My Old Man

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John Grace, or My Old Man

13th June 2016

On what would have been your 68th birthday I cycle home early from graduate school with a plan to fry a steak and open a bottle of red wine in your honour. I lie on my bed, the sweet Los Angeles air easing in through the blinds, and study the only photo I have of you.

It's the early 90s and you and I sit at a wooden table in the morning light of the back yard in the south of France: it's where we had our holiday home. My back is to the camera, my green sweatshirt dappled with shade, my body sweetly small. Underneath the table my bare legs swing in my school shoes. You sit opposite from me in a purple polo shirt and your hair is thick and dark: you look like a man in his 40s.

The table's breakfast items are scant – a glass of orange juice and a gold foil-wrapped pack of butter – but I can tell by the gait of your body that you're spreading that butter on an invisible croissant. The tray with the jams and berries printed on it sits between us. A pot of mum's red geraniums stands on the table and to your side, a wheelbarrow of wooden-handled tools as if you've been up early, picking at the rocks that underpin the back yard. Your face is concentrated; I have no idea what the morning's conversation might have been.

Difficult to think now how many mornings or quiet times we spent together: I don't remember ever spending time alone with you, though we must have. The heft of your brow tells me you're worried: I carry the same expression between my eyes and look more and more like you as I age.

I wander down to the kitchen and throw the steak in a not hot-enough pan. I blanche some vegetables, open the wine to breathe and pull a smudgy plate from the cupboard. I lay a place for myself facing the wall and realise how unremittingly sad the scene I've created looks. I want to make a little altar to your birthday tonight, and I've decided that if I turn my back on the room my housemates might not be able to see me.

The steak is bad; grey throughout and crimped at the edges. I eat it anyway, and slather on a pathetic American horseradish sauce that lacks the crucial buzz to the nose pipes. In my sadness I've messed up the greens as well but I feel comforted by the sight of a meal drawn from home, of food that has a context beyond the overbearing optimism of LA. I look at my plate – the scraggly ends of a loveless steak, the woody branches of some undercooked broccoli – and I smile to myself at the thought of home, and of your favourite meal.

I return my knife and fork to the plate and wonder what we might have talked of over breakfast that morning, if there was a way for us to navigate together; an ease with which to start the day. Or whether, perhaps – as your expression suggests – you were somewhere else entirely, your mind caught on case notes and the pull of London life. In the end it doesn't matter and it's just one of the friendly questions for which I'll never have an answer. Tonight, instead, it has been your birthday and for the first time in years, I feel you there.

I wash the grease from the pan and my plate, noticing how the hot suds bloat and redden my fingers to look like yours. I set everything to dry in the rack, climb the stairs and tape the photo back up above my desk. Your hair is thick and dark; you look like a man in his 40s.