My father was a hedger and ditcher. My mother did nothing but spin, but hers is a tale for another time. In those long years of hedging and ditching, my father learned much, perhaps too much, about the birds that nest in hedges and the creeping things that slither in ditches. With infantile enthusiasm, I used to tell my father he should write a book about the birds and the creeping things. Sometimes, when I babbled so, he grunted. Sometimes he coughed up phlegm and spat it into the embers. And sometimes he boxed my ears. Or rather, ear, for I was born with but one, on the left side of my head. Where the right ear ought to have been there was a patch of fur, rough and bristly fur, in the shape of a hoof. That, like my mother and her endless, demented spinning, is a tale for another time.
My father was not a bookish man, so the idea that he should write about the life-forms he found in his hedges and ditches was outwith his wits. Strictly speaking, he was not illiterate. He could write his name, and the name of my mother, and possibly even my name, and he was familiar I think with the formation of the words hedge and ditch and bird and creeping and thing, and of some others, such as toadstool and post office and President Nixon. And he could read, though the only book I ever saw him pore over, tongue lolling out of his mouth, was Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. In the few leisure hours he enjoyed, he preferred to paint vast inexplicable apocalyptic landscapes, in oils or watercolour or gesso. They were artistically worthless, according to the tastes of the time, and of all times, and he knew as much. Nonetheless, he had me give his paintings Latin titles, to lend them, he hoped, an air of profundity. I never told him that my Latin was ill-taught, by Mistress Pilbeam, and ill-learned, and thus would be laughed at by elegant nobs in salons, had ever any of his paintings been hung in one. As it was, they were stacked, slowly rotting, in a spare barn on a farm along the lane, forgotten.
I know only too well that others have written of birds in hedges, and creeping things in ditches, with greater facility than my father could ever muster. And yet, when I stand at his tombstone, every Friday afternoon, clutching my little fistful of chrysanthemums, I weep for that unwritten book. I weep, too, because what I know about hedges and ditches, and the birds and the creeping things that nest and slither within them, would not make a sentence, nor a paragraph, let alone a mighty, timeless tome such as my father could have written. What do we do, when we know what is lost?