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There were three things I had in common with my father: whisky, writing, and sleepwalking. According to him, I was an uncultured whisky drinker and untalented fiction writer. “But, my God, you might just be the greatest sleepwalker there ever was,” he’d said one morning after he’d seen me juggling semiconscious in my flannel pyjamas. To this day, I’ve never been able to juggle whilst awake.
He hadn’t left me much: a few unpublished manuscripts, a signed first edition of his debut novel, and his Remington Portable typewriter, which he was found slumped over, with an empty bottle of whisky in his lap and the final words he ever wrote stamped into the furled paper – I’m tired.
The Remington Portable was a beautiful thing. When you held it in your hands it was heavy and cold, like a chiselled lump of iron ore. But when you placed it on a desk, it became an intricate, miraculous object, with hundreds of delicate cogs and levers working to your bidding. I’d always loved it. My father was repulsed by the idea of using a computer or word processor. “What’s good enough for Orwell is good enough for the rest of us,” he’d said once, grinding his teeth as he wound the fiddly ink ribbon into the Remington. Orwell had used the same model, but my father had been duped into thinking he’d bought Orwell’s actual typewriter. As such, he treated the thing like a literary totem, with powers beyond mere mechanical virtue. When I heard that he’d stipulated in his will that I should have it, it was the only time after his death that I came close to crying. I just didn’t expect it – he wasn’t a sentimental man.
My father was right about two things: I never savoured whisky for its flavour, and I couldn’t write to save my life. I was a drunken failure until the day I stopped trying to impress him – which was the day he died. My stories were awful. They were about ray-guns and green Martians and stereotypical characters like alcoholic writers. My prose was a mess and my father had told me so. That’s when I’d started trying to impress him with drinking – but I was even worse at that. I retched at the taste of his finest single malts, but gulped them down all the same. My slight frame couldn’t handle the stuff. By the time my father was swilling his third glass, I was urinating in the corner of my room, singing “Wonderwall” so loudly I could hear the urban foxes shrieking in reply.
I can’t tell you for sure whether I was a great sleepwalker, as my father had claimed. For one thing, I couldn’t see myself sleepwalk – I was completely oblivious of it. But I did wake up in some unusual situations. During one episode, I’d got fully dressed and taken myself to a casino. I became conscious at a blackjack table, walled-in by a metropolis of chips. Soon after waking, I was escorted out by some large men, along with my winnings, which I handed over to my father (I don’t recall the exact amount, but it was enough to stem the post marked “urgent” streaming through our letterbox).
I grew out of sleepwalking around twenty-one years old, when I’d finally got over never having a mother. Post-natal depression, my father had said – an illness I’ve tried my hardest to make sense of, but never have.
This is everything I know about my mother: she was a saint, she was obsessed with the work of George Orwell (perhaps even more so than my father), and she was never to be spoken of. One of the few artefacts of her existence was the dedication made on the recto page of my father’s first novel. It states simply: For Emily.
My father used to sleepwalk every so often, usually after he’d received a rejection letter from Something & Something Publishing. This was followed by weeks of door-slamming, fearsome typing and black bag after black bag of scrunched-up paper snowballs. I remember flattening one of the snowballs out and reading it. It was apoplectic gibberish – the cathartic ramblings of a man allergic to rejection. Stuff like: Mark my words, you’ll be one of those regretful scoundrels who’ll have to admit you overlooked the “novel of the decade”, and your spirit will be crushed as a reckoning interviewer asks, “Was that the biggest mistake of your career?” And you’ll have to respond with the heavy truth that, “It was the biggest mistake of my life!”
It was quite an upsetting thing to read as a young boy. I wondered then what I know for certain now: my father was a madman. Not in a dangerous or violent way – not at all. The only thing he’d take his anger out on was the Remington and the unsuspecting A4 sheets it had helped deface. That poor paper, I used to think. What had it done to deserve such a brutal end? Crushed and torn and spat on like a medieval prisoner.
I believe the only human my father intended to cause suffering to was himself. He had the misfortune of achieving his dream relatively early in life and that proved to be the zenith of his writing career. His first book, written soon after I was born, received exalting reviews and sold well. I was too young to remember this golden age of his talent, but I do remember the disappointment of his follow-up some years later, which failed spectacularly. He was dubbed a “one-hit wonder” and doors closed which he was unable to wrench open with his impassioned typing. He punished himself mercilessly for this, often going days without eating, tearing clumps of hair from his scalp, beating his thighs with his fists until they were black and he could barely walk. For years afterwards, he locked himself away in his study for long spells, in an ostensible effort to cause himself great distress. Eventually, his heart couldn’t take it any longer and waved the white flag.
