I asked my mother one day what father did for a living, and she said he was a pearl diver.
This came as a great shock to me, partly because he wasn't a very good swimmer, partly because he didn't look in the least like like a pearl diver
Children today wouldn't know what a pearl diver looked like, but I knew, because when I was growing up we still had an Empire, or at least a Commonwealth, and there were always lots of books lying around with pictures of what people in the Empire, or at least the Commonwealth, did for a living.
As I remember, they did three main things for a living.
1. They dived for pearls.
2. They climbed palm trees to get coconuts.
3. They trained cormorants in Hong Kong to catch fish and then hand them over without eating them.
You couldn't see what the cormorant trainers were like, because obviously the pictures were taken at night, and it was very difficult to see the cormorants, let alone the trainers.
You couldn't really see what the coconut pickers were like, because they were small figures at the top of these windy bendy palm trees, and far too far away to see clearly.
Ah, but you could tell what the pearl divers were like, because they were often pictured standing in close-up, smiling in the sunshine, holding up a pearl for the camera to see.
These pearl divers were all brown-skinned, young, thin, smiling and dressed in almost nothing.
In every respect they couldn't look more unlike my father.
Also, there was no pearl fishing anywhere in Britain, or my Commonwealth picture books would have mentioned it, so when father said he was off to work in the morning, where on earth was he going to ? Certainly not to Samoa or Fiji. He would never have got there and back in time.
I cannot say that this problem occupied me much. Children are not on the whole much bothered by what their parents do for a living, and take it for granted. If it is boring, they ignore it, and if it is glamorous, exotic or unusual, they still take it for granted. I knew a boy once whose father had worked in a circus, on the tight rope, and I asked him what it felt like to have a father who was a tight rope walker. He said that as they travelled round with other circus people, it seemed a very normal sort of occupation. The only people in the circus who were thought to be odd were the ones who did things like driving, packing and clearing. Not to have a circus skill was seen as a strange aberration.
Later, when the circus fell on hard times and the staff was reduced, the artistes had to do all the driving, packing and clearing, so then everyone was in the same boat, and there was nobody without circus skills.
"Unfortunately, my father had an accident and had to retire," said my friend.
"Oh, my God," I said. "A tight rope accident ?"
"Sort of. They were taking down the big top one night and running round in the dark he didn't see a guy rope and fell over it. Snapped a tendon. Never healed. "
After learning that my father was a pearl diver, I forgot all about it. ( I think the brain is probably capable of rejecting impossible information in the same way as the body can reject implants. ) In fact, I didn't think about it again for several years until a boy at school asked me what my father did. I muttered that I though he was a pearl diver.
"A pile driver?" he said.
"Yes," I said, grateful at the mishearing. The boy looked impressed. I had no idea what a pile driver was. But looking back on it, I realised suddenly that if the boy had misheard what I had said, then maybe I had misheard what my mother had said in the first place. I felt shy at going back to my mother to ask her again what father did, as it's the sort of thing I really should know by the age of eight or nine, so I decided to go to my knowledgeable elder brother, Ralph.
"Ralph, what does our father do for a living?"
For once, Ralph dodged the direct question.
"Well, what do you think he does?"
"Well, I think he's a . . ."
I fell silent.
"Well, I once asked our mother what he was and she said he was a pearl diver."
"A pool diva?"
"A . . . well, a diva is someone who is very very good at something. And pool is the American word for billiards. So maybe he is a champion billiards player."
"Do you really think he is a champion billiards player?"
"No, I don't."
"Well, what do you think he is?"
"Well, I always thought he designed farmer's suits."
"Yes. I once asked mother what he did and she said something about farmer's suits. I wasn't sure if he sold them or designed them."
By now I was beginning to feel slightly panicky. Having for years not cared what he did, I now suddenly wanted to know for certain, especially faced as I was with all these wildly conflicting theories.
"Let's go and ask mother together," I suggested. "Please."
"Oh, all right," sighed Ralph, with one of those sighs that make it sound as if you are giving in very reluctantly, whereas you really want quite want to do it.
We found mother darning some socks, which mothers really did do in those days, and sat either side of her,
"Mother," said Ralph.
"Mother," I said.
"We have both asked you," said Ralph, "what father does for a living."
"And you have told us," I said.
"But I got the impression from you that he made farmer's suits," he said.
"And I got the impression that he was a man who hunted for pearls," I said.
"One of us is clearly wrong," said Ralph.
"Probably both of us," I said.
"So we have come to give you one last chance," said Ralph.
"What does he do for a living?" I said.
"Oh, tell us, mother!" cried Ralph.
"Do tell us!" I cried.
"It's very boring," she said. "He works in the medical industry. He makes and sells all the medicines which you see in chemist's shops. He is in the business of making people better. Indirectly."
This was so stunnngly boring that there was a short, respectful silence. Followed by an obvious question.
"So why did I think he was a pearl-diver ?" I said.
"I probably used the expression which he sometimes uses of himself, " she said. "Occasionally he refers to himself ruefully as a 'pill-dealer'."
Yes, that would explain everything. It would be quite easy to mishear "pill-dealer" as "pearl diver". But how flat to have everything explained.
"I keep urging him to make it sound more interesting and say that he is in the pharmaceutical industry."
"Farmer's suits!" said Ralph. "That's what I must have heard!"
He looked flattened too.
"He doesn't talk about it much," she said. "He wishes he could have been something grander. Perhaps he will be one day."
Ralph and I didn't talk about it again after that, either. I rather regretted the days when I had thought my father might be a pearl-diver. And I guess that even Ralph thought that farmer's suits might be more interesting than aspirins.
First draft of Someone Like Me, 2004