My Dad Built a Time Machine

Catherine Adams

The waters of the reservoir are placid, and I still don’t know what to say to my dad.

I sit in a sheltered spot by the bank, trees in green leaf. Roots slide into clear water. Scrubby reeds line the shore, thistles cropping up on drier land. It was on similar banks that Dad taught me how to fish, careful hands untangling line and spooling it out. My own line casts an isolated ripple. I paddle in memories of hazy spring days. We had known what to say to each other then.

I picked Dad up at the station after noon. Smattering rain on the windshield. He sloped across the concourse and I popped the boot with the button under the steering wheel. He ignored it, climbing into the passenger side, shabby rucksack on his knees. A well-thumbed paperback shoved in the side pocket. I had to get out to slam the boot, and sighed when I got back into the driver’s seat.

“No point putting this ol’ thing in there,” he said. “Be swimming in space! What do you need that much room for, lugging your Air Nano Mega Light Laptop around?”

“Is that all you’ve got?” I asked, nodding to the rucksack. “It’s a long weekend, Dad. We’re going fishing. What if your clothes get cold or wet?”

“I en’t too good to get cold or wet, Jon.”

He was dwarfed by the huge, pristine leather seats, legs not quite touching the ground. He sat with his usual rounded slump, shoulders huge due to the disproportionate muscle working in construction had given him. As a kid, the Disney film with the hunchback had given me a horror of growing up to look like him.

Inviting him for this weekend in the Peaks to fish was an olive branch, but one offered on my terms. A reconciliation conducted from the sad little ex-council flat in Northfield where I grew up was not the one I was looking for.

It had gone wrong from the start. Dad wasn’t impressed by the bungalow.

“It’s a second home, Dad, a fixer-upper. Passion project.”

Dad snorted. He held passion in contempt, always had. For him it was enough to receive the weekly pay-packet, the Friday fish tea from the chippy, to budget in tightly folded tenners and not have a penny in savings. He looked down on university, journalists, and people who bought large cars in the city, and let me know as much when I moved through the steps of the life I wanted.

“Lemme take a look at the place,” Dad grumbled. “You won’t let an old man take a slash?”

I was itching to head to the reservoir. By the water’s edge, we’d unspool words and memories with our baited hooks, we would find a way to speak to each other. I loaded the car with kit while I waited for him.

“You go ahead,” he said. “I’ll take it easy here. Tinker with that boiler - you en’t got no hot water.”

I reel in my line. I work with words, I’m not supposed to be this tongue-tied, wondering what a man might say to another man who happens to be his father. Dad doesn’t like to admit it, but I get my words from him. Cigarette smoke, beery carpets. Dad in the pub with mates, telling every tall story known to man.

Racing tips, his mate from way back when did this, did that. So-and-so’s in prison for ten years. His gaffer’s sold the house for legal fees, but his missus is shagging some other bloke. I wonder if things had been different, Dad might have loved other people’s stories the way I did. The collection of classic sci-fi I’d collected on the shelves of my childhood bedroom. Asimov, Banks, Simmons.

I drive back in silence. I haven’t found what I’m searching for, and feel further away from it. Ten years of covering up my roots. The car, the second home, the pride in stupid things. Everything on my terms. I crest a rise in the road, my stomach flips into my throat as the Derbyshire countryside opens in front of me. Sun shines through the earlier rain, turning the red heather golden.

Dad sits on his heels by the sink in the kitchen with the old induction boiler lit and ticking over nicely. He looks up when I place my car keys on the counter.

“I’m not an idiot, Jon,” he says. “We both know why you invited me out here.”

“Dad—”

He cuts me off, pulls his shabby rucksack towards him. The well-thumbed paperback is H. G. Wells, The Time Machine. My copy, from the shelf at home. He fishes from the rucksack a bolt with a spinning washer attached - a spare shiny thing from any workman’s kit.

“So, it’s a time machine,” he says, like he’s beginning a story in a pub. “We can go back to any time you want. Two hours ago - you can ask me again if I want to go fishing with you. Maybe I should say yes this time.”

I understand it is an apology, given by a man who knows how to use his hands to build things. I have been so focused on my own version of reconciliation that I’ve overlooked that he was searching for the same thing.

“No way is it a time machine,” I say. It’s the right response, I feel it in my gut, in the way his face crunches into a smile. I’ve found the right thing to say to my dad. He’s found the right thing to say to me.

We don’t have to test if his time machine works. In the car he asks for book recommendations. I let him unwind and cast the lines, watch his careful hands as he stands in the shallows.

The waters of the reservoir move, the ripples of our actions spreading in widening circles towards the banks.

Catherine is an aspiring writer whose recent achievements include a shortlist for the 2020 Exeter Story Prize, and was a Flash Fiction Semi-Finalist for the London Independent Story Prize. She lives in South London and has been trying to make the most of lockdown by writing.