My father is a liar.
That may sound a little harsh; perhaps it would be more kindly to describe him as someone who exists in a state where he controls his own narrative. However, in the interests of truth and authenticity, I will stick with my original phrasing.
My father is a liar.
He plays an ongoing game of Chinese whispers with himself. Each time he tells one of his laboriously invented stories to a new audience, it has changed, shifted. The more he tells his tale, spins his yarn, the more it is altered, reshaped. Eventually he has knitted an entirely new untruth. Only no one seems to notice, his fictions are consumed, accepted, eaten up with a spoon and a cherry on top (or more likely, a beer and a packet of scratchings). The inconsistencies are allowed to slip by without acknowledgement. The only witnesses to his untruths, his daughters. My sister and I are undecided as to whether he himself is aware or not. He is certainly very convincing. Perhaps convincing enough to assuage even his own doubt. Perhaps it is not even his fault; after all, his whole life has been a sort of fiction.
My maternal family tree is easy to trace, even if it is a little fragmented due to a few, shameful moments hastily hidden and re-revealed when the times changed. Nonetheless, it is all there to be found in the boxes of papers and photographs saved my grandmother. This tree even has roots: 10 generations have moved barely 20 square miles in 300 years. My maternal family has a home, a history and all of its associative traces. Parish records, gravesites (unmarked, paupers graves, but recorded in the ledgers nonetheless) birth certificates, inscriptions on War Memorials, books of remembrance and old school rolls of honour (“for perfect attendance”). The people are gone, but the evidence remains.
My paternal family left no evidence at all. This branch of the tree is missing, amputated, absent or at the very least entirely obscured by a blanket of untruths. An unresearchable line of enquiry.
Thus, considering the vast mystery surrounding the circumstances of my father’s life, it is easiest to start with the information that has been corroborated by my mother’s family. In a sense, my fathers factual existence only began when he met my mother, age 14, at the weekly Youth Club, held at the Village Hall. My mother said it was not a pleasant meeting, she was in the red telephone box on the corner, squashed up in front of the tiny mirror with her two best friends, tentatively backcombing their provincial beehive hairdos. Apparently, my father wanted in, in order to use the phone and my mother had slung a disembodied door handle at his head. (It had come off in her hand earlier, in the Village hall and she has stuffed in into her cream vinyl handbag to avoid the verger’s wrath). This antagonistic beginning soon gave way to something more familiar, because by 16 they were engaged and by 18, married. My sister and I assumed it was a typical “Blue Jeans” romance story of young, puppy love blossoming into a life-long commitment. We were not very intuitive in those days.
My father had little to do with his mother, Louisa. Blind, cantankerous, foul, who, in my own living memory seemed to have only one hobby, scaring away assorted district nurses, home helps and relatives. She was very good at this. By the time I was 10 years old her only regular visitors were my mother and my mother’s mother. My two grandmothers could not have been more different, yet Gladys tried her best, shopping for Louisa and cleaning her filthy home. Eventually Louisa falsely reported Gladys to the police for theft, determined to repel everyone so that she could truly wallow in her own misery, uninterrupted by the last of the sympathetic. My sister and I were relieved. Granny stank.
Gladys told me that it was not the first time that Louisa had attempted to repel her family with help from the long arm of the law. Apparently, she had pressed charges against my father as a teenager and they had both been “Bound over to keep the peace” when my father was 15. He became my mother’s granny’s lodger after this incident and rarely spoke to his own mother again. My mother’s mother told me that she always felt a little sorry for my father, who lived three miles away in a large family with his already somewhat neglectful mother. My father showed little affection for his five siblings, save for his one younger brother. In fact, Louisa’s funeral was the only time the four brothers had been in the same building in some 20 years. The sisters declined the invitation to the funeral tea.
