It was the winter I discovered I had a cyst in my belly, grown all without my knowing, and my sister’s heart started banging as if it wanted the hell out of there now.
I went over on the train to the hospital she’d been taken to and rushed down the corridor and into the ward. She was sitting up, her dark curls on end, still hooked to the monitor, but they’d given her a shot and her heart rate was back to normal. She was scowling because they wouldn’t let her out of bed and she badly needed to pee.
There was a bed pan on the cover near the bottom of the bed. I said, ‘Use it, I’ll draw the curtains.’ She said, ‘You’re joking! Here?’ and looked around in horror at the comatose or sleeping patients each side and the curtains around the bed opposite.
It’s a small town, of course, the one she still lives in, where our parents settled at long last when we were in our teens, and where she’s been a librarian all her adult life. She has her dignity and mystique to keep up.
The nurse came along and said my sister was OK now, her heartbeat had been normal for four hours, she could ring her husband to come back from his work to fetch her. As she took out the last plug my sister jumped from the leash and fled to the lavatory near the nurses’ station, slamming the door with a sound that rang round the ward.
I didn’t tell her about the cyst. And, of course, the heart-thumping matter of the novel I had written, the novel about our family, was completely avoided.
When I was six and my sister was four, she came down with scarlet fever, the one other time she was ever in hospital, carted off to an isolation hospital in the North Welsh hills.
We had only just moved from South Wales, the first of what would be several moves.
I sat outside the hospital in the car with my father, our baby brother asleep in the back in the carrycot, while our mother went in to visit her. Someone held her up at a hospital window for me to see her, but what I saw didn’t look like my sister, like Cathy: the window was frosted and all I could see was a pink thing that made me think of a shrimp. I guess we must have gone at bath time and they were in the bathroom.
For years afterwards Cathy would recount the horror of that time, considering it one of her major childhood traumas: the enforced baths in Dettol; the compulsory drink of sickly Ovaltine at bedtime; being made to march beforehand down the central aisle with the other children, with their various strange accents, singing a song she didn’t know in which you claimed to be something called an Ovalteenie, although she had no idea what that was.
Knowing nothing of this, divorced from my sister for the first time since I crawled in South Wales across my mother’s exhausted body to look at her newborn face and exclaim in wonder, ‘Is she ours?’, I felt a new bleakness and sense of loss. The hills outside the car window were alien and bare, and my father was broody and silent beside me, which was how he had been since we’d come to North Wales.
And there was something that had recently come to me, a disappointing realisation. I wanted to ask my father about it.
He’d seen fairies, he’d said, in Ireland where he was born, and even here in North Wales. I’d looked and looked, desperate to see them myself, but never had. And now I had read that they didn’t exist.
He didn’t respond in the way he would have done once, with a languid, crooked-toothed, teasing grin. He didn’t turn to me. His eagle-nosed profile was a stony sculpture against the car window. He was smoking, of course.
‘Hm?’ He sounded faraway, abstract.
‘Daddy, fairies don’t exist, do they, really?’
He didn’t answer.
I persisted. ‘Well, it’s like Father Christmas, isn’t it?’
He had gone completely still, and I knew what I’d done. I’d forgotten that he didn’t even know I knew about Father Christmas. My mother had said better not tell him, he’d be disappointed.
‘Daddy?’ He was still silent.
Finally he said, ‘No,’ with such frozen shock and, yes, such flat disappointment, that I was filled with guilt and dismay. And a sense that things between me and my father would never be the same again.
Well, that’s how I remember it. But what do I know? Things get lost, memory can be muddled. As I say, by then, by the time we sat outside the hospital in the hills, my father had already changed. He was no longer the father who took me with him on his insurance rounds, rattling in the little Austin Seven down the flickering South-Wales country lanes, zooming up to the hump-back bridges with a grin, fag in the one hand on the wheel or stuck behind his ear, laughing his head off as I left the leather seat and squealed with delight. By this time, probably, he’d starting hitting us.
