I am with my sons in a birch wood, damp with the days of rain, every boggy hollow filled with chill water. We are finding colour and movement in the stillness of winter; the fragile gills of fungi, the vivid green of the mosses, the tracks of deer in the peaty earth. I lean back against a tree and watch, happy to let them poke around amongst the trees, delighting again in their ease in the outdoors. I am thinking again of my father, as though he was suddenly there, pulling a blackened stump from the earth and turning it in his hands.
In my memories, it is autumn. I am walking with him across fields of ploughed stubble, our boots heavy with clayed soil. Or it is early in the winter, ploughed ribs emerging from the first of the season's snows. We are walking towards a disused railway siding, a pile of sleepers which are waiting to be cut into firewood. He is carrying a long saw, a two-handled cross-cut, the one which now hangs in my own garage, rusted and unused. I can still feel the chafe on my palms of its oiled and stained wooden handles, how big they seemed in my child's hands. He has a measured stride across rough ground, so that my shorter legs must skitter to keep up with him, my breath pluming in the cold air.
As we walk, he talks. He had a way of telling stories in a way which made them seem so unlike stories; they were laid into the space between us as something to consider, a small part of a larger puzzle that was his life before I knew him. He would tell me of dusty airfields in the north of Pakistan, of shuttered Spanish villages in the afternoon before a bullfight, of this railway line by which we kneel, before the closure of so many branch lines and sidings.
These stories are steeped in my consciousness; they became part of who I am, as much as his coarse black hair or his stooped posture have become part of who I am. I absorbed them unthinkingly, in the same way that I learned from him so many ways of doing things; of how to shake seeds into a furrow from that neat crease in the palm of your hand, of the importance of a well-oiled bicycle, or the poetry of place names or the way to peel apples. I realise now how much of what we learn is through observation and imitation; I barely remember my father teaching me anything; rather, I learnt from him a way of being in the world that came from humility and contentment, that was informed by wonder and hope.
One of my earliest memories is of learning to ride a bicycle on the concrete path that ran along the edge of the vegetable garden; of the sense of his presence behind me as he held the back of the saddle while I teetered again along the path, and of the sense of fear and excitement as I realised that he was standing far behind me, that he had stopped holding onto me several paces before. It is a feeling that haunts us all the way into our adult lives; the sense that we are pedalling alone, that he is no longer holding the saddle, but instead standing beside the path with a smile.
The day he died, I was on the other side of the country, coming down from the hills into a broad estuary crossed by a low wooden footbridge, the mud flats lit by the soft, diffuse sun of a summer morning. It was not until the afternoon that I heard the news, but I was compelled to count back through the hours, to identify precisely where I was at the time of his death, as though the location mattered, as though the crossing of a bridge was freighted with significance. Later, after I could excuse myself from any practicalities, sitting on the shingle bank overlooking a smooth beach pleated by a receding tide, I felt that I could finally weep for him, remembering the beaches we had walked upon together; the games of catch, the sand-filled sandwiches, the shards of pottery and brick and shell he would tease from the tideline and turn in his thin fingers.
That was twenty-two years ago. It is only now that I begin to understand the importance of the things we do not say to our children; the way we adjust ourselves to the world around us, the acts of benediction we bring to the experience of being outdoors, the sense of reverence we offer to them, again and again, in every birch wood, on every beach. It is the inheritance I have from my father, the one I carry like a fragile shell, knowing that I must pass it also to my children, unmarked, unbroken, precious.