An Alternative Explanation

Entry by: Wren

17th March 2017
I thought I knew my father. A retired civil servant who had raised as many prize-winning begonias as he had divots on the golf course, he was now laid low by widowhood and dementia. But then, on one of my regular Sunday visits to the Care Home, he suddenly began to speak Russian.
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.’
‘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?