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.
I took off the jacket. Before laying it on the pile, I searched the pockets and found a pencil stub. A yellow HB pencil, about an inch long, its wood greasy with use. I remembered this pencil sitting on his desk in the house where I grew up till I was 16, till my mother and my sister and I moved out and my father left England, then Europe, and then left my life entirely.
There were six wallets in the suitcase, each containing a different currency: American dollars, Australian dollars, Dutch guilders, British pounds, Swiss francs, Thai baht. Had my father died on the plane back to Bangkok, nobody would have known where he came from. His address book was no help. A flimsy thing fastened with an elastic band and swollen with business cards, it was a chaos of cryptic jottings – abbreviations, numbers, dates – many of them etched into translucent washes of Tipp-Ex, veiling acrostic depths. His passport showed British citizenship, disclosed a flurry of entrance stamps stretching across four continents, and ended with two obsolete addresses. The passport photo was bearded and bright-eyed. It suggested age and youth, the triumph of hope over experience.
The Thai wallet produced the richest pickings. I found a membership form for the American University Alumni Library in Chiang Mai, which revealed an average borrowing rate of 11 books a month. I found the ornate address card of a Dr D.V. Jewcharoensakul in Bangkok, with figures written on it in pencil, seemingly sums of money. I found a colourful entrance ticket to a dreamy landscape of exotic blooms and distant pagodas. I found a Japanese brush drawing of a whale, clipped from a magazine. I found a pale pink receipt, all in Thai, with a pencil note saying ‘Gosford Park’.
All this was news to me, except the whale. In the early 1970s, when my father was teaching at Warwick University and I was at primary school, he edited Moby-Dick for the Penguin English Library (the ones with orange spines). He was always drawn to whale pictures. He used to have a whale paperweight on his desk, which went into storage with his other possessions when our family broke up. The paperweight stayed in storage for 13 years until my father took time out from travelling and rented a flat in Holland. It was now back in storage. Apart from two light bags, this suitcase had been all my father required. He was like Ishmael’s roving ‘metaphysical professor’ in the opening pages of Moby-Dick, for whom ‘water and meditation are wedded for ever’.
The suitcase had a kind of false bottom, a canvas divider secured over something bulky and solid. I unbuckled the straps. Beneath the canvas were stacks of newspapers in plastic wrappers: the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement. They were addressed care of my sister, who had been forwarding my father’s post to the ends of the earth. This was only part of the latest haul, which he had picked up just before he died. The sheer quantity surprised me, the weight of all these papers. But I knew why they were here.
My father used to review books regularly for the TLS. It was one of the things he did in bed, wrapped in an old coat. I can remember bursting in on him, home from school, to find his knees drawn up under the covers, his face hidden by a book, and that pencil stub poised like an antenna. I thought this was what all fathers did. I thought this was ‘work’, lying in bed and ignoring everybody, with a rapt expression on your face. I learned otherwise – at least I pretended to – and my father gave me credit for my worldly accomplishments, my busy schedules – at least he pretended to – while he continued to ignore everybody, and seemed to recede ever further, till he was almost unreachable.
Not that he’d written many book reviews lately. His literary papers were more a habit, his one luxury. He often told me how, in some far-flung place, wearying of the jabber of an alien culture, he would retreat to a quiet corner and ‘tune in’ to more rarefied conversation. I saw him do this myself.
We were in the Atlas Mountains. My father was 54; I was 19, and clueless. To me, the Moroccans in their peaked jellabas seemed like slightly sinister hobbits. I was alternately gruff and dangerously insouciant, but my father had been here the year before and knew how to treat the touts, and how the buses worked, and when it was best to be polite. As always, he had an unassailable grasp of the historical and social and architectural dimensions, and would illuminate any subject that crossed your mind, wherever you happened to be, however long it took. He’d happily sit on a sand dune all day and discuss medieval Berber dynasties, if he thought I might profit from it, or just because he was enjoying himself. Looking back, I see that this trip was a demonstration of how to steer your way in the world, how to deal with the ups and downs, and most of all, how to savour your freedom. It was like the time my father taught me to ride a bicycle without stabilisers, running behind with a hand on the saddle and yelling instructions.
Somehow we’d landed up in a desolate little town overlooking a poo-coloured lunar landscape. Sunset was spectacular, but with night came the cold. Suddenly it was sub-zero. Our hotel room contained two filthy beds with one blanket apiece, a shower and windows without much glass. My father had developed a cough, and now lay spluttering on his filthy bed. I went out into the street, just to keep moving, and drifted towards a group of young male hobbits. I can’t remember how we got talking, or who brought up the subject of hashish, but an hour later I was stoned out of my mind.
