I gaze at the jigsaw pieces scattered across the Formica table-top. All the pieces are marked with shades of grey and black and white, but enough of the image is there that I’m able to recognise it. It’s the birds across the top edge which give it away. Dad’s done the outside first, of course. That’s how you do jigsaws, isn’t it? You find the corners, then you put the edges together, and then you build inwards.
Dad’s head is bent over the table in concentration, sparse white hair forming a half circle around his scalp. He doesn’t speak. He doesn’t often say much these days. But sometimes he comes back for a few moments, so I keep trying.
He’s always liked M. C. Escher. It’s a maths thing, I suppose. He used to tell me that there were Escher prints on the walls in his old school, and he would stand and stare at them for ages. Especially that one with the stairs that seem to be always going uphill. You see, Annie, he would say, it’s all about the way things repeat. The route might seem complicated, but eventually, we all end up back at the beginning.
I watch him now. His fingers shiver and twitch, but they still have just enough precision to pick up the pieces. The room smells of warm air and overcooked food and disinfectant. I’m sitting on one of the chairs that match the table. They’re old-fashioned, but not in a good way. Plastic, wipe-clean cushions and too-straight wood. I fidget, trying to get comfortable, and lean forward.
Dad slots another piece into place. It’s part of the small cluster of houses nestled next to the river on the left-hand side of the picture. The same cluster is repeated on the right, but in darkness. That’s the name of this print: Day and Night. At the top, the spaces in between the flock of black birds quietly morph into white birds, while the black birds fade into shadows.
A memory bubbles to the surface of my mind. “Do you remember, Dad, when I moved out of Brailsford Road? Into that little flat?” He doesn’t answer, but I didn’t expect him to, really. “There was no furniture in that flat,” I say. “Not even a kettle. I had some things, but I’d left a lot behind at the house. You took one look around, put me in the van and drove me to that big furniture store. We came back with a bed and that chest of drawers – we’ve still got those, in the spare room – and a wardrobe. Loads of things. Then you stayed really late helping me put them all together.”
Dad frowns at the jigsaw. He’s making good progress. The boats floating in a neat line on the daylight side of the river are all in place, and he’s done a lot of the chequerboard field at the bottom. I pick up a piece with a windmill on it and slot it in. His head makes the smallest of movements. It might be a nod.
“Do you remember when you threw one of the Allen keys across the room?” I continue. “’I bloody hate this flat-pack crap!’ you yelled. It bounced off a box and landed in my mug of tea. And we both stared at it, and then I said, ‘bet you can’t do that on purpose’.
He looks up at me, then. There’s a flicker of something in his eyes. A tiny flame trying to find enough oxygen to burn.
“And you said, ‘tell you what: If I can, you have to pay me back for all this stuff,’ and I said, ‘I’m going to pay you back anyway, Dad,’ and you said, ‘is it a deal?’ And then you spent the next half hour chucking Allen keys across the room. You missed every time. And my tea went cold.” I laugh.
Dad looks down again. He picks up a jigsaw piece which is mostly black and drops it into place. I reach out and touch his hand. The skin is loose and marked with age spots, but for a moment I feel like a little girl again, wriggling my fingers in Daddy’s big, strong hand. He was my anchor, the thing that would always hold me safe.
He smiles. I’m not sure if it’s anything to do with me.
I lapse into silence and for a while we both study the remaining pieces in their different greys, looking for their rightful places. We pick them up and put them down again. Recreating order from the jumble. Until, eventually, there it is. The last piece. It’s mostly the wing of one of the white birds. It presses into place with a tiny shhnick sound.
Dad claps his hands together. “Done it!” he says, and then he looks at me, and the spark in his eyes really has caught light, for a while. “Oh, Annie, I didn’t know you were here,” he says. “Look, I’ve finished the jigsaw!”
“You have,” I agree, smiling.
He stares at the finished picture. It’s glossy, and the reflection of the overhead lights make white spots on its surface. The pads of his fingers dance over it, like a blind man reading braille.
He reaches the edge and I see him slide his hand under the fragile interlocking pieces. I reach out to stop him.
“No, Dad, don’t break it.”
“I have to, Annie,” he says. His voice surprisingly firm. “It won’t fit back in the box like this.”
“I know,” I say, blinking. “But we don’t have to put it away yet. Let’s look at it for a bit.”
My hand rests on his. Dad was wrong, I think. It’s not about going back to the beginning. It’s about appreciating the bit in the middle, when things are not quite one thing, but they’re not yet the other, either.
So we sit, and we watch the white birds turn back into the scenery around the black, and the black birds fade into the darkness around the white.
And we enjoy what we have now.
The Escher woodcut, Day and Night, 1938, is here. This story was first published in the anthology 24 Stories: of Hope for Survivors of the Grenfell Tower Fire, three years ago. I’m so proud to have my name alongside some amazing writers, including Meera Syal, Nina Stibbe and Irvine Welsh. The collection was edited by the wonderful Kathy Burke. If you enjoyed it, please consider buying a copy. Thank you x