The Watermark

Susan McCallum-Smith

A year after my parents separated, I saw my father on the other side of a narrow street. He walked straight by without any gesture of greeting. No one else was around. It dawned on me, after a second or so, that he hadn’t recognized me. I hadn’t changed from a goose to a swan, or some such nonsense, I had simply had a haircut and stopped dressing like a boy. My first job had also nudged me from childhood into womanhood, making my walk more purposeful, less dancing, my expression less open and more reserved. I paused, aware that I felt nothing more than an aloof curiosity, and watched him walk away. If I were fanciful I would say that this was the moment I became a writer.

The archipelago of St. Kilda lies in the Outer Hebrides, three hours by boat off the northwest coast of Scotland. In the late seventeenth century, its residents worked its land and cliffs, paying rent to the MacLeod Clan of Skye with the meat, feathers, and oils they harvested from St. Kilda’s abundant population of puffins, gannets, and fulmars. The Gaelic-speaking villagers converted early to the joyless tenets of the Free Church of Scotland, scuppering their natural bent for music and poetry. The harsh misery of their daily lives was matched only by the weather. By the turn of the twentieth century, the dwindling population had been riddled by poverty and inbreeding; a photograph in Edinburgh’s public library reveals a row of school children with identical thin, pinched faces framed by flat dark hair. In 1930, the last St. Kildans, mostly women, asked to be evacuated to the mainland, exhausted by their isolation.
    Over the centuries, the islanders had developed their own unique postal system. They threw their messages into the sea. They addressed their letters then rolled and corked them inside medicine bottles, which were placed in a small wooden box shaped like a boat. Buoyed by inflated sheep bladders, these “mail boats” were cast into the Atlantic to snag the upswing of the Gulf Stream, which swept them toward the fishing grounds and the East. A passing trawler would scoop them up and transport them to the mainland, or they would wash onto the shores or rocks of Skye or Shetland, Norway, or Denmark. The St. Kildans held their breaths till the yearly delivery of supplies and return mail arrived from the mainland to discover if their voices had been heard.
    Before 1900, a few pennies enclosed in the mail boat’s hold would cover the postage, and the post office paid a reward to those who found it and sent the contents on. After 1900, the St. Kildans attached stamps to their letters. Not surprisingly, such stamps and letters are highly prized. My father is a stamp collector; he probably knew the lengths to which the St. Kildans went to communicate with the world around them, but he never told me.

Philately derives from the French, philatélie, which in turn has its roots in the Greek words philo, meaning “loving” and atelia, meaning “free” or “exempt from tax.” My father was a passionate philatelist, who spent every spare moment collecting and collating, mounting and cataloging his tiny scraps of colored paper. He never shared the history of his hobby with me because we rarely talked to one another. I remember few complete conversations with him during the first seventeen years of my life, though I know some must have occurred since we lived in the same house. All I have are perforated snippets. Every evening at six thirty sharp, I called, “Dad!” when my mother put the dinner plates on the kitchen table. This was the extent of our daily exchange.
    My parents had an unhappy marriage. When I was around five years old, my father became convinced that his four children had taken his wife’s side in their feud. Therefore when he stopped talking to her, he stopped talking to all of us. When he was at work, or out cycling, or at a stamp fair, or had disappeared on his two-week summer holiday alone, our house prattled with laughter and conversation. When he was at home, it thrummed with silence. If addressed, he answered in monosyllables. He hated loud noises—door slamming and cutlery rattling—so we learned to tiptoe, eat our food quietly, pick our words carefully should we try to talk to one another over the dinner table, while he stared at his plate and ate. Television saved me some of the time—evenings were spent watching Starsky & Hutch or Kojak, making an absence of conversation appear natural—and books saved me the rest. I learned to pretend that life was normal, despite the mute father in the living room.
    As the youngest of the four children, I kept chattering long after my siblings had shut up. Between the ages of five and ten, I assumed his taciturnity was symptomatic of the unfathomable nature of all adult behavior, and I would babble before him, like a persistent postman delivering unwanted letters that he refused to accept or open. By the time I entered my teens, however, his deliberate intent to cut all communication between us had succeeded. We spent whole days together in the same house, even in the same room, without sharing a word. Why didn’t I simply talk to him? It is a fair question for which I have no satisfying answer. Every consecutive soundless minute, hour, day, month, and year extended the distance between us, until I felt that we lived on opposite shores of a hostile sea, and I would be unable to shout loud enough to be heard.
    My mother left my father when I was seventeen, after twenty-eight years of marriage. We walked, my mother, one of my sisters, my brother, and I, the two miles or so back and forth to my grandmother’s one-bedroom, high-rise flat, ferrying our clothes and essential belongings in plastic shopping bags. My mother filed for divorce and registered us with the local council as homeless. A few months later we moved out of my grandmother’s house and into a flat of our own. The new flat was smaller than our old home, in a rougher part of Glasgow, and we had little furniture and no money. I secured part-time work, and by combining our wages, we managed to survive. I had never been happier.

