Thom James

Thom James is a writer based in London. His fiction has appeared in journals such as Ambit and Hello Mr, while his non-fiction has appeared in The Huffington Post, The London Economic and other titles both online and in print. For the past three years he’s helped to organise Lit Live, a literary reading series based in South London. He is currently working on a memoir.





It’s Father’s Day and I am nowhere near my father. He’s in Norway on a fishing trip, alongside seven other retired men who’ve spent a portion of their pension flying across the North Sea in hope to catch herring, rays, skate, even a small shark or two if luck is on their side. They’re staying in a lodge in Stavanger, a part of the country which protrudes from its south-western side like a branch of a tree that’s been upturned by blustering wind. He’s telling me, on the phone, that earlier today they’d hired a boat to drift between the islands of Amøy, Mosterøy and Rennesøy. He’s made no attempt to feign a Norwegian accent when pronouncing the names of these isles, but then again, he’s lived his entire life in England and hasn’t had the money to undergo a trip like this before: what does he know of Scandinavian vowels and how to pronounce them correctly? Even the odd English word he gets wrong, pronouncing ‘across’ as acrossed. Though I never correct these mispronunciations – I’ve grown too used to them. As he describes the overhanging cliffs and the rugged, mottled texture of Mosterøy, I too am looking at it, but on a laptop in a shared flat in London. The world is so small when it’s reduced to a thirteen-inch screen, and in a way, it’s a lot more bearable. So is having this conversation over the phone instead of face-to-face.

Yesterday, they chartered a larger boat to sail into the North Sea. An ocean shared by Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway but it feels too bracing to be attributed as a European sea: it’s boreal through and through. He said of how daunting and liberating it was to be in such an expansive space: with no means of getting to land if the ship encountered trouble, the only direction to go would be downwards. As he went on, he spoke of the irony that yesterday, on the twentieth of June, the ship did in fact begin to breakdown as a subtle northerly wind developed into something much larger than what they’d hoped for. That’s the thing with being so far removed from the comfort of our cities, towns, and the walls that we erect around ourselves: the weather, once again, becomes merciless and you are at its whim. As waves grew in stature, the way a bull does when coerced by a crimson rag, the ship began to sway violently and water collected on the deck. Armed with nothing but a ceramic mug, my father threw the lukewarm coffee overboard, and started to do the same with the water that was slowly rising to his knees. Out of everything he’s ever told me in his life, this story feels the most compelling. There’s something so earnest about the image of my father who’s five foot six, wearing a yellow, hooded waterproof jacket, trying to avoid sinking by throwing water over port and starboard with a coffee cup. It summarises him – a man who’s always tried his best with fatherhood, marriage, life, though often fallen short – truthfully and succinctly. A rescue boat eventually reached their position and helped to restart the engine, and then escorted them back to the shore. Though close to death, my father was apparently beaming afterwards, and I’m sure he was. Living an easy suburban life on the Isle of Wight, he hadn’t felt that stirring of excitement for a long while. My fingers touch the screen on an area where the storm still lingers in the North Sea: I can’t feel its coarseness or its savagery, but what I can do is imagine it. Neither can I feel a tender love for my father. So I begin to imagine that too. And I feel warm. Whole.

After half an hour, he’s still telling me about his trip thus far, though I’m in no way eager to change the subject as it beats our usual conversation topics: the weather and political climate. Tonight he’ll be eating the fish he caught earlier on: a twenty-pound monkfish, fried, with potatoes on the side. The fishermen have been eating their catch for the past week, though my father tells me that today was a particularly bounteous haul composed of saithe, halibut, even the native Norwegian skate. I ask him the weight of the heaviest fish he caught, because that’s what it’s all about; the entire premise of modern-day fishing. Instead of catching fish so that you and your family remain fed and well-nourished, now it’s so that you can have a brief moment to gloat, an opportunity to say: Ha! I am the victorious one. Considering how much of our lives is spent feeling defeated, I don’t see any issue with this. In response, my father tells me that the largest fish he’s caught so far is, indeed, the monkfish. I congratulate him and after a little while longer, the conversation begins to wrap up to an end. As I say my goodbyes, I feel an odd mixture of emotions. Happiness that the phone call is ending – that I’ve got another Father’s Day out the way – but there’s also a sadness. That our relationship is naturally so stunted, so strained. And then I feel a pang in my heart. But it’s not love. It’s something like longing.