And it wasn’t as if I went on not believing in fairies. I wanted to believe in them, or rather I didn’t want not to. After that day, on Sunday outings to those hills I’d take a bag of silver charms I’d cut from the tobacco-smelling silver paper from my father’s cigarette packets, hearts and flowers, bows and stars and sickle moons. I’d scatter them in the gorse, an offering and a plea for the fairies to appear and prove themselves.
As I begged for the silver paper and he handed it over, my father would snigger.
And a lot of what I remember is not the same as what the others remember, which was partly what caused the trouble when I tried to write a novel about it all.
In which, against all previous likelihood, I begin
to try to write a novel about my father.
My father had been dead ten years before I thought of writing about him. I surprised myself: there was a time when it was the last thing I’d have thought of doing. I’d put my father behind me for good, or so I thought.
It was the 1st January, the first day of the new millennium. My kids had left for university and I’d given up editing and publishing a literary magazine (twelve hours a day, in those days before you could publish at the press of a button). A fresh start, it seemed, a time to hope naively that all the conflicts of the old century were behind us, men against women, races and religions against one another, Manchester rebuilt after the IRA bomb. And Patrick Jackson, my volatile, contradictory and entirely unfathomable father, around whom we’d always had to tiptoe, long scattered on the spot in the narrow field above the sea in South Wales where he and my mother had first started courting.
I came back from the Millennium parade in the city centre and sat down at my desk, and what popped into my head was the night my father died and the moments after he’d gone.
I was sitting then on the floor beside his bed and his newly dead body. I closed my eyes and behind my lids stars rushed towards me, as they did on the computer screensavers they had in those days. And then the ground rushed up, and I was zooming, flying low over a peat bog, rising and dipping with the subtle contours, towards the cottage I’d never seen but somehow knew, in which my father was born.
I was dreaming, of course – he had died in the early hours and we were all exhausted – but, still, I was spooked. I opened my eyes sharpish and stood up.
But now that sensation came back to me, and almost without thinking, I picked up my pen and wrote:
He is falling, falling once more, this time through the legendary tunnel, out of the life he clung to against all the odds.
A light at the end, and he’s gobbed, spat out, and lands in a heap. He sits up, looks around. He can’t see much, the quality of light is strange, too bright yet somehow shadowed. There’s a sound, a huge hiss, some kind of breathless pressure, like steam…
It comes to him, he understands: it’s the sound of an espresso machine. He’s in a transport caff, one of those shacks on the trunk roads he travelled all those years. Slowly things come into focus: the rickety tables, the chequered oilcloths, the greasy bottles of vinegar and HP sauce and tomato ketchup.
It was like automatic writing.
Next day I went out and, for the second time only in my life on my own behalf, bought a packet of cigarettes, and laid them on my desk as a visual and olfactory aid.
The smell of cigarettes. The smell of my father.
I picked up my pen again and it went on along the page as if independent of me:
In this heaven, or hell, Patrick gets to his feet. He’s awkward and stiff, but all the pain of the last few weeks is gone.
The place is empty apart from one other man, a gnarled stringy feller like one of those men he once managed on the power-station sites, in a filthy tweed jacket and fair-isle sweater, with wild dark hair and big bad teeth he’s showing in a grin. He waves Patrick over.
Patrick is suspicious. He’s hail-fellow-well-met, Patrick, but he’s also a snob. ‘Do I know you?’ he asks – matey, of course: always cover your back, that’s Patrick.
The feller doesn’t answer. He sniggers as if it’s a really good joke, and Patrick’s a bit unsettled. But the urge for a fag overcomes him. ‘You don’t have a cig, do you, Pal?’
With a nod and a wink the guy pats his chest and pulls out a packet, and flicks it open, and there’s the row of orange-beige filters, pushed up like the pipes of an organ about to burst into glorious music. As the guy digs for his lighter, Patrick draws the silky stick under his nose, breathing in the perfume-clinical smell. And then, after all those weeks of dying, the smoke is curling down his bronchioles again, the cool clean burn steadying his shaken limbs.
A cup of tea appears in front of him, just as he always liked it, the colour of old leather. The guy pushes the sugar bowl towards him, the crystals caked and coloured caramel where others have pushed in wet spoons.
It’s a damn good cuppa.
