Father taught us to respect living things. He would not allow us to tease dogs or cats, or manhandle them, or speak, even kindly, to one that was sleeping. We knew better than to ask for rabbits or white mice, but he did let us keep the small fish we caught in the stream that ran through the woodland at the end of our road. It took twenty minutes to walk to school and two hours to meander back, across the railway and into the trees. The water was clear and cressy. It twitched with tadpoles and whirligig beetles, minnows and loaches and sticklebacks. These last were my favorite. They are a fish with boldness far beyond their size. They decide on a thing then do it. The males defend their offspring fiercely, repelling even the mothers, so recently lured in with a flash of color. Father used the proper names for their anatomies and metamorphoses. He never did have any patience with baby talk. When it became obvious that our charges were not thriving, he had us collect them up and release them back into the wild.
In 1951 I reached the age of eighteen, old enough for national service but not to vote. It was the year the Festival of Britain showed us how to look forward and what we could hope to find there. The Tories loathed the whole idea. After they won the election that October, they demolished the site and threw most of it into the Thames. But that hadn’t happened yet.
Mother sent me ten shillings for the festival, which she could not well afford. I was a month into my service, and while the first set of clothing was free, minor items were issued as “slops”—that is to say, deducted from our pay. So although in theory I was paid twenty-eight shillings a week, I had yet to receive anywhere near that rate. And except for meals, the money had to cover everything, including all kit maintenance, blacking, metal polish, etc. The quality of the navy’s material was excellent, I found, but the garments were not well put together. In the first week, for example, all the buttons came off my coat. Had we found ourselves at war, we’d have been running about with uniforms flapping, tripping us up and signaling our ineptitude to the enemy.
Ten shillings was a great deal for my mother at that time, because the day after I arrived at the training camp my father had set out to work and not come back. My mother had my sister, Alice, still at home, and nothing for the two of them to live on except a post office account and the chickens Mother kept in the back garden.
The only person my father had been in contact with was his brother, my uncle Walter, which we knew because Walter had written to reassure us that Father was not lying facedown in a ditch, as we had feared for some days, but sleeping, peacefully or otherwise, on Walter’s studio couch in Southend. So when I learned that our camp would have the chance to visit the festival, I took advantage to arrange, via my uncle, a meeting at which I hoped Father would explain his reasons and intentions. Walter wrote that I should not expect too much, which I understood to be code that my father was not yet ready to go home.
I conveyed all this to my mother, as I did not want to keep any more secrets than were necessary, and thought that in general people behaved more rationally when they had all the facts. I counseled that she should not let the news cause either fresh apprehension or renewed hope. In her previous letter she had written that the chickens were off their food and had taken to hiding themselves about the garden and panicking at imaginary sounds, and having no reason to believe otherwise I assured her that they would settle down soon.
She worried repeatedly over the jobs that Father usually did, asking me which ones were urgent. The dripping tap. The rattling window frame. The loose slate that banged all night when the wind got up. Since my part in such tasks had been to do whatever Father told me to do, I found it hard to advise her. I had supposed that at some undefined date the knowledge of how a man maintained his house would be passed to me, all at once, so that I could assume the responsibilities of an adult, but he had left without warning or preparation.
Father had encouraged me to see national service as an opportunity rather than a sentence, and helped me plan the best route through it, from joining the naval cadets at school to identifying the most interesting postings for junior officers. As I mentioned, I had barely started my training when he disappeared, and potential outcomes and any part I might play in them kept running through my mind and churning it to mud. I failed inspections. I made inexplicable mistakes in radio and navigation, and even knots, which I’d been practicing for years. My fellow conscripts backed away from me, as if my errors might be contagious. The officers judged me a hopeless case and saved their shouting. Everyone took it for granted that I would not pass the board, and would spend the next two years scrubbing decks, without choice or variation or so much as the chance to look up and see what lay around me. I was determined to avoid this fate, but every day I felt myself a little farther adrift.
I wondered what was in my father’s head, whether he, too, was distracted and confused, or as calm and contained as ever. I thought particularly of when I’d seen him last, the morning I left home. He walked me to the train station, making a little speech on the way.
