Cast a Net

A woman's relentless search for a flamenco dancer is hampered by her father's progressive memory loss

SITTING IN THE SUN on our back patio, I am learning to play the castanets that Antonio, the flamenco dancer, has brought me as a gift from Spain. It’s summer, and I’m six years old, perhaps seven. Painted on the polished black surface of the right castanet is a dancer in a pink flouncy dress and black mantilla. She turns haughtily from a man; he grabs her arm to drag her back into the dance. On the left castanet, my favorite, is a toreador with a red cape, yellow jacket, and tight pants; behind him is just a hint of the bull’s sharp horns. My hands are freshly washed. At the laundry tub, I have scrubbed away the grass stains and the dirt under my nails with the harsh, gritty soap and stiff nailbrush my father uses to remove the oil from his hands after tinkering with the car or turning vegetables in his patch. My skin stings. I trace the toreador with my alien hands and don’t notice the tired pot plants, the monotonous brickwork, the cheap deck chairs, the oil stains on the driveway. I see only Antonio. Antonio has come for me from Spain.

He is squashed into a deck chair, its blue-and-white plastic slats almost touching the ground beneath him. He can’t sit without tapping. He can’t tap without rhythm. I sit at his feet, guarding him, worrying that his chair will collapse, his movements too large and too bold for it. When I look up from my castanets, he is standing, his black hair lit by the sun, the ends of the thick strands tinged by fire. He picks me up, swinging me around and around in wild arcs through the air. I look down, dizzy, and see my father smiling, drinking cold beer and jigging his leg, zapped by the same electricity. Look at me flying, Dad. I’m flying. Antonio plonks me on his lap, grabbing my hands to tap out another rhythm: slow—clap and clap and clap; fast—clapclapclapclap; faster still—a mad, syncopated clapping that leaves me giggling and out of breath.

Antonio tells me a secret: each set of castanets has a unique sound. Mine makes a sound sweet and high. I hold the sound within me; it’s the first thing that is truly mine. The roll is made on the right castanet—the female, or hembra—by first clicking the little finger, second the ring finger, third the middle finger, and finally the index finger, quickly but in sequence. The fifth click is the “heartbeat,” sounded on the left castanet—the male, or macho, as it has a deeper pitch. Antonio is teaching me. My fingers are too small to strike all the notes for a roll, but I can soon make the heartbeat. Tap-tap. His hands cover mine, and he presses each finger in time. Tap-tap. Tap-tap.

This summer, I record my address at the front of a girl’s annual in fat, lopsided handwriting: 18 Robern Parade, Viewbank, Melbourne, Australia, The World, The Universe. 

MORE THAN FORTY YEARS LATER, I’m in the study at my parents’ house, trying to find Antonio. My mother is standing behind my father’s chair, clutching its back, while she peers at an image of a dancer on the computer. She ignores the chaos on my father’s desk. The dancer’s arms form a proud U in the air above him, his forefingers pointing directly toward us. His face is turned and, lit from the side, is ravaged by the shadows of his thick hair. She leans forward to look at him more closely and says, “It’s not him.” I sigh.

At home, I trawl the Internet for hours, finding pictures of different Antonios to show my parents. On my next visit, my mother pushes out of her recliner to wobble arthritically in front of the computer, her legs splayed for support. My father feigns interest, but as with other tasks of remembering we force on him, he doesn’t stick at it for long. He tries to divert my attention to objects in front of us, solid things you can pick up, gleefully showing me—again—how he fills his expensive disposable printer cartridge with old-fashioned black ink, drawing it out of the bottle with a tiny syringe, his big hands firm and unwavering. See, you can do it, he says. He pushes back in his chair, triumphant. There is only one small ink stain on his finger and a few splatters on the desk.

My parents are old, and I am almost fifty. Our relationships are slowly evolving into a vigil: we are, as my mother describes it, watching and waiting, and waiting and seeing. My father is shedding his memory in dribs and drabs. The positive charge of childhood pulls at him and he casts off from the cloudy present toward the clean warm air of his past. I realize I am running out of time. Once my family’s timekeeper and fact-checker, and definitely our most dispassionate recorder, my father is taking his leave. I feel panicked, as if a portal is closing. Hang on. Stay here with me. Tell me about Antonio. Tell me about my childhood, before you finally return to yours.

But he is happiest back where I can’t follow—as a young man in the mid 1940s, just seventeen, on leave from the air force in the north of England, visiting his grandparents on their farm. The men greet him without fuss, handing him a pitchfork to turn the beets, as if he has just returned from running a quick errand and not been away for months. They work in silence in the frosty morning while his grandmother sets another place “at table.” Sometimes he is a child living above an undertaker in East London before the war, imagining, as he lies in his bed, all the coffins lined up in neat rows downstairs.