At the funeral, his agent and good friend, Edward, told me how happy I’d made my father; how proud he’d been of me. That was news to me. I wasn’t even sure if he liked me. Sometimes, when he’d quote Orwell to me, or rant about some publisher he hated, he’d stop suddenly and look at me as though I’d twitched or moved in a way that terrified him, then he’d retreat to his office and lock the door. I often felt as though my very existence led to the demise of the great writer within him – the one who’d written his first book. It seemed like the older I got, the worse he wrote.
But I suppose I must have meant something to him – he gave me his most prized possession, after all. I’ve placed the Remington on the desk in my spare room; wound in a new ink ribbon and a fresh sheet of paper. That’s how it will remain – as though my father was still at work.
I met this girl recently – just before my dad kicked the bucket. She’s quite lovely. Prettier than the girls I usually see, and intelligent too. Way smarter than me. She does one of those jobs that I can never remember because it sounds so complicated. Psycho-something-or-other. When she explained it, my brain scribbled it down, made a paper snowball out of it, and threw it in the bin at the back of my skull. As far as I could understand, she listened to crazy people all day. Her name’s Sian. We’ve only been on a few dates but she’s sticking around whilst I sort all this shit out. She’s a nice distraction from the distraction of mourning. I do wonder if she feels compelled to hang around out of guilt. I mean, what sort of person dumps someone after their father dies? She doesn’t want to live with that on her conscience, does she? Yep, I’d say we’ve got a pretty good thing going on.
Around a week after the funeral, I was ironing a shirt before going to see Sian for a date at some restaurant she’d explained was a fusion of Chinese and Italian, which sounded so horrific I had to see it for myself. “They use noodles instead of pasta and serve tiramisu in a spring roll,” she’d grimaced, thumbing a magazine as we sat on the Tube.
“We have to go,” I’d said. “It sounds too awful to be true.”
“What? I don’t want to go,” she’d said, looking up from her glossy mag. “It sounds like food a child would make while their parents are out.”
“Exactly,” I’d said. “I’ll book for Thursday night. My treat.”
I was ironing my shirt in the spare room, which was actually far from going spare. It was the ironing room, the storage room, the exercise room, the drying room, and now, the shrine-to-my-dead-father room. It was, in fact, the most capable and underrated room in my dinky Tooting flat.
Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t iron out the five-year-old creases tattooed into my shirt, so I decided to wear a jumper over it instead – it was June. Satisfied with this resolution, I slumped into the wheelie chair at my desk and admired the compact Remington, gleaming in the LED spotlight. I noticed a mark on the paper I’d wound in, which looked like a black smudge without my glasses on. I leant in to see that the blemish was ink. This is what the ink said:
I retrieved my glasses and returned to the typewriter to confirm what I’d seen – the words were there. I was shaken. I held the creased shirt to my chest like an infant’s comfort blanket. There seemed to be only one sane reaction to the words which stared at me. On the next line, I typed:
I sat there looking at the page, motionless; quiet. The sad thing I have to tell you is: I wanted to believe it. I wanted my father to take control of that typewriter and begin lecturing me on how to drink whisky, how to battle against cliché, how Orwell used adversity and the world around him to fuel his genius.
But the Remington was dormant. The keys didn’t begin to move unaided, like a pianola, nor did the ink stain the fibres of the page before my watchful eyes. The room was silent and I was alone.
I texted Sian to cancel our date – I didn’t feel like sweet-and-sour lasagne any more. I told her I wasn’t feeling well, which was only a partial lie; an unfamiliar nausea stirred in me, and I wondered (not for the first time): is madness hereditary?
After a few hours of examining the Remington – lifting it, shaking it, looking for secret mechanisms hidden within – I left the room in defeat, and took my creased shirt with me.
In the half-consciousness between snoozing my alarm at 6.30am and eventually waking at 7.20am, I had this flickering reverie that I’d been contacted by my dead father in a dream. And by the time I’d found the energy to perform the single sit-up required to commence the day, I’d convinced myself that the entire episode was just some cruel symptom of grief. Which, if true, would make this story a great disappointment. THE END.
But it wasn’t a dream. I opened the door of the spare room and this is what presented itself to me on the page:
No, it’s Orwell himself… of course it’s me, you fool.
