First draft, while the spirit moves.
How did you stop being mine, dad?
How did you walk out the door?
Did I see you do it, dad?
I can’t remember anymore.
I know only that you left, dad,
When I was some ten years old
And I’d have given anything to keep you, dad,
I’d have promised to be good as gold.
But the chance passed.
I know my mother was a pain, dad,
She remained a pain to me,
But I, the child, could not escape,
Couldn’t walk out the door and go free,
Til her death freed me at last.
I had to listen to her words, dad,
Had to learn how she blamed me,
For she’d sent you away, she would often say,
Because you didn’t love me
As you should.
No vitriol with that assertion,
Though she had enough and to spare,
And some of it you might have spared me,
If only you’d been there.
But you weren’t.
What kind of bad must I have been, dad,
That you could not love your first born?
And being so bad as I must have been
What wonder that God had foresworn
To love me?
I believed then, as a child believes,
And I grieved then, as a child alone grieves,
My path obscured by autumn leaves
Whate’er the season.
A darkness in me.
Half a century ago you disappeared,
Vanished, it transpires, in sunnier climes,
Had another son, a daughter too,
And, no doubt, some lovely times,
But I did not.
For half a century I missed you,
Felt an aching absence in my heart,
Missed your words, your looks, your thoughts,
And it broke me apart
Believing in no God, no Heaven,
I know we will not meet again,
That the man who died three thousand miles away
Has left me, till my death day, in the grip of pain
One conviction only, did you – in leaving – leave me,
Which is that it’s okay to not stay,
That it’s okay when you are under pressure
Simply to walk away,
And I have tried.
The night that others dread
Is naught but peace to me,
The silent darkness of the dead,
Offers naught but ease to me.
Yet I can’t get there.
Too many depend
For me to seek the easy end,
And all my life I now must spend
Why did you leave me, daddy?
I return, perhaps wearier than when I left.
I became suicidal around the age of ten, as I have said. My mother’s disposal of my father because – he avers – he could not earn enough to please her, required me to obtain his signature to a document that would formalise the end of their relationship, the end of a relationship I did not want to end.
Lest others should think I too easily accept that my mother made this choice, rather than my father, I can point accurately to the fact that she cast aside no small number of subsequent suitors for similar reasons. In particular she met a man called Dennis, one of the loveliest human beings I ever met and whom we knew for no little time. Just thinking about him for a moment tugs the corners of my mouth towards a smile. She quit him, she said, because he wasn’t ‘ambitious’ enough.
Many years later, after the death of the wife he’d met after breaking up with mum, we visited him at home. He was dying at the time, though I don’t think we knew it, and he was exactly the same man I remembered. Only now, however it had been come by, he lived in a ‘lovely house’, had his own car and all those other things that my mother truly valued. One could see in her eyes and in her face how bitterly she repented of having ‘let him go’.
As to my dad? I loved my dad. I still do, though he’s dead now. I still ache inside with the awareness of his absence, with the awareness of the life we could have shared and never did. I feel my daughter’s absence in the same way. They are part of the same pain, part of the same void, the same longing for what cannot be.
The God Squad promise we will be reunited. I do not believe it.
Around ten/eleven years old I was a gangling, shy, nervous, bespectacled child, afraid of the dark, wetting the bed. I remember very little from before that time, mere flashes in the darkness.
Perhaps I’ve said it already – these spontaneous chapters are an odd way to write a biography, I guess – and I apologise if I repeat myself, but my mother told me she had ‘sent my father away because he did not love me enough’. Me, that is. His first-born.
To that she added, as I’m sure I’ve said, that I came into the world after the first occasion that alcohol lowered his inhibitions enough for him to engage in sex with her.
My father, she said, did not love me. Whilst she told me that she loved me herself I never really felt that she did, only came after a long time to the realisation that she loved me as well as she was able to. It was a very long time though.
And if my own father did not love me, so much did not love me that he was prepared to leave his wife and son behind in order to leave me, and if my own mother never loved me without condition, why should it surprise me that my prayers to God went unanswered?
The answer was simple. I was unlovable. By anyone. By anything.
