An Alternative Explanation
I was slouched in one of those high, winged armchairs covered in squeaky wipe-clean material that they provide in these places. As usual, he stood at the window of his room scanning the small enclosed garden while I threw snippets of family news at his indifferent shoulder-blades.
‘Paul did very well in his mock A-levels. He says he wants to study law.’
One of the carers, Dima, was making his narrow single bed with military precision. The sheet drawn as taught as a sail in a gale and held fast with hospital corners. Most of the staff were migrant workers and Dima was Ukranian.
Over the last six months my father had become progressively less responsive and now rarely said a word. But this time he muttered something indistinct. Dima looked up sharply.
‘What did he say, Dima?’
‘He said that they are looking for him.’
‘It didn’t sound like that to me.’
Dima shrugged, ‘He said it in Russian.’
‘Yes, I am sure of this.’
‘Ask him who is looking for him.’
Dima turned to my father. ‘Kto Roger? Kto tebya ishchet?’
But my father just shook his head and looked at Dima as if he had asked the stupidest question in the World.
The following Sunday I discovered my father again standing sentinel at the window. The same sentence on his lips. The same thoughts riding his carousel mind. I hunted down Dima in the lounge. He was making pot of tea and chatting to Ruth, one of the livelier residents. She asked him if people drank tea in the Ukraine.
‘Oh, yes. But we drink it strong and black with a spoon of jam in it.”
‘Lord!’ Ruth was horrified, “I shouldn’t like that at all.’
When I got him on his own, I asked him if my father had said anything new in Russian.
‘Yes he spoke of his childhood. He told me he was brought up by his Baboushka…err, his grandmother, and went to school in Penza’
‘Penza? Where’s that?’
‘South East of Moscow, I think.’
‘What? Dima, my father comes from Yorkshire.’
Dima looked uncomfortable, ‘I am sorry Mr. Ibbetson. Perhaps I make mistake. My Russian is not so good.’ He picked up a tray and moved off to clear the tea cups.
On his next visit, the GP said my father’s dementia was progressing rapidly.
‘He’s hardly responded to my questions today,” he turned to my farther, “HAVE YOU MR. IBBETSON?’
‘He’s not deaf.’
The GP peered at me over his half-moon glasses and sniffed. ‘Hearing loss is commonly presented by geriatric patients.’
‘He can hear well enough in Russian.’
I described my conversations with Dima.
‘Hmmm. Language attrition and impaired comprehension are common in dementia patients. An individual might forget the name of an object, for example, and replace it with a description.’
‘Yes, my father started calling a cup a “drink holder”.’
‘A good example; so if a patient was bi-lingual, then I suppose they might replace a forgotten word with the equivalent from the other language, if they could remember it. As dementia advances a patient might only be able to use a very limited vocabulary or become entirely mute. In your father’s case we may have reached that stage in English but, for some reason, he has retained more Russian.’
‘Does that mean he learned Russian first?’
‘I really don’t know. To be honest Mr. Ibbetson I come across very few bi-lingual patients.’
On the way out the GP called ‘Dosvidaniya.’
‘Spacibo,’ smiled my father.
Could my father have really been born in Russia? It seemed ridiculous. Paul’s a bright lad, so I shared recent event with him.
‘There must be documentary evidence – a birth certificate, passport, that kind of thing.’
We pulled out the old shoe boxes we had saved from the clearance of my father’s house and spread the contents across the kitchen table. Dust filled the air, along with the arid sweet smell of old paper. There were some old photos of my father, but none pre-dated his undergraduate years. He had worked in several embassies, including Moscow. In one print he stood self-consciously in the snow in front of St. Basil’s onion domes; a vast fur hat pulled comically down over his ears. We also found his marriage certificate and an expired passport, which confirmed his date of birth. Paul opened the last box.
‘Look at this.’ He said pulling out one of those Russian dolls that pull apart to reveal progressively smaller versions inside them. Paul popped them open and stood the seven tubby peasant women in descending order. They smiled at us blankly from under scarlet shawls.
