Until midnight, my father sat beside a single candle and below a single bulb. He had no book or newspaper, but stared from the counter of his pink painted shop into the jungle dark. Now and again the dirt road would light up with a bicycle lamp, wobbling slowly, the buzzing headlight of a scooter or the bright rare gaze of a car. Out of the shop he sold: snacks, water, hanging sachets of shampoo and black hair dye, breath sweeteners. From behind his head trailed the smoke of a mosquito coil.
I used to visit him when I was very small the deliverer of oily paratha printed with its newspaper wrapping. As an adolescent I cruised by on the scooter with which I also picked up blonde honey coloured women from the nearby beaches, or deadlocked dusky gleaming ones or sometimes delightful round pink ones like sweets. I never took them to my father’s shop but I am sure they visited him, on the way from one beach party or another, to buy orange gasoline in plastic bottles, or cigarettes.
One day, when I was fat and middle aged, I received a call to tell me that my father was dying. I was abroad at the time but flew home immediately to be with him, my mother and my two sisters. When I arrived oldest sister, usually so outspoken, and did not berate me as she usually did for my clothes and selfishness, or what she perceived to be my clumsy way of going about things. My mother’s hair showed its grey roots and was unbrushed, which I had never seen before. He was in the bed they shared, laboured in his breathing but peaceful. The mosquito net covered him in a pale haze, as if he was already a ghost.
He told me a story once, about a woman that he knew before my mother. He would climb out of the window of his bedroom and go looking for her in the shadows between the village houses. They met, for several nights or several months, it was unclear, until their romance was discovered and deterred. Or perhaps she tired of him and stopped coming. He told me that he thought he saw her sometimes, this woman before my mother, through windows or from behind. In the distance, on long nights behind the counter, lit by a single candle. She, we all know her, that phantom of the way we didn’t chose.
I slipped under the veil and sat beside him. He put his hand in mine. I gently held the oxygen mask over his face. He made as if to speak, but then gave up. There was nothing left to say that was worth a final breath.