“Seven-tenths of the earth’s surface is water. A man should see that for himself. A man should feel what it is to have the ocean beneath his feet and waves rolling in every direction.”
I did not respond as I had no opinion, and was in any case already queasy without thinking about waves. Fortunately, he moved from watery to more general precepts.
“Every experience is a chance to gain knowledge. If you cannot tell the truth, say nothing. Help others when you can, and explain your reasons when you can’t.”
It was mostly platitudes of this sort, although I have no doubt that he believed them, and could not conceive of a society that did not base itself on such values. When we reached the station, he shook my hand.
“Good luck, John. Remember to write to your mother.”
As he was departing, he turned to give me one last piece of advice.
“No one respects a mumbler. Always speak up.”
Then off he went, in his brown suit and brown hat, the exact color you would choose to camouflage yourself against the dusty road.
With Mother’s ten shillings in my pocket, I boarded the coach that had been laid on to take us to
London and passed the two-hour journey practicing Morse code in my head.
I had intended to stay at the armed forces club, the Union Jack, which was about half the price of anywhere else. Unfortunately, every serviceman in the country must have had the same idea, and I ended up at Clapham South Deep Shelter, a part of the Underground that had been converted into an air-raid shelter during the war and was serving as overflow accommodation during the festival. In between, it had housed those arriving from the Commonwealth with no relatives to put them up, and a very bleak first impression of Britain it must have given them.
To enter or exit, one had to queue for a narrow lift or tackle 150 feet of stairs. There was nowhere to leave luggage, and the beds, which guests had to make themselves, were narrow, short, and hard. During the hours that the Underground was running, nearby tunnels emitted a tooth-rattling roar every few minutes. In all other respects, the world above was so distant and inaudible that had it ended in a fiery Armageddon we would not have known. It was easy to believe that the victory celebrations, the demob parades, Mother packing away the blackout curtains had never happened, that instead of six years of peace we’d endured another six years of war, and that up on the surface men were running, fragments flying, homes ripping open to reveal their pathetic scraps of domesticity: a lamp, a rug, an armchair.
Within the shelter, every sound echoed and reechoed, clanging and pealing as if the whole place were a watchtower sounding an alarm. People stomped about until two in the morning, and then again from seven on when the lights went up, leaving a scant few hours during which one could hope to rest. In addition, although many of the fittings, such as the bunks and washrooms, were primitive and rickety, the ventilation system was remarkably efficient. A cold wind blew all night, defeating the thin blanket and then the thick service coat I put over the top of it, leaving me awake to listen to a menagerie of grunts and yelps and whines, magnified and bouncing around my head, as my fellow guests regressed to their animal forms.
The next morning, when I was making ready to leave, I discovered that during my brief moments of sleep some crook had stolen my penknife. I was sorry to lose it. While its monetary value was small, it was a decent knife and had been a present from Father.
I emerged into sunshine, feeling much as Orpheus must have when stumbling out of Hades to find that the seasons had rolled on above him. The dew was sparkling, and the trees held out their leaves like open green hands. I had some hours before meeting my father, and with no desire to return beneath ground for a train, I walked the couple of miles up to Battersea, where the festival’s Pleasure Gardens were located. London was still being pieced back together, and I saw plenty of scaffolding and new construction, but also expanses of rubble and willow herb, as if the rebuilding were being approached with some caution.
On reaching the gardens, I realized that my pleasure would be rationed. Admission was two shillings, and it was another for the roundabouts or the Big Dipper, two for the dodgems, and so on.
I had not seen such crowds, nor such queues, since the end of the war. People of my parents’ generation, the men in suits and the women in dark coats, stood stiff and upright, smiling left and right to show that they would like to join in if only they knew how, but the young had flung away their ties and jackets and cardigans and were bare-armed and bare-necked, laughing and shrieking. I myself had taken off my coat, but after shifting it from one awkward position to another, I put it back on.
