I was 15 when I first met someone who had been to America. My uncle, an employee of some tech company that was undergoing a large merger in the late 2000s, had visited Washington D.C. for just a week. His wife was heavily pregnant at the time so my father, his older brother, collected him from the airport. His name was Patrick, and years later, when reading classical descriptions of prophets, driven mad and blind by knowledge of things from another place, I would remember his look that night.
‘You should hear the way they say dollars out there, Phil.’ Philip is my father’s name. ‘Not doll-uhz like me and you, but dollars. You hear all of it, the ‘r’ leant on ever so slightly, gliding into the ‘s’. Crisp, like sunlight through a magnifying glass. Their money sounds like money. You gotta hear it, you just gotta.’
‘I visited Ange earlier this week. She’s really looking good. I got to feel the baby kicking. Took me back to this one.’ My father gestured his head to me. I suppose he didn’t know what to say to Patrick about all this money stuff.
I remembered a thing my father had told me recently. I was at that time, like all 15 year olds, trying to decide how to spend the next two years. In my family, or at least according to my father, this decision came down to either studying humanities or sciences. Working hard or reading books; that was his phrase. I, friendless and unathletic, liked reading books. One night over dinner as I laughed with my sister and mother about the quirks and traits of our extended family, my father began without looking up from his food: ‘Your uncle’s successful but he has to be careful. He’s soft-headed. Can’t always see things properly. He’s lucky he got out of art school when he did.’
Had I been another type of teenager I might have burnt inside and suddenly left the dinner table, refusing to come down until my mother fixed-up some sort of understanding. As it was, I had watched my parents launch such unsubtle salvos at each other my entire life, had probably understood these coded attacks through non-verbal signs before I could even talk. The three of us ignored my father’s warning and continued to eat and laugh.
Back in the car, I sat on my hands and wiggled my fingers. I had fidgeted my way through the first three or four uncomfortable teenage years, and had recently happened upon this hard-earned and, so I thought, prudent technique to mask my discomfort.
‘Yeah… Great, yeah… Yeah, Ange would love it out there, Phil. You too, Ben.’ I looked round and smiled at Patrick. ‘You know, it’s even different when they say God Bless You out there. Here it’s like a question. There’s a whole load of expectation placed on you when someone says that. I was in customs, at the airport, and after passing my bags through the scanner the guard looked up at me and said “Have a nice day. God Bless you.” And I got it, Ash. I felt like I understood believers. I felt no weight of expectation. But like someone had humbly placed their well wishing upon me. I could spend this entire car journey on just the way they talk, Phil. You gotta take Ben.’
‘And you “gotta” stop saying “gotta”. Christ, Pat, you were only there for a week.’ My father began to laugh at his own joke, but my uncle was irrepressible. He had seen something worth sharing, something my father, his big brother, did not know and could not imagine.
When we eventually got Patrick to his house he let himself out of the car without saying anything and walked to the front door of his house to let himself in. I stared at him the whole way up the drive. His feet didn’t touch the ground. My father looked over at me and choked out another laugh and said Christ again. Patrick had left his bags in the boot.
My father didn’t like family events, so we didn’t ever see much of my uncle Patrick, and what little we did see dried up altogether when he left to live in the U.S. eight months later. He had talked about moving ever since he got back, and the merger presented opportunities that made it even more appealing. My parents, pragmatic in the extreme, were appalled by Patrick’s abandoning of his wife and young child, and so had come down on Angie’s side in the ensuing battle. I was on Angie’s side too, but didn’t worry about her. She ended up with someone else shortly after and had two more kids. Really everyone was on Angie’s side, but Patrick didn’t mind. ‘I just gotta go’, he kept saying.
Patrick was my godfather too, so he wrote me letters occasionally and sent me books (he knew I liked reading). I read the letters and books, though I was forbidden to respond. At that point I was developing something of my own fascination with the U.S. after being assigned The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises. I liked all that ‘getting sore’ and ‘old sport’ business, but lacked either the vision or soft-headedness that had led my uncle to really believe it stood for something bigger.
I was also beginning to look at university courses. Again I endured the months of intimations that studying the arts would leave me in a mess, but after getting A-levels in English, Classics, and Business (a small and boring concession to my father), I couldn’t very well study a science at university. I looked at American Literature and American Studies, but since America had become a dirty word in my house I decided I would study plain old BA English and pick as many American lit courses as I could find.
I did well in my A-levels and my parents were happy. I was the first in my immediate family to go to university, and my father had looked online and excitedly explained that after my degree I could study a Law or Business master’s programme.
My education was much like anyone else’s, with healthful measures of reading, boredom, aborted efforts at sports, failure with women, that sort of thing. University had given me a language through which to express the intellectual superiority that I had felt I had over my family from the age of 15 to, I suppose, my early-20s. I was determined to deconstruct their Little Englandisms, and now I had the words and books to do it. Leaving home had led me often to think of uncle Patrick in that first term, and coming home for Christmas, I was determined to impress my father with my reading of Patrick’s emigration.
‘I get it, I really do. I’m not defending him by any means, but I think it can be made comprehensible by positioning it within the narrative of his life at the time. He was feeling a great deal of anxiety, his company was being swallowed up, America came to represent this bigger company, the big fish eating the small fish. It goes all the way back to the war for independence. It’s simple really, a survival instinct. It’s called evolutionary psychology. Patrick wanted to be the big fish.’
My father grunted something. I paced the room.
‘And then one must consider the matter of the baby. The baby represented repression, it shackled Patrick. In America he felt truly free, probably for the first time since Angie told him she was pregnant, maybe for the first time since he was married, or before that even. America was an absolution for Patrick, a new start.’
I imagined Patrick often as I had seen him that night at the airport when I was 15. He was all wide eyes and tapping feet. He looked happily anxious. I had never seen someone look happily anxious before. This look didn’t leave him in the whole of the eight months before he left, and he continued to talk of streets with numbers rather than names, began to read about the constitution and Wars both Civil and for Independence.
My father, after listening to my interpretation, said ‘I’d really prefer to talk about something else.’ But something in his look made me angry, like he thought that I’d got it wrong. ‘Well what do you think it means then?’
‘Means? He just liked it Ben. He had a nice time there. That’s all.’
Sam Sheldon lives and works in Hampshire in the UK.