My father was missing. He’d gone. Just disappeared. He’d left a note, my mother told me, but all it said was—
’I’ll be alright.
She asked me to come home.
I stayed in a cottage a few miles from her, by the sea. It was odd to be back after so many years. Although I hadn’t known it then, when I’d left I was still a child, I’d thought I was such a grown-up but now I could see it wasn’t true.
Mother couldn’t believe he’d really gone. “Where to,” she’d ask me, “where to?”
When I wasn’t with her, sitting across the kitchen table, trying to work out what happened, I went for long walks. I felt like a stranger at first. I went to the library and took out picture books, looked at stone circles and Celtic crosses, burial mounds and the decorative weaving of stone hedges. I thought about him and where he might have gone, and I thought about her. She’d left us too, for a while, when I was growing up.
I woke up very early in the mornings, I’d make myself coffee and then sit in bed watching the dawn come up. It was extraordinary. The air itself seemed to crystallize, the color of seed pearl, and from below the horizon came the faintest, faintest blue. The trees, silhouetted against the paleness, imperceptibly took form, becoming whole and dimensional. Holly leaves shone dully with a hard green. A delicate blush settled on an almost invisible cloud. And the daylight blew in on a heavenly breeze and remade the world, composed the landscape in different tones, a different melody, every morning.
Watching this day after day affected me profoundly. I saw that being born into that landscape and raised under that sky, was the deepest note in my perception of the world, and that much of my life in the cities was a surface chattering compared to this.
Before she’d left that time, my mother was unhappy, the house was full of it. She was ill, she said, but I didn’t believe it. My father would send me in to see her, which I did reluctantly, and she’d want me to get this for her, and then that, and then a little of something else. But none of it made any difference to the pain I felt coming from behind her bedroom door. I felt angry and resentful, as though my life was being stolen from me, and all for nothing, it made no difference, I couldn’t make her happy.
Now she was older and no longer as vigorous and intense as she had been. I didn’t have to fight her so much. It still flared sometimes, her features would harden and she’d jab a comment at me, and I’d feel like a boulder of resentments from years past was rolling down towards me. But it didn’t hurt so much any more, it just seemed cruel and familiar.
When I was young she loved me with a passion. She raised me on stories of my independence, my daring. I remembered her bending down to look at me, her face ablaze with love and fierceness. She’d throw her hands up at my pirate schemes and then later repeat them with wonder.
My father’s love was less formed, it hung like a cloud around him that he didn’t quite know what to do with. He’d kiss my neck and bite my earlobes. He was at ease when he was touching me. As I got older he became inhibited and would pinch or tease me until I begged him to leave me alone.
In the summer I slept in the bedroom next to theirs and would fall asleep listening to the sound of their voices as they discussed the day. They talked for hours and I noticed that his voice was more dominant there, in bed, than it was in the rest of the house. He never said much during the day, he was out on the farm, and in the evenings he fell asleep in front of the fire. When he came in for lunch he read the newspaper and drew women’s faces in the margins by the columns of type.
My mother did all the talking. When she got tired of our lack of enthusiasm she’d call a friend and talk for hours. She was always on the phone, it was a family joke. We couldn’t understand what she had to talk about for so long, with such detail, or how tempestuous her relationships were. She got so upset when there was a cooling, a moment of disagreement. All this emotion my father blocked with the paper and I with a book. We were such a reluctant audience, embarrassed by all that feeling, that exposure. You just have to let her get on with it, Dad said to me when I was older.
She was always kissing her women friends on the mouth at their arrival and departure. Her closest ties had all the form and passion of love affairs and she seemed to need to tell us what was going on. To live out her emotional life in front of us. I think it was exhausting, we were like small, slow satellites revolving around her feelings. Her ardor burned so much brighter than ours.
I wanted to be a trapeze artist or a sailor. I believed I was invincible. I thought earthquakes and falling houses could not hurt me.
But I was conscious of their fear, especially my father’s, that I’d be ‘carried-off’ as my mother put it. Then when it happened, beneath their noses, exactly what they were frightened of, they didn’t notice.
