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15 January 2020

Personal Story: My father and the crop circles

Dad paced excitedly around the perimeter. “There are two outer rings. First time I’ve seen that.”

By Alice O'Keeffe

As the car slowed, my head nodded forwards and I opened my eyes. Colours jostled in my vision, before settling into ordinary shapes: my knees, in their pink C&A cords, and the battered A-Z stuffed into the pocket of the seat in front. Blinking, I raised my head and looked out of the window: a hedgerow, and above it, a blank white sky.

Dad opened the driver’s door and angled himself out. He stood back impatiently as I fumbled with my seat belt, and then we made our way, side by side, down the narrow lane to a gate. On the other side was a field of wheat, stalks eddying gently in the breeze.

“There – look. You see?”

But I couldn’t, not really. Dad helped me up a few rungs of the gate and then I could make out something, a shadow, an indentation, somewhere near the middle of the field.

Dad was struggling with the bolt, it was rusted and stiff, he couldn’t raise his hand high enough to get a grip on it. I slipped in front of him and slid it back. Neither of us remarked upon this. The fact that there were things Dad couldn’t do was something other people noticed. Other people occasionally asked Mum – never Dad himself – if it was thalidomide that had caused his stiff, deformed limbs, his narrow torso and hooked hands (it wasn’t, she told them, just a muscular disability). Sometimes, people said tactless things, and his face went dark. I heard the things but didn’t know what they meant, and I knew not to ask.

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Between us, there was no need to discuss any of this. Other elements of him were more important to me: his musky, male smell of sweat and tobacco; the moments when I winkled out the particular smile that seemed to be mine alone. He pushed open the gate and made his way, with his lurching gait, down the furrowed tractor-path between the stalks. I followed, brushing my hands against the sticky seed-heads.

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“This one is very fresh,” Dad was saying. “It appeared last night, according to Graham.”

We emerged into an open space. Underfoot, the wheat stalks were bent neatly over, flattened against the ground in a smooth spiral. The flat area was a perfect circle, and the late-summer light divided it into four precise quarters: two tawny brown, two pale gold.

Dad paced excitedly around the perimeter. “There are two outer rings. First time I’ve seen that.”

The provenance of crop circles was a question that preoccupied him more and more. Issues of the Cerealogist magazine now came through the door every quarter, with pages of photographs of the latest glorious manifestations: interlocking rings, satellites, crosses, horn shapes and rune-like markings. He shared excitable theories with other cerealogists on the telephone and by post; and now this, a holiday in Dorset, where Graham, a local enthusiast, would call to let him know when a new one appeared.

When Dad announced this plan Mum rolled her eyes and went along with it, just as she had many times before: when he dropped out of law school to become a writer; when he left her looking after my newborn sister and me while he crossed the US on a Greyhound bus. She had lost her cool when, on some whim that came to him in a dream, he spent a long-awaited pay cheque on Russian bonds and Harrods caviar. “The girls need clothes!” she’d shouted. Dad gave me some caviar to try; it made me gag, grainy fish jelly.

I bent down to look at the wheat. What was the answer? The only thing I could think of was a helicopter flying upside down, but I didn’t say that, because it was clearly nonsense. Even if a helicopter could flip over, the blades would slash the stalks apart, not flatten them. I had heard Dad talk about extra-terrestrial spacecraft, and I pictured a flat disc, like the one from ET, hovering just above the ground. What would aliens make of this quiet corner of the countryside, with its thatched cottages and pastel tearooms?

I ran to catch up with Dad, who was getting to work. He held one end of a tape measure at the edge of the circle and gestured to me to pull it out to the central point.

“How do you think it was made?” I asked, laying it carefully down.

“All we have are theories. It could be a very localised storm – a miniature tornado, or some kind of surge of electro-magnetic force. We’ve been looking at links between these circles and ancient channels that ran across this area, between sacred sites such as Avebury and Stonehenge. Currents of energy.”

He headed off up the track to look for more markings. I stood still, my feet placed exactly on the central point of the spiral. I closed my eyes and sank into the golden space behind my eyelids; tuned myself into the invisible forces moving through the earth. Around me the wheat stalks rushed and whispered, and in the distance, a bird gave a lonely cry.

Could I feel it?

“What are you doing? Funny girl.”

Dad’s rounded northern vowels summoned me back to the field. He was standing a few feet away, the tape measure in his hand. Behind him, the sky was white as a board – not a trace of blue, even though it was August. It was a curious nondescript light, so it could have been breakfast time, or evening, or any time in between. My father was so sharply defined against this brightness that, for a moment, I felt I was seeing him as a stranger would. His dark, bowl-cut hair, the way his shoulders sloped down to a delicate, almost wing-like point; his left arm, bent and tucked under his tummy, and his right, which hung crookedly backwards at his hip. He was wearing his trench coat, with shortened sleeves, with a knitted, patterned tank-top underneath.

A thought appeared in my mind: you won’t be here long. For a fragment of a second I understood this completely, and then it was gone. 

Alice O’Keeffe’s debut novel, “On the Up”, is published by Coronet

This article appears in the 15 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Why the left keeps losing