Memories of dad and animals by Rose Bretécher:
A dead magpie peeked around the bedroom door and said ‘Hello’
If you were asked to write about your father, what would you say?
Ted Kessler posed this question to a number of well-known names for his book, My Old Man: Tales of Our Fathers. Their responses, by turns funny, tender and heartbreaking, offer a unique opportunity to reflect on our own relationships with our dads—who they really are, and how we come to understand ourselves through them.
In this exclusive extract, author and writer Rose Bretécher shares memories of her dad and animals.
Frogspawn – 1990
You came into Year One with a tank of frogspawn from our garden to show the boys and girls in my class. You said the funny clear stuff, which is like jelly, protects the little dots inside that will one day be frogs. You said they wouldn’t survive without it. You said the adult frogs return to the place of their birth every year. The boys and girls in my class all looked into the tank and asked you a lot questions and I was proud because you were my dad.
Pigs – 1991
You took me and my brother to see the pigs on the twisty lane next to Hunkers Wood, where dormice and adders and skylarks lived. You sang your Pigs Lane song, which sounded a lot like your Heigh-Ho song and your Cow Lane song.
“You said the adult frogs return to the place of their birth every year… I was proud because you were my dad.”
Puppy – 1992
You picked up the puppy and she fitted in your hand she was so tiny. When you put her in the basket by our kitchen door she cried and you touched her head and told her she was a good girl. You showed me how to stroke her without stretching her eyelids back.
Swallows – 1994
You took me for a walk on the Malvern Hills, which are as big as mountains, when the swallows were migrating in summer. Thousands and thousands, all the way to the Nile Valley, you said. You put me on your shoulders even though I was too big for that now, so I could try to reach them. You said I was at the top of the world.
Long-tailed tits – 1997
You wouldn’t let me take them straight away, because you said the mother bird might come back, but when a cat started coming across the lawn you brought them inside. They were like two tiny balls of cotton wool and their eyes were like tiny black beads. They were shivering and I wanted to hold them to keep them warm but you wouldn’t let me. You said I could talk to them while you went to find worms and caterpillars, and I did, but they died. I said it wasn’t fair and you said Nature isn’t fair, and I stomped away from you.
“You put me on your shoulders even though I was too big for that now, so I could try to reach them. You said I was at the top of the world.”
Tadpoles – 1998
The tadpoles were nearly adults, so you said I ought to see them while I had the chance. They still couldn’t live independently outside the pond, you said, but they were coming closer to the surface because they were starting to breathe in a different way. I groaned and walked off. You’d shown me them a trillion times before.
Woodlice – 2000
I was trying to make a good impression because it was the first time my sister’s boyfriend had been round for dinner. You came in from the garage and demanded to know who’d been spitting on the woodlice in the back loo.
Pheasant – 2002
I was bored on a Saturday afternoon when you came home with a dead pheasant. You’d accidentally run it over and thought it’d be fun to show me how to pluck and gut it. It was totally gross. You held up the kidneys to your ears like earrings. I told you I had better things to do and went into town.
Dog – 2004
I was away at uni when the dog got put to sleep, but you told me about it on the phone. While it was happening you touched her head and told her she was good girl.
Magpie – 2011
I was up from London with my new boyfriend. It was the first time you’d met him. In the morning, while we were still in bed, a dead magpie peeked around the bedroom door and said, “Hello,” then did a little dance to a tune that sounded a lot like your Pigs Lane song. You’d found the bird in the garden and thought it too beautiful not to show us. My boyfriend took a photo. I love that photo more than words can say.
“My boyfriend took a photo. I love that photo more than words can say.”
Frogs – 2015
I called you on my way home from work, tired and clammy from the Central Line. When you answered you were breathless because you’d rushed up from the garden, where you’d been showing your granddaughter the new frogs under the beech ferns by the pond. I was jealous. You once said that adult frogs return to the place of their birth every year. So often, in the big city, I want to return to mine.
Loneliness leaves a child unsure of their place in the world, it inhibits their development, and it deprives them the need to give and receive love. Between 14–20 June we’re exploring how isolation impacts lives, and we’re celebrating the bonds of family—where children belong.
Buy Ted Kessler’s My Old Man: Tales from our Fathers from Bookshop.org and all good booksellers.
Copyright © Individual Contributors, 2016
Selection and Introduction © Ted Kessler, 2016
Extracts from My Old Man: Tales from our Fathers reproduced with permission of Canongate Books Ltd.