The night my father died, a rare summer storm swept across Coleshill. My sister Tess said the low rumbling bass of the thunder was Dad telling us goodbye. When a starling fluttered by the seed box the next morning she said, “That’s him Paul, that’s him. He wants us to know he is okay.”
I had sat with him the previous evening in the hospital, holding his mottled hand as the last light leaked from his eyes and his papery lips flushed a cold neutral blue.
“Sure,” I said. “Maybe.”
I had held on to his hand long after the last exhale, even though it wasn’t a hand any more. Not really. Eventually the nurse, a lip-stick smeared red-head, her face creased by time and empathetic tears, loosened my grip tenderly.
“He’s gone sweetheart,” she said. If I was waiting for a last meaningful message, a sign that things between us were okay, I would have to settle for my sister’s translations of thunder.
Dad and I hadn’t spoken much that summer. I’d dropped out of university at the end of the last term and we had maintained an uneasy truce about my life choices. I was working part time as an “actor” (his quotation marks not mine) in an “authentic” Victorian town known as the Black Country Living Museum. I played bass in a five-chord grunge band and harboured vague aspirations to enroll in film school.
“Get a trade,” he would advise, his face contorting in disbelief whenever I mentioned this. “Do something useful with your life.”
It wasn’t an argument that would have lasted forever, but it was still simmering when he died and I felt almost cheated, like he had walked away from a card table with the game unfinished.
Our last conversation was about the rock singer Pink. We were in the living room at home and he was leaning on his little wheeled trolley, trailing his oxygen tank after him like a displaced scuba diver.
“She’s bloody marvellous isn’t she?” he said, rolling his vowels in that thick Lancashire accent that seemed only to get stronger with time.
“Who?” I said. “Oh,” realising he was watching the MTV live performance. The singer, in knee-high boots and a nude leotard, was winding her muscular body around a chiffon curtain suspended above the stage. He was older than other dads and the idea that he might be attracted to women simply hadn’t occurred to me. I was amused by his taste.
“I can see why you like her Dad,” I said. I was on my way out the door.
“She’s a good performer that’s all,” he said sternly.
I didn’t cry at the funeral. I tried but the tears wouldn’t come. We buried him in the graveyard of the old Saxon church in the shadow of a John Deere excavator that had scooped a fresh rectangle out of the wet earth. The priest mumbled a few words and we each sprinkled clods of soil on the coffin.
“John Deere was his favourite brand,” mum said, as though the company had thoughtfully sent a representative to pay its respects.
There were headstones as far as you could see. They were lined up in disorganised rows like chess pieces arranged randomly by a child with no concept of how the game was played. Some, like dad’s, were simple blocks of dark granite. Others bore towering stone crosses overgrown with moss, as though striving once again to be a living thing. As children, Tess and I had played here, searching for the oldest graves and scaring each other with macabre stories of the restless dead that lay beneath.
“Here lies William Porter,” she would say, inventing words to replace the engravings that time had erased, “poisoned in his sleep by a jealous mistress. . . . here lies Tom Smedley burnt alive in a fire at the old forge . . .”
The churchyard was fringed with Alder trees and the low sun seeping through the sea-green branches strafed the collected mourners in ethereal shafts of light. It occurred to me that perhaps they were planted there long ago with precisely that purpose in mind. I could sense eyes on me, well-meaning and ready to console. I was familiar with how you were supposed to feel in situations like this but I wasn’t capable at that moment of the precise emotion expected of me.
“Here lies Michael Morris,” I thought to myself. “John Deere was his favourite brand of excavator.”
Afterwards in the low-ceilinged side room of an ancient inn we played “Danny Boy” and drank dark bitter ale, even though few of us had acquired the taste. We told amiable stories, the moral of which was always that dad was a good sort, and if he wasn’t a good sort — if in fact he was a bastard — at least he was our bastard. When we forgot ourselves and laughed too loud we told each other it is what he would have wanted. At the end of the night my mother, an emotional drunk, took my face in her soft hands. She pressed her nose uncomfortably close to mine, her eyes glistening.
