The Swimmer

The crowd continued to gather. He came in just as my food arrived, his arm strapped, his hair wild, still wearing his clothes from the night before. Neither version was the man she had married. No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
 
His voice began to crack but he kept going, with some effort. My brother and I went to pick him up from the farmhouse in Dorset where he had been staying for the week. ‘My age perhaps? Ten kilometres or so beyond Rennes he turned away from the window and asked me what I wanted done with my body after my death. Perhaps our not speaking of it – and of avoiding the subject of Helen – was a tacit understanding on both sides of what we could bear. I took the strip of pills out of my wallet and registered dimly that there were not many left. A little extreme, I’ll admit.’ I had read about this too – some children were said to have died this way. ‘Some say it erases sin,’ my father said. What about this trip? My father began to philosophise about the raising of children. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll hear all about it,’ he said, although somehow we never did. Only the monstrous anger of the guns. When the water was up to his waist he raised his arms above his head, dived in and swam. These highs were now interspersed with quieter, more brooding periods, as if some of his intensity had turned inward. I shaded my arms against the sun and spotted him, out in the river, a little downstream. Before the war my grandfather had worked on the trams in Blackpool and then for a chain of local cinemas. ‘You know the history of the place?’ He meant the Pantheon. We were approaching Paris and for the rest of the journey, until we dropped Bernard and Patti off at a station on the outskirts of the city, no one spoke. It was the first of several nights sharing a room with my father, something we had never done before as adults. We sat outside in the pleasantly shady medieval square with a bowl of moules frites, and it was possible to feel like we were on holiday. They were Bernard and Patti, a young Dutch couple on their way to Paris to stay with friends. We got back to the hotel at three a.m.  
*
 
His face was red and swollen and his eyes bloodshot, but by the time we drove out of the car park my father had recovered his composure. We walked through the iron entrance gates and past the stone of remembrance, engraved Their Name Liveth for Evermore. When he went to enlist in 1914 he told them how old he was, sixteen, and the recruitment sergeant suggested he walk up and down the street and come in and tell them again. At first I did not know who he was addressing, but then I recognised the poem. ‘Do you actually care what happens to you?’ my father said, rather irritably. A month after we picked him up from Dorset, perhaps with memories of that expedition still fresh in his mind, he called to suggest we take a trip to the First World War battlefields and cemeteries in Northern France. He turned around and grinned. ‘Cold up there,’ he said to me. He hadn’t been able to sleep so had sat up reading before going out to have an early coffee and watch the sun come up. He was given a warning and told that what he had done was very dangerous for him and for others, but when the formalities were over, the two officers shook hands with us and wished us a good trip. He did not wait for me to reply.  
*
 
My father had calmed down considerably since Dorset. Next to me, my brother was receiving the same treatment from someone else. My father gave Bernard his email and phone number and insisted that they come and stay with him when the child was born. He hugged them both and I awkwardly did the same. Then I called my brother to let him know we were still in one piece.  
*
 