The earliest known message-delivery system was devised by the Incas, who used runners to convey information from one end of their empire to the other. The Greeks devised an identical system, the basis of the Olympic sports of the marathon and the relay, later replacing the runners with riders on horseback, who rode between defined stages.
    Shortly after uniting the kingdoms of Scotland and England in 1603, James I formed a monopoly for the carrying of letters under the British Post Master General, setting the standard for postal systems around the world. The original system, however, had a flaw that left it vulnerable to extortion and bribery: all letters were paid for by the addressee and not the sender. The addressee could refuse to receive and pay for any correspondence that failed to excite his interest, leaving the delivery of mail at the whim of those to whom it was addressed. Furthermore, British politicians were granted the right to transport documents free of charge around the kingdom, a right they exploited by selling their postal services for exorbitant fees. Some politicians earned a large chunk of their income from this lucrative sideline, and corruption was rife. Naturally, the British parliament vociferously opposed, though failed to stop, the Great Postal Reform of 1839 1840, which democratized communication and introduced the penny post. Under the new reforms, the sender paid the cost of delivering a letter—and proof of payment was attached to the document itself in the form of the Penny Black stamp.
    The introduction of the Penny Black was a tremendous success, and the fame of this little black rectangle decorated with the profile of Queen Victoria extends outside the world of philately. Because so many were issued, the value of the Penny Black, with the exception of its first minting, is not as high as some may suppose. Nevertheless, perhaps my father would have accepted my childish babblings had they arrived appropriately franked.

My father never abused us or beat us. His feud with my mother was verbal, not physical. He smoked cigarettes (Benson & Hedges) every day and cigars (Hamlet) at Christmas, all lit with Swann Vestas matches, but he never drank, with the exception of my mother’s homemade ginger wine, a brew so potent it once blew off the doors of an expensive quarter-sawn ash sideboard. As far as I know, he was never unfaithful to my mother.
    He was not a monster—it is important to say that—yet I was terrified of him. His silence was impenetrable. Twenty years after we left, I still dream of being trapped in our old house, and awake kicking at the blankets, panic-stricken and claustrophobic. Nevertheless, a few memories muddy my attempt to dismiss all my childhood as “the bad old days.”
    I remember him putting ointment on my knees at the kitchen sink after I had fallen over in the garden, taking me to Glasgow’s Mitchell library to help me find books for an art project, and being soothed on his lap after a nightmare. I am convinced that we listened to the 1969 moon landing on the radio together, though I would have been only three years old at the time. I know his favorite Beatles song was “The Fool on the Hill.”
    He loved Rogers & Hammerstein musicals and would sing along whenever they were on television. He could carry a tune, and sometimes I would join in, and we would harmonize through the chorus of “Getting to know you, getting to know all about you. Getting to like you, getting to hope you like me,” until its end. Then he would clear his throat and light another cigarette, and I would refold my cramped legs.
    My sister’s dog greeted him enthusiastically at the end of every day and always lay by his chair when he was home, despite his stern disapproval of pets and his conviction that the dog, too, had taken his wife’s side. When he thought no one was looking, he would reach out a hand and lay it gently on its head.
    One Sunday when I was fifteen, a bout of hellish menstrual cramps reduced me to a curled lump on my bed. Neither my mother nor my sisters were home. The only thing that alleviated the pain was a hot-water bottle, but when I tried to move, I felt I would either faint or throw up. I sobbed quietly in the silence of the house for some time before I plucked up enough courage to call him. My first yells of “Dad!” were feeble, as if I were being forced, and unwilling, to punch through glass. Eventually I heard the living-room door creak open. Then, nothing. I yelled again. When he arrived at my bedroom, he looked bewildered, vulnerable. Either the sound of his name or the sight of his daughter wrestling with puberty had caught him off guard.
     “Can you get me a hot-water bottle?” I said.
    He never asked me what was wrong. A conversation about “women’s problems” would have nudged this already rare exchange into the realm of the surreal. He disappeared and came back ten minutes later with the hot-water bottle. He paused a moment before leaving, then shut the door quietly behind him.
    Such glimpses of this other side of his nature prove that he didn’t lack empathy, only that he deliberately chose not to express it. I find these instances of tenderness almost unforgivable.

The authenticity of stamps is often determined by the paper on which they are printed. Skilled philatelists learn to differentiate between the cloudy tint of Silurian and the silken threads of Dickenson, between the sleek gloss of emaille and the chinois tang of lignes brillantes, between the wide pinstripe of batonné and the oniony slithers of pelure, between woven, laid, card, double, granite, safety, ribbed, chalky, and blue.
    Each manufacturer embosses its distinctive paper with a watermark, a unique design embedded in the papermaking mold. The watermark of a stamp is of primary importance to the collector as it verifies its belonging to a particular sheet or family of stamps, its right to inclusion in the clan. It defines the time, date, and origin of its printing and prevents against fraud. The watermark is a stamp’s DNA. Some watermarks are visible by simply holding the stamp up to the light, while others require bathing in the correct fluid, causing them to materialize on the surface of the paper like a skeleton. Watermarks remain long after the stamps’ colors fade, like a fossil or an imprint. The watermark is the stamp’s memory.

