‘Tell me something. A story or something.’
‘Okay. What sort of story do you want?’
‘I dunno, anything. Tell me whatever comes into your head. It’s this silence, I can’t concentrate. Talk to me about something.’
‘Alright. Let me think…Hold on now a minute…I suppose you know your mother and I are going to Tramore in a few weeks’ time?’
My father was cast in a pose by the window of our sitting-room, motionless on a velvet-cushioned dining-chair and looking into the middle distance as I pared a 2B pencil in a novelty sharpener Georgie had recently bought for me on a school trip. She was almost thirteen then and just finished primary school, and her class had gone on a day-trip to the National Museum and various stops along the way. I think she bought the sharpener in a joke shop along the Dublin quays: it was shaped like a clown’s head and its boggly eyes swivelled as you turned the pencil inside its head. I always found it a little creepy, but I couldn’t have told her that; she wouldn’t have understood and I would have felt embarrassed.
I finished honing the pencil and buried that manic clown head under a stack of sketches, then looked at my father’s face, saying, ‘Oh, yeah? Jesus. What’s bringing you back there? I would’ve thought Tramore was a bit lame for a pair of cultured travellers like you two.’
‘That’s us, alright, the jaded epicureans of the global village. No, we’re, ah…There are two reasons, really. Sylvia wants a little nostalgia, and I think my motivations are sort of ironic, if that doesn’t sound like too trendy a term for an old fogey like me.’
‘My dad the detached ironic. Stay perfectly still.’
‘Right. Yeah, she wants to visit all those old places we brought you guys when you were smaller, just to remember and see how much they’ve changed, or if they’ve changed. And I want to remember too, I suppose, but also just enjoy the tackiness and shabbiness of a seaside resort – that sweet feeling of decay.’
‘The penny arcades and the worn old funfair. The smell of grease and sugary candyfloss.’
‘There’s something almost comforting about a place with that feeling, just crumbling away into the sea… I don’t suppose you’d remember this – you might, you weren’t that young – do you remember a holiday we took in Tramore, oh, years back?’
‘Um…I guess so. I dunno. Which holiday in particular?’
He had the sort of unremarkable hairstyle that never seemed to lengthen or shorten and, should the unlikely need arise, would have been near impossible to describe to a police artist. His head was angular and tall, with a sharp jaw-line and large ears, and his neck was thin, dusted with greying stubble and centred by a very prominent Adam’s apple. He had a Roman nose, minutely misaligned at the bridge – the result of a clumsy tackle during his football days – long and well-defined, flaring at the nostrils. His cheekbones were high, and superficial laughter lines fanned outwards from the corners of his eyes. Okay: enough to work with. But those would come after the eyes; I always started with the eyes.
My father said, ‘You know how, at Tramore, you have the promenade first, across from the town itself, and that moves down then to the main beach – the wet sand that stretches very far when the tide’s out?’
‘Yeah. We used to play tennis and run the dog there.’
‘Correct. And then, if you walk down to your left, the beach curves around for a good length – a few miles at least. You remember that part of it? Very pretty down there. Little pools of water and lovely sloping sand-dunes, and always very quiet.’
‘Mm-hm. Could you lift your head slightly…? Just, like, half an inch…Perfect.’
‘Okay now? Well, one time – this is years ago – Sylvia had taken Barry to the cinema to see some cartoon he liked. I think you’d already seen it, and Georgie was too young to go. You remember the cinema they had there. A tiny little place; quite nice, though. Cosy.’
‘Yeah. They were always about six months behind the rest of the world with the films they were showing. Barry and me used to joke about them getting Gone With the Wind in time for the tourist high season.’
The eyes are the midpoint of the face, and a useful focus when drawing portraits. This I had learned during the recently ended first year of my illustration course, from an amiable teacher with sloped shoulders and a gentle way of giving instruction. I had also learned, though I suspect I already knew this, that I had an aptitude for drawing faces, and more, an infinite fascination with the subject: I literally never tired of sketching the human face and its constituent features.
