The half-life of simplicity

My father made hard things simple. He had a gift for that. He complicated his own affairs beyond understanding but he simplified those of others as though this gift was his only to give away. In its most simple form, it manifested as a deranged integrity. Once, when he figured out that he’d been charged for only one carton of cigars, he returned to the supermarket and stood in a long queue at customer services to pay for the other one.

“It was the right thing to do,” he told my mother who insisted that it was the wrong thing to do. “You wouldn’t understand.”

He was right—she didn’t. As far as she was concerned this was just another of the many things he did to his detriment and the benefit of others. He spent his nights as an after-hours messiah, working on things he wouldn’t get paid for, things other people should have done, until three or four in the morning. I was aware of his annoying selflessness, but as a child, I didn’t care about that. For me his gift to make hard things simple lay in how he explained them. He got me to understand algebraic fractions in a way that Mr Killian never could. Mr Killian was a six-foot pile of flesh with a tuft of hair on top—what I imagined you’d get if you inflated a wart a thousand-fold. He did not so much walk as ooze from one end of the classroom to the other. He wheezed and grunted and wore a constantly startled look, as though he had just snapped out of a deep coma to find himself unaccountably staring at us. He must have drawn the short straw to end up with mathematics because it was clear that he understood things only marginally better than we did. One day he oozed to the board and spent the rest of the lesson failing to simplify an expression. While he stabbed at the board with the chalk he called out the names of symbols in an increasingly louder voice. The expression grew line by line, refusing to get simplified, until Mr Killian, sweaty and overcome by frustration, turned to us and barked, “You get the idea.”

We didn’t get the idea. My father ignored what I told him about Mr Killian and taught me a way to move things around as though they were on a balancing scale. I could cheat all I wanted as long as I cheated in the right way. Algebra became easy. His gift was to strip hard things of the words other people had used and to give them to you on your own terms, as if for the first time. But his gift came with a tax. While he explained things, he asked questions. He never just told you what you wanted to know.

“If there’s something you don’t understand,” he always said, “there’s something else you also don’t understand.”

Then he’d set about to discover what else you didn’t understand. I hated that. Why could he not tell me the answer and leave it at that? We often ended up in the small hours because of an innocent question at supper time. I was fourteen when I understood for the first time that there were problems you could only solve that way, that there were things you could only see if you looked elsewhere.

When I was fourteen I decided to die. This had become necessary because the girl next door, whom I thought I loved, had broken up with me. Her decision was based on the trivial grounds that my friends and I were in trouble with the law. She put a little note of disappointment in our mailbox, and that was that. On reading the note I was a little relieved to discover that I didn’t love her as much as I’d thought I did, but I was devastated just the same. How could she do this to me, particularly now? We weren’t really in that much trouble after all? We had carted off some planks and nails and a few other things from a building site to make much-needed renovations to our tree house by the river. The site supervisor had somehow seen us and now trouble loomed. I probably wanted to die for legal reasons but love seemed a better motive.

I announced my intention to die and locked myself in my room. Once inside, it became clear that I had no idea how to proceed. I could slit my wrists, I thought, like in the movies, but I didn’t know how to and there wasn’t anything sharp enough in my room. I could hang myself with the cord of my gown, but there wasn’t anything to hang from. Besides, I realised, I wanted to be dead but I didn’t want to die. Through my bedroom door, I could hear my mother’s voice. It sounded as though she stood with her forehead against the door, worn out by my bullshit.

“If you kill yourself,” she said from behind the door, “she’ll be sad for a week, maybe a month.”

“So what?” I called out.

“But years from now,” she continued, “when all of this is distant and silly, and some girls tell stories about their ex-boyfriends, she’ll trump them with you.”

“What do you mean?” I asked uneasily.

Just then my father arrived home and came down the corridor. My mother told him that I was about to die.

“What?” he asked. “Today?”

He spoke to my mother but even though I put my ear to the door I couldn’t hear what they said.

“You can die if you want to,” he announced after a few long moments, “but first I want you to see something.”

I backed away from the door in case he tried to kick it down.

“What a stupid trick!” I cried. “I’m not coming out!”

“Let me show you something,” he said after another few moments. “If you still want to die after that, we’ll come back here, you’ll lock the door, we’ll beg and plead, and you’ll die.”

If my mother had said these words I wouldn’t have moved an inch, but with my father things were different.

“I promise,” he said.

I unlocked the door and followed him, past my mother who stood aside with pursed lips, to the kitchen where he stopped to light a cigar. He took his time as someone would who didn’t believe that I could go through with my plans to die.

“The hard things in life are not the trouble we get into,” he said when he’d blown a cone of smoke to the ceiling with evident satisfaction. “They’re simple, everyday little things we tend to think nothing of. They’re things like wanting, waiting, doing, and loving.”

“You said you’d show me something—”

“When you’re older,” he went on, “you’ll realise this.”

“I’m not going to be older,” I reminded him.

My father puffed on his cigar and looked past me at nothing in particular.

“And when you finally see this,” he resumed, raising his voice a little, “you’ll need to hurry because the half-life of simplicity is short. Desires pale and time flies. Plans fail. And, in the end, love dies.”

I hated it, too, when he rhymed like that.

“What’s a half-life?” I asked.

He pinched a fleck of tobacco from his tongue.

“It’s what you’re about to have, isn’t it?”

With that, he turned and walked out the door and into the backyard. I followed him reluctantly. I was angry at him for being so calm, for not grabbing me and wrestling me to the ground like I wanted him to. It was almost dark outside and it was hard to see anything but the outlines of things. He walked ahead of me up a narrow path that led to the corner of the yard, where a small garden shed stood under a large thorn tree.

“Go ahead,” he said. “I’m staying here.”

“What?” I sniffed.

“This is what I wanted you to see. Go stand by the tree.”

“You’re showing me a tree?”

“Forget the tree,” he said. “Look at the bark.”

The tree had coarse bark, like flakes of black pastry.

“Lift off a nice, large piece,” my father instructed from behind me.

I fumbled with the tree until a large piece of bark came away.

“Now look,” he said.

There was a lighter patch where the bark used to be. In the failing light, I could just make out the rilled surface of the trunk.

“Can you see?” he asked.

“See what?”

“I don’t know. You’re the one looking at it.”

I looked again and wondered what I was supposed to see when my father came up behind me.

“How many people are on the planet today,” he asked softly. “More or less?”

“Four billion?”

“Four billion. That’s probably about right.”

He lay his arm across my shoulders and began to walk me away. Although I didn’t understand why, it was clear that my plans to die were on hold.

“Now,” he said, “how many of those four billion people have seen what is under that piece of bark?”

“Just me—”

Before we reached the back door, my father stopped.

“The heart has many cages,” he said. “But if you’re free enough to do something that’s one in four billion, all isn’t lost.”

Later that evening we sat at the kitchen table, recounting stories about our crazy great-great-grandmother who’d had her coffin made when she was in her early forties and had then kept it out on the verandah for decades, where it stood, filled with dried peaches. But my father wasn’t there. He sat by himself in his study and stared at the wall opposite his desk.

“What’s with dad?” I asked my mother.

“You,” she said.

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  1. Maarten, your story brought tears to my eyes. How you view your father and mother through your ultra-special vision is amazing. You retain a quirky approach as a professional story-teller, even in serious matters.
    Thank you.
    PS I would have loved a chat with your dad about the big north-south this weekend