My father ended up a commercial traveller; he didn’t go from door to door, but that’s what he was. Mostly he travelled only as far as Liverpool, twelve miles down the railway line, to a public house called the Caernarvon Castle. He used it as an office and met business contacts there. Sometimes his contacts were in paint, sometimes in scrap metal. For a period he was an agent to a metal-box manufacturer. When he went into town he was dandified – he wore a striped suit and a Homburg hat. His shoes glittered like glass. Indoors, he dressed in Home Guard battledress, with a black beret on his narrow head. When he wasn’t cleaning he sat at the table making calculations on the backs of brown envelopes.
Every Friday he stayed at home to see to the house. He got down on his knees to scrub out the kitchen; he was very dedicated and very irritable. He grumbled that it wasn’t right for a man to do what he had to do. My mother often said she wished he’d get the hell out and he always said that one of these days he would get out of this hellhole once and for all. Leaping about the kitchen with his scrubbing brush, he looked like a cross between General Montgomery and Old Mother Riley.
All his great battles had been fought before I was born. When he was fourteen he had gone as a cabin boy on a sailing ship to America. So he said. He’d imported the first matches to Berlin, dealt in diamonds in Holland, lived in Dublin during the Troubles for some dark unspecified purpose. By the time he was thirty he was in a ‘good way of doing’. He was in shipping and in cotton and in property. Doors opened to him without appointment. A carnation in his buttonhole, he pranced like Fred Astaire up the steps of his beautiful Cotton Exchange, and when he entered the massive portals of the offices of the White Star Line, men of power nodded in his direction. That’s what he said. Life had got at him in the meantime. It was a mystery to us and him where that golden lad before the mast had gone.