I slumped back in my chair and sighed.
‘No birth certificate.’
‘You can order copies online,’ said Paul, fetching the laptop.
The form was simple enough to fill in; first name, family name and date of birth.
‘There it is.’ Paul pointed at the screen. ‘Ibbetson, Roger. But that’s odd.’
‘What is it?’
‘There’s a death certificate too, in the same year.’
‘It must be a coincidence.’
We ordered copies of the certificates with my credit card and they chuntered out of the printer.
'He was born in Penistone, Yorks on 1st May 1925.’ I picked up the passport. ‘That matches the date and place of birth in here.’
‘And Penistone sounds a bit like Penza.’
‘His father was John Ibbetson, a farm labourer and his mother was Mary; maiden name Clough.’
‘What does the death certificate say?'
'It’s dated 2nd July 1925. Accidental death; respiratory failure caused by smoke inhalation. Parents are John and Mary Ibbetson. But how can that be?’
‘Wait a minute.’ Paul tapped on the keyboard and printed two more death certificates.
‘Paul and Mary died on the same day and have the same cause of death. The whole family must have died in a fire.’
‘Well your grandpa said he didn’t know his parents and was brought up by his grandmother, but how can there be a death certificate for him?’
‘Dad, do you remember that scandal a couple of years ago? Some undercover cops had relationships with women who were political activists.’
‘Yes, what about it?’
‘Well, that’s how they created their false identities. They got the birth certificates of dead children and used them to get a new name and documents; passport, national insurance number and so on.’
‘You’re saying grandpa stole Roger Ibbetson’s identity?’ I couldn’t believe my ears.
Paul blushed, ‘Yeah, you’re right, it’s a bit far-fetched. There must be a simpler explanation.’
My father was sitting up in bed when I visited the following Sunday. He stared sleepily at the wardrobe door. A small mirror was set into the door and I realised that he could see a reflection out of the window from his position. The vigil continued.
I had brought the Russian doll with me. I thought it might help to dredge a memory from the silty waters of his mind. When I gave him the doll he cradled it like a baby in his arms and smiled.
‘Do you remember the doll dad? Did your grandmother give it to you? Did you buy it in Moscow?’
But ‘Baboushka’ was all I could get out of him.
I decided to call on my father’s oldest friend and former colleague, Sandy McInnes. The number in my father’s address book still worked and Sandy gave me complex directions to his cottage deep in the Cotswolds. I had expected something picturesque, but it was a mean farm labourer’s cottage at the end of a long muddy track, surrounded by rusting farm machinery. My knock elicited the barking of two dogs and the scrape of locks and bolts. Sandy had a creased and shiny face, like an old waxed jacket, as if he had bought it years ago from Barbour along with his clothes. He limped badly and relied on a functional aluminium walking stick.
After the dogs were settled, we sat in the surprisingly comfortable living room and discussed my father’s health over a cup of tea. Sandy was sorry to hear about his deteriorating condition.
‘I must try to get out to see him.’ He jotted down the address.
‘There’s something I wanted to ask you, Sandy. I was hoping you could tell me a little about my father’s work.’
‘Oh well, he joined the diplomatic service out of university. He served in several embassies. But when he started a family he didn’t want to drag you and your mother about the place, so he secured a position in London. In the Foreign Office.’
‘Could he speak Russian?’
‘Oh yes, he was stationed in Moscow for a while. He could speak some French too. And a little Arabic. But why do you ask?’
I explained about the conversations in Russian with Dima, the Russian doll and the odd death certificate.
‘The thing is Sandy, I’m beginning to think my father was a spy.’
Sandy burst out laughing.
‘My dear boy, you can’t be serious? I’ve known Roger since Cambridge, he doesn’t have a disloyal bone in his body.’
‘So how would you explain it?’
‘Oh for heaven’s sake, there’s been a clerical error with the death certificate. The doll is a souvenir. You said yourself that his brain is addled, so he speaks a few words of Russian and get his family history wrong. There isn’t any mystery here is there? Let me ask you something. Do you think your father now poses a threat to national security?’
