His voice: that’s what I remember most about Dad. It wasn’t in any way extraordinary, at least not as far as I can judge, but I think one cannot help but be partial about the voices of the people one loves most because it is so much a part of their being, their familiarity, just like smell.
Dad’s voice was unremarkable and pleasant and low-timbred, and every now and then a hint of the Scottish brogue of his youth would surface, and that’s how I would be able to tell when he was feeling emotionally charged: whether it be in anger or in excitement or in tenderness, in those moments he reverted – unconsciously, I think – to the habits of childhood and the accent of the Borders where he grew up.
He had that little lilt in his voice the day he told Mum he was “going in”. That’s how he put it: “We’re going in”, short and sweet and loaded. Of course, they had been expecting the news for days but somehow I think they had been ignoring it, ostrich-fashion, in an if-we-don’t-talk-about-it, it-won’t-happen kind of way. I could hear the guilt in his voice, the concern for Mum and me and, undeniably, a real thread of excitement as well, a frisson of raw machismo. I don’t know if Mum heard it too; I think she probably did because she knew Dad so well and she loved him so much, but she didn’t say anything about it. She just sighed and said “Oh, Charles.” Just as short, and just as loaded.
We hugged then, the three of us; Mum tried hard not to cry, and Dad whispered some loving and reassuring banalities like “It’ll be all right, you’ll see” and “I’ll be back in no time” and “I’ll miss you” while his mind was already on the days ahead, and Mum went to the loo and threw up.
Strange how I remember that day so much more clearly than the next day or the day after, Dad’s last day with us. It all seems a bit of a blur because Mum was so upset, although I think she put up a pretty good show for Dad. He was in a strange mix of high and low spirits, of excitement and regret, which accentuated his burr even more than usual, and in some odd way it felt like he’d already left.
When we did eventually wave him goodbye at our front door, she told me that she wasn’t up to seeing him off amidst pomp and circumstance like the other wives probably would.
“But we’ll be fine, you and I,” she said. “Your daddy will be back in no time.” She almost sang it and she would sing it again often in due course, like a little mantra.
She cleaned the house from top to bottom that day. In the evening we sat down and watched television, and the voice of the newscaster was impassive as he announced the deployment of yet more troops. Mum tried to spot Dad on TV and point him out to me but of course there were so many of them – and not even from his regiment – that it was a futile exercise, but it made us feel part of the bigger picture.
Nothing much upset our routine for a couple of months until the day the newscaster, his voice suitably grave this time, announced the start of the war. We’d been getting regular letters from Dad and Mum had read them out to me more than once. They were mostly about heat and boredom, about the lack of facilities, and they carried with them a steadily growing sense of frustration and suppressed adrenaline, never quite voiced. The words were strong with his brogue although Mum didn’t intone it. She vacillated between sympathising and saying brave little prayers to ward off the unimaginable and yet all too real prospect of war, the culmination of her fears. Thus, when the sombre tones of the news reader intruded into our living room with the unwelcome if not unexpected announcement it almost gave us a sense of relief because one episode of waiting was over, though we were very much aware another, much harder period of waiting would now begin.
For us, however, that period did not last long.
Dad was amongst the first group of soldiers killed in action. In some ways, we were fortunate it happened in the evening and news of it didn’t break until the next morning, by which time they’d already sent their envoys, those poor people who have the sad duty to tell someone that their other someone is not coming back… will never be coming back. I don’t know how or if they ever get used to it, but it seemed to me they were particularly gentle with us. At least, unlike some people, we didn’t hear about it on the news.
Mum saw the stripes first, chest high – eye-high to her because she’s quite short – those decorations of valour that Dad would never get to wear, now, and her first impulse was to slam the door in the uniform’s face so as to delay the horrible inevitability for just another few moments, but of course she did nothing of the kind. She allowed herself to be led, sheep-like, to the sofa in the living room, and she let the voice wash over her in all its seriousness, in all its compassion, in all its platitudes.
“Do you have someone you could stay with, someone who could look after you – ” the empathic voice asked, and then added, significantly, “ – both of you?”
I think it was this phrase that broke Mum’s carefully shored dam. She started crying then, and she didn’t stop for what seemed to me days – weeks, perhaps.
She spoke very little to me during that time, too wrapped up in her personal desolation, too frightened, perhaps, to acknowledge the connotations of my very real presence. She allowed herself to be coddled by various well-meaning intruders and, for a while, abrogated all responsibility, her withdrawal palpable and complete.
There seems to me to be a peculiar bubble that only the bereaved can occupy. It acts as a magnifying glass; it exaggerates and enhances even the smallest splinters of memory. Mum availed herself of every little splinter she could punish herself with, and she stabbed herself right in the heart, over and over.
