The Man With my Father’s Eyes by Tom Bain

I pressed the lock button twice, checked the driver’s door three times and the passenger door once. Making my way down the grassy embankment was difficult and I slipped onto my back twice, muddying my jeans and wetting my shirt sleeves which clung to my skin. At the top of the hill the weather had been brisk but dry, but down here the ground was sodden, perhaps from droplets of water splashing onto the grass from the shore of the lake, but a damp mist hung stagnant in the air too. The mist had not been noticeable from higher up, where it had seemed that the lake below had spanned almost as far as the eye could see, with the blurry semblance of a distant shore just about visible on the horizon.

            The house, small and square, hardly resembled a house at all. It stood in front of me, suspended above the lake about twelve feet from the shore. It stood on stilts which were of the same jet-black metal as the house itself. Both the stilts and the body of the house looked clean and well maintained, except a section of the stilts which must usually be below the waterline, displaying seemingly decades worth of rust, decay and a build-up of algae clinging to the metal legs.

            I assumed I must be in the wrong place. This couldn’t have been his home; there was nothing remotely homely about it whatsoever: The almost complete lack of windows. The perfectly square dimensions. The slender bridge that stretched from the front door, awkwardly dug into the sloped grassy embankment. The great arching pipe protruding from the side of the house, rising high above the roof before doubling back on itself, plummeting down halfway to a stop where water gushed out into the lake creating an ear-bleeding cacophony of abrasive white noise.

            As I stood, almost ready to move towards the door, an unnerving feeling began to creep up on me. I felt nauseous, tense, anxious. Then, in an instant, the feeling vanished.

            I shook myself together and moved onto the bridge. It was surprisingly sturdy, but slippery; its corrugated surface wet. I knocked twice on the door. The man who greeted me on the other side was but a ghost of the man I remembered as my father. His skin was creased, his hair – almost completely grey but for small patches of black – hung matted and scruffy, cut badly at around shoulder length with a short, ragged beard to match. He was skinnier than I remembered, and shorter too, making us both now around the same height. The only part of my father that seemed to be left were his eyes, which turned red and wet as he hugged me tight and wept.

            We ate together for the first time in twenty years that night. Dry and unseasoned fish. The round, wooden table at which we sat was about the only furnishing in the house that wasn’t made of cold, black metal. Everything seemed built for function, not comfort. It was hard to make much out in the low light and as I looked around I identified nothing much more than straight, sturdy lines and dark, jagged edges. Except for the switch on the wall behind me, of course.

            From beyond the lantern which illuminated the table with a soft red glow, he spoke to me:

            “How did you find me?”

            “Aren’t you glad I did?”

            “Of course. But how did you do it?”

            “If that’s true,” I asked, “then why did I have to come find you?”

            “What?”

            “You’re happy to see me?” I asked.

            “Of course.”

            “You wanted to see me again?”

            “Of course.” He repeated.

            “Then why wait for me to find you? Why not come find me yourself?”

            He didn’t answer.

            I continued to press, “I think you knew where to find me. Why wait?”

            Silence.

            “Dad?” I hit my hands on the table and leant forwards.

            “How did you find me?”

            I didn’t answer. Then I told him: “The same place you left us.”

            “What?” He screwed up his face.

            “That’s where you would’ve found me.”

            “Oh.”

            “You knew that, didn’t you?”

            “Yes.” He admitted with a grunt.

            “I never left.”

            Silence. I began to think this whole trip might have been futile. He wasn’t the open book I had hoped him to be.

            “I got married.” I told him, “Two kids.”

            “I would have liked to have met them.”

            “We sleep in yours and mum’s old room – my wife and I. The kids sleep in mine.”

            “Ah.”

            “Yeah.”

            “How did you find me?” He asked, again.

            “She’s dead you know.”

            “Who?”

            “Mum.”

            “Oh, yes, I know.”

            “How do you know?”

            “I figured.”

            “How?”

            “I just figured.” He took a long swig of dark red wine from the crystal glass in front of him. That wine was bitter, and cold. I couldn’t drink it.

            I stood up and took my plate and glass over to the counter. I poured my wine into the sink and dropped my plate in after it. “I asked around.” I told him.

            “Asked who?”

            “People.”

            “What people?”

            “Just people.”

            “What people?”

