Ever since my father’s treatment – which, in many ways, had to be considered a success – it had been hard to know what to do with him. My brother and I went to pick him up from the farmhouse in Dorset where he had been staying for the week. When we pulled into the driveway we could see him sitting around a table in the garden with seven or eight others, all talking and smiling, their faces turned to receive the sun which was bright and high in the sky. He came over to the car, hugged us both fiercely – uncharacteristically so – and then led us over to the group. ‘These are my boys,’ he said to them, and then told us everyone’s names. Someone brought us tea from inside the house and a balding man about my own age began to ask me a series of earnest questions, about my work, my family, my plans for the future. Next to me, my brother was receiving the same treatment from someone else. Meanwhile, my father seemed to have resumed telling a story, the details of which I could not catch but which was punctuated by comments and bursts of laughter from the rest of the group. An air of brittle hilarity, or even joy, hung over the scene and in this – as in other ways – they struck me as resembling nothing so much as a group of hostages suddenly and unexpectedly given their freedom.

After ten minutes or so my father finished his story, stood up and began to embrace each person around the table. There were vows to email and phone and get together again soon, emotional goodbyes that seemed excessive for people who had known each other for only a week. My brother and I found ourselves shaking hands with each member of the group in turn, accepting their good wishes. Before we got in the car, my father made a great show of folding up his wheelchair and packing it in the boot.

 

*

 

In the car, my father talked – very rapidly, a stream of free association, flitting from one subject to another and then back again, the words sometimes getting tangled up or muddled, his thoughts apparently moving more quickly than he could articulate. He sat in the back, his face pressed against the window, pointing out everything that went past, a vintage car similar to one his brother had once owned, a pub that would have been nice for lunch except it was past lunchtime and anyway he wasn’t hungry, repeatedly marvelling at the loveliness of the day and the countryside, the hills, the blossom on the trees, how all this made him think of a holiday he and my mother had taken nearby before my brother and I were born. Throughout this, one of his feet drummed rapidly on the floor of the car.

My brother asked him what they had done during the week, the nature of the treatment, but he waved his hand as if to knock the question away. ‘Amazing people, just amazing people’, he said, although it was not clear if he was referring to those we had been introduced to in the garden – his fellow hostages – or others who had remained unseen. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll hear all about it,’ he said, although somehow we never did. At times he seemed exhausted by his own efforts. He would try and stop himself, closing his eyes and taking deep breaths, one hand placed across his chest, as if swearing an oath. At one point he took a small card from his wallet and began to mouth whatever was written on it, some kind of mantra perhaps, but then something else caught his attention beyond the car window and he was talking again.

After an hour we stopped at a service station just outside Dorchester. My brother went to fill up the car with petrol. I left my father in the cafe while I went to the toilet. I stared in the mirror for a minute, looking at a wrinkle line that was beginning to take hold around the side of my mouth. Then I opened my wallet, popped a pill out of its foil strip and swallowed it with a gulp of water from the tap. When I got back to the cafe my father was sitting at a table with three bottles of Diet Coke in front of him. I raised my eyebrows.

‘Max’ – I did not know a Max – ‘put me on to this stuff. Very more-ish. I got us one each.’

He looked down at a map on the table in front of him and then took a long sip of the Coke. ‘What do you think about a little diversion?’

It took another hour to get to Studland Bay and when we pulled up behind the dunes my father got out of the car and began to undress. ‘Oh Jesus,’ said my brother. For a moment it looked as if he was taking everything off but when he got down to his pants he threw the rest of the clothes in the car and set off towards the water. All the hair on his body was snowy white and I noticed the considerable weight he – always a lean man – had put on while he had been ill. My brother and I climbed to the top of the dunes and watched him wade purposefully into the sea. It was beginning to get dusky and the beach was empty, but I wondered what an onlooker might make of this man, this scene. When the water was up to his waist he raised his arms above his head, dived in and swam. He was a strong, graceful swimmer, I had forgotten that. ‘I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,’ said my brother. We had not known what we would find when we went to pick him up – we had hoped for something, certainly – but this, this was strange.

 

*

 

Over the next few weeks my father called me several times a day, often late at night or early in the morning – it was clear he wasn’t sleeping very much. He was always excited, desperate to tell me about something he had read or seen on television, some new piece of information that had struck him forcefully, or report what he had been up to. He bought a mobile phone and discovered the internet and began to bombard me with text messages and emails with jokes or links to articles he thought I should read.

