Shadows and Reflections: the annual collection of postings where Caught by the River’s ever-reliable contributors and friends old and new take a look back on the events that have shaped the past twelve months. Today it’s the turn of Richard King:
In an upstairs room of my parent’s house is an heirloom, a Welsh stick back chair that once belonged to Mrs Mond, a neighbour of my grandmother. As Mrs Mond’s son Roy was severely handicapped my grandmother often attended to the neighbours’ needs, brought them groceries and helped with the housework. To her surprise she was bequeathed the chair in gratitude of her kindness and help.
I learned these details of whom the chair had belonged to and why it now belonged in our family from my father two years ago. I had entered the upstairs room where my mother, who was bedridden and nearing the end of her life, lay sleeping. A lifelong Francophile my father was sitting in the chair reading Pascal’s ‘Pensées’, softly murmuring the lines to himself as he watched over her. The stick back chair had previously escaped my notice and as my father described its provenance his hands grasped the ash arms in tribute to the craftsmanship that had carved them.
A few days ago I sat down in the stick back chair and fell asleep. When I awoke I was reminded of this incident from the immediate past, of finding my father reading aloud and the description he had given of his childhood neighbours. I hadn’t intended to doze off; the afternoon had been set aside to begin the process of organising and distributing the contents of my parents’ bedroom. Anyone familiar with the deep fugues of grief will recognise the inevitability of the day’s chores being disrupted by memory, and the tiredness caused by this process, one that often ends in sleep, sleep that seems too heavy and intrusive for daylight hours but descends regardless.
At the start of this year one fact dominated all other thoughts, to the point where time proceeded in two separate gears. On some indeterminate day, within a few weeks or months, my father would die as a result of the esophageal cancer that had recently been diagnosed, some ten months after the death of my mother. My father had little interest in dignifying his illness and insisted that life, in all its humour, would carry on. I knew my father was sincere in his determination and also unafraid of what lay ahead; as his carer, every sign of increasing weakness I detected in him triggered the gear change I dreaded, the twitch of nerves accompanied by the remorseless sensation of acceleration.
In the past two years I have grown accustomed to the irrational, proprietary spells objects such as the stick back chair cast over our emotions. In my father’s study among the dog-eared volumes of French verse I latterly tidied into a pile, I came across a proof copy of the newly published ‘1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear’, one of the last books my father read. During one of several conversations prompted by his attachment to the subject my father mentioned he had seen John Gielgud play Lear at Stratford in the fifties.
The year was punctuated with such revelations. However incidental they seemed, the fact I had not previously known these passages from my father’s biography loaded them with a significance I still fail to understand. In a stiflingly hot week in the summer during which he was required to attend hospital every day for radiotherapy I learned, for the first time, that my father had visited the Festival of Britain. As he recovered from yet another car journey we spent an hour discussing the details he could remember. He described the excitement and optimism he felt at seeing the exhibits on the South Bank, the sense that something new was abroad in the air, and I watched in silence as this episode from his youth danced once more across his face.
In a moment of coincidence, of the kind that have now taken on a familiar but unnerving almost metaphysical reality, at my father’s funeral my son was given a commemorative coin from the Festival of Britain. It was a present from my father’s oldest friend who he had met at Cambridge, where they had been sent to learn Russian during National Service. This latest keepsake now has as equal a significance as Mrs Mond’s chair, so too does a bookmark my father bought for my son in February during a visit to a badly heated municipal museum, on what was one of the most magical days of the year and perhaps in time, will reveal itself as one of the most magical of my life.
In the Newport City Museum there is a hand-stitched banner that reads ‘How Beggarly Appear Arguments Before A Defiant Deed’. It was made in around 1910 by the Newport branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union. If I dwell too long on the image of my father and son standing together before this banner in silence, I am submerged even further, downwards again, to pass time in this strange space composed of objects, books, ghosts and memories. A space illuminated as well, by the enduring brightness of love.
Richard King is the author of How Soon Is Now and the recently published Original Rockers, which was shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize 2015.