First published in
Feast and Famine, Newcon Press (2013)
When I picked Dad up from the hospital he had only a glower for me.
“What took you? Been waiting ages.”
I checked with the staff. Had there been any problems? There had not. He’d had his telly and his private room, his meals brought to him. He’d been able to shuffle about the garden and complain to the nurses. They’d even let him smoke outside. It was a very obliging private hospital and I’d paid them a lot of money for the three weeks they’d had Dad, in order to make things as smooth as possible for everyone involved. Even so, I got the distinct impression that a fourth week might have seen things begin to fray. Dad could be like that.
When I told Hannah what I was going to do she said I was mad. This was good of her, really. She’d moved to Australia, after all: nobody would be expecting her to look after Dad. She could have just told me what a good boy I was and let me get on with it. Instead of which, she did her damnedest to dissuade me.
“Don’t you remember what it was like?” she demanded, over the phone. “I mean, why’d you think I moved out here, if not to get away from him? And you’re just the same. Think how it is at Christmas. None of us can be in a house with each other for more than three days without putting each others’ backs up.”
Last Christmas she hadn’t come. There had been some work-related excuse. And when Dad had his attack, and we thought he wasn’t going to make it, well, she was pregnant, after all. She couldn’t be expected to subject herself to the stress.
“Steve, seriously.” I could hear the sincerity there – what she said, she said for me, not just because of her hard memories of Dad. “You’re making a mistake.”
“I just...” Alone on the phone, with only that distant voice to focus on, it was hard to put into words. What did I want to say? That I wish it had been different. That now, when the last sands in the glass were running out, I wanted to make it different. That I wanted another chance?
He just nodded, when he saw me, and pointed out that I was late. He hadn’t seen me in months but he wasn’t one for sentiment. My picking him up was no more than his patriarchal due. Nothing had changed.
I had seen him more recently, of course, but that had been to the steady bip of the heart monitor, and his eyes had been closed.
He shouldered his way into the passenger seat of the car with that same belligerence with which he did everything: Dad vs. the world, always. His manner, sitting there, was pure resentment, staring out of the window, barely looking at me as I got in.
“Belt up, Dad.”
That brought a furious stare, and I was almost glad of it.
He looked grey, my Dad, when I met him at the hospital. He was a big man, still, wide across the shoulder and chest, but the hulking bulldog of memory had dwindled. His throat was wrinkled and baggy, and his eyes sunken into a face that was hanging off the skull. Still strong, though, still something there of the iron figure of childhood, and I thought of Tennyson: “and tho' we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven...” And here was my Dad, Ulysses coming home at last.
“Seat belt, Dad.” I saw his hands shake a little, clicking it in, but I knew that trying to help him would make things worse. After, though, I said: “You can smoke, if you want.”
And because that had been the thing the hospital had been insistent about, of course – no smoking indoors – there was a mote of gratitude in his eyes, or I thought there was, as he lit up. And I thought to myself, Maybe this will work. I’m going to make this work.
When he came out of hospital – the hospital that did the surgery after his attack – they’d talked to me about all sorts of care – after all, I had the money these days. I didn’t want any of it. Three weeks in that private place was too long, but it’d taken that to get the work done at my place, to give Dad a place to come home to.
He had seen the house once, I think, a couple of years before. I’m not sure that he remembered. His expression, standing on the gravel of my drive, was so familiar to me. It was the way he looked whenever he saw something new that he didn’t really understand but would be forced to deal with: that pugilistic look, hands curled most of the way into fists, head thrust forwards. He had met all of life’s challenges that way. When he married mum I bet he looked like that at the altar. And it had always worked for him. I recognised that now. He had bullied and threatened his way through life, from school to work to the way he ran his family, taking no lip and no excuses. In the end, it was only his own heart that the strategy hadn’t worked on.
“Come on in, I’ll show you what I’ve done,” I told him. “Tea?”
“Three sugars.” He said it defiantly, and I guessed that some unwise doctor had tried to have words on the subject despite my telling them – paying them - to let him have his own way in pretty much everything. Health professionals have to know best, I’m sure, but there was one thing that I’d bet wasn’t on his records.
