‘What I really wanted was only a soft, hazy space to live in, and to be left alone.’
– Charles Bukowski
On my dad’s bookshelf was a line of brown plastic bottles, and he knew exactly how many pills were in each: sleeping pills, antidepressants, something to numb the pain, something to dampen his urge for alcohol. This was America. A magic pill for everything. Every day he drew our attention to those pills: how few were left, and how anxious he was about running out. Endocet; Vicodin; diazepam.
‘Hey, you’ve come to visit your old dad!’ he’d said when I’d arrived at the gate. ‘You came all the way from England? For a holiday?’ He stood up with difficulty from a chair on the porch, colourless and tortured, washed out. I’d been told it was bad, but hadn’t expected this.
My brother and I had been summoned from London to California. While on honeymoon, I’d received an email from Antonia, my father’s ex-wife, to tell me he’d had a three-day binge that had ended in intensive care. She’d failed to get him into rehab and was exasperated, pleading us to get more involved.
That first day, we drove him to the Family Medical Center despite it being less than five minutes away. He could barely walk, even though he was only 58 years old. He shuffled from the car on shaking legs. In the waiting room, I avoided the receptionists and their phoney smiles. I sat beside my dad, put a reassuring hand on his withered knee while he stared into the near distance, mute and defeated. He smelt of urine and booze, of unclean clothes from days of sleeping in the same tracksuit. I was shocked at what he’d become. My father. Always tall, and impressive in his bulk, powerful in his success and wealth. He’d been a handsome man: even in his dereliction he had the look of an older Orson Welles. Yet, here he was shrunken and closed. I dismissed the contempt in the eyes that stared at us, and muttered words of reassurance. But he barely acknowledged me.
I’d last seen him less than a month before, when he’d given me away at my wedding. It had been difficult to get him there – he booked his flight with only a week to spare. People had commented on how bad he’d looked, all puffed up and desolate, with restless fingers and bloodshot eyes, but I hadn’t seen it. To me, he was the same. Lonely, yes, distracted and melancholic, but he’d worn a suit and his hair had shone. On the morning of my wedding, we’d cried together. Each time we looked at each other, the tears sprang back again. I laughed, trying to protect my make-up, and he said: ‘Sweetie, why do we always do this?’ I had no idea he was drinking to the extent that he was. He hid it at the wedding, leaving in the middle of the ceremony.
My father sat on the surgery bed, which was pumped up so high that his six-foot-man legs dangled beneath him like a child’s. He cried. So many tears came out of him. And I wondered if he was crying over the state of his life, but no – he was crying for Antonia. His big hand rubbed the tears from his eyes. ‘I miss her,’ he said. ‘I love her.’
His one and only love, he’d always told us.
Antonia was nineteen when they met; I was ten. He always gazed at her with love in his eyes, and I would ask why he didn’t look at me that way. ‘Do you love me more or less than you love her?’ I would ask, repeatedly. ‘Do you love her more than you love me? How much do you love me? Why don’t you love me as much as you love her? When you say you love me differently, what do you mean? How is it different?’
He’d left the family home when I was six years old. He disappeared. He went to India without telling us; for six months we had no idea where he was. When he finally returned, he was dressed in the colours of the sunset, with a mala around his neck and a photograph of his guru. He had a new name. ‘I’ve been reborn,’ he told us. ‘The man you knew before is no longer.’ He also had a new girlfriend. She was fleshy and Italian. He asked my mum if she could move into our family home, and if they could have an open relationship, my mother on one side, his fleshy Italian on the other. My mother said no, and passed him his hat. So he and his girlfriend moved into a communal house in a leafy suburb. A few years later, Antonia became their housemate. A month or so after that, the Italian moved into Antonia’s bedroom and Antonia into Dad’s bed.
Dad and Antonia were together for twenty years, and lived in many beautiful places: Hampstead, Pune, Oregon, Tuscany, California, finally settling in Bolinas, a seaside town in Marin County. They ran a publishing company that produced illustrated books, and wrote and worked side by side. They loved each other. Then Antonia went off and had babies with another man. My father continued with the life they’d built together, writing and publishing books from his old wooden house by the sea. From what we could tell, from the other side of the world, he appeared to be coping.
‘I need to sleep,’ my dad said when we got back to the house, sitting awkwardly on a sofa which had collapsed beneath his weight. His tracksuit bottoms caught up on his calf, exposing the shocking white of his skin. I straightened the covers for him, plumped the cushions.
