Tom Atterson


Tom has written a fair amount of short fiction but is now at work on a novel called ‘He Wrote Me’. He was born in Norwich, went to university in Canterbury, and now lives in Walthamstow, East London. He is married with two cats and a sourdough starter culture.


View as PDF: Tom Atterson - He Wrote Me

He Wrote Me

‘SO TO IT’ carved on a beach and that’s what made for a beginning; pressing a dead black stick into wet sand down by the seashore. There was nothing to it but to begin for this was the beginning and everything that followed, well…

Emitting from the cylindrical thing – all nobbles and scabrous chips – came rough furrows dissolving to a full stop; for there the stick stuck. My eyes fixed and tears slowly filled them. The whole scene quivered before me and I had the illusion that a tall tree was cast and bent double against the wind, caught quite terrifyingly by the sun. I blinked in distress. Such an awful thing to have happened. Not an accident really and you could see it as having been coming, but no one had known and they were perhaps all the better for it. In other words

Can you hold me I’m the sky

The enquiry came from within until it danced giddily across the horizon at the limit of sea and sky. It was impossible. The sand seeped back in, the words faded. But wait.

“So to it, again” I read out loud, in order to make the furrows deeper and let the words catch upon the wind. I surprised myself. This was not what I’d written, not exactly, but he was coming alive in my hands, at least, and finally, as was my father, who toiled under pressures: of meaning and weight and time. Even I had begun to materialise, though in two, as if after a great cleaving. And meanwhile I had formed something inaudible in the sea of my memories. The fronds of a drifting stretch of seaweed had snagged on a sharp rock engulfed in tumultuous currents: it was as if, from out of the whole thunderous muddle, one point had risen to stake a claim to the ragged rest and I knew this was how I would move forwards from now on. Do you see?

It was a good point; it was marked indelibly in the crusty brown grains at my feet (for it was I who had written it). But it was not something that he would’ve said, not a true indication of his voice, and more the riddling speech of a summoned pooka, a Johnny Alleluia, Aggie Weston, or one ‘Billy’ or another, all conjured up from the traces of an oral tradition and set loose in a land I was failing to reclaim. No, it’s not his voice, that can’t be retrieved, but there’s a chance to show something, something which can still be accessed and put to use, got down, pronounced with a name. So see this, and see it well, because perhaps it’s the one last thing remaining that I can say is true:

My father stooped by a rock pool rippling from some unseen surface-breakage, a gasp of air at this life’s edge. Iridescent algae glimmered from beneath the wind-blown surface and took a hold of his tinker’s eyes, took up residence there, a light that suggested— what? Life? And if I, as an amateur photographer passing by on my route round the cove, walking the cliff top path, had paused a moment, positioned my tripod thus, and established a certain stillness and stability, I might have had the chance to capture the faraway-gazing figure on the precipice of the deep rock pool, some metres from his untroubled teen, his bookish young wife and her youngest child, staring ahead into a future I now encounter as my only own.

Oh but that won’t do, so we go back to words in the sand, a beginning and then an ending overlapping within a perfect circle. And that won’t suffice, and so there sits our quest. Ended before it has begun. Impossible, you might say (and have done already). So I’ll give up and stop writing in the sand or upon the wind, or even at all, and just retrace and re-tread what I can, in order to act, in order to do something about it.

1987, Cornwall

I would begin on a causeway, perhaps halfway across, with gently foaming currents coughing against our booted ankles. The decision has come quicker than expected, and as no one is really in charge, no one’s quite sure what’s to be done. We turn in both directions and the distance looks the same: shallow flats leading up to the sudden steep climb of Karrek Loos yn Koos behind us; to the fore, the mellow sands and gentle lip of the headland lifting into Marhasyow’s cobbled lanes. As we dwell in vacillation, the water is rising; the causeway is closing.