I loved their life, the way they built it, took it so seriously, talked it over at night. But all those restrictions they imposed on me when I began to grow— it was all too late, and instead of them protecting and comforting me, I protected them. Suddenly, at eight, I knew more about the world than they did. They were the children. And looking back was like watching them play house.
I asked my mother if they’d argued, if they were unhappy. “No, no,” she said, “he just went quiet.” But he was always quiet.
The walks I took led me to a beach I used to visit as an adolescent and how I’d felt then came back to me. It was all in the shape of things and their physical presence. The sheer bulk of the rocks that fell from the cliffs to the sea, blue slate shot through with seams of granite, solid and hard. The texture of sand underfoot and the broken mussel shells scattered around. I watched the Atlantic roll and curl its way across the bay, I saw its ebb and flow, the curve of water and its breaking, and out beyond all that, to the open ocean.
I could see myself back then, touched by the breeze off the water, cool and contained, cut off from human attachment. I desperately wanted something different for myself, I felt a constant and insistent desire for something more. I felt trapped, unable to feel properly because I wasn’t able to know the world, stand face to face with it. All the feelings I did have shut me out, somehow, sealed me off. And what to do with them, what to attach them to?
The answer, finally, was someone else. Another body. That was my means of escape, the bridge to being older. I thought of it as the start of my experience of life, my life, rather than life with my parents. I entered into it with a detachment that came from a part of me I knew most intimately. There, sitting quietly behind my eyes, watching. On the surface I felt those adolescent things, excitement, confusion, but I never wavered, not for a moment.
I launched myself into the adult world. My passions became sexual and lost their abstract quality, gathered themselves around another person. The ocean’s building, the mounting and subsidence, became a human lover. The bodies of my parents, the hills and fields, the shape of my cats as they slept next to me, pawing and purring at my side, I left all that behind.
But afterwards, there was always something inside me that floated beneath the surface, barely visible. I didn’t know what it was then, couldn’t know, but now I saw its contours clearly. It was regret, regret and loss and a dull, hopeless rage. Somewhere, I’d broken myself in half, and one part of me mourned terribly for the other. I felt I’d betrayed something, turned away from something meaningful to preoccupy myself with trivialities. The surface of his body, what we did to each other, that excess of sexual pleasure increasing as we destroyed my childhood, methodically, creatively. It all felt, deep inside, as though I’d left not only them, but something precious and singular in me.
I knew nothing about love. Before him I’d wanted no man. Women meant something to me, but I didn’t know that yet. My mother, my grandmothers, my aunts and my friends, they were all mixed up in me still, and I wasn’t able to separate the threads. All that love between women, those passions, were still familial. I must have needed some huge shattering thing to separate me from them.
My father’s disappearance and my mother’s confusion had jolted me. It was as though I’d taken a step back, and suddenly, I saw my life laid out like a landscape before me. A small town in the hills, bustling with self importance, then darkness falling, and after a while, the lights going out, one after another.
I remembered the last time I’d stayed with them, one summer, and was sitting reading by an open window. I could hear their muted voices but couldn’t tell where they were. Then I saw them, out beyond the garden, picking peas. They moved out of sight but I could perfectly imagine them moving up and down between the rows, their voices subdued, their relationship their own, mysterious and separate from me. The same call and response I remembered hearing through the bedroom wall and it provoked the same feeling in me. I felt alone, but something in me eased, not to be the focus of their attention. This was their secret life, the life that produced me, the one in which their voices lost their familiar sound and quietened—a boat’s oars dipping into the water as it pulled steadily across the lake.
That my heart had to be broken was clear, there was nothing else for it. But it wasn’t that man or what we did with our bodies. Those little slivers driven deep in my heart were made of blue slate and splinters from tall trees. And the sounds that haunted me, just below my hearing, were the horses running outside in the dark, the sounds of the stream, the kittens squeaking for milk in the barn, and the murmur of my parents’ voices through the wall.
