The King of Volnia

My father used to drive a taxi.  He gave that up because his back hurt too much.  He worked for a while as a security guard, then as a caretaker in a big high school.  He became fed up with that when the children began calling him ‘smelly old man’.

‘Be off with you, spotty youth,’ he would yell back, ‘I am the King of Volnia’.

He wasn’t old really, but he looked it.  Many of my friend’s fathers looked half his age.  It was his beard, his bald head, his worries.  He could have been a king in a play, if someone lent him a crown.

When I was fourteen he said he wanted to tell me something important.  He rarely spoke to me at all.  If it wasn’t ‘behave!’ it was ‘do as your mother tells you’, both orders coming from his face behind a beard behind a newspaper on the sofa.

That miserable Sunday afternoon he asked me to wait at the kitchen table.  He returned with a big dusty old book.  At first I thought it was a bible.  It wasn’t.

‘Look,’ he said, ‘this book has been in the family for a hundred years.’  He opened it randomly at a page in tiny spidery ink.  ‘This is the diary of your ancestors.’  He turned to the last quarter.  I recognised three or four pages in his handwriting.  ‘I’ve done my bit, told my life story.  I want you to have this, read it if you like, although most of it is incomprehensible.  When you get to my age, write your life story, pass it on to your children.’

And that was it.  He lit a cigarette and disappeared into another room.

I come to that time now.  It isn’t easy.  My father’s entry, in three pages, is chaotic.

…to twelve o’clock every night.  When I get home everyone is asleep.  I talk to nobody.  The King of Volnia lives apart from his people.  Our holidays in the mountains, our sleek panthers.

This, at least, is written in sentences.  Most of it is far more obscure.

summon the gatekeeper – stewed fruit and cold custard – spies in our midst, the pigeons, the woodwork – those chords are not right when I met with the minister of…

The last line of his short contribution to the diary of generations goes like this.

I am the King of Volnia.  Volnia is gone.  I am no longer recognised.  My sons, my daughters, find your own country!

I come to my own entry.  My daughter plays the piano in the other room.  I have to sit here nibbling my pen until I can come up with something.  So I begin.

My father used to drive a taxi.  He gave that up because his back hurt too much.  He worked for a while as a security guard, then as a caretaker in a big high school.  He became fed up with that when the children began calling him ‘stupid old man’.

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