The evening was still warm and we had dinner sitting outside at the restaurant next to the hotel. From there we would drive to Paris, spend the night, and then move on to the battlefields and cemeteries. Three hours later they put the blood back in and brought the dog back to life. ‘Don’t do it,’ someone shouted in French. My father was shaking, elated. I lay there for another ten minutes while the water cooled and then got out. I thought perhaps he had gone up to our room in the hotel to get something. I sensed some kind of taboo around it – his or my own, I couldn’t say – as if to confront it directly might break whatever spell had been cast. He came over to the car, hugged us both fiercely – uncharacteristically so – and then led us over to the group. ‘Twenty years ago scientists carried out an experiment where they killed a dog – killed it humanely – drained its blood and replaced it with some kind of preserving solution. ‘There isn’t anywhere else you’d rather go? ‘We should get going. They had to put all the dogs down.’
I did not know what conclusions I was supposed to draw from this. My father started to talk about Stan Cope. It’s a lovely expression, especially in English. His own father had fought at the Somme and The Battle of Amiens and in the past, before he had been ill, we had sometimes talked of exactly this, a kind of pilgrimage. Perhaps it was unremarkable in a place like this. He had already spoken to my brother who had pleaded work and family commitments, no doubt truthfully. ‘The more prosaic view is that it’s good for the immune system – and vitality in general. It felt melancholy to be so available but the alternative, not going, staying at home, was barely more appealing. ‘You forget, I was driving before you were even born.’ He held out his hand for the keys. Someone brought us tea from inside the house and a balding man about my own age began to ask me a series of earnest questions, about my work, my family, my plans for the future. My brother and I climbed to the top of the dunes and watched him wade purposefully into the sea. ‘Perhaps a little extreme,’ Bernard said tolerantly. When he did not continue I looked over at him. He joined an amateur dramatics society, and wrote ‘twenty or thirty’ letters to the council and the local paper about a range of issues, none of which had yet been replied to or published. Bernard shrugged. Meanwhile, my father seemed to have resumed telling a story, the details of which I could not catch but which was punctuated by comments and bursts of laughter from the rest of the group. On both sides the road was lined with fields of corn, six to eight feet high. .’ he said vaguely, and then turned his attention back to the window. Patti sat silently, smiling slightly and benignly, sometimes with her eyes closed. In among the corn there was the sound of water. We stopped at one of the roadside flower sellers and my father bought a bunch of red and yellow tulips. All the hair on his body was snowy white and I noticed the considerable weight he – always a lean man – had put on while he had been ill. Either my father had spotted this from the restaurant or he’d just gotten lucky. ‘Not worried you might regret them when you’re older?’ my father said. He laughed sympathetically and told me to keep him updated. I stared in the mirror for a minute, looking at a wrinkle line that was beginning to take hold around the side of my mouth. My father got out of the car, and after walking up and down for a minute, disappeared into it. I wandered along the row – some of the dead were younger than Stan – and was startled by the sound of my father’s voice. I looked around at Patti. They were students in Amsterdam, both twenty-four years old, and had spent the summer travelling around France. ‘The body is cut up and placed around the mountain top and vultures and other birds of prey eat the flesh. Ever since my father’s treatment – which, in many ways, had to be considered a success – it had been hard to know what to do with him. ‘I’ve been researching it – online. I pretended to be asleep, and then I was asleep. Someone called to him to come down. Once we had navigated our way out of Paris we didn’t speak, but the silence felt companionable. Later on, after the revolution, they turned it into a mausoleum – Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Rousseau, those guys.’
‘I didn’t know that,’ I said. She had her palms placed on either side of her stomach, instinctively or absent-mindedly, the way pregnant women often do – as Helen, my ex, had done when she was pregnant with our son. Bernard tried to give my father money for petrol but he refused. I left my father in the cafe while I went to the toilet. You like them.’ It was a statement rather than a question. ‘What’s the story with those tattoos,’ my father asked Bernard. Through the wall I could hear my father talking on the phone, with long pauses when the person on the other end of the line spoke. He had made a friend in France, Stan Cope, another sixteen year old from South Wales, who was killed two months before the end of the war. His mood had turned fidgety, distracted, and he barely ate. I thought they’d look good. He took in a retired greyhound that he had seen pictured in a newsagent window, although I had previously only ever known him to be indifferent to dogs. He held out his phone and seemed to take a photo – of the view or of himself, I couldn’t tell. Even in his more manic moods, the chatter was not so continuous, so rambling, although his preoccupations were still surprising. I began to undress, laying my clothes next to my father’s. Living with him now might have as many challenges as it did when he was unwell. I went inside to use the toilet. I thought I felt the familiar, peaceful flood of the pills begin to wash over me, but it was too soon for that. My father was quiet again. The skin of my ankles prickled as it touched the water and I thought for a second of children dipped in freezing lakes and rivers. I tried to do this every night, even though Helen had let me know that it was an inconvenience for her and perhaps not much fun for me or him either. I swallowed two with a gulp of the flat Diet Coke that my father had been drinking the day before. The cinemas all showed the same films but there was only ever one print, so he cycled between them with the reels in the basket on the front of his bike, delivering and collecting them in a constant rotation to keep the films playing. My father seemed to have relaxed, and was talking about his own father, stories I had heard many times before but was happy to hear again. I went on into the current. ‘I said a few things that upset her. ‘I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,’ said my brother. He would try and stop himself, closing his eyes and taking deep breaths, one hand placed across his chest, as if swearing an oath. We had a hotel booked in Arras for the night. My father laid the tulips next to the headstone and began to pick fussily at the neatly-mown grass around it, as if determined to find weeds.  
*
 
