There are no true histories.
A cold and brittle night. The sky lays heavy, glowering with snow. I grasp the tiny photograph at the corner and, despite the skin-pinching freeze, try to make the street lights illuminate it. I always wake up at 3am on this day.
I don’t need actually to see the picture. I know every minute grain of it by heart. I know that the two people are sitting on a bench by the sea; I know that there is a pier and a playhouse, out of focus, on their left; that the North Sea behind them is as calm as a mill pond; that they’re leaning against each other, shoulder to shoulder, in a rare moment of declared affection. I know these things because I’ve studied the picture in detail for years, but also because I took it. It had been chilly, that afternoon on the coast, despite the sunshine on their faces and the gleam from the sea. Looking out toward the rocky headland. What else had happened that day? I don’t remember. Were there other pictures?
In my head I’m assembling a family album of connections and influences. I need to get better at this. I need to connect and re-connect.
Distanced, in time and physically, it feels an almost impossible task. Our embellishments and retellings get in the way. But I shall have a go while I’m sat here in the dark. There are no true histories, but I’ll try and pull this one from the mist.
Years after he died, his brother – younger, less reserved – sat with me at a family wedding and we had a beer together. He had always loved my Dad, although they had fallen out often. Dad was bigger, taller, a success in the army, a boy soldier when he left home and a man when he came back eight years later. My Uncle always struggled with that, I think. He told me a story, that after some dreadful diabetic collapse, Dad had carried him, carried him mind, across town to the local hospital. Just picked him up and off he went. It was a literal association, but he said that he couldn’t listen to the Hollies singing He Ain’t Heavy without tearing up. He passed that on to me, and when I hear that plaintive refrain at the start of the song, it has to be switched off.
I don’t know if that really happened, yet it stirs into the mythos. My Uncle was always a little brash and carefree with his tales. It’s why I’ve always liked him. But I’m happy to add it to the mix nevertheless. It brings my Dad to mind, and that’s the point.
Out in the garden, the snow is settling. I think I may be the only person in the world awake.
Dad had suffered from heart troubles when we were very little, and had retired early. Dedicated to us boys he’d then decided he’d ferry us all around the country, to Uni, to job interviews, wherever and whatever we needed. Always on time, our watches synced five minutes fast just in case. When, as a sixth former, I had been badly beaten up and left unconscious and broken by the side of the road, he’d saved my secret shame about being too scared to take the same route home, and invented driving lessons for me. In the whole of his day, it seemed that he could only manage them just as school turned out so that I didn’t have to walk home. I was painfully, quietly, grateful. It had ripped a hole in him when the police pulled up at the house that evening; it was his considered response.
Thirty years ago I was woken at this time by the phone ringing downstairs and the landing light going on. So alien, but immediately, emptyingly awful. There had been years with nothing; no worries, no murmurs, but now, with just me and Mum at home, and my brothers away, he had had to go in after feeling unwell. In the years since his previous difficulties our little local hospital had been forced to shut its major facilities and this time he was ten miles away. We were wanted. He’d asked for us.
Before, it would have taken us moments. If I’d ever asked how long a mile was, it was “to the hospital, almost to the yard”. In the time it took us to respond, to cross the universe of new space between us, he died.
There is a little flush of dirty grey light beneath the clouds. A cat crosses the garden. I tap on the window and he looks at me. I wonder how much I’ve added and preened, airbrushed and retouched in all the stories I’ve ever told. The answer, I guess, as with all of us, is some. The human condition. We cannot help ourselves.
Dad’s truisms were simple. He was unapologetically supportive, calm, assured, organised. My Nan said he’d done all his shouting in the Army and he’d finished with it. Quiet, settled, steady. The snow absorbs the growing clamour of the day.
I look at him again. I need to connect and re-connect. It’s time to get on with it.
Beautiful Al. I always remembered your dad being there and carting his boys around.
It’s a lovely piece of writing, Al. Today as much as when you first shared it.
Thanks, Andrew, really appreciate that.