‘So where are we?’ Patrick asks, snapping the cup back on the saucer.
The feller doesn’t answer. He bounces his bird’s nest eyebrows and there’s a sneaky look in his eyes, and this is when Patrick decides he can’t be trusted.
He has to get out of here.
He downs the cuppa. He stands. The chair scrapes with an aching sound, the air gels in a sunbeam slicing the room. In the gloom beyond, the thin arm of the waitress drops like a broken wing.
‘So long!’ Patrick calls to the waitress, and he’s through the door and out in a car park on windswept moors.
But the feller’s right behind him. And there’s nothing in the car park but the feller’s vehicle, an old Ford Escort. Not Patrick’s Rover, nor any of the vehicles he left in car parks like this down the years, the bright-blue sixties Ford Anglia, the motorbikes and vans, the Austin Sevens with their wooden dashboards drenched in the sun of stolen afternoons.
The feller unlocks his Escort and twitches his head for Patrick to hop in. ‘Where to?’ he asks Patrick, his tone magnanimous, as if he’s offering a ride not in a boneshaker, dashboard covered in dust, sweet packets and tissues and cans littering the floor, but a chariot. And ironic: because, of course, for the first time ever, Patrick doesn’t know where there is to go.
‘You’re the boss,’ Patrick tells the feller grimly, with equal irony, and the guy turns the key.
The engine coughs, whines, then peters out.
Patrick might have known.
He tries again; the engine whimpers, expires again.
Third time, it’s dead.
Now Patrick is stranded, unless he breaks his lifetime promise to himself and gets his hands dirty for someone else.
There’s nothing for it. He tells the guy to release the bonnet and gets out. Wouldn’t you know it: loose distributor leads and the fan belt nearly through.
The leads are fixed. Patrick tucks the rag back in its corner. He straightens. He reels. Maybe bending just after dying wasn’t so clever. He steadies. He looks around. He’s no longer on the moor. There are trees, oak leaves spilling dapples of shadow. He’s in the garage at Ballygannon, aged fifteen, wiping his hands on a rag and vowing to get away as soon as he can and never get his hands dirty for a living again.
This was one of the tales we grew up with, my sister and I, Cathy and Jo Jackson, the tale of our father in the garage at Ballygannon.
In the gloomy flat above the office of the insurance company for which our father worked in North Wales, after lunch on Saturdays, or in the school holidays, our father out on his rounds, our mother would tell us stories.
While the baby slept in the gloom beyond the sunbeam in the poky kitchen, she would push aside the greasy egg-and-chip plates and the dishes smeared with jam and semolina, and begin. Stories we begged to hear, about South Wales, the place we longed for and missed. The pink thatched cottage tucked beneath the elms where our Nanny and Grampa lived, the high walls of the farm and manor house nearby. The fields fringed with creamy primroses in spring, the lanes pungent with cow dung; the stroke of grey road leading down to the open sea and the beach with its bank of clean-washed pebbles. And as she took us back there in her tales of her childhood, the jangling of traffic and holiday crowds, the sounds of the town we lived in now, would fade away.
She also told us stories about our father, stories he had told her, about the life in Ireland he had wanted to escape from, and did.
He was the eldest of several children. They had a one-room cottage at a crossroads, a dirt floor and just a tiny alcove off where a mad aunt and a couple of his sisters slept. Our father, at that time the only boy, slept in a truckle-bed pulled out of the wall beside the peat fire. So poor he had to go barefoot, even in winter.
He was clever, but his mother didn’t take him to school, our mother told us. It was too many miles off and she needed his help with things like fetching water. So she taught him to read and write herself. But then, one day when he was seven, just as he was bringing the bucket back from the well, the schoolmaster happened to pass by the cottage.
‘How old is that boy?’ the master asked his mother. And there and then in the road he tested our father, Patrick, on his spelling, and our father got every single word right, including the last and most difficult, the word for a female sheep, ewe.
‘This boy,’ the master pronounced, ‘is too clever not be at school. Bring him in September. But get him some good tough shoes and cut his hair.’