“Your room’s through here,” I explained, indicating where my games room had been. “There’s an en suite, and obviously you can do what you like with the décor, just let me know and I’ll get someone in.”
He stood in the doorway like a prisoner contemplating his cell, and grunted, and I had hope: no scathing comment, no growl. No words of approbation, but that would have been so wildly out of character that I might have had a heart attack myself. He didn’t even comment on ‘en suite’ or ‘décor’ which were words he might have derided in times past.
When I came back from making the tea, he had figured out how to turn the telly on and find the football, and was squatting on my sofa in such a way as to take up most of it, but he gave me a nod, and even a mutter that might have been thanks when I passed him the cup. His eyes were on the match, though, and I left him to it, pottering about with the housework and getting some emails done, listening to Dad’s blow by blow commentary on the game. He was never so loquacious, so enthusiastic, as with football. It was the son he had wanted, I’d often thought sourly to myself – aggravating, disappointing at times, but always coming through for him. “Yes!” I heard him cry, and “No!” and all the rest: “Go on! Get it in, son! You blind bastard! How could you miss at that distance?”
And when he got really excited I could hear that deep bass in his voice, the rumble that was a constant of my childhood from the many, many times that Dad got angry, with us or with mum or with the world. I stopped typing, when I heard it, because the memories had me by the throat, and I thought, Oh no, this isn’t going to work, Hannah was right, but then I shook myself, because it had to work. This was the second chance I had worked so hard to get, in a world that almost never allowed them.
Most of my childhood memories are of Dad being angry, and mostly at me and Hannah. He wasn’t a natural, when it came to having kids around. He wanted us quiet and out of sight and not interfering with his own few hours of liberty between work and sleep. He didn’t want to hear the complaints of teachers when we had misbehaved. He didn’t want to hear from Mr Dyer down the road that I’d gone out with a friend and thrown stones at his greenhouse, or to have the police bring a thirteen year-old Hannah back at two in the morning made up heavily enough to get served in a club. And when our misdemeanours did break into his life, he only reacted in one way. He was angry and aggressive towards whoever made the complaint, because we were his kids and it was none of anyone else’s business. Then, behind closed doors, he would tear into us. Sometimes it was his hand, but more often it was just his voice and his presence, the eruption of that anger that was never far from the surface with him. He seemed to spend his whole life filled to within an inch of the brim with undirected frustration at the world at large.
Only, of course, that wasn’t true. It wasn’t often that Dad got really angry, it was just that what other people counted as angry was just mildly annoyed on the Dad scale. But we did see it, Hannah and I did.
When we were older, we dealt with it in different ways. She moved to Australia – a year over there after Uni, travelling and tending bar. And then she had met this guy, and was applying to live there, and, well, she’s practically Mrs Crocodile Dundee now. Me, though, I started on the anger management courses. They couldn’t understand it, when I turned up for them. I was practically the only person not referred there by a court or a therapist, the calmest of the calm, but I took it all in, all the little coping strategies, because I never, ever wanted to become like Dad.
By the time the football had degenerated into replays and pundits, none of whom, naturally, knew as much as Dad thought he did about the game, it was evening. I was already nervous about tomorrow – first full day with Dad in the house, and I was supposed to be working from home as well. I cooked up eggs and potatoes, which Dad complained was breakfast food, and made sure he took his pills. We ate mostly in silence, Dad with yesterday’s paper folded open on the table beside his plate, just like I remembered, and the little telly on in the background, dispelling any awkward silences with a murmur of reality TV and documentaries.
Quiet mealtimes, another staple of my childhood, except that Hannah and me would always find something to complain about, about the food, and poor, hardworking mum would be telling us that was all we had, and we’d better eat it, and we’d always push and push, until Dad’s angry little eyes would lift from the paper and he’d bark at us to shut up and eat it or else.
“Going to the loo,” Dad grunted, and set off for the stairs.
“Dad, there’s your en suite,” I told him, but he was already shuffling over until he was standing at the foot of the steps, hand on the bannister rail, head thrust forwards as always, just another of life’s problems, except that it wasn’t the steps that were his enemy, but time itself.
