My Father’s House

The story of a man and the house he built.

One of my earliest memories is climbing the hill to watch my father build our house. I don’t know how old I was – Four? Five? – but the wind blasted my cheeks rosy-red and my hair was a tousled mess of strawberry blonde. I was swaddled in a black anorak that made me look like the Michelin Man going to a funeral. I remember the sky was swept with clouds blowing in off the sea, like white ropes a hundred miles long, and the sea itself a dark blue peppered with flecks of surf. Or maybe it was nothing like that. I’ve stood on that hillside so many times since that day that I can see it in every possible weather with my eyes closed and whatever fragments of memory I have might well have been supplanted with some other recollection. I don’t think it matters. I ran up the hill as fast as my fat little legs could carry me and, right near the top, there was my father. He was of a generation of men that seemed to be able to do anything with their hands. These were men who, when confronted with a broken appliance, would take it apart to find the problem and make it right again. You never found out how they knew enough to do that – they just seemed to be born with the ability. I suppose, obviously enough, it comes from growing up in days of less abundance, when people had to make do with what they had. Simple enough, but now it seems almost magical.

My father was bent over a half-built wall, laying bricks. I know he didn’t build the house alone, but in my memory he is there by himself, somehow monolithic against the pale sky, a towering tree of a man. I remember, much later, the shock of realising he was actually quite short. My image of him was so informed by that childish perspective. He built the house, and he did it like it was nothing particularly noteworthy. Who builds their own home these days? I don’t mean has it built for them on a plot of land they own: I mean with their own hands. But again, it was a natural thing, at least for him. I watched that house go up brick by brick, wall by wall. It was not a pretty house, not really. I think, in those days, the notion that architecture could complement its surroundings hadn’t quite permeated the national consciousness. It was a squat little bungalow, pebble-dashed and grey, with a black slate roof. If it had a redeeming feature, as a design, it was the great expanse of window. Almost the entire front wall facing the sea seemed to be made of glass. Now in our era of plate glass frontages it probably seemed positively claustrophobic, but at the time it was a wonder. Here I am, later, when the house is finished, sitting cross-legged on the carpet, staring out of one of those big windows at the sky. Each window was like a picture frame showing an expanse of sea, hills and sky. It changed moment by moment, and I was fascinated by it. I believe it’s why I became an artist.

Not all my memories of the house are happy. Here I am, a teenager, already mixed up and confused by life, chafing at the limits of this building, this town, this island. I want to be anywhere else, and never more than now as we sit in silence and black. My mother is dead. My brothers come home. There is a wake. I never saw my father drink until that night. He didn’t get drunk, but he drank and he drank with my uncles, sitting at the kitchen table, not moving, barely speaking. There were no words and no songs. It forever coloured my perception of mourning. It was something to be done in glum silence. Celebrating a life well-lived was alien to me for many years. My father, who built this house, always an incredibly quiet man, but now seemingly struck dumb by grief or shock or something else I don’t understand. I never claimed to know him well. My generation did not know their parents: they’d been through things we’d never understand. How could we even begin to approach them? And anyway, by then I was too self-involved, too determined to get away from that place and live my fantasies. I wanted to be creative. I didn’t think I could do that in the house my father built.

I left him. I was the youngest and I suppose I was the last piece of my mother he had left in that house. But I was my own person with a need to carve out my own destiny. I got on a boat and left that little island nestling in the wild sea to come to the big city – or that’s how I thought of it anyway. I’d go on to see many more cities, all over the world, and even though every of them was cramped and crowded in its own way (you can speak of London’s parks, or the sweep of Sydney’s harbour, or the great brown desert that surrounds Las Vegas, but you never escape the grey streets and towers, not really) none of them felt as confining as my father’s house, the few times I came back.

Here I am now, back again, standing in the front room in which I once sat, looking out of those windows. I hold this place in contempt. This is a small place for small people. Even my father seems shrunken, a worn brown stump. He smokes roll-ups and the smell, forever unnoticed in childhood, now permeates every object and surface and makes me wrinkle my nose unconsciously. “You should stop smoking, dad.” He just snorts, and it turns into a cough.

We go to the pub. Low ceiling, yellowed walls, silent men like him in a haze of even more smoke. No one recognises me. I don’t think I’m so different from that chubby, windblown child running up the hill, but going away has changed me. You never come home, not really, not even to your father’s house. We drink in silence, mostly. I remember he never drank – or maybe he did but we just never saw it. His generation didn’t drink like my generation. Again, I suppose it goes back to money and making do. It’s different now though. He drinks whiskey and water. I’ve seen empty bottles in the kitchen bin. He’s losing his strength and his hands shake from time to time. It occurs to me, sitting back in the house, watching him as he dozes in the armchair with the paper spread across his lap, reading glasses on a chain around his neck now sitting on his chest, some ancient repeat on the boxy old television with no remote control, that he has become an old man while I’ve been gone. I never knew him young – my brothers are all much older than me – but he’d seemed timeless, like the stony hill beneath my feet, like this grey house on the ragged edge of the world: something even the elements could not grind away. I thought about the future.

I’m standing on the doorstep of my father’s house. My brothers are scattered across the world and I’m the only one who can be here just now. My uncles are all long gone, and the world my father had helped build with his worn, brown hands has died with his failing generation. I remember the weather exactly this time. Grey and wild. The smell of the sea is strong here at the top of the hill. So many of my memories are visual, but scent is so much more evocative, and that strong salt swell carried on the gusting breeze was part of the fabric of my early life, a canvas on which my experiences were splashed. There I am, thinking in terms of the artist again. Did I become what I was because I lived in this place or because I wanted to get away from it? I walk back into the house, ducking through a doorway that seems low to me now. It’s dark inside. As time has gone on, less and less of the house has been inhabited. My father’s universe has diminished along with him, as if he’s been retreating into a corner. For the last – how long? Six months? A year? Longer? I realise I don’t know – he has been confined to the bedroom he once shared with my mother. A cruel irony; this side of the house doesn’t overlook the sea. The window shows him only green and brown fields. His eyesight is failing anyway. I sit by his side, and we’re as silent as ever. We never had anything to say, and I don’t imagine we’ll think of anything now. But in our way, we loved one another. He built this house, with his own hands, to shelter me and the rest of his family. It was a great and grand act of love, and now this is where he dies. He breathes through a tube in his neck that he has to hold closed with his arthritic fingers in order to speak. He still drinks his whiskey and water. Who are we to deny him pleasure in these last days? A nurse comes every other day. She’s kindly but harassed and overworked: she has a lot of other people to take care of on the island. This rock in the sea is like a mausoleum; a monument to a dying race of giants who now shrink before their children’s eyes. I didn’t see anyone under the age of thirty in the town, just grey heads with grey faces, staring wistfully out to sea. There must be life here, but I don’t have the heart to go looking for it. I’d rather be anywhere else than here at this moment, but I owe him this much. I sit in my father’s house, holding his hand, as the last of his great strength leaves him and he wheezes his last rattling breath.

I haven’t left yet. There’s no one else to make the arrangements. My brothers fly in from their far-flung corners of the globe. We shake hands, we hug, we console one another with empty platitudes. None of us knows what to do or say. It was easier with mum. Mum was a definite presence in our lives, and she left a gaping hole, but my father had been a blank abyss for years already. He left nothing of himself behind, except the house, into which he had poured all he was, I now understand. The smell of him – tobacco and whiskey and piss from his last, miserable days – is everywhere. Evidence of his life, things unnoticed, no longer blend into the background. His cap on a peg, a wooden dog he carved himself above the fire, the sturdy, thick walls, the pebble-dashed exterior, craggy and ugly, the windows he placed just so, to make the most of the view. I stand in black again, back from the funeral. No one stays for long. They all have lives to go back to. We don’t know what to do with the house. Selling it would be a job no one feels like taking on and no one except me could use the money. Besides if we split it equally it would barely be worth the effort. Everyone is happy to let me take charge. I hold the keys in my hand, undecided. I have no attachment to this house, not any more. It’s just filled with echoes of the past, and you can’t live with those bouncing around your head all day and all night. This is the end of the world, and no one would choose to live here. An ugly lump of bricks sitting on a hill – no good to anyone.

We burned my father that day. We don’t know for certain it’s what he wanted, but we did it anyway. It seemed about right. I half expected him to go up like a firework the amount of alcohol that must be saturating his body, but it was normal. As normal as these things can be, anyway. The coffin rolls through a hatch, everyone stands around awkwardly and that’s all there is to it. Gone. Gone forever. Dust and smoke and ash, where once a man stood. This house he’d built was all that was left of him. I could summon up no more affection for it than I could the man we’d just cremated. It was just a forlorn, little house, and it deserved better than my disinterest.

I stand on the hillside in the darkness, shielding my eyes as the fire licks up the walls. The glass in the windows has shattered already and there’s a creak as the roof begins to cave in. I toss the petrol canister onto the ground. I’m sure there’ll be an investigation, but will anyone care that much? A widower dies and on the day of his funeral his house burns down. So what? Probably just kids, they’ll say, knowing the place was empty. If there even are kids on this island, of course. I’m not scared. I live far, far away, and I’ll be gone by morning. I watch as the flames rise into the night sky, little orange fireflies dancing in the warm updraft as smoke piles out in thick, black clouds. The walls seem to shudder and burst, and all at once it isn’t my father’s house: it’s blackened rubble, a burning ruin. He built it with his hands and I destroyed it with mine. It isn’t resentment or anything else, just a thing I knew I had to do. The story ends here, on this hillside, my eyes watering from the smoke, my face hot from the blaze. I turn back to the sea, to the clear air and the moon glinting off the waves, and walk back down the hill.

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