My dad failed at being a dad. Definitely. He did most things you’d expect of a father. He made Airfix models with me. Kicked the ball around the park with me and then drove me to football on wet winter mornings. He taught me to drive and made sure I had a supply of condoms.
In our wedding photos, there’s a gap. Like the Pacific Ocean yet only a few inches. In every photo he stands apart. An eternity between his deeds and his emotional connection. He didn’t even come to her funeral.
He’s looking right at me but doesn’t see me. Not even noticing that he can see right through me. Change everything.
I haven’t seen him for about 6 or 7 years. I forget. I’m not counting. Spoke to him once. Ignored a couple of calls. Moments like now are the hardest. The sun is high, as is the tide and I’m ready to get in. The beach is, of course, heaving today. Mostly families. Fathers and sons hurling stones into the sea, drawn to the point of origin together. Mothers and daughters watching, perhaps understanding the moment. Walking past the Neptune illuminates my darkness, my loneliness. Families and friends having the best of times. Dogs barking, chasing the fun. Togetherness. Familiarity. The big bald chap and his wife and kids. The couple who are always playing folk music in the Duke. Her with the fringe and the familiar face with a group of her friends. But mostly tourists. Visitors from London probably. DFLs as they’re known.
But I need to swim. I need some peace. Well, I suppose I don’t need to swim here. But ever since the mini-heart attack and the doctor’s warning… I hate jogging and cycling is way too dangerous. And have you been to the pool? What is up with those showers? And the kids who are supposed to be looking after everyone but couldn’t look after an open a bag of crisps?
I wonder how I can make him see?
So here I stand, surrounded by life at its finest. No need for technology. No need for artifice. Sea, shingle, family and friends. Add summer sun and a touch of the good stuff. Everyone is having the best of times. Yet I ache. Why am I even keeping myself alive?
I can see the Essex coast line beyond the Island. I can see the windfarms and forts. Boats, kayaks, paddleboards in every direction. The sounds of laughter, the shouts of joy and wonder, as a pebble hits a groyne, and a young girl discovers a crab and maybe a career? Distant sounds of jet skis. And permeating the whole, that sumptuous smell of the sea; fish and chips, damp seaweed. I step into my abyss and head out towards open water.
I have an idea. If he can’t see, maybe I can show him. My aleph…
I think about her when I swim. It keeps my mind off the physical effort. She died almost 10 years ago now. Just turned 40. Accident. One of those things that happened. I think they call it life. Everything is normal and happy and then bam! Everything changes. The desert rains wash away so much drifting sand. Wasn’t her fault. She was a great driver. Couldn’t save her though. I still miss her. Sure I’ve dated and been in relationships, but she’s always there. Always in the supporting cast, colouring in around the edges. I know a lot of people. Being an artist here affords a huge circle of both real and fake friends and acquaintances. Success and heavy sessions in the Dog have yet to fill in the hole. We never had kids. Guess I didn’t want to turn out like him. Like Dad. An Airfix decal on a Spitfire, held in place by nothing more than dirty water and childish dreams.
So I swim. I keep myself alive. I sometimes think it’s just spite the old man. Although what does he care? Really? I imagine I’m not in his thoughts most of the time. I wonder what our life would have been like these past years if she’d been a minute later to her fate? I wonder if we’d have kids at Uni if I’d not been so selfish. I wonder if I should just stop swimming, sink, let the sea engulf me. Would anyone notice?
Ok, time now…for I am the creator.
Swimming usually takes me about a mile or so out from the harbour. I know its deep here – one of the reasons I wait until high tide, otherwise it’s a 10-minute hike in the mud before I can swim. Usually I turn back around this point. I can’t hear the sounds of life anymore; only the waves and the boats’ sales flapping in the breeze. I put my head under. Murk. I come up gasping for breath.
There is something. Something ahead. Seems to be refracting the light. Almost like the sea is the sky and the sky is the sea. About the size of a basketball. Yes, it is a ball. Just there, on the surface. But surely if it was glass it wouldn’t float?
Here we go!
I swim up to it, but the splashes of sea don’t seem to interact with it. Almost go through it. I reach it and move my hand towards it, but there’s nothing there. Yet I can see it still. Like a giant glass marble turning the world on its head. I reach out again and touch only air and see spray. I swim around, all thoughts of life and death washed away. All I can see is inverted sky and sea. I reach the point directly between the orb and the beach where my towel hopefully still remains unmolested. And the view changes. Still the wrong way up, but I see me. Swimming towards the orb, reaching out to touch it.
I’m clearly stressed and delusional. This is bullshit. My brain playing stupid tricks; some kind of survival tactic. I need to go home and lie down. This is truly nuts.
Why do they come here? What the fuck am I even doing giving a shit anymore? Why are they drawn to me as soon as the sun warms their sad delusional faces? To cheer me up? Don’t need no cheering up…Why do they throw stones in me? As I don’t have enough…oh to hell with it all. I am the creator and the destroyer. All petty human gods are nothing but sad constructs derived from my power. Life and death are my gifts to grant. But you know what, I will not take death today…
I start to swim back to the beach. You know that feeling we all get; someone is watching, or I’ve left the iron on or the car unlocked? Imagine that but a physical pull. Gravity. About 10 or so metres from where I thought the orb was floating in the sea, I stop. Treading water I look back. I can see her. She’s waving and smiling. I swear she’s looking right at me. She gets in the car, drives off to destiny through my salty tears.
