A moment that changed me: my dead father haunted my dreams – until I drowned his caul

My late father would often appear to me in nightmares as a zombie. But I realised if I wanted to move on, I had to set him free

In Durham, on the bridge by the cathedral, on 11 October 2019, a voice from out of the air commanded me to drown my father.

The night before had been an exhilaratingly messy one. My debut novel, This Is Memorial Device, had been shortlisted for the Gordon Burn prize, and though I didn’t win, I partied with my editor and some friends well into the morning. I had the most fun I’d had in my life.

I had been plagued by nightmares of my father, who had died six years previously, in 2013, and who would return to me in dreams as a zombie, his beautiful suits all ragged and torn, his flesh putrid, his rotting arms holding in his exposed organs, his beautiful face half eaten away. When Dad died, he left me his caul, the membrane that covered his head when he was born. He called it his lucky cap and told me that if you had a caul in your possession, or better still, were born with one, you could never drown. Indeed, there was once a great trade in lucky caps among superstitious seamen. I carried his caul with me everywhere, sewn into a simple white pouch with the letter D on it and secreted inside my wallet.

The day after our Gordon Burn night of debauchery, I lost my father’s caul. I was distraught. I looked for it in the morning and it was gone. I was in tears when I spoke to my editor, Lee. But then when I was on my way to meet him in a bar I spotted it, lying outside the hotel entrance, miraculously, the pouch with the letter D on it. It must have lain there all night. I picked it up and slid it back into my wallet. But something wasn’t right.

I walked the streets of Durham, still crying. I stopped by the bridge that looks up to the cathedral. Right then, a voice told me to throw my father’s caul into the river. I realised I had to let him go. Without a second thought, but in tears and much confusion, I threw it off the bridge and watched as it span, swirled and disappeared into the murky waters. Of course, I instantly regretted it. But then I realised – in a flash – that he could never drown! He was now alive in every river of the world.

Soon after, I flew to Mexico to work on a book. As I was crossing the Atlantic, I had the most incredible feeling of following in the path of my father, who, borne on all the waters, had already arrived there. I had the feeling that I would find my father out there in the world, in all of the encounters that lay up ahead, rather than in some dead relic from the past. And so I set out to meet him, constantly, up ahead; and I did. When I was in Mexico City, I talked friends into taking me to weird waterways; old sewage-ridden stink pits in parks in Coyoacán; great lakes; dirty tubs of stagnant water next to taco trucks in Tijuana; the beautiful Gulf of California, where I saw him once more, below me, in the spume of the waves.

And my father never again returned as a zombie. I was given the great lesson that it is we, the living, who must let the dead go. They are with their people. But through force of love, they break the bonds of the grave and return to us, and I began to wonder if this was where the idea of zombies came from, our inability to let our dead go. And so I let him go, my father. I let him join the mass of the unnamed dead.

The year after I drowned my father I returned to Durham because I was once more shortlisted for the Gordon Burn prize, this time for my second novel, For the Good Times, which was inspired by the experiences of my father and his brothers, who grew up in Belfast during the Troubles. Only this time, I won.

Monument Maker by David Keenan is out now, published by White Rabbit, priced at £21.75. To support the Guardian, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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