I learned that the closest resemblance to love was something that had to be earned. I had already discovered that my mother’s love could be lost – my father had lost it. If she could send him away then, surely, she could do the same to me? And in truth she did once tell me that she had had the opportunity to ‘send me away’ too, that it had been recommended that I be placed in care so that her marriage might survive.
I doubt, now, that that reflected any more than an idea she might once have had, but passing thoughts, even brief conjectures drawn from a diet of Coronation Street, could and did gain weight with her when she was in that frame of mind. Or maybe it was true, and if it was I rather wish she had sent me into care. I wished it when she told me and wish it still.
Love, then, had to be earned. How was that to happen? Comics, movies and stories – including the great ‘Christian’ story – told me that love was earned by sacrifice. We remembered Christ for giving his life, we remembered our war dead for giving theirs, I wept for Kipling’s Gunga Din and Disney’s ‘Old Yeller’ dog, whose death was brought about by sacrifice.
My father was leaving us, leaving me, my mother and my younger brother. If I wasn’t there to leave, perhaps he would come back to them, perhaps they would be together again as a family, united in whatever grief they felt, forgiving each other. A good enough reason to die, I thought.
The attempt obviously failed.
If being unloved felt a burden, it was little less so than being unliked. Twice in my life I have had a friend – one my late daughter and one a lady who will be reading this. That’s as close as I get.
I had something like a friend at Beech Grove. I don’t remember much of our interaction, but I will never forget how it began.
The front door gave immediate access to a ‘living kitchen’ and faced another door which would lead to our ‘best room’ (the room one never really went into but which was intended for receiving guests). My mother and father were standing in the space between the two and I nearest the front door, so it was I who responded to the knock.
On the doorstep was a young man of a similar age to myself, wearing almost knee-length shorts and, if my memory serves, a flat cap. I can’t remember his facial expression, though I feel it was non-committal, the look of someone on an errand who thinks they may be turned away.
“I’m Victor,” he announced; “Arta cummin arter laike?”
Bewildered I turned to my mother, said something about a boy and his making reference, apparently, to a ‘lake’. She and my father smiled, being of Yorkshire stock and I was informed that he was inviting me out to play. “Arta”, it transpired, was a contraction of ‘Art thou’, “cummin” needs no translation, “arter” his contraction of ‘out to’ and “laike” a genuine Yorkshire alternative to the word play. Shortly afterwards we were “laikin’ art” together.
I knew Victor for some time but only a single memory sticks out. We were ‘laikin” on a bomb-site which was not a bomb-site other than in name but an empty plot remaining from civil demolition. Under foot was the gravelly detritus of the operation and, standing at a distance from each other, we began picking up small stones, taking turns to throw them at each other. They were not thrown with force or with intent to cause pain, merely a kind of exercise in marksmanship practised against our gladly volunteering bodies. That was, at least, until Victor picked up a large fragment of red chimney-pot and threw that instead, splitting my head open.
I don’t think that terminated our friendship, but I really don’t recall.
Victor went to the same school as I, but he had all the advantages. He wasn’t particularly bright, was of small-to-average build, patently poor and local from birth. I was tall, bespectacled, intelligent and not able or wise enough to hide it, had a very wide vocabulary and spoke with the army accent my father, who had aspired to be an officer, had encouraged.
By definition of the tribe I joined my speech was ‘posh’, and that inevitably meant – to them – that I came from money. It wasn’t true, of course. But to that difference was added my height, on account of which I already stooped in order to make myself less visible, my National Health spectacles and a remarkable incapacity for anything related to sport or PE.
Cue the first day of entry into the school and some total stranger running past me towards the school doors and punching me in the abdomen as he went by. I doubled up in agony, but the physical pain was nothing in comparison to the unhappy bewilderment I felt that anyone would choose to inflict such a blow for no reason and upon someone they did not know in the slightest.
It happened again not long afterwards, although on this occasion I was on what felt like the long walk home. It was a downhill walk between two stone walls. Invisible behind one lay a stretch of ‘Private Property’ whilst beyond the other a large area of ‘allotments’ (small tracts of land on which the allotment holders grew fruit and vegetables for their own use) stretched down to the main road.
The youth running by punched me in exactly the same way the other had. They may have been the same person, I really didn’t and don’t know. He continued on his way and, in pain and misery, I did the same.
