I’m under a lot of pressure. For the past few years, my father has busied himself by compiling his memoirs. It’s an epic exercise that makes Marcel Proust look like a lightweight. The first volume concluded just before I was born – a period which my father has described as the ‘happiest years’ of his life. As the designated bookend to a period of sheer, magnificent bliss, it’s hard not to take that description personally. It makes me feel like I’m the comet that drove the dinosaurs to extinction. But that was just volume number one. There’s been so much more since.
Since the first volume, my father has produced further, more specialised instalments of his life story. These might loosely be divided into ‘work’, ‘travel’, ‘travel through the former Soviet Union’, ‘travel down to the shops for milk and bread’ and, finally, (and I sense with some degree of reluctance if not outright trepidation) ‘family’. It’s not that the earlier volumes didn’t feature his family; it’s that most of those mentioned had long-since departed, meaning that the laws of defamation don’t apply. Which, given the manner in which my father writes, is a good thing.
But the further down the rabbit hole he ventures, the more he is willing to experiment. Perhaps in a futile bid to avoid controversy, he has requested contributions to the latest volume from each of his five children. The lobbying has been intense.
Try as I might, I cannot convince my father that there is a difference between being retired and being in full time work. So far as he’s concerned, my failure to prepare an account of my life is a result of pure intransigence. In the interests of time, I asked whether a drawing would suffice, but this was rejected outright and it was noted with some degree of passion that my earlier artistic efforts defied interpretation, which is why they had all been disposed of in the compactor. I was aware that my father had thrown out the drawings of my youth and, to this day, the groaning sound of the compactor as it crushes household waste, haunts me in my dreams.
It wasn’t just me that had failed to deliver. My siblings had (wisely) kept their thoughts to themselves. Until now. In the most recent round of interrogation, my father pointed out that both my sisters had handed in their contributions. I immediately felt on the back foot. To make things worse, he suggested that they had provided definitive accounts of some of the most significant, character-shaping events of our collective childhood, including the brown lolly debacle of 1985.
My parents were masochists. In fact, I suspect that’s true of all parents, at least to some degree. As for mine, they chose to wallow in the unique form of self-flagellation that is travelling with a large number of people in a confined space. They would describe these catastrophes as ‘family holidays’. They are better described, I feel, as manifestations of complete insanity.
There are very few rules in life that are sacrosanct. Don’t stick cutlery in an electrical socket. Never stage an invasion of Russia during winter. And never, ever, take a family of seven away in a caravan. No good can come of it. Ever.
It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime. Which probably refers to how long it felt it was taking as opposed to its overall significance. All seven of us were travelling around the US and Canada in a mobile home. This was not a trip that measured success in terms of how long we spent in any one place but, rather, how much distance we could travel in the limited time available to us. Which means that rather than spending several weeks in America, it would be more accurate to say that we spent time driving over the top of America in a box with wheels.
According to my father, he bought us a bag of lollies everyday as an act of charitable beneficence. He most likely reasoned that if our mouths were fused together with sugar, we’d be incapable of asking ‘are we there yet?’ more than four thousand times a day. It was a plan that came unstuck with ‘the brown lollies’. I’m not sure what it was – a mistake that saw sugar swapped out for used motor oil or some kind of curse, but the brown lollies tasted wrong. Given that they were plainly defective, we asked that these be replaced. My father refused, saying that there would be no more confectionary of any kind until all the brown lollies had been consumed.
As the eldest sibling, I took the hit. I munched, chewed and chowed-down on as many of those putrid brown abominations as I could without lapsing into a coma. When it became apparent that this would take weeks, I then resorted to throwing them out the window whenever my father wasn’t looking. It was like dropping breadcrumbs.
In my own mind, I was the hero; the one who selflessly sacrificed himself so that his brothers and sisters could have access to better quality confectionary sooner. But, with the benefit of a lot of time, my father now remembers things differently – according to him, it was me that chose the brown lollies to begin with. Suddenly, the request for my life story seems less about building a family history as it does the collection of evidence. Memory is, it seems, an elastic thing. But being told that the great brown lolly debacle is all my fault has left a bitter taste in my mouth, much like the brown lollies themselves.