A young man emerged from the Tube station looking positively heroic. For a moment, Gareth was uncertain, not quite believing his eyes, but, yes, it was Sebastian stepping into the sunlight, tall, tanned, and desperately handsome—more his mother’s son than ever. Here was Gareth’s only child, back less than a week from Spain, where he had spent his first summer after A-levels. Perhaps it was all in Dad’s imagination, but Sebastian appeared to have grown from a teenager into a man in the time he had been gone.
The pleasure Gareth felt was fresh and intense. Absence had worked its magic, and there was also the realization that this first trip abroad was the prologue to an imminent and final departure into adult life. Pride jostled in the first rank of Gareth’s massed feelings, but something else unexpected elbowed to the front, making him jumpy.
“Bit tired as it goes,” answered Sebastian, smiling apologetically. But he came alive when his phone rang. He spoke in hushed tones, making arrangements. “Should throw the thing away,” he said, having hung up, a text message pinging as he slid the phone into a pocket, “it’s been blowing up ever since I got back.” As if to fill the silence, he asked, “Reading anything good, Dad?”
“You know me,” said Gareth, suspecting he was being humoured, “got a few things on the go.”
On the threshold of the pub, it struck Gareth that his very own son was making him shy. Then his heart sank once they were under the low ceiling of the Double Ducats. It had been a bad idea to bring the boy here.
Artificial light revealed a scattering of wrinkled afternoon drinkers, resentful and downcast to a man (and they were all men). Vying with the bleeping quiz machine, “Born to Run” played, apropos of everything. The entire pub was practically screaming, “Get out while you’re young.” Making it worse, the landlord was serving. Behind the bar, his shaven melon head was, as usual, a thick knot of suspicion and contempt. Today, here, in this sorry location, Gareth was going to buy a drink for Sebastian for the very first time. The father would acknowledge that his boy was now a man. It was a landmark moment, practically a rite. What a shame it would be presided over by this miserable landlord in the grim but familiar confines of this miserable North London pub, a place which Gareth had the dubious privilege of calling his local.
“Two pints of Guinness, please,” said Gareth. It seemed a reasonable request. And, yet, the landlord wore the kind of face suitable for confronting a deranged stranger on the doorstep in the early hours.
What followed wasn’t likely to mellow the man. Gareth frowned at his wallet, which to his genuine surprise stubbornly refused to produce any money. He handed over his debit card, but it was declined. Brushing aside Sebastian’s offer to pay, he tried a credit card, but that didn’t work either. Gareth was patting down his pockets when his son put a tenner on the bar, sharing a patient smile with the landlord that opened a pit in Dad’s stomach.
As a bubbling curtain rose slowly above the Guinness’ black interior, Sebastian casually opened a conversation with a stranger about the Champions League. Gareth hadn’t followed a team in decades. A silent audience to his son’s informed analysis, he sucked his lips and tried to look dignified. The father of this young man had a lot to live up to.
Sebastian carried the drinks to an isolated table some distance from the bar. He settled his pint and backpack there, then straightaway excused himself, waving his phone in explanation as he headed to the door. With all the good things going for him, he and his friends would have a lot of catching up to do. But a phone call was a welcome break from Dad, as well. That was obvious.
Alone, Gareth sat over Sebastian’s backpack, having squeezed its swollen, half-open form safely under his chair. He surveyed the regulars, men who were practically furniture, who might nod at Gareth but were just as likely to look right through him. A middle-aged man with a lived-in face looked up from his beer.
He said something to Gareth, but his words drowned in the ambient noise. Since the face was familiar, Gareth tried to look agreeable. He was still nodding when his mind unraveled what had been said.
“He’s a handsome fellah, that boy of yours.” The words had emerged from a mouth open no more than slit. “Sure he is your son?”
Too dazed to respond, Gareth pondered the question. He had no doubts about his biological link to Sebastian. What troubled him was that biology might be all there was between them.
Normally when Gareth came here, which he did two or three days a week, he had a paperback with him, almost always a work of ancient history. Something like that would have been a handy prop as he tried to avoid making eye contact with the regulars. They all knew him as a bookish eccentric. “What are you working on, professor?” one might say. “Anything in that book tell you who’ll win the 3:30 at Epsom?” Most of the time, he had been half-convinced the derision was affectionate. Now Gareth experienced a moment of horrible clarity: he was a joke to these people. How had he denied the truth all these years?
The man at the bar who’d spoken was laughing conspiratorially with the landlord, who looked up briefly, smirking. It would be a blessing if Gareth could walk out of here, because he couldn’t decide which was worse, sitting abandoned by the son he had been so excited to see or having witnesses to the silence that would soon descend on the two of them when Sebastian returned.
