This is the last column I am ever going to write about my father. I have written a whole book about the man, I have written endless feature articles about grief, bereavement, fathers and daughters, and hardly any of my (eight!) books are without an idealised yet absent father figure. In one of my Faith Zanetti books he gets resurrected as an Italian Mafia don, and in my latest novel, The Oligarch’s Wife, he floats around as the disturbed oligarch, and has a concrete role as the deserting father who comes back and apologises at the end.
Basically, about a month ago I dreamt I was at Heathrow with my mum and we were going to America for the weekend. We had a huge row because I hadn’t said I liked her new hairstyle and I stormed off, thinking I would punish her in the worst way imaginable – I would send her to America by herself. I laughed evilly to myself. When I woke up the dream struck me as very odd. I used to go unaccompanied to America to stay with my dad from the age of eight or nine and I loved going – it wasn’t a cruel punishment. We went to Disneyland and for tea at The Plaza, I went in helicopter rides around Manhattan and out for dinner in restaurants that looked like film sets – when I was ten I ate oysters and a no-dacquiri strawberry dacquiri at Number One Fifth Avenue, an art-deco place made to look like an old-fashioned cruise liner. I wrote about it all in my diaries. I loved it, didn’t I?
Disturbingly, in the days after the dream other memories kept crowding in, pattering about like ants. My dad drank a lot in the evenings and chain smoked all day and half the night. There was no bedroom for me in his small 27th floor flat and he made sure (always joking) that I was terrified of the height, telling me what would happen if I or my teddy bear fell out of the window, off the roof that we climbed up on, down the lift-shaft, what to do if there was a fire or, God help us, if a plane flew into the side of the building. When 9/11 happened it looked familiar to me from nightmares my dad had inspired. My nightmare are still invariably about flying and lifts. He lived with a nice girlfriend I didn’t know well and she smoked too. I was put to bed in their bed and they rowed in the other room and drank. The next day dad and I went out for lunch in a glamorous restaurant. I loved the place – Mimosa on 2nd Avenue. Dad knew the waitress who was pretty. Afterwards we took her to Bloomingdales and bought her a dress. This is all in my diary. It is clear now, though it wasn’t then, that he was sleeping with her. On the same trip we flew to Boston and dad had to work so I went up and down all day in the glass lifts at The Hyatt. I pretended it was fun but I remember now that I was really scared. I wrote in my diary; ‘Went in the lifts, bought bubble gum, wrote a story, made up some songs.’ I didn’t need to add that I did this by myself. That evening dad brought another girlfriend I didn’t know back to the hotel and I write that she stayed the night in our room. I make no further comment and I don’t remember the details, but I do note that I was asked to lie to girlfriend number one in New York. I put three exclamation marks. !!! Well, the guy had a strong TigerWoodsy element.
As the week after my dream wore on, I was forced to acknowledge that I had idealised this man and then missed the fantasty all my life. The first twenty years while he lived, the second twenty after his death. A war correspondent, he was killed by a sniper in San Salvador in 1989 when I was 19. It’s not that we didn’t do wonderful things together, and he was certainly very funny and charming. But he was not very often around and I was acutely anxious when I was with him. Homesick on the other side of the world, worried that he’d drunk too much and taken Mogadons to sleep and wouldn’t wake up, scared of him making my stomach sink with things he said that made me think he didn’t like me. I wrote in my 1979 diary that dad had hated a song I’d made up. ‘I was upset at first but then didn’t mind because it wasn’t very good.’ He once joked he would come into my room in the night and cut my very long blonde hair off. I believed him. I understood that this would be a ‘prank’ of some kind if it happened, but I still thought he really might take his joke that far. Of course, the high drama, fun and hilarity made all this exciting and irresistible, made my ordinary life as dull and denigrated as he openly thought it. Living in Crouch End and going to Budgens, the stuff of my life with my single mum, made him shudder in horror. He infected me with this cruel contempt for the ordinary nature of my life, and yet it was with him that I shuddered with fear, masked, of course, in great glamour.
Then, in dying as violently, shockingly, publicly (he was on the news being stretchered bleeding into the Rosales hospital, eyes open) as he did, he forced me to participate in the burning horrors that he spent his life observing. Suddenly I was hurled into the sharp extremes of existence, isolating me yet further from all my middle-class contemporaries for whom murder and the truth of violent hatred would hopefully never be the slightest issue. Absurd and pretentious-sounding, but it is hard to relax fully with people who haven’t been touched by horror, and in the life I live they are few.
In my real world as an ageing mother of two (my husband just tossed a huge Sky bill on to the bed – I am working from bed today – and then walked out again) I realised slowly that it is no surprise that my relationships with men are uniformly awful. I find people who are absent in body or mind or both and then I half kill myself wondering why they don’t really love me. I was 18 when I first fell in love and I remember thinking that Giles was able to make me feel as sick with fear and self-loathing when he said something negative as my dad could. So, it must be love.
As an adult, I spend most of my ordinary-life-time by myself, turning something on for the outside world in brief spurts, because the performance necessary to get on the rollercoaster of other people’s lives in true intimacy is too much to cope with. I just haven’t had the training.
As I remembered more and more little things I’d packed away to keep the fantasy intact I found myself shaking my head and saying out loud; ‘Fuck you!’ I imagined him laughing and shrugging, replying; ‘Fuck you!’
This, I understood, was the honest and funny relationship we really used to have and certainly would have now, had he lived. He introduced me as his ‘alleged daughter’ and I used to say; ‘You’re hardly even an alleged father.’ Sometimes I would add; ‘Fuck you.’
That was us.
Then, last night, I had another dream. I dreamt I was on my way to America to see my dad, the age I am now, 39, and my mum had taken me to the airport to buy my ticket. Suddenly, I panicked. Perhaps I had gone mad and he really was dead, really had been dead for a long time and I had hallucinated the conversation I’d had with him on the phone – I’d imagined it. I was crying and terrified in the dream, wondering if I could be as mad as to hear voices. Oddly, I phoned my uncle, my mother’s brother with whom I’m barely in touch, and I asked him in the dream what he thought. I could tell from his tone that it was true – dad was dead. But he said; ‘I don’t think it matters either way, as long as you have a great adventure.’ I decided not to bother getting on the flight, finally realising with regret, and not absolute conviction, that he wouldn’t be there.
This, I think, was my unconscious mind accepting that I had imagined and fantasised a wonderful relationship with an idealised man and that in reality he was very flawed and in many ways not really there, then as now. At last, after forty years of longing, I had absorbed the fact that he was, and will remain, dead. Not in Washington, Beirut or Tripoli. Just dead. I must have my great adventure, as ever, by myself.