I thought about the last time I’d seen my father but he’d seemed just the same. I’d noticed again how he avoided conflict, how he slipped away when my mother and I battled. When we were all in the same room it was exactly how it always was; she’d chatter, he’d be vaguely irritable in response, and when she’d tell me about a hat she was going to wear to a wedding, I’d say, “Mum, I’m reading.”
What was I to do with them and their running off? It was beginning to seem like a family trait. The truth is, I’m not very earth-bound, I attach myself to dreams, or I did, I attached myself to their dreams of something different. Those tremors in them, I experienced exaggeratedly, and their pain, especially my mother’s, seemed to settle on me so that I vowed I’d never be ‘caught,’ whatever I thought that meant. Instead of seeing what they had, I seemed only to see what they yearned for, what was underdeveloped in them. And they, in their turn, after celebrating my spirit, saw only danger in front of me.
I’d bought an ordinance survey map and searched for footpaths. Sometimes I found them and sometimes not, often I’d follow a path for a few miles only to have it disappear into a ploughed field. I’d lose myself in what I saw around me until words and explanations receded, became unimportant, less significant than the way the land lay. There was always something hidden, something I didn’t see until I was on top of it. Returning through the fields by an unfamiliar route, the village would become, for a moment, unknown. I’d look down at it from the hill, at its profound simplicity, the church, the shop, the cluster of houses and the surrounding fields, and I wouldn’t recognize it.
The landscape lived and breathed in me. I’d remember its contours the way you remember a lover’s body, when I was carried away in loving, it was glimpses of those places I’d see. In my mind’s eye I’d see the interior of a church, or a harbor wall, straight and solid, and the water lifting, rhythmically, as it lapped the shore. I’d see the gentle fall of the hills, the stone cottages, one, two and three, and the narrow road down, a ribbon folding back on itself.
My father came back. Just like that. I found him sitting in the front room of the cottage. I didn’t know he was there at first because he hadn’t switched on the light he’d given me a fright. “Where have you been?” I said in disbelief, “We’ve been so worried.” I didn’t know what else to say, as well as relief I felt scared, it was so strange in the darkening room.
He didn’t say anything for a while and then he said he was sorry. “I heard something about Frank,” he said, “about what he did to little girls. He did that to you, didn’t he.” And his face screwed up, he put his head in his hands, and he cried.
I felt sick, seeing him in tears was appalling, he looked at me with such pain in his eyes I couldn’t bear it. “Why didn’t you tell us,” he said, “why didn’t you tell us?” I cried too. “I was just a child, Dad, a little girl. He told me not to. I didn’t know how everything was supposed to be.” He cried harder. I went over and put my arms around him. Light was exploding inside me. I had a clear image of him crying years before, back when I’d run off with that man and then had to return. I’d let myself into the kitchen and he’d come down from their bedroom. It was very early in the morning. We looked at each other, he cried, and all I could say was, “I’m not your little girl anymore.”
“Don’t cry,” I said as I held him, “it’s all right, it’s all right now,” and as he relaxed against me I could smell his hair, thick and white, it had grown so white. “It’s all over, Dad, it was a long time ago and it’s all over now.” But his body still heaved as he whispered, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” over and over again.
It was unbearable. I asked him if he wanted a cup of tea. He nodded and as I stood away from him he took out his handkerchief and blew his nose. As I walked out to the kitchen I switched on a table lamp. When I got there I leaned heavily against the sink and stared out the window at the sheep moving up the hill. It was lighter outside. I thought how small the windows were. As I plugged in the kettle, a part of me stood at the top of that hill, weeping and raging, throwing my hands up at the sky. Warming the pot and measuring the tea drew a sigh so deep it took all the breath from my body. I felt ancient, older and more responsible than him, I felt his pain more acutely than mine, his frailty.
“Your mother doesn’t know,” he said as I carried in the tea, “I didn’t know how to tell her,” and he looked ill, as though he was way out of his depth and floundering, “she couldn’t bear it.”
It was like standing outside in the dark and not being able to see. We brush against each other in the world, like animals in the field, words don’t sink deep enough, usually, to have much effect.
“Then we won’t tell her, Dad, if that’s what you want, we won’t tell her.”