Many of the rides had been brought in from the United States. Evidently, while we had been digging up roses to plant turnips and fashioning shirts out of tablecloths, the Americans had been concocting elaborate devices of fun. I was intrigued by one in particular—new to me and most others, I believe—a vertical cylinder revolving at speed, whose floor dropped away to leave its riders pinned to the walls, looking like trickery to those who failed to understand the principles of centripetal force. All the girls screamed like souls in torment, and one fainted and had to be carried out afterward. When I rode in it, I found that it was not very comfortable, and at the conclusion I had to sit by the fountains for some minutes.
One curious effect of my father’s disappearance was that I saw him everywhere, in a familiar stride or gesture, a certain tilt of the head. On this occasion, it was the way a man clasped his hands behind his back. I approached him but knew, even as he turned, that he was a stranger. He seemed affronted, as if I were accusing him of something shameful, and I hurried away, feeling foolish. I had recently written to Mother about this very tendency, warning her that the heart, or rather the mind, will deceive our eyes if we let it.
I took the bus to the main exhibition site, where another admission claimed five of my remaining shillings. The Telecinema would have cost a further shilling, so with regret I crossed it off my list. In any case, I was preoccupied with the rendezvous to come. I practiced what I imagined were manly phrases. “Now look here, old chap, we really must put an end to this nonsense.” “I say, my good fellow, we simply cannot allow this shabby state of affairs to continue.” That sort of thing.
We had arranged to meet at the Skylon, chiefly because it was easy to find. It was supposed to symbolize our sparkling aluminum future, but to me it looked like a remnant of the war, a slim barrage balloon standing on its tail. Whenever my gaze hit on it, I thought first of my father and then of the sound of planes in the night.
I spotted Uncle Walter immediately, and as I neared I could not avoid acknowledging that he was alone.
“He’s not coming,” he said. “I’m sorry, John.” It was the first time anyone involved in the dismal situation had apologized.
Perhaps Father had made the appointment in good faith, but on further reflection he had decided not to keep it. Did not wish, probably, to be questioned or held to account. I recalled the expression of the man I had accosted earlier.
“I must see him,” I said. “We simply cannot allow this shabby state of affairs to continue.”
Walter raised his eyebrows, and I reminded myself that I was eighteen years old and almost qualified to defend my country.
“We really must put an end to this nonsense,” I said. “Let’s go back to Southend right now.”
“He’s not staying with me anymore,” Walter said in his even voice, so like my father’s. “He’s decided to move on. He’s leaving London today.”
“Where is he going?”
“He asked me not to tell you. If you want to contact him, you may send a letter to me, and I will forward it.”
My practiced phrases fell away.
“I don’t agree with his decision,” Walter said, “but I feel I must respect his wishes.”
I asked if Father had given any reason for his actions, and Walter said no. I asked if a woman was involved, and he said he thought not. I asked if Father’s leaving was temporary, and again he said he thought not. I asked if he knew Father’s plans, and he said he did not. I asked if, indeed, Father had any plans, and my uncle paused for a long moment, then said he didn’t know.
Father used to say that human beings are a mystery and you never truly know even those closest to you. It has since occurred to me that perhaps he meant this not as observation but as warning.
Walter stood frowning at his shoes. He was not only my uncle but also my godfather. He had taken an interest in my schooling and had always remembered my birthday, even during the war, when he was having his own difficulties. He looked up at me.
“I imagine he will visit some of the exhibits before he goes.”
The Land of Britain was mud and swamp, life compressed into fuel. I passed by, knowing my father would not linger there, and pushed on through the arrival of farming, the growth of towns, steam, industry, production, until I reached transport. Gleaming motorcycles and cars primed to spring from their plinths and out onto roads not yet imagined. Crowds of men stood reverent, but he was not among them.
I moved on to the Dome of Discovery. It was like stepping into a giant spacecraft that aliens or our future time-traveling selves had docked beside the Thames. The exhibits celebrated Britain’s mastery over mountain, sea, desert, ice, sky, outer space. In the polar section, a team of bored huskies turned cold eyes on the throng. And there, gazing right back at them, was Father.
He was hatless, his hair noticeably longer, curling about his head in an eccentric fashion, and he wore not his brown suit but a darker one, without a tie. It struck me as odd that he would have left his family to go out shopping for clothes, but then I thought perhaps the suit was Uncle Walter’s—it did have the look of something made for a taller man.
