You can’t sit by the river of time, my father used to say. He always said this casually, as though he was merely pointing out that it could not be done, whenever he found me staring into space instead of doing my homework or something else he considered useful. When I didn’t react, he got more animated.
“Things won’t just fall into your lap from the sky,” he’d say in exasperation, pointing at the sky. To impress on me what he meant, he’d add, as a kind of visual emphasis, “like wet sacks of shit.”
What these things were that would not befall me like wet sacks of shit was never specified. My father made no sense when he was exasperated, and he was exasperated often. I stared into space a lot, sitting by the river of time, as he put it.
“When are you planning to wake up?” he interrupted my reverie one Saturday morning when we were building a terrace wall at our beach house.
He’d insisted that I help him, but I didn’t feel like it and was staring into space.
“You know,” he said as he leaned on his spade, “rounded to the nearest decade?”
“I’m awake,” I mumbled.
He shook his head, wiped his brow with the back of his gardening glove and adjusted his glasses.
“You wouldn’t look awake if I put a thousand Volts through you,” he remarked.
“I’m awake when I do my own things,” I retorted.
“What did that teacher say?” my father asked. “The one who looks like a Hampshire pig?”
“That’s the one.”
I swallowed. Mr Killian was a near-spherical psycho who had taken a particular dislike in me.
“He said all I had to do was keel over and stink. Miss Mentz said the same thing.”
My father wiped his brow again and smiled to himself.
“Wouldn’t you like to look at this wall one day,” he asked, changing the topic, “and know that you helped your father build it?”
“I guess,” I said and looked at the wall. “But you make me hold things and it’s boring.”
“I make you hold things,” my father replied, “so you won’t run away.”
He had a point. I once drifted off and left him crawling around inside the roof where he tapped various metal pipes for hours, hoping to hear me call out from the scullery that he’d found the one containing its electric wiring.
While it was natural for my father to think me lazy, it was rather that I wanted to be someone else, elsewhere, elsewhen. I imagined myself as a minor messiah, speaking in parables and understanding animals. I daydreamed of being picked up by passing aliens. Most of all, I wished to travel back in time to hurt Mr Killian when he was a boy. As I dreamed of all this, I talked to myself and had vigorous disagreements with invisible people. I never knew what I was actually supposed to be doing. Maybe I was a little lazy too. Nonetheless, my father’s warning against inaction had the opposite effect to what he’d intended. It sounded to me as though I could indeed sit by the river of time but that it was forbidden to do so. This added an extra dimension of pleasure to staring into space and doing nothing—it wasn’t merely wasteful; it was illegal.
“Why do you look so fucking smug?” my father once asked after he’d delivered what felt like an hour-long speech about the nature of fulfilment and how little of it I would attain if I continued down the road to indolence. “Work is a form of love,” he went on. “Things won’t just fall into your lap from the sky—”
“Yeah, I know,” I dismissed him, “like wet sacks of shit.”
But, of course, he was right. All I’d seen of the river of time were the waterfalls and rapids that are childhood and puberty. I didn’t yet know how helplessly adrift I actually was, dragged along in the stream, one second every second, one day per day. Then, as the years went by, the river left the mountains and things slowed down. The days became more alike. People came and went. I realised that work had better be a form of love, like my father had said, because I seemed to be doing little else. My investment in daydreaming also paid off. Things began to fall into my lap like wet sacks of shit. At last I understood what my father had meant all those years before—the sort of things that fell into your lap were not the sort of things you really wanted. They were OK, as things went, but they were not the greatness you had dreamt of.
Now, years later still, the river is nearing the sea. My father is long gone and his grandson stands before me, the very embodiment of absence. JD is ten. He looks like my father but he acts like me. We’re at the beach house where my father built a terrace wall one Saturday morning so many years ago. JD and I have come outside so that I can interrogate him.
“What the hell were you thinking?” I ask.
JD stares into the distance and tries to stand on one foot.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you,” I say in an effort to control myself.
He looks at me and furrows his brow to concentrate.
“And?” I ask.
“What were you thinking!?”
“It was a light saber,” he says and does a Darth Vader sound.
“It was a neon tube,” I correct him with strangled restraint. “You know, the sort that breaks.”
“Well,” he mumbles and looks past me again, “it felt like a light saber.”
“You didn’t think,” I say, “that’s what. When are you planning to start?”
“I think!” JD shouts. “I think about all the things I’m going to put in my movie.”
Ever since he was six he has claimed to be the world’s best director, frustrated in his calling by his nagging family and the silly requirements of school.
“Your movie won’t get made if you don’t start thinking about other things too.”
He looks past me and it’s clear that he’s elsewhere already. With a pang I see myself, as my father must have, standing in the same spot JD now does.
“Can I go?” JD asks and scratches his knee.
As he walks back to the house, I look again at the wall. It has stood here for most of my life, day in and day out, while a giant fig tree has grown to overshadow it. I’d give anything now to have my childhood wish come true and travel back in time, not to hurt Mr Killian, but to help my father one Saturday when I’m fourteen and wanted to be elsewhere. When we take a break from our work, I’ll walk back to the house, like my son now does, and have a cool drink on the patio while my father smokes a cigarette. My mother will come to argue with my father about her plan for the wall, but I’ll carry on working without him. At sunset we’ll go outside to look at our wall together. My mother will be there and she’ll tell us how this is still wrong, and that, and my father will say that I mustn’t mind her and that he’s glad we did this today.