I have memories.
They come and go and they are suspect. They are reinforced by other people’s opinions, corrupted by prejudice, by my own ideas or by other memories that slink backwards in time and insinuate themselves like cuckoos, creating false, synchronous echoes.
I am sitting in the squalor of another failed relationship. I crouch on the bed, arms encircling knees. I stare at the open, empty cupboards and drawers. They scream at me silently, demanding answers.
I’m not good at answers. You have to thread the questions through all the right holes, and weave them into some kind of cohesive, solid image. But that’s hard when memories warp, when the questions have sunk beneath the fog of the mind and drifted away on underwater currents.
Love and serpents, fear and warm nights marble in my mind.
Forgiveness, I am told, is a Christian heresy.
“God does not forgive. God is absolute.” Thus spoke my soon-to-be, soon-to-leave lover. Her eyes are like beautiful, brown, open, empty drawers.
We sit at the beach and I tell her the Norse story of Jormangundr, the world-serpent, encircling the Earth with his body, his tail in his mouth. The oceans are held together by the curve of his spine.
“Actually the Vikings were one of many cultures that believed in a blood price,” she responds in her academic’s voice. “Instead of asking for forgiveness, they paid money to the victim or the family of the victim, to balance the scales.”
“Blood money,” I say, the ocean in my voice. “What happened if the perpetrator was dead?”
She looks at me blankly. “Isn’t that just normal Justice?”
The simplicity of her answer destroys me. I pull her down to meet me in the sand.
My dads both died on the same day. They drowned.
I was very young and they didn’t need me to identify my dads’ bodies, and so I wasn’t taken to the morgue.
It’s hard to say now, but I think that I would have liked to see my parents before they were all burnt up at the crematorium.
For months afterwards, I still expected to hear their voices, to be slung up in the air and fed something sugary, or tickled until I couldn’t breathe. If I cried, I would do it softly for fear of missing their return. I spoke at a constant whisper. Hiccoughs were held silently, like underground explosions. I would have suffered anything to stop almost hearing their voices in the next room. Even the sight of two bodies turned to water.
There is a question in everyone’s mind, when they hear that I had two dads. What do you call your parents, when they are both the same sex?
I reply mechanically: dad for Georgie and daddy for Ryan—but I know that it was an inconstant system, depending on who was likely to allow me more, or how upset I was. They rarely referred to each other by nicknames, so I sometimes even called them just Ryan and Georgie.
The answer seems to offend people. They withdraw from the conversation, unsatisfied, as if the banality of human existence was my fault.
“Look, the reflection.”
We were in a furniture shop, I think. There were fabrics and wood and cold floors. Ryan loved furniture hunting. He drew me over to one side to look at a bronze-sheathed cabinet and pointed.
In the burnished metal I could see the reflection of my dad’s slim figure in the distance. He stood talking to someone, his torso and legs lengthened like a shadow and blurred into gold.
The shadow began to grow larger as he walked back towards us, and I turned around to see him, tousle-haired and smiling at us. Dad always smiled when he got a good deal.
These things are never fully hidden. The newspaper cutting was tucked away in my aunt’s files.
I am nine and I have found the article hidden in my aunt’s study. I hold it and it is burning in my hands. I felt like I could tear through the dimensions of reality until I was at the heart of a burning star. My eye captures one word and then another.
“Two men are dead…”
“…Tuesday afternoon, a car plummeted...”
The words were like black holes, replacing reality with negative space. Something was defined by the time that existed before, but after that point (that unseeable, untouchable point), time, reason, safety no longer had any purchase.
I remember tearing the article to pieces and eating them.
“What a bastard.” I can hear the words from a great distance across the room and 24 years. I am seven years old.
The words stood out among the meaningless conciliatory phrases. A thin blonde woman in regulation black shakes her head in my direction and nibbles at a ham triangle. “Leaving a child alone. Unforgivable.”
In my memory, the room is the size of an enormous theatre. It is filled with black and grey shapes that loom above me. I remember being hungry. I remember the taste of shredded newspaper.
“Unforgivable.” I don’t know if they all said it, but the echoes of that word followed me everywhere.
What they meant was that they could not forgive, but I wondered if he knew that it was an unforgiveable act. If he knew that it was an act that could never be forgiven, and could never be revoked. That the dark waters would close over his actions only when there was no one left to care.
There seemed to be so many unforgivable acts when I was younger. Not being invited to a party was an act; being told that I couldn’t go out. Acts quickly forgotten…
I think to unforgive someone is not the same as to unlove them. Why would you hold someone unforgiven if you didn’t love them? You have to be there in person, never forgetting, never relaxing. You have to devote a portion of your soul to defend that dark place. Why would you do that if you didn’t love them?
I often thought of myself being there with the water pressing against the glass. The mysteries of the river-floor barely held in-check by the leaking, creaking windows.
The sensations conjured by my imagination blurred in time and space. I would imagine myself at the bridge and feel the grit of the asphalt under my shoes, beneath my fingertips, rough against my cheek.
Then I would be sitting in the backseat, with its hard, polished, sticky leather against my legs and the old seatbelt loose across my lap. From this vantage point I was able to see both of them, their brown and slightly lighter brown hair, their jawlines, but their faces are always turned slightly away from me.
