My father died recently. He was 72, and had been living in a hotel in northern Thailand. He was busy writing a book. From what I’ve seen of it, the book was about his early years as a German Jew set adrift in the boarding-schools of wartime England. Six decades later, my father was still adrift. Homeless, transient, unpredictable. He flew to Europe and left a message on my answerphone. ‘Jake? Is that you? It’s Harold . . . Dad. I’m in London. Jake?’
He hated telephones. He avoided arrangements. He preferred to show up on your doorstep, trusting to luck. But now his energy was dwindling, and his luck.
He’d found a hotel in King’s Cross, opposite the station. Room 12a (between 12 and 14) was on the second floor. You could look down and see all the people and the endless traffic and, as dusk settled, the winking cash sign on the amusement arcade just below. Here my father died.
The coroner explained haemopericardium and ruptured myocardial infarction. Then he shrugged, slowly, palms out. ‘Basically, your father had a massive heart attack. He’d have felt no pain. He’d have felt nothing. It’s like a light going out.’ I blinked at the man, then looked up at the strip light on the ceiling. In the distance I could hear cars and someone shouting. Beside me, my sister made a breathy sound – a tiny, unforgettable sound.
A month after my father died, I finally unzipped his suitcase. The first thing was the smell. Pure essence of my father. A numinous charge of sweat and shaving cream and something like hot tar.
There was his striped winter scarf, neatly folded. Here were the T-shirts, the faded brown, the blue. Next the shirts, casual cotton and silky formal (rarely worn). Corduroy trousers. Argyll socks. And so on, all of it eerily familiar, including the underpants, like some dream wardrobe of my own. Yet I had seen my father once a year, at most, since my parents separated in 1980. I laid each article of clothing on the sofa and shuffled my memories like abacus beads: the day he dragged me to an A-level crammer in Cambridge; our holiday together in Morocco, my first outside Europe; the time my sister and I attended his inaugural lecture at Amsterdam University; his fleeting visits to me in London; my visits to him at a friend’s house in Haarlem, a rented flat in Paris, a hotel in Bangkok . . . My father, I concluded, had changed his entire wardrobe twice in 20 years.
I tried on his summer jacket, a dark continental check, bought for his mother’s 80th birthday celebration in 1991. I am tall, but my father was a giant – or so I felt now, flopping around inside this jacket. All my life I’d assumed that he and I were fundamentally the same, that deep down, despite the emotional static of all the years apart, we understood each other perfectly. Now, wriggling to find my hands in my father’s jacket, it struck me that my sense of my father was an illusion, fostered by his absences and bolstered by his unchanging appearance.
Was my father party to this illusion? Was he, too, coaxing a continuum out of our relationship? He was big on kinship and family. At the same time he was famously secretive, within his own family (according to my aunt) and ours. Over these last years, secrecy had pervaded his entrances and exits, as if he were a double agent, his life precariously balanced. Turn around and . . .
He was gone.