by Becka White
Everything about science is boring except the words you learn. So says my nine-year-old. He came home on Wednesday with a new favourite.
- Oesophagus. It’s nice to say out loud, isn’t it?
- Yes, darling, it’s a lovely word.
Except it’s not. It sticks in my throat, or just a bit lower. That was the first sign of Dad’s cancer all those years ago. A feeling that something was stuck in his throat.
My son plays with the word in his mouth. He sounds the first diphthong <oe> with his lips parted and protruding. Then, slow and steady, he puffs out the ffffricative <f>. After resting briefly on the hard <g>, he hisses the ssssibilant <s> for so long I think his breath might run out.
While my son marvels in his phonetic wonderland, I’m 21 again on a mid-October day in Bromley Hospital. Dad had been moved from the ward into his own room. They said it wouldn’t be long now.
Perched on the orange plastic chair beside his bed, I veered between sorrow, boredom and an intense craving for a cig. Guilt too, for those feelings and much more besides. I slipped my little finger into his hand. His fist was in a clench that had unfurled where all the fight had fallen out.
- Ah, a roll-up. Cheers, Bec.
- Sorry Dad, you know they won’t let you smoke in here.
- The bastards.
It was laughable, almost. Dad’s last days in the world and there we were, fixating on a cig break. A break from watching him die. A break from dying.
Dad had developed a taste for tobacco by the time he was 14. It would be a stolid companion throughout his life. As a child, I thought his ability to hold entire conversations with a lit roll-up in his mouth was a kind of superpower.
- Say it, mummy! Can you spell it too?
- Let me try…
It’s been 20 years since I last had a cigarette. Nothing like watching a loved-one fade and die from a smoking-related disease to make you kick the habit. Still, every time I hear the O-word my fingers twitch and I allow that familiar urge to float past me. Like a memory - which is all it is, I suppose.
Becka White lives in south-east London and works as a human rights campaigner. In 2021 she won a place on New Writing North’s ‘A Writing Chance’ programme, for writers from working-class backgrounds. Becka won a Spread The Word London Writer’s Award in 2022, and is currently working on her first book.