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In the hallway of my grandmother’s old house there was a glass-fronted bookcase full of hardback novels. Since my grandfather’s passing they had remained behind the glass, only exposed to air when my grandmother slid open the glass to dust the shelves. The books had such fanciful titles, such garish spines, that I could not help myself. Whenever Gran fell asleep, I would steal in to the hall, slide open the panes, and thrill at the dusty bookish smells that were then released.
[private]When I was about fourteen, I was caught red-handed: cross-legged, two Leslie Charteris novels by my side and a book called The Killers From Devil Island open in my hand.
“These books are not suitable for you,” she said, taking the book from me. “Especially this one. Before your grandfather went off to war, he told me that I could read any book on his shelf, anyone I wanted, but not that one.”
She leant down and replaced the banned book, trapping it again behind the glass.
“And did you?” I asked.
“Of course,” she said indignantly. “And I wish I’d listened to him too. It was absolute filth.”
In the wake of my mother’s death, I was left in a similar dilemma to my war-widowed grandmother. Just before father died I had informed him of my intention to write a family tree. I expected him, despite his faltering health, to be enthusiastic about the undertaking. On the contrary, he was almost apoplectic with rage. With spittle flecking his lips, he told me in no uncertain terms that genealogy was unwelcome in his house. “What more do you need know than I am your father and your mother is your mother.” On his deathbed he made me reiterate my promise; as did my mother when her turn came.
“Now don’t you go raking up old wounds, pet.” She said. “No need for all that. Know what you know now, and don’t you go looking for anything else.”
I told her I wouldn’t and she patted my arm.
“Just for once listen to your mum, Paul. Please.”
Once mother’s funeral had been arranged, the service conducted and the legal matters concluded, I felt I needed something to keep me occupied. Some great project that would envelope me, take over my waking thoughts and feelings. My accountancy job was useful as the hours were long, but I needed to do something else. First I went to an evening class to learn Japanese, but found that I didn’t enjoy the company of others, nor the unfamiliar character sets. Online chess was mildly diverting but didn’t have the relentless absorption I required. Long distance running was exhausting but gave me trouble sleeping; while writing a diary only went to remind me how I did little with my days. I went on a few Internet dates and slept with a woman who cried on my shoulders after it was all over. It wasn’t for me.
My salvation came in a discovery of a cache of photographs in the garage, There were boxes and boxes of them; some loose, some in albums, some still in their cardboard sleeves. I took them all in to the lounge and over the next few weeks catalogued them, scanning them into the computer, ensuring they would still exist even if someone torched my house or a bomb landed upon it. This was steady, uneventful work, but it provided a whole host of pleasurable supplementary tasks. Timelines needed drawing, dates had to be estimated and locations confirmed. The administration of such a project was gratifyingly intense, and leafing through all those faded pictures of myself, my father and mother on camping holidays in France and caravanning in Tenby brought back memories of happier, fuller days.
Eventually I produced twelve uniform, chronologically arranged volumes of photographs, all of which had been uploaded to the Internet and downloaded onto an external hard drive. I flicked through each album, added in my supplementary notes, but could not shake a feeling of total absence.
Over the course of the next few hours I upended every box, receptacle and filing cabinet in the house trying to find more photographs. By four in the morning I was in the loft scratching about with a pen-light trying to find anything that could be archived or preserved in some way. At five a.m. I came across a heavy suitcase, wedged at the very back of the crawlspace. Packed along with several stale-smelling sheets, I found a pornographic magazine from 1972 and a thick wallet of photos.
The photos were taken well before my birth and well before my father had met my mother. In them, my father – handsome, stung lipped and shaggy haired – looked back at the camera in his mohair suit. Someone was quite a photographer: the black and white and bleached colour portraits were a far cry from the amateurish holiday snaps in my albums downstairs. They were framed and composed, well balanced; all of them focused on my father’s youthful pout. In the early photographs he is alone, but later he is with a woman, a girl really, in a mini-dress and sunglasses. They kiss in some of the photos, in others he is stripped to the waist and she has her hand over one of his nipples. The girl looks a little like Jean Shrimpton, but with a slight kink to her mouth; the only thing, perhaps, precluding her from being considered flawlessly beautiful.
