We might suppose that it isn’t so strange that memories we would think belonged to us are more readily contained by someone else. After all, how many of our early childhood memories are vague images given substance by parents and older brothers and sisters? Less common, however, is the distant memory that becomes a story, a story manifesting itself out of, perhaps, a more recent memory that everyone refuses to acknowledge from the perspective we might expect.
I had not talked to my father for a number of years, and if he mentioned my name at all, my sister and my brother admitted, it was with a perfunctory dismissiveness – as if whatever thoughts my name conjured up demanded immediate repression. However, there my father was lying ill in hospital: he had been moved from a bed in Stornoway, in the town centre on the Hebridean island on which he lived, to one in Inverness, the closest one on the mainland; and he’d moved from one bed in general care to another in intensive care. It so happened that I had coincidentally arranged to visit my sister in Inverness at the same time my father was flown to the town. It seemed more a gesture not to visit him than to visit. But on what premise, on which grounds, could a visit be made?
Of course, most would say that the illness provided reason enough, even his ex-wife, and our mother, as well as his estranged second wife, and our stepmother, who hadn’t talked to him for several years, said they would come and see him. There my father was, lying in a hospital bed, with drips and doctors, nurses and various electronic devices, all gathered around him. This was the image my sister offered, as she tried to persuade me to visit, and yet it was perhaps another image, a less tangible, more obscure series of images, in fact, that allowed for the visit to take place.
A couple of weeks earlier, while my father was still in the Stornoway hospital, I had sent him a get well-card, and he made a point of saying to my sister that it was very much appreciated. I’d sent the card just really as another gesture; one consistent with all the birthday cards and Christmas cards that we had sent each other over the last five years without either of us acknowledging their reception. I expected the get-well card would meet with the same silence. Instead, my father immediately asked my sister to tell me he’d received the card and that it was deeply welcomed. On the same afternoon, she said, he recalled a couple of stories that seemed to counter so much of the bad feeling between the two of us in recent years; or perhaps just sublimated it.
It appeared he remembered these stories with enthusiasm, even if he attached to them what I can only call a very selective memory, for the stories he chose to remember seemed to me to cover up more pertinent and present stories he had chosen to forget. But was it not through him recalling these stories that I could make sense of my father accepting the gesture of the get well-card?
My sister thought his need to acknowledge the card probably connected to intimations of mortality; that the possibility he would pass away without reconciliation with his son would be too painful. But while that may be so, what was more immediately a problem wasn’t so much the reconciliation between us, but the conciliation and concealment that would allow for the reconciling to take place. As my sister told me of a couple of stories my father had told her, the events seemed to suggest they were much more in my father’s mind than in mine, even though they were both incidents that happened to me. She said that afternoon he started talking about school bullying, and wondered if her own son was being bullied at all in class. She replied that she didn’t know, and gave it a moment of thought, before realising it was really only a premise upon which our father could move into reminiscence. He said the subject of bullying reminded him of my being bullied at school; first when we were all living in Inverness, and then, a year or two after that, in Stornoway. He proceeded to tell the stories in some detail.
The first took place when I would have been seven or eight, well over twenty years ago, and he said that I had come home on a couple of occasions with a bloodied nose. After the first time I just said a ball had hit me in the face; after the second, my father guessed I’d been bullied and insisted that I learn how to fight. All that evening my father demanded that I pummel his hand with my fist. Initially I barely hit my father’s palm at all, through a mixture of tentativeness and ineptitude, he had said, but, by the end of the night, I would usually hit dead centre. Right, he insisted, if they were to come after me the following day, I was to hit the biggest one right on the nose – the way I’d been hitting the palm of his hand.
He said to my sister that the next morning I went into school and, when the biggest boy came up towards me, I hit him as hard as I could and watched as his nose exploded, making my own bloody and burst conk days before look little more that a red runny nose, or so that is the way my father chose to remember it. The boy went off crying to the teacher, who then phoned my father at work. My father saw it not as a teacher complaining about an unruly pupil (which was certainly her perspective), but of a boast at one remove. The teacher’s tale made both my father and I, in his eyes, co-engineers in the dismantlement of a bully. The teacher then asked some of the other kids about the bullying, and they corroborated my story.
The second incident took place after we had moved to Stornoway, when I would have been nine or ten. Three boys jumped me on my way home from school, my father said, and I managed to hit one of them with exactly the same ferocity I had hit the bully a couple of years previously. Or perhaps with more ferocity – in the intervening years my father had bought me a punch bag, and I was of course now a couple of years older and more developed. Anyway, this time, I caught the boy in the eye. Later that evening, the boy’s mother came round and enquired whether my father had a psychopath for a son. My father insisted that in his interpretation, that wasn’t the case. His daughter, who was walking a short way behind with a couple of her friends, witnessed the incident, and saw the three boys jump me: I was obviously only protecting myself, he insisted. As my sister told me this, I asked if she could recall the incident. She said only very vaguely. I said it was quite vague in my mind as well.
Now both these stories had been tenuously held together by family memories – and no single person could remember, or was in a privileged position to comment on, the full context of the tales. However, it’s as if the important thing wasn’t that the stories were recalled accurately, but, much more, they were recalled to serve a specific function: to allow another story perhaps to be forgotten, or at the very least be remembered with a dignity that without these two tales might be harder to justify.