“Seriously Dad, that’s why I put it in.” I abandoned the table, because the doctors had warned me about stairs and the dangers of a fall just now. Your father is very weak, they had warned me, and I had almost laughed in their faces. If there was one thing he would never be, it was weak.
“I’m going to the loo,” he insisted, turning that baleful look on me, hand on the rail still but feet uncertain how to proceed.
“Will you leave me alone!” and there it was, that deep rumble, the soundtrack of my childhood: my father’s anger. “I don’t need you. I don’t need your help. I’m going to the loo!”
And I remembered – I couldn’t not remember – when Hannah and I had pushed him too far. There was this one time when we were raising hell in the kitchin when mum was cooking, and Dad was trying to watch the match, and Hannah and I were arguing – no idea what about now – and mum was telling us to get out from under her feet, and every so often Dad would bellow out from the couch that he was trying to listen.
And then it had just been Hannah and me making noise – no TV, no mum – and when we looked up, there was Dad in the doorway, and it had been a hard week at work, I think, and he had been looking forward to that game, clinging onto it through all of life’s aggravations, and we had killed it for him, with our shouting and screaming and carrying on.
And we thought he would hit us, and we thought he would shout at us, but we’d pushed him too far for that, and he just stood there and stood there fighting for control, until at last Hannah shouting out that I had started it – or maybe I said that she had – and he broke, hunching forwards, the hair tearing out through his skin, tortured red eyes staring out at us from above the muzzle that ripped its way through his face, teeth sprouting into yellow fangs. He dropped forwards, hands already clawed and bristling when they touched the ground, and there he was, those horrifying jaws snapping in our faces as we screamed and cowered at mum’s feet, his work shirt a ruin about his massive barrel chest and all his rage, his anger at the confusion and bafflement of the world, at last given proper voice as he howled at us.
I don’t know how long he stayed there, but I remember his hot, rank breath, the burning, metal scent of it, of him. I wet myself. I thought I was going to die. I was only seven.
And now he was starting on the stairs, and I should have left him, but I didn’t want him to fall, and in the end just my continued presence was enough – a lightning rod for his frustrations ad being unable to make himself climb the steps. When he turned to me his eyes were already red.
“Dad, seriously, just calm down-“ but too late for that, and I saw his skin ripple, his jutting head twist forward further, and that fear, that seven year-old’s fear, came on me so strongly that I couldn’t move. He was growling and changing, ripping awkwardly from his shirt, his face vomiting forth that snarling muzzle, barking out those raw animal sounds to deal with my challenge to his authority, to deal with the world’s challenge.
And through my fear, I felt something else that rose to replace it, a desire to answer the snarl with a snarl of its own, the part of me that all those courses had served to restrain, and I knew that I could let it go, let it off its leash, and then we’d see who was top dog. That was the way of things, for us angry men, the law of the pack.
Everyone liked me at work. I was the man who never lost his temper, no matter what. I could deal with the most obnoxious client, the most duplicitous supplier, the lazy co- worker, the bullying supervisor, the recalcitrant piece of equipment, and I never broke a sweat. I knew that I couldn’t afford to. I had put a lot of work into never letting the beast out.
And I closed my eyes, and fought it back this time, for all that it was ravening to deal with this – a challenge that it could understand, unlike everything else in this modern world, and then I took a deep breath and opened them again.
“Oh, Dad,” I said. “Oh, Dad, I’m sorry.”
He crouched at the foot of the stairs, and I could see every rib through his patchy, mangy pelt, and the drawn-back lips revealed a mouth of blunt and missing teeth. His rheumy eyes looked confused, unsure where he was and why, all that animal rage draining away from him with a sound that was more whine than anything else, a great, grey wolf near the end of his strength, near the end of his days, a shadow of what once had been.
When I put a hand out to him, he flinched, just a little, before sniffing, and he knew me then, for kin, just as he had known us when we were kids, and snarled and raged at us, but never more than that.
“Come on Dad,” I said, and he let me gather him up – a great weight, but no more burden than I could bear. “You want to go upstairs, we’ll go upstairs. I’ll have a chairlift fitted. It’s fine.”
© Adrian Tchaikovsky 2020