.

 ‘I thought he would tell me where he wanted to be buried, how much money he owed, how many bastards he was leaving behind and who was looking out for them…’ he says.
 

But instead of confiding in Billy his father only asks after his brother: ‘Did Kenny do well for himself? I heard he went to college.’

‘Don’t talk,’ replies Billy. You sense that he genuinely wants to spare his father the effort speech costs him. But his hushing is a double act of kindness, since  in evading an answer Billy shields his father from the knowledge that Kenny’s been in trouble for steeling a credit card and having the sorry story appear in the local paper.

This pregnant exchange is typical of Gallant, who is intimately concerned with the limitations of character and the failure of relationships. There’s a particularly taut scene in which such failures gets domino-ed across the family. Billy recalls a long-ago summer when they’d rented a holiday cottage and his father took the local floozy out to an island in the middle of the lake. When a storm blew up the whole village turned out to see if the boat they were in would make it safely back, or else capsize in the wind and hail taking the sinners with it. The poignant detail is that Billy rushes after his mother to join the lakeside crowd waiting to discover what’s happened. He’s not yet 12 and already he is the moral support, the prop and the brace, the child who looks after his mother.

Gallant uses the scene to tell us two important things. First, that the mother does need protecting, since she ends up getting blamed for her husband’s errant ways (‘Can’t you keep your husband home?’) Second, that the burden of care in this troubled family will from now on rest with Billy. He will look after his mother when his father leaves. He will take care of his brother and sister. And he’ll be by his father’s side in the hospital in France when the old man dies.

The duty of care is a sacred duty, of course, and in Gallant’s story Billy discharges it with dignity, even though his father is clearly a shit.

‘But there’s no catharsis in it for him,’ insists Kay, ‘because unless the father is able to make a move towards his son, to admit his mistakes, or express even a glimmer of remorse, he can’t be forgiven’.

Forgiveness is something you ask for, after all, though it is often conflated with mercy or clemency, which is the hoped-for reprieve that is given in response. And in this story the father cannot admit being at fault. Billy never gets the “I’m sorry’ he was hoping to hear. In the end, however, it doesn’t matter. His release comes from his having done his duty as a good son.

It is as if his the cumulative force of his many small ministrations to the dying man themselves amount to an act of forgiveness – a one-sided grand gesture the son can make because he’s a bigger and better man than his father.

‘Yes, but what fascinates me is what stops us communicating with our nearest and dearest in the first place,’ said Clive. ‘It’s as if the parent child relationship is in constant flux, like oil on water. It’s almost impossible to pin down. You say one thing about it and the truth shifts.’

Mavis Gallant is certainly with Clive on that one. She shows both her characters lying by omission, dodging questions and evading answers – giving one another the slip where they might have found opportunity to bond. Neither Billy nor his father ever says what he thinks. They perform a delicate dance around each other — Billy trying to protect them both from any more pain than is necessary, and the father trying not to dig a hole for himself any deeper than the gaping one he’s already dug.

Gallant seems to be warning that the passing years pile on too many accretions of guilt and anger to react well to disturbance. Scrape away at them at your own peril!

It’s a lesson I would do well to learn myself as I bid a gentle (I hope and strive) farewell to my own father, who was as errant in his own way as the character in the story and as clueless about the benefits of remorse. But perhaps the greatest lesson I can take from this story is that the duty of care, which I intend to meet in life with a grace equal to the fictional Billy’s, brings its own redemption.

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