‘No, of course not.’
‘And do you love him?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Then forget this cloak and dagger business and concentrate on making him comfortable for the few months of his life he has left.’
In the end, it was a few days not months. The care home called me at work to tell me that my father had passed away. I drove straight over. The GP said that, given his age and condition, there would be no need for a post mortem. He wrote out a form so I could register the death and arrange the funeral.
I asked Dima if he had said anything before he died.
‘Yes, in Russian, he said “the little one”.’
‘What does that mean?’
Dima shook his head. ‘I don’t know Mr. Ibbetson.’ He went on, ‘But it was good that he saw his friend before he died.’
‘Yes an older man with a walking stick. He visited yesterday.’
I pulled out my mobile and called Sandy McInnes’ number. It was unobtainable. I picked up the Russian doll, ran to my car and pointed it towards the Cotswolds. Three hours later I was bumping down the dirt track, but I found the cottage abandoned. The neighbouring farmer told me Sandy’s health was failing and he had gone to live with relatives. But he had no forwarding address.
I drove home and set out the seven Russian dolls in a row.
‘The little one.’ I thought to myself. I fetched a modelling knife from the toolbox and picked up the smallest Russian doll. Unlike the others, it appeared to be solid. I carefully began to cut into it around the waist. It was hollow. Rolled up inside was a small photograph of a fat old woman, dressed in a similar way to the dolls, and a little boy of about five years of age.
I thought I knew my father. But, when you get right down to it, what do we really know about other people? Perhaps it is those who are closest to us who can hide the deepest secrets?
“Who else could I trust with such a vital task?”
“Well what about Peter? He`s always wanting more responsibility.”
“Peter, Pfff, he`s such a coward. He`d get half way there, then turn and run, telling me that; yes of course he`d done as I`d asked. I`m sorry my love, I know it`s asking a lot, but it has to be you.”
“But there must be another way?”
Jesus sighed, reached over; the coarse linen sheet slipping down his bare torso as he did, resting his right palm on Judas`s chest. “Father says it has to be this way,” he said sadly. “You think I want this, for either of us. But father says…..”
“Father, father, father,” Judas snapped, making to push Jesus`s hand away, but at the last moment clasping it instead, and in a softer tone that spoke to his terror, said, “I`m afraid,” tears dribbling down his cheeks as he did.
“I know,” Jesus said, feeling his lover’s chest shuddering under his hand, turning onto his side to face him more fully.
“You think I`m not, but father…” he paused as Judas`s hand tightened on his own at the mention of his father. He waited until Judas`s hand relaxed before continuing, “Father says it has to be this way. I`m sorry my love, do you think this is what I want for either of us.”
He shuffled across the bed until they were side by side, resting his head on Judas`s chest, hearing how quickly his lover`s heart was pattering, “Soon we will be together for eternity, me at father`s right hand, you at mine, we will never have to hide our love again.” He reached up to kiss Judas on the lips, but the other man turned his head away, Jesus`s peck landing on his cheek instead.
“The others are already jealous of me,” Judas complained, “especially Peter; if I do this they will truly despise me. Can`t you at least tell them why I`m doing it?”
Jesus gave an exasperated sigh, immediately regretting it when he felt Judas stiffen. Propping himself up on one elbow he said, “Look at me.” When Judas kept his head turned away, he said it again, this time more forcefully, not a request this time, but a command. Unable to resist, a reluctant Judas turned his face towards him.
“I`ve explained it to you,” Jesus said, forcing the irritation from his voice, “If they knew the truth they wouldn’t be able to help themselves, they`d betray you to try to save me. They have to think you a traitor. It won`t work otherwise.”
“What if I don’t want it to work?” Judas`s said, his tone petulant once more, “what if I want to spend this life with you, isn’t that enough?”
