By DAVID REA.
MY FATHER USED to say that if a man wanted to tell the story of his life it could best be done during the time-span of Edith Piaf’s ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’. The two and a half minutes of music enforced concision, he said, an editing down to the skeletal truth. One evening, he took me down into the basement, lit a candle and put the record on. With the flame’s glow lighting one side of his face, throwing a giant shadow of his head onto the wall behind, he told me his story: his love affair with the sciences at school, meeting my mother, completing his PhD; the joy of my birth, getting his first academic paper published, his happiness now; and then the music finished, he snuffed out the candle and his large kind face disappeared into the dark. He was a showman, my father, and believed in being pithy and accurate; he believed in the enlightenment ideal, in science and reason over superstition and faith.
In the 1960s he re-mortgaged the family home in order to buy the component parts to build what he called an electronic, integrated-circuit, digital, programmable computer. It took up most of the dining room; and proved to be a serious fire hazard, catching fire on numerous occasions. When it wasn’t actually aflame, sparks often flew, smoke regularly billowed. It was a constant source of consternation to my mother. I have vague memories of a large humming machine with blinking lights and thick protruding wires. He called it Colossus. I cannot remember what he ever used it for, though I have a hazy recollection of him proudly showing me a print-out of some basic arithmetic he said it had done.
One winter it snowed heavily and the lake near our home froze over. For three days the local children played on the lake’s frozen surface, skating and slipping about. But after a while the neighbourhood’s parents grew uneasy. They started to fear that the ice would melt and thin and one of the children would fall through. A general consensus developed that the kids should stop playing on the lake. My father was curious and spent a day in the dining room with his computer. He emerged that evening to announce to my mother and me that given the temperature over the last few days there was no reason to believe that the ice had melted at all. It had been empirically proven by Colossus. The neighbours had been swept up into a kind of collective hysteria, he said. Science would prove to be victorious. ‘Terrance, Terrance, Terrance,’ my mother said to my father, smiling in lazy resignation to his eccentric enthusiasm. ‘What are we going to do with you?’ My father said to me: ‘Put on your coat, Jeff. We’re going for a walk’.
We walked along together, side by side, occasionally looking up. We lived in a famously flat region of the country, where the sky was most of the world, and on clear nights it was a great dome-shaped canopy of stars. As we walked between wheat fields and through the woods, he told me what he had told me many times in my life; that whatever happened he would always be with me; that even after he had gone, he would return to be with me again. Though I have tried on many occasions I can no longer remember the actual words he used. The complete stock of all he ever said to me has now been reduced to a handful of honed sentences; an avalanche of rocks smoothed to a scattering of polished pebbles in the stream of time. I do remember the feeling that his words induced in me on that evening though. They gave me infinite comfort, and as I walked beside him in the half-dark, I felt a love I had never known before and have not felt since.
The lake appeared like mercury in the moonlight, partly veiled in mist. My father told me to watch. Whatever happened I wasn’t to go near the lake. He began to precariously walk out across it, slipping here and there; his arms leaping out horizontally from time to time like a tightrope walker. As he diminished into the distance his figure began to disappear in the darkness. After a time it was difficult to make him out at all.
I can’t remember how long I stood at the side of the lake for, examining the ice for some trace of my father. There were moments I was sure I could see something out there only to peer more closely and see only a curtain of thickening mist. I walked up to the very lip of the ice, but I went no further. Perhaps I was still following my father’s recent instructions, doing what I was told; perhaps I didn’t trust the ice despite what my father and Colossus had told me. I suppose that a child will always trust their emotions and instincts over reason. Science is very much an adult game.
I remember the way the scene before me slowly transformed, how the world drained of warmth. The star-studded sky emptied of possibilities, becoming an icy emptiness. The silhouettes of trees with their thin crooked fingers started to carry a threat. I don’t know how long it took me to reach the tipping point, when the fear was so powerful that I turned away from my father and ran home as quickly as I could.
He never came back. As I looked out at the lake that night, I don’t remember ever hearing the ice break; I didn’t hear him fall into the water. His body was never found. My mother said that they didn’t look properly, that they never dredged the east end of the lake.
IN THE DAYS following his disappearance, the house was astonished into dusty quiet. His things were strewn conspicuously around the place: his clothes and toiletries; his computer and tools; his papers and books. My mother was too distraught to pack them away. I particularly remember his trilby on the floor beside my parents’ bed. I still have dreams about that hat.
Many years later, I looked back through the meteorological records and my father was right. Temperatures remained below zero during the whole period up until and including that evening. The ice can’t have broken. He didn’t want me to follow him onto the lake because he wanted to walk away without me. His words to me as we had walked to the lake – that he would always be with me; that even after he had gone, he would return to be with me again – took on a different sense, some kind of final mysterious good bye which has bewildered me ever since.
Questions remain. Events of that night refuse to yield to reason, to cohere into a reasonable narrative. I still don’t understand why he would ask me to walk to the lake with him and watch him step across the ice if his plan was to vanish and never return. Why wouldn’t he simply go for a walk on his own? Wasn’t he simply showing off to the son who idolised him by walking across the ice – to prove it was safe, as evidence that Colossus had got it right, that science was the one true God; and there had then been a fatal accident?