The path we had followed led to a junction, the main road passing up by the allotments and down towards the town, a sweetshop on the near corner, and the road up to Beech Grove stretching uphill opposite. Crossing the road I saw the youth who had hit me enter into another sweetshop on one of the many streets that ran off the uphill road and I progressed up the hill to home, leaving him behind.
It is odd, when I think of it, for the roads involved seemed too long then to allow such a time scale, yet the fact is that I got home, was interrogated by my mother as to why I was in such misery and then dragged by her down to the corner sweetshop before the other child had concluded his business there.
In the shop she demanded of me if this was the boy who had punched me and I answered, honestly, that yes, it was. She then demanded that I hit him.
I was aware of the shopkeeper as merely an onlooker, of the frightened child I faced and of the fury of my mother – not that he had punched me but that I had a) cried as a result and b) had done nothing in retribution. I was aware that my mother by my side tilted the balance of power steeply in my direction and I knew that it was unfair. The boy’s offence was to inflict pain on a stranger. I was being told I must reciprocate.
I don’t entirely recall what happened, but I know that I did not hit him, that I couldn’t. I know that I was bewildered by this willingness of others to inflict pain on strangers – she knew the boy no more than I did – and I know that she excoriated me for my cowardice.
She was wrong, I was right, but it was only one of many similar hurts.
“Big boys,” she clearly believed, “don’t cry.”
Atop this particular rise I stumble and fall down the slope in a tumble of memories newly or freshly awoken.
“Your dad’s gone, Richard. It’s up to you to be the man of the house now.” Freely translated that means, “Your dad’s gone, Richard. It’s up to you to carry whatever adult responsibilities I decide appropriate to inflict upon you whilst at the same time I will continue to treat you entirely as a child when you do anything that I don’t like.”
There is an addition to my height, spectacles, manner of speech and so on that I think I have not yet mentioned. I was born with a form of club-feet. Around the age of 14 it would lead to my being hospitalised and treated surgically in order to prevent the condition worsening, but at 10/11 years old it was being treated with exercises I constantly forgot to do and two strips of leather fixed under my shoes to exert upward pressure beneath the arch. I was also regularly visiting a Child Guidance clinic because of my ‘anxiety disorder’ – an anxiety disorder for which my mother had first referred me to specialists when I was all of four years old.
In truth, I guess, she was the problem, whilst received wisdom about child development made it mine.
The orthopaedic issues gave me something, I think, to which I could attribute my clumsiness and lack of sporting ability. It could at least be seen to be a source of some of the unworthiness I felt and for which, in this instance, I couldn’t hold myself entirely to blame.
The so-called ‘metatarsal bars’ beneath my shoes, supervised exercises and visits to the Child Guidance department took me often out of school. This did not add to my popularity, nor did my consequent exclusion from most sports and PE activities. My successes in anything related to art, English and History also rather failed to go down well.
I must have been attending the Child Guidance clinic at the time I first tried to take my own life, unless there was a second attempt that I don’t now remember – and it’s possible, even though it seems unlikely. They key fact in the memory is that I was very popular with the Child Guidance folk. We were given a weekly mark for our presentation, our involvement in the games and tasks we were set, our manners, behaviour and so on, and mine were always 9 or 10 out of 10. One week, without explanation, my mark was 1.
As my mother fetched me away I expressed my bewilderment at this apparent diminution of regard, this punitive score. “That will be because you tried to kill yourself,” she told me, going on to say that not long before that time my attempt at suicide would have branded me a criminal (for the theft from the Crown of one of its subjects, I later discovered).
The attempt had not been discussed at the Guidance session and to this day I do not know if what happened occurred because of that suicide attempt. I do know that I was told it by her and believed it, that in trying to remove myself, in trying to sacrifice myself in order that I might both end my own desperate unhappiness and contribute to the restoration of the rest of the family I had done something selfish, wicked and criminal. I had not yet reached my 11th birthday.
My father was in the British Armed Forces, for a spell among the 17th – 21st Lancers and later in the Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers. Among both the ‘Death or Glory Boys’ (The 17/21st, famous for being part of the charge of the Light Brigade) and REME his labours somehow involved draughtsmanship and tanks. I’ve never made the connection.
