My father would be ninety-two this month if he hadn’t died in 1981.
In the final years before he died, my father mainly did two things – or three, if you count banging his walking stick on the ceiling and shouting at the Houghton kids upstairs to turn down their music. The black rubber tip of the walking stick left small round marks on the ceiling. After his second stroke it became too much effort to lever himself up from his La-Z-Boy recliner, so he had to content himself with looking up from his large-print hardcover library-edition Louis L’Amour cowboy novel and glaring at the ceiling. I knew I should take over banging duties from him. If I stood on the back of the couch and held the stick above my head and jumped I could have made good enough contact, but I never did and afterwards I felt guilty.
The two things he mainly did were read books and tell me stories. He read many books – Louis L’Amour westerns, Ian Fleming, Alistair MacLean and books set during World War II. My father couldn’t drive a car any more or go to work, but I never thought he was doing nothing. He was reading books, and to me that was a good and serious thing for a grown-up to do.
My father was a big and strong man before his stroke, with wavy hair and a moustache. In old photos he looks like a young Ernest Hemingway during the Paris years, before he grew a beard. My father read Hemingway, especially the war novels, but he thought Hemingway tried too hard to be tough. My father had been a nightclub bouncer and a boxer and a dockyard welder, and he knew what tough was.
At night I lay in bed with my head on my father’s chest and we’d listen to Springbok Radio and he would put his arms around me if it was a scary show like Squad Cars or There’s a Twist in the Tale. In those days I was sensitive to scary and afraid of the dark, but I could afford to be because my dad was there. Afterwards, he would tell me stories about his life, growing up in Depression-era Pretoria in a violent home, leaving at fifteen to join the railways. He never finished Standard Seven and he was always aware of that fact. He told me stories about loves he’d loved and about his three previous marriages before my mom. He told me that women preferred wavy hair to straight.
‘Not any more,’ I told him, thinking about Caron Priestley in my class.
‘You’ll see,’ he said.
He told me about the fights he’d had and the friendships he’d made and the times he’d let people down, and how it was when his brother killed himself. Fathers teach their sons about being men, even when that isn’t what they’re intending to do. Had he lived I would have learnt more useful things, and perhaps truer things, but all he had time to teach me was that a man is someone who tells good stories, and has good stories to tell.
Most of the stories he told me were true, some were not. Some of the best and most unbelievable were true. The made-up stories very often involved overseas travel and frequently Paris. Once he told me how during the war he had been recruited for an SOE mission that involved being parachuted into the fields of occupied France with a sten gun that could be dismantled and disguised as a metal leg brace. His mission was to infiltrate the city disguised as a French peasant with polio, render assistance to the local maquis and await instructions regarding a high-profile Nazi assassination. He had a parachute made of ultra-fine silk that could be folded to the size of a handkerchief. The parachute cords could be turned into garrottes. He had a trick with a matchstick and its matchbox that would imitate the creak of a wooden leg, in case he ever needed to pretend he had a wooden leg. He warned me against cliché: ‘The Germans expect you to be wearing a beret. Only a real Frenchman can wear a beret without looking like someone trying to look French.’
In his stories, the war always ended before he could be deployed. He never went to Paris in real life either, although he very much wished he could. He never went overseas at all.
When my father died we had to move house and all his books disappeared. My mother probably donated them to the church fête. For many years it bothered me to think of them. They were cheap paperbacks and so vulnerable, and I didn’t like to think of them separated from one another and under different roofs, alone among other books. It felt as though all those books together made a picture of him, and that being scattered they were like his ashes or the atoms of him: all the parts of him still existed in the world, but cruelly, because they could never be put back together again.
Every time I go past a church bazaar or a second-hand bookstore I open old paperbacks in the usually unconscious hope of seeing his name written in blue ballpoint on the title page. If I ever find one I will take it home and read it and keep it with me, but I know that thirty-two years later all those old paperbacks are rotted and gone. They are unbinding and un-composing in landfills, swollen in groundwater like tongues. If I had inherited them, they would still be safe. I could pick them up, holding them carefully to protect the cheap, glued spines. Perhaps I wouldn’t read them, not now, when I have so many books of my own still to read, but I would have them.
I have been thinking about my father’s books lately, because it has recently occurred to me that I will probably not have children of my own, and it makes me think: what will happen to my books when I’m gone? The books I’ve read, even if I never read them again, mean more to me than any words I’ve written. I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but try as I might, I can’t bring myself to think of myself as anything more than the sum of the books I own.
Perhaps it is just as well that I have no children, because it would be a cruel legacy to leave: a library of someone else’s life that will cost you three rooms of a house if you keep them and a lifelong burden of guilt if you don’t. But I do fear for them, and sometimes I find myself thinking about the end of the world with a kind of furtive relief. If everything ends, I don’t have to worry what will happen to my books.
It is my birthday this month, and also my father’s birthday and the anniversary of his death. On his birthday I will be in Paris and perhaps I’ll walk with a limp and make a creaking sound using a matchstick and a matchbox concealed in my pocket. I’ll walk up Rue Mouffetard and sit under the trees in the Place Contrescarpe where Hemingway went when he had no money and I’ll read a Louis L’Amour novel and, when I go, I’ll leave it behind because if my father is to be scattered into the world I want to be sure that some part made it there.
5 April 2013