Children, according to my father’s Victorian views, were to be seen and not heard. He severely disapproved of Top of the Pops, piercings, gambling, football (with its Glaswegian overtones of hooliganism and sectarianism), pubs, alcohol, bad language, slang, and couples living together without being married—of anything that could be construed as “common.”
    He greeted my natural left-handedness with horror, believing that left-handed penmanship was crass and inelegant. He would move my pencil from my left hand to my right whenever he could, until, after a while, I automatically swapped it over whenever he entered the room. By my teens, I was ambidextrous.
    Though discussing politics was taboo, I suspect he admired Margaret Thatcher and voted Conservative, making him an anomaly in 1980s Scotland. He never gave us pocket money and, apart from some necklaces when I was very young (a Celtic cross, an Egyptian ankh), and a pen-and-pencil set on my twelfth birthday, never gave us gifts that I can remember, despite my mother’s attempts to hide the fact by crediting both of them on all gift labels attached to gifts she bought and paid for herself.
    He demanded frugality with household expenses and kept the heat turned down low and unnecessary lights turned off, and he perpetually closed open doors with a martyred sigh. Therefore, my childhood memories take place in settings both chilly and dark, and my calves still bear the scars of sitting on the hallway electric radiator. A hot bath once a week was allowed for personal hygiene, cold water sufficed the rest of the time. Reading alone in one’s room wasted a healthy bulb. My sisters and I washed our hair after school, before he came home from work, to avoid lectures about the cost of hot water.
    In fact it was money, the most hackneyed thorn in the side of marriage, that proved my parents’ final undoing. My father was a hoarder, my mother, a spender. When my brother and sisters started to work and contributed a portion of their wages to the household, my father cut the amount he gave to my mother by an equal amount. So, although the family income was increasing as a whole, my mother’s budget for food and bills remained exactly the same.
    By my early teens, my mother decided to go back to work. My father severely disapproved, but she did it anyway, taking a job as a seamstress in a local factory making clothes for Marks & Spencer. In response to her audacity, he told her that he would no longer be giving her as much from his wages as she was now able to make up the difference from her own. I assume, though this is conjecture, that he spent the money he saved through the income from both my siblings and my mother on stamps. The number of his albums grew, filling one side of the living-room bookshelves in tall, leather-bound rows.
    On one memorable occasion he called a family meeting. My three siblings and I headed for the living room, ready for the usual dictatorial pronouncement about crumbs on the Afghan or a chip in the Lalique, and lined up in order of our heights like a depleted legion of Von Trapps. Someone, he said, had been using too much toilet paper. That morning, before leaving for work, he had noticed a full roll in the bathroom, and yet, this evening on his return, mere tatters remained.
     “Two sheets,” he announced, with a convincing authority, “should be more than sufficient for any eventuality.”
    My siblings and I laugh over our collective memories of Life with Father. Our homes today are filled with music and noise and conversation and overheated rooms flooded with unnecessary light. If we had lived in a different country, in a different culture, his diatribe about toilet paper would provide fascinating fodder for analysts, but we were raised in Glasgow, where life was something you got over and got on with, without the mollycoddling of psychiatry. So we did, and we have moved on, or think we have, but has he? In his desire to enforce his authority over his mouthy, unruly wife, he sacrificed his relationship with his children and has no relationship at all with his grandchildren. It is as if he were determined to sever himself from our clan, to be a rarity, to stand alone, singular, to burn any ties that tethered him to a present, a past, or a future. When he looked at us, he saw only his adversaries; he recognized no part of himself.

The philatelist’s Holy Grail is the rarity. The Mauritius Post Office issued two stamps in 1847 that are now considered the most valuable in the world. In 1929, Lundy Island issued Puffin Stamps, which are not only rare but attractive, and the desirable Flimsies from the 1930s are considered the most romantic, having been used for mail sent by carrier pigeons between New Zealand and the Great Barrier Reef.
    In 1918, a postal worker in the United States inadvertently sold a sheet of airmail stamps on which the image of a biplane had been printed upside down. The United States Postal Service instantly withdrew from circulation the remaining stamps of this faulty batch, making the 1918 Airmail Invert the stamp most coveted by North American collectors. Perhaps the upside-down biplane confirmed the public’s suspicion that these new-fangled contraptions were a bad idea.
    In the mid-nineteen hundreds, the government of British Guiana in South America printed one-cent stamps for the mailing of newspapers. By the following century, it was widely believed that only one of these stamps remained, which was owned, with considerable pride, by an American millionaire named Hind. Suddenly, another collector came forward, professing to have a second Guiana stamp. Hind promptly bought it. After paying for it, he set it alight using the tip of his cigar. “Now,” he is purported to have said while watching it burn, “there is only one one-cent Guiana stamp in the world.”