He watched TV. He drank. He dozed. He made phone calls, repeatedly, to Antonia, who was now living in New York with her new family. ‘Honey, the kids are giving me a hard time. They’re telling me I’m drinking. I’m not drinking.’ He hung up the phone and immediately redialled her number. When she didn’t answer he used a different phone – my dad, the trickster – as if a different handset might catch her out. There were three phones, all portable, in various states of charge. Redial. Redial. Redial. ‘Everyone’s against me. Nobody is listening.’
‘The pills,’ he said. ‘Do I have enough pills?’
My brother and I were too scared, that first night, to fall asleep. Our dad had shuffled and groaned in the kitchen as he attempted to make us dinner, brandishing a large knife. When we finally sat down, he was too drunk, and we too upset, to eat anything. As we lay together in the spare bed we listened to him crashing about downstairs, our eyes stretched open in a house that no longer felt like his.
It was the first time my brother and I had travelled together since we spent our teenage summers visiting our father in Italy, and we slipped into the same closeness we felt then – left free to roam the Tuscan hills, teaching ourselves to ride motorbikes before we were legal, growing up quickly in a communal house where couples made love and fell out openly, and brought their emotional baggage to the dinner table.
Our dad had always been elusive: often in the other room, on his computer, or dealing with a housemate’s trauma, or shopping in nearby Florence. Sometimes I pinned him down to do my Tarot, and he talked of power and burgeoning sexuality, and how love was around the next corner. It felt like a promise of something better.
My brother and I joined forces against this wacky world. He protected me from the more lascivious of my father’s friends, who made advances to me as I grew from girl to teenager, and I joined him in learning that jokes and laughter were an effective barrier to what we didn’t yet understand. My brother, two years older, was more rational and less needy of our father’s love. Whereas I was hooked, somehow. Repeatedly knocking at Dad’s door, trying to be heard.
We were in our twenties when Dad and Antonia moved to California, and I only visited him a handful of times. The first house had picture windows that let in the vast unforgiving light. Straight off the plane, he poured me a large glass of Napa Valley wine, pink against the setting sun and comforting to my time-addled head.
This house in Bolinas was the first place that Dad bought after he left our family home in London some thirty years before. He loved it. He and Antonia were finally settling. ‘Hell,’ he said, ‘I might even die here.’ A hidden seaside retreat just north of San Francisco, popular with bohemian rich kids and hippy outlaws, it was the town that was not, with one way in and one way out, the point where the estuary flowed into the sea.
On the streets of San Francisco, I was struck by the extreme lives of the homeless, left exposed and squinting into stark whiteness. My dad stopped and passed a man a crisp fifty dollar note. He considered himself better than the average guy on the street. ‘Everyone is so ugly,’ he once said. ‘Such a run-of-the-mill human race.’ He had great aspirations for money and fame, and a disdain for the ordinary. He earned a lot of money at various points in his life, and spent it impulsively. When he visited London, he shopped at Harrods and stayed at the Charlotte Street Hotel, took my brother and me to expensive restaurants. He was prone to generous showy gestures.
Though a short drive away, Bolinas was different from the harsh streets of San Francisco – it was a gap in the map; the residents tore down signage as it was put up, and blacked out road markings. Booze and drugs flowed freely, collarless dogs roamed and wayward souls hung about on every corner. Dad and Antonia socialised with the bohemian elite who invited them to arty parties, where people drank elderflower wine and passed enzyme capsules around with food. My dad was known as the local writer. His door was always open, and neighbours came round with salted crab and chilled wine. But he soon grew tired of what he considered a pretense, and preferred to watch the fogs that rolled in and smothered everything, the great mists over the sea. Antonia eventually found Bolinas claustophobic, and recoiled from its rough edges. But it was difficult to avoid: their house was at the town’s centre, bang next door to the community bar.
That first night back, my brother and I listened to the drunks being thrown onto the street at closing time. Their voices were hard and loud. We could smell the alcohol from our room. It was too much. We turned to each other and said: ‘Shall we find a motel?’
Each day we visited our father, and each night we moved to different accommodation. In one motel, we slept together in a floral bed; in the next we pushed the mattresses side by side so we could hear each other breathing. We bought massive bags of crisps from the 7-Eleven and drank sugary pop. We watched telly and smoked cigarettes.
