“This is an urgent message for Mr Morris. This is Greater Manchester Police; we’ve been trying to get in touch with you for several days. Could you please phone the Wigan station as soon as possible, on 01942 …”
I rolled my eyes as I stood in the main foyer of Santiago Airport. I’d been ‘offline’ for around 10 days, since leaving New Zealand, and it always seems that whenever I ‘disappear’ for a while, something ‘important’ happens, like the car park outside my office floods, or my friend breaks up with one of her boyfriends again.
But this was different. I hadn’t set foot in Greater Manchester for over a year, I didn’t know anyone specifically in Wigan, and I’d certainly had no run-ins with the police since an altercation at Lincoln railway station involving a ticket barrier, five years previously. I hung up on voicemail slightly apprehensively, and looked at the time on my phone – by the time I reached the hostel, the police station back in the UK would have signed off for the evening. I figured that they’d been trying to contact me for four days, leaving several voicemails, so they could wait until tomorrow.
They say you should always be sat down in comfortable surroundings when you hear bad news. I was sitting on one of the upper bunks in my 6-bed hostel dorm room, unable to feel truly comfortable on either the mattress, which was harder than an Inca statue, nor the wooden frame of the bed, with my sandalled feet dangling over the edge – if there’s one thing I dislike more than wearing shoes it’s clambering up dorm ladders barefoot. Facing me, behind another two-bed bunk, was an unadorned wall painted in primary-school red and yellow – most of the hostel was decorated in similar simple, plain, bright colours. The room itself, a sparse rectangle but brightened by the light streaming through a large wall of window to my right, was empty save the detritus of three other backpackers – a pair of motorcycle boots, a small rucksack on the lower bed in front of me, a couple of towels draped over chairs and bed-frames, a small selection of maps and leaflets, and, on the bottom bed of the bunks to my left, a well-thumbed copy of the ‘Lonely Planet’ guide to South America, in French.
I wasn’t looking forward to making the call – everyone gets nervous when they talk to the Police even if the most they’ve ever broken the law is driving 31 in a 30 zone. I was also not looking forward to receiving the phone bill this month. Tentatively I dialled the number on my mobile – still confused as to what it could be about. Mistaken identity? Has someone been using my details abroad in some huge fraud scheme? – I’d been using my debit card in some slightly suspect places on my round-the-world trip so far. Or has my house been robbed and what remained of my worldly possessions been found burning in a skip in Wigan? Whatever it was, I believed it was definitely negative.
“I’m sorry to be the bearer of rather bad news” said the officer at the other end of the line. I listened, asked the usual questions of ‘how’ and ‘when’, and was informed what the next steps would be – involving mainly more phone calls. I came off the call feeling partly empty, but also partly non-plussed, not really sure I knew how I should have felt. My father was dead.
I never knew my real dad. My mother divorced when I was just a baby – indeed not long after we were discharged from hospital. It seems to have been an acrimonious separation; my firm-minded grandmother – the sort of proto-feminist matriarch so common of the time who saw Margaret Thatcher not just as a role model, but also simply as ‘one of us’ – ripped his image out of all the photographs she could find. Sometimes it was his whole body, but on others where she couldn’t, just his head. I have pictures of my mother’s wedding day where the groom is a man in a dark suit and tie, white shirt, and a head of, well, wood, carpet, sofa fabric, whatever the picture is resting on at the time, like one of those wooden sets popular at seasides where you stick your head through and be photographed as if you are a cartoon figure or a sailor or some such. My dad was that to me: faceless, unreal, just an outline. I’m not sure I even know what he looked like, and apart from eyebrows, my family have never commented on any resemblance I have to him. They also never talked about him, although being honest I never proactively asked; all I knew is that he’d remarried and had a second family, and presumably had never ventured beyond Wigan. And now he was dead – I wondered what he’d have thought about his firstborn travelling the world? Would he have approved? Was he rather the sort of ‘fish and chips and the English seaside was good enough for my dad and it’s good enough for me’ person quite common in the North at that time? Did he even know I still existed? And why was it me being told: someone with no memory of him at all, for whom he was just a name, nothing more than half my DNA – what about his current family?
“The nest nestled nicely in the nook on the North of Nuncargate.”
We were sat outside a cafe in the old town of Valparaiso, on the Chilean Pacific coast, playing word games in our respective languages. Opposite me was Nathalie, a 20-something French girl with long dark hair wrapped into a bun, a black woollen cardigan draped over a cream blouse; casual and practical, yet still effortlessly chic. She was travelling alone around South America but, unlike me, was nearing the end of her trip. On my left was Eric, an American of indeterminate age who seemed to favour the 1950s denim look – retro cool. He was following in the tyre tracks of Che Guevara, but had left his motorbike in Santiago in order to come with us to the coast.
“Le ver vert va vers le verre vert” giggled Nathalie into her tea.
