The handle of my study door softly turns. I look up from my typewriter, startled. The two older children are at school, my wife's out with the baby, the house is empty. I'm working alone on the top floor.
The door opens a few inches. Around the edge of it, with a certain deferential caution, comes a hat. A black homburg.
The year must be 1969, I realize from the internal evidence when I reconstruct the scene in my memory. No one round our way locks their front doors in 1969. But then no one still wears homburg hats. I'm looking at the last homburg in southeast London, perhaps in Western Europe.
I feel a familiar touch of exasperation. Of course! Naturally! The black homburg! Just when I've got a chance to work undistracted! Why hadn't he phoned, like anyone else? Why hadn't he rung the bell or shouted "Anyone at home?" Why hadn't he at least taken his hat off?
The hat is followed by a pair of spectacles—a hearing aid—a trim gray moustache. And my father's familiar smile, like the sun coming up.
My exasperation evaporates in the warmth of it.
1969, yes, when I was writing my first play. It must have been. The good year, shortly before the end of his life, the year's reprieve between his first cancer and the second. He just happens to be passing, driving from somewhere in southeast London to somewhere else, on his way to put his head round the doors of building contractors and architects in Woolwich or Eltham, selling them roofing. He has always been turning up like this in my life, unannounced, on the move, a law unto himself, excused by his deafness from the usual social conventions. Not always in a black homburg—sometimes in a brown trilby. But usually in one or the other.
When he takes the hat off it reveals the last of his trim silvering hair receding above the leathery corrugations of his forehead, and brushed precisely flat. His features are as neat and well ordered as his three-piece suit and polished toe caps. He has a touch of Fred Astaire's lightness and quickness about him.
"Not interrupting the muse, am I?" he asks, as I make him coffee. "Not depriving the world of some great new book?"
"It's not a book this time—it's a play."
"Are you? Where are you going?"
"A play. The thing I'm writing."
"Bit crowded at this time of year, Brighton."
He can probably hear me, actually, even if he hasn't turned his hearing aid on. It's over a quarter of a century since he first went deaf, and I've long been used both to raising my voice and to his pretending not to understand even so, for comic effect. More smiles when my wife comes in. "Would you like some lunch?" she asks him, but after a lifetime of softly modulating her voice she finds it almost impossible to make him hear even the vowel sounds. He's rather in awe of her, though, so he doesn't like to disrupt the flow of the conversation.
"Not too bad," he replies. "And the children?"
"They're very well. But how about lunch? Something to eat?"
"Of course not. Up Dog Kennel Hill and across Peckham Rye."
It's forty years since my father died. I've often thought about him since, of course. As he was when I was a child, as he was when I grew apart from him in my adolescence, as he was when we became closer again in those last years of his life. I can sometimes still feel some of his expressions on my own face and know, even without a mirror, that I'm looking like him. And yet I'm so unlike him! Slow where he was quick, scruffy where he was dapper, head in the clouds where he was feet on the ground. And inside, behind our mutual expressions, in the way we think and feel, we're totally different. Aren't we? In all the years I've spent imagining myself into the heads of characters in plays and novels I've never really tried to feel what it was like to be that rather striking real character in the homburg hat. Your parents are your parents. They are what they are.
It was my children, wondering about their own origins, who first set me thinking about him in a rather different way. They wanted me to write something about my childhood—anything about the past that I could remember, before it had all vanished from my memory forever. Rebecca, my eldest daughter, felt that she and her two sisters—all of them now older than I was when that hat came round the door—"had risen from an unknown place." For a long time I resisted. How could I ever contrive to lay my hands on that lost world, which had now slipped so far away even from me?
And then it occurred to me that it was my father who was one of my last links with that elusive past and who might take us all back to it. Once again I saw his head coming round my door—the homburg, the hearing aid, the smile. Sixty-eight years of good and bad fortune were written in the corrugations of his forehead, the crinkled skin fanning back from the corners of his eyes, and the deep curving crevasses on either side of his mouth. So many things I should have asked him while he was still here to tell me. I might even have tried to talk to him about the thing he never once mentioned, the event that in one single instant broke his life in two—that broke all our lives in two—into Before and After. Did he ever wish he could have said something about it to me?
I went back to my very first conscious memory of him. I suppose I was three years old. He had appeared unexpectedly through a door, just as he did in my recollection of him at the end of his life. And, yes, wearing a homburg hat. He was coming in through the French windows of the dining room, just home from work, still carrying his files and folders. What makes this particular occasion stick in my mind is that I was crying, and that I lied to him about the reason. I'd misbehaved in some way and been scolded by my mother, but I felt so ashamed of my babyishness that I told him it was because I'd banged my head on the edge of the dining table.
Was it really the same man under that first homburg and the second? What had happened to him in the intervening years was etched not only into the skin of his face but deep into the core of the man himself. But then, if I was three when he appeared through the French windows, he must have been thirty-five. More than half a lifetime was written upon him already.
I go over that first remembered encounter with him again, now I'm trying so hard to recall things, and what catches my attention this time is not my lying, or his sympathetic smile as he was taken in, but an odd marginal detail of the scene: the fact that he was coming in through the French windows. They were at the back of the house. If he'd just arrived home from work he'd got out of the car on the driveway by the front door. Why had he walked all the way round to the back garden before he came indoors?
Maybe he'd forgotten his keys. Or maybe he already had a penchant for appearing through doors unexpectedly. But, as I turned this tiny anomaly over in my mind, it occurred to me that there was perhaps another reason—something quite simple, that would explain a lot about him. If I was right, I should have to begin by tracing his path to the French windows that day in 1936—all the way back, perhaps, to the unknown place from which he himself had arisen.
So back I've gone, as people often do when they get older, scrabbling among the birth and death certificates that marked my family's progress through the world. I've looked up the census returns and the electors' lists and walked around the streets where my father grew up. I've tried to remember what little he told me and to reconstruct the world as he saw it, with the problems he was set and the pleasures and successes he found. I've made myself come face-to-face at last with that event I could never talk to him about, and its consequences for him and all of us.
The quest that I'd so reluctantly begun came to occupy my mind and heart alike. I laughed aloud to myself sometimes at the things that came back to me and at other times could scarcely see what I was doing for tears. I also discovered many things about him—and a few about myself—that I'd never known and that took me completely by surprise.
And now, when he puts his head round my study door again and smiles at me, as he does, I see him—and myself, and the world we shared—a little differently.
Excerpted from My Father's Fortune by Michael Frayn
Copyright 2011 by Michael Frayn
Published in 2011 by Henry Holt and Company
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.