He was too late for the charge of the Light Brigade, of course, and enlisted just a fraction too late – being too young – for World War 2. I fancy that he did not enter the forces until a year or two after the war had ended because by the time he was first posted to the British Army of Occupation in Germany the initial cornucopia of black marketeering had been stopped up. In one of my few contacts with him he did suggest that it was this which first rather pissed-off my mother, since he was not able to supply her with all the extras his and her predecessors in occupation had enjoyed. My mother, he was to allege – quietly, kindly and after many years of a successful second marriage – always had her eye upon what others possessed, was determined to be one of those Joneses with whom everybody else sought to keep up. It is not a perception that jars with my memory.
He was a handsome man and, by the time I met him, a sergeant. He liked dogs, as I do, drew and painted, loved photography and other creative endeavours, as I do. I loved him. In the sixty two years of my life I received one greetings card from my father, not counting anything that came from ‘Mum and Dad’ so long ago that I can’t remember, and that card arrived shortly after we first made real contact some thirty years after his departure. In terms of colour, message and design – in every way imaginable – it was precisely the card I would have chosen.
I was around ten years old when he left.
According to my mother she ‘sent him away’ because of the way he treated me. I was not, somehow, she said, the son he had wanted, the rumbustious, ‘normal’ boy my younger brother was. According to my father, he left after returning to a cold, empty home once too often whilst my mother was visiting a married man she had taken a fancy to and to whom she was constantly comparing my dad. Jim had a car and a nice house, a mouse of a wife and three daughters whom he raised – like Pip in Great Expectations – very much ‘by hand’. I never saw him as anything but a thug and a bully, but he was clearly in some particular way successful.
I never really questioned that we spent a lot of time at Jim’s house, but then I didn’t know that my father was coming home from work to our own and finding it empty.
Not seeing my father for long periods was something to which I was accustomed. He was a soldier, often posted away on tours of duty, was engaged in the ‘police actions’ in the Holy Land and in Cyprus. To the latter we went with him.
So I really saw my father perhaps five years out of the ten that he was officially part of my life.
A flame is flickering somewhere, I catch glimpses that are only glimpses of that past. I remember particular gifts – die-cast Dinky armoured vehicles, a fire engine with working hoses, a bazooka that fired ping-pong balls. I remember the bottle of coke and the bar of chocolate I would usually wake up to when mum and dad had spent the previous evening at the Sergeant’s Mess.
I remember an apartment in Germany, an apartment with a serving hatch. I seem to recall that the building formed a square with gardens in its centre, though that could be a mistake, but I do remember that you could get from the front of the building to the gardens by way of an underpass. It was shady there when the sun was out and the kids from the block collected there despite the smell of the garbage bins stored there.
I got into trouble there, though I don’t recall any serious consequences. I was found there, with a host of other children – probably between about 5 and 7 years of age – and we were all discovered naked. We were enjoying our skins, I know. I have no darker recollection of it and remember it, if anything, fondly.
I remember the barracks in Germany, a vast parade square full of tanks, tank transporters and bren-gun carriers, and I remember the last bugle call that would sound as the dark descended. I remember the parties, meeting St Nicholas, goody-bags of chocolate, nuts and fruit, and the day St Nick arrived in a sled that was really a much-decorated army Jeep, driven by my father.
England and civvy life would always pale in comparison.
My father decided to leave the army, ostensibly because of the difficulties he would face in developing his career since officer rank was unavailable to him. My mother, brother and I returned first to a house he had acquired, the only ‘through’ terrace house in a street of back-to-back cottages, set in an estate which, it transpired, was a byword for crime and criminality. I can’t say I noticed that much.
Our immediate next-door neighbours were an Irish immigrant family, comprising a very large mother, a father I cannot recall and three very well-grown sons. What they had for Sunday dinner, I was told, depended on the luck they’d had at the betting shop on Saturday, and not one of them could string three words together without an obscenity being one of them. I liked them.
Mother was not, I gather, best pleased at being dropped into this particular low-rent area.
It had its eccentricities. The only through house (having both a back and a front door) as I have mentioned, Number 3 Beech Grove did not have a bathroom. Eventually we had a gas-geyser water heater installed, along with a bath, in the front living kitchen. I can’t see it in my head, sadly, though I could position most of the furniture even if it is now invisible. The increasingly ubiquitous ‘telly’ was there, the inevitable arm chair and sofa adjusted to keep it in view.
