Updated: Mar 27, 2020
Every October 13, I put on some AC/DC and make a curry. The taste of turmeric and ginger and cumin and the sound of Brian Johnson grinding out lines like ‘We rock at dawn on the front line’ give texture to some things I know about my father. They are details that are easy to remember, his penchants for the hard rock I also love and for Indian food much spicier than I can handle. They are as much fact to me as the date of his birth. I can tell other people about them. I can eat them and listen to them. Other things, more essential things – meaning, not contingent matters of taste – are like blurry spots in my peripheral vision.
It’s been fifteen years since he died, but even longer than that since I last saw him in the flesh. I have a few memories of him that I am sure are mine and are real, though they are not full colour high-definition memories. More like short stories where some random sentences and even whole paragraphs have been blacked out with a Sharpie. Others are harder to verify as authentic. In all of them, bar one, I am no older than eleven. The age I was when my mother and sister and I moved across the world in search of a fresh start.
Other stuff my dad was into: Billy Connolly, guns, his Land Rover, the Royal Air Force, Russian military history, tanks. I could always watch some Billy Connolly stand up on YouTube when I want to honour him on his birthday I suppose, but you see why I generally go with curry and hard rock.
I have this list of interests, like the outline of a character in a sitcom whose inner life is only hinted at, a handful of memories and maybe-memories, and of course the stories my family tell me about the man they knew as Andy, my dad. But these aren’t enough to sustain me. I need more. I’m positively ravenous for more.
So I throw these meagre ingredients into a pot, stir and season well with speculation. Some small alchemy takes place. The man that comes out of it is not a real man. He is not an ideal – I do remember enough to know he cannot be perfect. He is a pastiche. And with this pastiche-dad I try to build the shape of the relationship I might now have had with my actual dad if he had lived.
I’m six or seven and I am at my cousins’ house across the street. There are two of them, boisterous boys, one a couple of years older and the other a couple of years younger than me. Our other cousin, also younger than me, is visiting. The parents are out somewhere. We are being supervised by our grandmother. This supervision amounts to her watching on helplessly as we run amok.
We devise the following game: we prop a single mattress we’ve taken from a bedroom upstairs against the buffet in the living room so that it makes a slope, and we run up and down it. There are no other rules. Inevitably, one of us – the visiting cousin, as it happens – overshoots on his run up the mattress and cracks his head on the hard wood of the buffet.
Blood pours out of his forehead. Our grandmother is screaming and me and my cousins (except the one who is bleeding) are laughing hysterically, with an underlying note of panic.
Our grandma hurries to fetch my dad, who is not out with the other parents but in our house across the street. He marches in, takes in the scene before him with one swift sweep of his eyes, hoists my bleeding cousin up under his arm and marches back out.
There’s a scene in the final Harry Potter book in which Harry uses a magic stone to summon the ghostly forms of his parents and two of their dead friends. They tell him things like: they’ve always been with him in his heart and, death is easy and peaceful. Basically, they validate all the platitudes people say to you about your loved ones who have died. Platitudes which are, in my experience, more infuriating than comforting when coming from the mouths of the living.
Are Harry’s parents here pure projections of his mind or are they composites of what they were (having survived in some metaphysical form in Harry’s heart) and what Harry needs them to be in that moment? Either way, that scene is the bittersweet stuff of dreams for a kid who has lost a parent young. To get them back again, even if just for a minute, and to have them speak lovingly to you and be there to comfort you when you’re scared. But then the flipside: it’s a tease, a tiny morsel which can never fill the gaping hole inside you.
This isn’t what things are like with pastiche-dad. I don’t imagine him talking to me while he sits on my couch or walks alongside me in the grocery store, invisible to everyone but me. I don’t put words into his mouth that I wish I could hear him say to me, or that I believe he would want to say to me.
Any time I think I can recall specific words he said to me in life, I have to check myself. Because I know I’m making it up; those memories of how we talked to each, of the particular dynamics of our relationship, just aren’t there. There is no raw material for me to work from. The thing that’s always missing among the memories and maybe-memories is the knowledge of what passed between my dad and me in those particular moments.
What my mind can manage is impressions of something that might have taken place. Pastiche-dad is an energy, an atmosphere. I can’t look directly at him. It’s like he’s always just exited the room and I am clinging to the feeling he leaves behind after his having been there moments earlier.
