The problem with telling a lie is that it takes on a life of it’s own. A hint, the merest suggestion is interpreted and, if not denied, is accepted as truth by those who wish to believe. It can be difficult to remember exactly how it began. It can be difficult to deal with the fallout when it unravels.
I was determined to escape my upbringing. The men of my family had worked on the land for generations. When the factories opened some of the brothers picked up skills (and off cuts) to supplement the family income. We were never hungry but our wealth was in the woods and fields. The menfolk did not trust the banks.
All seemed well until the state began to regulate everything. How does the family build a house for each newly married couple when permission must be sought, building regulations followed? And then the kids had to go to school. It got them out from under their mother’s feet but they missed learning how to plant, grow and make. The old skills were being lost.
I loved the school. My brothers, sisters and cousins did the bare minimum, skiving off whenever they could get away with it, knowing that the family did not care. So long as they pulled their weight when the seeds were sown and the crops harvested, so long as they remembered to tend to the livestock. I got more whacks than any of them for getting lost in a book when I was supposed to be chopping wood for the fire or mending a fence. ‘What good will that do you?’ they asked.
It was the fire that changed the course of my life. My father died trying to save my newly born brother, my mother three weeks later from the grief of it all. The house was burned to the ground and all we owned with it. That’s what comes of building the way we did they said. What did they know?
There were enough aunts and uncles to take us all in but I saw my chance. I signed up for the navy, saw the world and escaped my destiny, or so I thought at the time. Nobody whacked me any more for reading the books. I made sure that I followed orders and pulled my weight. When the others were off with the rum and the whores I enjoyed the solitude I had craved on the farm.
Still, it wasn’t the forever life I wanted. I served my time then used the money I saved to get some letters after my name, went to where nobody knew me and started again. It was then that I told the lie.
She was more beautiful than I had dreamed was possible. She had a rich daddy and her own place down town. She told me that she had signed up for my course because she was bored with the cocktail parties and the endless stream of identical, eligible men. She wanted some of the passion and adventure that we read about in the books we studied. I was happy to oblige.
I guess I felt the need to be mysterious, desirable, to fulfil her expectations. I somehow needed to convince her parents that I deserved the hand of their only child. It started out as the truth then veered away. I was an orphan, displaced following the tragic loss of my parents, taking to the sea as I had nowhere else to go. The loss of the land that my parents had owned bothered them more than I could comprehend.
She wanted to go back and stake a claim. I wondered what she would make of the family who would laugh in her face at the idea. The land belonged to us all, yet to no one in particular. I wondered if that too had changed under state control.
But to her the family did not exist because I chose not to talk of them. I did not explain that the land had supported us all, that the house that had burned down had been but a few rooms, timber framed, built by his uncles when my father married. I allowed her to picture a country estate with a manor house and valuable heirlooms, lost in the fire or stolen from an innocent child.
She had changed since we had got married. I was no longer the intriguing academic. I did not know how to talk to the friends she invited to the cocktail parties that she now chose to host. I embarrassed her with my rough talk and my many faux pas.
In the quiet of the night I told our children the stories from my childhood. She thought I was making them up and suggested I write them down, sell them on, so I did. The publicity pleased her but surprised and frightened me. Had I stolen someone else’s stories? I did not know their origin, only that they were my mother’s and her mother’s before.
The publisher’s contract demanded that I be interviewed, attend book signings, smile and wave at potential readers. My wife loved me again, basking in the glow of my fame. Every day I expected it all to unravel, for someone to say that the stories were not mine to sell. Like the land I had left they belonged to everyone and to no one. I had no right to take them for my own.
In the end it was my brother who saw my picture in a magazine and tracked me down. Turns out I wasn’t the only child of my generation to leave. Bemused by the life I had created he played along, explaining to my wife that the land had been carved up for tax reasons, large chunks of it sold on for housing. I could see that she felt cheated, annoyed that these cousins and siblings existed, that I was not the man she thought she had married.
He knew that I had stolen the stories, that the legacy I enjoyed was worth more than that which I had left behind. Yet still he thanked me for writing it all down, for allowing him to read our family tales to his children, to pass them on. The money was not an issue, nor the fame. My brother valued more the possibility of endurance for what had seemed an ephemeral part of our shared past.
When the book was reprinted it was dedicated to the woman who had granted me my future without realising it. My mother had never learned to read, but she could bring to life a story that offered hope and possibility in a world of physical hardship and conflict. I no longer deny that I am a product of the land of my fathers. The lies were embellishments, plot twists in the story of a life I may someday write down. It is my mother’s legacy that has made me what I am today.