He did not seem surprised to see me, nor sorry, nor pleased. We shook hands like old acquaintances and went to the nearest of the cafés for a cup of tea.
“It’s most impressive, all this,” he said, once we were seated. “Quite a show.” He sounded like his usual self.
For several minutes we talked of trivia—the festival, the weather, my officers and fellow recruits, the shocking price of everything in London—until I interrupted an anecdote about mint sauce to ask him to explain himself. He was my father and it was not my habit to confront him, so I was nervous, and perhaps I fluffed my line. At any rate, he looked at me, then laughed, not unkindly, but with a fleeting puzzlement, as if he did not understand my question but did not mind too much.
“How is your mother?” he asked. It was his first mention of her.
“She is well,” I replied, “but very anxious. And emotional.”
“Is she?” This was news to him, it seemed.
“She baked three candles in the oven last week. She had to scrape the wax out with a knife.”
“It’s a difficult time for her, both of us leaving at once.”
I stared for a moment or two, but he showed no trace of discomfort.
“I was called up,” I reminded him. “I had no choice.”
“And how is your sister?”
“Alice is anxious, too.”
“I hope she is doing well at school?”
“Yes. Top of her class.”
He nodded. “I believe that the neglect of women’s education is among the most significant challenges facing our country.”
He offered this as revelation, but I had heard him on the theme many times before. I tried to reel the conversation back toward more immediate problems.
“In situations like these, girls are often forced to leave school.”
He switched abruptly to another of his pet subjects, the theory that humans should eat only fruit and honey and nuts and such limited portions of animal protein as wandering nomads might happen upon, avoiding cereal and milk especially. At Walter’s, he said, he had adopted a strict new regime, and to this he attributed the fact that his knees no longer bothered him.
I thought his evidence insufficient but did not say so. “You could follow such a diet anywhere.”
He looked at me, and changed topic again. “You still take an interest in science, I’m sure,” he said, as if we had not seen each other for years.
“Do you know that they have equipment here that allows you to observe a radio signal transmitted to the moon? That’s something worth seeing.”
I had to agree with him.
“We are on the brink of marvelous achievements,” he said. “Electronic brains and mechanical men. The end of disease and starvation. This will be a golden age of discovery.”
“I have heard that.”
“I do wish I’d been born forty years later.” He appeared to think this a perfectly reasonable desire, forgetting, perhaps, that it would erase the births of his children. “I should like to experience it all. This century and the next.”
“My concern is this month and the next. What should I tell Mother?”
“How many of us decide our own future?”
I wasn’t sure whether he expected me to answer this.
He put his hand to his heart, in the manner of one about to make a declaration of deep importance. But instead he said, “You know, John, I’m not feeling quite myself.”
He did look pale.
“Are you ill?” I asked, thinking this would explain a great deal.
“Perhaps a glass of water would help,” he said.
“I’ll fetch one for you.”
“No, no,” he said. “I’ll go. You wait here.”
I protested, but he was already up. As I said, he was my father, and it was my habit to obey him.
I watched him walk away. Among the crowds and the shadows between them, the dark suit blended in better than his old brown one would have.
I waited fifteen minutes, ample for him to make his escape. Then I went back to the exhibition.
That afternoon, I resolved to stop trying to be manly and to start taking some responsibility. When evening arrived, instead of boarding the coach and returning to camp, as I was required by law to do, I hitched to my mother’s. It took nearly four hours, so I had plenty of time to ponder the consequences and how I would face them.
For years, Alice and I sent Father, via Uncle Walter, news of significant events—graduations, marriages, births. Walter assured us that the letters were received, but not once did we hear back, and gradually we stopped.
When Mother died, in 1987, I wrote to Father again, as I supposed he should be told and did not know how else he would find out. And again I had to ask my uncle to forward the letter. In a matter of days, Father replied—our first contact in more than three decades. He said he was sorry to learn of her death, though it must have been a happy release from suffering. (It did not seem to occur to him that he might have been a cause of that suffering.) He also said he believed that death is not a reason for alarm or grief, that life is like electricity, passing on to light up another bulb when the old one is worn out or broken.