Sitting back in front of my laptop, distracting myself from the ache I feel, I’m clicking on links about Norse mythology. It feels fitting seeing as my father is visiting the land where it all originated from. I begin reading about Odin, the god of all gods who in exchange for wisdom, traded one of his eyes. Some say it was the left, others the right, but what does it matter? An eye is, after all, an eye. I move on swiftly to his son Thor, the protector of mankind who is also known by his sixteen other names: Ásabragr, Ása Þ-órr, Atli, Björn, Eindriði, Ennilangr, Harðhugaðr, Harðvéurr, Hlðriði, Öku-Þor, Rymr, Sönnungr, Véþormr, Véuðr, Véurr or Vingþórr. He represents healing and hallowing, and with his hammer he can call upon thunder. Thor is not an only child: he has three other brothers. Baldr, bestower of the summer sun, Víðarr, harbinger of revenge, and Váli, fated to survive the world’s end known as Ragnarök. As I read of Odin who had four sons, I cannot help but draw parallels from my father’s genealogy to this, especially as Odin had daughters too. It links up exactly, their family tree sprawling out in the same directions as my own. My father has three brothers – Charles, Lawrence and Raymond. Two sisters too – Francis and Alice. Seeing as Odin was in charge, and an overseer, he was powerful. Wrathful. A trait that was predominant in my grandfather. He was a heavy drinker, and would domestically abuse my grandmother when he thought nobody was looking. My eldest aunt, Francis, only saw the abuse the final time: the night before he left for good. Disappearing into the world like a ghost. The children were too young to understand, really, what was going on. But they were told of the abuse later on in life, and quite rightly, never attempted to get in contact with him. They were fatherless and I remember them all telling me they had preferred it that way. But now as the screen’s icy hue lights up face, I’m thinking about Odin and his children, what their relationship was like. Was it fraught too? Was there something missing, like intimacy?

There are other details within the lore which, when compared to the paternal side of the family, seems uncanny. Váli is in fact Thor’s half brother. Raymond, the youngest of all my uncles and aunts, is not related to my grandfather at all: his father was a Canadian soldier stationed in Crondall during the war who met my grandmother at a dance. Then there’s Frigg, the wife of Odin, who is not only associated with fertility and love, but was also a collector of sublime material possessions. My grandmother was an antiques collector, and apparently had a vast collection of priceless trinkets. Though I imagine that Frigg wouldn’t have had her possessions broken and smashed by the man she loved. Nor would she have been beaten by him; the father to her children.



It’s late now and it’s approaching midnight, though you can never quite tell in inner city London. Due to the light pollution, the sky is fixed in a state of gloaming as opposed to real darkness. I’m sure that it’s starkly different to the skies of Stavanger, under which my father sleeps. As I turn off the laptop and lie in bed, looking out towards an illuminated city, I think back to the past. For as long as I can remember there has been a frigidness in the way my father and I interact. On my tenth birthday, after I opened my presents, I remember him congratulating me on “making it into double figures” and shaking my hand. At the time I remember thinking this is how adults do it – I’m an adult now. But now, as an adult, I look back at it and feel frustration. Why did my father shake my hand instead of giving me a hug? Why does my father still not offer an embrace – even in times of need? Like last year, when after a relationship had dissolved and with me not knowing what to do with myself, I took the train down to Portsmouth harbour so I could visit my parents on the island. In the car he didn’t ask of what happened or how I had felt, but instead spoke of road diversions and how useless the council were at filling potholes. I understand how he could’ve been avoiding the topic in case of upset, but what others think we don’t want is often exactly what we need. And more than anything, I needed him to do more. To offer out his arms. To hold me.

Never have I understood why there’s always been a distance between us. Though, now that I’m thinking about it, I wonder if my elusive grandfather had an impact on my father’s own sense of fatherhood. I’m in no way a trained psychologist or a qualified family-relations expert, but how else can this coldness be explained? Why is it, that our relationship feels no different when the entire expanse of the North Sea is between us?



