Those of you who have read my poem ‘Changes’ will find that this short piece of prose gives a greater insight to the motivation behind the second verse…
The road stretched on forever. A dark grey asphalt ribbon that rocked the car as a hand on a cradle: A little side to side, mostly up and down, just like the succession of stepping hills that formed one tenuous horizon after another – each set at a slightly different angle, and each having a unique contour of its own.
In this part of Sussex, and in this trajectory – climbing the broad hump of the downs led through a landscape that appeared almost infinite. The grassy fields to either side, perhaps one could say of ‘monotonous green’, could not be enjoyed for their distracting beauty for fear of my veering off the road. So, rather like a rabbit caught in headlights, I continued to stare straight ahead, my tired eyes remaining locked into the almost automaton driving gaze that had destined them to become red and sore towards the end of my long journey home.
Gently bounced by the soft suspension, bored by the repetitious vista ahead, lulled by the hum of the engine, blanked by the hiss of the tyres on the road, I was in danger of slipping into another world. A dangerous thing to do if you are driving. But the mysterious rhythms of the journey were almost hypnotic, and so I found myself compelled to break the spell somehow. I chose to do it with the question that had been burning inside my mind for the best part of a week. The words rat tat tatting their way out loud into the world:
‘I know you had to go there… But, dad… somehow it just doesn’t seem real?‘
Before he had chance to answer, the brilliant sun, appearing from behind the last of those asphalt horizons of the western climb, smashed it’s way through the windscreen and poked its fingers into our eyes. Involuntarily, my foot padded itself a little harshly onto the brake pedal, abruptly slowing us down and lurching us forwards toward the brilliant light. It was an inauspicious moment, but that is when he chose to answer me, and in my panic to retain full control of the car I didn’t catch all that he said. Only the last few words registered in my brain, ‘… no alternative.’
Frenziedly grabbing for the sun visor with my right hand, I positioned it to place my eyes in umbra and restore a sense of calm inside the now stationary car. But for a while the mood was broken, and I sat there, in silence, composing myself after the adrenaline rush.
I began thinking back to earlier days when we had been together. Though there were undoubtedly many of them, there were not that many that had burned themselves indelibly into my memory.
The one which was most clear in my mind at that moment, was when, one evening, I had taken the time and had walked from my house to dad’s favourite pub. It wasn’t very far, perhaps just four or five hundred yards from my home, yet I hadn’t made the journey before.
The spring-loaded entrance door had taken me a little by surprise as it yanked itself closed, twisting me slightly as my hand was still clutching the large brass handle, and my attention, in any case, was concentrated on my dad’s face. He was the only person in the bar, apart from the barman, and his face lit up when he saw me. His cheeks sometimes had a roseate glow to them, as though he had been in the sun too long, and they were like that on that evening.
I walked to the bar and pulled on a tall heavy wooden stool, the one next to his, dragging it so that it was a little closer to him, and as I did so he said, ‘This is a nice surprise, Son.’
He didn’t often call me by my name, preferring ‘son’ – unless he was being serious, or angry with me, and then my name would be spoken with that very authoritarian voice he reserved solely for such occasions. I like to think that there weren’t many of those angry uses… well no more than normal throughout the time of a child growing up. We, none of us, want to think we have been particularly difficult to raise, do we? I answered him with something akin to, ‘I thought I’d come and buy you a drink.‘
He delighted in that moment. I just know he did. He didn’t speak it, but I remembered my realisation of it at the time – from his body language – that he was proud to be drinking with me. There was that smile of his, the one that was accompanied by a twinkle in his eyes, and a certain swagger – if you can swagger on a bar stool – but it was there all the same, a kind of body sway, and put together these things said that he was happy. That he was proud.
He would have had an Indian Pale Ale, or a Worthington-E – one or other of his two favourites – I couldn’t remember which. And I… I had my usual after-work double Scotch. The barman gave him his pint with a friendly, ‘There we are, Fred…’ confirming that they were on first-name terms.