            “People you used to know. Extended family. I got passed from person to person to person: someone you went to uni with, someone you used to work with, distant aunts, uncles and cousins. They were all asking for you, asking how you were and telling me to give you their best wishes. Until I told them I was looking for you, and obviously none of them knew where you were, but they all knew someone who might know, and so did they, and so did they, and so did they. I ended up in this pub, a hundred miles away from home. I was told to meet an old man there. I thought they were taking the piss, but I didn’t have anything better to do, so I went, and lo and behold there was an old bloke waiting for me at the bar. He was really old. Ancient. He gave me a piece of paper – a bit of napkin. I was so ready to give up, to be done with it all. Done with this weird old man. Done with you, for good. But he was the only person who hadn’t just given me another name. He gave me coordinates. Fucking coordinates. They took me right to your door.”

            “Ah.”

            “He already had them written down. He didn’t know I was coming. Or if someone had told him I was, he didn’t know when I was coming. And he already had the coordinates written down. He was waiting for me. Who was he?”

            The first time the egg timer sounded it caught me so off guard that I found myself lifted off the seat of my chair and coming back down to earth before I had even registered what had happened. It wasn’t even a loud noise, nor was it particularly harsh. My father calmly laughed at my expense as he rose, finished his wine, and strolled out of what must be considered the dining area and across to the opposite wall – although he was not much farther away from me there than he had been sat opposite me at the small table. The egg timer stopped ringing. The wall he was approaching had a small shelf on the far right-hand side, on which the egg timer sat. In the middle was a window – the only one in the house – outside of which the water firing out of the exterior pipe could be seen. On the far-left was a switch – A huge switch the size of the wall, with a leather-bound handle pointing upwards. Something about it unnerved me, turned my stomach in some way and set my teeth on edge. I watched as he grabbed the lever with both hands and brought it down purposefully with a grunt. Nothing happened. I looked around the house. Nothing had apparently changed, but the atmosphere felt clearer, the air more still and calm. He twisted the egg timer all the way round before making his way back to the table and retaking his seat opposite me. He continued to eat.

            “What does the switch do?”

            “I don’t know.” He said through a mouthful of fish.

            “Then why did you pull it?”

            “Somebody has to.”

—————————————————————————————————

The egg timer woke me up the next morning, eventually. The sound wormed its way into my dreams, before my body caught up with what my ears were experiencing.

I was in a boat, small and wooden, with three benches across its width. I sat at the back, my daughters on the middle bench, facing me, smiling. On the far bench at the front sat a young boy, facing away from me. He sat very still, rigidly upright. His hair was black as coal and cut short. He wore a navy-blue parka, though the weather was pleasant. Someone in the distance whistled an up-beat tune. I rowed towards a distant shore, barely visible on the horizon. A drift of swans darted overhead in a V-formation like silent, white Red Arrows. My daughters looked up in awe and turned to watch the birds disappear into the distant clouds, which seemed blacker now than I had initially realised. My girls turned back to me and giggled. The boy at the front slowly tilted his head back to look up at the sky, but at ninety degrees, his neck continued to arch. I heard his bones creak and snap as his neck doubled over to the point where he could look me directly eye-to-eye. But his eyes weren’t eyes at all, but black steel marbles, cracked and rusted. His mouth opened and let out a terrible noise like an old siren ready to die letting out its violently cacophonous swan song. As with his neck, his jaw continued to grow wider and wider despite the desperate resistance of his shattering and splintering bones. As the black clouds which now enveloped the skyscape erupted with rain and thunder that could barely be heard over the boy’s cries, I looked to my daughters, who sat, smiling, giggling.

            I awoke to the sight of the man with my father’s eyes leaning over my bed, holding the red lantern to my face, the egg timer ringing behind him.

—————————————————————————————————–

The water rushed into my boots.

            “I told you to tuck your trousers into your socks.”

            “I did. It’s still gone in my wellies though.” I clenched and unclenched my toes in my sodden socks: an uncomfortable action which I repeated every few minutes, purely to check if it was still uncomfortable. It always was.

            “See anything?”

            “The water’s filthy,” I told him.

            “No it isn’t.”

            The lake was just about up to my knees. My father stood a few paces in front of me, the water up to his waist. Hesitantly, I waded towards him, rising up onto the very tips of my toes in order to avoid for as long as possible the inevitable unpleasantness of submerging my bollocks into the blisteringly cold water.

            I stood with the water at about waist level.

            “Watch”, my father instructed. He opened his hand and hovered his palm just above the surface of the lake. He breathed deeply, as if meditating. The motion of the lake was gentle – the calmest the water had been in the twenty-four hours I had been here. The sky was clear too, which just made it colder.  “Watch.”

            “I’m watching.”

            Nothing.

            “Watch.”

            “I am.”