Back in the room, my father was absorbed in an article about Henry James. I discovered that the shower emitted hot water. It felt like divine intervention. I’ve no idea how long I spent under the nozzle, transfixed by the warm rush. When I emerged, the room was four inches deep in steaming water. The drain was blocked, but my father hadn’t noticed. There he was, supine under his ratty blanket, the LRB glued to his face, with a knife-edge wind piercing the room and his pencil stub floating astern.
‘Dad!’ I said. ‘Look!’
‘Oh, blast,’ he said, and returned to Henry James.
Ten years later, when my father was staying in Bangkok, we took another trip – but this time as a threesome. If the Moroccans had been puzzled by the voluble greybeard and his delinquent chum, the Thais were nonplussed by this intimate male trio: a learned old Englishman, his thirtysomething Thai ‘friend’ and a burnt-out office worker on a jolly romp together along the Burmese border.
One night we even slept in the same bed. We were somewhere west of Kanchanaburi (where POWs built the bridge over the river Kwai), and the only guesthouse was chock-full of giggling women. After some polite parleying, it turned out that in fact we were in a whorehouse and the only room available was a one-bed. But what a bed! It was well beyond king-size – more like party-size. So my father took the room and stretched out, flanked by the two of us. ‘Like the three bears,’ as he put it.
When I told this story to my partner to amuse her, she was appalled. Is it shocking? I find it hard to tell. My father was always so certain of himself, of the propriety of his actions. Of course, I recognised that there was a flip side. But he did not permit personal questions. You could ask him about anything under the sun except himself. Once, only once, I ventured something about his sexuality. Out of the great well of his talk came a sudden pool of absolute quiet. For that one moment, he seemed to be on the brink of something.
My father and his Thai friend spent 12 happy years together – almost exclusively together – doing whatever they pleased. I split up with my partner a year ago, sold our house, said goodbye to the cats and crawled away to lick my wounds. At the time, my father and his friend were roving Australia. My father was in a rage, on a number of scores. Furious faxes arrived from the outback, prophesying doom. I didn’t reply.
Letters were my father’s lifeblood. Everyone who knew him has a pile of his letters somewhere. They tell me so, again and again: ‘Your father wrote such lovely letters.’ It’s true, he did. He wrote them close to the bone, as he had written book reviews. Always perceptive, often funny, never rambling, his letters were airy meditations on things that passed by – or through – him. They were not travelogues. My father always wrote as if the great distances he covered were incidental, like someone on a train occasionally glancing out of the window and remarking on the sheep.
Since the age of 18 I’d answered every letter my father sent me, sooner or later. Like all autobiographical writing, my letters were a performance, as meaningful for their absences as for their inclusions. But we both knew this. In a curious way, that awareness was a bond. Our artfulness brought us closer together. Or so I had always thought, until these scabrous faxes. Until that message on my answerphone. ‘Jake? Is that you? It’s Harold . . . Dad.’
On the way to his hotel in King’s Cross, I prepared myself for a fight. We had never had a fight, so my preparations were experimental. I practised feeling aggrieved, then indignant, and finally settled on a blend of nonchalance and hurt. I paused beside the amusement arcade next to the hotel, wondering where all the years had gone. Here I was again, at 37, going to meet my father.
He hugged me. I had tried to shake hands, but he threw his arms round me, dislodging my glasses and filling my nose with his smell. When he let go, his eyes had that rapt look.
We didn’t fight at all. We sat on the bed in room 12a and talked about Switzerland (where he’d just been), and about James Joyce and Nabokov and Thomas Mann; about ‘The Broken Gong’, his unpublished book on Buddha’s use of language; about St John’s, his Oxford college; about Lewis, my sister’s cat; about the Quaker school in Kenya where I was born, and where he and my mother had been happiest; about an awful cough he’d picked up, which made him pant and clutch his chest – about anything and everything, except us.
He gave me a boomerang, and we joked about the multilingual instructions, all of which he could read apart from the Japanese. We discussed ideograms, comparing them to alphabetic writing systems. At one point, trying to remember something, my father ran through the alphabet under his breath. He did it in German, I noticed, his first language.
He tried to play host, offering me a hot drink. There was an electric kettle and sachets of coffee, but just one cup. So we shared. It seemed desperate, at 72, to be sitting on a little bed and sharing a drink like this, especially with a boomerang on your lap, as if you were back at boarding-school. I’ve changed my mind since then. Now I’m glad we shared that drink.
As I was closing the empty suitcase, I remembered something my father once told me. He was talking about wisdom – ‘not a word you hear much in universities these days’ – and he quoted a line by a Buddhist monk: ‘The first step is to learn to be at home anywhere, and the second is to be at home nowhere.’