Receiving a phone call from a solicitor is inconvenient at the best of times; hearing a 1970s TV jingle in the centre of Chile whilst chatting with new-found friends is just abhorrent. I made my embarrassed excuses and stepped away from the table before answering the phone.
“No, I can’t sign any forms, because I’m in Chile.” Pause. “No, I don’t have a fax machine, because, oh wait, I’m in Chile.” I was becoming somewhat exasperated by now. “I don’t know yet. March, I think. Yes, I know March is a long time away but I’m travelling around the world. No, I’m not going to come back to the UK just to sign some sodding paperwork, unless you pay for it. Bah!”
“Having a problem there?” asked Eric, as I returned to the table.
I breathed in, held my breath for a couple of seconds, put my palms face-down on the table, and breathed out. “Admin.” I replied, dismissively. “No, well, that was a solicitor back in the UK. I’m, how do I put this, a relative died and I seem to be the sole benefactor of his estate.”
“Oh, sorry to hear,” sympathised Nathalie, warmly, resting her hand platonically on mine. “Close relative?”
“No,” I responded, “only my father.” Seeing a raised eyebrow from my friends, I continued. “No, no, I mean, I never knew him, he left not long after I was born. But because I’m his first child, they needed to tell me.”
“Still sad though,” commiserated Eric. “What happened?”
“Heart Attack, apparently, I don’t know the full details so I don’t know if it was expected or not. All I do know is that he seems to have died without making a will.”
“What does that mean?” asked Nathalie.
“Well, it means that when he died, rather than everything he owned passing over to people he chose to, it automatically becomes the responsibility of his next of kin. As his first-born child, that’s me. After my mother divorced him, he remarried and had a family, but he divorced them as well, so regardless of marriages, as his oldest child, it passes to me.”
“Ooh,” said Nathalie, “so what did you get.”
Back in the hostel in Santiago, we crowded around my laptop in the large common room-dining area. “Man, that’s a bit ugly.” exclaimed Eric, looking at the screen. “That’s not worth going back for!”
“How very English!” observed Nathalie.
I’d been told by the solicitor that my father had been running his own business from home, a profitable going concern in a town close to Wigan. I’d expected it to be some kind of building service firm, a plumbers or a joiners, but when they told me it was called ‘Vinny’s Plaice’, my heart sank. My father’s only assets were a fish-and-chip shop, and the flat above it, at the end of a row of 1930s red-brick terraced housing on a road junction in the town of Appeley Bridge. Looking at it through an online street view website, the house next door to it had cardboard in lieu of a front window, a couple of front yards along the street were covered in weeds, the area below the front window of the shop itself was littered with empty polythene fish-and-chip cartons, and, as there were no people visible (or had been edited out), I couldn’t help but imagine this image had been taken not long after some extinction event and this was a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Maybe then it was exactly as I’d expected.
“It’s grim up North,” I mused, sadly.
“What will you do?” asked Eric. “Will you go back and, ha, ‘reclaim your inheritance’?”
“Only if you’ve got matches and some lighter fuel. Oh wait, that will only improve the place.” I sighed and slumped back in my chair. “Bugger. Well … I guess I have to see what it’s like, it’s mine now, people work there I guess … It’s funny, it’s the kind of place I grew up in, but I don’t feel attached to it, I’ve kind of moved on. Does that sound snobbish? Pretentious? Maybe I should be prouder of my roots; here I am poking the world with a big stick, maybe I should do something back home for the community, they won’t ever have the kind of life I’m living. Maybe that’s wrong. Maybe I’m thinking too much about myself, not enough about the people.” I slowly stood up, assuming a Churchillian pose. “These are the lands of Simon Bolivar, Che Guevara, and Salvador Allende, who cared about the common people, who fought for them, and died for them. Maybe this is a calling for me to do the same for the people of Wigan, for the North, for socialism!”
“Maybe this is a calling that you need more beer.” responded Eric. Deflated by the response to my call to arms, I sat back down. “Anyway, Che was the world’s worst revolutionary. He was carried along in Cuba, completely failed in Congo, and didn’t even do the research in Bolivia; he was doomed to failure before he even started. Bolivar died penniless and forgotten after his newly-liberated states rolled onwards away from him and out of his control. And Allende himself had questionable policies whilst in office, and may have ended up leading a country more closely resembling China than Norway.”
“I know, I know,” I sighed, “though in part that’s why I’m here. Tomorrow’s 9/11, the anniversary of his overthrow by Pinochet, I’m just interested to see how it’s commemorated.”
We sat in silence for a few moments. I reflected on what I wanted in life, on why I was travelling at all. Was it because I wanted to see the world? Was it because I wanted to see what humans could do to each other, to better understand why we are who we are? Or was I trying to find myself, and what I was useful for – ‘A quoi tu sers, pourquoi t’es la?’ as the song goes.
“Will you go back, you think?” asked Nathalie.
I thought for a second. “Yes,” I said, “it’ll be a journey and an adventure in itself.”