When my father was diagnosed with colorectal cancer twenty months ago, the first thing his doctors decided to do was fit him with a stoma, which turned out to be a less dispiriting term for giving him a colostomy. He had private health insurance, so he was booked in at a small hospital outside Brighton with a view of the sea and, he was assured, a functioning wireless network. He bought a new laptop to take along – not for working on a book he’d always meant to write or even, primarily, for sending emails, but for playing Scrabble against opponents on the internet while convalescing. My brother and I visited him soon after the operation, and I remember thinking, on the way in, about the scene in Blue Velvet in which Kyle MacLachlan visits his father in hospital. As I remembered it, the father’s horribly trussed up, with a respirator pumping and an oxygen mask on his face, as a result of his heart attack in the opening scene. My dad, post-surgery, looked healthier than Kyle’s, but he did have a transparent oxygen mask on, and after I kissed him he indicated it and said: ‘It’s like Blue Velvet!’ I think he meant Dennis Hopper’s more memorable gas mask, and I admired him for joking about that then.
Without having really thought about it, I had a vague notion that having a terminal illness might lead one to experience moments of great clarity while listening to late Beethoven quartets. Maybe it does, but over the next few months I learned that it can also function like any other deadline, leading to much playing of online games and distracted reordering of MP3 files – in my dad’s case, mostly operas by Rameau and Handel. My brother and I clubbed together and got him a new iPod (his fag packet-sized, early-adopted one was moribund), but in truth he was more interested in a touchscreen device made by Cowon for storing and playing films and music that he’d worked up enough desire for to order himself. The movie he downloaded to try it out with was an existentialist thriller by Jean-Pierre Melville, Le Cercle rouge, and not long after his 60th birthday I watched it with him, having gone to my parents’ house to look after him for the day (my mother had had to go and look after her mother). We managed to get it playing, in the middle of this strange scene, on the enormous flat screen TV that had sprouted on the dresser in my parents’ bedroom. But my main memory is of us laughing – in his case a little breathlessly – at a later episode in which Yves Montand, playing a dipsomaniac sharpshooter, is menaced by psychedelically-rendered visions of lizards and tarantulas crawling over his bed.
My father died very suddenly the next day of a pulmonary embolism brought on by the drug treatment. My wife was pregnant with our second child, and one night, alarmed by signs of a possible miscarriage, we found ourselves back in the A&E department in which he’d been pronounced dead three days earlier. (‘Died, eh?’ the Polish scanner technician said when my wife tried to explain why I’d burst into tears so violently after we’d been told that all was well. ‘Was it something serious?’) So I wasn’t paying much attention when Google Street View went live in the UK two days later – the culmination of months in which cars like this were to be seen around city centres, collecting data from people’s wireless networks as well as pictures, it turns out. If I had noticed, I’d probably have thought that my dad would have been annoyed about not getting to play with it: always a ready buyer when aerial photographers came by with snaps of the house and garden, he’d recently ordered a wireless webcam for fitting to a bird feeder, with the idea of keeping an eye on the local woodpeckers even when confined to his bed. Arranging the return of this item, which arrived too late in an urn-sized box, was one of the tasks I’d recently taken on.
My mother insisted that I should take the newish laptop, which I’m writing this on, and last July – in the middle of moving somewhere more pushchair-approachable – I used it to look my flat up on Google Maps. After putting in my postcode and switching to Street View, the first thing I saw was this:
And here I experienced a bodily reaction, a racing and tingling of the blood: there’s a figure on my now ex-balcony, between the trees. I also began to feel like Harrison Ford in Blade Runner, using his voice-operated ‘Esper Machine’ to pan and zoom around a photo in search of clues. ‘Track right,’ as Harrison might say. ‘Stop. Enhance. Centre in. Stop. Enhance and stop.’
No prizes for guessing that that’s my father, his features probably blurred by distance rather than Google’s facial recognition software. Judging from the size of the child he’s holding – my son – and the shagginess of the trees, it’s July or August 2008, two or three months before his illness was diagnosed.
I’d like to be able to report that this ghostly image triggered a powerful epiphany in me. But I wasn’t sure then, and I’m not sure now, what I felt about it beyond surprise and sadness, or even how much purchase my feelings have on it. As one of my dad’s favourite novelists wrote about the telephone in 1920 or so, habit doesn’t take long ‘to divest of their mystery the sacred forces with which we are in contact’, and the papers, too, have made short work of the potential for spookiness in ‘Google Streak View’. One of my first responses was an internet-schooled one: who should I send a link to? I also remember feeling bad about not being someone like Milan Kundera, who’d have a better idea of what the picture was a metaphor for. But my experience is that high-tech toys and mourning don’t work particularly well together: it’s hard to invest much feeling in things when under the narcotic spell of consumer gadgetry, which was perhaps my dad’s main use for it – and of course mine for our shared repertoire of movie references. All the same, I look up my old flat from time to time to see if he’s still there. He is, though presumably another Google car will be along in a while.