My father was a man of meticulous habits: he polished his shoes every evening and shaved with a straight razor every morning. Only my mother was allowed to iron his shirts, as he was particular about his collars and cuffs. He had impeccable taste for antiques, china, and tweed. Once a week, he walked to the library to return his books and take out some chunky hardbacks by Frederick Forsyth or Harold Robbins. The Harold Robbins combined with his tolerance of The Benny Hill Show reveal a fondness for smut that bothers me now but seemed normal and prevalent in the 1970s.
    On one evening every other week, he went out for reasons that remained a mystery until recently, when I discovered that he attended Masonic meetings. Given his misogynistic distaste for housework, it amuses me to imagine him with one trouser leg rolled up and wearing an apron during the silly Masonic rituals. Every Sunday he attended the Methodist Church with the rest of us in tow, all scoured faces and uncomfortable shoes, like the Scottish Cleavers. He oiled his way amongst the congregation, oozing charm, before returning home in silence. On Saturdays, if the weather was dry, he would go cycling to unknown destinations, returning sweaty and crackling with sunburn, or he might disappear on the train to Edinburgh to return late in the evening, clutching small grease-proof paper packets of new stamps. If the weather was wet, he would spread one of his leather portfolios on the dining-room table and catalog his collection.
    Too big and grand for the room, our dining table had extra leaves that were only used for New Year’s Eve dinners. This hulking piece of furniture was the physical manifestation of my father’s middle-class aspirations. After all, we didn’t actually have a dining room. Unknown to him, my mother had used wood glue to reattach an arm of one of its six matching carver chairs. It had broken off one afternoon after I had been swinging on it while spying, out our living-room window, on a boy I had a crush on. As a baby, I had also teethed against one of the table’s legs, but mother-to-the-rescue had sanded down the rough edge and disguised the nibbles with shoe polish. She did the same again when our dog, too, discovered the soothing properties of mahogany. I wonder if my father has found those flaws yet.
    I can see this table on a wet Sunday afternoon. A cloth extends two thirds up its length. Two photographic trays made of white, enameled metal sit side by side filled with water, their lips outlined in black. Individual stamps float face down in one tray, like little corpses from a maritime disaster, the remnants of the envelopes they once franked peeling off their backs like loose clothing. In the second tray, the newly refreshed and naked stamps float face up. To the left and right of my father’s hands lie a copy of the Stanley Gibbons reference catalog, a magnifying glass, a calligraphy pen and ink pot, sets of tweezers, and a perforation gauge to measure the distance between the little pie-crust edges of each stamp and confirm their authenticity. At the top of the table is a humidor, for sweating the backing from stamps too precious to risk dipping in water, and a pile of clean white blotting paper. In front of him sits the watermark bowl, my favorite thing of all, the size of a generous teacup with a jet black interior just large enough for a sheet of four. Sometimes I would stand behind him while he tested a stamp’s lineage and watch as the watermark embossed into its flesh rose to the surface.
    The only time my father was unable to resist a conversation was when I mentioned stamps. One damp Sunday, when I was around eight years old, I asked him to show me what he was doing. Thinking me converted after a long and somewhat technical lecture, he bought me a pack of starter mixed stamps the following weekend, with pictures of wild animals on the front, as animals were my current craze. However, I wanted to arrange the stamps in my favorite colors or species, not according to any logical format such as country of origin or face value or size. I also tended to pick them up with icky fingers and tried to swap them with my friends for paper dolls or chewing-gum cards. Sometimes the temptation to lick the back and slap them on stuff, including lampposts or the dog, proved too much. Before long, he gave up on me because of my lack of seriousness. Hobbies, he maintained, were not games. He failed to see I had reeled him in under false pretenses on that wet Sunday afternoon. I had simply wanted him to talk to me.

In nineteenth-century America, the desperation of families to communicate with one another was such that an amateur mailman with grit and a mule could make a fortune by carrying letters to loved ones in unmapped regions, in exchange for exorbitant amounts of gold, if and when the addressees were found. Approaching mail steamers triggered a bedlam of punch-ups and queue jumping at San Francisco’s dock. A Dr. William McCollom wrote in 1850 that his description of such mayhem might seem fanciful to his readers but “falls short of giving an adequate idea of the immense amount of letters that the steamers bring to San Francisco, and of the throng that rush after them in their intense anxiety to hear from home.”
    Ten years later, at 2:45 am, on April 4, 1860, William Hamilton left Sacramento on the West coast carrying sixty-nine letters, on the first ride east of the newly formed Pony Express. Meanwhile, Johnny Frey had left St. Joe on the opposite coast late the evening before, and the two riders passed one another somewhere outside Salt Lake City. The cross-country trip of approximately two thousand miles took ten days, and the cost of a letter was five dollars. The Pony Express blinked from reality to myth in less than a year because of the beginning of the Civil War and the advent of the telegraph.

