Coal dust covered the land of my youth. I grew up among the mining villages in the old Kingdom of Mercia, where everyone knew someone who worked in the deep dark. My grandfather had missing fingers and a crumbling spine from the days he spent up to his neck in deep water after a tunnel collapse. The doctor took out his eyes to wash the coal dust from behind them.
It was a place secretly ruled by women, but where the men pretended to be kings and the women let them do it. Men in pubs, swilling beer and laughing till they cried. Men taunting other men because humour was the only way to combat death always standing at your shoulder.
My mother gave me books. She ensured I was the only one in my class who could already read when I rolled up for my first day of school. My father…well, I knew he read vast amounts. We were one of the few houses in the street with a wall filled with well-thumbed books. But he was one of the men of that area, who laughed a lot but kept a huge part of themselves hidden away in the dark. Still, he taught me a lot. To work hard. To look after the people around you. And always to put the women first.
He left the mine when I was still young, at my mother’s urging, and landed a job as an engineer, working away from home for the entire week. Distant though he sometimes seemed, it still broke my heart when I saw him packing his case on a Sunday night. And after a while, he worked away for months at a time, in Spain, Belgium, the Middle East.
But when he returned home it was always a celebration. One day he brought me back the first of Stephen Donaldson’s fantasy novels about Thomas Covenant and urged me to read it. That stunned me. Firstly, that he was giving me a book to read. Secondly, that he loved a fantasy novel – it seemed so at odds with the down-to-earth man he presented to the world. That was when I started to realise there were deep tunnels inside him, ones that I had never explored.
In 1990, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. I still recollect my shock when I saw the headlines. That was where my father was working. For days, there was no news. Hope that the British embassy might have helped him get to safely slowly ebbed.
The Iraqi forces took him prisoner at gunpoint and sent him to a concentration camp in northern Iraq. He became one of Saddam’s human shields, westerners sent to strategic sites in a desperate attempt to stop the US and Britain bombing them.
Eventually we were allowed an exchange of letters. My father asked for a book – he was bored with nothing to read. I sent him a fantasy novel: Samuel Delaney’s Tales of Neveryon. When he was released, he confided in me, in a way that he rarely did, how much of a comfort that book was.
That event threw life off-kilter. It was a time of worry, desperation, never knowing if we would hear the news that my father had been executed. My mother came down to my flat in London where I was working, and slept on a camp bed. Every morning we sat before the TV news, hoping. My family had always been close. I had an idyllic childhood, and though we rarely had much, times always seemed good.
Still in her fifties, my mother died shortly after my father was freed. The strain of those long weeks…months…proved too much for her health. I returned to the Midlands to help my father through the hard time of grieving, and never went back. In the years that followed, I got to know him better than I ever had. He liked a good tale, did my father. A fantastical story with heroes and bad guys and overwhelming supernatural force.
A few years later, he too died, after a rapid descent into dementia. The doctors believed it had been caused by inhaling the toxins from the oil fields Saddam had set alight during his period of imprisonment.
And yet most of all I remember the gift of white gold magic that my father had given me. What it said about the hidden parts of a man, and what it illuminated, to me, in someone so close, and yet so distant. I think about the power of imaginative stories in the real world. I think about how we all need them so much; and why.