I’m suddenly underwater. In that moment I’d forgotten who I was and where I was. Panicking, I struggle to the surface, grabbing all the air for my desperate lungs. OK! Now I don’t want to die! I draw the attention of a few summer revellers. A woman on a paddle-board shouts over, asking if I need help. I take a moment, regain composure and do something I’ve not done before, as far as I recall: I give a stranger the thumbs up! Odd how moments of panic engender unfamiliar behaviour. She pushes off on her way to somewhere else.
I suddenly determine to go home and ring Dad. I don’t even know how his health is. He must be old. Now.
The lie down can wait.
Has he seen then? Have I shown him enough? Is the moron missing the point?
A stone almost hits me. I’m about 20 metres from shore. A couple of kids are at the water’s edge. A boy of about 7, and a girl of maybe 10 or 11. Hard to tell from this perspective. I hear a voice, angry, admonishing Nathan, telling him to be careful and watch for swimmers. A man appears from behind the children. I can also see now another man watching, minding the bags, sitting with his back to the groyne, and a small dog struggling with its leash, as if it wants to chase the stones. I can probably touch bottom now, so I stop, raise my hand, gesturing that its ok and no harm done. The man, Dad 1, kneels down by Nathan and whispers something. Nathan nods, looks over to me and mouths ‘sorry’. I smile back at him. Everything is fine. Another thumbs up.
But I need to look. As if it was my last meal, I need to know. I look back in the direct I’d swam. It is still there. About a mile away and yet I see it as if it were right in front of me. I can see that we are lying on beach. Very different from this one. Where this is shingle and seaweed and grass, the one in the orb is pure white sand. Our honeymoon. I can see we were happy and the future was full of potential. I ache with the happiness of that moment.
I start to walk backwards, out of the sea and onto the beach, eyes fixed on the impossible ball of light. I can see our wedding day as I make a backwards step. Another step and it’s our engagement party. Another step and our first holiday together, in Venice. Another step was the day we met, when she offered me a commission. By the time I’m on dry land, I see myself graduating from university; only my mother came to see me. I suddenly need to see. But can I take my eyes off the vision? If I look away will I miss something? I want to know if it can show me the point, the moment. When the failure began. Maybe it was my fault? Maybe if I can see, I can fix it, before it’s too late?
Do I want to fix this? Is that what this is? More selfishness? Or something more important? Maybe I was the who drove my dad away? I wasn’t his perfect little boy. Maybe he wanted a girl but never said? Dads prefer daughters. Or so I’ve read.
Did I make him hate me? Or…Did he create me?
Go on. That’s the fellow!
Backing up towards the seawall now. Ignoring the families and the increasingly inquisitive looks they are giving me. Ignoring my towel and the pain in my feet as I scramble backwards across the pebbles and through the grass. Ignoring the madness of my surroundings. I’m used to not sharing my experiences, and this one should remain mine alone.
Stepping back through my education now. University was a professional triumph and a personal disappointment. I graduated with flying colours but my spikey nature and general cockiness left a trail of alienated and used friends. I watched as my popularity declined through my school years as my talent and my ego blossomed. My interest in the common pursuits of children becoming hazy as I walk backwards into the seawall. I had yet to see Dad in all this. Absent in my memory? Or…
There was nothing more I could see. I couldn’t go further back without taking my eyes of the orb. There it was floating beyond the harbour in this place I called home. Why did I end up here alone? Was it her death or did I choose this? Am I my own worse nightmare? Could a few steps back tell me why? There was no way I could scramble over the wall into someone’s garden without taking my eyes off of my past. But could I try? Should I try? What would I see? My memory is as faded as a 20-year-old pair of jeans, but I know my Dad was in my life to this point. As I lean back and look at this widening vision, I’m about 15. He’s already shown me how to drive, but the orb didn’t show me this. He has driven me to Halls on my first day in Goldsmiths. Missing.
One last clue? One last insight so we can move forward?
I bump myself up onto the wall, eyes fixed forward. A couple in at least their early 70s walk across my vision. I try to look around them, and they look at me as if I was a rose in a field of wheat. They are holding hands. I think I smile. They walk off back to their remaining days together. I can still see the orb. I can see me. I’m standing with my back against the bedroom door. Everything is brown. Sepia memories or signs of that particular time? I can’t recall how my bedroom looked. I think I’m crying. Both of me. I can’t recall this moment in my history. All I can do is watch. Stare at myself standing still. What happened? Can I see? Dare I take my eyes off so I can step back further? What will happen if I jump down into someone’s garden, invading their privacy? And what will it tell me about who I am? Is my Dad on the other side of the door?
I look over my shoulder so I can consider the challenge of getting into someone’s garden. I hear a voice…I look back and there’s nothing but sea, boats and the horizon. The magic has gone. The years have gone. Yet through the laughter and playful screams of the children I can still hear that voice.
My mother’s voice. “It’s not your fault”.