When my father died, his sister Mary – his twin – sent me an email. ‘Hi Bridge,’ she wrote, ‘I was very shocked to hear about your dad. I hadn’t seen him in a long time but he was my brother and it was a shock. I won’t be at the funeral as I don’t do “family” these days (not for eight years this Christmas, which I recommend!) but I shall think of you both. I hope you are thriving. Best wishes to you.’
I replied to say that I hadn’t seen him in years either, and nor would I be at the funeral, although I didn’t know what Michelle had decided.
‘Re: the funeral,’ Mary wrote, ‘I think you’re wise. I know it’s traditional to share memories at these times so how’s this. As Lee was the boy (I was the oldest as you know) he was given the house key when our mum (your nana) started work, and after school he used to run home, to get in the house and lock me out. So I had to do my homework on the step (or walk to our Granny Walsh’s if it was raining or cold). Went on for years. Says it all and he didn’t change. Best wishes to you.’
I was twenty-six then. For eight years I’d been living in London, for six of them in a small flat in Kilburn, with my boyfriend, John. The news about my father was a shock to me, too. I remember the phone call, as John and I were walking up to the station, and how I knew something serious – something bad – must have happened when I saw Michelle’s name.
Trying to think about my father now is difficult.
Which thread should I pull?
His being a twin, for instance . . . It strikes me now that that might have had something to do with the way he was. And from such a large family, too. You can see why he might have wanted to set himself apart. But his was a funny kind of distinction, wasn’t it? Demanding these pointless tributes left and right. Even when he picked us up, for his Saturday ‘access’ visits. He refused to ring the doorbell. He wouldn’t get out of his car. So one of us always used to have to stand by the window, on lookout. Or anyway, that was what we ended up doing. He’d start sounding his horn otherwise, if Michelle and I weren’t out immediately and hurrying down the path.
‘There’s no point in provoking him, is there?’ our mother used to say.
Mary had confided that story about the homework before, more than once, including a detail she left out of the email, but which seems characteristic to me. While she tried to get on with her work, he would lean out of the bathroom window to shout and wave at her. He wouldn’t have been taunting her then, I’m sure, or not exclusively anyway, so much as wanting her to celebrate his accomplishment with him. My father saw himself as a sort of beloved outlaw; an admired one-off. He felt himself to be at large in a world which got as much of a kick out of him – out of him-being-him – as he did.
That outlaw’s camp was what Michelle and I were bundled into when we got into his car. A rough-and-tumble territory where saying hello was a discardable courtesy, for a start. Instead our father would open with ‘Lock!’ even as we were pushing the locks down, and then ‘Seat belt!’ as we were pulling on our seat belts. If the weather looked cold, he might say ‘Jumper!’, meaning we were to show him that we were wearing one, and if we weren’t, by barking the word again – ‘Jumper!’ – he communicated that we were to go back into the house and get one. ‘Haircut!’ meant one of us had had a haircut, and would be followed up, as he waited to turn out of our cul-de-sac, with, ‘Did they catch whoever did that?’ And, ‘Hey? Deaf lugs. Did they catch them?’
I remember looking out of that car window. Blank feelings, about home, school, weekends. Here was the golf course. Here were the gasworks. Then the dark minutes under the river. A thudding sound. My father was of a piece with the rest. And his company was something to be weathered, that’s all. He had a claim on me – on us – which no one was disputing. Which, in fact, my mother, as was her way, seemed quite excited to uphold. So it was ‘Lock!’, ‘Seat belt!’, and then try to let the hours flow by. I’m not sure I even thought of him as a person, really. He was more just this – phenomenon. A gripper of shoulders. A pincher of upper arms. If I was wearing a hat, a snatcher of hats. If I was reading a book, a snatcher of books. Energised bother, in short. And yes, legally mandated.
Unlike my worrying at my mother’s psyche, I never had any desire to quiz my father about his life; to interrogate his reasoning. One does come to these peaceful conclusions sometimes. And after all he was no mystery, was he? His nature had to generate satisfaction for itself along the lines I’ve described. That was it. Getting one over. Being an exceptional case. There was nothing else. With him the difficulty came in dealing with that relentless uniformity of purpose. The way every subject, event or circumstance was used to push towards these same ends. The way his fine musing on his exceptional self did not ever let up. Those Saturdays could feel very cramped as a result.