Jesus smiled a sad smile, reached out, caressed Judas`s cheek, feeling the soft down of his beard under his fingertips. “I promise you my love,” he said, “The pain we shall endure over the coming days will be as a blink compared to the eternity of joy that awaits us in my father`s kingdom. You were my first disciple, my first love; there shall never be anyone in my heart before you, not even father.”
He leaned forward to kiss his lover, this time Judas making no attempt to rebuff him, instead returning his kiss twofold, “Oh Jesus,” he murmured when at last they parted, fresh tears prickling his eyes, “I do not know if I shall ever be able to forgive myself.”
“Hush,” said Jesus, wrapping his arms around him, “hold me one more time before you go.”
After they had made love one last time, as Jesus lay on his side, facing away from his love, feigning sleep, silent tears trickling across the bridge of his nose. Judas slipped quietly from their bed, stealing into the night to do as his master and lover bade.
And the rest; as they say; is mythology……
'Who cares about black people.' That's what he said, word for word. What he meant was 'Who cares about black people and white people', as in, 'Who cares whether a person is black or white.' Only he didn't finish the sentence and he didn't include a question mark.
Or perhaps he meant 'WHO cares about black people', which might be worse, as in 'Who cares about The Black People.' No, Louise is pretty sure he didn't mean that. That's too sophisticated for an eight year old boy. And she is completely convinced he did not mean 'Who cares about black people?' But that is what he said.
When he comes out of school he's upset. Well of course he is. Poppy Seleke had stood at the classroom door and shouted, 'How dare you make fun of the colour of my skin,' in front of all the other children. As Michael is telling her this, Louise thinks, 'Good on her', but gives her son a tight squeeze and dries his tears. What strength of will, what bravery, she thinks. The only black kid in the class and she's not afraid. She sees prejudice and grabs it by the throat and stamps down on it. Hard. And the awful truth is she knows what it looks like, what it sounds like, because she's had to listen to it from an early age. Her son, Michael, does not know what it is, would not know how to spot it, because he has never had to hear it. He doesn't understand what Poppy means when she shouts at him from the doorway, but he feels the force of her anger and it scares him.
She imagines him trying to explain to the teacher. Oh dear, this is awkward, Ms Woods would think. Can't let this blow out of proportion. 'Just a misunderstanding,' she would breeze. 'Not to worry, it's not what you think,' she would say to Poppy. 'Look, here are your parents, off you go.'
Louise sees Poppy storm out and march towards her mother. She has been ignored and she's starting to think that her aunty is right when she says, 'You can't trust white people.' Even her teacher, her wonderful, fun teacher who is usually so good at being charge, does not want to take charge now. It's the end of the day, the waiting parents in the playground signal she's nearly finished and can go home in five minutes. Ms Woods waves to Louise - 'Nothing to worry about Mrs Watson.' She avoids looking at Mrs Seleke and slips back into the school building.
Through hot sobs Michael tries to explain to his mum, but pursuing one line of thought has never been his strong point and the story is all over the place, like a log catching fire in several places at the same time.
Louise discerns it is something about Poppy. 'Ms Woods says it was a misunderstanding,' he says, trying to get his gappy teeth around the word. They walk out of the playground and as they pass Mrs Seleke, who is listening with intent to her daughter, Louise takes Michael's hand and with the other hand gives the woman the thumbs up. A misunderstanding? Everything ok? Everything ok between us? No. Poppy's mum looks at her suspiciously and turns back to her daughter. Taking Michael, Louise leaves the playground and is glad to be away from there.
Michael forgets it. In his mind, the teacher sorted it out. On the way home he calms down and explains what happened and his mother nods in understanding. He feels vindicated. He moves on and sits in front of the TV sorting out his football cards.
Louise cannot forget it. There is more to the story, although she thinks she has the gist now, but she's worried that Poppy thinks Michael meant what he said. And, if she's truthful, she's worried that Mrs Seleke will think the same of her whole family. Why shouldn't she? The Seleke family will have been victims of racism before and Michael Watson, with his clumsy way of saying something he doesn't mean, fits right into that narrative.
