Fathers and sons

When you catch the same train to work day after day you get to know many of your fellow commuters – and when I say know, I mean recognise. It’s rare that there’s any meaningful interaction. The faces are familiar, the styles, even the spots where they sit, but except in rare circumstances everyone is so immersed in their own, secular world – music, book, newspaper – that no contact occurs (though there was a girl last year I would exchange enigmatic smiles with, and the occasional inclination of the head).

I don’t always catch the same train, but generally, it’s one of two. Most mornings one of the commuters getting on (at Middle Brighton) is a tall, slim man in his mid-forties. He’s a handsome man with a well-trimmed salt and pepper beard and hair approaching a bohemian length while remaining professional. He dresses immaculately, though in slightly old-fashioned attire (immaculate is passe these days). In winter particularly it shows out. He wears tweed, often three-piece suits, with an elegant topcoat like few wear these days. I admire his style and individuality, which I emulate in some ways, though with a more contemporary outlook.

Yesterday I left work around 1.30 to go home, where I worked the rest of the afternoon. The train was mostly empty, but sitting nearby me was this man with his son. On this occasion, he was dressed in shorts and a shirt with boat shoes. He had a relaxed look on his face and often he would smile. By their feet were a bunch of bags, including a few from Polo, and I imagined that father and son had journeyed into the city together mid-holidays to take in some post-Christmas sales.

I sat by the window and listened to my music. They were in the corner of my eye, and occasionally I would glance across to more closely observe. They seemed to be watching something on a screen that occasionally made them laugh. It was such a fond and affectionate picture that I was fascinated.

It was clear that the father dearly loved his son, and his son adored him. The exchange between them was easy and natural and I thought, that’s what a good father-son relationship should be. There was a communion between them as if nothing need be said, as if everything was accepted, as if neither for a moment doubted the love and affection of the other – and in every moment felt it.

For many years I was oblivious to this relationship. I wonder if sub-consciously I turned from scenes like this because it was foreign to me? It wasn’t wilful, but it’s a form of blindness that comes from unconscious rationalisation.

I can’t remember a single moment in my life where I experienced anything like that with my father. I searched my mind yesterday as I rode the train. Perhaps, I thought, the many Saturdays we would go to the footy together. There was never anything particularly affectionate about it, but at least there were shared silences as we communed upon the same thing – the game itself and, on the drive home, the post-game commentary by the Captain and the Major. But no, that wasn’t nearly the same thing.

None of this ever occurred to me until that day a few years back when he confessed that he blamed me for the parting between him and mum (I was 16 at the time). The illusion that had kept me faithful to him for so many years was abruptly dashed but – as I look back upon it – I know that we were never close even before they separated. I suspect that event either confirmed or became the excuse, for his indifference to me.

When I first learned of this I was bitter and angry and let him know. You don’t hold that too long though, it being effectively pointless and self-destructive. I became disappointed instead knowing what I had missed out on, and I feel that gentle regret each time I see a father and son as I did yesterday. It feels like something special I missed out on, and not something that can be found once it’s lost.

If I had a son I’d make sure to give him my open heart. I was grateful to see yesterday how simple and good it can be and, as I am so often, moved by it. And my wry, unspoken affection for the father increased. Go well, be happy, live long and prosper the both of you.

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