‘Wish in one hand and spit in the other and see which hand gets filled first.’
That’s what my father used to say to me all the time when I was growing up. I never liked it. It always made me feel cheated when he used to answer my questions with that comment.
I can still see him now so clearly, bending over the engine of a car. His body half eaten by the bonnet. His hands stained with a blackness not of ink and the smell, the nutty, oily smell of grease that was so much a part of his own aroma.
‘Pass me the wrench, Lilly.’ He’d mutter, his voice muffled by the metal shield of the car. His words distorting themselves as they bounced of the cold metal kissing the air like a slur. I used to sit on the grass beside his toolbox and watch him tinker away.
He was a man of constant motion and few words. Some perhaps would have said a man of limited ideas too. But I think they would be wrong. He had ideas all right. They just weren’t concerned with anything but grease and oil, tyres and panels and the problems that lie there in.
I think perhaps, he should have married a car. Seeing as how cars were of more tangible importance to him than either mother or I were. If I had not sat out in the yard with him, he would never have seen me at all.
I wonder what he was to my mother?
I know that he was a reluctant figure in my own life. A shadow passing through, forever on the way to work or bed or out to tinker on the car in the back yard.
The old rust bucket whose doors were falling off, and whose interior looked as if it had been pummelled and pulled at by an entire gymnastics team, formed the backdrop for all of our father and daughter discussions. Not that you could call them that. Me staring up at him and longing for him to stop his banging and clanging and simply sit down on the grass with me and talk about my books and he probably wishing that I would go off and play somewhere else instead of pestering him about the wonders of words. Our conversations used to go something like this.
‘Toss us the wrench Lilly.’
My hand would dart into the toolbox and without lifting my nose out of my book I’d single the big wrench out. I’d stand, holding words in one hand and wrench in the other and extend the heavy arm out to him.
‘Hand it over girl.’ He’d growl and that growl would be accompanied by a chunky, white arm covered in unsightly tufts of thick coarse black hair, slicked down in places by globules of grease, forming whirl pools on his forearms which held his hairs captive.
Some sort of grunt in reply.
‘Do you think I could have a book for my birthday?’
I’d keep my eyes down as I asked this question, not that he was looking at me, but I never wanted to betray the light heartedness I tried to inject into my voice, with the desperation of my eyes.
‘Bloody thing.’ Hand us the ratchet would you girl.’
I’d squat down and lift up the ratchet to the hand that would be waving impatiently in the air somewhere near my head.
‘I know what book I’d like. I could write it down for you.’
Bang, clank, rattle. His body would move in time with the noise of his hands. His belly would spill over the top of his keenly ironed work trousers and his white t-shirt would be showing multiple signs of distress.
‘Stupid bloody piece of junk. I ought to pay someone to take it away.’
‘Dad? About the book.’
‘Lilly, wish in one hand and spit in the other.’
‘I know, I know, and see which one gets filled first.’
‘Well if you know, don’t bloody be so stupid as to ask then.’
It always felt more of an insult to me, than an attempt to pass on wisdom. I know what he was saying though. He was saying that reality is all and that desire is nothing. Least that’s the way his words had always tumbled into my ears.
I wonder right now if he was right about that.
Is desire really worth nothing more than an empty hand and is reality nothing more than spit on a wrist?
And of the two extremes which hand am I now holding up, the full or the empty?
Though I am sure that I am not here out of any great desire to be so, accordingly this then must be reality, and if this place is my reality then what is my desire?
For I cannot remember ever having one right now, except that my father might have taken the time to talk to me back then.
Back when I was as real as the spit on his hands and the dream of getting that old car going again was as futile as grabbing at fist full of empty air.