“You know he was proud of you, don’t you? You know how much he loved you?”
“Yeah mum, I know,” I answered, but I wished she hadn’t said it.
After a week or so things returned more or less to normal. I remember feeling guilty about that, as though there were an acceptable standard of grief that I had failed to reach.
“Dad came to visit me again this morning,” my sister said, falling in step with me as I walked to catch the train to work one day. She was talking about the starling.
“You’re probably right,” I said. “Why else would a common garden bird stop at a smorgasbord of his favorite foods?”
“Don’t be jealous,” she said smirking.
I was wearing the long dark cloak that was part of my costume for my role at the museum and I wrapped it around me defensively. “He always liked you better,” I said, competing now for the mythical Dad bird’s attention.
“You didn’t exactly make an effort, Paul.”
It was true, I supposed. She had spent more time with him, shown an interest in the things he was interested in. They had built the birdhouse together one summer in an elaborate weeks-long woodwork project that was the stuff of family legend. I hid in my room with my sketch pad, Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder thumping through the headphones. My own personal keep-out sign.
The last time she saw Dad, she said he tapped her on the head with his crooked forefinger and asked, “How’s the weather in there?” like he did when we were little. And she answered like she always did, “Sunny with a chance of sprinkles.” When I told her about Pink she shrugged and said maybe he was making peace.
“He thinks that’s what you’re in to,” she said smiling. “He’s 72 Paul, he doesn’t know the difference.”
It had been a while since we had talked like this and I felt grateful for the chance to walk with her for a minute and see the world through her eyes.
As we turned the corner towards the train station she shouldered her school gym bag and started to run.
“Don’t sit next to me on the train if you’re gonna wear that cloak,” she said, looking over her shoulder laughing. I tried to catch up with her, but when I got to the platform she was lost amid the throngs of uniformed school kids packed into the carriage. For a second I thought I saw her face reflected in the dark glass of the window, but when I looked again she was gone.
You entered the Black Country Living Museum by canal barge, under a long brick tunnel. Once you stepped off the dock, you were supposed to stay in character. I’d affected a Dickensian shtick for the role of Henry Taunt, the village photographer, and I would tip my hat and bow to the ladies in their cotton bonnets as they made their way to the bakery. My studio was sandwiched between the Russell Brothers cycle shop and Gould’s chemists and druggists where an acne riven student in the role of Harry Gould prescribed a macabre range of treatments to delighted visitors.
Dad had visited once. In one of his darker moods, he’d dismissed it all as a bleak parody of work. “There’s no real craftsmen in this country any more,” he said, nursing a tin tankard of Marston’s ale in front of the hearth at the Albion tavern. “Just kids playing dress-up.”
You made allowances for Dad because he was old and had rampant emphysema but there were times when he could be quite mean. Another thing that was inauthentic about the Black Country Living Museum was that it did not smell like shit. The gutters of a real Victorian town, he explained, were fast flowing rivers of urine that ran thick with the business of emptied chamber pots and the daily excretions of a small army of working horses.
“Good to know, thanks Dad.”
We had sat in silence for a few minutes.
“I like your outfit,” Mum said cheerfully.
My usual job was to take kitschy images of visitors to the museum in Victorian garb. I had offered to take one of my parents but Dad insisted there wasn’t time. Tess told me later he didn’t mean anything by it. He was in pain and too proud to admit it.
“Lucky he has you to translate for him,” I said, reluctant to let go of my right to be angry. “Otherwise, he might seem like a bit of a dick.”
The week after the funeral I was assigned to do a series of wet-plate images of the characters of the town for sale in the museum shop. The first appointment was with the blacksmith. My camera was a Fallowfield Bellows model that used silver nitrate and collodion to capture images on thin sheets of aluminium. I wheeled it along with a curtained dark room, the size of a portable toilet, on a wooden hand cart that rattled on the brick streets.