My parents married in 1955. I have a photograph of each of them taken around this time. I study it, trying to fathom how straight-laced, conservative William Brown McCallum ended up with sassy socialist Margaret Stewart Hamilton.
    My mother turns coquettishly toward the camera, leading me to suspect my father was behind it. The expression on her face is a dare. She wears a checked tweed coat with princess sleeves, a beret, and fur gloves and holds a Grace Kelly bag. Her hair is cut like Doris Day’s. She is tiny, just five feet tall, with an upturned nose. I believe her assertions that she was the most stylish girl ever to live in a one-room tenement flat, and the most successful sales associate in the gentleman’s haberdashery department of the Co-Op Department Store in Glasgow. The only child of an atheist socialist campaigner and a former suffragette, she appears flirtatious, self-confident, ambitious.
    My father was the youngest of three sons. A photograph of his father reveals a man wearing a starched clip-on collar, a watch chain, and razor-creased pinstripe trousers designed for standing at attention. His mother hardly ever sat down. At dinner, she served her husband and sons then ate the leftovers alone in the kitchen. According to family legend, she lived and died a skivvy.

In the photograph of my father, he walks purposefully down some unknown street, in a trilby and belted trench coat over a tweed suit with cuffed trousers. He is handsome in that fragile way of First World War poets, and not as tall as I once imagined, only around five feet nine inches. Stylish, with a fair complexion and ashy blond hair, he has a pensive expression, which hovers around his slim nose and thin, sensitive mouth. A regular Trevor Howard with something perpetually in his eye; I can understand my mother’s attraction.
    My parents met at the dance that took place every Wednesday and Saturday night in the Toledo Ballroom in Glasgow. Without fail my mother would miss the last tram home and have to walk back with her girlfriends, their stiletto heels stumbling over the tramlines, before falling into bed and getting up at five for work.
    Their courtship had a dashing edge considering they were a working-class couple, generously funded by my father, who had just become an apprenticed timber clerk. He took her to the Rogano for oysters, still one of Glasgow’s swankiest restaurants, and to the Theatre Royal to see a production of, ominously, The King and I. My maternal grandfather was skeptical about his daughter’s choice, sensing his future son-in-law was a snob and a Sunday Christian. What must have surprised him more, though, was that she had chosen a man without a sense of humor. My grandfather never addressed my father as William or Bill, but nicknamed him Wullie, emphasizing its working-class pronunciation, which he sensed, correctly, would annoy my father intensely. My grandfather always took his daughter’s part whenever my parents’ marriage foundered, and my father sensed a rival for his wife’s affection in the person of his charismatic father-in-law, whom she adored.
    According to my mother (whose viewpoint is, naturally, skewed, though I trust her gist), everything changed after my parents married. William began laying down the law. He didn’t believe that married women should work, especially in a men’s clothing store, and she gave up her job at the Co-Op. That such an independently minded young woman would have abandoned her career so easily is proof of how besotted she must once have been. Or perhaps proof of her uncertainty in her own independence. He also believed that married women no longer needed friends; a husband and children should be sufficient company. He systematically severed her from everyone she knew by becoming moody and petulant if she spent time with anyone other than him. As though to seal the deal, three children were produced in quick succession.
    My mother still smiles over her determination to name their firstborn after her father, regardless of the sex of the child. My eldest sister, therefore, is called Billie, and my father probably believes to this day the fib his young wife told him, in a flush of faked wifely adoration, that they should name their daughter after him. But Billie was named for my grandfather, Willie Hamilton, who, in turn, coincidentally, shared the name of one of those first riders of the Pony Express, willing to travel over two thousand miles to satisfy the yearnings of prospectors and settlers for a few words from home.
    My parents’ photographs show a handsome couple with a singular stylishness, and hint at a strong sexual attraction. I like to believe this is true; I refuse to accept that love didn’t play some part in this disparate union. “Those were the days,” my mother says, ruefully, “the days before ‘taste and try before you buy.’” The photographs also hint of a connection based on mutual ambition; they both dress and appear wealthier than they actually were. I suspect they shared a desire to move one rung up the social ladder, out of the working class and into the lower middle class. My father must have seemed quite a catch. He had the prospect of an exciting future in a white-collar job provided he worked hard and applied himself. Apprenticed to a lumber company in Glasgow, he would become a timber merchant, visiting the docks at Greenock and Grangemouth to inspect and grade the quality of woods that arrived from Africa, the Indies, and Scandinavia in sap-saturated, resin-scented crates.
