A dull metal box.
My father’s effects from the barracks.
It’s been a month, maybe more, the funeral and my father now no more than memories. I leave the box on the dining room table, unwilling to engage with its cargo, unable to face the ghosts.
I try to make progress with my work, but the box is present in each moment, each room. Visitors tell me I seem preoccupied, ill at ease. They tell me it’s the grief, I know it’s the box – unfinished business.
So, after several days and a few whiskeys, I enter the dining room. The key is tied onto a handle with string, I turn it in the lock. The lid opens with a rusted squeal to reveal the remnants of my father’s life.
A kitten-soft suede pouch protects his medals, this one’s for bravery, this one’s for Iraq, this one’s for Afghanistan, inscribed metal discs and coloured ribbons. In my hand they feel no more than a few ounces, the weight of the army’s recognition of his long years of service. I lay them in a neat row, sensing the alignment would please him.
Next a browned envelope with photographs, a square one of mother and I in Skegness, both blonde, me no higher than her waist, mother with that happiness the madness would later steal, and I can’t see any longer because of my tears... Here’s dad sat on a sandy tank, shades, boots and cigar. Now one of a woman I don’t know, leggy, strawberry-blonde. I’m distracted by the reflection behind her of my father with camera in hand. His scratchy handwriting is on the reverse, ‘Sue, Malta.’
I begin to understand what he meant when he called to say, ‘important business’ had kept him from returning home, ‘the unscheduled call of duty’, the ‘I’m a soldier I have to follow orders sometimes,’ all those school holidays I’d spent alone, the missed graduation ceremony, my opening nights, all lost to Sue, Malta. I resist tearing her into a thousand pieces, but cast her aside, watch her flutter to the floor.
I take a moment to swallow the bitterness of this revelation. I’m jealous of the strawberry-blonde, of the times she shared with dad that were stolen from me. A jewel of immeasurable worth would not match the value of another day with dad. ‘Sue, Malta’ is shredded and deposited in the waste paper basket.
An old tobacco tin, pens, assorted currency but now a postcard from Wales, it’s from me. ‘Dad, wish you were here with me in the Brecons, the walking is good, the peace, the scenery. There’s not a day goes past without me thinking of you out there. I miss you like hell.’
It takes me a good hour to recover my composure. Why keep that postcard of all those I sent? Dad loved postcards, he drilled into me the value of a pretty picture dropping on the doormat among the cellophane windows. I place the postcard squared off with the medals, dad on the tank and Skegness.
His Swiss Army Knife, now a little battered but functioning. A tatty sticker on the face reads, Jim Barnes. A pack of playing cards, scenes from Malta, and his chipped, cedar cribbage board, the family pastime. Oh, for the chance to share one last game - his giggle when he had a good hand, the way he would neatly square off the pack, the sayings he taught me, ‘one for his nob’, ‘two for doing it’, and ‘the lurch.’ I open the playing cards and hold them to my nose, feel them in my hand – to touch what he touched is as close as I can get now.
Inside a tired cardboard case, his silver, full hunter, pocket watch – his grandfather’s originally – and his wristwatch. Was he wearing this when he was hit? I bring the leather strap to my face, feel it against my flesh, his hand against my young cheek telling me he’d be back in a month, ‘be good and there’ll be presents.’
The, ‘I’m very sorry to inform you…..’
A small book of Yeats. Inscribed, ‘to my dearest Jim’, mother’s handwriting. It’s well thumbed, there’s a corner turned over, “I will arise now and go to Innisfree” and circled is the line “I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow.” I lay this alongside the other treasures.
A tiny brown envelope, the sort you don’t see come through the mail, addressed with my name. I fetch my antique silver letter opener, taking care with something so delicate. Inside, his gold wedding ring. I’m puzzled, why he packaged it up. Was this routine for him before operations, or did he know?
I move the empty metal case to the floor to reveal, before my eyes, laid out in neat columns and rows, like a battle parade of memory, all that is left of my father, besides me. Despite my fond memories of dad, I find it hard to forgive him for staying away for so long, for my years at that wretched boarding school, for turning his back on mother, for joining the bloody army in the first place but, most of all, for promising to return.