I got out at the top of the hill. 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 at least twice, muddying my jeans and wetting my shirt sleeves which clung clammily to my skin. Atop the hill the weather had been brisk but dry – 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 quite literally as far as the eye could see; the blurry resemblance of a distant shore just about visible on the horizon. Down here, the house in front of me was all that could be seen, besides the lake itself. The house was small – still is – and square. Fat. It hardly resembles a house at all, but it is, so that is what I must call it. It stood in front of me, in the lake, about twelve feet from the shore. It stood on metal stilts which were as jet black as the house itself, until the water lowered somewhat to reveal seemingly decades worth of rust and decay and a build-up of some green-blue algae.
I assumed I must be in the wrong place – that the old man had given me the wrong address. This couldn’t have been the house; there was nothing even remotely homely about it whatsoever. The rust-revealing chipped black paint that looked like the exterior of an old lamppost. The perfectly square dimensions. The slender bridge that stretched from the front door straight into the grassy embankment. The great arching pipe protruding from the side of the house, rising up high above the roof before doubling back on itself, plummeting down halfway to a stop where water gushed out at the speed of a fire-engines’ hosepipe directly into the lake, creating an ear-bleeding cacophony of abrasive white noise.
Almost without realising, I found myself having moved to the centre of the bridge – it was surprisingly sturdy, but slippery; its corrugated surface wet. I knocked twice on the door, hard. 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 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 had remembered, and shorter, making us both now around the same height. The only part of my father that seemed to be left were his eyes. He hugged me tight and wept.
We ate together for the first time in twenty years that night. Fish. Dry and unseasoned. The round, wooden table we sat at 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; as I looked around, I identified nothing much more than straight, sturdy lines and dark, jagged edges. Except for 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?”
“You’re glad I found you, so you’re happy to see me?” I asked.
“You wanted to see me again?”
“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?”
“How did you find me?”
I didn’t answer. At first. Then, “The same place you left us.”
“What?” He screwed up his face.
“That’s where you would’ve found me.”
“You knew that, didn’t you?”
“I never left.”
“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.”
“How did you find me?” He asked, again.
“She’s dead you know.”
“Oh, yes, I know.”
“How do you know?”
“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 asked around.” I told him.
“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, someone you once dated, a distant aunt or uncle. 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. 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 looked a bit like you do actually. But like you if you were even older and had at least showered once in the last twenty years, and had had someone else cut your hair who actually knew what they were doing. He gave me a piece of paper – a bit of napkin – I was so ready to give up, to be done with it. Done with this random old man. Done with you. 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.”
“He already had the 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 is 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 wooden dining table. The egg timer had stopped ringing. On the wall he was approaching was 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, pointing upwards. I watched outside the window as he grabbed it with both hands and brought it down purposefully with a grunt. Nothing happened. The water continued to plummet. I looked around the house, nothing had apparently changed. He twisted the egg timer all the way back round and made his way back to the table and retook his seat opposite me. He ate.
“What does the switch do?”
“I don’t know.”
“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 briefly, before my body caught up with what my ears were experiencing. I was in a boat, a wooden canoe (or was it a kayak?) with three wooden 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. They 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 the bones creak and snap as his neck doubled over to the point where he could look me directly in my eyes. But his eyes weren’t eyes at all, but black marbles, cracked and filthy. 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 socks, heavy with lake water: an uncomfortable action which I repeated every few minutes, purely to check if it was still uncomfortable. It was.
“The water’s filthy.”
“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 out and hovered his palm just above the surface of the lake. He breathed deeply, as if going through the steps of a complicated yoga pose. The motion of the lake was gentle – the calmest it had been in the twenty-four hours I had been here. The sky was clear too, which just made it colder.
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 for what seemed like an age, 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 the size of his kill. “See?”
I saw. “We’re eating well tonight I guess.”
“We?” His smile already gone. “I didn’t see you catch it.” His face changed again. This time he looked sick.
“Are you ok?”
He shook his head, his pale face unchanging. 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. The egg timer trilled as he made his way towards the lever, 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, “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 you held it in relation to the light. The light was minimal, as the setting sun had all but disappeared over the hill, so the fish appeared dull and black mostly, except for when I managed to hold it just right, and its scales illuminated into a neon rainbow.
It sliced open easily.
I had 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 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?”
“Not as much as I’d like to.”
“You always liked cooking when you were a boy.”
“I don’t remember. Do you have any oil?”
“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.
“I don’t remember.”
“It was terrible.”
“What was it?”
“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.”
I used a spatula to scrape the fish off the bottom of the pan and flipped it over. The underside was quite black.
“Your mother ate it all.”
“Pardon?” I had already forgotten what we had been talking about.
“The meal you made.”
“It was truly awful. I gave mine to the dog.”
“Dickhead.” 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.”
“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. “Because it messed my mum up too. When my dad left us.”
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? You saw what it did to your mum, you knew what it would do to her. She was fucking strong but that would break anyone,” I tried to swallow the lump forming in my throat, “just disappearing after all those years. And you know what it does to a kid, you felt it yourself.”
His head was now bent. 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, who’s words had been trapped inside this aging body for years and were only now getting released. His lips trembling but his eyes like glass. “I didn’t want to be like him.”
The fish and the wine tasted much better that evening.
The dream wasn’t so bad that night. The same place, the same boat, the same distant whistling. But this time my girls were at the front, 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. I felt like I knew this boy. He didn’t say anything, neither of us did. The swans flew overhead through the ever-clear sky and we drifted lazily towards nowhere.
He stood on the edge of the lake. 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 glinting 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.”
I had been trying to figure out the best way to tell him. After dinner, I decided it best to just rip the plaster off. “Dad?”
“I best be going.”
“Son, you –”
“I know. I know what you’re going to say. But I can’t. I’m not like you.”
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 are more like me than you know.”
Corny, I know, but I think he was trying to be kind.
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, 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.”
“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.
“Your grandfather didn’t think so. Your great grandfathers didn’t think so, you 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. But I still found myself drawn to that damn lever.
“You can’t pretend like you didn’t know this is where you would end up.”
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 of the timer to no avail.
“They’re not in your coat.”
I span around to see my dad clutching my car keys gently in his palm. “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 made my way straight 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 though 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. It felt ok. It felt right. The pain stopped, my body relaxed, my stomach turned back the right way up.
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. Neither of us asked for this, it’s just how it is. My kids will understand 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’s not where I thought I would end up, but someone has to do it, I guess that just happens to be me.