On the 19 June 2006 a man caused chaos at a pedestrian crossing near the seafront at Aberystwyth. He threw thousands of cash out of his car window and shouted ‘Who wants free money?!’ Pedestrians scrabbled around for it, picked it up. The police later asked everybody to return it, which they did mostly. The story later got the headline ‘Beyond Dreams of Aberystwyth’ which is a pun based on the Samuel Johnson quote ‘rich beyond dreams of avarice’. Anyway, that’s another story.
Aberystwyth was where my Dad – long before he became ‘my Dad’ – a handsome young man called Ronald, full of life bursting outwards and dreams of being an actor – had a relationship with a woman called Margie. Fireworks. A child was conceived – a little girl called Jackie, who he never met.
Over 30 years later I went to Aberystwyth to do my degree, and knew nothing of that. There I spent three of the most miserable years of my life – but that’s another story. Aberystwyth has many stories to tell.
Spirits crossing each other
like stones thrown into the sea.
My father and I first met in Toronto, that’s where I was born – at Women’s College Hospital to be exact. On the last day of my travels I decided to go and have a look on my way to the subway to the airport – it happened it was just round the corner from the B&B where I’d been staying.
I’ve always been rather chuffed to have been born at Women’s College Hospital. It was founded by suffragist Dr Emily Stowe in 1883 and is dedicated to women’s health and the training and employment of women. What a marvellous place to start! I found myself moved by the politics of struggle that had created and sustained that place, and by my parents and their instinctive commitment to equality and justice – their delight at me being born there too. I was born under the care of ‘Dr Kate’. They had their faults but my parents gave me something wonderful when they gave me those kind of values at the beginning of life.
Funny thing, being born. This place is so many miles, so many moons from my current life, but this is where I began. I felt strangely conscious for the first time about that moment of birth – that this place was where it started for me, where I walked through the gateway, came into being in this life. My Dad will have been there, will have visited while taking care of my sister at home, must have come to collect my Mum and me a week or so later and driven us home to Richmond Hill. Hello world. Hello Dad.
I don’t know how becoming a family man sat with my Dad – I was his first child born after Jackie, my elder sister Sarah was adopted. My brother was born a year later. I know he loved us all enormously – and I also know he was a quiet father, shutdown – as if perhaps we conjured up the shadow of another child, left behind, muddled feelings he couldn’t go into. But that would be his story.
Time to go home. The last journey involved a short flight from Toronto to Chicago before the long-haul across the Atlantic. I remembered we’d made a similar journey in 1972 when we left Canada, when we’d gone via New York. I’ve heard many times as family myths are, the story of my brother, sister and I toddling across tarmac in our pyjamas, me trailing my security blanket like Linus in the Peanuts cartoon. As I sat on the plane at Chicago waiting for take-off the memories of leaving this great continent for the first time came back to me – this continent I had enjoyed so much and found an old sense of home these last 4 weeks – and I really cried – for the end of my trip, for lost parents, for the things you never know and can never go back for. I went all over the world but in the end – I don’t know why my Dad left Margie. I don’t know why he never made contact with Jackie or even how it all sat with him. How could I? He’s gone.
On 17 February 2009 my father died. A year later I made this trip, searching for something. I hadn’t been anywhere that was even remotely the same as when he lived there, or found out anything concrete – not about him in the Far East, or about our ancestors in Eastern Europe, or from family friends in North America. This story isn’t the truth – it couldn’t be – it’s speculation, fantasy based on loose facts, loaded memories, wishful thinking and hear-say. Travelogue and auto-biographical myth-making. All me.
I really began this journey a few months earlier – at Aberystwyth.
It had been a long time since I had been there, since I had walked its grey west-facing sea-front, searching for myself under stones and at student societies. I knew nothing about my Dad’s time there. I was lost in my own fog of late adolescence – part of me got stuck at Aberystwyth then. The colourful adult life I visioned for myself in childhood never quite started. So I suppose it was inevitable that at some point I would have to go back to Aber to get it. And it was my Dad who took me there.
Wherever you go you never get away from yourself, isn’t that the whole point of quests? And so I had found something – parts of myself, and maybe of my Dad and the ancestors too -in Chicago when I stood on stage and had a little moment of glory; in Braila, Romania, the pre-war childhood home of my grandmother and the place of my & my father’s roots; in Hong Kong where my Dad was in the Orson Welles movie. And Aberystwyth. Somewhere along the way I’d found compassion for the confused young man who had had his dreams; who made a mess of things with a woman he got pregnant; who was brought up by a generation in the shadow of the Holocaust who had reason to cut off from the past; a man who did terrible something to himself when he cut off from his child that he had to live with in his own way. I made peace, let go, and re-wrote some of the stories I’d lived by.
My Dad had had dreams beyond Aberystwyth – and so did I. One of mine, that seemed to get stuck there, was for a creative career. One cold January morning in the middle of all this I was up very early walking, and wondering what the point of all those stuck years was? As the sun rose, bursting through the clouds spectacularly, it seemed to say ‘…just do your Aberystwyth project’ – as if then all would become clear. So -unconvinced – not exactly sure what the project was – I did.
A year after I made this trip and wrote the blog on which this Online Book is based I began to write something else. It was a performance piece, a bit of a poem threaded through it, and involved a suitcase, some slideshows and the film clip of my Dad in the Hong Kong Orson Welles movie. I wasn’t sure what it was but alongside the performance poetry I was doing I started to show it to people. A director Dick Bonham became interested, some theatres and in 2012, the Arts Council. I get the drama from my Dad. In March 2013 ‘Beyond Dreams of Aberystwyth’ became a Show that went on at Theatre in the Mill Bradford, the Lowry, Salford and the Carriageworks in Leeds. Somehow Aberystwyth had brought me the creative life I wanted after all. Never ignore a good sunrise.
I made this journey – and I tell this story – in honour of Jackie and my Dad – a parent and child who never met. Whatever my father’s reasons and fears for never crossing that threshold, they have gone now with him. On his death his brother my uncle felt free to tell me and my siblings about Jackie – the daughter of his wife’s cousin Margie who my uncle was still in contact with and who cried when he told her he’d died. Building relationships between myself, my siblings and Jackie and Margie is something my father could never do but has been healing for all of us – and proves that the longest shut doors can be opened. A new sister! I remain deeply grateful to Jackie and her mother for their openness, welcome and their permission and collaboration as regards this project.
People often ask me about Jackie… but that’s another story.
Aberystwyth has many stories to tell.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Emma Decent 2010
I went on a journey to faraway places
starting at Aberystwyth.
The sea was blue that day,
It was a journey
putting away of the past
spirits walk the earth,
crossing many nations
in pursuit of happiness.
High hopes for the children.
Go east, for a new beginning
adventure and rebirth in exotic lands.
My Daddy swam in the South China Sea
amongst junks and dreams and secrets.
I went on a journey
and found that the past is gone
the dead cannot explain themselves
and the world rolls relentlessly on
in willful disregard of making sense of itself.
Spirits crossing each other, circles overlapping
like stones thrown into the sea –
a grey Aberystwyth sea at sunset.
One for broken hearts
one for broken dreams
one for every petty forgetfulness
one for every life-wrecking screw-up
And one to mark the end.
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