    However, he lacked drive; although they both had the appearance of ambition, only my mother had the fact of it. They spent the first eleven years of their married life raising their first three children in a one-room-and-kitchen tenement flat in the south side of Glasgow, sharing a bathroom on the communal landing and an outside cludgie at the end of the backgreen with the other five families in the close.
    The year before I was born, they moved to a three-bedroom council flat, which my mother considered a palace as it had a separate kitchen and bathroom. My father, now a qualified timber merchant, began to fill it with over-large, expensive furniture made from, without question, ravishing cuts of wood, while my mother nagged him to spend his increased earnings on holidays beyond Scarborough and Whitley Bay, or on the installation of a telephone, or to learn to drive and buy a car.
    Opportunities rose for his promotion in the world of forestry and wood importing, but my father refused them all. Overseas postings to Central Africa and Burma were considered, and at one time, a chance to emigrate from Scotland to Australia. My mother elbowed him to go, but he dithered too long over his decisions. He trusted the advice of his own father, who said that terrible things happened overseas and foreigners couldn’t be trusted. My mother watched as my father’s coworkers gained promotion and moved their families out of council accommodations and into houses they had bought themselves, in the hoity-toity suburbs of Giffnock or Newton Mearns, while she cooked, cleaned, baked, sewed, and struggled to balance the household bills, and my father bought furniture and stamps.
    Still, our council flat and comprehensive schooling failed to convince him that we were no better than the “common” lot. He acted as if our family were somehow above our neighbors. A bus stop stood not ten yards from our close, yet he walked a mile every day, rain or shine, to the railway station to take the train to work, the Glasgow Herald tucked under one arm, the train being a classier form of transportation in his mind than a bus.
    “He needed a bomb in his arse,” my mother says, still baffled by what could possibly have held him back.
    Fear held him back. He couldn’t swim, and he couldn’t drive, and he was terrified of water, flying, heights, elevators, dentists (he put three spoonfuls of sugar in his mug of tea and suffered agonies for years as his teeth disintegrated), illness, blood, his father-in-law, intelligent women (despite his crushes on Felicity Kendall and every female news anchor on the BBC), and his boss. He had a starstruck respect for people in positions of authority, like teachers or policemen, and for anyone whom he perceived to be above him in the class hierarchy. He tended to call men he wanted to impress “Sir.”
    Like many fearful people, he was a bully within his own home and changed his personality according to his audience. Above all, he feared my mother’s words. During arguments, she tended to get the better of him, stooping to satire and sarcasm, employing a pungent vocabulary learned from her days working in the factory. His only defense was silence. Perhaps it was natural and inevitable that he would barricade himself behind it and refuse to come out.
     “Love is blind,” my mother has said often in the intervening years. “God knows, I was taken in by that daft bugger.”
    My mother has reinvented her past since her divorce. She enjoys her life so much now that she can’t tolerate the fact that she could have enjoyed it so much sooner. She is proud of her decision to step away from her marriage at age fifty, at how she managed to stand up to, and get the better of, William Brown McCallum. Still, I sometimes find myself thinking, she waited twenty-eight years to do it. And while she hesitated, we waited with her, at the bottom of that dark well of silence. There is no doubt the daft bugger took her in, but she took him in too.
    I often rib my mum that my father isn’t really my father, that I was, in fact, a love child from some illicit affair. But I know he is my father—we look alike, and over the years I have recognized parts of his personality in myself: my love of classical music, my need for solitude, my addiction to sugar, my ability to be comfortable for long periods of time on my own, a pathetic desire to please those in authority, a fear of what other people think of me, a snobbishness about furniture and words, an inability to finish projects that I have started, an appearance of ambition that far outstrips the fact of it. We are an accidental tête-bèche, he and I, two stamps joined together yet inverted in relation to one another.

