I learned from his obituary in the Saturday newspaper that the man was the same age as my father. I’d always known the gap between us was immense and now here it was, confirmed: the dates of his birth and death highlighted above a story about his life.
It seemed that many people missed him, including former colleagues of mine. I remembered those men from all those years ago: all of them senior to me, full of annoying swagger and off-colour quips. One — kinder and smarter than the others, I liked him — had been my manager. But their tributes for our old boss were surprisingly low-key. He had been a convivial person, they said, with a nose for opportunity and an eye for fostering talent in junior staff. The muted tone made me wonder if affections between the men had cooled in the intervening years; it was more likely, I decided, that this death had simply been too close for comfort. I imagined a ghostly shadow hovering over them while they typed, making a final edit, bringing the jokey tone down a notch or two.
The photos accompanying the text were more candid, and I spent time examining them. There he was, younger in black and white, older in colour, but still the plain and paunchy man I recalled. Age had tinkered with his edges only: the colour and length of his hair, the width and shape of his fingers. I showed the obituary to my husband.
‘Remember this guy?’ I asked. ‘Remember what a mess I was?’
He took the page from me and stared at the photos.
‘So that’s what he looked like,’ he said. ‘He died?’
Yes, the loose ends of a little drama in my life had been tidied away. The man responsible for it had died during a pandemic, but it was a run-of-the-mill disease that had got him in the end. Later, lying in the dark, I felt the anger pitch and swell again. It had been more than 30 years and I couldn’t let it go. I was glad he was dead and not my father.
That week, they were pulling down statues, everywhere. Dead men whose stories could no longer be sanitised were being daubed with red paint and dragged into rivers. ‘Well, to hell with them,’ Margaret Atwood had written, portentously, more than two decades earlier.
Dress up in armour,
ride across the steppes, leading a horde
of armed murderers. That gets you a statue
copper or stone, with a lofty frown
– jaw clenched as if chewing –
like all those erected by the sober
citizens, years later
for all the sad destroyers.
I wasn’t surprised by the monumental destruction or the lack of international outcry over it: history had lost its patience with relativism and become skittish, edgy. Pandemic had unsettled us, and it was a time for harsh truths. Then my father came for dinner with a bag of chips and reminded me that in the Russian city of Novosibirsk they’d erected a new statue of Stalin only last year.
‘Do you believe that? The world is crazy,’ he said. ‘Nothing makes sense.’
Anyway, he’d been trying not to dwell on the news. He wanted to talk about his dreams. ‘It’s funny,’ he said, not waiting for my encouragement, ‘I don’t dream about things that are happening now. It’s just about people from the past, people who have died. They’re all so real, and so young: my mother, my brothers, Mum. They really look great, and I feel so happy to see them.’
I wanted to talk to him about the obituary. But I knew he’d be baffled rather than outraged by something that had happened to me so long ago and, anyway, surely it was more of a misdemeanour than a real offence? Why had I waited so many years to speak of it? I told him instead how I’d also had a dream about Mum. In my dream, she’d been standing with me at the kitchen bench and chatting about plans for dinner. It was as if the pressing business of living had outweighed the inconvenience of her death; we chose to focus on what to eat, on keeping each other company. Dad and I laughed about that.
Later, he waved to me from his blue Ford Fiesta, driving home to an empty house. I watched the car lights disappear before I went inside. My father and I were like intersecting circles in a Venn diagram, I realised: there was only a little overlap. What did I really understand of his life beyond my immediate experience of it? When he died, would someone unknown to me hear about his death and think good job?
When I was a teenager, my mother passed on two tips about men. The first was the least practical. A man, she said, was much more attractive putting his clothes on than taking them off. That baffled me at the time. I was disinterested in her opinion on most things, especially sex. Although I knew even then there was nothing exciting about a naked man wearing socks. But I wonder now if I came at her advice the wrong way: perhaps she wasn’t thinking about before at all, but after. Perhaps she was thinking about a man, warm from the shower, slipping a belt through the hoops of his waistband, or fastening the strap of a watch to his cradled wrist, his head bent in concentration. And then, after he puts on his shoes, lifting his eyes and smiling, aware he’s being watched.
The other piece of advice was more straightforward. She said a woman should think carefully before deciding whether to have sex with someone. And not about whether she wanted to – that was a prerequisite, already assumed – but to think about whether this man (also assumed) would be a good father for her future children. I remember laughing when she told me that, all those years ago. There’s contraception these days, I said to her, those things aren’t a big deal anymore. But I know now that wasn’t what she meant at all. She wasn’t talking about the risk of unplanned pregnancy. She was talking about the risk of letting someone dangerous get close. If a potential lover wouldn’t make a good father one day, then what sort of man was he? And why on earth would her daughter choose to sleep with him?