His hair, our mother explained, was down to his shoulders, and blond, white-blond, though nowadays it was a crinkled dirty yellow. It was my father from whom I’d got my strange albino-blond hair, so different from our mother’s and Cathy’s and the baby’s.
I would think of the scene: my seven-year-old father, just a bit older than I was now, standing staring through the flying silver wires of hair, staring and scowling the way I was always being told not to, his skin dark from the sun the way mine and Cathy’s went too, dust from the road between his bare toes.
By the time he was ten the cottage at the crossroads was so overcrowded he was sent to sleep at his grandfather’s house, a mile off in the village, but every day after school he had to go back and work in the vegetable plot behind the cottage or fish in the lake for the family’s meals. He was a bit of a terror, though, she told us: when he was ten or so, he and another boy caught a goose and put it in a sack and climbed onto a roof and pushed it down the chimney to terrify the old man sitting by the fire below.
He was a terror, still, or, rather, he had been in South Wales. Once in South Wales I’d watched a young woman run screaming from our garden with earwigs down her back, while our father, the practical joker, bent over double at the gatepost laughing. And as for climbing a roof, well, I knew he’d have no trouble: there were pictures of him in the Air Force doing handstands on the backs of chairs or holding up another man standing on his shoulders.
He was slimmer then, but he still had those big rounded muscles: he went to weight-lifting now in North Wales. They were iron-hard, his muscles, I knew: I’d dared to touch them when he lay on the living-room floor doing what he called his yoga, which he said he’d learned in the RAF.
The first time, I thought he was dead. He lay flat on his back, bare muscly arms spread and palms upturned, corrugated hair spilling on the brown-and-beige carpet with the orange flowers and stripes in the corners, eagle nose pointing upwards, long nostrils vertical. He didn’t seem to be breathing. I ran to our mother, and she laughed and told us that the first time she saw it she’d thought that, too, and she’d actually fainted.
So I dared to creep back and touch those muscles. I had to make myself do it, in a way I wouldn’t have done once: I put my finger out carefully and gingerly pressed. And the skin didn’t yield, didn’t feel like flesh at all.
So yes, our mother went on, that schoolmaster saw our father’s ability and promise, and so he went to school. But then, once he left, what was there for a poor boy to do but work as menial mechanic in a garage? And so he made his vow of escape.
And one night when he was sixteen, he put a small tin of treasures – a round pebble, a stone-age flint and a blackbird’s egg – deep in the yew hedge in front of the cottage for the day in the future when he’d return triumphant, driving a Rolls. And next day he was on the boat for England with his cardboard suitcase.
He went to stay with one of his mother’s two sisters who both lived in Birkenhead in little red-brick terraces near the docks. The first night there, our mother told us, he climbed out of the window and down the drainpipe to wee in the yard, because all they’d had in Ireland was a pit in the field, he’d never used a proper toilet before.
After working for some months on the docks he went as a deckhand on a ship that called in at Sydney, Australia, which happened to be where another aunt, his father’s sister, lived. This aunt, Aunt Edie, had come up in the world, and she’d once had a love affair with a famous matinee idol who’d bought her a whole string of businesses in Sydney. Well, of course our father wanted to impress her, but when he stepped on the gang-plank in Sydney harbour, wearing a new suit with big brown windowpane checks that he didn’t know was no longer in fashion, he slipped and went over the side into the water, the first of many falls.
I went on writing:
Patrick hears footsteps behind him in the garage at Ballygannon, and, alert and taking no chances, he’s slammed down the bonnet and is into the car. And there’s his wild-haired companion beside him, and he’s on the moors in the afterlife again.
‘What the hell is this?’ he demands. ‘Bloody time travel?’
The feller opens up his palms. ‘Not exactly. The past is all around you here. You’ve got to make an effort, though, to see it properly.’
Well, that’s all right, then, thinks Patrick. It’s not an effort you’d catch him making. Never look back, that’s Patrick.
The guy is leaning on the wheel now, looking out at the near horizon with its mounds of heather like a heaving sea. He turns his head towards Patrick, almost underarm, his dark pupils burning in the hot white of his eyes, and suddenly Patrick knows where he’s seen him before.