The absence of a toilet in the house was its biggest bugbear. Beech Grove was a cul-de-sac, the tarmac street flanked on both sides by straight rows of flat fronted houses and closed off at the end by a brick wall surmounted with shards of glass embedded in cement. Walking straight up that street would bring one to the last house in the terrace and, just around the corner, a row of wooden- doored privvies. There were gaps between the bottom of the door and the ground, and knot-holes enough in the doors to make one fearful of someone watching, especially at night. Permanently in the shade of the gable ends of the terraces, the row of lavatories was always pitch-dark at night.
I hated the walk to the lavatory. One passed every doorway, every front window, and anyone and everyone who saw you therefore knew where you were going – a thing I found intensely embarrassing by that time. When it snowed the street became treacherous, when it rained the walk necessitated a drenching. When it was dark it was terrifying to the child I was.
A star shell bursts. I remember. It was from that house that my father departed. It was from that house that I went to the first school I remember going to. It was in that house that nightmares really began to invade my sleep.
The son of Adam that I believed myself then to be, though I could never understand why my Father in Heaven seemed to pay no heed to my prayers, I had learned that I was naked and had learned to be ashamed.
I know there was one occasion long before Beech Grove when, too young, too inexperienced even, and travelling too far, I crapped myself on the way home. A glancing, sideways-striking shiver in my shoulder tells me as clearly as any visual memory what my mother’s reaction was to that.
I remember being home alone at Beech Grove one evening and too terrified of the lonely darkness to walk up the street to the lavatory without knowing there was someone nearby and when my mother returned she saw a dark spot – a tiny spot – of urine on my grey pants which my fear-compressed bladder had not managed to retain. I do not remember what she said, but the eviscerating, contemptuous, despising tone makes me shudder a little even in recollection.
We were at Granny’s house – my father’s mother’s house – when I rushed forward one evening to greet my mother as she came home from Heaven-knows-where. My brother and I were in Pjs, the striped flannel pyjamas of the time which tied at the waist and had no ‘fly’. As I reached out to her, it seems, the pyjamas gaped.
“You’re too old for that, now. That’s disgusting. I don’t ever want to see that again.”
That may or may not be a verbatim quote, but it is near enough. I discovered there was a part of me to add to the functions in me of which I should be ashamed. Odd, now, that the flame flickers and I seem to think that my shame pre-dated this event. We were in Cyprus, which must have been before that, when my tonsils erupted and – the security situation being dangerous – I was transported with my mother in the back of an army ten-tonner and under armed guard to hospital to have the tonsils removed. The nurse stood me on the bed to undress me and my embarrassment was boundless.
In Cyprus, too, a bomb was thrown through our kitchen window. Deliberately or not, it was thrown when we were out, but it was an anti-personnel device which makes it kind of personal.
I was around ten years old, as I said, when my father walked out of Beech Grove for the last time. Having, as she subsequently said, ‘sent him away’, it seems a little odd now that she should also recall going to his mother to ask her to intervene and send him home. Allegedly Granny responded; “Well if he’s not welcome with you, he knows where he is welcome.”
It was around this time that I first recall having a bed-wetting problem. Eneuresis is the medical term, in English. The name scarcely matters. Sodden sheets mattered, even more especially if and when the bed was not your own, and more still if you were not the only occupant.
It would cause me problems at school, but perhaps I will save school for the next time, should there be one. It’s around this time, however, that I remember the nightmares. In one I was chased by a giant, blue-spotted white dog, in another I walked into a school lavatory and found nooses hanging everywhere. In one in particular I would find myself hanging from a cliff top by my finger tips in a howling gale, crying out for help to my father who stood some distance away and who did not hear me.
It’s around this time that my mother found us a ‘council flat’ and despatched me to visit my father so that he could sign the papers that would secure the property for us. It seems it was my task, age ten or so, to go to my now hostile granny’s home and get my father’s signature to validate, in a sense, the break up of our family.
It was many years later that I discovered that it was that particular day on which I first made an attempt on my own life.