My dad was famous. When he died, the newspapers were full of him and his life’s work. It’s not often someone can say that. Of course, I knew him long before his fame and he only became really popular at the end of his life, after I’d left home.
I’ll always remember he used to tell me that it didn’t matter what you did as long as you were persistent. As long as you keep doing it over and over again, he’d say, people will eventually take notice. And his life was the proof, I suppose. In repetition, he’d say, there’s pattern. It doesn’t matter if the original building block, the singular of the pattern, is something strange or mundane, ugly or beautiful. What matters is replication to make the pattern.
I never really listened much to that old guff. The last thing I wanted to be doing was the same thing over and over and over again. It seemed pretty stupid to me when I was a kid, but now? Now I don’t know.
My dad became famous for collecting light bulbs. Doesn’t sound too spectacular when I put it like that, does it? But when I say he collected light bulbs, I mean he collected light bulbs. He stockpiled them, he amassed them, he hoarded them every day of his life. Not to use, mind you, just for the sake of collecting them.
If I buy one light bulb, he used to say, people will think I need a light bulb; if I buy ten light bulbs, people will think I’m stocking up; if I buy a hundred light bulbs, people will think I’m crazy – but if I buy a thousand light bulbs, people will think I’m a genius. And that’s sort of the way it turned out, just he got the order of magnitude wrong by about a factor of about a hundred, I reckon.
I didn’t see too much of my dad after my mum left him. I mean, we weren’t enemies or anything, we just weren’t that close. I had my life and he had his – or rather the light bulbs had his. It got to the point, even while I was still living at home, where there was no room for anything but light bulbs. There were light bulbs in the house, in the garden and in the garage. There were light bulbs in the basement, in the kitchen and in the bedrooms. There were light bulbs in all the cupboards, in the fridge – I even found a secret stash in the toilet cistern. Anywhere you could put a light bulb, he put one. All different kinds too: bayonet heads, screw heads and pin heads; halogen, LED and tungsten; pearls, globes and candles. You never saw such diversity. You can understand why my mum wanted to get away. I’ll never be the light of his life, she told me once, with a grim smile.
And then he got into the papers, when my mum left him. It was a freak show kind of famous, though: “The Man who Destroyed his Life for Light Bulbs” – that sort of thing. A lot of the newspapermen asked my dad why he collected light bulbs. A lot of people assumed it was a metaphor, that the light bulb represented genius, you know, the light bulb moment, or some other symbolist rubbish. But no. My dad always said the reason for collecting light bulbs was simply that they were a widely available household product. That was the only criteria. His point was that anything done persistently enough will get it’s own reward.
It was a shame that he died when he did. He was really excited about all those new energy saving light bulbs and went on a madder-than-ever buying spree just before he died. Nothing me or mum could do to stop him. But then he snuffed it and he was in all the papers again: “The Man who Destroyed his Life for Light Bulbs Dies.” The papers got even more excited when I executed his will and found that there was nothing left. It had all been spent on light bulbs. The house had been re-mortgaged even. All that he left me was a key with a little tag tied to it: basement stairs.
I thought maybe he’d left me something after all, so I fought my way into the house, through all the junk of light bulbs and dug down the old basement stairs. And, sure enough, there was a little cabinet high up on the wall. Quite excited at what I might find, I reached up on tiptoes and unlocked the door with the key. But inside was nothing. Nothing at all, just a simple switch, like you might find on any wall in any room. I thought dad had finally gone potty: why lock up a stupid switch?
Disappointed that it wasn’t something a bit more significant, I flicked the switch. Suddenly the basement burst into light. The glare scorched my eyes and I flinched like I’d been hit and threw my arm over my face. I staggered back up the stairs, but the hall was also on fire, a blinding light, pulverising my eyeballs. It was like being a tiny tungsten electron in an enormous incandescent bulb. They flared from every wall, from the ceiling, from the floor, through the cracks of cupboard doors.
I stumbled out of the house and into the front garden. The whole house was ablaze with light, lit up like a lantern. It really was a sight, a million Christmases and a million Bonfire Nights all rolled into one. Slowly, steadily I heard voices gather about me. I looked around and saw that the whole street had come out of their houses to watch. Then some folks walked up from the village to see the spectacle. Through my wincing eyes, a little bit of me was proud. Soon people were pulling up in their cars to marvel at the walls, the windows, the roof, stacked with bulbs, all shapes and sizes, glowing in the night like a star.
Well, of course that got him into the papers again. No more the freak show, though. This was a wonder of the modern world, a work of art. You could see the house on satellite maps, apparently, so wherever he is, my dad can see it for sure. I like to think it gives him a little smile.