There were fifty or so photos in the packet, all seemingly arranged chronologically. The interior poses gave way to outside shots, the backdrops urban and radically chic. There was a picture of them leaning against a Ford Corsair, another one of them on a Lambretta, my father without a helmet and with the girl riding pinion. And then more internal shots, portraits of them lying on a brass bedstead covered with rag-rugs and cushions, and then a picture just of the girl topless, her hands on her pregnant belly. The next picture was of the girl holding the baby, then the same child in the arms of my father.
A secret that my father carried with him for almost four decades took just two days to be exposed in its entirely. A lifetime’s achievement ruined by computers and searchable databases. My father had always been an unfaithful man – after he died my mother had said to me: “Don’t fool yourself, son. He may have been a good father, but he was a terrible husband. The man was born light-trousered, and don’t you forget it.” – I just didn’t realise to what extent. I gathered as much information as I could, then called a private detective.
The private detective took a little under 48 hours to give me a slip of paper with the name Joe Tanner and the address of a bar in Benidorm written on it.
“He’s ex-army, by the way,” the detective said, “so go easy. Send a letter or something. In my experience, Mr Duden, these things never end up well. People forget that life isn’t like what it is on the television – most folk don’t like the past dug up.”
He smiled then and tapped the pocket where he’d stuffed my payment. “Though, I’m glad for my sake some do.” He said.
I got a package deal and flew out at the earliest available opportunity. The travel agent tried to point me in the direction of other destinations, places more she said that were more perhaps more suited to the solo traveller, but demurred when I told her I was visiting family. “That is nice,” she said, “I just didn’t want you being disappointed, sir.”
My only experience of Spain was of business trips to Valencia and Barcelona; cities whose architectural flourishes, restaurants and culture I swooningly fell for. My expectations were non-existent for Benidorm, and were admirably met by the town.
Our transfer took us through the centre, grubby streets and mobs of men, bright signage and illuminated beer advertisements. It was like an entire suburban British town had got drunk and passed out on the Spanish coast. And it was loud, so unutterably loud: from the air-conditioning unit in my room to the screams of children in the pool below, the air was filled with heat and howling noise. I opened the door to my apartment, threw my bag on the floor and went immediately to sleep, waking just after nine with a raging thirst.
The Throstles’ Rest, Joe’s bar, was just off the main drag of nightclubs and restaurants, a strip that stank of cigarette smoke, beef burgers and spilled lager. Amongst the football chants and sportswear, the tan-lines, tattoos and pinkish flesh, I wandered up the street avoiding the pretty girls with their neon coloured shots on silver trays, concentrating on finding the correct turning.
Eventually I found it: a shack with plastic windows and a small outside area. The place was quieter than most and seemed to cater for an older clientele. There were plump men and women drinking at wooden tables, ceiling fans twirling and sixties music on the stereo. I sat down and a dark, thin woman put some peanuts down on the table.
“What can I get you, love?” She said in a broad Lancastrian accent.
I ordered a beer and looked around to see if there was anyone who looked like an ex-army man. There was only one. He was sat at the far corner of the bar, a hulking physique that was once powerful but had now run to fat. He did not speak to anyone, and didn’t look up from his drink and the cigarette that was permanently burning in his hand. I watched him, transfixed, for over an hour. Just as I was about to leave he looked up for a moment, almost as if he had just awoken. In the mirror behind the bar his reflection told me everything I needed to know: there could be no doubt he was his father’s son.
I went to the bar day after day; he was always there, but I never quite got a chance to speak to him. Instead I watched him closely, trying to get a fuller impression of him. He seemed never to go to the bathroom, never appeared drunk – though he drank steadily throughout the day – and he talked softly when he spoke, which was not often.