I’m eight years old and my mum and dad have been separated for a year. My sister and I have to wait behind after school with the other kids whose parents can’t collect them as soon as the final bell has rung.
Usually our mum picks us up or we get a lift home with friends. But one day our dad shows up. He is in a small tank. The kind with a track belt around the wheels and a gun barrel and a hatch. The hatch is open and he is poking up out of it from the waist up, his legs hidden below, inside the tank’s armoured guts.
He wants to give us a lift home. People are watching. Other students of our all-girls school and their parents, none of whom are impressed by the appearance of military hardware at the school gates.
My mum arrives, at the same time or shortly after. She is mortified. My sister is mortified. I am mortified. It’s not just that there are witnesses to this strange event, and that we will probably be gossiped about tomorrow. On some level I’ve understood that my dad is not behaving as he should. On some level I’ve understood that the tank is not really the problem.
My sister and I get in our mum’s car.
There are things that never happened because a person died.
My dad and my husband never met each other. Ditto my dad and my dog (the other love of my life).
I never went to Cyprus in the summers to visit my dad where he had been building a house and had planned to settle.
That house maybe didn’t get finished, or maybe it did and it just didn’t get lived in by the person it was meant for.
I can’t know what else didn’t happen, but I can guess at a few things. Meals eaten together. Phone calls and emails exchanged. Car journeys shared (maybe to a gun range with some Deep Purple cranked on the stereo). Minor episodes in the scheme of life, but part of the fibre of a relationship.
These are the things to which I hitch my experiences with pastiche-dad. He’s just been at the table with me and my husband while we eat dinner. How do I feel now? What mood am I in? We’ve just chatted over the phone for a while. Has this left me irritable, energised, glad to be off the phone so I can get on with other things?
Relationships aren’t what you talk about or do with someone. They’re the way this talking and doing makes you feel.
I’m fifteen and I’m awkwardly and mostly unsuccessfully navigating my way through my penultimate year of high school. After several years of minimal contact, lines of communication with my dad have been re-established. He is doing well – better than he has been in years. He is making plans for the future. He is far away and when his day is starting ours is ending.
In a year’s time, he will be dead, but none of us knows that yet.
My teenage brain, occupied with so many teenage worries about not fitting in and who I have a crush on and what I want to do with my life, has little capacity for unpicking the tangle of traumas that runs through my relationship with my dad. Indeed, I do not yet recognise that anything that has happened in my life could be counted as traumatic.
But I’m wary all the same. At this point, I don’t know what to expect from my dad. I don’t yet feel confident or comfortable talking to him. I don’t yet feel like I know him.
If you’re a kid when one of your parent’s dies and you relish any chance you get to talk about them, you use up all your good material on them pretty quickly. There is no way to refresh it.
During our decade-long relationship, my husband has heard the handful of stories I have about things my dad did ten thousand times already. Stories which I mostly got second-hand, or had to have details filled in by someone else, someone who was older than me at the time. He’s a real sport about it, as he is obliged to be as someone with two still living breathing parents that he loves (but also as someone who loves me). He laughs at all the funny bits and even asks questions to draw more details out of me whenever I find a new audience to pin down with these threadbare stories, never showing any sign that he’s tired of hearing them.
Pastiche-dad has his limits. He can’t make new stories with me.
I’m 31 now. There are still some things I have in common with my childhood self. Cautiousness, an affinity with small things, a sweet tooth, a compulsion to go against the grain. If my dad met me again now I’m sure he would recognise these qualities in me. But of course I’ve changed a lot too, in ways I am aware of and in those I am not.
What would he make of me? Would we like each other? Would he like who I’ve become? Would I like him? With family, questions of liking or disliking someone are rarely straightforward.
The fact that he’s dead and I didn’t get to find out the answer to the question of how I would feel about him automatically makes me think: how could I not like him? If things had shaken out differently, if his liver hadn’t failed or there’d been enough donor livers to help everyone who needed one, even people who had abused the one they were born with, then how could I not be so grateful to still have him around that I would not adore him?
But then of course I wouldn’t know the feeling of him being dead, so how can I assume anything about my feelings in this alternate reality? The thing about your parent being dead. When that happens before you’re old enough to be conscious of, to take stock of, to appreciate or reject your relationship with your parent, that might come to be the thing that defines your relationship with them the most.