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How do you grieve a father who has been absent for most of your life?

When Xanthi Barker’s father died when she was in her twenties, she could make no sense of her grief for a man who had been absent for most of her life. Here in a raw extract from her memoir, she navigates her loss. 

The following is an extract taken from Xanthi Barker’s memoir Will This House Last Forever? published by Tinder Press on 24 June.

My dad is dead. He died three years ago. I miss him and I wish he hadn’t died.

But he is also not dead, and the previous three sentences are all lies.

He is dead because he died on 31st January 2014. It’s a recorded fact and you can find it on the internet – he was a poet, not famous, but known to some people, with his name on books you can buy. I have the receipt for his death certificate in a drawer beside my bed.

But he is also not dead because I saw him this morning, waiting at a bus stop, and he gave me a wave.

And so though he is dead and I can’t call him up, sometimes I am walking a long way and it is exactly what I do. His voice is the only right thing for that walk and he knows what I’ve called him for, and he’s expecting me. He’s still on my phone’s list of favourite numbers so I can call him with one click, one press of the thumb, if I want to, but he is dead and nobody answers. But once in a letter addressed from the mountains of somewhere I’d never been, in the blue ink of his heavy pen he wrote: ‘I talk to you, but without a telephone line the words tend to go astray.’ So like when I was a child and didn’t hear from him for months, I don’t believe that because he doesn’t answer it means he isn’t speaking to me.

Xanthi Barker
Author Xanthi Barker

It seems that he must be dead because he doesn’t know anything about my life now. People with living dads have conversations in real time, discussions about work and Tube strikes and retirement plans. When someone says to me they are going to see their dad, a hollowness gapes invisibly in my chest and I can’t say anything like, ‘Oh yeah, dads, those old guys, all bad jokes and struggling with the internet.’ I can only say disturbing things like, ‘Just wait. When they die, the jokes get worse.’

But he is also not dead because nothing has changed. He left when I was a baby and didn’t visit all that much. When he did visit, he was easily bored and didn’t like to talk about what he called personal matters. We would not have discussed work or my prickling anxiety, heaving overdraft, disappearing boyfriends, abortion. We talked about space‒time and DNA, the majesty of aphids and the psychoactive quality of conversation, whether or not two people could ever be said to know each other. He is not dead, because we’re still having these conversations, because I have the notes and letters he wrote, can open at any time all the footnoted emails he sent.

But he is also dead because now I talk to nobody about these things.

You might say that he is dead because he had a funeral. There was a church service and a burial and a wake and guests. But it is also true that he didn’t have a funeral because the funeral we attended was not his. People wore strange clothes and faces and did not say anything they meant. The hall was so large that nobody could fill it up, and everybody felt conspicuous and sober. It was February, and cold, and there was nowhere to sit and the elderly guests complained. If my dad were to have a funeral, it would not be like this. He made the request to me years ago that Bruce Springsteen be played at his funeral, the song No Surrender. In fact, I promised him. So he is not dead, because this has not happened yet.

When he dies, I know exactly what kind of funeral he would like and I will make sure to organise it right. He wants Pink Floyd and impassioned, drawled speeches made by scruffy, opened-up people drinking too much wine and stealing cigarettes and dancing. There were none of these things at the funeral I attended, except wine, and though his face was on the funeral leaflet, it was a peculiar, irregular picture, like he was wearing someone else’s expression, someone else’s clothes. Several people commented he would have been dismayed. ‘He was very vain,’ his sister said, ‘he would have wanted to look his best.’ So it is quite easy to believe that it was not his, but a stranger’s funeral.

Will This House Last Forever by Xanthi Barker
Will This House Last Forever by Xanthi Barker

On the other hand, he has a grave, and a gravestone with a line of his poetry carved into it. The stone is Welsh slate. It is smooth and earth-cold and hand-carved and when I visited the stonemason, there he was, going: Look! Look at that – the way the mason’s hand forms the letters, the way he sees through the tips of his fingers like an insect. He was dead because the stonemason could not see or hear him, because the stonemason knew nothing of him but the name he carved, because I had driven there with his wife, because it was six months since he had died, and I had been through the death-ache of it – but he was also not dead because I heard him say it.

He’s whispering at the back of my neck as I type this. I’m draped in the warm balm of his smile. He’s my dad and I know him.

But he is also dead, because I can’t touch him, and I am losing the memory of his shoulders, and the way he squeezed me against his side, and because I won’t ever again walk into a room in which he is sitting and watch the space between us light up with the snap-magic that erupts when both our particular mouths go hello grinning.

He is dead because this is painful to think about.

But he is also not dead, because it is impossible not to think about. I can see every moment of him: rolling his sleeves up and reaching for his gnarly wooden hammer; his eyes half shut in his racing-green Rover singing Bob Dylan’s Pat Garrett; waving a glass of green wine in the late sunlight, a blanket tucked over his faded legs; smoking Rothmans and reciting his poetry, blind drunk, under the Greek sky two decades ago; eating a picnic at his desk on Father’s Day, just before he got ill, while he explained his new poem to me and could not believe that I understood him, his joy making me lose any of the familiar resentment.

But he is dead because this is not the whole truth. There are things I don’t want to remember: his silence, his absence, his indifference to our lives; hanging up on me when I said something he didn’t like; telling me quite casually he hadn’t wanted me, a fourth child. The mystic poet-wanderer and the cold, intellectual snob – how can I tell it isn’t only the latter who died, and my real dad is hiding somewhere? The other died, and I’m not sad about it. I won’t see him again and I don’t mind one bit. I hated him, as I felt his hatred of me. But there is another dad, a realer dad, the dad I let myself remember, and I will wait for him forever as I’ve been waiting for him my whole life.

But he is also dead because I remember nothing.

I saw him lying on the floor. I felt the warmth go from his face. The paramedics cut off his T-shirt. Later other strangers put him in a bag and carried him to a van. It was hard to get him down the stairs and my brother went to help, but it was traumatising, he said, he wished he hadn’t gone. My dad would never have allowed this – not my brother’s pain, he wouldn’t have helped with that, but he would have found a better way to engineer the transportation. Though he could not have solved the nauseating awkwardness of all of us, both intimate and unknown to each other – his daughters, his son, his wife and ex-wife – sitting there all day in that house which was no longer his, crying and shaking and not saying anything and then saying too much, talking about work and failed MOTs and the last time we’d each seen him and soup and nothing, my mother taking care of everybody, her own feelings stashed far outside the house. If he was not dead, there is no way my mother would have been in that house.

He is dead because he has always been dead. Death, abandonment, it makes no difference. He is dead because it is so typical of him, disappearing when I turn up to need him.

This is an edited extract taken from Will This House Last Forever? by Xanthi Barker published by Tinder Press in hardback, ebook and audiobook read by the author on 24 June.

Xanthi Barker will be speaking at Stylist Literary Festival at the Books & Brunch with author Arifa Akbar on Sunday 20 June, 11-11.45am. Details and tickets can be found at www.stylist.co.uk/literary-festival  

Images: Author photo by Anya Broido, book cover courtesy of publisher