The eye is halfway between the chin and the top of the skull and, though there are exceptions, the tip of the nose is generally halfway between the eye and the chin. This is not as self-evident as it sounds; a brief glance at someone’s face can often give the impression that their eyes are located somewhere around the top third of their head which, unless you’re into the more avant-garde representations of the human form, isn’t very helpful. I studied my father’s eyes – the shape of them, the colour of the iris, the length and orientation of the lashes, the thin red veins clustered towards the inside corner, the odd stray bristle of the brow.
He continued to hold himself motionless, looking directly ahead, and said, ‘So I brought you and Georgie on a big walk along the beach, down towards that undisturbed area off there to the left. You were thirteen or fourteen so, of course, full of beans and mad to be doing something, and I had Georgie up in a sort of papoose that Sylvia and I had bought for the holiday, this orange and black papoose with some kind of Central American motif to it. She was only a toddler so it wasn’t that heavy.’
‘She ain’t heavy, she’s my sister.’
‘After a long time walking the three of us reached this broad stretch of water which cut across from the sea to the sand-dunes – there must have been a spring located there which fed into the sea. So we made camp there; you and I sat on the sand and we let Georgie paddle around in this shallow pool.’
‘Oh, yeah – now I think I remember. The little pool.’
‘Yes. It was beautiful there, really – the sand had that rippling quality, like you’d see in the Sahara? A really pleasant, relaxing afternoon. Georgie splashing herself in the warm water, the sky this clean blue colour with these delicate streaks of white cutting through it, you know, from where aeroplanes had flown by overhead. Just…perfect, really. I’m not sure why that’s come into my head just now.’
My pencil flicked back and forth, scratchy lines and soft blurs of darkness, as I extracted his face from the paper, watching it slowly rise like something immersed. His eyes and eyebrows first; then, measuring with the pencil, the outside of the nostrils and down to the lines of his mouth; the shadow along one side of his nose and under the right cheekbone; the hair, soft and fluid, the funny gnarl of the ears. I was about to outline the encasing curve of his skull then decided against it; I had recently seen one of Louis le Brocquy’s ‘Faces’ series on a television documentary, and was captivated by the impression it gave of three dimensions somehow existing on a flat canvas: that sense of facial features materialising above the milky-white background, leaving the rest of the head submerged.
I spun the pencil between two fingers and stared at my drawing. I said, ‘Dad, can I ask you something? You don’t have to answer.’
‘Sure. Gosh, this sounds ominous.’
‘No, it’s not…the question is maybe a bit weird. Did you ever, ah, expect things to happen the way they have? Like, what we’ve all done with our lives and the kinds of people we’ve become.’
‘Well…what do you mean, exactly?’
‘I dunno…I suppose, did you and Mam know that Barry would get into finance, say? Did you look at him when he was eleven or twelve and say, “There stands a banker”? Or, like, Georgie’s what now…thirteen. Do you have a sort of sixth sense as to what she’s going to be doing in, say, eight or nine years?’
‘No…not really, no. You have an impression of a person’s character – of your children’s character – from an early age. But no, I don’t think it’s a case of knowing what path each of you would take. These things are…vague, and unbounded. Anything is possible within reasonable limits. And people change as well; the person who starts out with dreams of being an astronaut may decide that something more down-to-earth suits them better.’
I lifted the drawing and shook it gingerly, dropping flecks of graphite and eraser onto the ground. I caught it in both hands and flipped it around to show him his likeness, saying, ‘Well? What’s the verdict?’
He nodded his head in approval, then smiled and said, ‘You’ve got me down to a tee, son. Spot on. Are you going to sign it?’
I twirled the pencil again and handed it across the table to him; he looked at me, a little confused, and I said, ‘A team effort. We both sign it.’
Darragh McManus is a journalist and published author. His first non-fiction book was released by Hodder in 2007. He has just published a comic crime novel under the name Alexander O’Hara. He has a literary novel and collection of short stories currently out with agents, and is about to start contacting theatre companies about his first play, in conjunction with a well-regarded Canadian director. Two pieces of his – one story, one non-fiction – are about to be published at the online arts journal Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure (http://snakeoilcure.wordpress.com). He writes for several national newspapers in Ireland and the UK, including The Sunday Times and The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/darraghmcmanus).