Each morning, jet-lagged, we woke at four. After sleeping, Dad would be more lucid. There were no lights on in the house, but he left the door unlocked. We would watch him from the doorway, sleeping on the sofa in the stink of old wine, the moving images from the TV reflected on his faded body. We cleared empty bottles and washed dishes, emptied the fridge of old food. Dad’s cat, Hope, meowed at our feet, but there was nothing to feed her. She curled her long fluffy tail around our legs. She was a beautiful cat: a ginger, long-haired Oriental. When Dad first became sick, she went off for a while as if to teach him a lesson, a few days, maybe a week, and he was distraught. I remember the day he phoned to tell me that she had come home. ‘Hope returned,’ he said, and laughed, as if his faith in the world had been restored.
He sat up on his makeshift bed and squinted through the dark when we came in. When he saw us he cried. That big body, that big reduced body, that hand that clapped itself over his eyes, the hand that I loved to hold as a child. I could wrap my whole hand around just one finger. His tears always made me cry. He was our father, and we had always loved him despite his absence and self-absorption. There was an ease between the three of us; we shared the same sense of humour. My brother and I saw his weakness and desperation in those early hours, and believed we might still save him. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, crying into his hand. ‘I am so ashamed.’ Our father: Affectionate. Juvenile. Impressionable. Restless. Narcissistic. Vulnerable. Selfish. Delusional.
I made him scrambled egg. Egg was all that was in the fridge. It was all that he would eat. ‘It’ll help your insides,’ I said imagining it literally binding all that slop inside him. He had hiccups that would go on for hours. Hiccup. Hiccup. Hiccup.
He sat beneath the glow of the table light and spooned it into his mouth, staring blankly into space, egg on his chin, egg on his cheek. I asked if he wanted tea? Coffee? Toast? ‘Oh, lovey, you’re so nice to me. You’ve always been so nice to me. You spoil me. You know how to look after your dad.’ But he didn’t look at me when he said it.
My brother swung from sympathy to anger, calling him manipulative. ‘He wants you to stay and look after him,’ he told me that evening. ‘It’s the only reason he’s saying that.’
You understand me, my daughter. You’re the only person in the world who understands me.
My father said this to me once in Italy when he was high on Ecstasy – the ‘truth drug’, he called it. I was a teenager and my leg was badly scabbed and bruised because I’d flown off my moped at speed, and its weight had crushed me. I couldn’t sleep and found him with Antonia, cross-legged in the softening light, with wide, dilated eyes and a beatific smile. His words etched themselves in my heart: You’re the only person in the world who understands me. Did that make me better than Antonia? Did it make me special? I wanted to believe him then, just as I still want to believe him now. Drugged, drunk, out of his mind.
The week progressed, and our life back in London grew distant. My husband’s voice on the phone was too light, and his words too removed. I had no patience for the delay and crackle.
‘How is it going?’
‘It’s difficult,’ I said.
‘Are you okay?’
I couldn’t begin to articulate the horror of what had become of my father, or perhaps a part of me didn’t want to. ‘It’s difficult to explain,’ I told my husband, and so I didn’t.
‘Are you there?’ my husband asked into the silence.
‘Yes, I’m here.’
‘I thought I’d lost you.’
As the sun rose, my brother and I sat together on the porch and smoked cigarettes while Dad lurched about, in and out of the swing door.
‘Dad, you’re drinking already,’ I said.
‘I don’t drink.’ But he had a big wet drip down his T-shirt. ‘I don’t drink,’ he said as he started his dance back to the living room, swigging from the bottle he kept at the top of the bookshelf, or maybe it was the one out back, by the bins.
‘Just going out with the rubbish,’ he’d say with a jubilant bounce in his step, and a barely full bag in his hand.
‘Just going in to check my emails.’ There was another in his study.
He left money in an envelope by the front gate. He said he was supporting Tree House John, one of the local down-and-outs.
‘He’s a drunk,’ Dad said with derision. ‘He needs money for alcohol,’ as if it were a weakness. But then we spotted the man, with his layers of dirt-black clothes and sunburned face, returning to leave a plastic bag of wine by the gate.
‘I’m all right. Just calm down. I’m all right,’ Dad said with tears in his eyes when we confronted him. ‘I am not drinking.’ Shouting. ‘I’M NOT DRINKING!’
He became unsteady on his feet, his shocking white feet in their broken slippers. His eyes glazed, and he clapped his hands.
‘Right, sweeties. You’re here for a holiday. We could go into town. We could go to the zoo. Shall we take a trip?’ He broke off, went into the garden, came back into the kitchen and then into his study and out again, a fresh wet stain on his T-shirt.
