The doorbell chimes its sweet melody, cutting through the sizzle of onions frying on the stove-top. I turn the heat down to low, wipe my hands on a nearby tea-towel, and remove my floral-print apron. Whistling along with the doorbell’s melody and tapping my metal spatula against my leg, I walk across the kitchen and through the hallway to the door. It’s unusual for people to come here so late in the evening, but it could be one of my friends paying me a surprise visit. They do that on days like this. It could also be the postman with a package I’ve forgotten I ordered, I suppose – maybe a book, or a jumper, or something equally comforting. I open the door, casting my eyes out into the darkness beyond, wondering who it might be.
The spatula clatters as it hits the floor. My mouth opens into a wide O and the colour drains from my face.
“F… F… Father?”
The earliest memory I have of Father is somehow both faded and striking. It exists in a single snapshot, seared into my mind.
He was sitting by the fire, a newspaper covering most of his face. His long, whisky beard – already greying – emerged from beneath, and his hands curled around the edges. They were calloused and ruddy, with skin as thick as an elephant’s, gripping the newspaper so hard that it was crumpling at the edges. Though he was sitting down, he seemed to loom over me. His brown-trousered legs grew from out of his shoes like solid tree trunks, his torso jutting out behind them like a jagged cliff-face. He emanated weight, like he was the heaviest and somehow realest thing in the room. A solid, unrelenting man.
Smoke rose in puffs from behind the newspaper, coming out of Father’s chimney-like pipe, and mingled with the smoke of the fire, filling the room with an indistinct haze. You could taste the tobacco in the air.
The whole image is tinged with the smell of burning, of damage perhaps, and is obscured by the fog of time. It’s like a photograph that’s been damaged by exposure, and is barely recognisable anymore.
My childhood is littered with similar memories. Father would loom over me from in his chair, a stern expression on his face, as I tried to occupy myself in as muted a way as possible. More often than not he would be whittling, a piece of wood from the garden in one hand and a cut-throat razor in the other. The house was filled with little wooden figurines Father had made, mostly of strong-looking men – soldiers and kings. It was amazing how much expression he could get out of a few notches in a piece of wood, how many different characters he could create.
Sometimes, he would make a figurine just for me. I always knew it was for me because it was a little smaller than usual, and had no sharp edges. At times like this, I would rush up to my room, root around the bottom of my drawers, and get out my paints. Then, we would sit in silence together, me with my legs crossed on the floor painting my new figurine, him in his usual chair whittling away at another piece of wood. Father would always paint his figurines in earthy colours – browns, beiges, leafy greens. I painted mine in vibrant colours instead – warm reds, radiant yellows, vivid pinks.
I asked him one day if he would make a girl figurine for me, a princess to go with the kings and soldiers I already had, but he just shook his head, frowned, and went back to whittling. I didn’t get a new figurine for a long time after that, and he seemed to loom even larger in his chair. Boys aren't supposed to play with princesses.
Eventually, I grew out of playing with figurines. I spent more and more time away from our house with my friends – going to thrift shops with them, playing the Sims on their computers, plaiting their hair. I played the violin, joined the school dance team, went to concerts, auditioned for the school play. I did things I could never have done in our house, things as loud and bold as the colours of my figurines. It got to the point that I almost never saw Father. And he didn't realise how colourful my outside life had become.
There were some times, some sacred times, that I never missed though. We would always eat dinner together, seated at opposite ends of our small hand-crafted wooden table, never talking or even looking at one another. And we would always go to Church together every Sunday, sitting silently in the last row of pews. I would stay to sing the hymns and say hello to my friends after the service, but he would slip out before then, padding away so quietly that I would barely even notice him going. I knew where I would find him, though: in the graveyard, standing over Mother’s grave. These were the only times he didn’t loom, instead appearing shrunken and withered, his oaken shoulders sagging under the weight of sorrow. At times like this, he seemed a husk of his normal self.
I could swear he always sensed me watching him, though, because – by the time I had reached him – he was back to being authoritative and restrained, distant and composed. He would turn around, nod at me, and we would walk home in silence, separated by a metre of pavement and a lifetime of difference.
He always made sure Mother had beautiful flowers, no matter the weather.
I wasn’t the only one who grew out of something over time. Father seemed to grow out of his chair as well. He spent more and more time in the shed, tinkering with some project or another, to the point that neither of us spent much time in the house at all. It grew dusty and old, unloved and unwanted.
Sometimes, when I came home in the evening, I would hear the sound of metal clanging against metal and see the light of a candle through the wooden slats of the shed’s door. Usually, I would sneak past the shed and into the house, then make dinner for the both of us. Sometimes, though, I would creak open the door and look in. Father would always have something up on his workbench –a wheel, a pipe, or even a car engine – in a state of disrepair. He would gesture for me to come in and sit on a high chair beside him, then wordlessly show me how to fix it. He even let me try myself on occasion, proffering an oil-stained rag for me to wipe my hands with once I was done. I have never felt a greater sense of accomplishment than when I was cleaning my hands with that rag.
At times like that, I didn’t mind dimming my colour to be around him.
But times like those don’t last. I grew more and more colourful, and Father remained obstinately faded. I started to bring my friends home, wear my dance uniform in my room, practice my violin in the house. At first, the noise seemed jarring to me, but I got used to it and began to play music quite frequently. I don’t think Father ever did get used to it.
One night after a concert, I snuck back into the house in the pitch black. As I passed the front room, I saw Father was sitting in his chair, whittling away at another piece of wood in front of the fire. He could smell the sweat of my t-shirt sticking to my torso. He could taste the perfume that engulfed my body. He could see the mascara on my eyes, the paint on my nails, and the skirt around my waist. And I could see him scowling.
From that point on, his shed was always locked. We still ate together, but he never even looked at me across the table anymore. He would just eat his dinner, wash the plates and cutlery, then stamp off into his shed without acknowledging me once. I could taste the shame in the air.
At one point, he even stopped going into the church with me. He would go straight to the graveyard with his bouquet of flowers and stay there with Mother for hours, waiting for me to come out. Sometimes, he didn’t even wait.
After an eternity of times like this, I finally came up to his shed one evening and knocked on the door. I thought I could hear stifled sobs, but when he opened the door he was as stoic as ever, standing over me with crossed arms and a rocky expression. He had never looked so intimidating.
After a pause, I told him who I really was, though I suspected he already knew. Then he showed me who he really was, and told me to leave.
Never before or after have I felt so colourless.
Some Fathers have to bear the weight of two parents on their shoulders, that’s just the way life is. It’s a shame that my Father couldn’t even bear the weight of one.
For years, I lived on friends’ sofas, taking work from anyone that would have me and saving every penny I could. Eventually, I got a stable job in the city, an apartment I couldn’t afford, and worked my way towards a better life. I even managed to make some money performing. I learned never to look back, and slowly but surely the colour filtered back into my life. I became the man I was supposed to be.
But now, on my doorstep, I can do nothing but look into the face of my past life, the sorrowful visage of Father Time. He has become haggard and wrinkled, his oaken skin sagging beneath the weight of anguish, his beard the purest of whites. He is bent over, his checked shirt appearing two sizes too large on his diminished frame. He reeks of burnt tobacco.
His hands are still ruddy and calloused, but they are shaking uncontrollably now. In them, he is holding a small hand-crafted wooden figurine, the face clearly visible. There are notches and scratches all over it, the blunders of a distracted artist, but it’s unmistakeable what it’s meant to be.
A princess, painted in warm reds, radiant yellows, and vivid pinks, holding her arms out in acceptance.
Oh, how I have longed for a time like this.