She thinks she might send Mrs Seleke a message. But when she finds her on Facebook and reaches out tentative fingertips she's met with, 'He said who cares about black people.' And then, 'You can't keep excusing ignorant children's comments.' And then, 'Poppy has been told to go back to Africa, she's been told she can't be in a dance group because she doesn't look like the others.'
When her husband gets home Michael is in bed and Louise is sitting on the sofa with the TV turned off and her phone in her hand. As she tells him the story she starts crying. She can't help it. What Poppy, a child, has had to hear from others. What spite and hatred she has had to stand in the face of. From children in the playground, from adults, from parents of children in her class.
Louise has spent the car journey home listening to Michael and she doesn't know how on earth she's going to explain to him what prejudice is. What racism is. How can an eight year old possibly get their head around that kind of cruelty? But for Poppy, she has had to. It has been forced upon her. She has had to work it out quickly, understand where the dangers are, harden herself against them. A child.
'And Mrs Seleke thinks we're the same,' she says. 'All my life I've stood up to prejudice, challenged it, been mindful of my privilege.' She hears herself sounding like a politician and hates herself. It is her fault Michael can't articulate what he actually means; she can't either. She cries harder and it's for the injustice of what Poppy has had to deal with, but it's also for the accusation against her son.
'Darling,' he says. 'She's the victim here, not us.'
Louise stops crying. Her phone beeps. 'Sorry for my rant - moan over! Don't worry Louise, I know you're not racist.'
The next day a meeting is unavoidable but thankfully it happens after the children have gone into school. They stand together, away from the other parents, down a side street near the school. Louise feels sick and is sweating but knows it is a good thing that they are here together ready to have a conversation about what happened.
'Mrs Seleke,' she begins, telling herself she must let the other woman do most of the talking: hers is the voice that needs to be heard. Nevertheless, she thinks, she must just say this. 'I am so sorry about what Poppy has had to deal with.' It sounded right in her head, but she hears the politician again, with a politician's apology, avoiding all blame.
'It's Maria. Call me Maria.'
Even though her words are inadequate, Louise knows her face is full of apology and anguish. She remembers what her husband said and tries to flatten her expression. She is not the victim here.
'I think I'm going to speak to the school.' She is talking again. She must be quiet in a minute. 'What has happened has made us realise Michael doesn't understand what race and racism are...those concepts...and we're dealing with that at home now, we're having those conversations...but perhaps if they were to address it at school more, make all the children aware of it, notice it if it happens, I mean when it happens, know how to challenge it and so on...'
Mrs Seleke, Maria, is shaking her head and Louise trails off. The sick feeling in her stomach moves to her throat and she feels heat gather around her neck.
'No,' says Maria. Louise forces herself to stay quiet. Wait for her to speak, listen to what she has to say.
'I have spoken to the school in the past and nothing happens. It doesn't do any good.'
'Yes, but you shouldn't have to. This is our problem, not yours. If I spoke to the school this time...'
'No,' says Maria again and Louise bites the insides of her cheeks to stop herself from talking. 'I don't want it to be an issue at the school,' Maria continues. 'Poppy is the only black child there and if it becomes an issue it will only highlight that fact. She will become more isolated. Already she is having to learn that being black is a political statement and I don't want her to have to fight the 'us and them' battle every day. I would prefer for us to forget what happened, smooth things over, let her just be a kid in a class.'
This morning in the playground Louise had kissed Michael goodbye and he ran into school with his friends, his heart light, his movements easy. Maria only wants the same for Poppy, and why on earth can't she have it?
'I am not the victim,' says Maria and looks hard at Louise to see if she understands. Louise falls quiet and begins to turn the story inside out. She thought she had it worked out, but finally she's hearing what Maria's saying. 'And I do not want Poppy to be the victim either. I want her to have as much of her childhood as Michael has of his. All of it.'
She puts her hand on Louise's shoulder and says she'll see her at the school gates later. Louise looks back at her, but Maria has finished. The weight of sadness lies heavy on Louise's shoulders, but she sees Maria is already carrying too much for one person to manage.