He is there, my father, and I am here. Me on the balcony, collar up against the morning breeze, hands clinging to a cup of anaemic French tea; he hunched over the dining table of our diminutive apartment, surrounded by inverted kiwi skins and shards of consumed croissants, baguettes of varying freshness stacked like logs in an antiquated timber town. He catches my eye through the balcony doors that I’ve drawn for privacy, and I smile to signify that I’m nearly done writing; he looks away, half shaking his head to let me know that I’m frittering away time I should be spending in the overgrown garden, a can of weedkiller in one hand, secateurs in the other.
In recent weeks I’ve taken great care to overuse the words ‘working on my father’s flat’ when describing this trip to friends – a phrase I like to think conjures up images of the pair of us paint-speckled and halfway up ladders, tool belts clinking authoritatively as we tend to leaking roofs or disappear beneath sinks to repair plumbing. Instead we’ve spent our time thus far sipping tea in socks and shorts, my father flipping through a procession of nature shows and soap operas in search of a football game, me absently turning pages in the current affairs magazines that I buy as many times a year as I travel by plane.
We left yesterday morning from Luton Airport, the long-term car park of which staged a scene tinged with the sort of manic near-disaster that I remember from the start of so many childhood holidays. We’d wasted half an hour crawling around banks of parked cars without finding a space, the stereo relentlessly skipping a CD of Iranian sitar music until I leaned over and switched it off, leaving the air pregnant with panic and my father’s muffled curses. By the time a spot appeared we had just twenty minutes to make the gate, bundling bags from the boot and sprinting to a dilapidated plastic bus shelter that rattled in the dawn wind.
“It’s like a bus stop in the African desert,” grumbled my father, a comment that made me wince when he repeated it to a family of holidaymakers who joined us moments later. When the bus finally arrived I muscled Dad through the middle doors to stop him verbally abusing the driver, then took a seat a few rows back from him, watching as he gazed with weary resignation at the procession of hangars and cheap hotels. I thought of the packet of shortbread in his jacket pocket, the parking reference scribbled hastily on the back of his hand, and as passengers accumulated and he disappeared behind squabbling teenagers and sleepy couples I experienced a sense of my father’s fragility such as I’d known when we’d parted on London buses, and I’d been forced to watch through the window as he crossed the street and disappeared like any other human being into the midday crowd.
As the sun sets on our first full day my father drives us to a nearby cliff walk skirting a number of isolated beaches and rocky inlets, the volcanic nature of which has led to me noting on our rental site that the area is affectionately known as the ‘black pearl of the Mediterranean’, a name I may well have made up, or subconsciously lifted from a pirate movie.
I’ve spent the afternoon working in the garden to the downstairs flat, pulling up small colonies of daisy headed weeds that have gathered since last summer and hacking at hedgerows with rusty secateurs, and as we drive I pick at cuts, burns and blisters on my hands while gazing out the window at the passing resort. I see couples idling on benches with ice creams, children like baby chicks cycling behind their mother’s bike, shell coloured stucco apartments with names like La Grande Conque and Palais De La Mer. As we hover at traffic lights I hear the whistling masts of boats bobbing in the harbour like plastic birds, the mosquito whine of a distant moped, and it occurs to me that this is just another French beach town with no discerning characteristics save its successful embodiment of so many types and tropes: the nightly din of a dozen different backing tape singers competing for listeners in harbourside bars, the rattle of rollercoasters in the eyesore amusement park, its scaffold-clad Adrenaline tower looming over the surrounding countryside like the gallows of some giant race. It’s a place that smells of ice cream and sun cream, of cigarettes and underage sex, a washed out stereotype no different from the semi-abstract beach resorts of Persona or Betty Blue – a canvas of the unbearably mundane, and a backdrop for seismic emotional shifts.
It takes my father fifteen minutes of parking and reparking the rental car before he’s satisfied that it isn’t going to be towed, stolen or start rolling towards the cliffs. I leave him to it, crossing to a wooden fence barring the drop to the sea and looking out at a spine-like rock formation snaking towards a large boulder painted white by seagulls. My father eventually jogs into view, huffing and puffing and holding on to his baseball cap lest it blow away in the wind, and we begin following the cliff path, pausing at breaks in the fence to peer down into small coves where women lay topless in the last of the afternoon sun, heat-swollen paperbacks abandoned beside them.
I think I’ve been hoping for a revelatory conversation, or at least a single moment of insight like that which followed my maternal grandfather’s funeral, when Dad had whisked me from the community hall wake – where I’d been avoiding triangular sandwiches and sad displays of gardening trophies and trying to forget my eulogy – and driven me to West Bay, where he walked me down the pier and related an old Iranian maxim as the sun set over the sea. “Life is like a tightly tangled ball of wool,” he’d said. “At the beginning is nothing, and at the end is nothing.”
No such insights colour our walk today. At one point my father notes how everything you love in this life ultimately leaves you, but he is referring to a pair of sunglasses he sat on earlier in the afternoon. The only other revelation comes courtesy of a story about a boat journey he and his Iranian friend Mehdi had once taken to Sète, the market town now creeping into view on the horizon. The water had been so choppy, he says, that he’d suddenly and unexpectedly vomited on to the shoulder of a man standing on the lower deck as they’d been docking. The man hadn’t noticed, but my father had felt guilty enough to present himself at the exit, explain what had happened and apologise. The man had apparently taken the news in his stride. If there is a moral to this story, I fail to grasp it.