My mother is doing her best. Over the weeks, I make her examine each new Antonio: his hair, his height, his stance. We argue over his age. I don’t want to influence her to choose one Antonio over another—or to feel she has to choose any particular Antonio at all—but I feel a sense of urgency.

“Do you remember his surname, Mum? What year did he come to Australia? Which dance troupe did he come with? Were they from Madrid? How long was he here?”

She concentrates, tentatively probing the reaches of her memory as if wiggling a loose tooth, and looks helplessly to my father.

One day, we both pause at an Antonio, caught by something in his posture. She examines him seriously, turning her head to view him from different angles. I make my father look. His smeared bifocal glasses reflect little screens with miniature Antonios as he leans toward the computer.

I complain, “Dad, how can you see anything through those glasses? They’re filthy.”

He looks hopefully at my mother and says, “It could be . . . Hmm, yes, it might be. In fact, I think it’s him, don’t you, Joan?”

I wait. The tinny ticking of their grandfather clock is annoying.

But my mother has already begun to turn away, hand on the desk to steady herself, her top half moving but her legs stiff and her knee locked up. Even though she wants to help, she replies, “His hair is right, that thick, beautiful black hair, but he looks too short, maybe too old.” She’s missing her favorite show on TV.

At the end of winter, and no closer to finding Antonio, we drive to the memory clinic for my father’s annual visit, through sullen suburbs, along monotonous roads punctuated by traffic lights, always red. To my father in the back, breathing heavily through his blocked nose, the streets all look the same. Soon he shuts his eyes and his head begins to bob. He wakes at the hospital, a squat cement-block building on the grounds of an old asylum, long since shut. At the desk, my mother makes him flatten his few strands of fine white hair, which the bitter wind outside has teased into a soft mohawk. A tiny spray of dandruff floats from his head. The nurse tells us his usual doctor—the lovely, kind one we all like, whose name my father can’t remember—isn’t here. Off on his honeymoon. My mother and I smile. How nice. For the briefest moment, my father’s face collapses, and he almost loses his nerve. “Honeymoon?” he echoes.

In the waiting room, we make the same joke: “Hey, Dad, what’s your doctor’s name?”

He replies the same each time: “I can’t remember.”

We’re at a memory clinic. We think it’s hilarious.

The new doctor has a perfectly round head and a shiny, pockmarked face. He talks quickly and with an accent, barely stopping for breath, and he draws pictures in the air with his hands. Here’s the brain, a normal brain is like so—his hands a large ball, his fingers a cradle—and this is what happens to the brain of a person suffering mild cognitive impairment. The three big euphemistic words shrink the ball he makes with his hands: now it is small, tight, uneven.

No one mentions the D-word, the one my mother and I use when my father isn’t around. My father is alert, at attention, as if at reveille. He watches the doctor’s hands politely and then relaxes; the pictures have nothing to do with him.

My mother is struggling to understand the doctor’s accent, a look of concentration on her face. She just wants to know how my father did on his test. Did he remember the three words he was given at the start? Could he spell world backward? Could he count up in threes? Did he know who our prime minister is? She just wants The Result. But the doctor continues on about the exciting work scientists are doing in the field. He talks familiarly about tau, as if it’s here in the room with us, and over there are plaques and tangles. Tangles and plaques. Plaques and tangles. Seeing our incomprehension, he struggles to make hand pictures to describe them, but his hands soon deflate and sink to his lap. The brain—a marvelous, indescribable thing, we all agree.

Plaques. Tangles. Tau. The words tick inside me, an even beat, and I have to stop myself from repeating them out loud. I have been reading about dementia, the signs and symptoms, sundowning, strategies. Words jump out at me and stick: suffering, loss, impairment, dysfunction, disorder, decline. I wonder if there are any upsides to memory loss. Is there a point to forgetting? A necessary casting off? My father becoming, at last, like Nietzsche’s happy cow, untethered from the past, the “gravedigger of the present,” and not bound to any future. Nothing I’ve read so far prepares me for the rage I sometimes glimpse in my mother’s face—or worse, feel myself—at his defection.

I think about the holes in the web of my own memory: huge, fuzzy expanses of time with nothing in them, a constant test pattern interrupted by occasional transmissions such as Antonio’s visit. I want to ask the doctor about heredity, but my father has perked up at the mention of science and asks the doctor, “Did you know I was a scientist once?” “Mass spectrometry,” he says confidingly, one scientist to another. The doctor wants to discuss medication, trials, but it’s hard to know where to go after mass spectrometry.