We stopped for lunch in a village just beyond Laval. I flicked my eyes open at this but then closed them again without speaking. Below the cross read Private S Cope, The Queens, 28th August 1918, Age 19. Before we got in the car, my father made a great show of folding up his wheelchair and packing it in the boot. I had a shower and went downstairs to have breakfast. He was a strong, graceful swimmer, I had forgotten that. There are practical reasons too, but it’s also an act of generosity, giving yourself to other animals to sustain them. He was forthcoming on all of this, eager to talk in his perfect, almost accentless English. ‘You should have more respect for yourself,’ he said, ‘for your body.’
‘But you said –’ I began. My father carried on, apparently oblivious, intent on whatever mission he had set himself. Then I opened my wallet, popped a pill out of its foil strip and swallowed it with a gulp of water from the tap. It began as a steady sob, moving on to a wail and then a kind of keening, a pure, uninhibited sorrow. He felt – I had never heard him express views on this or seen evidence of it – that modern parenting was so neurotic and controlling that it had created a world for children that was utterly dry, sterile and conformist.  
*
 
My father had booked us into a faded and pretentious tourist hotel in the Latin Quarter. My father’s clothes and the sling for his arm lay on the beach. The river was narrow here, perhaps fifteen metres wide, and ran quickly. I could not make out what he was saying but the tone became steadily more irritable and then there was a somehow deeper silence and I knew that my father had hung up. For perhaps two minutes I sat in the car, the engine still on. The room was small but my father was delighted with the way it all fitted together – the fold down beds, the TV recessed into the wall, the surprising amount of cupboard space – and he went around opening and closing doors, fastening and unfastening catches, investigating each feature. He sat in the back, his face pressed against the window, pointing out everything that went past, a vintage car similar to one his brother had once owned, a pub that would have been nice for lunch except it was past lunchtime and anyway he wasn’t hungry, repeatedly marvelling at the loveliness of the day and the countryside, the hills, the blossom on the trees, how all this made him think of a holiday he and my mother had taken nearby before my brother and I were born. Bernard agreed with him. Throughout this, one of his feet drummed rapidly on the floor of the car. There were vows to email and phone and get together again soon, emotional goodbyes that seemed excessive for people who had known each other for only a week. For all his talk over the last weeks, my father had not spoken to me about his illness, treatment or recovery, if that was what it was. ‘Nice kids,’ he said when we were back in the car. The subject struck me as exhausting, irrelevant and dangerous all at the same time. The waiter brought his Coke but he still did not appear. ‘Do it,’ shouted someone else, and laughed.  
*
 
Over the next few weeks my father called me several times a day, often late at night or early in the morning – it was clear he wasn’t sleeping very much. I felt my legs begin to buckle and I sat down on the ground next to him, utterly drained. The two columns furthest to the right were covered in scaffolding – presumably to allow cleaning or restoration work to the frieze that lay across the width of the portico – and three quarters of the way up, perhaps one hundred feet off the ground and climbing, was my father. At the hospital an X-ray of my father’s right arm showed a small fracture and a nurse put it up in a sling. Bernard had a shaved head, a ring through his lip and orange and red flames tattoed the length of his forearms. He looked around and then down. We’ll eat steak frites, drink pastis, that sort of thing.’
The fact was I could think of no compelling reason why I could not go. When I got back to the cafe my father was sitting at a table with three bottles of Diet Coke in front of him. They believe that the spirit leaves the body in death, so there’s no need to preserve it. Now he was scaling the ladders at speed and in very bad light. Bernard was writing a thesis on prehistoric cave painting and they had been visiting important sites up and down the country. Then I pulled the car further off the road, got out and locked it. It gives you a different perspective, that’s all.’
In the mirror I could see Bernard nodding soberly, apparently absorbing what my father had been saying. We found Stan’s grave easily, half way along the final row. .’ He broke off, but not, I think, out of a sense of tact. I did not know whether to try and stop him or move him out of the cemetery and back to the car, somewhere more discreet. ‘You crazy bastard,’ I said. Considering what I had observed of my father since his treatment, I imagined she might welcome the break. I thought of the places we were yet to visit, the strange resonance of their names – Thiepval, Ypres, Passchendaele. At times he seemed exhausted by his own efforts.  
Feature photograph © Jérôme Pellé It’s not all that uplifting a destination.’
‘But it is, it is,’ he said with emphasis, ‘that’s exactly what it is.’
 
