It’s a place in the very far east of the Russian Federation, little more than an ice-bound peninsula, covered with volcanoes, snow, natives, and miserable dock workers. It sits on the other side of the Bering Strait from Alaska, and is about as desirable a residence. You can always tell which parts of a country are of no value, because the government generally turns them into reserves for the nomads and natives who survived long enough to see their persecutors grow some kind of conscience.
The only real claim to notability that the place has in my life is that it’s a region on a Risk board. Which, looking at it now, seems like an attempt to make Civilisation with crude technology – but was quite fun at the time. It wasn’t a game I played often, because games took hours; my parents had jobs and, attentive though they were, they didn’t really have the patience to indulge me and my brother in such nerdy pursuits for so long.
The only time, in fact, that I can ever really recall playing the game was when I was staying with my grandparents*. My grandpa used to have a vast collection of fascinating old board games – ones that were actually fun, that required thought and cunning. When my parents were taking some time out from me and my brother running madly around the house, or if we had a teacher training day off that my mum had to attend, then me and Ed were driven up the road and stayed with granny and grandpa for a while.
Whenever we played that game I generally lost, because I’ve not got a great strategic mind and I’m unlucky with dice. I always enjoyed, however, hearing my grandpa say the names of the places on the map, he would enunciate ‘Venezuela’, or ‘Madagascar’, or, my personal favourite, ‘Kamchatka’. He was a man who seemed to take great joy in words, in speaking them; he used to deliver sermons at the local Methodist church from time to time, and used to read old Winnie the Pooh stories to me and my brother at bedtime – adopting a high falsetto for piglet, a deep sonorous voice for owl, and a dull monotone for Eeyore. I’ve never seen the Disney version of those stories, and I really don’t want to.
The thing that makes these memories so delicate and important to me is that they aren’t even memories anymore. They are memories of memories, fossils. I can’t remember what his voice sounded like, but I can remember the shape, the impression they left on me. If asked, I could say ‘Kamchatka’ as he used to pronounce it, but the sounds that once filled that shape have long since faded away.
I like to think that my personal obsession with pretty words and beautiful voices is in some way a direct descendant of his own, that my personality has some imprint of his left in it, but I don’t think I’ll ever really know. My memory is exceptionally malleable, and such ghosts of memories aren’t a solid foundation for any theories. I hope I’m not being fanciful though, it’s a comforting idea.
The reason I’ve been calling him grandpa, incidentally, is because he didn’t live long enough for me to become self conscious about it, so grandpa he will always be. He died in August 2001, when we were on holiday in France, after spending some months (it doesn’t seem like a long time to me, but I’m sure it was to everyone else) struggling with the after effects of a stroke. I remember becoming slightly nervous about going to see him in that time. I didn’t like to see him struggling to remember words, stuttering and struggling to talk to me. I suppose I’d not really grasped the idea that people sometimes got worse and didn’t get better, and my never articulated unease was borne out of a hope that I could just wait until he was back to normal again.
I don’t think I ever shed a tear for him when he died. I cried, but it was because my dad was crying, which was somehow more distressing to me then. I often wonder what he’d make of me now, what he’d have made of the world if he’d lived to see the events that took place just a month later, but I suppose the closest I’m ever going to get to that is listening to my dad, or myself.
*This might seem strange to Americans, but my grandparents lived about 10 minute’s car drive from my family.