My dad called me this morning, 9 am. This is unusual. I was on coffee number one and still a bit groggy.
‘Did I wake you up?’ he asked.
‘No. I’m having my coffee.’
‘Me too,’ he said – then: ‘I need your help. Will you help me?’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘If I can.’
What my dad wanted – needed – help with was an essay entitled “On Translating Shakespeare” that he was about to send to King’s College, London, for publication. And he wanted me to edit it.
I said: ‘Um,’ with all the eloquence this poet-father has passed on. I gathered my thoughts. ‘Sure,’ I added. ‘But do you really need me to edit your English?’ The emphasis of incredulity in this sentence being you need me?
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘If you have time.’
‘I have time.’ I was about to sit down with my book-in-progress and agonise over unfinished chapters but, for this, I had time.
‘Send it,’ I said. ‘But I’m sure there’ll be nothing.’
My dad: the poet, the editor, the literature scholar, the man who translates Shakespeare into Greek and then casually whips up a 12 page essay on the topic, in perfect English; this man needs me? I was flattered, yes, and eager to be helpful, to prove that I was worthy of this compliment, this trust. But nervous as hell. Because, seriously: me? Who the fuck am I to mess with this man’s words, this man who gave me all the words I have, who, as far as I’m concerned, is the keeper of all the words? This magician with his pen, reaching into a hatful of words and pulling out entire worlds. How am I even qualified to comment, let alone edit what he writes?
I loaded the document onto my computer, determined to find nothing. Out of respect. Out of fear of disturbing the subtle balance of things, the hierarchy that keeps my understanding of this world and my place in it the right way up. Out of a reverse kind of pride: my humble skills and how proud I am of this poet-dad who far outskills me. It would be hubris to put red marks on his work. I’d do my duty, and find nothing. But we are all of us magicians in our realms.
When your web designer makes images appear at the top of your page like you asked him, that’s magic. When your massage therapist puts her hands on exactly the right spot along your back and eases the pain; when the plumber bends over your toilet and mutters and it no longer overflows when you flush it; when the gardener knows that your soil is too acidic and how deep to dig to sow tomato seeds: those are all magic tricks. When M, my boyfriend, the electrician, fearlessly reaches into a snake’s nest of live wires and makes the lights shine again, he is performing magic. When my sister stands up in a roomful of stressed out Londoners and gets them, with just her voice, to lie down on yoga mats and close their eyes and relax, she’s putting them under a spell. When my dad takes the poetry of Shakespeare – the metre, the meaning, the rhymes – and coaxes it into another language: how the fuck? And when I write, yes, that’s a kind of magic too.
The fact that something has been granted – a talent, an ability, knowledge, a healthy beating heart – doesn’t mean it should be taken that way. Our humble skills, the things we know, are someone else’s magic. Our nothing can be everything if it’s the thing that someone needs. Once we have learnt it, we forget, the time, to toil it took to get there; we forget that we’ve earned this qualification. Once we’ve mastered it, the glamour fades, and we just shrug it off as nothing, as unremarkable as having toes, or making a cup of tea. But we’re magicians in those things that we can do, the wands we wave so casually to make magic happen, like functioning toilets and thriving tomato plants and making words rhyme and finding small errors in a poet-father’s work.
It wasn’t nothing. It wasn’t a lot, but there were little things here and there, a word that jarred, a letter forgotten, an extra space between sentences, a z where an s should be. That’s all: ten marks, maybe, over twelve pages, ten tentative comments in red, the little things my dad had missed. And I had found them: me. The writer-daughter, hierarchically confused but qualified to comment after all. My dad was right. He may be the keeper of the words, but something of his magic has trickled down to me, and I – without noticing – have made it my own. And it’s another kind of magic now, a different trick altogether. I cannot translate Shakespeare but I can help to make an almost perfect essay a tiny bit better. Not casually: I agonised over those marks, just like I agonise over every single word I pull out of my hat to make a sentence, a paragraph, a story you might want to read. Just like my dad agonised over writing this essay that conveys the agony of translating Shakespeare. It may look casual, the way we perform the magic that we own, but it took time and toil to own it, and that’s what makes us qualified. That’s what makes us magicians, all of us, in the things that we know.
‘Thank you,’ my dad wrote when I sent him my suggestions.
‘It was nothing,’ I replied. But we both know it was a lot more than that. Nothing and everything; as remarkable as having toes.
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