A year ago I took a short course at Goldsmiths. I’d wanted to take a course in writing short stories but it had sold out. I didn’t want to wait and so I went for a different course in memoir and life-writing. On the course, our teacher told us about an Irish expression, ‘putting on the poor mouth’ which is essential, exaggerating your woes for sympathy. Although I hadn’t heard of the expression, I recognised it as a tendency when writing about myself. To take the edge of my natural inclination, I decided to write about my relationship with my dad who was born in 1938 in County of Roscommon. I was born in London, in 1983.
Below are segments – I’ve left things out for family privacy.
And from the time that the continual burnt offering is taken away, and the abomination that makes desolate is set up, there shall be a thousand two hundred and ninety days.
— Daniel 12:11
I see my dad’s life in neat compartments, as a boy and a young man, he’s both a tearaway and a ‘Jack the Lad’; as a father, he is quick-tempered; and as an older father, when I came along as a surprised I see the man I know today, this is the mellow version. The truth is I do not know much about his past before my sisters were born. When he drank, you could sometimes get snippets of his past and although these were often full of sentiment my dad is not one for embellishment. Other clues are contained in old photographs, like the one of him aged fifteen and in full military garb. Dad left home for the Irish army in the early 1950s. I know he got on a bus to the Curragh because he mentioned it when we were watching the Horses. He lied about his age to get in and you can tell this because the uniform is very much wearing him. I know that when he left the army he went back to his family home but didn’t last long. In London, he turned heads and broke hearts. When aged thirty, he settled down he continued to play up before Catholicism re-entered his life, not that it ever entirely left, and he mellowed. My birth took place in his 45th year, the mellow period.
The London period, the one when he had just arrived, is one I imagine vividly. I think of his early days in England as if it were a film – the film is in black and white, and his charm is amplified. He’s a few inches taller in the film version, and he has a full head of hair. This film is set towards the end of the 1950s and in it, Dad gallivants around town, changing jobs, digs and girlfriends every other week.
Of course, the reality wasn’t exactly like this; it was bleaker, and it was in colour.
I only hear about that time in snippets. When he’s had a few drinks and is in a sentimental mood. He doesn’t drink these days but when he did, these conversations took place in the kitchen. The kitchen was never the most comfortable room in the house, especially with the dinner table that belonged in a much bigger room, but without fail it’s where everything important happened. Dad would tell me about the scrapes he got himself into, like the landlord who didn’t let his tenants stay in their rooms during the day. When my dad slept in he needed to escape without the dogs giving him away. Or, on another occasion, when he didn’t have a train ticket, waited on the platform and he tip-toed between the backs of two rail inspectors who were counting their ticket stubs.
There was one evening when he told me quite a different story. As he sipped cheap red wine from a tumbler and smoked back-to-back rollies, until they almost burnt his fingertips, his eyes looked beyond me the Big Bopper’s ‘Chantilly Lace’ transported him to a Camden pub in the late 1950s. I expected another funny tale but instead, he told me something that’s haunted me ever since.
He worked night shifts at the Post Office for nearly thirty years. If I didn’t go to school and I often didn’t, he’d come home and make my breakfast before going to bed himself. Usually, he’d make me a bacon buttie and a weak mug of tea. Afterwards, I’d quietly watch television while he was asleep and with only four channels at my disposal, I’d often choose an old movie or two – an Ealing comedy or a Gainsborough period piece. Sometimes dad would wake up in time to catch the end of a film or else we’d talk about it afterwards and he would try to remember if he’d seen it. He liked to work out whether the actors were still alive or, more likely, dead. We’d estimate their age in the film and working backwards, would suggest a possible age for the actor, giving us good odds on whether or not they were pushing up the daisies. The fun you could have before the internet!
Over time I watched increasingly adult content, making full use of the VCR. I watched films full of sex, swearing and sacrilege. I had to be cautious of course, I’d keep the volume low and listen out for movement upstairs. Was he getting out of bed or just moving on to his side? I’d pause if I heard the landing creak and then switch to something else, often appearing to have developed a brand new interest in cricket.
Increasingly the television became a symbol of our differences. There was a time before me when we didn’t have a tv at all, and I found school hard enough as it was, I didn’t want to be the only one who didn’t watch Neighbours or Top of the Pops. I couldn’t risk him catching me watching anything that confirmed his fears about televisions – that they were the devil’s devices taking up a spot in the holy place, a man’s home, and that they signified the end of the world. That’s how the tv in our house was always known, it was the abomination that makes desolate. We are still waiting for the apocalypse.
Dad felt uncomfortable about leaving the house at night, and the television was often at fault. He didn’t want anyone to know it was just us women in the house and needed to eradicate any signs of life. Increasingly, it was difficult to predict how he’d feel about you still being awake and watching the abomination that made desolate. We would routinely sit, without saying a word, watching a muted television in the dark and waiting for the sound of the gate locking behind him.
Before I was on the scence he used to place balloons by the front and back doors as a trap for really think burglars. I sometimes imagined clowns moonlighting as thieves, unable to avoid the balloons because of their enormous feet.
Years later, I returned to live at home in my late twenties, tail between my legs after another failed relationship. Not thrilled by my new circumstances I spent a lot of time out and would miss the unspoken, but very real curfew. Like my dad, I was partial to a drink or five and lost track of time.
One weeknight, he managed to open the front door before I’d so much as taken my keys out of my bag. He didn’t say a word, but his face cut me down to size. He ushered me upstairs and I grimly followed not daring to turn on any of the lights until I was upstairs. As I turned to do so, he put out his hand and in a loud and purposeful whisper said: get dressed in the dark. I don’t want the neighbours to know you get home at all hours.
He closed the door, and I sat on the bed, fully clothed and staring into nothingness.
There is only one story my dad ever tells me about me. After two weeks of holiday as a child, I must have been nine or ten, I came home with a tan (it was the only time, I almost always go from ghostly-white to tomato-red). Dad walked me around his old stomping ground in Camden Town and bought me diet cokes in some of the pubs he used to frequent. My brown hair had hints of blonde, and my green-blue eyes contrasted my tanned skin. And I was thin. And that is the proudest he has ever been of me. I peaked early.
There is a Tony Harrison poem called ‘Book Ends’. It was in the GCSE English Literature Anthology in the late 1990s. As a teenager who quarrelled with my dad about politics and religion, I found the poem was very relatable because I was young and obnoxious. The first half ends:
Back in our silences and sullen looks,
for all the Scotch we drink, what’s still between ‘s
not the thirty or so years, but books, books, books.
Now I know it was actually ‘looks, looks, looks’.