            After another prolonged period of nothing, he extended his arm into the water, seemingly without moving any other bone in his body, and emerged again almost immediately clutching a grey fish the size of his forearm. He brought the flailing creature up to chest height, pushed away at arm’s length. The thing flailed fruitlessly and writhed between the old man’s hands, until it didn’t move at all. As it lay limp in his hands, I saw him grin for the first time in twenty years. He beamed at me, holding the cadaver up to allow me to better admire his kill. “See?”

            I saw. “We’re eating well tonight I guess.”

            “We?” he said, his smile already gone. “I didn’t see you catch it.”

            His face changed again. This time he looked sick.

            “Are you ok?” I asked him.

            He shook his head, his pale face growing paler. He waded over to me and held the fish out, his mind clearly elsewhere. “Take it,” he shook it at me, “Take it!”

            As I took the fish from him, he immediately turned and waded back towards the house at a pace.

            I caught up with him inside. That unnerving feeling washing over me again. The egg timer trilled as he made his way towards the switch, dripping lake water across the floor and walking as though still half-submerged. He pulled the lever and reset the egg timer.

            “I almost missed it,” he spoke facing away from me.

            “We were outside,” I laughed, feeling calm again, “how were you supposed to hear it?”

            “No. no,” he turned around slowly and aimed his index finger between my eyes. “I almost missed it. I almost forgot. I pull that switch when the egg timer goes off and the egg timer goes off at the same time every day, three times a day, for twenty years. I heard the egg timer, but I forgot it was going to go off”. His finger lowered itself, and his muscles un-tensed. “It’s a good job you’re finally here.”

            Hours later, after being forced back out into the lake, I waded back to shore holding a small fish the size of my palm, with iridescent scales that changed colour depending on how it was held in relation to the light. The light was minimal now, as the setting sun had all but disappeared behind the hill, so the fish appeared dull and grey mostly, except for when I managed to hold it just right, and its scales illuminated into a neon rainbow.

            I’d never gutted a fish before, but my dad showed me how. In hindsight, it was a good job I hadn’t caught one the same size as his; they wouldn’t have both fit on the small countertop. He showed me how to cut the fins, and how to hack away at the scales with the back of a knife. He showed me how to cut its head off and slice it open.

            “I think I know what I’m doing from here,” I put a black pan on the stove.

            “You cook a lot? At home I mean, for your children?” he queried as he sat down and sipped his wine.

            “Not as much as I’d like to,” I admitted.

            “You always liked cooking when you were a boy.”

            “I don’t remember. Do you have any oil?”

            “No.”

            “Butter? Anything to cook it in?”

            “No. You don’t need it.”

            I put the fish directly on the dry skillet and let it sit.

            “You cooked a meal for me and your mum once when you were thirteen,” he told me.

            “Oh yeah?”

            “Yeah.”

            “I don’t remember.”

            “It was terrible.”

            “What was it?”

            “Huh?”

            “The meal. What did I cook?”

            “I can’t remember.”

            There were no cabinets in the house, just a few shelves drilled onto the walls, made of the same cold metal as the countertops. I ran my hands along the dusty shelves, even though they were obviously empty, and searched underneath counters. “Do we have anything to season it with? Salt or pepper or… anything?”

            “We don’t need it.”

            “You sure?

            “Yes.”

            I used a spatula to scrape the fish off the bottom of the pan and flipped it over. The underside was black.

            “Your mother ate it all.”

            “Pardon?” I had already forgotten what we had been talking about.

            “The meal you made.”

            “Oh, right.”

            “It really was awful. I gave mine to the dog.”

            We both laughed.

            “But your mum was always like that – Didn’t want to upset anybody. So, she sat there and ate every last bite of the shite.”

            “It messed her up, when you left.”

            He didn’t speak for a while. By this point I had gotten used to the sound of the water from the pipe, and all I heard was the sound of the fish burning in the pan. “I know,” he said, finally.

            “No. You don’t. You weren’t there. That’s the point.”

            “Yes, I do.”

            “No, you don’t!” It was the first and last time I raised my voice at him. I stamped my foot like a toddler. “How could you?”

            He looked me in the eye, but it felt like he was seeing someone other than myself; someone more familiar. “I know.”

            A feeling of exhaustion washed over me as the full extent of this man’s stupidity became painfully apparent. “Then why the hell did you go? If you know what’s it like to –. But you still –. And you never came back.”

            His head was bent now, not looking at me, not looking at the floor, not looking at all, really. The voice that escaped his barely-moving lips was that of a much younger man, whose words had been trapped inside this ageing body for decades and were only now being released. His lips trembled but his eyes were like glass. “I tried so hard to do things differently. In everything I did, I tried to be different. But the harder I tried to be different, the closer it got me to exactly where he ended up.”