On the sixth day of surveillance, I saw my opportunity. The barstool beside him was, for the first time, vacant. I asked him if it was taken and he waved a hand. In front of him were six cigarettes smouldering in a black plastic ashtray. He picked up each one in turn, took one drag, then replaced it. I took out my book and pretended to read it while covertly watching my half-brother smoke the six cigarettes to the filter, then light six more, arranging them in the ashtray in the same formation.
“Does it upset you,” he said quietly.
“I’m sorry?” I said
“The smoking,” he said, “does it bother you?”
“No,” I said, “no, not at all.”
He grunted and took a quick sip of his beer, then he turned and fixed me with his eyes.
“This here is Charlie’s,” he said, holding up one of the cigarettes and puffing on it. “This hear is Davey’s, this one’s Butcher’s, this one’s Boggie’s and this one’s Jed’s. And this last one’s for me.”
The beer bottle was halfway to my mouth, stalled.
“Falklands, yeah? You remember the Falklands?”
“Of course,” I said. He nodded once.
The next day I went back to the bar determined to engage Joe in a decent conversation. It was mid-afternoon, a sweaty, dismal time, but I had no option: I was flying out the next day. The dusty, smoky streets were all too familiar now, and I walked them with the impatience of harassed local.
At the bar, the same seat was free again. I sat down and, surprisingly, Joe immediately looked up from his cigarette-filled ashtray. He looked so much like my father I wanted to hold him in my arms. But there was a hollowness to the eyes, like there was nothing he hadn’t seen and nothing he couldn’t do.
“Here again are you?”
“Yes, I suppose I am. I like it here.”
“It’s a dive,” he said picking up the next cigarette.
“I like the music,” I replied.
He sniffed and tossed a look back to me.
“I guess you’re the bloke who thinks I’m his brother, aren’t you?”
I looked at the bottle of beer sweating in front of me. He took the third cigarette and sucked on it. I nodded
“Go home.” He said picking up the fourth cigarette. “I don’t need any more brothers.”
“You have brothers?”
He turned, his face twisted into a red, urgent rage.
“Get out of my pub,” he shouted.
I spent the last day in my holiday apartment listening to the shrieks of children and the admonishments of parents. Brothers battering each other, sisters pulling each other’s hair. Sat under the air conditioning unit, I listened intently to every conversation, every sigh, every amplified disagreement. I heard the families leave at night, fathers and mothers already sun drunk and their kids running races over the road, car horns blaring at their stupidity. I packed at the last moment, stuffing t-shirts and shorts into my cumbersome suitcase.
In the cool night air, I thought over and again about what the Lancastrian barmaid – Joe’s wife it transpired – had said when she’d collared me after leaving the bar.
“I’m not one for blame,” she said, “you make your own rotten luck in this life, I think, but Joe? He blames his old man for everything. He only joined up because your bloody father wouldn’t go and see him, or so he says. In Joe’s eyes, it’s his fault they all died. He replays that in his head every day, and then you lot keep coming back to remind him all about it.”
“How do you mean, you lot? I just—“
She looked at me like I was fooling with her.
“Well you’re not the first, are you? I mean, how many more of you are there anyway?”
She turned her back on me and didn’t wait for a response.
I flew home. A week went by and my sunburn faded quickly. I spent all my time in libraries and on the computer. Six siblings – four brothers and two sisters – were quickly identified, as were other potential lines of interest.
I gathered all their names, their mother’s names and their family names, and wrote them all down in notebooks, typing up the results on the computer. It was vast, this family tree, branches everywhere, snaking off the page, twining with other branches. It would take a lifetime to complete a thorough analysis. It was a task bigger and more absorbing than I could ever have hoped.[/private]
Stuart Evers writes about books for a variety of books and websites, including the Guardian and Time Out. A former editor and bookseller, he is currently working on a collection of linked stories.