Or I would sometimes be hiding in the boot. Silent, sneaking out while they argue about dinner and think that I am at school. I would have been skilful, determined to go with them and be part of every moment they shared together. I would have fit perfectly in the boot. The air would have been warm and close, tinged with petrol but clean. From the car boot I would hear muffled shouting, as from a room on the far side of the house. I would hear the engine as its heart beat along the metal frame.
And from the boot, sightless, I would feel the weightlessness as the car left the bridge. I would hear final words that never sounded in my ear, sense the proximity of their bodies.
Imagining this is the closest I have ever come to peace.
I am seven. The air moved slower at my aunt’s house. I dropped my bags on the ground and it felt as if the world had slowed down to a tenth of the normal speed.
The walls were covered with riotous flowered wallpaper. I ran my fingertips across the raised ridges of an endless rosevine. My dads had hated wallpaper.
Standing there, I suddenly thought I understood why.
I imagined my nails catching at a stray edge of paper, pulling it away from the wall in one long ever-widening strip. As I pull the wallpaper away, the frame of the wall begins to disintegrate and water starts to drip and stain the floor. I couldn’t picture what would lie behind it, but I felt as if it would be alive, and infinite and waiting.
My girlfriend once accused me of stealing her away from the love of her life. That I had overwhelmed her with my need for love, burned away her resistance and ridiculed her previous simple affections.
I felt horribly guilty, terrible and guilty. I offered myself up in humble sacrifice, asking if I could help reconnect with the lost lover.
She said it was too late and I realised that the act sat in our past, upstream and unreachable, but forever affecting the flow and pulse of love.
Was that it? Was his crime an act of love? Of un-love? Of dis-love?
I look back on things now, using the suspect and changeable memories of a child who never understood the crimes involved.
I smooth my inadequate memories out across the bed and see nothing.
It is windy.
I am nineteen years old and I stand at the bridge. I watch the car drive over the edge, again and again, trying to see the exact moment. Is there a look in Daddy’s eye? Does Georgie know what’s about to happen?
I push the car over the edge again. Where are their hands? On the wheel? Touching each other?
When the car crashes through the iron rails, I try to save them. I try to levitate the car. I try to pull it backwards in time to safety. I tell my dads that I love them.
All I see at the end is that I’ve pushed them over the bridge myself a hundred times. I’ve imagined their faces in a hundred different rictuses. One hundred different screams, fists grabbing, punching, pulling at the door, flailing at the windows. I killed them one hundred times, watching.
My daddy, Ryan, soft and silly, my playmate and my greatest adversary. He would come up with the games for us to play: chess, climb-to-the-top-of-the-tree, sing-the-words-of-that-song.
His games were always exciting and evocative. The trees were beautiful and we had to climb them secretly so that no one would tell us off. Each chess piece had a history, a name, a reason for fighting their way across the board. We eulogised them when they died.
I learned a lot. I learned how to tell stories, how to break rules, how to plan great adventures and battles. I also learned that I would never win. I learned again and again that despite his softness, daddy was too big, too smart, too old to ever lose to a small child.
I ache sometimes still, remembering how many losses I have had. But he taught me the thrill of the contest and the crime of withholding passion from my life.
I am fifteen and it is a warm day. The bridge is high above me. I have carted my questions around for eight years. They are heavy and taxing and I want them gone.
I tie my questions to my shadow and dive from the bank into the filthy city river. I sink for a while and let the water fill up my ears.
Time passes and I open my eyes to see the bubbles rise from daddy’s mouth, a soft noise gathers in his chest but is not released—I slap him. He stares at me. I claw at his chest. He watches as I rip open his skin, tearing shreds from his flesh, and grasping his tendons like levers. They do not snap—I hold them like life itself, realising that I cannot let go.
My air is running out, more bubbles gush, this time from my own face. I can hear myself screaming under the water. He watches me. The blood drifts in a miasma, uncaught by the current. It finally obscures his face.
The wine glass flies past her ear and smashes against the wall. My hand shakes.
Georgie was my dad, my wall against the strange storms of the world. He terrified me with stories of the world-serpent Jormungandr, of Poseidon’s great Kraken, of wars between the dark shapeshifting jiins and the seraphim. Then he tucked me in at night.
Georgie always had the final say. He dictated the trajectory of our lives: when we would go on holiday, where the best icecream was, what someone really meant. Ryan and I riffed expertly off dad. We flattered him mercilessly, extracting hugs, new books and double-cone icecreams in payment for extravagant praises of his skills or a teasing disappointment in his failures.
I remember our little house and I remember dad, cooking, putting up lights, cursing Maximillian, our dog, out of the kitchen.
When I grew older, I attempted to find myths that fit my parents. I ached for an archetype. I read story after story looking for that final poignant phrase that would sum up the something something of their lives.
She makes love to me on the beach. Our movements are frantic in the cold wind, our cries sharp.
“We’re going to have fun together,” she says afterwards as we brush the sand from our legs. She looks at me and her eyes are filled with the sight of me. I want to hold her gaze forever.
Cold sunlight filters in from the world outside my window. I awake in the squalor of another failed relationship. In the empty room filled with morning light, I am cold, dense, timeless.
The night’s thoughts crowd me.
The strands of the question, painfully threaded through my memories, join and send electricity through me. The net is wide and full of holes, but it has caught something that is powerful and destructive and angry. It is sad and mutilated and its wounds weep blood. It struggles and thrashes and leaps, creating heavy waves and destroying lives.
My answer lies like Jormungandr, beneath the surface, holding the world’s oceans in place, a tail gripped between clenched teeth.