What was wrong with Gareth? He couldn’t help but wonder whether he could have been, had he made the right choices, anything other than a failure. He had certainly been screwing up at least since the day he suggested a name for his unborn son: Sebastian—a ridiculous aspirational tag for a boy raised on a London housing estate, whose father had finished his formal education at sixteen. But on reflection, Gareth had to admit that this wasn’t the first of his mistakes. No, they went back much farther. The cock-ups and missteps thudded through his whole life with painful regularity right up to the present moment. The final result was that his son was ashamed of him. Sebastian hadn’t said as much (he was a good boy, after all), but the shame and pity he felt were clear as day.
Gareth would have to dig a long way into the past to figure out this puzzle. As a boy, he had been an indifferent student. At sixteen, he had left school to start fixing cars at his brother’s repair shop. No sooner had his life begun than it appeared all wrapped up, his whole banal existence mapped out from cradle to grave: a dull job, perhaps a wife and family, and a modest retirement in the borough where he had been born and raised. The sudden finality of these prospects had made him leap at the only opportunity for change his untutored young mind could imagine: he joined the army. But this being Gareth, he had to sign up as something weird. He became a paratrooper, part of an odd, anachronous subset of the infantry. A historical curiosity, the paratroop regiment had been practically redundant since the invention of the helicopter. The need to prove they had a reason to exist propelled the paras into famous heights of pigheaded endurance and aggression. They might no longer drop behind enemy lines, but they could certainly yomp across the Yorkshire Moors at record speeds, each of them carrying a bergen like a camouflaged fridge.
The sheer bloody-mindedness of the regiment appealed to Gareth. He took a perverse pleasure in the brutal, senseless discipline, in bringing a violent shine to his boots and folding a deadly crease into bed sheets. More than that, he discovered for the first time that if he persisted in a task, he sometimes got better at it, and this was very new. At the repair shop, he had followed his brother’s instructions, and if something couldn’t be done first time, there was no second opportunity. At school, it had been the same: if at first you don’t succeed, don’t try again. The paras promised an arc in the story of his life. It appeared that his existence might become more than the repetition of a single unpromising starting point. Or so it seemed, back then. As with everything else he had thought, Gareth had been wrong.
If that illusion of promise was the first part of his grand mistake, the Falklands War compounded the error.
The paras and the Falklands War were made for one another— the outdated land force fighting in a strange throwback to colonial disputes. Even the islands themselves, a smashed walnut on the South Atlantic map, possessed a bloody-mindedness to match that of the paras. Intransigence was in the landscape, the tussock grass and rock, the streams and patches of bog that rotted army boots. It was in the skyline unrelieved by a tree and the air devoid of birdsong. The environment struck a chord with something dour and determined in a paratrooper’s soul, which trench foot and freezing rain could diminish but not eradicate. It was as if the countryside curled its lip at the yomping paras and delivered a palpable fuck off! The men tugged on their webbing, hoisted upwards of sixty pounds of kit, set their jaws and marched. Fuck fuck fuck went the sodden boots as they sloshed toward Darwin and the defensive positions on the route to Goose Green.
Gareth was in the 2 Para Battalion, present at the first important land engagements of the war and at the very last. What messed him up, what ruined him, followed that final battle on Wireless Ridge. (Reflecting on matters in the pub, he could see the truth for once.) It was during the immediate aftermath that everything changed.
The battle over, the war as good as won, Gareth climbed a muddy hill to an Argentine gun emplacement. A body lay face down in the mud at the entrance, a bloody crater where its ear had been. He stepped around the corpse, trying not to look, which would have felt indecent, as if looking were to intrude on something private. Listlessly and without conscious intention, he sifted through the scattered objects behind the sandbags. He found a photo of a girlfriend, who, when Gareth flipped over another picture to see her with a baby on her knee, he redesignated wife. Or rather, remembering the broken body outside, widow. There were packets of peanuts the deceased would never eat and a letter never to be sent. How he felt about the dead man and his family, he wasn’t yet sure. After stumbling around half-conscious for much of the battle, it was as if a bracing wind had brought his senses to life. In the quiet of the aftermath, the confusion of war was replaced with something else, something cool and frightening: clarity. There was a lot to absorb of a sudden.
Outside, he sat with his back to the sandbags, hugged his knees and looked down over Stanley Harbour across the water to Mount Tumbledown. A strand of smoke tapered into a grey sky that here and there paled into white. On the far side of the mountain from the harbour, a line of British soldiers, tiny in the distance, stitched a path toward Port Stanley. He’d picked up the dead man’s Walkman and, without thinking about it, put on the headphones, a flimsy aluminium strip with two hockey-pucks of foam, and pressed play. There was a squeal as the tape skidded, and then the music took flight. He wasn’t in the habit of listening to music. It was something he encountered by accident, by and large, but now he was rapt. He didn’t know it then, but it was a Bach concerto for two violins. As he listened, it became clear that he’d come into contact with something the composer could only have discovered deep in nature. Elemental and entirely new to Gareth, the music’s cool distracting complexity spoke to some fresh and powerful need in him.
