It’s occurred to me that I haven’t posted here for a while about the novel I’ve been writing about a woman’s relationship with her father as he loses his memory. Time to rectify that!
First, some news. The good news is that the novel is finished! (at least for now), following a second round of editing in the light of comments from a couple of writer friends. I have decided to see if I can interest an agent in it, so I have sent the first chapters out and am now awaiting responses. So the not so good news is that, given the lengthy and uncertain nature of that process, it is likely to be some considerable time still before the novel – now provisionally entitled Going Down in Flames – sees the light of day.
Secondly, since it is entirely appropriate for this time of year – today being the day after Remembrance Sunday – I thought I would share with you the opening passage of the novel.
“Do I look all right, Claire?”
He is not normally a vain or meticulous person, but this morning he has spent over an hour preparing every aspect of his appearance. He is virtually immaculate, but for the sake of showing I care, I straighten his cap a little, polish his medals briefly with my hanky, brush back a few short strands of grey hair that have crept over the edge of his ear. Then I kiss him on the cheek, quickly checking that I have left no smudge of lipstick behind. Today of all days I have to make the most of it, this fleeting moment of intimacy.
“You look great, Dad.”
“Thanks, love. I’ll see you later.”
I hug him and wave enthusiastically as he walks away to join the column of veterans forming up in Stockwell Street. A few minutes later, commands are shouted, bass and snare drums pound out a steady beat and the old boys (and the occasional old girl) begin to march smartly down the road, still remembering the parade ground drill hammered into them many decades ago.
The rest of us – the families, the well-wishers, the curious spectators – stand respectfully still to watch the marchers pass, then follow them to the war memorial in our own shambling, undisciplined way. We watch in silence as they place their wreaths and bow their heads to fallen comrades.
In the few years that I have been bringing him to this event, we have developed a little tradition of our own, Dad and I. When the ceremony has finished, I do not rush to separate him from his friends and shepherd him back to the car; nor do I seek to insert myself into conversations between old men to which I have nothing to contribute, about matters that I am not privileged to know. Instead, I go to a little café fifty yards up the road. I buy myself a cappuccino and a small cake, and I wait. On this occasion I make a half-hearted attempt to read a paperback novel, putting it down when my mind obstinately refuses to pay any attention to the characters. I eat my cake and drink my coffee, then I stare out of the window and tell myself how appropriate November is for an event like this, with its miserable grimy sky and its damp, cold air and its naked skeletons of trees. I am almost sorry that it is not raining.
After about half an hour, my father walks into the café. We acknowledge each other with silent nods. He sits down and, by unspoken agreement, I go to the counter and buy him a cup of tea. He drinks it, sip by tiny sip, over the course of twenty minutes, slowly restoring some small portion of the vitality that has been visibly sucked out of him. In previous years, there have been various questions I would try to ask him during this time. Questions like “would it help to talk about it?”; “Wouldn’t sharing the pain help to soften it?”; “Doesn’t bottling it up inside just make it worse?” Nowadays I know better than to ask such questions at this or any other time. My mother could have told me, and did, when I finally talked to her about it. She had fared no better, in the days when it was she who came with him on Remembrance Sunday.
“They never talk about what really bothers them, men,” she said. “Their Dads beat it out of them when they’re little boys. Teaches ‘em to be manly, they think. More like child abuse, if you ask me. I’ll always do the best I can for him, like, but I gave up trying to get him to talk about it years ago.” For all her fierce determination to be the sort of wife who stands by her husband at moments of high emotion, I think she may have been quietly relieved when a dodgy hip released her from this annual duty.
It seems to be duty that drags my father back here every year too, as far as I can tell from his monosyllabic answers in the days when I still ventured to ask those questions. This man who prays to no God, who expects no afterlife, still feels inexorably bound by obligations owed to men who died long ago. For them, each year, he opens up his wounds, sheds fresh blood, relives ancient horrors so terrible that he cannot speak of them. He is not like his Air Force friends: on days like this, you may often hear them laugh, see smiles upon their faces. Not on his. He can joke and tell stories with them for hours on other days, when the focus of their attention is on the good times they had together rather than the grim business of war itself, but there is no escaping that today. What experiences he went through that had this effect on him, I don’t suppose I will ever know. They remain closed off, sealed inside a bubble. I don’t know if he even talks about them to his friends – there are certainly some things he talks to them about but not to me. If he does, they are not telling – don’t think I haven’t asked them.
So for those twenty minutes, we communicate not in words, but with smiles and glances. And by touch – sometimes I will place my hand over his. I like to think it helps. I have learned to chart his progress at these times by the movements of his eyes and the muscles of his face. So it does not come as a surprise when at last he gives a long, deep sigh, as if flushing the last of the badness out of him, and finally speaks.
“Well, I suppose it’s about time we were getting back, then. Your Mum’ll have something nice on the table, I reckon.”
“It’d be a shame to let it go cold, wouldn’t it?”
“You’re right, it would.”
And it was true, she always did cook something he particularly liked on these days – toad in the hole or steak and kidney pie, something like that. It was her way of helping, I suppose, now she could no longer come with him.
Once the silence had been broken, the words poured out of him as we started walking back to the car. Not deep, revealing words but ordinary, inconsequential ones about anything that came into his head, filling the hole left by what could not be said. A kind of healing.
[Photo by mattbuck, CC BY-SA 4.0 ]