This was it. This had to be it. The consequences of this not being it were unimaginable. Of course, this thought was not new to him. He had been here before, or rather at a place very similar to this one, and he had had this thought, but never with the same urgency.
He could not say how long it had been since he lost her, and it didn’t matter. He wasn’t sure whether ‘lost’ was even the right word. She had still been there physically, painfully present, eternally immobile. She was probably still there, testament to his failure as a human, and more importantly, as a father. It was tempting to imagine her waiting for him, but he did not deserve that comfort. The part of her that mattered was gone, and he was to blame.
Every opportunity of redemption had turned into what he had once coveted so much but now despised. His gift had turned into a curse, and ‘be careful what you wish for’ didn’t even begin to cut it. He had wished for this – but not for this! – and he hated himself for it with a passion that had kept him going so far.
It had been hope in the beginning, he guessed, a tiny bubble of air amidst the smothering grief. But hope is an unstable element and its half-life is short. By now it had collapsed into splinters of radioactive doubt that he tried his best to contain but could not keep from seeping into the groundwater.
It wasn’t him who crashed the car, after all. It didn’t really matter how often he told himself that it wasn’t his fault, he couldn’t bring himself to believe it. His friends were right, he shouldn’t be so hard on himself, but the boy was his responsibility after all and he had neglected it for too long. That was probably his worst failing as a father, not being there for him. Sure, he had always kept an eye out for him, making sure that the sun was always shining wherever he went. He blamed himself that he didn’t see earlier that this wasn’t enough. He had always been more of a big picture kind of guy. Except for that one time when he had met the boy’s mother. He should have known better but his friends were doing that sort of thing all the time and he was tired of being the voice of reason. And she was so lovely.
So was the boy she gave birth to, at least from a big picture-perspective. He went to all the best schools, did well in his classes and seemed happy enough – at least from afar. The boy was radiant and his father loved him dearly – from afar.
He stumbled down the last few steps to the edge of the water, the pebbles tumbling down under his feet, clinking together in an avalanche of tinkling sounds, lending an air of ironical whimsicality to the scene. His eyes were transfixed on the water before him, daring it to reveal its magic. The reflection of the starry night sky looked like candles on the pool’s surface and he tried hard to keep himself from thinking of it as a sign – that this was really it, that this much beauty could not be the backdrop to another brutal disappointment – as if not to jinx it. He was drawn to the gentle ripples and feared the solemn liquid at the same time, the uncertainty of its powers enhancing its power over him.
It was fear that held him back, but hope, curiously rekindled for one last performance, that made him inch forward. Fear made his hands tremble and fumble at his daughter’s golden jump rope in anticipation of disappointment. It was the token of his guilt, the symbol of his neglect. Yes, he had bought her all that money could buy, but that was the whole scope of his affection. He had told her to be still, Daddy is talking, and only when she had become so horribly still, he realised what his advisors meant when they told him that “family is what really matters”.
He could not wait any longer. He closed his eyes in another attempt to delay revelation and slowly unravelled the golden rope from around his wrist as if it was a ritual. Maybe it was.
He lets it slide into the water, eyes still firmly closed, and lets his hands follow. When he is lifting them from the water, the more the realisation that he will have to open his eyes creeps into his thoughts, the tighter he shuts them. This is his journey of atonement, at which end he will finally be able to wash his hands from the guilt, and hope for his daughter’s forgiveness. At last he gathers every last piece of hope and opens his eyes with an urgency as cathartic as a scream. The tension makes his heart stop for the fraction of a second and when he sees his unblemished hands, it starts into a sprint. Newfound hope fuses from the splinters of doubt and urges him to dive into the lake, to fully embrace his restoration. But the doubt has polluted his mind, whispers about optical illusions and the light playing tricks on the eyes and there, rising from the back of his mind, that callous, greedy, confident part of himself that he had wished and presumed dead, reminds him that he had once longed for what he was now so eager to relinquish.
He lifts himself up, pushing against the weight of his former greed and his present guilt, stripping away with every step another poisoned part of himself. He feels the softness of the fine sand underfoot, the water lapping at his toes and he accelerates his steps, pushing against the weight of the water that now reaches up to his waist, and lets himself fall.