As for me, I remained as quiet as I could. Somehow I understood the turmoil in Mum’s mind, and I simply waited for her to return to me as I knew she eventually would, and meanwhile, the intruders – Mum’s older sisters – took care of us in the best way they could. They cooked and cleaned and spoke in soothing voices, and they accompanied us to Dad’s funeral, propping Mum up when she was about to keel over with the sheer weight of her grief.
It is another day I have clear recollection of, almost like bullet-points of minor detail. From the start it was filled with music; stern dark notes echoing unspoken waves of emotion, or rigid brittle notes recalling devotion and duty, or low ululating notes like silent little wails, alternating with long solemn silences.
The music was punctuated by speeches, the voices of the speakers in turn compassionate, earnest, apologetic, droning, passionate, patronising and/or humble when they talked about what I assume are the usual predictable inanities when faced with making sense of something so inexcusable as untimely death for a questionable cause.
The funeral triggered something in Mum. For a while afterwards, she became a raving banshee, and her poor sisters had their hands full with her. Privately, I imagine they agreed with every bit of vitriol she poured out against the war, the injustice of it, and most of all, against Dad, for leaving her – for leaving us! at this time! – to get himself killed for absolutely nothing, but they did their best to calm Mum down. I suppose they were trying to protect me, but in some ways I welcomed Mum’s anger, shared it, and ultimately felt oddly released by it.
Then, one night, Mum told her well-intentioned minders that it was time for them to go. She was quite calm about it.
“I’ll be all right,” she said, and, seeing their concerned questioning little glances, assertively repeated, “We’ll be all right,” and a little hesitantly, though probably with some sense of relief, they returned to their own lives, though of course they kept calling Mum on the phone, at first frequently and anxiously, then growing increasingly reassured. They continued dropping in on us as well, but it did begin to feel as though some normalcy had been restored.
Mum had started talking to me again, and once she did it was like the flood-gates had been opened. She told me a lot about Dad: how she’d first met him – romance at first sight when one of her shopping bags burst in the middle of a busy road and he came to her rescue like the proverbial knight in shining armour – and how quickly they’d fallen in love, and how she travelled with him when he was posted abroad. She dug out the wedding photos and reminisced over them, and she still cried from time to time but it was not the soul-deep, desolate, helpless weeping of before.
She told me Dad’s favourite colour, and mentioned some of his annoying little habits like leaving the cap off the toothpaste or leaving his socks lying about all scrunched up on the bedroom floor, but somehow she had an indulgent smile in her voice. She gave me a running commentary on all the aspects of their life together; sometimes she cooked his favourite food while telling me about the last time they’d had that particular dish together. Her memories, no longer shards, were shared with me in precious possession. One day, she went through his wardrobe and sorted out some things for charity, but a few of his favourite clothes she kept.
“You’ll be able to wear them one day, when you’re big enough,” she said.
I know that my impression of Dad changed in the light of all the information I received; the voice I remembered fleshed out into a complete person: a man with strengths and weaknesses – Mum was quite objective – an essentially decent and honourable man, but above all, a loving and much loved warm, human person.
“He died doing what he believed in,” she said, and although she did not sound entirely convinced, her anger had largely faded.
Sometimes, Mum went quiet and I knew that she was thinking about the future, worrying how we would cope, worrying about the immense load she would carry, but she never vocalised her fears. Instead, she busied herself with mundane tasks such as doing the dishes or cleaning the windows or sorting through piles of photographs and carefully placing them in albums, and lately she took up knitting, as well. She accepted what she self-deprecatingly called her “moods”, but she soon snapped herself back to attention and to the present and told me some more stories, not only of Dad but of life and its lessons in general: and I noticed all Mum’s stories had happy endings as though she was willing it to be so.
Yesterday, Mum was restless and less talkative than of late. She paced the floor, bracing her hips on occasion, then walking around the house aimlessly. I could tell she longed for a cigarette but discarded the idea because she remembered how very guilty she felt the last time she’d sneaked outside behind the shed and inhaled deeply, worrying even then what the neighbours might say, worrying that someone might smell the smoke on her clothes, worrying about condemnatory glances.
She kept glancing at the clock, and pacing some more.
Eventually, she got on the phone and called one of her sisters.
“I think it’s time,” she said, and her sister was with us within minutes, bundled us into the car and went off with scant regard for traffic rules.
Seven and a bit hours later, the midwife wrapped me in blankets and placed me in my Mum’s tired but eager arms.
“You have a wonderful, healthy little baby boy,” she said to Mum.
I looked up into her face for the first time, and saw that she was beautiful.
“Hello, Charlie,” she said, and kissed me.