https://iiiimag.com/articles/in-light-of-the-man
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iiii Magazine is an independent arts and culture publication, based in London and Manchester. We talk about culture in the sense suggested by Francis Bacon, when he said of intellectual enrichment: 'the culture and manurance of minds’. Our approach to culture is the same: that something bright and engaging may be derived from detritus. We love cultural ephemera in particular, and despite Bacon’s near-perfect turn of phrase, it is the position of the magazine that it is not sufficient. We publish articles that stretch our assumptions of what culture can be, so long as they are forged with originality.

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In Light of the Man

Joanie Elian

03/04/20

‘If he was alive, your grandad would be 110 years old today!'

After sending the text, I light a candle, a 24-hour memorial candle, in a tin the size of a fat falafel ball. I place it on the shiny Caesarea stone kitchen counter and photograph it, moving a handmade Jerusalem mosaic plant pot with a fern into the shot to give it some life. I send it to the children’s WhatsApp group, and attach a photo of their grandfather in his plus fours; circa 1930, I text, by the Mersey Canal, and another one in Trentham Park, with me as a baby, covered with a white, lacy, frilly hat that hides my eyes. I’m standing between him and my older sister.

A thumbs-up from Dee, and: ‘I like the “Circa” photo. Who took it?'

‘No idea', I reply, ‘but it was my Dad’s camera. A box camera. I remember it, made from rough leather and all black with a big lens. A box camera. Expensive'.

‘I thought your family had no money, Mum'. This time from Jon.

‘Your English grandfather was pretty well off till he married your grandmother and had to support 5 children!' I add, with a heart-stabbing exclamation mark.

‘Our grandad, and our Nanny Rose', comes back Dee, inserting two parentheses and two semicolons. And then underneath: ‘I miss them too'.

It’s a comfort that two out of five children share in the birthday banter. My thoughts carry me all the way back…

Early one morning, I heard Dad turn the key in the lock and close the door gently behind him. I came downstairs, sat on the settee and watched him set the fire.

The house was cold like the night outside. He knelt at the hearth and swept the dirt from the grate with a horse-hair brush, the black ashes scattered on a newspaper laid out on the carpet. He crinkled up paper, page by page, lining pieces of coal, then the newspapers at the bottom of the grate, and sticks on top. A slit in the thick curtains let in light from the street. A single bird chirped to his sleeping friends. Farmer Bell’s rooster crowed in the distance.

Kneeling on layers of newspaper, he lit the dry mass of tabloids and sticks with the same concentration, I imagined, that he painted gold leaf on dinner plates at work after they’d been fired in the kiln. He wiped black from his face, and I wasn't sure whether it was from the ink that coated the newspaper or the soot that caked the walls of the fireplace and stuck to the inside of the chimney.

Before long, the room was veiled in a faint light. Dad stoked the coal, and red flames stretched up and disappeared. Then he rolled back onto his heels, and stood up, dusting the soot from his chest and work trousers. He drew the curtains open towards each side of the bay window. Red light from the fire mixed with white light from outside. With the back of his hand, he flicked his thick, black hair from his face. It was heavy with Brylcreem, probably with enough oil in it to fry the eggs for breakfast.

The fire snapped, and he put all the plugs back into their sockets that Mum, terrified of a blown fuse during the night, had unplugged before going to bed. He picked up two bottles of milk from outside the front door, shooing away the starlings that pecked through the silver foil and sucked the yellow top-cream, then went into the kitchen. Eggs today for a change, he told me, instead of porridge and toast.

I passed him. He stroked my hair.

Why is your bellybutton over there, Dad? I asked, pointing to a scar on his left side.

I ‘ad a duodenal ulcer, lass, in the War, an’ they ‘ad to move it, he said, as he lifted his body and stabbed proudly at the mark.

So, what did you do then, Dad, in the War?

Joseph! Mum shrieked from behind us. Go an’ put some clothes on. The girl shouldn’t ‘ave to see that. An’ you Jennifer Riley, stop driving y’ father bonkers with y’ questions all the time.

Dad winked at me and shuffled away to fetch a shirt.

Does it hurt? I ached to ask him, but Mum pushed me upstairs instead to get Cathy, and I caught her scraping ice feathers off the inside of our bedroom window.

The fire’s ready, Cath, and our comics have just come through the letterbox. Are you coming down?

She dried her fingernail on her pyjamas and we ran down together, picking up the comics which lay on the carpet beneath the letterbox flap. Cathy was already flipping through Bunty.

Rosalind! Your comic’s here, I shouted back up the stairs. It says Fashion Tips for Young Ladies and Your First Kiss, on the front.

Rosalind was down in a second and snatched Diana out of my hand. I settled with my Superman DC, and we all sat at the coffee-table, tapping the top of three chucky-eggs sitting in three egg cups. Dad had decided on boiled instead of fried after all.

Did you have a comic when you were a little boy, Dad? I asked him as he laid three pairs of polished school shoes in front of a now roaring fire. His face was white and blank, like the shell of my boiled egg.

Joseph! Mum shouted from the kitchen, before he could answer. The Hotpoint’s conked out. It… needs… fixin’… now! The girls’ school skirts are still damp.

Dad was a fire-maker, a shoe-polisher and a painter of gold on pottery, but when he tried to fix something electrical, most of the time we ended up having to buy a new one.

He fiddled and unscrewed the iron, placed it on the kitchen counter and after a few minutes declared, it’s ready.

The iron looked perfect from the outside, even though a small piece of wire coiled suspiciously at the side.

Who’s goin’ to plug it in, then? Mum asked, hands on hips, eyeing each one of us.

As usual, there were no volunteers, so Dad picked up the plug. We all stood back.

Blinkin’ ‘air oil, that was ‘ot! His words flew out in every direction, like the sparks from the bottom of the iron. He jumped back flicking bits off his singed eyebrows. A bad smell of burning filled the air.

Never mind, Mum sighed, standing up on a kitchen chair to open the steamed-up window above the sink. They’ll ‘ave clean uniforms tomorrow.

Did Dad go to school, Mum? I asked her, when Dad went outside to the bin.

Your father was forced to leave school when ‘e was twelve, to bring in money for ‘is family. They sent ‘im down the coal mines. The first time ‘e went down in the steel cage ‘e blacked out, so they sent ‘im to work in the potbanks instead.

I imagined a boy so terrified that he had to be carried out like another lump of coal.

Why can’t Dad fix things? I asked her.

Her eyes shot up at the clock.

No time for that, she said, her voice dropping slightly. We ’ave to go now.

So, what was it? Why was he always behind the scenes, crucial to the plot, adding dimension and colour, but silent all the same?

‘I wish I’d known who he was'. A text from Yeli hurries me back to the present.

‘Me too! Happy Birthday, Dad!' I fill the line below hers.

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