Apropos London, for instance. Michelle had been on a school trip there with her history class. They’d been to the Tower and the Globe. This information our father attended to as one might a dog’s distant barking, before telling us that when he first moved down there, he used to spend every weekday evening in an Earls Court pub called the Coopers, which was a ‘den of iniquity’, but which he also called his ‘office’. People used to telephone there when they were looking for him, he said, or call in when they needed to see him. The landlady was ‘a real old boiler!’ he said. But she used to make him chips and egg, which she wouldn’t do for anyone else.
I could hardly credit that scene, even aged ten, or eleven: that convivial tableau, with my father blushing at its centre. It sounded like a fantasy of adult life, didn’t it? Albeit coming from an adult. Who were all these people, for one thing? And why would they be seeking him out? This was something he’d been impressed by in a television show, wasn’t it, or a film? And which he had therefore decided should be his. Or rather, he had decided that it was his. The indulgent community. The local celebrity. I even thought I’d seen that film, up in my room, one Sunday afternoon on BBC 2.
A lot of what he said inspired the same apprehension: that you were listening to someone else’s story, not quite cut to fit. He used to call George Harrison ‘my mate George!’ This because, he said, the two of them had both gone out with the same girl, and had once run into each other at London Airport, when, quote, George was on his way to India, unquote. That one had a second-hand smell. My father also claimed to have been in borstal as a teenager, for the armed robbery of a postmistress. This was certainly a straight lift, bolstering the buccaneering tendency which he found so stirring when he noted it in himself. Later, when I was applying to universities, he told me that at his job interviews he always put his feet up on the desk, lit a cigarette, and asked the panel what they could do for him. Was that from the television? I wonder. I’m afraid that one might have been taken from life.
It is strange when somebody talks to you like that. When they’re lying, but somehow you’re on the spot. Was he trying to impress us? But that could hardly be the case: you couldn’t value someone’s good opinion while thinking they would buy this kind of crap. And then there was the fact that no one was required to respond to his grandstanding. He didn’t notice or care about the absence of questions or comments or of oohs and aahs. I’m not sure he was even interested in our attention qua attention. What Michelle and I – and whichever of his other relatives was about – had to do was be there and be subject to him; we had to not be doing anything else. I’d call that a fit-up job, wouldn’t you? And hence that dreadful fixed feeling: that for all that was apparently required of you, you could just as well have been a mannequin. Except, of course, you couldn’t. A living witness was required for the attitudes of this self-pollinating entity. A living listener was required – and you were it – even as the ‘living’ element was summarily disregarded.
Nobody ever said anything back. Not once. There were no quibbles, no queries. And so Lee Grant strode untroubled through his subjected realm, where he was, variously, the kindly king and the swashbuckling bandit, the seen-it-all sage and the rude clown, the tender-hearted swain and the blue-eyed boy, and on and on . . . Exceptional cases, every one.
One week, when we got into the car, our father didn’t shout ‘Lock!’ but rather leant back between the seats and, raising his fist slowly, underhand, like celebrating sportsmen do, said, ‘Gooooooo Deggsy!’
Michelle and I were still doing up our seat belts. He seemed to expect us to know who this was, and for us to be as invested in this person’s fortunes as he was. We didn’t and we weren’t, and so we didn’t react, although, crucially, we also didn’t not react. We did what our instinct told us to do in such moments, which was to sort of fade out of the moment. I found out later that ‘Deggsy’ was Derek Hatton, a rat-faced local politician, that week acquitted of corruption. For now, in answer to our silence and our bland expressions, our father made his call again, in his darts-referee voice: ‘Gooooooo Deggsy!’
There was still no reaction from us, and our father chuckled when he looked back at the road. What a pair! Not knowing who Deggsy was.
That was his opener all day: the pink-knuckled fist raised before him, and ‘Gooooooo Deggsy!’ At Mary’s house, where we went for our lunch, and then at his mother’s house, where we ate our tea. There were no fellow ‘Deggsy’ enthusiasts forthcoming. Our father was met with the same sort of containment operation Michelle and I had learned to effect: mild smiles while he went on, and then back to what they were doing before. Not that he let that dampen things. Not when he was riding so high. I think he felt ‘Deggsy’ had scored this point on his behalf, in a way.
As far as his own victories went, my father was generous in sharing his methods. Or at least, it made him happy to talk about them; to pass on what small wisdom &c., &c. I remember one afternoon in Tesco, when we were doing his big shop. He was, as usual, making a point of ‘testing the produce’, that is, pulling lone grapes from bunches which he wasn’t going to buy, and eating them, and then taking a large loose tomato and munching on that as we cruised the aisles. This was a habit of his which made Michelle and me, and me especially, very anxious, which naturally only encouraged him.
‘I’m testing the produce!’ he’d say, proudly. And then he’d try and cajole the pair of us into walking around munching stolen tomatoes too. This was something neither of us could ever be persuaded to do. Our father had an inhibiting effect in general, a deadening effect, really, for all of his large energy, and these specific needlings and exhortations only ever sent me further inwards. In the supermarket, I remember, I used to try to hang back, behind him, or else I’d get suddenly quite absorbed by a display; anything to drift out of a culpable proximity to his witless vaunting.
On the day I’m thinking of, a summer’s day, we were dawdling through the freezer section when he spotted a young woman up ahead of us who was wearing a miniskirt, or a short dress, with bare legs. Our father leant forward over the trolley and sped up slightly until we’d nearly caught up with her, at which point he slowed down, and paused, waiting until she was a little way ahead again, before turning to Michelle and me, conspiratorially:
‘What you need to do,’ he said, ‘is look when they’ve been to the toilet. I noticed this when miniskirts were first fashionable. When they’ve been to the toilet they get an imprint of the seat on their legs. ‘You can see it if they’ve been sitting on a wicker chair as well,’ he said, ‘or a garden chair, but when they’ve been to the toilet you can see the shape of the toilet seat! They don’t know it’s there. Can you see, there, back of the legs?’
Hotels, too; he got one over on them when he could. He’d once worked on implementing some software, he told us, which enabled hotels to charge customers – ‘businessmen’ he said – who didn’t have the time to check out, by taking their credit-card details in advance.
‘Once I knew that,’ he said, ‘I’ve never checked out again. If they can do that for businessmen they can do that for me, and if they can’t then that’s their problem not mine!’
He welched on his maintenance payments to our mother for years, in a similar spirit. I know that because he used to boast about it. ‘They seek me here! They seek me there!’ he’d say.
My father so relished his own triumphs – or the triumphs of people he thought were like him, like Derek Hatton – that it followed (I suppose) that he took an equal, or an equivalent, portion of pleasure in other people’s failures. Their disappointments, their humiliations. He could never hear enough about the inadequacy of people who weren’t him. And as with his boasting about his past, these things didn’t need to have actually happened for him to enjoy them. The fact that he enjoyed them somehow brought them into being, with each innocuous piece of news you shared with him somehow always ending up as a perfect illustration of some risible misstep. Between your mouth and his ear the facts got bent backwards. So he was neither a prospector nor a connoisseur of human shortcomings, really, but rather a sort of processing plant which turned all information into the same brand of thrilling treat: that someone had had a knock-back or that someone had looked a fool.
As we paid our calls, to his sisters, his brother, his mother, Michelle and I were encouraged to share our stories for a second or a third time.
‘Tell Chrissie what your mother’s been up to!’ he’d say,
‘Michelle’s got this dickhead teacher this year! Tell Owen what you said to him!’
When there wasn’t much to tell, no matter. He was ready to take the stand, to give his souped-up version, and then to darken his countenance to make a serious point about someone being a ‘a real creep’ or ‘a real specimen’.
Yes, people were ‘specimens’, I remember that. And everything they did – their activities, their endeavours, their choices – that was all ‘behaviour’. When Michelle started playing football, that was ‘behaviour’, and her joining Greenpeace was somehow ‘behaviour’ too. ‘No one’s impressed by your recent behaviour,’ he said, which was another of our father’s quirks – to speak not just for himself but rather as the voice, the representative, of some austere adjudicating body.
On it went. Week after week. Through the Mersey Tunnel with his Tom Lehrer tape on loud. And were we listening? Did we get it? He’d rewind it if we didn’t!
And who was our mother chasing after now? Hey?
And was our grandmother still obsessed with Margaret Thatcher?
Did she still keep rotten food in the fridge?
As we passed the sign for the urban farm in Prenton he’d lower his window and shout ‘Mint sauce!’ and try and have us do the same.
In the Coopers, in 1966, I see my father standing on his own at the bar. On his own with the pools form or the paper, with a pint of Coke on the go. Or I see him on the Tube, smoking away, and regarding his fellow passengers with a keen and bullish expression.
He didn’t do badly, to manage a London job and a flat, a girlfriend then a wife, a family of his own – for a few years anyway. He too was accommodated by ‘what people did’. By a confluence, too, perhaps, of his particular way of going on and what was happening at the time. He was a forthright northerner, in the era of Albert Finney and John Lennon. Later he was a sort of king-of-the-castle seventies man.
My mother, I think, would have grinned while he talked. All of that spirited scoffing. That spiteful authority. Getting on the right side of that might have looked like a way into something, to her.
Their shared accent would have been an attraction, too, for both sides, I’m sure: setting them apart and drawing them together.
All she would have had to fit herself to then was making sure he always felt so puffed up. That would have been something, wouldn’t it, for a person without bearings? I even think it might have made her happy – in the moment, anyway – for here was a game which, if she could never quite win, then she could at least keep playing.
Only she lost her balance there too, somehow. It wasn’t quite right. Wasn’t quite it. She left him after seven years. She snatched her chance, after some kind of scene with her parents. Proudly, she told me how her father and my father had ended up standing in the kitchen, ‘jabbing each other in the chest, yes’.
‘You don’t talk to my daughter like that!’ her father had said. And proudly, shyly, she told me how she had been required to choose by her father, there and then, and how she had chosen him, yes.
‘There’s no point in provoking him, is there?’ she used to say – to repeat – chivvying Michelle and me to find our coats and shoes; to be ready ten minutes before our father was due. Even back then I knew that she was talking to herself, really; whisking herself through the task at hand. My mother had her sayings, but she did not give real advice, ever, about anything.
Here, ‘There’s no point in provoking him, is there?’ seemed to mean, ‘There’s no reason for me to behave in a sane and civilised way when he doesn’t (is there?), not when there’s a golden opportunity here for me to join in and be mad too.’ And she didn’t even mean ‘provoking’, did she? She meant an omission, not an action. She meant: you mustn’t fail to anticipate something he could plausibly decide to be affronted by. Which rather left one with nowhere to go. Michelle and I had never been cheeky or disruptive. We’d been mild and quiet from the start when he was around, and it made no difference. Anything could set him off, or not set him off. All depending on how he wanted to feel; on what kind of satisfaction he wanted to extract. Not provoking him could provoke him. It often did provoke him. She knew that. Why did she like to pretend otherwise? For excitement’s sake, perhaps? Or because she didn’t want to feel left out? I’ve an image of a dog trying to join in with a football match, but that’s possibly too wretched. I think her mental sleight was more akin to the way Michelle and I, after our swimming lessons, used to hit the buttons on the arcade games in the snack bar: we hadn’t put any money in, but nonetheless persuaded ourselves that we were affecting the progress of the yellow lights, which flashed in steps, then slowly cascaded. In fact, there were a lot of children who liked to do that, as I remember. It must be a thing children like to pretend. If someone else had got there first, I used to wait for my turn, not too close to the machines, but not too far away either.
My mother left my father before I was two. I have no memories of my parents married. I would lay odds, though, that, with him, she went in for her fair share of provoking. Proactive provoking, I mean. Because she felt neglected and therefore frightened. Perhaps she told herself he’d find it stimulating, a little bit of pertness, a little show of initiative; that it might lead to a chase or a tickle attack, or some pleasure of that nature, of which she might be the rapturous focus. Would my father have obliged? I suspect not. But I can’t say that would have put her off. My mother could be dreadfully hard to put off.
When I think of her now, I think that’s what I see, or feel, most of all. Her keyed-up look: fixed on something; fastened on something. A horrible persistence. A sort of mulish innocence.
She was mulish, when she wasn’t completely biddable, and each mode always at precisely the wrong time. Like a mime’s recalcitrant prop: the door that wouldn’t give until it did and sent you sprawling.
My aunt Liza was not answering her door. Twice my father had pressed the bell. Now he knocked: a smart tattoo with his knuckles.