The past is big because it grows. It grows like any work of fiction and, make no mistake about it, fiction is essentially what it is. All facts can be disputed. What science tells you about reality today it will revise tomorrow. History is written by the winners in any contest. All good historians are novelists and poets and storytellers at heart.
"My parents are both fictitious," as soon as I said it I realised it was true. Someone had asked me, Why did you become a writer? I had not given the question much thought and my answer surprised me. My parents were both fictitious, that must be the reason why I can only answer questions by telling a story.
My mother knew nothing about my father and never asked him anything about his life. Not only that, but she was also vague about her own past. For instance she could not remember her own maiden name. Sometimes it was Brown sometimes Smith. This had nothing to do with old age, she had always been like this.
She once told me I was named after her half brother Bill. He died at Dunkirk she claimed but on another occasion she said she'd met him once after the war standing in a cinema queue. The movie showing might have been A Matter of Life and Death, written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger.
This vagueness also made me a work of fiction. I was born prematurely at home on the first of August 1953 and the name I was christened with is William. However, my birth certificate claims I was born on the second of August and my name is Edward. Is it any wonder I became a writer?
My father was an even bigger mystery. All I know, or all anyone knew about him, could be summed up in a few paragraphs. He left school at the age of ten. He worked on the land and could barely read or write. He had fought in the first World War. (He was an old man when I was born. My father was the same age as my friend's grandfather.) He had been wounded.
He had an extra navel below the real one. A bayonet wound. When I was a child I asked him about it and to my surprise he told me. It seemed they had attacked the German trench and there had been hand to hand fighting. Everyone was so scared, my father said, that you just stabbed at anyone who got in your way. He believed that he had been bayonetted by one of his comrades by mistake and left for dead. A German doctor found him and stitched up his wound. Then a second attack delivered the trench to the English. It could only happen to me, he said, wounded by our own blokes and saved by the enemy.
That was one of the few stories that my father told that sounded true in the mundane sense. Most of the stories he told were tall tales, full of magic. Now that I am older I know these tales were also true but in a different way.
Before I was born my father had been a shepherd but most of the farms in our part of Kent grew hops or fruit so I don't remember him ever working at his trade. The family legend said there had been a sheep dog but when I was born it became jealous, overturned my pram and ran away. He was never seen again. Must of got run over, my mother said, sounding wistful as she recounted this tale. I'm sure if there had been a chance of swapping this strange changeling for a more useful Border Collie she would have taken it.
The farm we lived on grew apples, cherries and plums and had a small herd of cattle. We lived in a tithe cottage with an outside toilet and water came from a pump. We washed in a tin bath in front of the fire, the water heated in a big brick copper. Dad started work on the farm just after I was born. There wasn't a cottage available for several months so we lived in a Nissen hut in the middle of an apple orchard. When I was a baby I slept in a manger which may account for delusions of grandeur in later life.
I have now told you most of what I know about my parents. I do not even have a photograph of my father as he feared cameras. Once at Folkestone a seaside photographer snapped him. My father chased him along the sea front hitting him with his walking stick as they went. He finally pinned the man against the wall, the thick walking stick under his chin, and made him expose the entire film. When I was very young I fantasized that my dad's fear of photographs was due to him having a dark past. Perhaps he was on the run, a murderer or a bank robber. As I grew older I put it down to a rural belief in cameras stealing your soul. On another occasion I pointed a toy camera at him, I must have been five or six, and he went into a rage and knocked it out of my hands and it shattered on the concrete of our back yard.
I was fifteen when he died and I find it hard to conjure an accurate picture of his face in my mind. I can see his weather beaten features, the colour of leather, his white hair, long nose and deep set eyes -- but what colour were they? One night in my thirties I woke up from a dream with the conviction that they were blue. So from now on they will be blue.
I can tell you about one other strong memory from my childhood. My father could speak Romany. Every year a family of Gypsies would come to work on the farm. They parked their caravan in the field next to the church. Dad would go down and see that they were okay. He was foreman on the farm and they'd come to help with the fruit picking. One year my father took me with him. He had some bacon, eggs and milk for them. They seemed pleased to see him and made a fuss of me. I remember the woman had prominent teeth and hair that seemed too black to be real. I seem to remember my father calling her Kath. (Katherine? Kathleen? Kate?) My father spoke to them and I couldn't understand a word that he said. "Why are you talking funny?" I asked.
"I'm talking Gypsy talk ain't I?" he said.
Then the Gypsy man said to him, "Ted, I got something special here." He fetched a bottle. I'd never seen a bottle like it before. It was clear glass and shaped like a horse. It was filled with colourless liquid. It looked like water but I knew it wasn't water because my dad didn't drink water. The sun shone through the glass and it looked as if the bottle was filled with light. The man uncorked it and my dad sniffed at it. "Blimey, that will rot your innards, best fetch the glasses."
