Paul Murray is the author of the novels Skippy Dies (shortlisted for the 2010 Costa Award) and An Evening of Long Goodbyes.
Simultaneously the best and the worst gift I ever received was a Batman kite my father bought me when I was seven. We had gone to the local newsagent to buy the paper; I found the kite among the shelves of low-grade newsagent-type toys—bubble mix, plastic dinosaurs, translucent guns that sparked inside when you pulled the trigger. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen: Batman in his opaque, implacable DC Comics incarnation (this was still a few years before the first Tim Burton movie) on an appropriately bat-shaped canvas.
I brought it to my dad’s attention with various expressions of overwhelmedness, but I didn’t hold out much hope of getting it. First, my dad was not a believer in the spontaneous gift. An old-school Marxist, he regarded gifts as morally corrosive. In fact, he believed the material world generally to be bad news. When you asked for something in my house, unless it was a consciousness-raising lecture on the iniquities of the toy-manufacturing industry with its legions of child slaves, you very rarely got it. Second, my father hated this particular newsagent because they had refused to stock an obscure Marxist magazine he was partial to. He would buy the newspaper there, but nothing more, ever, and he’d always hand over his money with a cold, accusatory stare.
So I was genuinely shocked when my father took the kite out of my hands and, instead of restoring it to the shelf with some comment about Batman as agent of the police state, brought it to the counter and paid for it. To this day I’m not entirely sure why he did. My best guess is that it surprised him and pleased him to learn that children still knew and cared about things like kites, that in the midst of all the crazy changes in the world since he was a boy a few small continuities had persisted. (I feel the same way now when I see the kids queuing at the sweet counter in the shopping mall; in a world that seems devoted to erasing the past, that kids still like sweets—analogue, processor-free sweets—is somehow gladdening.)
And kite-flying seemed like such a classic father-son thing to do. I was a self-conscious child, and my dad was probably quite a self-conscious dad, and our father-son time together was always in danger of becoming a kind of self-consciousness-feedback loop, on which we’d go round and round like two strangers stuck on some infinite carousel ride. As such I think the rightness, the simplicity of the image of the two of us flying this kite must have been irresistible. A boy, a dad, their kite! Surely there was no way we could get this wrong.
I was so happy when my dad handed me that kite that even now I’m tempted to leave the memory there; to let father and son walk away hand in hand into the distance, newly joyous and carefree, instead of following them down to the local park (a muddy enclosure where the local youth dealt drugs and left burned-out cars) as for an hour or more they tried to get the kite off the ground. Up and down we ran, trailing the kite behind us, willing it to catch the breeze, take flight; but the strings only grew more entangled, and the little plastic struts kept coming out, and Batman’s steely gaze was gradually obscured by mud. Finally we admitted defeat. We looked at the kite where it lay on the boggy earth like some wretched metaphor. There was no way it would ever soar above us in the blue yonder. We had broken it. We had killed it with our heaviness.
We went home in silence, each lost in his own thoughts. When my mother asked us what we’d been doing and why we were covered with mud, we just shrugged. We went to our own rooms and read our books. After that we didn’t try and do the father-son thing so much. As he grew up, my little brother showed much more of a flair for being a kid: he naturally enjoyed sweets and windup cars and didn’t worry so much about the semiotics of the whole thing, and because he seemed to know what to do, my dad relaxed into being an unself-conscious dad around him and they did classic father-son things like going to football matches and building treehouses. Meanwhile, my dad and I lived in the house cordially, genially, as two men, one of whom happened to be seven and one, forty-two. It’s only now as I get older that I realize just how similar we were, and that, though the moment he put the kite in my hands was one of the great moments of my childhood, the subsequent hour was the important part. We were the same: two men who lived in their heads and had little talent for physical reality—but who were still here, damn it, still determined to fly that kite, on which we’d spent good money. Till at the very same moment we both realized that we hated kites, and for that matter Batman, and we crumpled it up and left it in a hedge.
“Back to School,” New York Times, September 4th, 2010