The only time we went anywhere with our father that week was to Berkeley to visit his healer. Dad was adamant that we mustn’t be late. ‘This guy is a saviour,’ he told us. ‘A Chinese mystic. The only man who can heal me.’ It was a long way: about fifty miles along the motorway, and my brother drove Dad’s massive four-by-four, despite the car pulling to the left, and brakes that didn’t quite work. On the way we stopped to pick up his dry cleaning, which was months overdue: a huge collection of designer jackets and shirts, all immaculately ironed, which Dad attempted to pay for with three rejected cards. The bill was a couple of hundred dollars, which my brother finally paid. He carefully folded them into the boot of the car. When we looked around, our father was gone. He returned some time later, burping strawberry hooch, and spent the rest of the journey asleep, his body, reduced and childlike, sliding around on the massive leather passenger seat. When we finally reached Berkeley, the healer sent Dad away, saying we’d got the wrong day, so we solemnly took the motorway back again.
Back at the house I made him food, but he refused to eat. I saw him peel off his tracksuit bottoms and leave them in a pile on the floor with a sloppy shit in the middle.
I cleaned his shit from the corners of the bathroom, smeared all over the toilet seat, the banister and along the corridor. Once I started looking, I found it everywhere. I zapped the corners with disinfectant, picked up the dust and hair, rubbed dirt from the bath. I swept, washed dishes, cooked, cleared away the empty bottles. I sat through our awkward silences, and cried when he cried, and when he started drinking and denying, drinking and denying, I shouted at him, ‘You’re a liar,’ because that’s what he was. That’s what we’d always believed. He’d lied to my mother about his A levels, his law degree, the women he was shagging while they were married, the debts he accrued, the child maintenance he should have paid and didn’t; he lied to my brother and me about plane tickets we could have used to see more of him, the reasons why he left us waiting. He made promises; he broke them.
He once told my brother that we were at the bottom of his list of creditors because he knew he could get away with not repaying us. I knew all this, and yet I still would have done anything for him.
We tried to care for our father each day, while he led his merry dance. My brother went through the pile of paperwork on his desk, and had long conversations with the bank. He tried to access what was coming in and what was owed. We read books on alcoholism – it’s a disease: he was born an alcoholic; we saw a psychoanalyst: ‘It’s like a snake, it comes in on your blind side and, before you know it, it’s taken your home, your money, your life.’ We had long phone calls with his sister, who’d been through AA: ‘There is a higher power with an idea of when your father is ready to go, and there isn’t much you can do about it’. Then we called Antonia: ‘I didn’t know how to handle it. I came round one day to find him passed out in the bath. I had to call an ambulance to help me lift him.’
He once threw us out for challenging his drinking. We couldn’t understand how this man before us, roaring drunk and surrounded by the evidence, could continue to deny it. We thought we were going mad. ‘Are we making this up?’ The three of us stood on the veranda and my brother shouted with fury and disbelief, while I sobbed.
‘Look at what you’re doing to her,’ my father said in reproach, his hands on his knees to steady himself.
‘No, Dad,’ my brother shouted back. ‘It’s not me who’s doing this. It’s you.’
We escaped in our car, out of the drive, out of that town, away from the prying eyes, and pulled in at the side of the road. ‘It’s a nightmare,’ my brother said. ‘It’s useless.’ He shook his head. ‘He’s not our dad.’
That night he tried to track us down. ‘Are my children there?’ he shouted at the receptionist of our motel. ‘They’re my children. What do you mean they don’t want to talk to me?’
My brother wanted to return to the UK. But I wasn’t yet ready.
The next day, we went back to our father.
At first, the locals feigned concern. Then they started swiping his books, CDs and clothes; someone even took his camera. The house was slowly dismantled around him. The only valuable things they didn’t take were what he wore: an ancient Roman signet ring, on his little finger, and a Panerai watch. We quickly realised the reality: Dad was facing bankruptcy, and his mortgage payments were in arrears. His dependence on alcohol had robbed him of his faculties, his ability to work, to pay bills. There was nothing left.
We tried to keep it together, attempted to make our father understand that he needed help. We grabbed the thread of the early morning guilt, but he was lost to us the moment the alcohol entered his bloodstream. My brother held onto the belief that he still had a choice in whether or not he took that first drink, but I feared it was too late. He was so vulnerable. The next time my brother and I discussed leaving, he challenged me again: ‘Don’t you see what he’s doing? He’s never taken responsibility for anything. We’re not helping him. There’s nothing we can do.’ But I thought I could change him. He was alone now. Antonia was gone. Perhaps he’d finally let me love him, and he’d love me in return. My brother wouldn’t accept it, and reminded me of my husband back in London, my new life, and the chance to create a family of my own and make good of the past. I had forgiven our father so many times, and he’d never acknowledged the pain he’d caused us. My brother wanted me to find a way of finally rejecting him.