A few weeks after the visit to the clinic, my father looks up from reading the newspaper and tells me emphatically, “I never met Antonio. He came with Pierrette, your mother’s friend. I didn’t know him, so there’s no point showing me more photos,” stepping out of my past, untangling himself from my present. My mother glances at him, a sharp bitter look she holds for a few seconds until it finally turns gentle. He is briefly here in the room with us: John, my father, the man in the tiny black-and-white wedding photo, the man she married nearly sixty years ago, standing outside the church, confetti on his new jacket; a tall, fine-looking man waving proudly to well-wishers out of shot, upright and looking eagerly ahead.

She wavers: “Perhaps I went to a party with Antonio without your father, just Pierrette and me. Pierrette’s dead now; otherwise, I’d ask her. I do remember some dancing and guitars, but I don’t think your dad was there. Now I think about it, I probably went without him.”

I refuse to give up. I have become secretly convinced that Antonio is none other than Antonio Gades, and I show my mother one last photo, a publicity shot from Carmen, the famous film directed by Carlos Saura. Gades stands behind the female lead, Laura del Sol, eyes burning, hardly taller than her yet mesmerizing. While I wait for my mother to decide, twisting a frizzy curl around my finger over and over, I’m breathing Antonio Gades, Antonio Gades, Antonio Gades, willing him into our lives. Torn between truth and longing, she rules him out because of his height, complaining that all the Antonios I’ve shown her are too tall or too short, too thickset, too puny; their hair too long, too short, too thin, too dark, not dark enough; their posture too forceful or not strong enough, too beautiful or not manly.

“Why does it matter?” she asks.

After Antonio’s visit, it mattered less that after a day playing with the kids on our street, I returned each night to a family that was so unlike the Moodys down the hill or the Greenes two houses up or the Greys next door. Our house at Number 18 looked the same as Number 16; but for the color of the bricks, it could have been confused with Number 14 or 22. Yet its sameness failed to conceal what I knew to be our difference. Outside, on the street, I blended in, dressed in a uniform of ripped cords and faded T-shirts and shouting rude words and slang; inside, my father wore long white socks with sandals, smoked a pipe, and preferred rugby union in an Australian Rules football neighborhood. My mother puffed on Wee Willem cigars and said “believe you me” and “mark my words” and “evidently” with clipped vowels, just like the news announcer on the ABC.

After Antonio, I owned castanets brought especially for me all the way from Spain. I knew that Spain was where toreadors lived and women danced in flouncy dresses and men had thick black hair that lit up as if on fire. Spain was near the front of our Reader’s Digest Great World Atlas, which was almost too heavy for me to lift, separated from Australia by so many pages—by entire continents—but now part of my world just the same.

After Antonio, all these things could exist within me because I held inside me a sound—a strong, true sound—and it was mine. 

AT OUR NEXT APPOINTMENT at the memory clinic, the doctor with the round head announces a drug trial for which my father might be a suitable candidate. It’s no cure, he cautions us, but it gives you a chance at holding on to what memory you have left. My mother looks hopeful. A trial. It sounds weighty. The doctor runs through what it involves. It seems harmless, like a shopping list: interview, memory test, physical, MRI, drug treatment, monitoring, interview, memory test, MRI. My father looks sleepy, his eyes dark behind his glasses and the rash on his forehead suddenly livid. We wait for him, until he looks up, puzzled, defensive—Why are you all looking at me? We sit awhile, the only sound the gentle wheeze of the heating unit.

I say evenly, responsibly, like an adult, “Hey, Dad, what do you think? You’ll be doing something for science.” A sales pitch. “They’ll take a picture of your brain, so we’ll see what’s going on. We’ll know where you stand.”

My father looks at me as if he doesn’t recognize me, as if I’m some pesky patient who’s opened the wrong door and wandered in. We sit some more.

The doctor has to keep moving, another appointment. “So, John—” he starts.

“Dad—” I say at the same time. The doctor pauses to let me go first. “If you have an MRI, Dad, we’ll find out more. We’ll know what’s ahead. We can plan.” I’m fighting tears, pressing my thumbnail into my palm to stop.

The doctor looks away. Silence. The sky outside is getting darker, and the heavy light seeps into the consulting room.

“We’ll know more, Dad,” I say.

“But why on earth would I want to do that?” my father asks.

I WAKE ONE NIGHT not long after this visit, doubting that Antonio ever existed. Except that, without even trying, I can re-enter that moment of my life. It feels exactly as I left it. I saw you, Dad. I know you were there. You were drinking cold beer on the patio, keeping time with our clapping, and laughing as I spun through the air. I know this in the same way that I know Antonio was there. The castanets are here on my desk, and if I pick them up, I feel like I’m flying again, so connected to the spinning world that I can weave a thread to join us all, a net to catch the memories you shed. If we listen hard, we will hear a pulse: remember me, remember me, remember me. A heartbeat.

About the Author

Gillian Smith

Gillian Smith is an Australian freelance editor and technical writer, living in the hills outside the city of Melbourne. She is an emerging writer of creative nonfiction and poetry. This is her first published essay.

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