A dying man’s fight against injustice, his wife’s bizarre affair, and the love of his long-lost daughter.
Otto and his daughter Frankie could not be more different. He’s rich, an acclaimed author, human rights activist, and lives in England. She lives in New York, just about survives from one pay cheque to the next and hasn’t seen or spoken to her father for twenty years. Dutifully reunited by his impending death, she’s amazed to find him a kind and noble man who, while grappling with his wife’s bizarre affair, champions for the world’s forgotten and dispossessed to his last. After Otto’s death, Frankie’s admiration for her father leads her into a dangerous and life changing pursuit.
Here’s the beginning:
The day I learnt I had three months to live, the same day I learnt about Holly, I took to writing about my last weeks alive. I understand it’s fashionable to recall one’s dying days, and being an anti-fashionista, I would in normal times shy away from doing this, but these, for me, are not normal times, and to write is therapeutic, and has helped to keep the inevitable from my mind. I’ve tried to keep it compelling, not too much about the boring stuff, like pain and feeling unwell and grim moments like that, but how I’ve tried to make a difference, my dwindling time with Holly, Alex, and Freddy, saying goodbye to some mates, and of course meeting up with Frankie again.
I haven’t written anything for some years now, so please forgive me if it’s a bit ragged, but no doubt someone will find it and tidy it up.
Renee, my agent, tells me it’ll be a best seller. I doubt it, but anyway – all proceeds are to go to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
After Dad died, I found his journal. He left a note, asking whoever found it to tidy it up and send it off to his agent, Renee McGovern. Doing that for Dad was the very least I could do. He made such a profound difference to my life, in just a few months.
But I had not expected the traumatic events that followed, or that my life would change in such a significant way. I made notes; and they became the second part of this book.
When I read Dad’s journal, knowing what I know now, I felt it would make some passages clearer if I inserted a few pieces, explaining how others and myself had behaved and felt at the time. You’ll figure them out when you come across them.
I’m no writer, so please forgive my style.
No words can express my gratitude to have been able to meet up with Dad again after so many years. I loved him, and still do.
August 15th, 2017
The water is clear. Gentle waves lap on the sand, covering for a fleeting moment a broken white shell in their effervescentfoam, and I realise I’m standing on a beach, a beach I know and love, but I have no idea how I come to be in this place.It’s as though I’ve woken to find myself here, conveyed like in a sci-fi movie from one point in time to another, unaware of the journey: no sensation, no memory, no recollection of anything. A breeze on my face, a bright sun shining in the blue sky, a flat, clear sparkling sea, clean sand and emptiness – no people, no dogs, just an open space. Low tide, mud flats stretching for miles, and across the water an island, Hayling Island I think, gleaming in the still, morning light.
It’s 9:00 a.m. on a hot August day, and the day I’m told I have three months to live, and the day I find out about Holly. Mo, my consultant, gives me his first appointment. I don’t stay long, driving straight to the beach in a trance. I don’t believe in God or the supernatural, but today some god, some spirit has it in for me. Revenge, I guess.
As an old friend said to me on the day his dog died, his wife walked out on him, and he was made bankrupt, a clusterfuck of a day. On par with the day my seven-year-old daughter, Frankie, left, abducted by her mother and taken to America twenty years ago, whom I’ve never seen since. I’d found her on Facebook a few months back, and she’d agreed to be my FB friend, but that was as far as our contact went. We’ve never liked or commented on each other’s posts. Now we won’t.
My cancer had never been a big deal. A non-small-cell lung tumour, as it’s called, had been found in one lung three years ago. They removed it, put me on a short course of chemo, and I was back at work two months later. The check-ups proved negative. The illness dropped out of my mind. Only Holly knew about it, and she didn’t tell a soul. We didn’t tell the twins. Why should we? we’d asked ourselves, and then tried to figure out an answer as to why I’d given up smoking.
That was tough. Cigarettes and cigars had been my friend for thirty-nine years, since I was sixteen when my elder brother gave me a couple of packs of Marlborough as a birthday present in the hope I’d stop pinching his. I tried everything to stop the habit. Hypnosis won me over.
Holly is fifty, five years younger than me, a painter, and exhibits her paintings all over the world. They sell for several thousands. I met her at one of her exhibitions in San Francisco. I’d gone there to give a talk on my second book. I’d been ambling about the city with no fixed plan, taking in the sights, drifting from shops and coffee places, taking lunch in a little side-street Italian that looked and smelt good. Then after: wandering into the gallery showing her paintings, and she was there. I don’t think she’s changed since then. Five foot five, brown hair with blonde highlights that ends halfway down her back; thin, pretty in a boyish way, and wears little make-up.
That day in San Francisco, she showed me around her paintings, and then asked me what I did. I told her I was a writer, giving a book talk about my latest novel that evening. She turned up. When she’d reached the front of the queue for signings, she reminded me we’d met earlier. I looked up at her. ‘Oh yes, the art gallery. You showed me your paintings.’ I shrugged, said I was sorry for not recognising her, and then, to my surprise, asked her out to dinner.