But Dad asked us to leave before I had the chance.
We arrived at his house and he was showered and dressed, his hair combed, the radio on and curtains open. ‘I got a leaflet for AA.’ My brother and I looked at each other. ‘There’s this amazing guy who’s offered to be my guardian. He’s been through it all. He’s one of the top guys, and he’s taken me under his wing. You’ve done so much for your dad, sweeties. You can both go now.’ His hand shook as he pushed a strand of wet hair from his forehead.
My brother and I spent the afternoon in San Francisco, where we bought clothes and trainers from Macy’s. We made jokes and laughed in an attempt to shrug the weight from our shoulders, and yet we didn’t believe it. We knew it was all a ruse. Dad wasn’t going to get better. He would never stick with AA. A part of me was relieved that we’d been given permission to leave, but the realisation that he didn’t really need me, not even when he was dying, was heartbreaking. He wanted us to go, so he could be left alone with his drink. Sobriety would have meant facing all that he’d lost.
We had wondered if he’d caught glimpses of this nightmare in those early mornings, softened still by sleep. So much was broken. But he’d never stopped running, and wasn’t about to now. It was easier for him to give up and die than to finally look at himself and take action. ‘I’m tired,’ he’d say. It was his mantra. ‘So tired.’
I hugged him goodbye. ‘Don’t let this be the last time,’ I said, trying to look into his eyes. He waved my words away.
By Christmas, I was pregnant with my first child. My father called me most days, sometimes lucid, other times incoherent. He dragged me through his catastrophe. He was caught breaking into the local cafe at 2 a.m. to steal bottles of wine; he fell down the stairs and went back into intensive care; he had his stomach pumped after swallowing more than a hundred aspirin.
The doctor gave my father a few months if he continued drinking. I pleaded him to stop: ‘You’ll die,’ I said down the phone.
‘But it’s so much fun,’ he said.
Hope curled up beneath a tree in the garden and died; she’d stayed with him regardless of his neglect.
Then the phone calls changed. They became about money, about the debts he’d run up without medical insurance, about his house, which was being repossessed. Dad was going to have to return to the UK if he didn’t want to end up homeless.
Less than a year later, he arrived in England in a wheelchair with nothing but a Mulberry bag, his signet ring and his Panerai watch. We don’t know why he didn’t sell them, as he got rid of everything else. My brother and mum met him at the airport and took him to a dry house in Ilfracombe, to avoid the harshness of London. Three months later he was dead.
My brother sat in the morning light of my mother’s living room with his bag and his broken slippers. I stood some distance away. There were notebooks inside, poems, diary entries, an unfinished manuscript for his second novel and a non-fiction book he was working on: Dousing the Flame, his personal account of alcoholism:
‘Where and when did it begin?
Some might utter sentences of despair –
Can’t say myself! Was it when I was born?
Maybe at conception? Go the other way – I’m 60 now.
Maybe it started at 50? Or, or, or?
In California, London, in my heart, in hers?’
‘Maybe it is something spiritual,’ he wrote. ‘I can’t put my finger on it, but sometimes it feels as if I’ve found it. That place to rest my head. That place I call home.’
Was this what he’d been searching for? His sister, an AA advocate, had told us we weren’t responsible for him; if you believe in a higher power that has already forged your path, then perhaps he wasn’t even responsible for himself. Dad died alone on the floor of a B & B; there were only four of us at his funeral.
I had a vision of what he might have been. I’d always wanted him to live nearby, a simple life in a nice house with a garden, where I could visit him regularly. He might even find himself a new woman. But he wasn’t that man and that wasn’t his dream. He had spent a life on the move, always somewhere else. He lived at high speed. He did as he pleased and wore himself out. Eventually he gave himself up to the hazy, watery world from where it began.
At the bottom of his bag was a Nokia mobile phone. My brother switched it on, surprised to find it still had power. He put our Dad’s voicemail on speakerphone so we could hear his voice: I’m sorry I can’t get to the phone. Please leave a message. There were eight new messages that hadn’t been listened to. They were from her – Antonia. ‘Hello my darling,’ she said in a broken voice. She paused. My brother looked over at me. ‘I just wanted to hear you,’ she said. ‘I wanted to tell you that I miss you. That I love you.’ She had listened again and again, pressing redial.
Photograph © Miwok