When I saw him he had only a couple of months to live, and the days I spent at his chairside were hardly pleasant. He had adopted a mask of stoic resignation to his fate (the best way to induce guilt in the living), so I feigned a cheerful ignorance of it (the best way to induce envy in the dying).
I found him in The Wheatsheaf with a woman by his side, surrounded by sycophants and nursing a large whiskey. A Florence Nightingale of the single malt. He was talking about hurricanes.
“It’s no wonder Hurricane Alan caused so much damage. A wind with a crap name obviously has something to prove. Hurricane Robert – fine. Probably rattles a few roofs. Hurricane Alice – expends its fury at sea. But can you imagine Hurricane Darren? Or tropical storm Kylie? That’s when you run for the cellar. Fear an anticyclone with a chip on its shoulder!”
People sitting round his wheelchair proposed other names for storms, and laughed as he assessed their ferocity. “Hurricane Arnold? A closet queer. Expect gusty wind and localised flooding”. As the sun set over the Caribbean, the one English pub on the island was full of uncontrived mirth. Choosing a lull in the chatter, occasioned by one of his coughing fits, I suggested the name ‘Percy’. After all, that is what he’d christened me.
A dissolute life led to the full. That is how he’d like to be remembered, and the first part is literally true. He was soluble in anything. He certainly managed to wow my mother and her crazy family for a couple of years, and even though she hated him for the rest of her life, you could tell that all her attempts to love anyone else were futile. She certainly never remarried, and nor (as far as I know) did she ever seek a divorce.
So he started off Hurricane Percy with a huge pompous thunderstorm, but then he had the decency to stop mid-sentence when he recognised who I must be, and to the obvious astonishment of his woman and his disciples I wheeled him outside and sat on a bench next to him.
I had imagined this moment for most of my life, and yet neither of us could think of anything to say. He had coloured my life by his absence rather than his presence, and apart from a Y chromosome there was little I could think of that he’d actively done to influence me. I’d occasionally got a birthday present on April 25th – a hundred dollar bill twice and a backgammon board also twice – but I was born in September. That’s his birthday.
He broke the ice by saying “I’m sorry”, and then “I’m dying”. Both turned out to be individually true, but at the time I thought they were connected. Actually, that was true too. He was truly sorry that he was dying.
It’s always impossible to make amends. When something is done it’s done, and you can only compensate for it. But anyway, I felt no anger or resentment anymore, to this little charismatic man coughing himself to death. I suppose I just wanted to fix him in my mind, as a person not a caricature. People who don’t know their parents have trouble really knowing themselves.
So after the pleasantries (Him, seriously: “I’m glad you’ve come. I really don’t have long now”, Me, breezily: “Well, who ever really knows how long they’ve got? I might get hit by a bus tomorrow!”) I started talking about myself, and strangely enough I found myself colouring in an entirely fictitious thirty years. It started off true – the bits that he might have known anyway – but my first from Cambridge, and the terrible things I’d seen as a war correspondent, and my subsequent divorce, were all made up. I still don’t know why I painted this exotic picture of myself. Perhaps this sort of mendacity is heritable.
Maybe I wanted to excite envy or pity, but I saw neither. His amused, intelligent expression was punctuated twice by sobs which turned into coughs, but neither in sensible reaction to anything I’d just said. I was glad that I’d excited some form of emotion, even if it was only the sentimentality of the imminently extinguished, but it was evidently a private puzzle.
I went inside to get two more whiskies, which I meanly put on his tab, but when I came back I found he was asleep. I studied him as I drank them both, and found myself rather admiring his leathery, laughed-in face. I fancied I could see mischief rather than malice, and keenness rather than cunning. Tomorrow I would ask him how they got there.
I woke him up to tell him I was leaving, just as he’d apparently done to me more than three decades previously.
The following day I found him sitting at exactly the same table, the only clue that he’d moved at all being the appearance of a tie round his neck. He laughed when I asked him if he’d been to church, and said “once”. This is what else he’d done since 1980:
Run a bar in Morocco. Run a bar in Egypt. Worked for the Israeli intelligence service. Helped British intelligence during the handover of Sinai in 1982. Went to California in pursuit of a girl half his age. Lost the girl and bought a restaurant. Bought cocaine and lost the restaurant. Driven to Mexico. Driven to Guatemala. Met a girl. Opened a guest-house. Opened a second guest-house. Made a lot of money (“Did you get my birthday presents?”) and sired a son. Lost a lot of money and sired a daughter. He made it sound like they were connected.
He’d then moved on again, this time to Honduras where he’d opened a dive-shop. Did I dive? No, I lied, petulantly. He obviously had a knack with tourists, for very soon he’d had enough money to buy a sailing boat and to open an underwater photography business as well. He’d sold the Scuba shop and sailed up through the Caribbean, where he’d gone back to his main love: running a bar. This, in fact, was his, and the underwater photography business now had branches from the Bay islands to Martinique.
I must have looked surprised when he said this (and I’m afraid my mental cash-register made a loud ‘kerching’ noise), because he looked me square in the face, and with evident satisfaction said that yes, his children would be well looked-after when he was gone.
It was obviously frustrating to be riddled with cancer at only 63, but he plainly looked back over his colourful life with pleasure. I was in a mellower mood, and we chatted about the islands (and his businesses). Suddenly something happened which tipped me out of my new-found hammock. A handsome boy of about 18 came outside and said “Dad, Maria phoned. She wants to stay over with one of her school friends tonight.”
Que? I’d automatically assumed that he’d abandoned his other offspring as well. And what about the women at his side last night? Seeing my astonishment he laughed and said “I’ll have been married for twenty years if I make it ‘til June the fourth.”
But what about Penny? Somehow it made it easier to deal with him leaving my mother if he’d never settled with anyone for long, even though I suppose it made him less of a bastard as a person.
“I loved your mother very much, and I hope you understand why I had to leave her.”
I explained through gritted teeth that I’d never understood, and that even though I wasn’t old enough to remember him when he left, some part of me would never forgive him. Not just for leaving me without a father, but for breaking the kind, honest, vulnerable woman that had been my mother.
The sadness I’d seen briefly yesterday returned to his brown eyes. “You mean she never told you?” He reached for my hand, but I pulled it away angrily.
“Told me what?”
“The reason I left. That I found out she’d had several affairs. Between a year and six months before you were born. That I’m not your father.”
And because my mother is dead, and I would never know who my real father was, that is how I lost one bastard and discovered another.