That is all I remember in the way of guidance. I don’t suppose she imagined the time I’d need help for other scenarios, for when the decision itself was easy to make, even instinctive, but its implications so complex. What should you do, I could have asked her, when the hands of the boy sitting next to you in the pool slide like fish inside your bikini top and you recoil in surprise? Or when another boy pins you against the wall at a crowded student party and laughs while you struggle to free yourself? I know that one boy will hiss in your ear — tease — and will avoid you at school, forever. The other, too drunk, will forget the attack ever happened, and will try to remain your friend. None of it, of course, makes any difference now; I didn’t ask my mother for advice, and those boys have disappeared, who knows where.
But that instinct for self-preservation — to flinch and then to fight, if needed — my mother didn’t need to teach me. She’d seen it in me already, when I was 13, on a winter night when I’d pushed my broken bike home after a ballet lesson and told her about a man who’d stepped out of the shadows on a quiet street as I’d been riding past. I told her how he’d pulled me onto the kerb where we’d struggled for a shockingly long time before he’d sprinted away, until all I could see were his white sneakers rounding the corner towards town. I remember the fright in her face as she registered my bloody elbows and knees, her relief as I described my attacker’s retreat, and then her anger. It makes me smile, now, thinking about her decision to get in the old station wagon and drive around the dark streets looking for my attacker. I still don’t know how she thought she’d find him, or what she would have done if she had.
But I wish she’d taken me with her. I wish we could’ve looked for him together, the two of us driving through town in that car, angry female vigilantes seeking justice.
The obituary stayed folded on the kitchen bench for a few days. I’d stopped picking it up, re-reading the text and staring at the photos, but I didn’t feel ready to let it go. International COVID-19 deaths were ticking upwards with alarming speed; I wondered how many of those dead people would be memorialised in the way this man had, and how many lives more noteworthy would simply be swept away in the deluge. I thought about the behind-the-scenes manoeuvres that must have occurred to ensure my former boss, someone so unremarkable at best, could be honoured in such a public way, at such a terrible time in history. And then I wondered what had happened to the people who had arranged the tribute to him – in particular, to the manager I was once so fond of.
I remembered how I’d arrived at the office the morning after it happened, puffy-eyed and indignant, ready to make a stand. ‘Sorry I left the party early last night,’ I’d said to my manager. ‘But something awful happened.’
‘Let’s have lunch,’ he said, when I told him.
We went to a restaurant I’d never been to, one with white tablecloths, close to the office, and he ordered a glass of wine for each of us. Then he sat back in his chair, looking at me without a smile. It was not his job, he told me, to tell me what to do. Our boss had clearly overstepped the mark. But if this thing had happened to him – and it hadn’t, of course – he would probably be keeping his head down. What could be gained by making a formal complaint? He was just sorry that it had happened at all, especially as he knew this man’s wife and family well (they were lovely people) and could only think that it was the booze that was behind the bad behaviour. He was also sorry that I would not now get the pay rise I wanted, but he was sure the money would come in time, when I moved on at some point to a better role in another organisation.
It was a nice lunch, and I came away feeling better. The advice he’d offered seemed logical; I agreed it was safer and easier to keep quiet. A few months later I left the job for another. I suppose my manager and, eventually, his boss did too. Our paths didn’t cross again and over the years I only occasionally wondered what had become of either of them. When I did wonder, my anger was typically directed at my senior employer and his clear abuse of power. But now, with women everywhere giving voice to stories of male injustices far more menacing and damaging than mine, it was once again on my mind. The arrival of the obituary on my kitchen bench had amplified everything. What was it that still troubled me about this minor incident from my past?
I rewound my memories, walked through that day in my head. Was it possible that the lunch meeting with my manager was not what it had seemed? I knew that holding my tongue was protecting the offender; it had felt, at the time, to be the lesser of two evils. But it had never occurred to me that I had also protected my manager. My decision meant he hadn’t been obliged to back me, or to jeopardise his own career if he did. So this public homage in the Saturday newspaper, written all these years later about someone both he and I knew was never charming, convivial or honourable, made everything clear. Neither of those men had been an ally of mine. And my silence had made me an accomplice in a cowardly arrangement for us all.
After my mother died, I found a black and white photograph of her taken in the early days of her marriage. In it, she lies on her front across a mattress on the floor, probably in the first flat she shared with my father, at a time when they owned nothing. Her dark hair is cropped, wrapped back from her face with a long scarf, and her feet and legs are bare below her cuffed shorts. She lies with her arms making a diamond above her head, but her face is turned back over her shoulder, towards the camera. I see her clearly, my twenty-four year-old mother, posing provocatively for the photographer, the father of her future children.
I threw the obituary away, eventually. I had finished with it; my former boss was old news. But as I did, I wondered if I was truly rid of him. I wondered where he might be buried. I hoped it wasn’t near my mother in that the hilly cemetery at the edge of our city, with its empty space to the left, awaiting my father. I hoped I would never come across that man’s headstone by accident, its granite memorial permanently etched with words of love from his family, just like hers.