I was eleven when my father disappeared. It’s almost twenty years since the night I last saw him. I still remember that knock at the door; it echoes down through the years, as it echoed that night through the walls of our home.
I use the word ‘disappeared’, but it always feels like a lie. My father didn’t vanish. He didn’t walk to the shops for a packet of cigarettes and fail to come back. He didn’t run away to start another life somewhere, another family. He didn’t even leave behind a body, washed up on some riverbank, or slowly spinning from a straining tree branch.
That last night with my father was like every other. He returned late from his job at the university, where he lectured in English Literature. Public transport was unreliable in those days, when the regime was still taking hold. He would walk the five miles home each day, carrying his bag, heavy with papers. I would watch from our sixth floor window as he made his way across the car park, past the burned out shells of old hatchbacks, where the braver children would sometimes play army, machine gunning each other with sticks or old bits of piping. His ragged hair would take on a life of its own in the breeze, his thin shoulders tensed beneath the weight of his students’ words, twitching uneasily at every fake bullet that came his way.
By then we had been moved into the flat. Shared accommodation, they called it. We weren’t allowed to live in our house in the suburbs anymore. My mother mourned the loss of her rose garden and the expensive paper that lined our living room walls, its delicate floral pattern climbing from oak floor to corniced ceiling. She wept about the silverware she was forced to leave behind, a wedding gift from the grandmother who passed away weeks after her marriage.
Our new home became a one bedroom flat, former housing association detritus that stank of cat piss and had holes in the plaster the size of fists. I slept in the bedroom whilst my parents shared an old sofa bed in the main room, which was littered with piles of my father’s books, the vibrancy of their spines bringing life to the beige world we found ourselves adrift in. He had salvaged as much as he could but my mother wouldn’t let him risk rescuing them all. He would fret sometimes, struck by a jolt of longing for a particular book that had been abandoned.
We hadn't long fallen asleep when the knock came. I sat up in bed, disorientated. The knock came again. My head whipped in the direction of the front door, but everything was dark. My parents whispered in the front room, my mother’s voice low and pleading.
My father snapped, “I have to.” I listened to them half-dressing in haste. I could picture my mother smoothing her hair as he opened the door, a nervous smile on his face. I crept out from beneath the covers to peep through the slit in my bedroom door. The sudden light made my eyes water.
They barged in without invitation: four men in Authorisation Bureau uniforms. The door was flung back hard; there was a crack as it hit the wall. My father was jostled as they marched into the living room, where there was barely enough space to stand.
They were all much taller than he was, with broad shoulders and thick arms. They were young too. I didn’t realise how young until years later, looking back.
There was another man with them. They saluted him stiffly. “Major.”
He barely acknowledged them. “Please, excuse the interruption. I’m sorry we had to call so late, but we need to ask your husband some questions.”
He addressed my mother, who hung back, clutching her thin dressing gown closed over her nightdress. The width of the sofa bed was between them, yet she took a step back as his eyes raked over her.
My father moved forward, his body shielding her from the major’s gaze. “What’s all this about?”
Without speaking, the major turned his back and began circling the small flat, taking in every detail. He ran a finger over the piles of old paperbacks that lined the walls. “So many books...” With a flick of his wrist he sent them tumbling, sliding across the floor in a wave of yellowed paper and dust.
There was a pause; the air still after an avalanche. He stooped to retrieve one of the novels from the floor and examined the cover. He held it up for my father to see. I was too far away to read the title of the book, but I recognised the colours on the jacket. It was the memoir of a South American poet who had spent much of his life as a political prisoner. I knew it was banned.
The major flung the book at my father’s chest. It landed with a dull slap and ricocheted back onto the floor. He signalled his men, almost casually. They didn’t speak, just moved forward as one to take my father by the arms, fingers digging into the flesh.
In a blur of satin and bare legs my mother dashed across the room to clutch at his clothes. “No, please. You can’t take him. You can’t.”
They shoved her away and she stumbled on the carpet of books, catching her feet and falling back onto the bed, her dressing gown falling open to reveal the nightgown, almost sheer from age under the harsh lights. All the soldiers stared at her. She might as well have been naked. She moaned softly and I could feel the air in the room begin to boil.
My father went to help her up. It was a mistake. One of the soldiers drew his weapon and brought it down quickly on the back of my father’s head. He fell, his knees crumpling, a rush of air escaping from his mouth. His face landed against my mother’s stomach and she clutched at him, trying to draw him closer.
All four soldiers came to life. They gripped his arms and heaved him up, but he was dazed and couldn’t stand. The back of his head was bloody. They were forced to support him, a dead weight, bare feet trailing behind. My mother was crying and saying his name over and over, trying to hold on. One of the youths released his hold on my father and pushed her back onto the bed, looming over her as she tried to shuffle away. He blocked my view so that I couldn’t see her face.
The others dragged my father outside. Our neighbours huddled behind the cracks in their own doors. They stayed hidden in their darkened flats, too afraid to emerge, although we all knew they were watching.
And he was gone. My final image of my father was not his face, but the soles of his feet as they disappeared through the door. I remember vividly how dirty they were. I felt tears on my cheeks and my body shook as I tried so desperately to stay quiet.
My mother was crying too, trying to pull herself up off the bed, to pull her clothes together. Her eyes flickered wildly from the doorway to the man leaning over her. A strangled noise escaped from the back of her throat.
I had almost forgotten the major, when he put his hand on the soldier’s arm. “Go and make sure they have the prisoner under control.”
When he was gone, the major sat on the bed beside my mother, who huddled with her knees crushing her chest and a fist in her mouth to muffle the sobs. She turned her face away. Slowly, he reached out a hand and touched her hair.
“I wish you didn’t have to see this, Mrs Winter. But I hope you understand. Your husband broke the rules and we can’t allow that.”
His fingers twined through her hair softly, pulling strands loose from their clip. She had beautiful hair, long and dark; it shone in the light.
“I know it’s difficult, but really, this is the best thing that could have happened. You’ve got the chance to redeem yourself, away from your husband. You can have a new life.”
A sob choked its way free from my mother’s lips. She clamped her hand over her mouth as his fingers stilled in her hair. He sighed heavily.
“Perhaps this isn’t the best time to talk. It might be better if I came back another day.” He released her hair and stood, brushing his hands over his uniform to make sure it was all in order.
He looked at her for a long moment, as though he wanted to say something more. But he settled for, “Good evening.” With a nod, he turned to leave. The door stood open behind him.
I burst from my hiding place to close it, caught the echo of his boots as they strode away and down the stairs; caught the whisper of the neighbours as they faded back inside their homes.
I tried to force the door shut, but it wouldn’t go. The soldiers must have broken something when they forced their way in.
“Mama,” I wailed, looking to her for help. But she was lost to me too, curled up on her side, the soft fabric of her dressing gown rippling as her shoulders trembled. I cried harder. Clutching a chair, I dragged it across the room and braced it under the door handle so that no one else would be able to come in.
I crossed the room in a rush, my eyes blurring as my feet slid on the discarded books. I could fall at any second; fall and never get up. I flung myself on the bed next to my mother, tried to curl my body around her but she tensed at my touch and pulled away.
Cold, I lay alone on the edge of her bed, listening as she sobbed herself to sleep. I stayed awake all night, staring at the broken door handle. Just before dawn there were footsteps in the hallway. They stopped outside our door. I held my breath as someone rattled the handle. But the chair held and the rattling stopped. I listened to the footsteps trail away into the night.