At some point I mention that I fancy a beer, and my father says that there’s nothing stopping us having one at the cluster of bars lining the Plage du Môle, a stretch of sand another ten minutes along the coast. Suddenly it seems that this is the purpose of our walk: I picture my father and I pausing to sip our demis a few feet from the mane of the Mediterranean as the setting sun torches the sky, and my heart lightens as we turn the corner on to the promenade of Le Môle, its central square peppered with shirtless men playing boules amid small dust storms, cigarettes hanging from their lips.
I leave my father to find a toilet while I scour the strip for an establishment unlikely to offend him, settling on an innocuous terrace bar playing ignorable French pop and with only a handful of customers. I’m in the process of ordering beers when he arrives, stopping me with a frown and a flap of his hand and insisting that he wants nothing to drink. The waitress shrugs, smiles and walks away.
Very little of what is said over the following few minutes resembles conventional father-son bonding – Dad describes in detail the poor hygiene of the public toilet he’s just visited, and passes comment on a spot flaring over my left eyebrow – and during lulls in conversation the music that had appeared so inoffensive on arrival seems to rise in pitch and volume, driven suddenly by a pair of duelling electric guitars that perforate the air. I watch my father clock his surroundings with the same grim resignation with which he’d gazed out of the airport bus window the previous morning, and understand all too well what a bad idea it had been to expect him to relax in so alien an environment.
The waitress arrives with my beer and a bill for €2.90, and my father grudgingly hands over a five, inspecting the change with a look of resentment before pocketing the lot. By the time we begin arguing over the tip there’s a weary inevitability about the situation, as though we’re speaking lines in an unsuccessful play that neither of us wants to be part of, getting the final scene out the way so we can disappear out the back door as the curtain falls and a few hands clap, grab our coats and point our cars home. I barely look up when my father finally throws his hands in the air, standing with a scrape of his chair and striding off towards the shops. In his absence I sit and watch the shore rush and recede, struggling to find something resembling refreshment in the beer I’d wanted so badly, but tasting only chemicals and a ghost note like the stale smell of the store room in the off-licence I’d worked in one summer.
Ten minutes later, my glass drained, I rise and walk back along the promenade, where I find my father waiting at the head of the path and determined to act as though nothing has happened. Perhaps it hasn’t. He barely stops talking all the way back to the car – about a woman in the boulangerie that he offended that morning, about a toilet roll holder he needs to replace in flat 50, about his broken sunglasses – and I give as enthusiastic a series of responses as I can muster. I know from experience that the sadness will pass: that half an hour from now I’ll be holding on to it through pride alone, and half an hour after that it’ll be forgotten, and I’ll be seated on the balcony with a book and a glass of wine, glancing between paragraphs at my father on the couch, headphones on and eyes closed, hands manipulating the dials on his radio like a blind man scanning brail.
The following afternoon I’m woken by the sound of my name being called from a distance. I sit up blinking and shirtless on the baking sand of the Plage Richelieu, squinting through the heat haze to see my father staggering towards me, his dark shirt and trousers lending him the appearance of a mythical fugitive, a bearer of apocalyptic news. The pre-season beach is almost deserted: save the wash of the shore and the rustle of dune grass the only sound is a faint hammering from a nearby bar being assembled in anticipation of the coming holidays.
My father, when he arrives, is breathless with the exertion of his walk. After a few moments panting on his back he strips down to his swimming trunks and passes me a carrier bag containing oranges, sun cream and a bottle of Kronenbourg from the case we picked up at the supermarket that afternoon. This last item is a thoughtful gesture – a veiled apology, I assume, for our squabble at the bar the previous day – but the green glass is getting warmer by the minute, and I turn it down with some excuse about a headache from the sun. If he’s offended, he doesn’t show it.
He reaches for the lotion and applies it to his face, arms and chest before asking me to attend to his back, and as I do so he airs the frustration of his failed attempt to replace the faulty toilet roll holder. It’s a monologue riddled with curses for the block’s live-in handyman, who Dad believes is stealing everything from cutlery to condiments and sabotaging appliances that he knows he’ll be paid to replace. I refrain from venturing an opinion, focusing instead on my father’s back, imagining how the contours and continents of this boundless map of his being have shifted over the decades.
The lotion applied, he stands and steps into his heavy black shoes – their backs folded down like Frankenstein slippers – and begins weaving an unsteady path towards the sea. In the far distance, so faint as to seem painted against the sky, the snow-capped Pyrenees line the horizon, and as I watch my father’s slow progress across the deserted beach I imagine him as an elderly king from Ferdowsi’s Persian epic the Shahnameh, stripped of his material wealth and worldly cares and making his way gratefully to the shores of Paradise after a life filled with battles and betrayals. I watch him step out of his shoes and walk slowly into the ocean, the silver water rising to his waist before he dives beneath the surface, a series of concentric ripples the only evidence that he was ever there. I look down beside me at the pile of his things: his coiled leather belt, his tattered three-day-old newspaper, the peel of his orange. And there, balanced on top like a grave ornament, his reading glasses, their lenses already obscured by sand shifting in the mistral wind.