I felt lightheaded. This is real, I thought. It’s happening… I’m not going to work today.
Carefully, I removed the paper from the typewriter and held it up to the light coming from the small spare room window. The paper was paper. The ink was ink. To my eye, it was not a trick. I photographed the page with my phone. The words appeared on the screen, just as they did on the page. I deleted the image – for some reason, it seemed wrong to document. I don’t think my father would have liked his words digitized.
What now? I had to respond. I wanted answers. I rewound the paper back into the machine and began typing. I wasn’t waiting around for this mystery to be solved piece by piece. I wanted to know everything and I wanted to know now.
How is this happening? Are you a ghost? How are you communicating with me? Are you in heaven? Purgatory? Is Mum there? Does this mean there’s an afterlife? What’s it like? How do you feel?
And so on. I filled up half a page with questions that morning and waited the whole day by the typewriter in anticipation of a response. I was afraid to leave the room or else miss the magic of his reply, so I sat there for hours, my hollow stomach sending punches of hunger up my throat, and desperately needing to piss. Eventually, I gave in and left the room to relieve myself, but when I returned nothing had changed. Whatever reticent, paranormal workings were at play, I began to doubt my father’s willingness to perform under observation. As in life, perhaps he preferred to work behind closed doors, where he could flog each word from himself.
The time was 1am. I hadn’t realised how much of the day had evaporated in a haze of adrenaline and fright. Excitement, also. This was exciting, wasn’t it? To speak with a soul who I’d thought was lost. I began to appreciate the miracle of this setup and the delicacy of the connection we had; this wasn’t like sending a text message and being aggrieved at a delayed reply. I took a long breath, left the spare room, and padded to my bedroom. I checked my phone – twenty-eight missed calls: from work (whatever) and Sian (whoops). Tomorrow, I thought. I’ll deal with it… tomorrow.
Christ, boy. Too many questions. This isn’t easy, you know?
It’s dark here. I’m alone. I hear a faint voice sometimes. A man’s voice. I can’t make out what he’s saying, but it’s comforting.
I don’t know how this is happening. But it’s a wonderful opportunity.
ME (the next day)
An opportunity for what?
DAD (the day after that)
To get something published, of course.
Once it’d become obvious I wasn’t going to be a writer like my father, I’d tripped over my ego and stumbled into a sales job, which is where a lot of people who discover they don’t have a talent end up. A colleague once told me that sales is a talent. He’s wrong. But I didn’t tell him that. He’d already sold the idea to himself.
This is how you sell stuff: find people who want to spend money and make it easy for them to spend it. For instance, when my father walked into an antique typewriter shop and announced, “I’m here to buy George Orwell’s typewriter,” the sales assistant need only have shown him the Remington and taken his money. Except, this sales assistant decided to take things one step further. He told my father the shop was in possession of the very typewriter that Orwell had used to write his latter masterpieces: Animal Farm and 1984. A man in his right mind may have refuted this instantly and left in a fury of mistrust. But this young sales clerk was fortunate, because at that time, my father would have been in the vulnerable state synonymous with losing a partner from the act of suicide. He bought the typewriter and immediately began work on his first novel (which was a great success, if you remember).
Now, as you know, he was using it to liaise with me. From the afterlife.
At the start of each day I’d look to see what my father had written. We were having a conversation with a twenty-four-hour delay between replies, like in the early days of the telegram. Eventually I learned patience with this and realised the benefits of having time to ponder his words and to construct an economic response.
Beyond this routine of communicating with the dead, I’d adjusted to method-acting my way through the day; wearily returning to work and crank-starting my relationship with Sian – if you could call it a relationship. I’m not sure she would have. But the point is, on the surface, all was well.
In the meantime – the time that had real meaning to me – my father was instructing me on one of his old manuscripts in an attempt to edit it for publishing. After it was originally overlooked, Edward, his agent, had suggested some changes which he’d noted in red pen. My father had originally rejected these in a tantrum and moved on to another fruitless work, but death had softened him, and he now seemed willing to acquiesce to Edward’s amends. He had an impressive recall of the manuscript, and under his direction, and using Edward’s notes, I made the necessary rewrites.
It wasn’t his greatest work: a story about a fisherman who learns that he’s won the lottery whilst out at sea, but on his jubilant journey home, he becomes distracted by thoughts of the impending spending spree and is shipwrecked on a desert island. Nevertheless, my father was convinced that the “posthumously-published” hook would work in his favour, and, after several weeks of typing and retyping – and a good deal of paper snowballs of my own – it was ready.
