Last year, I nearly lost my father. He was 83 and suffering from dengue fever, which could have been fatal. My parents were both in Sri Lanka at the time, having returned there to retire only a few months before. From my London home, I remember watching my mother’s face and hearing her tearful, crackling voice over Skype. She was letting me know, in the manner in which she delivered the news rather than the words she used, that she was frightened.
“At times I don’t think he remembers who I am,” she said.
It’s a strange, weighted silence that surrounds you in the moment you face your father’s death. It is filled with mournful expectancy, guilt and a terrifying calm. After the call ended, I noticed the peculiar way my mind wandered. I was drawn toward the measurement of things: the length of my fingers, the distance between myself and the screen, how much coffee was left in my cup, the gap in the curtains, the distance between myself and my mother, the distance between myself and my father.
I’ve come to think of that moment as an instance of rare clarity. I’d liken it to how a writer navigates an unfamiliar story, feeling out intimate spaces to render it alive and honest on a page. At times, this weird, entirely baffling stream of unconscious thinking can illuminate, gently lead you towards insight. At other times it can be painful, like the sober facing down of something or someone you love.
For many years I’d thought of myself as a bad son. I was a difficult teenager, rebellious and entirely dismissive of any advice or instruction my father had to offer. We were so different. And while we were never estranged, we never grew especially close. Even now, to compare his story to my own feels odd and elusive. The London I grew up in barely resembles the one he made his own.
I have no doubt that this kind of relationship will sound familiar to many, especially those who are second or third generation immigrants. “The second and third have no time to listen to the first,” James Baldwin once wrote about his difficult relationship with his father. This feels partly accurate to me: only shame, immaturity or stubbornness, I think, kept me from asking how my father arrived in Britain.
Lacking the language I needed to relate to my father, I began seeing him in the books I read. Reading Baldwin felt like a weight giving away; he wrote about his father with so much rage, but also acceptance. I felt a twinge reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family, and I recognised my father, too, in Moran from Beckett’s novel Molloy, when he puts his son to bed: “I was in a hair’s breath of kissing him. Neither he nor I had uttered a word. We had no further need of words, for the time being.” Brittle silences, things unsaid but deeply felt: I understand now that, in the absence of my father’s story (and my unwillingness to ask to hear it), I’d been trying to make sense of him in the narratives of others.
Stories should feel like a bridge. Yet in my father’s case and mine, our own stories represented only the measure of our differences. It’s that distance, my father’s migration from the country of his birth to this country of mine, that seemed to account for it.
Eventually, my father told me his story. It was 1951, he was 16. He was chosen – seemingly at random – from a lineup of poor labourers laying tarmac for the public works department in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He’d been asked by one of the foremen whether he wanted to go to work in England. He said yes, though since his meagre education had been cut short before any meaningful geography lesson, he hadn’t a clue how far away England was. A few weeks later, after saying the briefest of goodbyes to his mother, he was bound for Southampton docks on the HMS Canberra. It was a three-week voyage. His mother was convinced he would drown.
Once he arrived in Britain, he moved from one menial job to another: a hotel porter, unloading electrical goods from trucks, a messenger boy for a property firm, flipping burgers in a kitchen. He finally settled as an office clerk at the immigration counter of the Sri Lankan embassy, surrounded once again by those who looked like him, in a city that was growing more familiar. He married my mother in 1981. They had a son, then two years later, had another – me.
The biographical notes of a man’s life are a treasure trove for any writer. In these details, I find insights into the man my father would become: his youthful energy, his ambition to one day provide for his children the kind of education he was denied. More broadly, it offers an insight into the era he knew, the London I see only traces of today but the one in which he made a life for himself.
Like many fathers, one of the few places he would open up was behind the wheel. He’d point out the first flat he’d rented as a young man. He’d reminisce about familiar buildings, the changes he’d witnessed over the years. As a teenager, I’d ask him how to get across town and he’d always know the quickest way. Much of what I know about London I learned in the back seat of our family car. So it’s not just his past that connects us but also my present. It’s a quirk, I think, of having both an immigrant and a Londoner for a father; I share his sense of being a resident alien in my country while also being a native son.
My father is back in the UK again, with my mother; we all decided after his scare that it would be best to continue their retirement in London. The months since have felt like a second chance. My father and I often talk, and he tells me more stories – I press him for the details now, all the better for a novelist – and he enjoys telling me the little things he used to leave out: the westerns he used to see at the cinema, his admiration for Muhammad Ali, his inexplicable love for the music of Abba.
He also has questions for me. A career in the arts is something he had not expected nor encouraged for his son. I still struggle to explain to him exactly what I do to make a living. But he listens when I talk to him about my books and asks whether I will ever write one about him. I will, I say, but you have to tell me everything.
These days, the story my father most often tells is how he learned English. Every Saturday, he used to sit in Foyles in Charing Cross Road, where he’d pick books off the shelves to read. This is how he pieced together the world around him.
Almost 70 years later, this past week, I have watched my father return to Foyles, together with my mother, to find his son’s novel stacked on those same shelves. My mother beamed. My father nodded and smiled, with something resembling pride. It was a moment that knitted my present with his past: his life has made mine one in which I can look up, wide open, and be curious enough to write things down.
Sixty years ago my father was a teenager and a new immigrant in 1950s London. He used to sneak into Foyles every Saturday, sit on the floor and teach himself English. Yesterday, he returned to pick his son’s novel off the shelf. This universe is spectacular.
My father is getting better. He is still frail and, when he coughs, he makes the walls shake. But I know now that when the day comes that I must inevitably say goodbye to him, I will have known his story and he will have known mine. Somehow, that reduces the distance between us to nothing.