Some of the rarest stamps in the world come from the smaller corners of the British Commonwealth and the British Overseas Territories. The Cook Islands, the Pitcairn Islands, Mauritius, South Orkneys, the Maldives, the Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea are just some of the countries whose stamps my father collects. Unlike many of my school friends, I knew of the Falklands long before the infamous war of 1980, and I could locate the archipelago of Vanuatu, and the Christmas, Gilbert, and Ellice Islands on a map.
    Despite this focus, he also snipped the stamps from every piece of mail, from letters to circulars to electricity bills, and regardless of the feud, everyone in our home would automatically place any envelopes we received by our father’s ashtray.
    I was often tempted when he was away from home to look through his albums. It was not the stamps themselves that interested me, but the exotic landscapes they stood for. I was desperate to run away, and some of these destinations sounded like they would be just about far away enough.
    I last saw my father thirteen years ago, ten years after he passed me, unknowingly, in the street. By this time I was living with Arthur, then my fiancé, now my husband, in north London. He telephoned one day, and at first I didn’t recognize his voice. Somewhere in the midst of our stilted conversation, I discovered with shock that I had agreed he could stay with us for one night when he passed through on a cycling tour. I called Arthur at work. “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” I said.
    I plunged into a panic, determined to make no special effort yet driven to an orgy of cleaning. I polished our mismatched furniture collection of hand-me-downs and loaners from our landlord. I bought flowers and placed them on the upturned boxes masquerading as end tables under Laura Ashley fabric remnants; heaven knows, I may even have lit candles. Although my passion for books and opera is genuine, I succumbed to a pretentious urge to rearrange glossy hardbacks about interior decor and foreign travel to more prominent effect, and placed a CD of arias in the player. When Arthur asked about his future father-in-law, I told him to expect an intimidating blend of Trevor Howard and John Wayne.
    When the day arrived, I answered the front door to find someone resembling the Birds Eye fisherman holding a rucksack and a set of bicycle clips. He was small and middle-aged with ruddy cheeks and a white beard, and wore a dirty yellow anorak and Lycra shorts with a chamois-leather bum. He was much shorter than I expected, and not simply because of my confidence-boosting three-inch heels, which I insisted on wearing all evening. Arthur towered over us both at six feet two.
     “Hello, Dad,” I said, as if he had just popped out to the shops.
    Our flat in Muswell Hill had been converted from two floors of a red-brick Edwardian terraced house. It reeked of middle-class Britishness—the upright, patriotic, bubble-and-squeak Britishness of coronations and Ealing comedies. It had a large bay window in the living room, where we had placed a dining table. Here we ate dinner, as the light faded to darkness, and the black railings of Alexandria Park speared above the garden hedge in the gloom. Arthur sat between us, and my father and I faced one another. From the neck up, our two profiles would have been visible to anyone who happened to pass by that evening, like a homely silhouette of conviviality, or heads of state on a first-class stamp.
    I can’t remember exactly what we ate, probably spaghetti Bolognese or chili con carne, the only two dishes I could make from scratch, anchored at one end with a salad and at the other with a Marks & Spencer cake. As the meal progressed, my stress morphed into a vindictive arrogance, as I plied us all with alcohol and made sure to remark that Arthur and I were living in sin, in the hope that my father would raise some moral objection and, at last, the fight could begin.
    We talked about the present as though we had arrived at this moment, newborn. My siblings, his ex-wife, his grandchildren, the tiny diamond on my left hand—these subjects we avoided, though I sensed them crowding the shadowy corners of the room. And we talked of Hong Kong, where, in the early 1950s, my father passed his two years of National Service with the Royal Highland Fusiliers. He had traveled there by boat, a six-week journey via the Suez Canal and around the coast of India. His role, ostensibly, was that of a radio signalman supporting the troops in the conflict in Korea, but based on the photographs that have survived, he seemed to spend most of his time sightseeing and picking up girls. Young Chinese women in bathing costumes lean their childlike bodies away from the camera and into the burly Scotsmen at their sides, who grin from ear to ear in ill-fitting mufti.
    Father’s national service in Hong Kong had always had a mythical edge for me—no one else I knew had been somewhere so exotic—but by this point in my career as a fashion buyer, I had visited the Far East several times, including Hong Kong. I derived a malicious enjoyment from asking him if he had been to other parts of Asia such as Taiwan, Japan, or South Korea, places I knew he hadn’t visited but that I had. Arthur rolled his eyes at my intemperate bragging—I don’t think I was ever more like my father than at this moment—and plugged gaps in our conversation with harmless asides and small talk.
    My father ducked and dodged like a politician. Everything he ate was wonderful, the wine was wonderful, the flat was wonderful, and he addressed Arthur, a man less than half his age, as “Sir.” He insisted on stepping into the garden whenever he wanted to smoke. When my favorite duet from The Pearl Fishers played on the CD, he accompanied it, and the wavering vibrato of his whistling jangled off the bones in my spine. By having barely secured a Bachelor’s degree, and by living in a cramped flat in a borderline respectable middle-class area of London, and by working in a low-tier fashion job with a renowned but slowly going bankrupt company and drinking cheap red wine and listening to classical music with my meals, I had been transformed in his eyes from someone he could ignore, to the type of person whom he slavishly admired. My vain and needy preparations had succeeded; he was impressed. By the end of the evening, his cloying sycophancy made me want to slap him.
    At last, at long last, he went to bed. Arthur and I tidied up the kitchen in silence; my father seemed to have brought it into the house with him. Undressing in our room before bed, Arthur whispered, trying not to laugh, “John Wayne? He looks more like a cross between Billy Whiz and Jimmy Johnston.” He was right. My father did look like a blend of the cartoon character and the Celtic football player. Arthur’s joke annoyed me, though, for it implied that this cauldron of fear and fury lodged in my gut since childhood was inconsequential flimflam that could now be easily poured away.
    He got into bed beside me. “He seems pretty harmless,” he said.
    A few moments later Arthur was asleep. Lying in the dark, I heard my father clear his throat in the other room. The house seemed besieged with unsaid words; I imagined them smothering the windows and clogging the doorjambs like bats. Caffeinated adrenaline pumped through me, and I considered sneaking out of bed, getting dressed, and going to hide somewhere until my father had left. Where could I go? The tube station? The abandoned Alexandria Palace? To my friend Ellie’s flat over in Highgate?
    Arthur awoke at 5:00 am to find me sitting up in bed. “Get him out of here,” I said. “Get him out of here before I ask him who the fuck he thinks he is.”
    Foolishly, I had offered to wash my father’s clothes the night before, but we didn’t have a tumble dryer, so they were still damp. Arthur put the wet washing in a sports bag and tiptoed out the flat and down to the local Laundromat with a collection of fifty-pence pieces and spent half an hour watching his future father-in-law’s Y-fronts tumble dry. When my father awoke I gave him a mug of coffee and a neatly folded pile of warm laundry. After doddering about with his rucksack and bicycle clips for an agonizingly elongated half hour, he left.
    In the late afternoon, the telephone rang. He thanked me for letting him stay. After an awkward pause, into which I gather I was supposed to say he was welcome anytime but didn’t, he said, “I wanted to tell you I love you.”
     “Yes, I know.” I hung up. I knew nothing of the sort. Three months later Arthur and I left the United Kingdom to live in Canada, and when we got married the following year, it was my mother who accompanied me down the aisle.