*
 
My father insisted on taking the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo, although this was not in any way a direct route. A small, mangy dog sat pleading near our table and he cut off strips of his meat and threw them to it. He said there was a romance to getting a cabin and sleeping on a boat, the sense of travel as a true experience. .’ For a moment he seemed to have lost his thread, and I pictured his mind floating off to the far reaches of cyberspace. At one point he took a small card from his wallet and began to mouth whatever was written on it, some kind of mantra perhaps, but then something else caught his attention beyond the car window and he was talking again. Whatever it was, my father seemed satisfied that he had expressed himself as fully as was possible. There’s something rather beautiful in the idea, don’t you think?’
‘I’ve always rather liked the idea of a Viking burial,’ I said, ‘sent off in a burning ship, sword laid at my side, et cetera et cetera.’ I said this a little flippantly, but I was struck, quite abruptly, by an image of myself – stretched out in a long boat, eyes closed, a faint smile on my lips but apparently dead, the skin of my hands and feet beginning to blacken and catch fire. He had not driven throughout his illness or since, as far as I knew. We had planned to go on another hour or so and find somewhere for lunch, but as soon as we crossed a bridge over the Somme river – I had not realised that it was this that gave the area and the battle its name – he asked me to pull over. Anyway, he was dying of a mysterious fever and in his prayers he promised to build a church to Saint Genevieve if she cured him. There are places you can do it here now – in Europe, I mean. ‘Max’ – I did not know a Max – ‘put me on to this stuff. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons. My father stumbled slightly, steadied himself. When we got back to the car my father asked to drive. We seemed beyond that now. My situation, as my father called it, was that my four-year-old son lived with his mother and her new boyfriend at the other end of the country, and my work came in fits and starts. My own rituals, unexposed now for some time, suddenly seemed old-mannish, even shameful – the plastic guard I wore to stop my teeth grinding and which left a bloody taste in my mouth in the morning, the earplugs and sleeping mask. I felt moved to broach it now, but abruptly the waiter arrived and began taking our plates away. Or even my son’s?’ He indicated me with a thumb. ‘It’s the truth!’ he said. Two policemen were asking him questions and a paramedic was holding his arm. He spoke freely about his years in France, and did not seem traumatised by it, although he used to say that he had seen enough of the rest of the world for one lifetime and never went further than Manchester again. After an hour we stopped at a service station just outside Dorchester. ‘Hmmm.. Patti was very pale, with short, bleached-white hair and bright blue eyes. My father was still talking. We had steak which came very bloody and my father ordered a fifty euro bottle of red wine, even though I said I wasn’t drinking. I noticed for the first time the way her dress tightened around the swell of her belly. He showed me a small lead model of the church that he had bought himself from the gift shop and then handed over a t-shirt that had a picture of the Eiffel Tower and above it the words J’adore Paris. The police and an ambulance had arrived and the crowd were pushed back and told to move on. There was a liveried porter on the door, embossed stationery and a small, grimy window in our room that looked out over the domes of the Pantheon, which no doubt accounted for the excessive cost. He began whistling, always one of his habits. About fifty kilometres from Amiens we crested a hill and suddenly we were among field after field of sunflowers. ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man,’ I said. ‘When I’m dead, I’m dead,’ I said. The stalks were bent and trampled where my father had passed through. He talked about his and Patti’s plans for their child, from the home birth to the long trips they would take while it was still small, the virtues of openness, innocence and courage that they wanted to instil. I got us one each.’
He looked down at a map on the table in front of him and then took a long sip of the Coke. When he got to the end he sat down on the grass, buried his head in the crook of his fractured arm and began properly to cry. ‘Oh Jesus,’ said my brother. My brother went to fill up the car with petrol. ‘Have you put on a few pounds?’ My father had changed the subject and was looking at me beadily, as if I was just coming into focus for him for the first time on our trip. We were going to visit Stan’s grave in Amiens.  
*
 
