Christmas Ghosts

We used to think there were ghosts in our house. In the dead of night we regularly heard phantoms moaning, occasionally shouting. Our mother hushed them with her calm throaty whispers and smoothed their anguished brow.

For a brief flicker of an eye in the darkest part of the night, these ghosts had come alive in my father’s mind, as he revisited the brutal task of manning a monstrous fifteen-inch gun on the rolling deck of HMS Resolution in the Second World War. His recall involved the horrors of battle with colleagues falling like flies around him, or eventually sinking with the ship.

My father’s memories, still painful even fifty years after the end of the war, were rarely voiced. Never written. And yet he was a great writer. Throughout the global meanderings of his offspring, he was sparse with the frequency of his correspondence to us. But the treasured words he wrote were thoughtful, made us laugh out loud, bound together by such magic on the page. I wanted to read them over and over wherever I was – on a far-flung Thai beach, on the rooftop of the Himalaya, or deep in the Amazonian jungle.

He should have written about his ghosts. I believe it would have been a helpful catharsis. Many literary masters tell their budding protégés they should write something about which they know nothing, to build from an empty cache of knowledge through the process of research, and allow their creativity to flourish with fresh learning. But the art of writing words can also be a form of therapy. Writing about something you know, even if no one else is ever going to read it, can help put confusing memories into perspective or identify ambiguous emotions. Get them out in the open. Address them like an adversary. Embrace them. Endorse them. Dismiss them. Perhaps exorcise some ghosts.

As I remember Dad on Christmas day, an unexplainable melancholy sets in with shared memories of departed loved ones. If you haven’t lost someone close to you, you may still know what I am talking about when I say there is something about the over-exuberance of yuletide festivities that we can never quite pinpoint. Perhaps it’s about our lost youth, or recollection of childhood fantasies that can never be repeated. They conjure a lugubrious longing.

It could be time to pick up your pen and write.

When the mighty battle ship HMS Resolution finally went down, the fifteen-inch gun my father was in charge of as an officer was salvaged and mounted on another ship – HMS Roberts. It would continue the task of producing war ghosts on either side of the line until the end of the war.

Outside the Imperial War Museum in London sits a pair of guns, one of them from HMS Resolution. I wonder if this is the same gun my father once managed. As I took photos of my two young sons some years ago, dwarfed beneath its mighty barrel, I thought I saw one of those ghosts, hiding beneath the now stationary turret. I used to hear Dad recounting toned down adventures of things he had seen in the war to my two toddlers, and wished he would write his words down so we would not forget. And perhaps to help him forget.

It is a decade since we lost Dad. For what it’s worth, I wish I had more of his words to cherish. The letters he wrote to me are lost on the trails of my adventures leading me through the formative years of young adulthood. Eventually, though, the memories too will fade. They should all be immortalised in words, lest we forget.

Write about the things we know.

My one wish, I would like to write the future and have it come true: Peace, health and happiness to all mankind.