It was a couple of years ago, and my father and I decided to drive my sister down to Heathrow airport, all the way from Inverness. Catherine was off to Bahrain for the year, where she had a job in hospitality, and where she would be working in the same hotel as her boyfriend - a chef - who had already been out there for six months. At the time I was approaching the end of my sixth-year studies; it was easy enough to take a few days off, and, anyway, I piled a few course books in the boot of the car. My father generally travelled a lot anyway. He was a trade rep.
We drove down in the morning, and stayed overnight in Stirling; less perhaps to break up the journey than to eat at an Indian restaurant my father used as a regular eatery whenever he was working in the area. It was buffet night, our father said, and for less than ten pounds we could choose from between half a dozen starters, a few main courses and a number of puddings.
Despite the eat-as-much as you like moniker, it was probably the best Indian meal I have ever tasted. My sister seemed to agree. My father, meanwhile, took the same pride in his good taste as the chef would take for cooking the meal and the manageress for presenting it. Concerning the latter this wasn't a hypothetical comment; but based on observation: for she came over and wanted to talk about whether we enjoyed our meal in a way that seemed more than perfunctory. She was a slimly and subtly attractive woman presumably in her late thirties, who wore her age as well as she wore her clothes: with self-awareness and appropriateness. She seemed to be giving my father the sort of special attention he often demanded in public places, where he loved to give the sense of every pub and restaurant he visited the air of a regular. The quality of the meal of course also explained my father's decision that we stay overnight in the town, as if it somehow justified making a night of it. I had thought the trip could have been done in a day - so when my father suggested, on the way down that we stay over, it was a decision my sister and I were sceptical of: why break up the trip, we wondered?
It is really this issue of scepticism, attached to parental pride and one's children's respect, which drives this story. For when we arrived in London we stayed at a friend of my father's in Amersham, on the city's outskirts. After dinner, Roger and his wife, Barbara, and my father, Catherine and I, sat around discussing the generalities of family living. Roger explained that he didn't think his children respected him, though he'd put them through school and university, and thought they owed him modest admiration for that at least. My father explained he hoped his kids respected him not for what he did but for who he was.
It was this exchange, this brief examination of different parental takes, that stayed in my mind into the next morning as my father and I saw my sister off at the airport. I watched unemotionally as my father, with choked back tears, hugged my tearful sister goodbye. I gave her a peck on the cheek and felt nothing more than a thought: that I wouldn't see her for a year. For some reason Bahrain had no place in my mind, and I didn't care to visualize or conceptualize her life so many miles away. Obviously, my father cared to, and had already started.
On the way back to Roger's place, where we had all stayed the night, and where my father and I would stay another, I asked my father whether he knew what his friend was getting at, about this lack of respect. My father supposed that Roger had just been having a bad day. It was nothing to worry about. I suspected, though, it was less something that shouldn't be worried about, but irrelevant to my father's present concerns: his daughter thousands of feet in the air, hurtling towards the Middle East. If my sister's trip had the same presence in my mind, I also might have found the comments Roger had made irrelevant. But it's as if I sensed more danger in Roger's remark than in my sister leaving the country for a year to live with a boyfriend whom I knew had been unfaithful in the past, and whom I'd heard had already got into financial trouble over there.
Later that evening, with my father and Barbara off walking the dog, I asked Roger what he expected from his sons. Was it gratitude or was it credence? He said he didn't know, but offered an anecdote that he said might explain the problem. A couple of months earlier, he said, his sons visited for the weekend, driving up from London in the eldest son's four-wheel drive jeep, and insisted that they should spend the weekend visiting some of the sights in and around the region.
They went as far west as Wiltshire, and as far north as Oxford, going to places they had all been to when they were children, and where the older son had studied at university ten years before. Roger said that as he and Barbara sat in the back, he felt as if his memories where he had been head of the family were now being reduced to ones where he was an old man driven around memory lane by his kids. He tried to explain this to Barbara, this act, as he described it, of emotional violation. But she believed he was over-reacting. Surely the kids just wanted to reminisce about the past she said. No, Roger had thought to himself. They wanted in some way to take control of that past.