They all drank from it.
"Can I have some?" I asked.
"No it's too strong for chavis," the man said.
His wife ruffled my hair and gave me some orange squash. It was in a plastic tumbler with a picture of Huckleberry Hound on its side.
"What's a chavi?" I asked.
"There 'e goes agin, always askin' questions," said my dad.
"All kids ask questions, Ted," said the Gypsy woman.
"Not as many as 'im they don't. All the time, why is the sky blue? What does God look like? Does God have a pet dog? Why ain't sausages square so they'd be easier to turn over in the frying pan? Stuff nobody has answers to."
Ignoring this I asked again, "What's a chavi?"
"What did I tell yer, 'es off again."
The Gypsy woman giggled and bent down until her face was level with mine. "It's our Romany word for child."
"What's a Romany?" I asked. I knew I was on a roll here. I could ask as many as they were able to answer, and more.
"That's wot we call ourselves. Gadjes call us Gypsies, but they don't know nuffink. They call us that cos we told 'em we come from Egypt. Gadjes will believe anyfink you tell 'em."
"What's a gadje?"
The woman burst into laughter. "You're right, Ted, regular little question machine 'e is." Then she said, "Gadjes is like you and your old man. People wot live in houses."
"Bill! That's enough now!" said Dad. "Told yer didn't I? Yesterday 'e only asked 'is mum if they had policemen in heaven."
The Gypsy man nearly choked on his drink then, trying not to laugh and with a look of mock horror on his face, he said, "I 'ope there ain't. There's enough of them bleeders now 'ere let alone chasing us around once we get up there."
"I'll drink to that," said my dad and he did.
They knocked back a good third of that bottle, drinking out of little shot glasses. The glasses were different colours, red, blue and green. I couldn't understand why they didn't just have tumblers like the one my orange squash was in instead of those titchy little things. You wouldn't have to keep filling them up.
By the time they stopped drinking the man and woman had to carry my dad home. My mother made him give up the drink after that. I only ever saw him drunk twice. Both times it scared me. I realised later it was because on those occasions he seemed different. He seemed happy.
He'd take me out looking for mushrooms, sometimes he'd take his gun with him and we'd have rabbit pie. I used to hate going into our larder, there was always something dead hanging there. Slit up the front, blood dribbling into a saucer. He showed me how to cook a hedgehog, Gypsy style. Wrapped in clay in the center of a fire. When you pulled off the clay the spines came with it.
He knew a lot about plants, the animals and the seasons, but as I approached my teenage years I stopped listening to him. I was of a generation who yearned for jobs in the town and also I was ashamed of being poor. When I was eleven I left the village Primary school where most of the other kids were the children of farm workers and went to the Secondary Modern. In the 1960s the area began to change, and what had once been a village now became a suburb of the town. Apple orchards became orchards of TV aerials. The fields and woods that I played in became housing estates.
I was the odd one out at school, my clothes came from jumble sales and thrift schops, and I was a natural target for bullies. One day I was sick and my father came to collect me, and to my horror he was still wearing his work clothes. My father wore the uniform of the rural working class: cloth cap and collarless shirt. He hardly ever took his cap off. I can still see my mother placing his dinner in front of him with one hand and lifting his cap with the other.
He must have been doing a particularly dirty job when the school had phoned the farm and asked him to fetch me. He was wearing Wellington boots caked with mud and around his waist an apron made of sacking tied with a belt made of string. A week later when I returned to school, after a bout of flu, a gang of kids surrounded me in the playground.
"Who was that old tramp?" they asked.
"He . . . er . . . he works for my father," I lied.
The strange thing about being a writer is that despite the fictitious nature of the past and its vast size, no matter how much I walk around it, I am unable to edit out that moment. I can't go back there and put different words in my mouth. I can't walk back into that story and tack on a happy little end. Perhaps if you want the past to work with you then you must agree to treat it with some respect. Or perhaps that moment was one of many that made me the person that writes the story, and if I changed it, I would be like one of those time travelers in science fiction stories and cease to exist.
This is the past. Big isn't it? But still hard to hide in even for liars, historians and storytellers.
About the Author: Bill Lewis is a writer, artist, and performance artist in Kent, UK. A founding member of the Medway Poets (an English punk based performance group) and of the Stuckists art movement, his poems and short stories have been published in journals and anthologies around the world. Visit his website to learn more.
Copyright © 1998 by Bill Lewis. This article appeared in Six Days of Hunger: New Writing from the Medway Towns, edited by Sue Price. It may not be reproduced in any form without the author's permission.
Art by John Atkinson Grimshaw (1838-1893), "Gypsy Encampment at Appleby"