He started to build a treehouse in the back garden for my son and my brother’s children, although this got him into a row with the neighbours because of its size and the way it hung over their own garden (‘Fuck ‘em,’ he said). He joined an amateur dramatics society, and wrote ‘twenty or thirty’ letters to the council and the local paper about a range of issues, none of which had yet been replied to or published. He took in a retired greyhound that he had seen pictured in a newsagent window, although I had previously only ever known him to be indifferent to dogs.

A month after we picked him up from Dorset, perhaps with memories of that expedition still fresh in his mind, he called to suggest we take a trip to the First World War battlefields and cemeteries in Northern France. His own father had fought at the Somme and The Battle of Amiens and in the past, before he had been ill, we had sometimes talked of exactly this, a kind of pilgrimage. He had already spoken to my brother who had pleaded work and family commitments, no doubt truthfully.

‘Given your situation,’ he said to me, ‘I imagine you are more flexible.’

I asked what my stepmother thought about this. Considering what I had observed of my father since his treatment, I imagined she might welcome the break. Living with him now might have as many challenges as it did when he was unwell. Neither version was the man she had married.

‘Well, Diane has moved out – temporarily.’

Before I could respond he went on.

‘I said a few things that upset her. Look, it’s nothing to worry about. What about this trip? We’ll eat steak frites, drink pastis, that sort of thing.’

The fact was I could think of no compelling reason why I could not go. My situation, as my father called it, was that my four-year-old son lived with his mother and her new boyfriend at the other end of the country, and my work came in fits and starts. It felt melancholy to be so available but the alternative, not going, staying at home, was barely more appealing.

‘There isn’t anywhere else you’d rather go? It’s not all that uplifting a destination.’

‘But it is, it is,’ he said with emphasis, ‘that’s exactly what it is.’

 

*

 

My father insisted on taking the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo, although this was not in any way a direct route. He said there was a romance to getting a cabin and sleeping on a boat, the sense of travel as a true experience. From there we would drive to Paris, spend the night, and then move on to the battlefields and cemeteries.

By the time we boarded the ferry there was only time to have a quick meal, watch the lights of the shore recede from the deck and then find the way to our cabin. The room was small but my father was delighted with the way it all fitted together – the fold down beds, the TV recessed into the wall, the surprising amount of cupboard space – and he went around opening and closing doors, fastening and unfastening catches, investigating each feature. It was the first of several nights sharing a room with my father, something we had never done before as adults. His personal, intimate habits – the way he took his socks off last when he undressed and then put them on first in the morning, the rather horrible way he spat after cleaning his teeth – made him seem alien, unknown to me. My own rituals, unexposed now for some time, suddenly seemed old-mannish, even shameful – the plastic guard I wore to stop my teeth grinding and which left a bloody taste in my mouth in the morning, the earplugs and sleeping mask. My father gave no sign of being similarly discomfited. He was still awake reading a newspaper when I turned out the light above my bed. When the ferry PA system woke me in the morning to announce that we had docked, he was standing between the beds performing Tai Chi.

 

*

 

My father had calmed down considerably since Dorset. Even in his more manic moods, the chatter was not so continuous, so rambling, although his preoccupations were still surprising. These highs were now interspersed with quieter, more brooding periods, as if some of his intensity had turned inward. One of these moods seemed to descend on him as we drove out of St Malo. It was as if movement, the road, brought it on. He stared out of the window, sipping at another Diet Coke, perhaps lost in contemplation of the trip ahead and what it meant to him.

Ten kilometres or so beyond Rennes he turned away from the window and asked me what I wanted done with my body after my death. Whether this question had just occurred to him or was indicative of the general drift of his thoughts, I couldn’t say. He did not wait for me to reply. ‘The Tibetans have a tradition of sky burial,’ he said. ‘I’ve been researching it – online. Incredible resource . . .’ For a moment he seemed to have lost his thread, and I pictured his mind floating off to the far reaches of cyberspace. ‘The body is cut up and placed around the mountain top and vultures and other birds of prey eat the flesh. They believe that the spirit leaves the body in death, so there’s no need to preserve it. There are practical reasons too, but it’s also an act of generosity, giving yourself to other animals to sustain them. There are places you can do it here now – in Europe, I mean. There’s something rather beautiful in the idea, don’t you think?’