Louisa’s house belonged to the council; so after her death all hands were required on deck, to clean her home before the keys were returned. My sister managed to wangle her way out of it (probably crying GCSE revision as an excuse) but I was sent off to help. It was in between holding breaths and rushing outside to fortify myself against the stench I came across two birth certificates, folded up and pressed beneath an old newspaper lining a drawer. I did not immediately recognise the names on them, as the surname was entirely unfamiliar. I showed it to my father who simultaneously dismissed it and destroyed it. I’m not sure if he even glanced at it, due to the speed with which it hit the inside of a black bag, he certainly didn’t claim it as his own and I cannot recall the surname featured. When I mentioned it to my mother, she told me that she suspected that Louisa had never actually married her husband, John, as he was rumoured to have already had a wife and young family on the other side of town. She also told me that although Louisa had taken on his surname of Hardy, there was some debate as to whether that really was his name anyway. Furthermore there were stories of him only being in Hertfordshire on account that he was on the run from his native Yorkshire, where he was wanted by police for stealing from his family, apparently a dynasty of not inconsiderable means. No one actually knew who John Hardy, my grandfather, really was. He was as mysterious and perhaps as fictional as the talented Mr Ripley, which clearly did not bode well for my father’s young psyche and sense of self:
Identity is perceptible only through a relation to an other– which is to say, it is a form of both resisting and claiming the other, declaring the boundary where the self diverges from and merges with the other. In that declaration of identity and identification, the loss of not being the other and yet remaining dependent on that other for self-seeing, self-being.
Unable to identify his father, his other and thus unable to locate the boundary, left my father floundering, unable to declare his identity. Instead, he chose to construct his own, through performativity and utterance.
My father became larger than life. He has a loud voice and the kind of presence that captivates a room. He would clearly have been great in show business, but instead spent his whole working life, from the age of 14, in the rag trade. His charm and resourcefulness allowed him to progress rapidly from sewing machinist to production manager, but he certainly worked hard for the promotions. As children, we rarely saw him, apart from on Friday nights when he would baby-sit and my mother would go to Bingo, when he would invariably sleep, leaving us to our own devices. He must have been exhausted; travelling, as he did, to London each day in order to create a new person in the city where it seems no one has any real history.
For us, life was comfortable. We were the only family in the village with two cars and I suppose we appeared to be, in context, quite well off. There were odd times when something catastrophic happened, like my tenth birthday, forever remembered as listening to my new A-ha album, on my new record player, whilst watching a strange man set light to my father’s (company) car from my bedroom window; just one of the many dramatic incidents that arose as a direct result of my father’s indiscretions and my first real understanding of his leading a dual life.
My mother always forgave him though, so we did too. After all, the lies were not so different to those told by countless others the world over. Until 1988, when things became very strange indeed.
I was 11 when my father was diagnosed as having Hodgkin’s disease. He was really rather ill, the chemotherapy took his hair, left him weak and the steroid treatment left him bloated; yet still he worked. Throughout his treatment, he did not take a single days sick leave. Rather, he attended early chemotherapy appointments and made it into the office by 10, at the latest. Words, such as “marvellous” and “brave” were bandied about in his general direction and in response my father had took on the air of an officer, going into battle. His actual illness was rarely directly discussed with us, but much was made of his Doctor, his hospital visits and some such unspecified future tragedy that was intimated as to be looming on the horizon. It was implied that my father had less than six months to live. Moreover, he was still in work every day. A formidable man indeed! Six months later, it seemed as though a miracle must have happened. He was the same as he had always been, his hair had grown back, he was fit and healthy, and six months after that and six months after that…but still the whispers, the rumours.
My father has claimed to be terminally ill for two decades. Living with such an enormous cloud of untruth must not be without its challenges. My father is acting a role from the moment he wakes to the moment he sleeps. He is the ultimate method actor, for the pretence is making him ill.
Occasionally, someone of my parents’ generation, someone I barely remember but who seems to know everything about me, will tell me how terrible it is for my father. And it is. They mean, living under a cloud of death, which he does, only not in the sense that they assume. There is no arbitrary distinction between fact and fiction in my father’s life. He is a doomed man. It is now 21 years since his diagnoses and my father still tells how he has six months to live. Although, not to me, I no longer speak to him at all. The time he told me he had won the Euro lottery and the time he claimed to have been wrongfully imprisoned in a Romanian jail have stretched our relationship to breaking point. I wonder what stories he tells to explain his lack of filial contact.
My father is a liar.
But he is an authentic liar, he has fabricated his own authenticity and validated it through his relationship with his peers. He has told so many tales that he simply can no-longer separate fact from fiction, he is an entirely constructed identity, continuously performing his own self-written narrative. A method actor that has gone too far, far over the precipice and straight down into a quagmire of untruths, from which he cannot escape, and he cannot be rescued.
 Phelan, P. (1993) Unmarked: the Politics of Performance London ; New York, Routledge.