In the car, my father talked – very rapidly, a stream of free association, flitting from one subject to another and then back again, the words sometimes getting tangled up or muddled, his thoughts apparently moving more quickly than he could articulate. ‘Given your situation,’ he said to me, ‘I imagine you are more flexible.’
I asked what my stepmother thought about this. ‘Beautiful day,’ he said. A friend of mine did them. His arms were in the air and at first I thought he was struggling, but then I saw he was gesturing for me to come in. It’s cold there apparently, raining.’
‘Right,’ I said. I raised my eyebrows. Something stopped me from calling out to him myself, shock perhaps, a kind of estrangement that meant I could not identify him as my father, myself as his son. I slept lightly, despite the pill, and from time to time, through my grogginess, I was aware of my father sitting in the chair by the window or moving around the room. St Pierre cemetery was a modest sized, unspectacular place, in a nondescript suburb of Amiens, backed on three sides by uniformly spaced yew trees. By the time we boarded the ferry there was only time to have a quick meal, watch the lights of the shore recede from the deck and then find the way to our cabin. He did not seem to be trying to stop. I had never heard this before, or had forgotten it – I had assumed he had been killed in battle. I wondered what I had missed, what essential conversation this might be the conclusion to. Two days after the end of the Battle of Amiens, in August 1918, the beginning of the end of the war, Stan collapsed with a brain aneurysm. The sun was very bright and the clean white Portland stone of the headstones stood out like teeth against the immaculate green lawns. There were willows trailing their branches in the water on the opposite side. ‘Good answer,’ said my father thoughtfully, ‘good answer.’
There was silence for several minutes and then my father said: ‘There’s nothing more beautiful than a pregnant woman! He might have had a knock on the head but it could have happened to him anyway, war or no war. Only problem was – the animal was completely mad, psychotic. It seemed to take forever for him to get down – I counted eleven ladders. ‘Well, Diane has moved out – temporarily.’
Before I could respond he went on. When the ferry PA system woke me in the morning to announce that we had docked, he was standing between the beds performing Tai Chi. The base of the scaffolding was boarded up, but on one side an access door was open. ‘I don’t want to be the sort of person who has regrets.’ He was a little annoyed by the question, or pretending to be. After ten minutes or so my father finished his story, stood up and began to embrace each person around the table. Then I sat down and put my arm around him, and he wept into my chest. ‘I have seen it with my own grandchildren’, he said. ‘I can imagine,’ I said, but that was all I could say. My father gave no sign of being similarly discomfited. Crammed into it was a double bed with an ornate headboard, instead of the two singles my father had reserved. A picture of him taken before he went had always hung in my father’s house, a formal shot, standing feet apart with some kind of cane braced between his hands, heartbreakingly young in his uniform. Children needed to experience fear, take risks, be free. When he reached the top level, he walked to the left hand end of the scaffolding and climbed on to the narrow ledge underneath the frieze so that his back was pressed against the figures. At the slip road to the motorway, two hitchhikers were standing on the hard shoulder with their thumbs out. ‘These are my boys,’ he said to them, and then told us everyone’s names. He began to make his way slowly along the ledge. There were a few other people walking among the graves but no one was looking at us. Whether this question had just occurred to him or was indicative of the general drift of his thoughts, I couldn’t say. His personal, intimate habits – the way he took his socks off last when he undressed and then put them on first in the morning, the rather horrible way he spat after cleaning his teeth – made him seem alien, unknown to me. My brother and I found ourselves shaking hands with each member of the group in turn, accepting their good wishes. Patti saw me looking at her, and her smile widened. Back in the bedroom, he was standing looking out of the window, still whistling. ‘Amazing people, just amazing people’, he said, although it was not clear if he was referring to those we had been introduced to in the garden – his fellow hostages – or others who had remained unseen. Right Bernard?’
Bernard laughed. One of these moods seemed to descend on him as we drove out of St Malo. Halfway down the final one he missed his footing and fell the last few feet to the ground. ‘Rather you than me,’ he said.  
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? ‘Stunning girl.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘A memento of our trip,’ he said, almost sheepishly. Whatever brittle barrier had penned this in over the last weeks had broken, and out it came, torrentially, ecstatically. The room was poky and full of odd angles, evidently subdivided from a more generous space. He was still awake reading a newspaper when I turned out the light above my bed. Very more-ish. and I took a pill to knock myself out. When the Pantheon had opened at nine he had gone down into the crypt to look at the tombs. My father described an old tradition that had been revived in Russia of baptising young children by dipping them in holes cut through frozen rivers and lakes. He was a long way up, tiny against the looming mass of the church, but I was sure he was smiling. ‘It’s life and death, you know, two sides of the same coin, the yin and the yang et cetera et cetera. The fever passed and this is what he built. Still, they buried him with the war dead – as they should have.’
My grandfather was twenty when he got back from the war. ‘Perhaps don’t mention what happened to your stepmother.’
He finished his juice and stood up. In some ways, after all that, I don’t give a fuck. When we pulled into the driveway we could see him sitting around a table in the garden with seven or eight others, all talking and smiling, their faces turned to receive the sun which was bright and high in the sky.  
 