I cannot sleep. The city roars on beyond my window, a carnival of light and sound. My mind, like the roads below, is congested with thoughts. Full with images of my father, old Norse gods, and bracing seas. And I realise there are more parallels to the lore of Norse mythology and my family. It’s said that Thor had two sons and a daughter. The two sons, Móði and Magni, their names meaning brave and strong respectively, apparently embodied their father’s strength in battle. Norse lore is still alive and well today: there are now, in fact, two craters called Móði and Magni leftover from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010. According to the Guide to Iceland, the craters are referred to as twins, and are both situated between Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull itself. My father didn’t have two sons, but he did have two daughters from a previous marriage: Sadie and Grace. They may not have inherited godly powers like Móði and Magni, but they certainly have inherited my father’s eyes, his nose. I’ve met Sadie and Grace only a handful of times as they’re both twice my age: one has children herself, the other a high-paying job which apparently demands a great deal of her time. It’s hard for me to see them as sisters, and them to me as a brother: we have separate mothers and were born at such radically different times, our lives never really overlapped. It’s strange, bizarre even, to think that we are related by blood. Blood isn’t always thicker than water.

There is one common aspect we share, though: they too have a complicated relationship with my father. Communication is irregular as they barely ring him, nor do they visit my parent’s house which is only a short drive and ferry ride away. If he wants to talk to them, to ask how they are and what his grandchildren Elijah and Hannah are doing, my father will have to be the one to initiate conversation. I think of the twin craters in Iceland, and begin to wonder if they have some kind of lingering, subterranean contact with the volcano they had once emerged from.



Now I’m thinking about when my father and I recently travelled to his hometown of Crondall. Crondall is on the north-eastern edge of Hampshire, and it’s one of those villages which, if you drove through it, you’d make a passing comment on how picturesque it looked but if you tried to place it on a map or figure out what it was called, you would never be able to. Being such a small, enclosed parish, only those with some significant link to the village know of it. My father, uncles and aunts were all celebrating momentous birthdays, and it seemed a good reason as any to host a get-together for immediate and extended family alike. I didn’t particularly want to go, but a few days beforehand my father text asking if I could join him. So I said yes, though half-heartedly. I was keener after he said there’d be a free, open bar: time always passes quickly after a few bottles.

As always, my father insisted that we arrived early, and while people trickled into the village hall, there were some who I recognised and others who I couldn’t quite place. One elderly man, whose back bent forward ninety degrees, grasped onto his wife’s arm with his left hand and held a walking stick with the right. As he was greeted his eyes had to roll upwards in order to make contact: with a half-smile he’d say hello and then turn away, ashamed of people looking at his buckled, misshapen body. As he shambled across the room I asked my father who he was. His name was Archibald and he was on the cusp of turning ninety years old. I remember, suddenly, becoming very aware of how much life I had left to live.

Unsurprisingly, Grace didn’t show. I expected her not to be there although I would’ve liked her to, for the sake of my father. Sadie, who in fact did make the effort, had brought her husband and two children along. Elijah, at twelve, stood at a mammoth six foot, much taller than my father and I. Hannah – who was revising for GCSE exams and hoped to become a palaeontologist – didn’t say much, but then again I can’t remember her as ever being overly talkative. Standing next to them both I listened as Sadie and my father spoke of recent happenings in their lives: the first thing he told her was of his then-upcoming trip to Norway and her response bordered on disinterest. My father then turned to Hannah, and asked as a grandparent does, how school was. She said she was nervous for her exams. As my father advised on how to relinquish those nerves, there was a despondent smile on Hannah’s face as if wondering: how can someone who only plays a part-time role in my life give me such advice? Behind her polite exterior I knew there was a disconnect. The same one all of his children and grandchildren have. I felt sorry for my father. Sad that our relationship with him isn’t as tender or strong as it should be.

Sadie, her husband Jon, Hannah and Elijah left early, as they had to drive through narrow, unlit country roads to eventually find their way home: whether it was the truth or not is beside the point. The goodbye beforehand between my father and Sadie was so drawn out and awkward due to the lulls of silence, that I remember being completely taken aback by it. No embrace was shared, no effortlessness in their exchange: the interaction was more akin to two people who had met for the very first time. Is their relationship saturated due to the fact that my father never had a father? Does this then mean that it has also impeded on our relationship? Perhaps. Despite our cold and fraught relationship, I know that when he’s no longer here, I’ll miss it. And I’ll miss him. In the distant future, at family gatherings, weddings, and birthdays, I’ll tell those that didn’t know him that he was the man who tried to stop a ship from sinking with a coffee cup.