I knew before anybody told me. I was kicking a tennis ball around the backyard and I knew.
All I remember of that day is the silence. And I don’t just mean quiet. I mean dead silence. No murmur of cars passing the house; no spring breeze through the cherry trees in the garden. Even the house-martins nesting in the eaves seemed to mime their twittering. It’s as if someone has turned the volume on my memory to mute. Or perhaps the whole day had been padded with bubble-wrap and sealed inside a box marked “fragile”.
And then the phone rang, shattering it. And I knew.
But it wasn’t any psychic phenomenon. It was the way my brother answered that phone. Not what he said, but what he didn’t say. What he didn’t say was, “How is he? Did it go ok? When’s he coming home?” There was none of that, just more piercing silence. That’s how I knew.
And I just carried on. Carried on kicking that battered tenniser around the yard. Only harder now. I remember focusing on a spot on the coal shed door and trying, with every bit of strength my eleven-year-old legs could muster, to put a hole through that door with the ball.
Eventually my brother came out to talk to me. But I swear I can’t remember a word he said. I can picture him knelt next to me, staring at the flagstones as he spoke. But it’s like a frame from an old home movie: his lips are moving but there’s no sound coming out. I guess he was trying to prepare me, to prepare me for the possibility, without actually saying, “Dad’s dead.”
We waited. God knows how long we waited, but by the time mum got back from the hospital I didn’t feel anything. She told us, making it official: he wasn’t coming home. But I couldn’t respond. In the end I had to force myself to cry just to break the silence.
And later that evening we sat numbly in front of the tele. I don’t recall which American sit-com was on and I certainly don’t remember the joke. But I do remember laughing. I remember laughing out loud. And I’ve never felt so guilty.