I’d assumed I had met everyone in the museum before, but the blacksmith’s face was both distinctive and unfamiliar. He was entirely bald aside from theatrical copper coloured sideburns trailing flecks of rust across fleshy cheeks that blazed pork belly pink in the glow of the furnace. I leaned in the doorway of his shop and let him finish the speech he was making to a young family.
“Back in them days,” he explained in an affected storyteller’s voice.
“The Black Country was the workshop of the world.”
I’d heard various versions of this speech many times and I tuned out watching the ducks make shapes in the reeds and rushes at the canal’s edge.
“And how are you, young man?”
The family had gone and it was just me and the blacksmith. For some reason I decided to confide in him.
“Not too great. My dad just died.”
“Oh, I’m sorry son, were you close?”
“Not really. He was kind of an asshole.”
“But you’re sad still, of course you are,” he said, turning a chisel over contemplatively in his gloved hand as though it held the solution.
“Maybe you were an asshole too. Did you think of that?” he added, not unkindly.
There were tears in my eyes, I could feel them.
“I’m here to take your photograph,” I said.
The blacksmith posed obligingly, holding his cross-beam hammer high above his head, like an executioner, ready to strike the hot metal rod that glowed orange on the anvil.
“I’m sorry,” I said as he struggled to hold the pose for the long exposure.
“I don’t know why we don’t take these with a digital camera and make it sepia in Photoshop.”
“No, no, no.” He seemed aghast at the suggestion.
“That’s craftsmanship that is. Anyone can push a button. You my friend are an artist”
He continued talking as I stepped behind the dark curtain and bathed the aluminum plate in its chemical solution.
I could tell from the rising heat that he was pumping the bellows as I worked and when I slipped out of the cart he was holding an iron rod in his hand, its tip melting into a crooked handle. On the far wall of the shop our shadows loomed over a row of hooks from which hung an assortment of metal creations — tools, tongs, old-fashioned pots and kettles.
“All this,” he said, “is made of the same stuff. It started as ore, rock in the ground. You heat it and you shape it and you hammer it and then you hope, in the end, to make something worthwhile.
“You can’t do it the quick way,” he said. “Not if you want to make something that lasts.”
There was something strangely comforting about his manner.
“Let me show you something,” I said, slipping back into the dark room.
I flipped the negative into another tray and brought it outside into the light. We watched the image bloom in the liquid, the blacksmith appearing out of the dark waters like a creature rising from the deep. He put his hand on my shoulder as he watched the picture take shape.
“That’s magic that is,” he said. “Bloody marvellous.”
Maybe it was those gently rolling vowels but right then I thought the blacksmith wasn’t real. I thought I would go back to the studio and say, “Hey, I got some great pictures of the blacksmith,” and they would say “What blacksmith? There’s no blacksmith at the Black Country Living Museum.”
I’d shuffle through my images and wouldn’t be able to find him. Then I would race back to the warehouse and fling the door open triumphantly only to be confronted with an empty shed of hay bales and disused tools. Months later I would find a picture in the microfilm newspaper archives of Tom Smedley along with the story of how he died in a fire at the old forge in 1874.
“I think it was Dad,” my sister said when I told her. “Maybe he talks to me through thunder and birds and butterflies and he talks to you through creepy old museum characters.”
“What is he trying to say do you think?”
“I dunno dummy, work it out.”
We were sitting in the garden under the greengage tree, while the hinges of the bird feeder creaked in the breeze. I was crying now and with the tears I felt a surge of relief at the grief I’d been afraid would never come.
“It’s going to be okay Paul,” she said, suddenly serious.
“I’m looking out for you. I’ll always be looking out for you and dad will be too.”
“Can’t you stay a while?” I asked.
She shook her head and smiled sadly.
I must have fallen asleep because it was suddenly dusk and my mother was standing over me, a weave basket of laundry under one arm.
“Look at the state of that old thing,” she said nodding at the bird feeder. “The summer before your sister died, she and your dad spent weeks working on that.”
When I turned to look the dry wood panels had run to rot and on the mossy green roof a pair of starlings were perched surveying their domain.