Every house has this book tucked away somewhere, father tells me. Some keep it locked in the attic, while others hide it in the depths of bookcases or submerged under dusty bowls in forgotten boxes. My father, however, makes a point of reading it to us. Just as he has read it to my brothers and sisters, so he will read it to me. It’s an old leather bound book and inside is written my whole life.
Here we are indeed, my father says. He readjusts his thick rimmed glasses and draws his face in closer. He mumbles words under his breath as he reads.
It’s a stuffy room. The curtains are drawn and the windows shut tight. A bulb hums under a tasselled shade and spreads its dim light across the room. Weak shadows cling to life behind the high backed armchairs and under the coffee stained coffee table.
What if it’s bad? I say. What if I don’t like it?
Father wrinkles his nose.
What if you don’t like what?
I shrug and say, What if I don’t like what you read? In the book?
Father closes the book. He takes off his glasses and gives a good rub to his eyes. From his back pocket he pulls out a worn handkerchief. It’s covered in stains and dotted with frayed holes. With a wheezy breath he fogs the first lens and then wipes. He does the same for the second before slipping his glasses back onto his crooked nose.
Have I ever told you about my time on the train? he says.
I used to be quite the little traveller during my youth, you know.
You? I say. Really?
Believe it or not, he says. It was a little green train and it ran along the coast and up into the mountains. I had stowed away in the back with nothing on me save this book. He taps the book again. In one of those rickety old carriages at the back, surrounded by bales of hay, I met a man. A most peculiar man. And he taught me something very important. He said–
Mother opens the door and says,
Food is on the table.
My stomach rumbles in response.
We won’t be long, father says.
Mother leaves and closes the door behind her.
What did he say? I say
What did who say?
The man on the train.
I think, father says, that will be a story for another day.
We won’t be having any of that. Besides, we haven’t finished here yet, he says, picking the book back up and tracing the lines with his fingers. I fetch a pen and some paper from the drawers behind me and lay them out neatly on the table. The grandfather clock chimes quarter past. I can hear mother cooking downstairs and the dog barking at sparrows or pigeons or blackbirds in the garden.
Some good news, some bad news, he says. You ought to write this down.
So I do.
Today is my sixteenth birthday. Today I find out how I die.
Do you know what the fish said when he got to the moon? says the peculiar man. The carriage rumbles on and shakes me from side to side. I cling onto my book with one hand and the door with other and I hope I don’t tumble out, straight out, the open door and into the starless night. No chairs here in the goods wagon, just bales of straw and hay for fodder. The peculiar man sits comfortably on his hay. Do you know what he said? He said, if only there was water so I could swim and be happy. Or that I had legs to walk and be free.
I tell him I don’t understand.
He smiles and says, You will.
He takes off his wide brimmed hat and carefully rests it on his lap. There’s a hole in the top of it.
Isn’t that a bit useless, I say.
Your hat, there’s a hole in it.
So there is, he says, as though only realising for the first time.
But why wear it at all then, that doesn’t make sense.
The peculiar man scratches behind his ear, inspects his finger, then says, Why did the fish go to the moon?
That’s not an answer, I say.
And when is an answer not an answer.
Do you always answer a question with a question?
I huff and swing my legs out of the carriage and let them sway in the evening breeze. Warm air rushes up my shorts. Gently sloping hills start to give way to freshly harvested fields. Tractors asleep where they finished work. Great barrels of hay dotted over the shorn grass. In his corner, the peculiar man snores, his hands tucked tightly under his arms. His jacket, what’s left of it, is torn at both the shoulders and missing part of a sleeve. A patchwork of cotton squares plug some of the holes. His shoes flap open and closed like a chattering mouth, its tongue a calloused toe. I hug my book a little tighter.
