An extract from Megan Davis’s debut novel The Messenger, published by Bonnier Books UK on 30 March 2023
Although I remember every detail of the night my father died, I can’t remember what it was about him that used to piss me off so much. I think that’s because I can’t nail it down to just one thing. Sometimes it was his arrogant manner and the pompous way he spoke – as if there were someone nearby taking notes, ready to quote him. Other times it was the way he looked at me – the way his hair hung over his glasses as he gawped at me through thick, foggy lenses like I was some kind of philosophical question, or puzzle to be solved.
In fact, his looks bothered me. I was grateful I hadn’t inherited his worst features, but these things are never guaranteed. His eyes were a vague sludgy green, normally murky and impenetrable, but occasionally they’d clear and then drill right through me. As for the rest, I only looked at him closely when he was asleep – slumped in his armchair, or passed out on the couch in front of the TV. Then I’d scan his face, staking out the worst of it while tracing my own for similarities. I hoped my jaw wouldn’t take on that stubborn, square set, and I’d have to watch out for those blubbery chins. Later in the mirror, I’d check my nostrils for the same wiry hairs that sprouted from his own puffy and bloodshot nose. He had a beak that reared up on his face like a battle-hardened soldier, virile and ripe to bursting while everything around it lay sagged and defeated.
My father had a habit of walking around the apartment naked, often barging into our only bathroom while I was in the bath. At such moments, my eyes would be at the height of his groin, so I had to make an effort not to look there. If I looked away while he was speaking, he’d know I was embarrassed, so I just stared straight ahead over my feet towards the wall. I knew this annoyed him because he’d move into my line of sight and carry on talking. Stepping out of the shower, he’d pause to lecture me before he’d even reached for a towel, the water streaming down his naked body and pooling at his feet. Or, if he were brushing his teeth, he’d nag me through a mouth rimmed with toothpaste, spitting white foam into the air like some kind of fanatical preacher. To acknowledge him was to give in, so most of the time, I just sat there staring ahead as he droned on. The topic? It was always my shortcomings.
And so it was one Friday morning, six months after we’d moved back to Paris after ten years in the US. It was mid-September and my new school had just gone back after the long summer holidays. We were both getting ready at the same time that morning, and while I was in the bath, soaking the eczema that had flared up during the first week back, he’d just stepped out of the shower, all freshly scrubbed and in the mood for a back-to-school pep talk.
‘You need to work much harder this year,’ he said, running a towel between his legs like a length of rope. ‘You need to start thinking about university.’
He’d usually start this way, adopting a tone that sounded fatherly enough but you could tell he was just gearing up to blow. It was like listening to the slow hiss of a valve somewhere.
‘For once, your mother agrees with me.’ He arranged the towel on the rail and sauntered over to the sink. ‘Don’t forget she’s collecting you after school today,’ he said, pointing at me as he walked past.
I waited until he squared up to the basin. ‘You didn’t,’ I said.
‘You didn’t do any of that crap when you were my age. The Bac, university.’
He squeezed a line of toothpaste onto his brush and carried on in a chatty, upbeat tone like he was being interviewed. ‘You’re right. I didn’t. That’s because I never had the chance, unlike you. You’ll regret it, you know, if you don’t go to a good university.’ He punctuated the air with his toothbrush, and then looked back at me in the mirror.
Even though he hadn’t gone to university until he was much older, my father refused to admit that it made no difference. He gave the impression he’d scaled massive odds to get where he was, but as far as I could tell it was an advantage for him to have been an outsider, not wasting time at university when he was young. It meant he hadn’t run with the pack, or been part of the elite, and this gave him something to prove, someone to expose, or some point to make. But he didn’t see it that way. He just saw me pissing away the chances he never had.
‘There aren’t any jobs, Dad. University’s no guarantee. Not anymore.’
The bath had cooled, so I leaned forward to the hot tap. He gargled, spat in the sink then walked over to the side of the bath, wiping his mouth as he looked down.
‘It’s not about a guarantee, Alex. It’s about minimising the fucking risks.’ He put a foot on the bath as he towelled between his toes. ‘Christ, your eczema’s bad,’ he said, peering into the oily bath.
A wave of irritation burned across my face, and I leaned back, partly to distance myself from his crotch, but mostly to give the impression I didn’t care.
‘All right, say I go to a good university, whatever that is.’ I turned my head slowly, my eyes following a shaft of light from the high window that lit up half his face. His mouth twitched, and one sunlit eye glinted like a beacon. ‘What then? Do I become an academic like you?’ I said, looking out over my feet. ‘Help kids rack up qualifications for jobs that no longer exist? Or maybe I could try journalism and report on the job shortage?’ Academia seemed pointless enough, but journalism – what a fucking waste of time. He did both these things.
He started towelling hard around the back of his head. It made his lips vibrate.
‘You don’t have to follow me. I simply want you to have an interest in something other than your computer. It’s not as though you—’
I drew my knees up and slid back, submerging my ears. Water from the tap pummelled the bath, drowning his voice. I lay there watching his mouth form words I couldn’t hear. Releasing the air from my lungs, I sank slowly beneath the waterline and watched his hazy outline shimmy over the end of the bath.
A hand gripped my shoulder, and I came up spluttering.
‘Don’t ignore me when I’m speaking to you!’ he yelled, his steaming pink face inches from mine. He released me and stepped back, glaring. ‘We’ll discuss this when you return on Monday.’
I didn’t answer, just slid back again beneath the water. The colours blurred and faded, and then disappeared like a cloud on the horizon.