‘I’ve always rather liked the idea of a Viking burial,’ I said, ‘sent off in a burning ship, sword laid at my side, et cetera et cetera.’ I said this a little flippantly, but I was struck, quite abruptly, by an image of myself – stretched out in a long boat, eyes closed, a faint smile on my lips but apparently dead, the skin of my hands and feet beginning to blacken and catch fire.

‘Do you actually care what happens to you?’ my father said, rather irritably.

I looked at him. ‘When I’m dead, I’m dead,’ I said.

‘You should have more respect for yourself,’ he said, ‘for your body.’

‘But you said –’ I began.

‘I’ll tell you a story,’ he went on. ‘Twenty years ago scientists carried out an experiment where they killed a dog – killed it humanely – drained its blood and replaced it with some kind of preserving solution. Three hours later they put the blood back in and brought the dog back to life. Only problem was – the animal was completely mad, psychotic. Every time they tried it, the same result. They had to put all the dogs down.’

I did not know what conclusions I was supposed to draw from this. When he did not continue I looked over at him.

‘Hmmm . . .’ he said vaguely, and then turned his attention back to the window.

 

*

 

We stopped for lunch in a village just beyond Laval. We sat outside in the pleasantly shady medieval square with a bowl of moules frites, and it was possible to feel like we were on holiday. My father seemed to have relaxed, and was talking about his own father, stories I had heard many times before but was happy to hear again. Before the war my grandfather had worked on the trams in Blackpool and then for a chain of local cinemas. The cinemas all showed the same films but there was only ever one print, so he cycled between them with the reels in the basket on the front of his bike, delivering and collecting them in a constant rotation to keep the films playing. When he went to enlist in 1914 he told them how old he was, sixteen, and the recruitment sergeant suggested he walk up and down the street and come in and tell them again. A picture of him taken before he went had always hung in my father’s house, a formal shot, standing feet apart with some kind of cane braced between his hands, heartbreakingly young in his uniform. He had made a friend in France, Stan Cope, another sixteen year old from South Wales, who was killed two months before the end of the war. We were going to visit Stan’s grave in Amiens.

When we got back to the car my father asked to drive. He had not driven throughout his illness or since, as far as I knew.

‘You forget, I was driving before you were even born.’ He held out his hand for the keys.

At the slip road to the motorway, two hitchhikers were standing on the hard shoulder with their thumbs out.

‘No one picks up hitchers anymore Dad,’ I said, but he was already slowing down.

My father interrogated them as he drove, switching his attention between the backseat and the road ahead in a way that did not strike me as entirely safe. They were Bernard and Patti, a young Dutch couple on their way to Paris to stay with friends. Bernard had a shaved head, a ring through his lip and orange and red flames tattoed the length of his forearms. Patti was very pale, with short, bleached-white hair and bright blue eyes. They were students in Amsterdam, both twenty-four years old, and had spent the summer travelling around France. Bernard was writing a thesis on prehistoric cave painting and they had been visiting important sites up and down the country. He was forthcoming on all of this, eager to talk in his perfect, almost accentless English. Patti sat silently, smiling slightly and benignly, sometimes with her eyes closed.

‘What’s the story with those tattoos,’ my father asked Bernard.

Bernard shrugged. ‘No story. A friend of mine did them. I thought they’d look good. You like them.’ It was a statement rather than a question.

‘Not worried you might regret them when you’re older?’ my father said. ‘My age perhaps? Or even my son’s?’ He indicated me with a thumb.

‘I don’t want to be the sort of person who has regrets.’ He was a little annoyed by the question, or pretending to be.

‘Good answer,’ said my father thoughtfully, ‘good answer.’

There was silence for several minutes and then my father said: ‘There’s nothing more beautiful than a pregnant woman! Right Bernard?’

Bernard laughed. ‘It’s the truth!’ he said.

I looked around at Patti. I noticed for the first time the way her dress tightened around the swell of her belly. She had her palms placed on either side of her stomach, instinctively or absent-mindedly, the way pregnant women often do – as Helen, my ex, had done when she was pregnant with our son. Patti saw me looking at her, and her smile widened.

