It's a story. I never knew quite where I was going with this. The idea, or at least what passed for an idea back then, was to write about the idea of family trees, roots etc. But it's still better than Dan Brown, right? Right?
My dad’s been digging all day. And not just today, he’s been at it for weeks now apparently. A huge hole at the bottom of the garden with the discarded earth behind him rising, becoming quite the little mountain. My mum just takes him out tea and sandwiches. She walks out with the tray and the torch and hollers down into the deep that there is refreshment. Then she starts with the pulley.
All hours he’s out there, digging.
When she called me over for lunch I knew that there was something wrong. My parents don’t phone me; apparently it’s my job to phone them. If I don’t call at least once a week then I can expect to be on the receiving end of several doses of low-level emotional blackmail.
“Just ring her up once or twice a week, mate. It’s not hard.”
“Well, I know you’re busy but I worry. Five minutes is all.”
I didn’t know about the hole till today.
My brothers are both there when I arrive. I’m the youngest of three and I’m thirty five in a month. This, I sometimes joke, is better than being the youngest of thirty five and being three in a month. Ben’s a year older than me, runs a garage about ten miles from here. It’s called Ben’s Garage. There’s a huge neon B in the kind of font they have on American vaudeville posters. A big B hanging out above the road off the roof of the garage. A little part of me dies each time I see it.
My older brother is called William and I have no idea what he does but it earns him enough money to live out by the sea and drive a car that will cost more money to insure than I’ll ever see in my bank account.
I am an obituarist. I write obituaries to order for national papers. Someone famous dies, the phone rings. That’s how I make a living.
Ben and William, of course, ring my mother every day. They seem oblivious to the great crater our dad is making at the end of the garden. They sit there and drink their coffee and read the sports pages.
“How long has he been doing this?”
“Couple of months,” says William without looking up.
“Why? What is he doing?”
“He’s just digging a hole, he’s happy enough.”
Ben starts humming La Cucaracha. My mum joins in whilst she peels potatoes at the sink.
I leave the three of them to it and make my way into the garden.
I hear the echo of my own voice before I see how deep the hole is. One syllable, the second I ever learnt, dropping deep beneath the earth and repeating itself. At the lip of the hole there is the first of what appears to be several improvised ladders. I turn my gaze to the flanks of the garden and notice that the trees are all stumps, amputated limbs from the garden war.
I start to climb down the first ladder.
“Dad,” I call again.
It was around the time of the third or fourth ladder that I started to really worry. Christmas lights stretched down from the extension lead from the shed. Rather than getting thinner, the tunnel started to widen the further I descended. The ladders became stronger, the lights brighter. Further and further down I climbed, calling my Dad’s name all the time until I reached a well-lit platform.
A few yards in front of me there was a door. Behind I could hear voices, one of them my father’s clearly. Several male voices, all familiar to me somehow. A lot of laughter and the clinking of glasses, somewhere beneath those voices I could hear distinctly strains of music.
Swallowing hard and trying to keep my breath at a polite volume, I knocked the door.
It was a wonderful few hours we spent sitting round that table. My great-grandfather was a hoot; he had us in stitches about his time at sea. His own father was also present; several generations of my family were there. Just the fathers mind. We talked about raising children, politics and women. One of my really old ancestors told us about the time he slept with one of the Brontes. I can’t remember which one now but it was a good story. My dad just sat there laughing, turning to me and smiling occasionally as he poured another round of drinks. Every now and then I would feel myself starting to panic; my dad would reassure me with a hand on my shoulder.
A guy with exactly the same jaw as my dad was halfway through a story about hiding from Oliver Cromwell when my dad looked at his watch and said it was time for us to go.
“Nice to meet you all,” I said.
They all smiled politely, raised glasses, and wished me the best.
My dad held out a hand as I negotiated the last few rungs to the surface. I brushed a little dirt off myself and made my way into the kitchen. Will and Ben were sat there eating sandwiches. I made my excuses, kissed my mum goodbye and got into my car.
Tomorrow I will plant a tree in my garden. Maybe after that, as long as nobody I’ve heard of dies, I’ll phone home.