My father bottoms out with laughter from deep within his hearty middle tyre. He hoists me and my sodden dungarees (now a much darker green than before) onto his shoulders as if I were god’s lamb, and sets out towards the shore. “There’s no going back,” he cries above the sound of the birds and the water, “put your best foot forward; there’s only forward for us.” His tone is not his own. He’s imitating something heroic, undermining the cavalier intentions whilst retaining something of the same. The others fall in line with half-crazed grins on their faces, the luminescent blush of their waterproofs casting odd, blurry colours in the shallows where catfish congregate to watch the chase. Someone starts to sing a song (it may be my father, but I don’t think so). It has a natural rising and falling melody, not unlike ‘Over the Hills and Faraway’. It’s a stirring song, designed to instil courage in difficult times. Or else maybe it’s a traditional thing; some local round that offers room for harmonies, guest singers, community-joining-in; layer upon layer of voice. In other circumstances it would be accompanied by a droning fiddle, some nylon strings played with the back of the hand or the fingernails, a hand drum beating out a rhythm in three-time with the first beat accented.

I wish I could remember the words.

The walkers fall into step behind my father and me. They move in song across the granite setts sunk beneath the waters, their sights fixed on the shop fronts and, for sure, The King’s Head. Do they wonder if they’ll make it? That’s what I’m thinking, atop my father’s fortified shoulders, with the best view of the world to the fore and the aft, to port and to starboard, conjuring stories from the chase and the gulls and the spit.

Ride high the giants.

Unsheathe thy sword.

Storm the settlements.

Take back the castle.

Simple incantations strike truest. I still think that. You can load a sentence with caveats and clauses, hefty words brimming with ambient syllables, resonant with apparent feeling, but in the end they play truant, escape what you had in mind for them and come to rest on a deep seabed to fossilise. Quick-fire sayings, declarations, spells and mottos are quicker at hammering something home and aren’t we all happiest at home?

That’s what I’m trying to get back to now. I’m looking for the home I once knew. I’m going home, like after playing out with friends has got too rough; there’s been a falling out and you have to say I’m going home and you go.

It’s late now. We, the walkers, have all made it home safely, those early opportunities for excitement at the risk of being swept away closing quicker than the waters in our wake. Back at the house in which we are all staying – three whole families – the children have been carried to bed, each father taking one child at a time, it doesn’t matter which, folding them gently and spreading them beneath quilted patchwork covers emblazoned with dragons and stars. The lights go out. There’s driving to do tomorrow. They’d said they’d try Tintagel, perhaps have a swim if the tide’s on its way in. Make a picnic, end up at Wadebridge or St Kew Inn for tea or something stronger (probably something stronger). Pipes are lit, voices reduced to humble embers glowing in the dying fire. Do people still tell stories on nights like this? Of course they do. They drink until late, playing silly buggers and cavorting without past histories ever becoming an issue. They’re free to do so still. Who loves whom? Who was with whom first, longest? It doesn’t matter, not to them. But should it to me, knowing as I do, what I do? 

      I find that I don’t really dream. At least, I never recall the dreams I have, if I have them. I think it must mean I’m well adjusted, able to cope quite straightforwardly without any need to work through my problems in an unconscious state where they can’t harm me. Instead, I drop off almost instantly, sleep like a baby. The other children toss and turn, unable to adjust to the pillows with lumps in the wrong places, the sheets that smell unfamiliar because they’ve been washed with a different powder. I wake fully refreshed for the next day’s adventures. And if I do stir in the night, it’s only briefly; to adjust a limb or slip a small hand beneath my perfect pillow, my head on the top listening for my fingers falling beneath. 

      Unbeknownst to most, my father (who didn’t carry me to bed) silently slips out, alone. His shadow stalks the low-rising steps to the market square, usually a site bustling with life but now deserted, for it’s late and the callers and sellers are gone home. The jaundiced walls of the tavern, the coat-maker’s shop, the dusty preface to an antique books store; all look emptier than ever, as if the isolation rolling in from the sea has aged them and driven out their light in waves. Yet what could be heard? All sorts of stirring sounds. The brushing of smooth leather turned over and over; the slip-slop of mops on cheap linoleum, square tiles and red parquet courts; the clear chimes of silver against cut glass. Jack Clemo, the night watchman (a tradition they persist with in this town), upon his stool in the doorway of St Michael’s church, glances in anticipation at each of the five entrances to the square, and to its unlit windows, hopeful of some trouble brewing, some event or other which might make him a hero. Behind the shop fronts, men and women strike up stories stitched together from competing voices, backed by short cadences sprung by low-lying strings in laps; or spoons for hammers on thick table edges; or plucked nylon and taut cat gut. Dinner plates are pushed away; books have paragraphs (but not chapters) finished quickly and put down behind vases and just wherever is to hand. In the bakery, loaves swell mysteriously beneath muslin sheets in the warm draughts.