I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep as the conversation went on. My father began to philosophise about the raising of children. He felt – I had never heard him express views on this or seen evidence of it – that modern parenting was so neurotic and controlling that it had created a world for children that was utterly dry, sterile and conformist. Children needed to experience fear, take risks, be free. ‘I have seen it with my own grandchildren’, he said. I flicked my eyes open at this but then closed them again without speaking. Bernard agreed with him. He talked about his and Patti’s plans for their child, from the home birth to the long trips they would take while it was still small, the virtues of openness, innocence and courage that they wanted to instil. My father described an old tradition that had been revived in Russia of baptising young children by dipping them in holes cut through frozen rivers and lakes. ‘Some say it erases sin,’ my father said. ‘The more prosaic view is that it’s good for the immune system – and vitality in general. A little extreme, I’ll admit.’ I had read about this too – some children were said to have died this way.

‘Perhaps a little extreme,’ Bernard said tolerantly.

I pretended to be asleep, and then I was asleep.

When I woke up I could not tell how much time had passed. My father was still talking.

‘It’s life and death, you know, two sides of the same coin, the yin and the yang et cetera et cetera. In some ways, after all that, I don’t give a fuck. But in other ways I do, I absolutely do. It gives you a different perspective, that’s all.’

In the mirror I could see Bernard nodding soberly, apparently absorbing what my father had been saying. I wondered what I had missed, what essential conversation this might be the conclusion to. Whatever it was, my father seemed satisfied that he had expressed himself as fully as was possible. We were approaching Paris and for the rest of the journey, until we dropped Bernard and Patti off at a station on the outskirts of the city, no one spoke. My father gave Bernard his email and phone number and insisted that they come and stay with him when the child was born. Bernard tried to give my father money for petrol but he refused. He hugged them both and I awkwardly did the same.

‘Nice kids,’ he said when we were back in the car. ‘Stunning girl.’

‘Yes,’ I said.

 

*

 

My father had booked us into a faded and pretentious tourist hotel in the Latin Quarter. There was a liveried porter on the door, embossed stationery and a small, grimy window in our room that looked out over the domes of the Pantheon, which no doubt accounted for the excessive cost. The room was poky and full of odd angles, evidently subdivided from a more generous space. Crammed into it was a double bed with an ornate headboard, instead of the two singles my father had reserved.

I ran a hot bath and lay in it, staring at the ceiling. Through the wall I could hear my father talking on the phone, with long pauses when the person on the other end of the line spoke. I could not make out what he was saying but the tone became steadily more irritable and then there was a somehow deeper silence and I knew that my father had hung up. He began whistling, always one of his habits. I lay there for another ten minutes while the water cooled and then got out.

Back in the bedroom, he was standing looking out of the window, still whistling.

‘Diane says hello,’ he said, without turning around.

‘Everything OK?’

‘Oh, fine, fine. It’s cold there apparently, raining.’

‘Right,’ I said.

‘You know the history of the place?’ He meant the Pantheon. ‘Louis XIV – or maybe it was Louis XV . . . Anyway, he was dying of a mysterious fever and in his prayers he promised to build a church to Saint Genevieve if she cured him. The fever passed and this is what he built. Not the most beautiful building, but it has a certain grandeur I think. Later on, after the revolution, they turned it into a mausoleum – Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Rousseau, those guys.’

‘I didn’t know that,’ I said.

He turned around and grinned.

‘So now you do.’

He went into the bathroom to wash and I called my son to wish him goodnight. I tried to do this every night, even though Helen had let me know that it was an inconvenience for her and perhaps not much fun for me or him either. Then I called my brother to let him know we were still in one piece. He laughed sympathetically and told me to keep him updated. ‘Rather you than me,’ he said.

‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man,’ I said.

 

*

 

The evening was still warm and we had dinner sitting outside at the restaurant next to the hotel. We had steak which came very bloody and my father ordered a fifty euro bottle of red wine, even though I said I wasn’t drinking. His mood had turned fidgety, distracted, and he barely ate. A small, mangy dog sat pleading near our table and he cut off strips of his meat and threw them to it.

My father started to talk about Stan Cope. Two days after the end of the Battle of Amiens, in August 1918, the beginning of the end of the war, Stan collapsed with a brain aneurysm. I had never heard this before, or had forgotten it – I had assumed he had been killed in battle. ‘He was sharing a cigarette with my dad and just keeled over. He might have had a knock on the head but it could have happened to him anyway, war or no war. Still, they buried him with the war dead – as they should have.’