My life in the time-span of Edith Piaf’s ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’: sun-lit childhood days; my father vanished. I spent years with a variety of counsellors and psychotherapists. I became estranged from my mother. Intellectually, I rebelled against the hard sciences, turning to the social sciences; I became a reclusive academic, specialising in anthropology and folklore.
I did my PhD on the Wahukhu tribe of the Island of Acru. Their elaborate belief system centred around the human face. They believed it was the source of all knowledge and understanding, that it was both the window to an individual’s soul and to their family’s past.
In their mythology, the ghosts of dead men, tormented by their separation from their loved ones, resided at the bottom of lakes. Once a boy became a man, in times of crisis he would be encouraged to wait for a rainless, windless day and then go to the lake to seek out his dead father. When he looked down into the calm, clear surface of the water, his father would swim up to greet him.
FROM TIME TO TIME I would sit in front of the mirror and study my own face, holding up a photo of my father next to the glass. I watched as I slowly became him, developing the same thick cast of jaw, the same pronounced forehead. By the time I was in my twenties I was already developing the same frown lines. What was more striking than the physical resemblances, however, were the identical mannerisms which I started to develop. I would clutch my increasingly prodigious chin between my thumb and forefinger when I was concentrating; I would scratch my eyebrows with my thumb when amused.
I suppose I intuited that the closer I got to becoming him the more I might better understand why he did what he did that night.
Over the years I looked through his boxes of books, reading and re-reading the volumes, trying to glean from them some truth about him which my memories couldn’t provide. For a devoted scientist, he had a surprisingly large amount of English literature in his collection. In his well-thumbed, dog-eared copy of Romeo and Juliet, next to a long soliloquy by Juliet, he had written in biro: silly bitch. Written vertically down the page of an exchange between Othello and Iago in act three, scene three of Othello, he’d written: twats. Next to other passages in Shakespeare, he had made more approving comments: good point, quite good, some truth here, interesting, worthy of note.
Most significantly of all for me though, in his copy of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, he had marked a vertical line in pencil in the margin next to the following:
Don’t let us forget that the causes of human actions are usually immeasurably more complex and varied than our subsequent explanations of them.
When I read the line, it was as if my father had spoken to me from the grave or from wherever he lived now, as if he had reached out and wrapped his consoling hand around mine. He was telling me that I would never understand what he had done.
On my fortieth birthday, I finally returned to the lake. As I set off, it occurred to me that I was the same age as my father when he vanished. It was the middle of winter and, as is typical at that time of year in the region I grew up in, it was misty and snowy. Temperatures had been below freezing for weeks. There was a pewter bank of clouds in the distance. It was a Sunday and the roads were almost empty. As I drove back into the landscape of my childhood – the low horizon and vast sky, the wheat fields and woods – I had the curious sensation that I was getting closer to my father, closer perhaps, I reasoned, to some kind of emotional memory of him.
Nothing had changed. There was the same overgrown field leading from the lane to the lake, populated with thistles and stinging nettles, cow parsley and long grass; and beyond it the silver lake, and beyond that the pearl sky. I set off walking from the car.
I didn’t pause when I got to the lake. I walked straight onto it as if it were a continuation of the land, heading towards its east end. I daren’t look down. I had no idea where I was heading or what my purpose was exactly, but as I walked I felt an overwhelmingly powerful surge of nameless emotions rising up in me. After a hundred metres or so I couldn’t go on any longer and I stopped and crouched down. I stood up and gently jumped up and down; I jumped higher and higher, landing with more force each time. The ice held firm.
Sobbing now, I crouched down and brushed away the light dusting of snow from the surface, revealing the glassy ice.
I saw my own reflection staring back at me, the colours muted to greys. I looked haggard, my face creviced with deep frown lines and crow’s feet, my dark wet eyes blood-shot; I wore a searching, frightened expression. And there beneath my face, in the cast of the chin, in the setting of the forehead was my father swimming up to greet me.
I stood up and looked around to get my bearings, to cling onto the hard facts of the surrounding landscape: the overgrown field, the woods and sky.
There was a figure standing on the water’s edge. It seemed to be staring right at me. There was something about the person’s posture that told me it was a woman; someone I knew. I began to walk towards her. Slowly the figure gained form and colour. It was my mother.
I stopped a few feet from her. We looked at one another. ‘You’ve come here too,’ I said. She had aged terribly in the intervening years; she had become an old woman. Her throat had wrinkled and sagged like a lizard’s; her skin was dry and papery; her hair thin and bright white.
I knew from her expression that she was looking at me but seeing someone else, someone appearing out of the mist where her husband had vanished over thirty years earlier.
‘Terrance!’ she said.
Shocked by the mistake she had made and the hypnotised look in her eye, I stood paralysed. There were tears in her eyes. She stepped towards me and I could smell the whisky on her breath. She took my face tenderly in her bony hands; she closed her eyes, parted her lips and lent forward to kiss my mouth.
David Rea is a novelist, short story and screenplay writer, who has been published in a number of magazines and journals. His screenplay about World War One art and propaganda is in the early stages of development. He lives in Buckinghamshire with his wife and two sons.