The Alarming Palsy of James Orr by Tom Lee is available for purchase here. ‘So now you do.’
He went into the bathroom to wash and I called my son to wish him goodnight. Not the most beautiful building, but it has a certain grandeur I think. For a moment it looked as if he was taking everything off but when he got down to his pants he threw the rest of the clothes in the car and set off towards the water. I went on for several minutes to where the field gave way to a small pebbly beach. When I woke up I could not tell how much time had passed. From there the land flattened out into the plains of the Somme valley and it was not hard to imagine vast armies inching backwards and forwards across the land. An air of brittle hilarity, or even joy, hung over the scene and in this – as in other ways – they struck me as resembling nothing so much as a group of hostages suddenly and unexpectedly given their freedom. ‘No one picks up hitchers anymore Dad,’ I said, but he was already slowing down. I hesitated to intervene, such was the elemental force of his emotion. There was a queue and when I came out my father was not at our table. But I suppose that’s not really you is it.. Incredible resource.. ‘Louis XIV – or maybe it was Louis XV… I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep as the conversation went on. Standing in front of Stan’s grave, his eyes closed, his bad arm hanging across his chest, again he seemed unfamiliar to me and somehow, briefly – though I don’t really like the word – heroic. I identified myself and was let through. Soon we began to see the signs for the battlefields and cemeteries. He married soon after, had six children, of which my father was the youngest, and lived for another seventy-five years. ‘The Tibetans have a tradition of sky burial,’ he said. But in other ways I do, I absolutely do. My brother asked him what they had done during the week, the nature of the treatment, but he waved his hand as if to knock the question away. My father interrogated them as he drove, switching his attention between the backseat and the road ahead in a way that did not strike me as entirely safe. He sat down and poured himself some orange juice with his good arm. We had not known what we would find when we went to pick him up – we had hoped for something, certainly – but this, this was strange. ‘Everything OK?’
‘Oh, fine, fine. ‘What do you think about a little diversion?’
It took another hour to get to Studland Bay and when we pulled up behind the dunes my father got out of the car and began to undress. It took me a few moments to absorb this, and by the time I had stood up and run over passersby were already beginning to gather at the foot of the building to watch. ‘He was sharing a cigarette with my dad and just keeled over. After lunch we would go to the Somme battlefields. Every time they tried it, the same result. Look, it’s nothing to worry about. Perhaps he had studied it at school, as I had. It was beginning to get dusky and the beach was empty, but I wondered what an onlooker might make of this man, this scene. He bought a mobile phone and discovered the internet and began to bombard me with text messages and emails with jokes or links to articles he thought I should read. Someone across the square shouted and I looked across to the giant-columned portico of the Pantheon. He started to build a treehouse in the back garden for my son and my brother’s children, although this got him into a row with the neighbours because of its size and the way it hung over their own garden (‘Fuck ‘em,’ he said). It’s blue skies out there.’
 
*
 
It was around three hours of driving to Amiens, where my Grandfather and Stan Cope had fought, and the cemetery where Stan was buried. It was as if movement, the road, brought it on. The weight a man puts on when he gets married and is comfortable in his life. When I woke up, around ten, I was lying diagonally across the bed and there was no sign of him, but I did not seem to have any worry left in me. He was always excited, desperate to tell me about something he had read or seen on television, some new piece of information that had struck him forcefully, or report what he had been up to. He stared out of the window, sipping at another Diet Coke, perhaps lost in contemplation of the trip ahead and what it meant to him. ‘I’ll tell you a story,’ he went on. At the police station my father had given a statement in which he offered no explanation for his stunt except that he was a little drunk and happy to be in Paris. I ran a hot bath and lay in it, staring at the ceiling. I looked at him. ‘Diane says hello,’ he said, without turning around. ‘No story. ‘The Spanish have a phrase for it – Curva de la Felicidad, the Girth of Happiness. I did not know that my father read poetry, let alone knew any by heart. My father ordered a Diet Coke and by the time the waiter left the moment seemed to have passed.