My grandfather was twenty when he got back from the war. He married soon after, had six children, of which my father was the youngest, and lived for another seventy-five years. He spoke freely about his years in France, and did not seem traumatised by it, although he used to say that he had seen enough of the rest of the world for one lifetime and never went further than Manchester again.

‘Have you put on a few pounds?’ My father had changed the subject and was looking at me beadily, as if I was just coming into focus for him for the first time on our trip. ‘The Spanish have a phrase for it – Curva de la Felicidad, the Girth of Happiness. The weight a man puts on when he gets married and is comfortable in his life. It’s a lovely expression, especially in English. But I suppose that’s not really you is it . . .’ He broke off, but not, I think, out of a sense of tact.

For all his talk over the last weeks, my father had not spoken to me about his illness, treatment or recovery, if that was what it was. I sensed some kind of taboo around it – his or my own, I couldn’t say – as if to confront it directly might break whatever spell had been cast. The subject struck me as exhausting, irrelevant and dangerous all at the same time. Perhaps our not speaking of it – and of avoiding the subject of Helen – was a tacit understanding on both sides of what we could bear. I felt moved to broach it now, but abruptly the waiter arrived and began taking our plates away.

My father ordered a Diet Coke and by the time the waiter left the moment seemed to have passed. I went inside to use the toilet. There was a queue and when I came out my father was not at our table. I thought perhaps he had gone up to our room in the hotel to get something. The waiter brought his Coke but he still did not appear. Someone across the square shouted and I looked across to the giant-columned portico of the Pantheon. The two columns furthest to the right were covered in scaffolding – presumably to allow cleaning or restoration work to the frieze that lay across the width of the portico – and three quarters of the way up, perhaps one hundred feet off the ground and climbing, was my father.

It took me a few moments to absorb this, and by the time I had stood up and run over passersby were already beginning to gather at the foot of the building to watch. The base of the scaffolding was boarded up, but on one side an access door was open. Either my father had spotted this from the restaurant or he’d just gotten lucky. Now he was scaling the ladders at speed and in very bad light. The crowd continued to gather. Someone called to him to come down. My father carried on, apparently oblivious, intent on whatever mission he had set himself. Something stopped me from calling out to him myself, shock perhaps, a kind of estrangement that meant I could not identify him as my father, myself as his son.

When he reached the top level, he walked to the left hand end of the scaffolding and climbed on to the narrow ledge underneath the frieze so that his back was pressed against the figures. He began to make his way slowly along the ledge. ‘Don’t do it,’ someone shouted in French. ‘Do it,’ shouted someone else, and laughed. My father stumbled slightly, steadied himself. He looked around and then down. He was a long way up, tiny against the looming mass of the church, but I was sure he was smiling. He held out his phone and seemed to take a photo – of the view or of himself, I couldn’t tell.

It seemed to take forever for him to get down – I counted eleven ladders. Halfway down the final one he missed his footing and fell the last few feet to the ground. The police and an ambulance had arrived and the crowd were pushed back and told to move on. I identified myself and was let through. My father was shaking, elated. Two policemen were asking him questions and a paramedic was holding his arm.

‘Cold up there,’ he said to me.

‘I can imagine,’ I said, but that was all I could say. I felt my legs begin to buckle and I sat down on the ground next to him, utterly drained.

We got back to the hotel at three a.m. and I took a pill to knock myself out. At the police station my father had given a statement in which he offered no explanation for his stunt except that he was a little drunk and happy to be in Paris. He was given a warning and told that what he had done was very dangerous for him and for others, but when the formalities were over, the two officers shook hands with us and wished us a good trip. At the hospital an X-ray of my father’s right arm showed a small fracture and a nurse put it up in a sling.

I slept lightly, despite the pill, and from time to time, through my grogginess, I was aware of my father sitting in the chair by the window or moving around the room. When I woke up, around ten, I was lying diagonally across the bed and there was no sign of him, but I did not seem to have any worry left in me. I had a shower and went downstairs to have breakfast. He came in just as my food arrived, his arm strapped, his hair wild, still wearing his clothes from the night before.

He sat down and poured himself some orange juice with his good arm.

‘Beautiful day,’ he said.

He hadn’t been able to sleep so had sat up reading before going out to have an early coffee and watch the sun come up. When the Pantheon had opened at nine he had gone down into the crypt to look at the tombs. He showed me a small lead model of the church that he had bought himself from the gift shop and then handed over a t-shirt that had a picture of the Eiffel Tower and above it the words J’adore Paris.

