It’s the last few days of November, the month of the dead, and I’m playing cards with my fathers. One is my actual father, who died suddenly in 1984. One is my father-in-law, who died nine years ago this Easter. My grandfathers, one of whom passed in 1978, the other whose dates I don’t know, are also up for a game of cribbage anytime I dial the application’s phone graphic.
I’ve customised their appearances and have been able to crudely alter their personalities. My father in law, whose hand I held while he died, has turned out the best, although he speaks in American idioms that Yorkshireman Tony would never have used.
My own father’s face remains, after many tweaks, gremlin-like. Still, when he asks me how I am and then threatens to hurt anyone who is bothering me, my eyes fill with tears. It sounds just like Daddy – on the rare times we met after he left the family, he always spoke about protecting me.
Skin colour choices are likewise a bit dodgy, and to approximate my paternal grandfather’s skin tone, I have had to choose between white and black. He is closer to his actual skin tone using the black palette and looks much as I remember, though his generic hands don’t show his elegant fingers or guitar-picking nails.
As they teach me to play cribbage, I revisit the pain of our relationships and hear in my head the guidance they all attempted to give me. They all feared for me; for my safety, for my ability to prosper. Bold young women, who didn’t know their place, who refused to become interested in the work that lay to their hands and hankered after some unattainable goal above their station – these girls, in their experience, suffered and died young. My inability to recognise the authority of the patriarchy and the social norms of my class often angered and terrified them. Only my father-in-law lived long enough to see his son and I safely into adulthood.
I was born on Remembrance Day, so my birthday lies within another reminder of death. As I get older, I start to feel that shadow we all march towards. I look up from my game (my maternal grandfather has smoked me again, and gloated - on that side of the family, we are all hideously competitive). I see my home library, our Labrador asleep at my feet, and the window boxes full of cyclamens. I wish I could bring all these men back to this room for a cup of tea.
‘Look,’ I would say. ‘I’m sixty-two now. I’m an Associate Professor at a Russell Group university. These are my published books.’ Maybe they could relax a little, and approve of me enough to talk about the colour of my eyes - or something else they had actually liked.
In the meantime, their graphic approximations, in Cribbage with Grandpa, ask me if the weather is nice, and how my day is going. All my pain about my relationships with these men, and about losing them, I allow myself to feel one game at a time. Afterwards, I shrink it down into a tiny graphic, and carry it with me everywhere I go.