This was not a theory, he insisted, simple a strong feeling, and a feeling that had developed over the previous couple of years as his sons earned increasing sums of money in information technology, while his own income as a self-employed TV engineer decreased. As we talked, I think he instinctively knew I wouldn't misinterpret his anxiety as being about issues of class and money. At the same time, however, I couldn't quite pinpoint where the 'real' problem lay - the problem that Roger seemed to be keeping from me. For, I now believe, to have understood the problem would have meant understanding better my relationship with my own father, and with the rest of my family. For if I had understood these aspects more clearly, maybe his comment - if only we could find one person to whom we could genuinely open up - would have made as much sense then as it perhaps does now.
Catherine returned from Bahrain nine months later, after phoning my father and asking if he would send her the money for the flight. Her boyfriend, she said, had been having an affair, and their bank account was empty. My father sent her the money and, when she arrived at Heathrow, he was there to pick her up. They stayed overnight at Roger's and Barbara's place and, when they returned, I was more interested to know how Roger was getting on than about my sister's well-being. My father simply said that Roger was fine. Then he added, almost as an after-thought, that they might be selling up, moving farther north, or east.
My sister tearfully detailed the nightmarish nine months in Bahrain, and my father and I sat and listened. Obviously my father had already heard the stories; but this didn't stop him listening with the concern and curiosity that I couldn't manage even though I was hearing them for the first time. My father offered the right look of indignation on each occasion that she mentioned her ex.
Were they annoyed that I didn't show more concern or curiosity? What was there to say? I felt all that needed to be said was being said: Catherine was aggrieved, the grievances were easily explicable, and it was merely a wound waiting to heal. The one wound worth talking about was one never, ever broached - why our mother had killed herself eight years previously. There was nothing inside this Bahrain tale beyond the immediacy of pain and hurt. And yet, obliquely, perhaps there was, perhaps there was something not so much in it but about it that would help me move towards comprehending a basic difference between Catherine and me.
It was around three months after Catherine's return that Barbara sent my father a letter. Roger had committed suicide. The funeral would be the following Thursday. My father phoned up the same day he received the letter and said we would all drive down. At first I didn't want to go - I hadn't met his children in years, and I found Barbara opaque. The person I wanted to see was lying dead in a coffin. But I agreed to go, less I think to pay my respects, than to question something further: therein lay the respect, I believed, that would go beyond the clich of condolence.
The funeral too place at eleven in the morning, and afterwards some friends who worked with his wife, and a couple of Roger's own employees, as well as a few members of the family, gathered back at the house. Roger's sister, I noticed, appeared the one person who seemed abrupt and distant with Barbara and, I perceived, also with my father. Obviously when the two people closest to the suicide - Barbara and my father - can't prevent him from ending his life, there might be a feeling of culpability. But surely the notion of guilt lay within the individual, not placed there by another's insistence? And shouldn't the sister be part of that select group who should have provided emotional sustenance in a moment of crisis?
No, surely her abruptness had another reason, or at least a reason within the apparent reason. All afternoon I observed how people were interacting. The boys were regularly hugging their mum, saying they loved their dad but it was a selfish act - she shouldn't feel any guilt over it at all. I noticed this was the general response; except for this one woman who, I felt, was there to say the wife was guilty. But guilty of what exactly? Of course the most obvious interpretation would be that Barbara had an affair with my father: they were the two people who were being treated frostily by Roger's sister, and this would be the most plausible reason why the sister blamed them without blaming herself.
And so I recalled that evening a year before when Roger and I sat down and talked, while my father and Barbara went out, walked the dog and also, so they said, stopped off for a drink at the local pub. Were they responsible for increasing Roger's despair at the very moment he was trying to alleviate it while he was talking to me? If they were having an affair, did he know about it?
But of course this questioning led me not only to look at that particular evening a year before, but also to my mother's death. Catherine and I felt so much her absence that we never questioned our father's devotion, left on his own to cope with two children, and, as it turned out, for my father's mother to come in a couple of times a week to do our washing, our ironing, and generally to tidy up. I had taken for granted that my father's increased presence, his devotional attitude after our mother's suicide, had been all about filling two roles at once. But was it instead out of a sense of guilt - that my mother had left this world for a particular reason, and my father's feelings of responsibility towards us were as readily because of a sense of culpability over something in the past as much as simply a sense of necessity and love in the present? And yet if our mother took her own life because of my father's infidelities, then was her action that left us without a mother finally more horrific still? Did she not after all have two children to look after?