Make sure you post the manuscript to Edward first thing tomorrow so he can begin pitching.
I have something to tell you: I’ve been hearing the voice again. The man’s voice. It’s becoming clearer. I think I know who it is now. It’s Orwell.
Edward was a tweedy, regal chap, who made the old-man’s pub look like The Ritz as he sat in a chair with the posture of a ballerino. His pate was entirely bald and reflected the tube lighting on the ceiling like the lanes of a motorway; but it suited him – the baldness. The notion of Edward with hair was ridiculous, and if pushed, I’d rebut the idea that Edward ever had hair. He did, however, have eyebrows – and what eyebrows. That overgrown brow of his spoke his thoughts in sign language; making him the worst poker player in the northern hemisphere, according to my father.
The Dog and Duck had been a frequent drinking hole for Edward and my father; a closet-sized pub near Edward’s office, which I’d always imagined to be filled with scholars and creative types, but in reality, was sprinkled with Soho’s day-time vagrants and overweight beer addicts; my sort of people – not my father’s.
Edward stood as I approached and shook my hand with excessive force, as he always did. I tried to match his grip, but this just spurred him to introduce reserved pressure until I felt the tiny bones in my hand warping towards breaking point. I submitted and he released my throbbing fingers and thumped my shoulder, as though he knew of some horrible illness within me that he hoped to exorcise the same way one slaps tomato ketchup from a bottle. It was odd.
“How are you, James?” His eyebrows slanted like a pained Labrador’s and he nodded for me to sit in the chair opposite. “You look tired.” He’d already set up a neat whisky for us both. A ritual from his meetings with my father, I assumed.
I dragged the chair out from under the table and sat. “I’m all right, thanks.” I knew the expectations of grief and didn’t want to disappoint my father’s oldest friend. Edward seemed on high alert for signs of mourning, his stray eyebrow hairs vibrating like antennae searching for emissions of despair. I hung my head a little.
Edward sat down. “You know Orwell used to drink here?” he said, pointing to a framed sign on the wall next to a black and white photograph of The Great Writer Himself. It suddenly made sense why my father had drunk in this hovel.
“Do you think he really did?” I asked, still looking at the wall. What I really wanted to know was: could the Remington have been Orwell’s after all?
Edward smiled and looked downwards for a moment, staring at his whisky and slowly wrapping his hand around it. “We liked to think so.” He raised his glass to his mouth and took a considered sip.
Eventually, we got down to business. “How have the pitches gone so far?” I asked, doing my utmost to stifle signs of enthusiasm.
“Look, James,” he exhaled. “I want to be honest with you.” The promise of honesty is rarely followed by welcome truths, and so it transpired: Edward explained he’d never intended to pitch the manuscript. “It’s still a mystery to me, but no matter how much your father tried, he could never produce anything nearly as good as his first novel.” He pulled out the manuscript which I’d sent him by post. “This was never close to being publishable. Even with my edits.” He rested the block of paper onto the table with care, as though laying a wreath. “Your father knew it too. There are glimmers of his talent in here – but he seemed incapable of holding on to it for long. I think it’s wonderful you’re trying to continue his work though – even doing some writing of your own, I see?”
“I’m sorry?” I said, sitting up. “I haven’t written anything in years.”
“But I saw some pages which aren’t part of the manuscript. I presume they’re yours?” Edward pulled out a page from the back of the ream. “It’s a kind of one-man play, is it?”
It was one of the typed conversations with my father – it must have become mixed up in the manuscript when I was making the edits. I played along. “Oh, yes! Nothing serious, just some notes.”
Edward examined the page. “It’s amazing what grief can do,” he said, almost to himself.
“How’d you mean?”
“I think you should continue your writing,” he said. “Channel everything you feel into this – send me the first draft when it’s done.” He squinted as he scanned the text again, his eyebrows twitching as he read. “Get a bit of stage-direction in here … this could be a nice little script – your first play!” He peeked from behind the page to see if he’d stoked some happiness in me.
I nodded and allowed him a smile in return. I had every intention of continuing.
It’s Orwell all right. I hear him clearly now. We talk. He told me I wrote for one reason: sheer egoism. I said, That’s not true. He asked, Why else did you write, other than to be remembered? It made me happy, I said. (It was a lie, but I said it.) If writing made you happy, he said, you were never going to be a great writer.
