Today is my father’s birthday. He would have been seventy. Try as I might I can’t see him at this age just as I can’t seem to picture myself at seventy. Then again, I’m not sure anyone can really picture themselves as their Autumn slips into Winter.Twelve years ago, at his eulogy, I looked out across the crowd and was surprised (yet shouldn’t have been) by the faces. Family and friends from England, colleagues from Taiwan, China, Honduras, and South Africa. The stateside contingent from the deep south, New York, California. All there to pay homage.I loathe speaking to groups larger than say six so I stuck with what I knew, what I had in common with my father. Travel.
Strange because his side of the family did not have the inherent wanderlust that pervades the rest. His people were footballers, mostly Everton, but some at Aston Villa, Liverpool, Newcastle. They we’re pugilists, taking lads off the Liverpool streets and training them for the ring. As a child I’d walk around the gyms, the smell of sweat, leather, and blood in the air. Alien to someone used to rambling the hedgerows of the Kentish countryside. I stood centre field at Anfield, a scrawny eight year old imagining the roar of the Kop (my grandfather had taken me the previous week). These things seemed very Northern to me at the time, far removed from the home counties. They still do.
Before the wall came down my father was gone a tremendous amount. Prague, Budapest, Warsaw. I remember him being gone for a month, “detained” in Hungary, coming back gaunt and sallow, a Lech Walesa mustache and longish hair. He took me out and we bought a snakes and ladders set in the village. He was quiet, withdrawn and closely at my side.
In later years it was Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Guatemala City, San Pedro Sula. always traveling alone, always being gone for extended periods. He was the king of no reservations, believing that you honestly just showed up somewhere and they would fit you in. In fact, he was a hard fellow to say no to. I saw it as I became older, the athletic frame, grey, wavy, longish hair, the accent. Very Shakespearian in his presence.
Before he passed away we where in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Thailand. In the lobby of the Oriental in Bangkok I see a well tailored man in his fifties staring intently at my father. I whisper that someone is checking him out. “don’t be silly” he snapped as the gentleman walks towards us. Then they are hugging, clasping hands. The man reminiscing in an Australian accent how they worked together. He was apparently with the foreign service and now owned a bank. The gent walks off and my father shrugs and says “”Sydney, years ago. I’m famished. Let’s eat.”
He was full of surprises. I have a picture of him in Los Angeles standing on the sidelines with the England squad, deep in conversation. It must be the early eighties. Never heard him mention it. Still have no idea of the story behind it.
Unimpressed with the truly impressive but fascinated by the mundane he could be maddening in his reluctance to share information. I used to look at his passport that was more ink than paper and ask him about the exotic sounding names. Without fail I was met with a “don’t remember” or a “bit boring” or “some sort of convention”. When asked about a Mexico City stamp I hear “that’s where I broke my ankle playing football in an alley, they had pointy alligator cowboy boots”. No clarification, no story setup or closing.
I have his old leather suitcase, a suit with a lovely suppressed waist, a stainless watch that has a slight burr in the movement. With my arm under pillow I can hear it resonate. A metallic heart beat that I fall asleep to.
I think of my father every time I clear immigration and get that first sip of air on unfamiliar soil. I’m not sure if I travel for the same motivations as he but it courses through all that I am. Be it a heavily incensed air, a tremendous meal, a good conversation, or the rains of a monsoon, places like people resonate endlessly and colour all that we are. I miss him like hell and as I receive another stamp in the blue and gold (sadly now E.U. burgundy) I’ll continue to look for traces of the old man.
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