‘A memento of our trip,’ he said, almost sheepishly.

‘You crazy bastard,’ I said.

‘Perhaps don’t mention what happened to your stepmother.’

He finished his juice and stood up.

‘We should get going. It’s blue skies out there.’

 

*

 

It was around three hours of driving to Amiens, where my Grandfather and Stan Cope had fought, and the cemetery where Stan was buried. After lunch we would go to the Somme battlefields. We had a hotel booked in Arras for the night.

My father was quiet again. Once we had navigated our way out of Paris we didn’t speak, but the silence felt companionable. About fifty kilometres from Amiens we crested a hill and suddenly we were among field after field of sunflowers. From there the land flattened out into the plains of the Somme valley and it was not hard to imagine vast armies inching backwards and forwards across the land. Soon we began to see the signs for the battlefields and cemeteries. We stopped at one of the roadside flower sellers and my father bought a bunch of red and yellow tulips.

St Pierre cemetery was a modest sized, unspectacular place, in a nondescript suburb of Amiens, backed on three sides by uniformly spaced yew trees. We walked through the iron entrance gates and past the stone of remembrance, engraved Their Name Liveth for Evermore. The sun was very bright and the clean white Portland stone of the headstones stood out like teeth against the immaculate green lawns. We found Stan’s grave easily, half way along the final row. Below the cross read Private S Cope, The Queens, 28th August 1918, Age 19.

My father laid the tulips next to the headstone and began to pick fussily at the neatly-mown grass around it, as if determined to find weeds. I wandered along the row – some of the dead were younger than Stan – and was startled by the sound of my father’s voice. At first I did not know who he was addressing, but then I recognised the poem. I did not know that my father read poetry, let alone knew any by heart. Perhaps he had studied it at school, as I had. Standing in front of Stan’s grave, his eyes closed, his bad arm hanging across his chest, again he seemed unfamiliar to me and somehow, briefly – though I don’t really like the word – heroic.

 

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –

 

His voice began to crack but he kept going, with some effort. When he got to the end he sat down on the grass, buried his head in the crook of his fractured arm and began properly to cry. It began as a steady sob, moving on to a wail and then a kind of keening, a pure, uninhibited sorrow. Whatever brittle barrier had penned this in over the last weeks had broken, and out it came, torrentially, ecstatically.

I did not know whether to try and stop him or move him out of the cemetery and back to the car, somewhere more discreet. We seemed beyond that now. There were a few other people walking among the graves but no one was looking at us. Perhaps it was unremarkable in a place like this. I hesitated to intervene, such was the elemental force of his emotion. He did not seem to be trying to stop. Then I sat down and put my arm around him, and he wept into my chest.

 

*

 

His face was red and swollen and his eyes bloodshot, but by the time we drove out of the car park my father had recovered his composure. We had planned to go on another hour or so and find somewhere for lunch, but as soon as we crossed a bridge over the Somme river – I had not realised that it was this that gave the area and the battle its name – he asked me to pull over.

On both sides the road was lined with fields of corn, six to eight feet high. My father got out of the car, and after walking up and down for a minute, disappeared into it. For perhaps two minutes I sat in the car, the engine still on. I took the strip of pills out of my wallet and registered dimly that there were not many left. I swallowed two with a gulp of the flat Diet Coke that my father had been drinking the day before. Then I pulled the car further off the road, got out and locked it. In among the corn there was the sound of water. The stalks were bent and trampled where my father had passed through. I went on for several minutes to where the field gave way to a small pebbly beach. The river was narrow here, perhaps fifteen metres wide, and ran quickly. There were willows trailing their branches in the water on the opposite side. My father’s clothes and the sling for his arm lay on the beach.

I shaded my arms against the sun and spotted him, out in the river, a little downstream. His arms were in the air and at first I thought he was struggling, but then I saw he was gesturing for me to come in. I began to undress, laying my clothes next to my father’s. The skin of my ankles prickled as it touched the water and I thought for a second of children dipped in freezing lakes and rivers. I thought of the places we were yet to visit, the strange resonance of their names – Thiepval, Ypres, Passchendaele. I thought I felt the familiar, peaceful flood of the pills begin to wash over me, but it was too soon for that. I went on into the current.

 

 


The Alarming Palsy of James Orr by Tom Lee is available for purchase here.

 

Feature photograph © Jérôme Pellé

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