Sian was still on the scene. I was beginning to get the impression she might actually like me – grief or no grief. We’d been on several dates now, and more often than not, she was the first to make arrangements for a follow-up. She’d become more tactile, stroking the back of my neck and kissing the seldom-touched skin behind my ears. I could sense she was becoming restless for contact beyond humid hand-holding and goodbye kisses on the Tube. It was unlikely she’d ever ask me back to hers as she still lived with her parents, so I knew the onus was on me. But I didn’t want the onus. I avoided the unspoken onus altogether, until, eventually, the onus grew wings and fluttered from Sian’s mouth.
“Why haven’t you invited me to your place yet?” she asked, clearly fed up, but masking this with a playful tone – a lilt people seemed to use at the beginning of relationships to present the most inoffensive, well-rounded version of themselves.
I didn’t have an answer to this question, because I didn’t know why. I liked Sian. I was attracted to her. But as I considered my response, the truth dawned that the heat of desire had become a distant feeling to me, like a forgotten adolescent fever.
But, of course, I couldn’t say this. Instead, I projected my concerns outward, and explained that I didn’t want to seem too forward, and that I hadn’t had any signals from her. A lie, which I quickly looked to mask with an invitation to, “Come over on Saturday night – we can watch a film”; which meant, have sex.
But we didn’t have sex. We watched the entire two hours and forty-two minutes of The Godfather: Part III, and I remember the precise moment when Sian’s coquettish posturing stopped and she became rigid and mute on the sofa, with her arms folded and her chin buried into her chest. It was just after she’d muttered, “I’ve not even seen the first two.”
She left after the film in a taciturn huff. I didn’t expect to see her again.
He’s right, you know. Suffering begets greatness. I didn’t suffer hard enough; long enough. I didn’t mourn your mother deep enough. That’s my fault. That’s why I failed.
Sian called the next day. It was a surprise, of course. For the first time, she asked about my father. She asked how I felt. I said, I felt fine – tired, but fine (although, truthfully, my father’s last message had unsettled me somewhat). She said it’s perfectly normal to feel depressed; she speaks to people every day who are going through what I am. I said I thought she just spoke to crazy people? She said she’d come over that evening to talk about this properly. And she did.
I was grateful when she arrived, and to show her I was sorry for being so remote, I took out an old bottle of whisky my father had given me some years ago and poured us both a tumbler. I tried to remember what he’d told me about adding a bit of water to open up the flavour, as though this would transform it into something drinkable. Sian and I swilled our glasses and sipped and pretended it was delicious and didn’t taste like a burning timber yard. Whatever your opinion on the flavour, no one can refute whisky’s influence on the tongue – it didn’t take long for me to open up about my father. I told Sian much of what I’ve told you here – obviously I left out the bits about his typewriter being a medium for communicating with the dead.
“…It seemed like the older I got, the worse he wrote,” I said, pouring another glass of the brown stuff.
“And how did that make you feel?” she persisted, adopting a solemn tone, which I took to be the voice she used with the crazies.
As she leaned in to hear my answer, the light from the antique lamp in my living room illuminated her features and her blue-green eyes reflected back at me, looking at me deeply; not through me, but within, as though she could see the next page before it’d been turned. I’d forgotten how beautiful she was. What on earth was she doing there with me?
The older I got. The worse he wrote.
“It seems obvious to me what was going on,” said Sian, seeing I’d been distracted by my thoughts. She seemed determined to shake something from me that night.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Your dad did his best work when he was suffering, right?”
“So … what’s the correlation here?” She widened her eyes and nodded with encouragement, prompting me like an enthusiastic teacher.
I shrugged and shook my head.
Sian laughed, exasperated. “Maybe you made him happy, idiot!”
A knot tied in my throat. “Oh. Well, maybe… I wish he’d tell me that.” But I knew he wouldn’t.
Sian levered her small frame back into the sofa, seemingly satisfied, her eyes flashing towards the ceiling then back to me. Those eyes; shimmering with green flint and shards of blue.
Later, we went to bed.
I never told you your mother’s last words. It was her favourite quote; the same words Orwell spoke to me last night: happiness can exist only…
…It was night. I was sitting in the spare room with my middle finger resting on the Y key of the Remington. My eyes stung and my cheeks felt hot and damp. I’d been crying. Sian was standing in the doorway, squinting at me. “Hello? Did you hear me?” she said. “I asked if you’re all right?”
I nodded at her and gave a wet sniff. I looked at the page, read the words back, and slowly typed: