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.
Her car was there. She knew she was down to feed us.
‘We can guess where she is!’ he said, to Michelle, with a chuckle.
A few more seconds passed. Now he bashed on the door, with the side of his fist – as if this were a police raid.
‘Huh!’ my father said, when there was still no sign of life.
He walked down to the end of the driveway and looked up and down the road. On his way back, he walked behind me, and took my book from my coat pocket. I was reading Villette, from the school library. He held it up, over my head, at arm’s length.
I didn’t reach for it, I stood still, but he pushed me away with his free hand anyway, grinning at Michelle all the while.
‘Ah ah ah ah ah ah ah,’ he said.
Liza was my father’s oldest sister. When she appeared, a few moments later, she said, ‘Hello gang!’ and then stood aside for us to troop in – my father first. He was following his nose to the kitchen now.
‘Are we all on lemmo?’ Liza said as we took off our coats and hung them up in the hall. From the kitchen doorway I watched her set out four pint glasses and then add ice and a thick slice of lemon to each one. She filled the glasses from a big bottle of R.Whites.
‘Wuthering Heights!’ my father said. And when I didn’t respond, he went on, ‘That’s your mother’s obsession. Is it her making you read that?’
By ‘obsession’ my father usually meant ‘interest’, if that, but I’d never heard of my mother having any interest in Wuthering Heights.
‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s from the library.’
‘Your mother’s one obsession!’ he said. ‘I never knew what she was talking about! I learnt something about it when the BBC did an adaptation. I only watched from pure curiosity. Liza? Did you see that? It was probably up to the usual standards of an adaptation! But the impression it conveyed . . . It’s really ghastly. Really creepy.’
‘It explained a lot,’ he said. ‘About your mother.’
‘Is that her book?’ he said.
Liza had made her vegetable curry. When we went through and sat down there was a pot of vanilla yogurt on the table, and some green salad, and half a loaf of sliced brown bread.
‘Bridget’s brought a book to pose with!’ my father said, or called out, as she headed back to the kitchen, but if she heard him, Liza did not follow that up. She came back in with a large pan of curry, and then with four plates, warm from the oven.
‘Dig in, gang,’ she said. ‘Don’t wait.’
Liza was the first vegetarian I ever met, and a good advert for the regimen: she was friendly and energetic. She was surely one factor in both Michelle and I deciding that we wanted to stop eating meat. Vegetarianism counted as ‘behaviour’, of course, so my father had some hay to make with that whenever we were at her house. That if we didn’t eat cows there’d be no cows; that kind of thing. We wanted those animals to go extinct, did we? he said. And there were endless remarks about wind. Still, he always tucked into her food. He would even allow that it was tasty, with one caveat: ‘Be nicer with some chunks of chicken!’ he used to say. And then, stage-whispering to Michelle and me, he might say, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get some nuggets on the way back!’
Liza gave no appearance of not enjoying all this. She ate her food, she smiled at Michelle and me.
‘So what’s the news, gang?’ she’d say.
That afternoon, back at his place, I sat where I always sat, next to him on the settee, by the window. Michelle was in the chair with the footrest, having her own thoughts too, I expect.
He watched the same things every week: football, if Everton were playing, otherwise a western on Channel 4, then What the Papers Say. Then it was time to go to his mother’s for our tea.
No football that day. Instead: galloping, whinnying, gunshots. I’d look up from my book when there was a commotion and see a red kerchief or a cloud of creamy dust.
At a certain point, I became aware that my father was up to something to my right. He was sitting up straighter, and I could see Michelle doggedly ignoring some kind of call on her attention. When I turned to look at him he scrambled to hide something, or anyway to perform trying to hide it, and then to perform looking innocent. It was an Argos catalogue, which he’d quickly pushed under a cushion. Evidently he’d been doing some kind of impression of me.
Later, I put together where he’d got that business about Wuthering Heights. My mother liked the Kate Bush song, that was all. She’d sing along if that came on, and do a sort of flapping dance, and if Michelle or I were around, would try and get us to look at her dancing. She must have done the same with him, once upon a time. That’s what he’d meant by her ‘obsession’.
There were two books in my father’s flat: an old Private Eye Annual and The Complete Henry Root Letters. Both volumes sat gathering dust on his bathroom windowsill. But my father was a reader. He was one and he always had been one, he let me know on the drive over the following week.
‘I’ve got thirty-odd years on you,’ he said, chuckling.
‘If we say we both started seriously reading at age eight,’ he said, putting it together for me, ‘then you’ve got five years and I’ve got thirty-five years!’
‘You do realise that I’m a lot older than you, don’t you?’ he said, chuckling again.
He continued to muse on this long career as we dipped into the tunnel:
‘It is interesting,’ he said, ‘at my age, rereading is a particular pleasure . . .’
After that, if ever I took a book with me on Saturday, I had to bank on my father snatching it from me at some point. If I were reading on his settee, he might pretend to yawn and stretch, and grab my book. Or on his way back from the kitchen, or the loo, he might walk behind the settee and reach down from above. There was nothing to do but wait then, while he applied himself.
If the writer or the book was one he had heard of he often used to just say, ‘Huh!’ Almost involuntarily. As if something was repeating on him. Sometimes, too, it was his grim duty to inform me – as one who should really have done her due diligence – that the writer in question had been seen on television by him, by Lee Grant, and deemed a ‘creep’ or a ‘poser’. All I’d had to do was ask. But there it was. On those occasions he would give the book back to me with a pitying frown, it being a meaningless, hollowed-out object now.
If the name was new to him, then he handled the book suspiciously. ‘Never heard of them!’ he’d say. (His verdict.) And if the book was American, then it was null because it wasn’t Of Mice and Men. ‘Get back to me when you’ve read Of Mice and Men!’ he used to say. Or, ‘If you were seriously interested in that ah, period, then you’d’ve read Of Mice and Men.’ Of a Penguin Classic, he’d say, ‘Posing!’ Or else he would lean in very close and whisper, ‘You’re bluffing!’ And here, as with Liza and the chicken chunks, or Mary and the homework, he seemed to expect me to enjoy this too, almost as if it were part of a routine we had going. As if my reading a book in his flat, because it was what I liked to do, and was a way of getting something out of this stolen – or rather, collected – time, was in fact some kind of stimulating struggle, laid on for him, by me, to keep his large and restless spirit in good shape. It was the processing-plant effect again.
I did not have any kind of routine going with this person, however. When he spoke I waited for him to stop speaking. When he reminisced about listening to Of Mice and Men on the radio when he was a boy, for instance, and how he’d started crying at the end, and how ‘Your nana always remembered how that affected me!’, I waited for him to stop reminiscing.
It was striking how proud he was of his strength of feeling. One would often hear how he’d cried at this or been ‘devastated’ by that. Here was another distinction, I suppose. I suppose somebody – his mother again? – had remarked on it when he was small, and so up he’d stepped to the role of the sensitive one; the feelingful one.
Sometimes, while I was reading or otherwise keeping to myself, this tender-hearted person would reach over and pinch me, under the ribs, using his thumb and forefinger. He’d keep his eyes on the television. He’d approximate a confused look when I reacted, and if I didn’t react, he’d wait a few seconds and then pinch harder. Or if I stood up to go to the loo, and if I was wearing my tracksuit, he might reach out and yank my trousers down.
That impression of me got frequent outings, too. Once with an up-to-the-minute twist: he’d gone out and bought a copy of The Satanic Verses, which was in the news at the time.
When we got back to his place, he produced this book, and put his feet up and pretended to concentrate on it, his conception of which activity involved bunching his eyebrows and letting his mouth sag open.
‘Have you not brought a book to pose with?’ he said, to Michelle, who didn’t answer, only shook her head.
‘You don’t fancy posing like your sister?’ he said.
And again, Michelle fixed her eyes on the sky outside, and faded out of the moment, as we’d both learnt to do. She smiled mildly.
‘Dickhead,’ said my father.
In the world as surveyed by him, there was no shortage of ‘dickheads!’ And then of course there were his ‘businessmen’ – I’ve mentioned them. A type he called ‘females’ had a predatory intent – these included his ‘well-fed specimens’, of whom he was apt to remark, when he spotted one, that he wouldn’t want to meet that on a dark night, and his ‘healthy-looking specimens!’ – this indicating a striking cleavage. Sotto voce, in shops or on the street, he would draw my or Michelle’s attention to ‘healthy-looking specimens’. Also abroad were ‘posers!’ (like me) and, more exceptionally, and never seen in the wild, ‘intelligent people’. He used to bring news, sometimes, from the latter constituency. The news was generated by himself, but it was an important recourse nonetheless. ‘Intelligent people’ were a respected tribe, like his ‘businessmen’.
Their expertise was brought to bear when I was reading my Chekhov, my Five Plays. My father had had nothing to say about that book at first; he just tossed it back to me on the settee; tossed it very carelessly, so that it fell on the floor. I even wondered if his interest in my reading hadn’t worn itself out. But it wasn’t that. It was that he’d decided he’d have to consult on this one. What he’d learnt was revealed on the drive home that night.
‘You do know there’s no point reading things in a translation,’ he said.
‘Because it’s not the original language,’ he explained. ‘It could be anything.’
‘Intelligent people learn the language if they’re really interested,’ he said.
‘What you’re reading could be anything,’ he said, again.
I didn’t have much to say to this. I looked out of the window, just as Michelle was looking out of her window.
‘Hello?’ he said.
‘Is somebody sulking back there?’ he said, chuckling.
Next came the tunnel. We slowed for the barrier.
‘She’s sulking!’ trilled my father.
I watched the tunnel walls. Then we were out again, in Wallasey. Here was the golf course, and then our old school.
‘How’s your ring, Bridget?’ my father said. ‘Is it itchy?’
‘I’ve been meaning to ask you if your worms had come back,’ he said.
I had had worms when I was little. It came from not ever washing my hands. He often brought it up.
‘I think you need to put some cream on your ring,’ he said. ‘It must be very itchy.’
‘It must be very itchy,’ he said, ‘from the look on that face.’
‘Do you think Madame,’ he said, speaking in his la-di-da voice now, ‘might find some time when she’s not posing with Russian books to put some cream on her itchy ring?’
Such was the flailing of Lee Grant. But he couldn’t be discouraged. His system ran on whatever it could get or on nothing. The following week he announced that he’d bought tickets for a Chekhov play: for Three Sisters at the Everyman. He’d bought two tickets, just for me and him, not for Michelle.
‘Well you’re not interested are you?’ he said.
‘I don’t know what it is,’ Michelle said.
‘Well, you’re not interested then are you?’ he said, sitting back in his chair, pushing his plate away for Mary to get. ‘I’m not going to waste a seat on someone too thick to understand it. It isn’t a pantomime.’
‘If I was going to a pantomime I might take you,’ he said.
‘But this is Chekhov,’ he said.
The Everyman bar was noisy, and smoky. The stairs were busy. We carried our pints of Coke carefully to our seats.
My father was looking around, assessing the audience. After a moment, he leant in to whisper, out of the side of his mouth,
‘Healthy-looking specimen at one o’clock.’
And then, nodding to a man in front of us who was wearing a greasy silk scarf, ‘Now that’s a very typical theatre look, there,’ he said. Again, he lowered his voice to pass on this intelligence. ‘A very thethpian look,’ he said.
A few hours later, as we left, he told me about the play, repeating things we’d both read in the programme.
‘The thing you have to remember,’ he said, ‘is Russia is huge.’
‘It’s a really big place,’ he said, seriously, almost angrily.
Back at his mother’s house, he turned around in his chair to tell her all about it, too; to tell her the story while she served up dinner through the hatch.
‘I had to stop myself at one point!’ he said. ‘There’s this woman, the brother’s wife, and she was such a bitch, so cruel, I had to stop myself just standing up and shouting!’
I can see him there. Knife and fork at the ready. All innocence. All enthusiasm.
That Russia was ‘huge’ became one of a handful of facts or commonplaces with which our father liked to barrack Michelle and me. It sat alongside rabbits-from-the-hat like ‘tomatoes are a fruit!’ and that the composer Verdi – Giuseppe Verdi – was ‘called’, in English, ‘Joe Green!’ That ‘really intelligent people don’t go to university’ was one, and, more unexpectedly, that ‘of course, maths is really philosophy, if you take it far enough’. This was a pearl he regularly encouraged us both to share with our maths teachers, with the idea being, I think, that we were then to report back to him on the mind-blown admiration it had drawn.
I wish things had ended there, with Chekhov. They didn’t. The following week, instead of heading to Nana Grant’s at five o’clock, Michelle and I were back at the Everyman, sitting with our father in the Bistro, with heaped plates from the canteen buffet and pints of Coke. Our father hadn’t given a reason for this excursion. He’d only said, ‘Change of plan!’ And then, though we hadn’t followed that up, he’d said, ‘You’ll see!’ and, tapping the side of his nose, he’d said, ‘Ah ah ah ah ah ah ah.’
I liked it there, though, down in the basement. I’d never eaten anywhere like that before: a loud, grown-up place, with garlicky smells and cigarette smoke; with confident conversation, friendly laughter, and wine drunk casually from small glass tumblers.
In the toilets there were old theatre posters pasted over each other on the walls and doors.
One of the girls behind the bar had pink hair in a plush bouffant.
The food was all new to me, too. Pasta twirls with chilli bits and wrinkly black olives (instead of Dolmio sauce) and a little fluted tureen of hummus, and some sort of broccoli bake, all dished out on the same plate, like school dinners – in that one respect. The people standing at the bar wore overcoats and boots and their long hair was crimped or teased, like the stars of certain films or pop videos I’d seen. My father kept saying ‘Student!’ as if it were a game to identify them. As if he were calling out ‘Snap!’ He said it when you were in the middle of a sentence, after he’d asked you a question.
We were sitting at the end of one of the long communal benches. While we ate, my father kept looking over my shoulder, moving his head, half standing up. He was trying to catch sight of the entrance, I realised. And then suddenly, hands on the table, he stood.
Michelle could see where he’d gone from where she was sitting, but I couldn’t. I turned to look. I saw him reach the bar and take his place next to a woman who was also waiting to be served. She was leaning on her forearms, and had dropped her head, looking towards where the barmaid was. She was one of the actresses from last week, I realised, catching her profile: younger looking; shorter looking, with tatty blonde hair instead of a heavy plait, but certainly her. What was he going to do? What was he going to tell her? I didn’t like to think what might be coming next, all because of a book I’d read.
My father did not turn to look at her when he – evidently – said something aimed at her. He’d startled her, I could see that. She looked confounded by whatever he had said: likely some jab about the play, which, if she didn’t ‘get’ the first time, he’d have just kept repeating at her. Something like, let’s say, ‘Where’re your books?’ Now she faced him. She wasn’t saying much. She listened to him with a bland expression while reaching one hand across the bar and flickering her fingers for the pink-haired barmaid’s attention.
My father pointed over at us, and she turned to look, too. There it was. Now we were in play. I went back to my food: a few last twists of pasta, which I had a mouthful of when he came back with this actress, who could hardly say no to meeting two girls who loved theatre, or loved her (or whatever he’d told her). She had her arms crossed, and had wisely left her bottle of water on the bar, to be returned to.
‘I had to stop myself standing up and shouting!’ my father was saying as they reached our table, and then he looked at her and smiled proudly, as if he were to be wondered at for his unique sensitivity, for his strength of feeling, and for this feat of self-control: not to have stood up and shouted during a play.
She smiled at Michelle and me. She was ready to be friendly to the children. Then she was ready to leave. She was wearing a floral dress, and trainers and a big bobbly cardigan. Her legs were stocky and glossy.
‘Look who I’ve found!’ my father said, to me. Then, ‘Don’t recognise her?’
‘She doesn’t recognise you!’ he said.
‘You saw her last week,’ he said. And then, taking hold of my shoulder, ‘My daughter’s the world’s expert on Chekhov.’
‘Oh,’ the actress said. ‘Is that so?’ Her accent was different. Irish? (Northern Irish, I read later. Her name was Patricia Sweeney. I found her entry in the programme when I got home.)
I didn’t know how to speak to strangers back then. I just shook my head.
‘And you do drama, don’t you, at school?’ he said to Michelle, who said, ‘Yeah.’
It seemed Patricia Sweeney should be excited to meet us, rather than the other way around. Which was doubly odd, because nobody was being met, really. No, the whole encounter – this coup – only meant anything because of how it might be brought out of the trophy cabinet later on. He would enjoy telling his sisters and his mother about this.
‘It was her first time in a theatre last week,’ my father said, giving my shoulder a shake. (This wasn’t true.)
‘Now we want to see backstage,’ he said. ‘They’d love to see a dressing room. They’re dead keen.’
Again, Patricia Sweeney was taken by surprise.
‘Well, a dressing room, I mean, it’s quite busy back there when there’s a production on! A lot of people working. Did you know the Everyman do tours that you can book? I hear they’re great. You learn about the history of the theatre and you can have a go with the costumes and some of the effects and so on.’
Here she smiled at Michelle and me. Lifted her eyebrows. I’m afraid I couldn’t respond. My father, meanwhile, was sucking his teeth.
‘I only have them very rarely,’ he said. ‘They’re dead keen.’
She looked over at us again.
‘OK. Let me go and check. Lee, is it? I may be able to take you through for five minutes. I’ll see how it’s looking.’
And she was off, stopping to collect her bottle and her glass of ice from the bar and to mouth a thank you to the barmaid.
‘Get your coats on,’ my father said, and we retrieved our damp ski coats from under the benches while he found his and zipped it up. We didn’t wait there for Patricia Sweeney to check what she needed to and come back for us but left our drinks and hurried to follow our father, who was already following her, out of the door she’d just left by, and up the stairs and past the box office, where a door marked private swung closed behind her. We all waited by that door. My father stood with his chin up and his eyes narrowed.
A few minutes later she came back and did what he’d wanted. She said, ‘Ah. You’re here.’ And then, ‘OK, come on through,’ and, ‘Mind that cable.’
It was crowded in her dressing room with four of us, and three of us in big padded coats, sticking together by the door. Eventually Michelle moved farther into the room and I followed. There were two chairs, in front of a long mirror with light bulbs around it, just like in films.
‘So I share with Marie,’ Patricia Sweeney said, ‘that is Olga, if you remember?’ She said this to me, and I looked back blankly.
She sat down in her chair and pulled off her trainers, revealing little white socks with dirty soles. She unscrewed her water and poured some out. Then she took the lime wedge and squeezed it.
There was a full Marks & Spencer shopping bag on the other chair. I could see a bag of posh crisps, and a bunch of black grapes in glinting cellophane. And hummus, which was what we’d just had downstairs, I realised, pleased to put the two together.
I didn’t say anything and nor did Michelle.
‘As you can see, there’s a lot of hairpins involved,’ Patricia Sweeney said, talking to me in the mirror. There was a Tupperware box full of them in front of her, which she shook and rattled with her free hand, before stroking her fingers through the mixture.
‘And there, if you turn around . . .’
I turned and found a rail of blouses and long skirts, and a black dress on a mannequin. On a shelf were two dented polystyrene heads wearing wigs.
Our father didn’t say anything either. Didn’t ask any questions. There was nothing he wanted to know. He was standing very still as she explained the tannoy system to Michelle and me and told us that the noises we could hear outside – coordinating shouts and trundles – were the stage being ‘reset’. Finally she got Michelle to pass her a cigarette from her coat pocket. Hers was a heavy brown herringbone overcoat, hanging on the back wall. Patricia Sweeney caught my father’s eye in the mirror as she lit her cigarette, before smiling blandly again.
‘So. That’s that. Can you find your way back, Lee, or will I walk you?’
‘Find our way, yeah,’ he said, and he stretched out his jaw and walked out.
By the following week he was boasting about his ‘private tour’.
Soon enough ‘My mate Pat’ was enlisted in his retinue.
Two or three years later, his interest flared again, when she started to appear on television.
‘Did you see my mate Pat’s shown up in EastEnders now?’ he said one week.
‘Playing an old boot!’
‘Days of the Chekhov classics long behind her then!’ he said.
But I was nearly sixteen. The end was in sight. I paid him almost no heed at all.
Artwork © George Shaw, Ash Wednesday: 7.00am, 2004/5, Courtesy of Anthony Wilkinson Gallery, London