Revelations: He was gone, and wasn't coming back

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Robert Harris, Leicestershire and Berkshire, September 1996

I'D BEEN in Russia for two-and-a-half weeks, researching my novel. It had been risky to go, because my wife was eight months pregnant. However, the town of Archangel is so far north that it becomes snow-bound from October to April, and I had had this small window of time. It never occurred to me to be worried about my father, who was 72 and, beyond having had a hip operation, appeared to be in good health.

Russia is a sweat for anyone. The airport alone is a struggle, and I'd been out in remote forests. So it was a great relief to be home in Berkshire. Whatever happened, I would be around.

Ten o'clock on Monday morning and I was sitting in my study at home, writing up the notes of the trip. All the settings and the plot were beginning to come together in my mind. Jill, my wife, was out buying baby things when the last thing that I expected occurred: I received a call to tell me my father had collapsed in his garden and died of a heart attack.

As I put the phone down, my earliest childhood memory came back so very strongly: I was standing on the sand dunes watching my father swimming out into the North Sea. He was a strong swimmer and although I was probably only two-and-a-half, I can still vividly picture him going further and further out. I was really anxious, convinced he would never come back.

Losing a parent is something you're programmed to worry about from the moment you're first conscious, but still the shock of that phone call is not to be underestimated. My nightmare had happened: he was gone, and this time he wasn't coming back. But I was no longer that small boy; I had to be capable; after all, I was nearly 40. I climbed into the car to drive up to Leicestershire and comfort my mother. On arrival, I discovered that my father had been shifting heavy paving-stones! I tried to pick up one of them but I could hardly move it. So for a man with an arthritic hip to be undertaking the job was extraordinary; my father had in a sense worked himself to death. He must have had an incredibly high pain threshold, a legacy of polio when he was 18 months old. Once, when he came to visit us at our new house, he worked all day in the garden and fell over backwards and broke his leg. He insisted on actually walking into casualty; they had never seen anything like it. So the warning signs of a heart attack he must worked through. Although aware of how much he was exhausting himself and how dangerous it was, he went on and did it. Some people might have been angry with him, but I felt admiration.

We hide the bodies; you become aware of an almost invisible refuse service; but I needed to say goodbye.Most people never view the body, imagining it is creepy to ask - but it's not. I'd never seen a dead person and I was worried whether my father had been in pain. However, it was a calming experience. He looked peaceful.

I stayed in Leicestershire for three or four days, and the funeral was on the day that the baby was due. My wife did come up, but we had to alert the local hospital.

Ten days after my father's heart attack, my daughter was born at home, rather than in some sterile hospital. There were just a couple of midwives and me, making it a more profound experience than even our first child. Not to sound too new-mannish, I gritted my teeth and felt the pain more this time. The labour was going on so long that they started to get a bit worried; another hour or so, and my wife would have been taken into hospital. I was forcibly reminded that life, at its beginning and its end, is messy. Jill made a superhuman effort and Matilda arrived. I cut her umbilical cord and it was hard not see the spiritual circularity of one life going out and another one coming in.

I found myself looking for genetic traces of my father, in a look or a gesture. But the strongest thing I felt was the force with which this child kicked her way out, and the sheer swirling sense of coursing life. All this coming six months before I reached 40 has also been relevant. Life has been different - enjoyable, but with more sombre news around in the shadows. A lot of people are dependent on me. Naturally and inescapably, I've become an adult.

Being so close to death and birth - at the same time - I'm much more aware of my own mortality, but my fear has been removed. I'm not worried about dying and, perhaps more important, I don't give a damn what people think. I've confronted the epic truths of life, and everything else is just dust. There is so much trivia in the modern age, an obsession with longevity: passive smoking, mortgages and pensions in your 20s. That's one of the reasons I'm interested in history, and the perspective it gives our lives.

I was still thinking about my book as these momentous things were happening, so the story is very much about the deep-seated emotions of family. I'm fascinated by how much free will we have, how much we are programmed by our genes. Although a thriller, Archangel is much more personal. I feel happier with it than my two other novels. I was profoundly relieved to finish it but there was also a feeling of sadness. This is the first piece of work that my father won't read - that is so hard.

Death makes you look back, but it is only when a story closes that you see it in perspective; it's now possible to understand the influence my father has had on me. I've always tried to write for people like him, not literary critics. Archangel is dedicated to him, and my daughter, as it came out of that whole strange experience. There's no easy way into the world and no easy way out.

`Archangel' by Robert Harris is published by Hutchinson, price pounds 16.99