The experience up on Wireless Ridge was like watching time lapse photography, but instead of seeing a pale stem pop from a seed and present a flower to the sun, he inwardly sensed human conflict —history itself— developing around him to Bach’s mathematically precise composition. Those soldiers traipsing through the gorse to Port Stanley and the Argentines preparing to surrender were as unconscious of the forces guiding them as were the plant’s green fuse or the clouds above wrestling with the wind. A mystery had been glimpsed, and Gareth felt a sudden hunger to plunge deeper, to try to understand something of what he’d briefly sensed was out there in the world. (Or that’s how he used to understand what had happened, when he still thought he might be something other than an idiot, back before this trip to the Double Ducats and his life’s second great moment of clarity.)
“Ponced these off that hack from The Times.”
On Wireless Ridge, a man had stood above him, outside the gun emplacement. It was Sergeant Greene, Gareth’s equal in rank. Greene held out a cigar a little larger than a cigarette, sibling to the lit one dangling from his cracked lips. Gareth stood and looked the man in the eye while his own were filled with tears.
“All over, mate. Port Stanley’s taken.” Greene clapped him on the shoulder. “We’ll go home heroes. You’ll have your pick of the top-notch minge the moment you get off the boat at Portsmouth.”
But Gareth wasn’t thinking about women or victory. From that point in time, what he wanted most was to recapture that sensation of watching the world from far above, as he had on Wireless Ridge. On the boat back to the UK, he asked a senior officer, practically a toff, a bloke with a graduate degree, what someone should read to understand the world and the forces of history. Without a second thought, the reply came back: Herodotus and Thucydides—read the ancients, the first and the best. Gareth had been studying those two old Greeks ever since, but with how much understanding? That’s what he asked himself now, waiting for his son to return and trying to compose some kind of apology.
Soon after getting back to England, Gareth was in a post office, asking about how to send a letter to Argentina. A woman standing behind him in the queue helped decipher the writing in a muddy address book salvaged from the Falklands. She was Felicity Clark, who was soon drinking with Gareth at the Double Ducats and getting the whole story. A paralegal, Felicity had been to university. She recognized the authors his senior officer recommended. The combination of highbrow interests and working-class background fooled her into thinking Gareth had something debonair and enigmatic about him. To each, the other promised something different to what had been allotted by birth. She was refined and educated; he battle-worn and eager for knowledge. They were married within a year and conceived Sebastian not long after.
Gareth had gone back to working for his brother, but spent his spare time, whenever he could, reading incessantly, fixated on the ancient world, imagining he was some ascetic wise man focused on the higher life. At the repair shop, he would hide in the lavatory with a creased paperback, hoping to capture the joy of elevated thoughts. For years, he had been in the habit of coming to the Double Ducats with a book and sometimes a pile of them to sit by himself, scribbling in the margins or in a little ring-bound notebook that lived perpetually in his donkey jacket. If anyone asked, he’d say he was an amateur historian. Sometimes, he called himself a dilettante. It was nonsense. He came here, dazzled by books, preened himself over the names on the spines—Mommsen, Finley, and above all Thucydides and Herodotus—but what did he gain? Nothing.
He had let the world slip through his fingers. Emerging from bookish contemplation now and then, he would look about momentarily, only to discover, just for example, that his brother had found a business partner and Gareth was now his junior employee or, worse still, Felicity had taken up with another man, an estate agent with a timeshare in the South of France. The marriage fell apart.
When Sebastian announced his plan to work the summer in Spain, it was Felicity who helped with the airfare, throwing in a new set of clothes and a Patagonia backpack. Gareth, who could barely scrape his rent together, had nothing to spare. At last, today in this pub, his studies were about to bear a final modest and solitary fruit if he could produce from his inflated vocabulary words sufficient for an apology to his only child. The owl of Minerva takes flight only at dusk, he might say; wisdom had come to him late. He might say something like that but would sound like a pompous arse. What he needed to get across was simply that if he’d been a lot smarter or a little bit stupider, he would have spent less time with his head in a book and made a better parent.
Sebastian was walking back across the threadbare carpet, a hint of excitement about him. Turning, he spoke to a young woman at his side, his match in stature and good looks. They were a couple, a fact confirmed when Seb introduced her to his father and he, Gareth, moving to offer her a chair, knocked over the backpack that had come all the way from Spain and spilled its contents. Bending down, Gareth picked up a fat, well-thumbed Penguin edition: The Histories of Herodotus. It was Sebastian’s copy and the handwriting in the margins was his.
“I haven’t been wasting my time entirely in Spain,” said Sebastian.
He had knelt to help his father and, as he did so, looked him squarely in the eye.