            The fish and the wine tasted much better that evening.

—————————————————————————————————–

The dream wasn’t so bad that night, either. The same place, the same boat, the same distant whistling. But this time my girls were at the front of the boat, facing away from me. The boy sat in front of me. His black marble eyes still cold and un-seeing, but his face softer and gentler. His presence was reassuringly familiar. He didn’t say anything, neither of us did. The swans flew overhead through the ever-clear sky and we drifted lazily towards nowhere.

            My dad stood on the edge of the lake, his lips pursed. His wrinkled skin now smoother and gentler. His scruffy grey hair now jet-black and combed back neatly. He stood with his shoulders back and his chin to the sky. The bright midday sun glinted off his eyes and the tune he whistled carried across the water. My girls joined in, harmonising with their grandfather. The tune filled the world and the boy with marbles for eyes sat smiling, swaying to the sound.

—————————————————————————————————–

I caught a bigger fish that day. It tasted good.

            “You’re getting good at catching them.”

            “Yeah, well, I had a good teacher.”

            “Too right.”

            A week had been and gone, and that I had been away from my family for too long I was fully aware. I just didn’t know how to tell my dad. In truth, I didn’t know how to tell myself, either, that I had to leave my dad so soon after finding him. But the cloud of familial duty loomed dark over me, and the call of home must always be heeded, eventually.

            Later that evening I approached my father to break the news.

             “Dad?”

            “Son.”

            “I best be going.”

            “Son, you –”

            “I know. I know what you’re going to –”

            “But you don’t understand how important you –”

            “Dad, please, I have a family now I –”

            He grabbed me by the shoulders and looked me up and down, though he was a good foot shorter than me now, so it was mostly up. “Boy, you have no idea how important the job you have to do is”. Over his shoulder, the egg timer vibrated and the familiar sound emerged, as it did at this time every day, like clockwork. He smiled, a proud smile, and gestured with his head towards the lever. “Go on, son, you’d best be getting used to it.”

            I stepped back, letting his hands fall to his side. “Dad, I’m sorry.”

            Confusion painted his face, and at first his mouth faltered to find the words: “But you have to.”

            “Why?”

            “Well, somebody has to.”

            “You do it then.”

            “I can’t do it forever.”

            The egg timer persisted like tinnitus. “What if we just don’t pull it?”

            “That lever has never not been pulled at this time.”

            “Never?” I scoffed.

            “Never,” he spat back.

            “That’s ridiculous.”

            “Your grandfather didn’t think so. Your great grandfathers didn’t think so, your father doesn’t think so!”

            The sound was making my teeth hurt. “What does it even do?”

            “It gets pulled! By me for the last twenty years, and now by you.”

            I saw the egg timer; it wasn’t vibrating anymore, but I still heard the noise – it made my skull feel tight and it curled my toes. My jaw clenched and my teeth began grinding themselves to a powder and my knees failed me and my fingers itched. I found myself almost uncontrollably drawn to that damned lever.

            “You can’t pretend like you didn’t always know this is where you would end up,” he told me as he looked down on me.

            I made a dart for my parka which had been draped across the back of a chair since I arrived. I fumbled around in the pockets, desperately screwing my face up at the temples to try and dull the sound of the ringing to no avail.

            “They’re not in your coat.”

            I span around to see my dad clutching my car keys gently in the palm of his hand. “What are you doing?” A second wave of noise hit me like a freight train and floored me, the deafening ringing vibrating my bones.

            I stumbled my way to the front door. As I stepped outside, the sound of the water gushing from the pipe flooded in through my ears and filled me up, drowning me from the inside out. I got about halfway across the bridge before my legs gave out completely. The ringing had numbed my senses, the world around me blurred into a pallet of green and brown and black, and apart from the pain in my head, all I now felt were the puddles of water standing on the bridge, soaking through the knees of my trousers as I knelt there.

            Eventually, the need grew too great. I fumbled my way back into the house and gripped my hands around the warm leather binding that wrapped the handle of the lever.

            I pulled it.

            The pain stopped, my body relaxed, my stomach turned back the right way up. Everything felt ok. Everything felt right.

            The next thing I remember is the sound of someone shutting my car door, locking the doors twice, and driving away.

            I can’t hate him. As much as I try. Neither of us asked for this, it’s just how it is. My kids will understand too, in time, when they have kids of their own. And since he left, it’s been fine. Really. I don’t know what I was so worried about. It isn’t where I thought I would end up, it’s not really where I wanted to end up, but someone has to do it. I guess that someone just happens to be me.

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