Feeling lost in a world that defines a person by their paternity and hungry for answers from his absent father, the boy had sought him out. He had been delighted, of course, happy to see his son. He had offered him anything he liked, proud of his generosity, and swore to it. How could he have known that this would be a bad thing? Then again, he didn’t have much practice as a father.
But the boy was relentless. With a fervour that seems to belie his naïveté but could at closer inspection only stem from it, he keeps insisting, ‘but you promised!’ – ‘I’m sorry, son, but it’s the company car’ – ‘I don’t care, you promised!’ – ‘alright, but be careful’ – ‘move over, old man!’ and they take off, straight into the heavens, ‘not so fast!’ – ‘it’s my turn now, dad!’ – ‘more to the right! stay in the lane!’ but they don’t stay in the lane and the car takes off into the fields, spouting sparks, steam and smoke escaping from every valve as if they are aware of the impending doom and try to flee while they still can.
Under the water, he feels a peace like he has never felt before, even before it happened, when everything was still in order. He realizes now that it never was, that he had been broken from the start, that he had lied to himself and to his daughter all along. He really thought that he did it all for her, just like his father had done it all for him. But in the end it was just about the money, the illusion of security, the anaesthetic of prosperity, the artificial self-worth of power. Here in the weightlessness of the water he is finally free. More importantly, he has made the decision to free himself. He is finally ready to surrender.
With the night sky above him and the stars rendered like an oil painting by the rippling surface of the pool, he can imagine no better place to die.
But the father had to see his son crash and burn. They had called him radiant and his son was honouring his name in the most terrible way he knew. It was breathtakingly beautiful – from afar.
And yet, something pulls him up again and before he even realises it, he breaks through the surface, shivering in the cool night air. The spell of the water is broken and he gasps for air, lightheaded, and wipes the water from his eyes. There she is, just a few metres from him, alive and smiling. He starts moving towards her, pushing hard against the water, but then halts abruptly, stumbling at the sudden change in motion. It cannot be her. He must be dreaming. Or worse, it is a vision, sent by the Gods to mock him, punish him for his carelessness, remind him of what he will never have again.
Her smile fades as she sees him hesitating and she stretches out her arms as if to embrace him. She takes a couple of steps in his direction, beckoning him to do the same. He makes to answer but collapses under the weight of recognition. This is how it had happened, on that pleasant summer evening, an eternity ago – with her running towards him, arms wide open with anticipation, wanting to share in the joy of her father; him busy with his new toy, realising too late the danger she was running towards – NO! – and she was gone, eyes empty, but to him, full of accusation.
There certainly is no accusation now. She had forgiven him in the way that children do, making no distinction between a first and a fifth chance. As he is kneeling in the water, willing the soft mud to swallow him, he feels small arms wrap around him. With the intensity of a feeling long forgotten, joy is welling up inside him, expanding, inflating him, lifting him up and her with him. As the tears fall from his eyes like a sudden downpour on a sweltering summer evening, he spins her around amidst the stars, and the eternity that has passed since he began his journey melts away and for the first time, things are as they should be.
He is back at work, trying not to think about what happened but not quite succeeding. He hasn’t seen his son since the accident. He is afraid that he blames him. He can still feel the sting of bright lights behind his eyes, the heat of the burning wreckage. It was a miracle that they escaped with their lives, however closely. He hastily wipes the moisture from his eyes, banishing the memories with the flick of his hand. Eyes on the road.
He has been doing his job with a newfound diligence that appears to stem from a total lack of emotion. He is indeed not lacking emotion. He has too much of it, so much that the ways of expression known to him fail him. He doesn’t want it. He needs to manage it. He has been singing to himself, simple airs and lullabies. He cannot remember ever having been a child but he feels more like one now than he ever has before. Maybe if he can learn to take care of himself, he will be ready for his son.
“Here comes the sun”, he sings to himself. “It’s alright.”
Tamara was listening to Elliot Moss – Slip while writing this short story.