He revealed that since leaving London he had been living in Spain. He said that the climate and character suited him well and he had never regretted going south, although his roots and sympathies remained in Britain. He did not explain what he meant by that. Then he wrote for three pages of the minutiae of his daily activities—his garden, his bees, the weather, the melting snow in the mountains, local wildlife, his favorite radio programs—with not a single question about me or Alice or any of his grandchildren. He did say that when he listened to the BBC it awakened nostalgia and memories, as of another existence. And I think this is how he viewed the period of his life that we had shared: like the experience of another person, not intimately connected to him.
He signed the letter “sincerely,” as if unwilling to offer even the most formulaic expression of love. Just, “My best to your family. Sincerely, Dad” (not a name I had ever used for him). In the margin he added, “Will you pass on my best to your sister.”
In the course of the letter, he told me, too, that he would send his address when he was settled. When he was settled! He’d lived in that village for more than thirty years, most of it in the same house. He’d planted peach and apricot trees in the garden, some of which were two feet round the trunk when he died. I know this because Alice and I visited afterward, to settle his few affairs.
From Mother we had inherited, in addition to some savings bonds and a surly cat, a vast quantity of ephemera: snapshots and postcards, pictures that Alice and I had drawn, school reports, examination certificates, invitations to weddings and christenings, photos of the grandchildren, Christmas and birthday cards. But Father left nothing. He had no relations in Spain that we could trace—all our speculation about a second family had been false—no money, scarcely any possessions, certainly none worth saving, no photographs or letters or other evidence of human relationships. His neighbors told us he’d mostly kept to himself.
I never did replace the stolen knife. Father had given it to me on a family camping trip, showing me how to whittle with it, how to splice a rope and pick a horse’s hooves. He gave Alice a book about the seashore, and helped her identify cockles and whelks and edible crabs. With these gifts, we could have survived a day or two, perhaps, if he’d left us there alone.
The campsite was behind a beach in Cornwall, with pines so thick around and above that even by day it was dim and shadowy. The scent of conifers always reminds me of that holiday. Mother, as usual, kept snapping away with her camera. I often look at those photos now. Several show the site. “Our camp,” she wrote on the back of one, and, “Another view of our camp,” on another. There is just one of her. She is twirling on the sand, like a girl, arms outstretched and head high, a wide smile on her face. “Don’t I look a duck,” she wrote. Most are of Alice and me, playing or swimming or eating or squabbling. In the background, my father stares out at the waves or walks away from us along the beach or leans on the trunk of a tree, his back to the camera, gazing at a horizon only he can see.
In fact, aside from their wedding album, I don’t think I’ve seen a single picture of my father’s face.
I am an old man now. I have outlived my wife and my sister and one of my sister’s children. I have done no great harm, I believe, but certain small and repeated unkindnesses lie so heavy that on wakeful nights they can stop my breath. When I think about what is to come for me, I do not think far ahead. When I think about what is to come for those I will leave behind, I am afraid.
That day in 1951, after Father left, I returned to the Dome of Discovery. I studied displays on nebulae and red giants, feeling a calming of my emotions in the contemplation of unimaginable remoteness. Finally, I found the demonstration he had mentioned. A cathode ray tube showed how a radio signal, transmitted from the site, reflected off the moon and returned to us two and a half seconds later. It was simple and effective, an almost tangible representation of the powers we could harness, the distance we could travel.
That was the future, we thought then: the stars, the galaxies, outer space. The things we feared were not quite the same as those we fear now. We believed that we had managed to hold civilization together, against the odds and at huge cost, and that it was still under imminent threat from any number of destructive forces. We worried about war and plague and revolution; the next ice age; the end of Empire and empires; and most of all, a single, impetuous moment that would trigger catastrophe: radiation, mutation, our species surviving, if at all, as a deformed, damaged version of what we had been. Only the advancement of knowledge could save us. Science would build the machines that would allow humanity to step out into the solar system and beyond. The petty grievances of the earth would be dwarfed by the new adventure. Our world would finally come to seem—perhaps during my life, perhaps by the end of the century—a noisy, crowded place where we had passed a little time before moving out into the grand, airy habitations of the universe.