She laughed, and shook her head. ‘I can’t believe you’ve just said that – a writer of so many good words. So cliché.’ She laughed again. ‘But okay, I’ve nothing on.’
To my embarrassment, she’d read both my books, and wanted to talk about them throughout dinner. I kept it short, wanting to find about her. Her story was an inspiration, compelling. After graduating from art school, she found an empty, dilapidated garage in San Francisco. She renovated it herself, turning it into her studio, and nobody asked for rent. For a year she did little else but paint, cycling most mornings from her parents’ house, sometimes sleeping over in the garage in a sleeping bag on the floor, working every day. Days would pass without her seeing a soul. But one friend turned good. He introduced her to an agent, who took away two paintings and sold them. From then, she sold several paintings each year, exhibiting all over America and the rest of the world. By the time she was thirty, when we met, she was an acclaimed artist, and much revered.
A couple of months after our first meeting in San Francisco, when I’d put her out of my mind, thinking we’d never see each other again, she called me to say she was in London and could we meet. We did, and that was when our long-distance-relationship started up. A year into our affair my first wife, Meg, found out, and gave me an ultimatum; ‘Ditch her, and you’ve a chance. Carry on seeing her, and I’m back to America, with Frankie.’ I never got to say goodbye to Frankie, the two of them disappeared in the middle of the night. When Holly moved to the UK for good, two years later, she was pregnant with our twins, Freddy and Alex.
Thinking back, I should have seen the signs. The receptionist took longer than normal to acknowledge my appointment, as though she’d read from a note against my name. She broke a smile, a first in the time I’d been attending the hospital, and I was sure it was fake. ‘Please take a seat, Mr Georgeson, Mr Sayed will be with you very soon,’ she said, in a way I thought unusual for her. My head full to bursting with thoughts of Holly, I didn’t see the tall vase of summer flowers sitting on the table or the pile of magazines, and headed for a vacant seat. Three people sat waiting. I figured they’d be seen before me. I sat, my eyes staring straight ahead, and waited. I didn’t know for how long, but after what seemed seconds a hand rested on my shoulder. I looked up. Mo Sayed, my consultant stood over me. ‘Hello Otto,’ he said with his usual smile.
‘Why I am jumping the queue? These people are before me.’
‘No. They’re early,’ he replies, shaking his head. ‘Your appointment is before theirs.’ I look at them. They aren’t looking at me: one reading, the other two fiddling with their phones. Mo turns, and makes his way to his consulting room. I follow. He sits behind the desk. I sit opposite, noticing a difference in his expression – his lips are clenched, his face sombre. A frisson of fear runs through me.
‘It’s not good is it?’
He clasps his hands, resting them on the desktop, and sighs. ‘I’m afraid not, Otto. Several tumours have reappeared in your left lung, and this time others have appeared in your right lung, and there’s some in your liver.’ He clenches his lips again. ‘Have you had any pain, or coughing, or any other symptoms?’
I have; but don’t have the slightest inclination to tell Mo about them at this moment. ‘Just tell me, Mo. How long have I got?’
I reach East Head and turn, looking back across the dunes and fields to our house. The tall grasses flutter in the warm wind, and I think of Holly. She’d been in her studio, painting, when I arrived back from the hospital. Not wanting to let her see me, I’d lowered my head closer to the wheel, and drove down the narrow road that led to the car park. We live in West Wittering, West Sussex, about a quarter of a mile from one of the most beautiful beaches in the UK: a beach that never ceases to delight and inspire me, ever changing with the weather and tides. One day, miles of clean sand will stretch down to the water’s edge; on other days the high tide brings many sail boats closer to the shore and in view – steering their vessels close to the wind, then changing course, letting the breeze fill their sails from behind, their crews working hard, trimming the ropes to capture the gusts and make their boat go faster.
Oh, the bracing and desolate winters, the dark, foreboding seas, the watery sun, dipping below the horizon at four o’clock in the afternoon: those times, the times I like most will be dwindling times now, then no more. I’m sad, confused, frightened.
I kick off my shoes; pull off my socks, and head down over the long stretches of wet sand to the water’s edge. I feel the icy cold water over my feet – a sensation, only that, not one I think much about.
Three months, that’s no time. Hell. It’ll slide past almost like a blink of an eye, a spell of warm weather, moving house. What will happen? How will I deal with it? Can I live my life as normal? Pain: will I be brave, or crumple, cry, yell out, whimper like a dog? How will I tell the family? The twins: how will they cope? So much to do.
I stop. I’m overwhelmed. Questions I can’t answer. I stare at a seagull, climbing high in the sky, gliding for a few moments then coming to a halt – its wings still, hovering for a split second – before exploding into a ferocious dive toward the water’s surface, and I figure, for sure, the life of a fish or crustacean will shortly end.
Holly comes to mind. I try to figure her out. I can’t, and feel overcome by sadness. The cold sea has reached my knees; my jeans are soaked. I turn, and think. I’ll tell her about my cancer, but not what I know now about her.
I’ll write a journal until I can write no more. Until the Grim Reaper comes to collect me – my body broken, my mind unable to function.