The train trundles on and soon the fields give way to the shore. The briny air reminds me of summer and the sea and for a moment I’m twelve again. I can feel the warm sand between my fingers and under my nails; a salt crust on my lips and around my nose; the drumming of little spades on little castles. It’s quickly overrun by the grinding thump of the rail beneath me. I close my eyes and half expect when I open them to be on the beach, pink and stinging, and to find sister splashing in the rock pools and mother drinking in her deck chair. But I’m not and I don’t
Have I told you about the time I sang for the King of Biarritz? says the peculiar man. His eyes are still closed, but his arms are now crossed behind his head. He peeks an eye open when I don’t say anything. Clearing his throat he says, Of course he wasn’t a real king. But he was a king of sorts. It really is a most interesting story.
I keep my face pointed out the carriage and my ears shut.
Shame I have no one to tell it to.
A few minutes roll by, though it’s difficult to tell how many. The peculiar man has started to pick at his teeth when I say,
I thought you’d never ask.
With a smile, and surprising agility, he bounds over in a step or two and throws himself down next to me. I grab hold of his arm, afraid he’s going to tumble straight out and into the darkness, but he just smiles and says,
Interlude: The Beggar King of Biarritz
Down in the gutters of Biarritz town,
Among streetwalkers and forgotten wreaths,
A child hums a tune of some renown,
As all around drink to drown their grief.
The song he sings soon dances over hill
And into hearth, where the Beggar King waits
Upon his lonely throne, no lust to kill
Those who abandoned him; those who he hates.
For the Beggar King, who above all else,
Loves to sing and play upon his lute,
Surrounded by cold halls adorned with pelts,
Lives in a court comprised only of mutes.
So if you see him wandering the streets,
Smile to the Beggar King of Biarritz.
When his son cannot sleep, the ageing father takes from the highest shelf in the tallest bookcase an old book. The son has pulled the cover up to his chin. The navy sheets look an inky midnight in the dim moonlight which seeps in through the curtains. Branches rap against the window panes a muted melody. The grandfather clock chimes a quarter past. The father sits at the end of the bed.
Do you know what this is? he says
The son shakes his head.
It’s the most important book in the world. Inside it are all the stories you’ll ever need. All the stories that have ever been written. Some are happy, others scary, and a few sad. And some of them are perfect for bedtime. Would you like to hear one?
The son nods his head.
Alright. The father opens the book with a thick, leathery creak and begins to leaf through the tired pages. Familiar pots and pans are bustled downstairs, wafting noise gently upstairs, round the corner, past the bathroom, under the door and into the dark of the bedroom. The father taps his finger on the page with a smile that’s hard to make out and says,
This one is one of my favourites. Would you like to hear how a street urchin went on to become a king?
The boy shakes his head.
No? The father flips over a few more pages. What about the tale of the travelling man and his train? I used to love his floppy hat and silly shoes. How about that?
The boy shakes his head and the father goes back to his book and the trees rattle outside and the stairs creak under the strain. Floorboards ache and moan.
Well, what would you like to listen to?
The boy shrugs. His eyes are wide, lit up in the darkness, fixed on his father. He shuffles his feet under the cover. Dog eared posters line the walls and at the desk beside the door, a pile of schoolbooks long to be read.
The old father closes the book and lets out a little sigh.
I was saving this story until you were older, he says, but if you’re really good, I’ll tell you now. Will you be good and go to sleep?
The boy nods his head.
After clearing his throat and running his hands over his trousers, the father says,
Do you know what the fish said when he got to the moon?
His son fell asleep well before the father had finished the story. He creaks his way back to the tallest bookcase to return the old book to the highest shelf. But he stops, before he does, and opens it. He does what he knows not to. The father flips to the end of the book and reads the last pages. With relief and humiliation and terror, he realises that he, too, was but a reflection, that another father was telling his story.
As he closes the book, slowly and contentedly, the footsteps upon the stairs begin fade. The chimes from the grandfather clock soften to nothing. The branches stop their rattling and a peculiar tiredness washes over him. His wife goes first and then his son, tucked up in bed, drifts away. And when he finally closes the book, all is gone except those tired pages.
Banner Image: By Parcogeominerario (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons