If I could ask for anything to change in the past, it would be that my father was killed in the car crash that he was involved in back in ’97.
This isn’t some small paean to the degradation of masculinity. My father was not a ‘male’ role model. He liked playing with CB radios and looking at birds. He would always send us to sleep during games of Scrabble. He never won, but he always tried to create the most interesting words. One of his proudest moments was to take my word ‘Nine’ and add a ‘Qui’ to the front, a score of 16, when he could have made 33 points on a triple word score just by making the word ‘Quiet’. Suffice to say he was a fan of Arsenal football club and was devout Wengerite: he had no shame in loss with dignity. The car crash should have killed him. He would have remained a clown of integrity to me, and that was what I looked up to him for.
The damage his brain suffered turned him into a more primeval human. For example, he seemed to instinctively know where north, south, east and west were without a compass. No one in the modern world seems to have such orientation anymore, mostly because it’s not useful. For a man who lived in Dunstable, a depressing area that’s been brutally carved by motorways, it was more than useless and almost lethal. My father knew which way north was, and he was arrested several times trying to walk across the M1 during rush hour.
Despite his innocence, he did adapt. More than once, I found him knocking at my door in the morning. His shoes covered in mud and the soles flapping against the ground. He’d walked 80 miles over the weekend to reach me. His rucksack rattled with empty cans of tuna. That was always the one. The cans of tuna. He wouldn’t eat anything else. He’d crack open the can and eat it with a fork. My sister and I would make him salads and dump the tuna on top – he wouldn’t eat it otherwise – and we had to dump it on with him watching because he seemed to not recognize the tuna once it was out of the can. I made the mistake once and he acted like he didn’t see it. I stabbed the flakes of flesh and held it up to his face screaming: “What is that? It’s tuna, isn’t it?” He just gawped vacantly like my old goldfish Henrietta, mouth agape, not realizing that just through the glass was a cat that was bent on murdering her (which she eventually did).
The only good thing that came out of my father’s incapacity to eat anything but tuna from the can was that my sister, Claudia, managed to shed a few layers of self-centredness to help out from time to time. She had spent so much of her youth learning to manipulate our father to her will that, now he was at his most malleable, it was no longer fair game. It was a sense of sportsmanship that I hadn’t given her credit for prior and, so, for that, I’m grateful to the car crash. Such a huge chasm had opened up between myself and Claudia that we had actively avoided each other. We both maintained a scorn for one another, but after taking turns of fishing our father from the local pond once or twice, the scorn became coloured with the warmth of an in-joke that we’d set up on purpose.
I won’t go into the details of his decay. This kind of experience is so personal that through re-telling it is just cliché, because the loss is the same for everyone. You had someone in your life and they are changed irreparably, nothing about them is the same – my father didn’t care for tuna in cans, he preferred rollmops. His natural smile was only visible momentarily when the smile was just breaking, but as the full smile appeared it was someone else. I hear a lot of talk about shedding our defense mechanisms, that our aim should be to live honestly and not guard who we are. My father liked guarding who he was. He liked machines and he liked Arsene Wenger.
We were relieved when he died. He was found in a river somewhere after getting out of the home we’d put him in. Her was alive when they found him and they said that had he been remotely close to having any sensation, he would have been in an extraordinary amount of pain. But his mind was gone. He was pale and shivering from the icy water, but he greeted them all with a pleasant smile as they pulled him out. They put him in hospital but his heart stopped within a few minutes and they couldn’t revive him.
I’m no longer speaking to Claudia, since she recently revealed that she was the one who fed Henrietta to the cat.