      Every now and then my father pauses beneath the windows to peer in, a bearded face like a badger’s appearing unwarranted on the candlelit boundaries of other lives. At one such act of invasion, a rattling moped comes trundling down the hill, tyres bumping off the pavement edge, and it makes him turn round suddenly, his curiosity caught in its chaotic search beam. The moment passes without violence; the rider and his passenger disappear again, rounding the corner by the cordwainers, leaving my father to reacquaint himself with the coastal gloom.

      When he reaches the grand wooden doors of the old folk club, he puts one hand flat against the bracing beam and leans upon it a while, his weight falling forward over his shoes and the building’s wide threshold. He would have looked a strange character had anyone seen him, a woollen-hatted Samson propping up the temple he could no longer enter. 

      Here, no sound was to be found, least of all song, and soon no light either, as silently, and one by one, the street lamps wink out. He sinks down to the cold flagstone, beside three empty milk bottles lined up on the step, and rubs his hands together for warmth, feeling as he does so the blood re-enter the tips of his fingers. He leans his head back and rests it on the door. The weight goes out of him. 

      Across the road, two black orbs observe. Margy the cat carefully wets the back of a paw, pushes it from back to front over her furred head, then does it again. Jack Clemo takes a turn about the square, forcing the heat back into those hands of his as he hunts down the unlikeliest of trouble. I turn over in my perfectly restful bed. A distant clock tower’s copper mechanism strikes three in the morning.

      Eventually my father finds his strength and retraces his steps to the sea.

I had come back to retrace his steps, in order to better understand him. I needed something to keep me company. Something of his. I thought perhaps a tie with his school colours and school badge stitched carefully down it by his mother, Grace, in her delicate hand; or his cheap woollen hat like a dustman’s; or a waistcoat (pronounced WES-kit), one of the ones he would have adorn him on stage beneath a large, flapping suit made for three (of me).

Or perhaps I might take one or two of the discarded books, left to prop up the bookshelves, or an exercise book with scribbled words and notes. Or better yet an instrument: the Swanee whistle’s lauded glissando substituting for a memorable wink or nod, or some finger cymbals paired with coarse string, to mark the end of a bar or the time to turn the page.

Thinking it over, I could cobble together a shrine, a conceptual place in his honour, though I’d want it to be mobile so I could take it around with me. It would be made up of things and sounds, pictures and photos he took and had taken of him; something interactive, the jacket from his back for protecting mine or a wooden walking stick or the modern, metal one with the unfolding leather seat, for leaning on and pretending I have a limp. I could come to the shrine when I was feeling low or felt I was forgetting, or I could sit in vigil, though for what I do not know. Others might come, those who knew him once, or played at his Wake or who felt they could learn something by being close. I could let others borrow it, but I’d need to know I could get it back quickly.

I have his voice already. Not captured mysteriously in the spiralling depths of a conch or floating genie-like in a bell-shaped bottle, but on a small cassette, recorded on a Dictaphone, which was also my first home recording equipment. It’s only very short, with maybe two minutes of the analogue brogue magnetised upon its winding loops. He is making notes for himself, a sonorous voice moving in short passages and then breaking off before returning. That breaking off; it paints a three-dimensional picture of his past-self, the him when he was alive. The brief dimming as he turns his mouth away projects the size of the room; that there is a room at all, a space from within which sound is produced from the past: his past vocal chords; his past tongue; a wave passing over his teeth, reverberating still even as they lie in the earth with the rest of him. The rotations of the Dictaphone’s mechanism unspool a short period of life for my father, in that space just behind the twisting strips which carry him upon them at least as much as I do.

At one moment, he even makes a joke to himself; there’s a noticeable rise in tone, the hesitant laughter held in check (for whose benefit? Are you working late, with mum and the kids nearby and sound asleep? Or could it be self-consciousness?), but I can’t actually make out what’s said. It remains fuzzy and now I want to laugh each time I play it back, despite long since giving up trying to decipher the words and why they’re funny. It’s the only example I know of him ever being alone. I am with my father whilst he is alone. I’m spying on – or at least eavesdropping on – the past, on the dead, on the private meanderings of my late father, Robert Howell. The one who led us to safety and the one who checked my Trigonometry homework and the one who slumped in a doorway one time and the one who isn’t here now.