Rumors that the wife of the Lord Justice Clerk of Scotland had died proved to be greatly exaggerated. After James Erskine had arranged an ornate funeral for his dearly departed in Edinburgh in 1736, a letter corked in a whisky bottle floated ashore, in which she pleaded to be rescued from St. Kilda. Erskine had arranged for her abduction and imprisonment on the island, to stop her testifying about his Jacobite plotting. The odds that Mrs. Erskine’s message in a bottle would be found are surprisingly high. Although there are no accurate records of the number of St. Kilda mail boats picked up versus those that were launched, it is estimated that roughly two thirds of the letters sent were received.

My father sometimes sends me a birthday card, and often a Christmas card. His choices are baffling—mushy and over scale, festooned with flowers and hearts addressed to “My darling daughter,” the envelopes and messages crafted in his meticulous childish calligraphy. I recognize the irony that our relationship should now be conducted by mail, and this long-distance conversation is the only way that I know he is still alive.
    When friends ask me where my father is now, I am tempted to say, “I don’t know,” to avoid explanations. He has retired and lives in an apartment in Grangemouth, an unattractive town in Central Scotland on the banks of the Firth of Forth, whose skyline is punctuated by the spewing funnels of oil terminals and processing plants, which contribute to some of the highest instances of cancer in Europe. According to my brother, my father’s flat is crowded with all the oversized furniture he took from our home, of which he had been so proud, and which I imagine now is old-fashioned and threadbare, the faded boot polish revealing the gnawing of children and dogs as starkly as on bone. The stamp collection is locked in vaults in a bank.
    My eldest sister lives nearby, his purported namesake, and every now and then her good nature sends her checking to see if he is okay. This is not an easy task, given that he refuses to answer the telephone or the door. When she finally gets hold of him, she gives him a dressing-down on the issue of responsibility as if he were a naughty child. She lives in perpetual fear that he will die in that flat and his body will decay until discovered by horrified neighbors who will sell their story to the tabloids and cause us all to be slandered for cruelty and neglect.
    Close friends are concerned by my unwillingness to pursue a relationship with him. One day he will need us, and my siblings and I will go, and until then the link between us will feel like held breath. Some things in life are meant to remain unresolved, I believe, an unfashionable view to hold in the United States where I now live, a country obsessed with a desire for closure, as though every experience, every thought, every relationship, must be buttoned, hooked and eyed. My reflections on my father are filled with wonder, not by his actions (or inactions), but at how he (and I) illustrate the ridiculous lengths to which a human being will go in order to make a point.
    I send him a Christmas card and a letter every year and always let him know when I have changed address. I choose the stamp, pressing the postal clerk to offer more intriguing alternatives to the standard airmail selection, and position it at a sharp right angle one third of an inch or so in from the top right-hand corner of the envelope. I like to imagine that he snips it off carefully and holds it up to the light.

Susan McCallum-Smith was born in Scotland and currently lives in Baltimore, where she is a freelance editor and book reviewer. She is the author of the story collection Slipping the Moorings. Her work has appeared in the Philedelphia Inquirer, the Scottish Review of Books, and Urbanite, and her reviews are heard on Maryland Public Radio. She is a graduate of Johns Hopkins and Bennington College and owns (keeps in a drawer) her three favorite stamps: James Stewart, John Wayne, and Cary Grant.

“The Watermark” was selected for reprint in The Pushcart Prize XXXV: Best of the Small Presses.

“The Watermark” appears in our Summer 2009 issue.