I took a sip of my Scotch ‘n water, and I remember dad saying that he didn’t know that I drank Scotch. In thinking back it seemed weird that my dad didn’t know my drink. I was sure he did.
In the car, even the smell of the bar came back to me in those moments: A slightly dusty, beery acrid smell, with a soupçon of stale cooking and the faded scent of tobacco smoke in the background. For several moments the scent of it invaded my car… over-riding the smell of the leather interior, and adding more realism to the memory.
It wasn’t much of a memory. It was perhaps only a three or four minute segment from our lives together, and it stopped at that point, not far from where it would have run out of steam in any case, because I had come to the junction at the top of a hill and my attention was refocused on the act of driving. Back on the main road again, I looked across the car at him, and saw him in profile staring straight ahead. It seemed to me that he was, himself, far away in thought, and my own thoughts returned to other times we shared together.
I next remembered him in the garden of our house in East Sussex, near Eastbourne: It was a large garden, and I remember that on this particular Sunday, before setting off to pick him up to come to us for lunch, I had set a white garden chair out on the grass, under the trees, quite a way from the house. It was ready for him.
When I got back home, after he had said the usual hello’s to my wife and daughter, I left my mother nattering in the busy kitchen and took him out into the garden and sat him on that chair – with a couple of cans of beer bought specially the day before. It was one of those nice, sunny, warm, bees buzzing kind of days, and I remembered him having that smile on his face again; the one that indicated not only that he was enjoying himself, but that he also appreciated what I was doing for him.
I also remembered my four-year-old daughter with him that day: She was clutching her teddy-bear, ‘Fred bear’, under her right arm, the hand of that arm up at her face and it’s thumb stuck in her little rosebud mouth… her other hand clasping dad’s. Children have such perfect tiny little hands, don’t they? So new. So fresh. So innocent. Gladly given in a simple act of loving someone else, by just holding on.
He had bought her that teddy-bear on the day she was born, and that, believe me, was an act demonstrating his absolute delight at the prospect of having heard that he at last had a grandchild; dad never went in toy shops, that would normally have been something he would have expected my mother to do for him. But on that particular day, he had overcome the many obstacles there were to get to the toy shop on his own, and to have personally selected that teddy bear… the one that would ever after be remembered with his name.
I glanced across the car at him again. He turned to me and smiled. It was that same smile. He was happy to be sharing the journey with me.
Strange? Well, not really. I guess that when I was younger, though we had times together as father and son, moments like those I remembered seemed to be infrequent – no doubt because of his one-man business demanding so much of his energy and time: Time and effort that earned the pennies to feed and clothe our little family unit. So that is probably why these moments remained so clearly in my mind; brief flashes, a few frames taken from the film of life as it had played up until that moment.
The sign ‘Uneven Road Ahead’ flashed past almost unnoticed as I pondered on the rarity of those times together, but for several following minutes the loud road rumbled past beneath the car, the seat springs creaked more energetically in response to the dips and troughs of the distorted carriageway. The air became charged again. Motes of dust sparkled in the stream of lowering sunlight that flooded in under the edge of the sun visor, and I could feel a spell beginning to reform inside the cabin.
It was then, I think, that I realised other important aspects of those memories that had briefly replayed in my head: They were both of events that happened whilst my dad was ill. He had emphysema, brought about by inhaling dust during WWII. But they were unique moments for other reasons, too: The first was the one and only time that I had gone into a bar and drunk alcohol with him on my own – just the two of us. The second, was not that long before… before he had…
‘Dad, I didn’t hear all you said… Tell me again… I know you had to go there… But, dad… somehow it just doesn’t seem real to me?’
He didn’t answer.
I turned briefly, to look across at him.
He wasn’t there.
The passenger seat was empty.
He had been scattered in a crematorium garden, in Eastbourne, a week before.
Through the glass wall I passed.
One moment driving a country road,
The next engulfed in sudden tears.