These thoughts kept me awake for much of that night, where I slept in a hotel room sandwiched between Catherine's and my father's. However, who could I have talked to about my surmising? I thought of getting in touch with my maternal grandmother, but only had a general postal address to work with, based on the Christmas and birthday cards she would send. It was always a Glasgow postmark, but beyond that I had no information: we had not seen her since our mother's funeral. I thought also of talking to Barbara; but to say what, and when would be the appropriate time? Certainly not at that moment; just after her husband had died.
The following day it occurred to me I didn't need to talk either to my father nor Barbara, for the issue here wasn't about culprits and blame, but instead concerned an emotional realization. It was about perhaps understanding something of my father that ran contrary to what he insisted upon when he said he wanted his kids to respect him for who he was, and not for what he did. For who he is would incorporate what he might have done - that affair, or those affairs, he might have had - but what he did I could respect more unequivocally. Like the things I've already described. That beautiful meal in the restaurant, for example, where he insisted it would be one we would really enjoy, and that we should make such a treat of it that we would spend the night in Stirling so we that we needn't have to rush the meal; and of course driving my sister all the way down to Heathrow, and then picking her up again nine months later. There were numerous kind gestures that I could mention.
But then were they often, I found myself wondering, covering ulterior motives? Was the manageress in that Indian restaurant, for example, my father's lover? Her body language certainly could have suggested it was possible. And who knows, perhaps later that evening, after we had all, apparently, had an early night at the Bed and Breakfast in Stirling, he had actually gone out and met up with her. When he visited Amersham it might not have been so obviously to continue an affair right under his friend's nose, but to meet up with not just a friend but also an ex-lover whose company he still enjoyed. So suspicious was I that night at one stage, at about three in the morning, I listened close to the wall to check whether my father had maybe sneaked out and met Barbara. As I heard his light snoring, he was obviously still in the room, and yet this didn't so much alleviate my feelings of suspicion, so much as force me to question my own dubious reasoning. It was unlikely with Barbara's sons staying in the house that even if they were cynical enough to continue an affair so soon after Roger's death, then my father would hardly jump into Barbara's bed with her children in the house.
However even if at the time I felt I was right still to be suspicious, and that the sister's attitude was due to her assuming an affair between my father and Barbara, it would be no more accurate I suspect to blame my father for Roger's suicide, finally, than it would be to blame his sons for nothing more terrible than an air of insensitivity when their father was emotionally raw. That was, after all, the problem Roger chose to divulge in our conversation. But was that the real problem, or was it his way of engaging me in something I might comprehend over something which would have been altogether too difficult to reveal? For how could he have told a seventeen year old boy that the boy's father had once had, was perhaps still having, an affair with his own wife?
The day after, driving back up north, my father once again suggested we stop off at Stirling and that we once again eat in the Indian restaurant. My sister immediately thought that would be a lovely idea. I on the other hand hesitated; turned, sitting as I was in the passenger seat next to him, and said I'd prefer to go instead to Glasgow. There was someone I wanted to search out. My father looked straight ahead, too obviously concentrating on the road. He said he supposed that was a very reasonable request. His response seemed to indicate that he would rather comply to this curious demand than refuse it and face what might have been some difficult questions. I wondered at that moment whether he realized that a daughter travelling through the air towards the Middle East might prove a lot less rupturing than a son who merely wanted to stop off in Glasgow instead of Stirling. I also thought about Roger, and wondered if he would have that night made me the one person he could have opened up to if he knew I was prepared to question my father's respect and authority; a respect and authority I found myself beginning to question, however, only in the wake of Roger's demise. I also wondered, and continue to wonder, whether Roger could have told me anything about my mother; a woman whose own mother I'm still no closer to finding some months after that initial search. I shall keep looking.
© Tony McKibbin