He never once mentioned his father. I presumed at first that this was because he had died, but when the months turned into years I started to see an increasingly glaring void where his dad should have been. It wasn’t a case of dead or alive, but more like never was. From his childhood through to the present day, there had been so much mollycoddling from his mum and his grandma that it didn’t seem possible for there ever to have been space for a father at all. However far back in his life you went, there wasn’t a single other male that featured in his family. And, it materialised later, this included his conception.
At first, I wanted to ask him directly, but wasn’t sure how to phrase the question. I skirted around it instead. “Have you got any brothers or sisters?”; “Did you go to the same school all your life?”; lines of enquiry that would ordinarily open up someone’s past. But my questions were met with such blank stares of incomprehension that I knew I had to change tack. He responded monosyllabically, his normal flow of words tightened as if I’d used a vice. There were no brothers or sisters. No other schools. And that was that.
Except, for me, it wasn’t. It didn’t tell me what I wanted to know and I just couldn’t let it go. There has to be a man involved at some point. Even if it’s for just a few minutes. Right? I considered feigning ignorance as a new strategy; pretending that I hadn’t noticed his fatherlessness at all. Illegitimacy or single parenthood in itself is unexceptional. But the question wasn’t “are you a bastard?”, but rather “in what way did your father act like one?”
I thought about asking “When did your parents split up?” or “Was your dad around as a kid?” or, simply, “What happened?”. I’d decided that since he wasn’t offering the information freely, the only way I’d find out was by asking him straight out; but even so, I never had the courage to go through with it. I always buckled at the last moment, convinced that if it didn’t wreck our friendship, it would at least ruin the night.
I realised – after a year had passed – that I’d become so fixated on his dad’s absenteeism that I was projecting my own concerns onto him in a way that was unhealthy. I’d been looking for signs in his music taste, listening for encrypted messages in his own band’s lyrics, holding out for disconsolate comments on his birthday. But listening intently to Tortoise at night does little to clarify how an embryo was formed over twenty-five years ago. On his birthday he was anything but a maudlin drunk.
I started to wonder if it even affected him that much. Perhaps the absence mattered more to me than it did to him. If it did, then what did that mean was wrong with me?
One Sunday afternoon, once I’d given up hope of finding out, he just came out with it. We’d been talking about the blank e-mails that Bret Easton Ellis receives from his dead father in Lunar Park and it led us to talk about another book which had a much younger, fatherless protagonist. And was also a lot worse. We’d both agreed on how awful it was when he said, immodestly, “to be honest, if anyone should have written this book it’s me.”
“So you never knew him?” I asked. Wondering how it’d taken over two years to get this question out.
“No. I don’t know who he is.”
“What about your mum?”
“She’s never said anything.”
Pause. All I can say is “Don’t you want to know?”
It seemed crazy that his mum had never mentioned a father, but I couldn’t understand how he’d gone so many years without asking either.
“It’s weird”, he said. “Part of me wants to know. But after a while there’s never really a right time to ask”.
“Yeah, but still.” I said. And then my sentence trailed off, because once you’ve thought about it for long enough there’s as many reasons not to ask as there are to do so.