And yet, I thought, was there not another story that echoed and found further justification in this whole convoluted set of circumstances? For my father had once told me a story as we were looking through some old black and white photos, going back several decades to when my father was around nine or ten. He had just moved up to the island from the mainland. He’d moved up with his mother – his father remained the skeleton in the family cupboard – and the other children on the island, realising he was fatherless, offered disparaging comments. One of the kids said something that especially infuriated him, and my father picked up a stone as big as the palm of a grown man’s hand, and knocked the boy unconscious with it. The combination of the nastiness of the remarks, and the ferocity of my father’s response, resulted in his mother promptly returning to the mainland.
I wondered whether my father brought up this memory to his own mind as he recalled to my sister my experience of bullying. Is this a memory my father has chosen to hold onto, without talking about it, rather than the one particular story he’s chosen perhaps not to forget but hold in his mind without consequence. My sister said that he mentioned the ‘incident’ in passing, but obviously had no interest in dwelling on it.
And what was this story, this incident? Five years ago, at my sister’s thirtieth birthday, my father, my sister, her husband, my partner and I were having dinner, with my father and me bantering about past Stornoway experiences, when an idle comment turned into a violent argument, with the pair of us yelling at each other in my sister’s front room. During the argument I recalled my father slapping his hands together in a gesture of intimidation as he attempted to get me to flinch. It would have worked fifteen to twenty years before, but not on that occasion.
It was shortly after this gesture, and after we had both calmed down, that my father sat, crumpled in an easy chair, and started shaking his head. He then put his head in his hands and, gently sobbing, said that he always did his best as a father. My sister agreed, saying that after our mother left of course he did his best. He added that he didn’t feel he could be blamed for the difficulties our stepmother had adjusting to island life – difficulties I just so happened to have suggested, half an hour earlier, made our lives less than wonderful.
This event, which seemed to me to demand explanation and analysis whilst still relatively fresh, and where all three members of the family were present, however seemed now to have been forgotten. On the other hand, the unproblematic yet half-remembered, and very selectively remembered stories he found easy to recall. But of course truth wasn’t what was important here; what mattered was the quality of the functional purpose – of the tale in relation to one’s own emotions. As I wondered whether I should visit my father in hospital, I was perhaps becoming for the first time very subtly emotionally aware that stories do not always only belong to those who experience them. There are certain stories that belong as much to those who recall them as the people who more obviously lived those experiences. On such occasions, in allowing another to possess what would appear one’s own story, the very person who experienced them may have to relinquish the ‘true’ tale to the fabrications, the half-remembered recollections of the teller. If my father wanted to see me that day, as he lay in a hospital bed, would I have to accept that what my father wanted was to see as much, if not more, a son of his own making, as readily as a son who felt he had made himself? And why shouldn’t I just be able to accept for that moment, for this visit, that a story which can barely be spoken about that is the very story that made me feel like my own man, should be ignored, whilst the others, the ones more readily where my father made me, could be casually recollected?
I found myself wondering whether those two bullying stories were remembered so as to echo my father’s own memories of bullying, and my father’s final attempt at bullying me, without the crystallization of either. That consequently the stories told concerning me could hide the stories that more obviously concerned him. And even today, years later, I wonder whether my father subsequently, in some way, accepted that his own failed bullying of several years before his death was in fact an example of the successful training he had given me many years before. I also wonder whether he saw in the failure that night simultaneously triumph and despair. Triumph in that he had a son strong enough to stand up to him, even if that forcefulness came out of his own weakened self; and despair that any strength he possessed when he had responded to being bullied came out of not a father’s cajoling presence but his father’s very absence. I even wonder, now, whether he might be justified in claiming a certain kind of victory at what I had believed to be for him an abject defeat. As if the argument was, like that early crash course I’d received in taking on a bully, another of life’s little lessons, and that both were lessons my father had never had the opportunity to be taught by his own father.
I suppose the question I had found myself asking, as my sister asked me outside the hospital if I was ready to see him, wasn’t whether I could cope with seeing my father lying ill in hospital, but whether my father could cope with seeing a healthy son. But another question announced itself; and that was whether I could allow him, if necessary, to claim credit for that health. I recall that as I entered the hospital ward, and saw my father sitting up in bed, his complexion pallid, his arms much thinner than I remembered, that I might be looking at a dying man. I felt an awful chilling feeling, a feeling that suggested it wouldn’t be long before I would soon be able to reconfigurate the memories according to my own desires, as the man whom I shared many of these recollections with might soon no longer be around to possess or even share them. As I left the hospital a couple of hours later, wondering how much longer my father would live, I felt a hint of the orphan status my father had presumably lived with all his life, and it was that very moment, whether out of empathy for him, or a perverse pity for myself, I found the tears that would not come, that I believed had no reason to come, rising up as if from a place in my body but contained by thoughts too convoluted to express. I found a nearby bench, sat down, and wept. It took me a very long time, and maybe not before this very day – and this very story – to find out perhaps exactly why.