My dad’s not well at the moment. Gravely ill, in fact. I won’t go into detail but he’s 76 and he’s been a heavy drinker and smoker all his life; it’s caught up with him. I’ve had kind of a strained relationship with him since my teens. It was the same with my mam, she died when I was 38 and we’d been going through some shit that never got resolved. Dad’s illness has made me reflect on my childhood and early teens. I’ll share those reflections with you, cos I trust you.
When I was very young I lived in a large house in Liverpool, just off the main road which runs from the city centre to the M62. The house was owned by my grandparents.They lived on the first floor, we (my parents, younger brother and I) lived on the second floor. There was an attic room too, occupied by a lodger, a old woman called oul’ Emily. On the ground floor lived their unmarried son, my uncle, he had a bedroom in what we called the back parlour. The arrangements were quite loose. In fact, apart from the lodger, all I’ve described there were the sleeping arrangements. The actual living all took place on the ground floor; my gran and/or my mam would cook in the back kitchen, we’d eat and later watch telly in the kitchen; we called it the kitchen, you’d probably call it a living room these days. There was another room, the front parlour, but we never went in there.
You might think that those arrangements were quite unusual. Maybe you’re right. But to me, born into that family and that situation, they seemed normal enough. It’s funny, the things you get used to. Especially when you start young. And what I want to talk about today started very young. My uncle, the man who lived in the back parlour, got married and left when I was four. I liked him a lot when I was very young, he was knowledgeable and entertaining and irreverently funny. When I was older I disliked him, he was a bore and a drunk and a bully. Maybe he always was. Anyway…
One evening, we were sat around the dining table having our tea. I was very young, maybe three years old. I don’t remember any conversation, though there must have been one. So I don’t know if there was an argument that got out of hand or whether my uncle just said something unacceptable. Something must have happened though, because my gran smashed a plate in my uncle’s face. She lifted the plate by its edge and hit him with the back of the plate. There was a lot of blood, as I remember, and it was a dark red. I remember him running into the back kitchen and I must have followed because I remember him putting his face over the sink. Quite a disturbing sight for a three year old, you’d think. Well, I don’t remember being too upset at the time. And the fact that I don’t remember being upset has worried me over the years. Maybe I was too young to understand? Or maybe violence was normal to me at that age. Maybe that wasn’t the first violent incident I witnessed, maybe it’s just the first one I remember.
My uncle, as I said earlier, left that house when I was four, then when I was five, my grandad died. My gran sold the house and went to live in London where we had relatives. My mam and dad got a council house in another part of town. But it didn’t work out for my gran in London, I don’t know why, and she ended up coming back to live with us. The tables had been turned I suppose. Instead of us living in her house, she now lived in ours. But the power relation never shifted, my gran continued to rule the roost. If you want to look at it in those terms, that is. And again, that kind of family dynamic might seem unusual; certainly none of my schoolfriends lived like I did.
My mam and dad were both drinkers. Mam would later develop a drink problem which contributed to her early death, but that was later in her life and was something she slipped into gradually. Dad drank like a teenager. He worked all the hours God gave and drank sneakily, at every opportunity. He literally couldn’t pass a pub sometimes. It was as though every drink was an act of rebellion. Every now and again things would get out of hand and he’d come home drunk out of his mind. And when that happened, there’d be trouble. There were various incidents and the earliest of them have become intertwined in my memory over the years. I can’t say how often it happened until I was about twelve or thirteen, but I have memories of shouts and screams, breaking furniture and slamming doors. Language like I’d seldom heard. And the sound of punches and slaps. I remember lying in bed and listening to it, so very tired but afraid to go to sleep. Afraid to leave my dad, mam and gran together. Afraid of what I’d wake up to. I’d keep myself awake till things went quiet. When I’d wake, everything would seem fairly normal. Sometimes my dad would have some cuts and bruises; my mam never did. But the conversations would be much as they had been before.
I think the incidents must have got worse as I grew up. And of course, I’d witness them because I wouldn’t be tucked up in bed when dad would come home drunk. I think the incidents would happen two or three times a year. Dad would either come in late from work, or arrive home at the normal time having left work early. He’d sit down in an armchair and either he’d start swearing at my mam or my gran or they’d start on him. Or sometimes there’d be a normal-ish conversation during which he’d take exception to some remark one of them would make. Then it would run its course until he either went out or went to bed. I’d be told to leave the room, usually I’d go to my bedroom and listen until things went quiet. As I got older, I’d refuse to leave and I’d sit watching it unfold.
I did witness some violence on those occasions. I saw my gran stand over my dad as he sat in his chair, raining blows on his head as he sat impassive. I saw my mam kick him awake from his stupor. I saw her throw a cup of hot tea on him; he tried to grab the cup from her hand, bending and crushing her fingers as he did so. In my early teens I’d watch these scenes unfold from the corner of the room. I’d be very scared and usually I’d be crying but nobody seemed to notice me. Their own anger seemed to give them tunnel vision, to mask everything else. But yes, on reflection, the incidents did get worse as I, and they, got older. On one occasion, my mam phoned a bloke she knew to come and help her. Another time, the uncle who’d lived in the back parlour phoned in the midst of it all and he came tearing round to get involved. But as I got older, I’d get involved myself.
This may be true for most men, I don’t know, but there comes a time when you’re big enough to take your dad on. In my case, that was probably quite early. But your dad kind of vibes you out, there’s that power relationship that makes you doubt that you could take him even if you had to. Most men, I guess, never have to find out. I found out when I was 14. The incident that time was slightly different to the norm as it all blew up when I was asleep in bed. I don’t know how long it had been going on but I remember being woken by the usual raised voices. Then my mam’s voice, panicking, calling my name. I jumped out of bed and ran downstairs. He had her in the hall, hands round her throat. I leapt off the top step, my momentum swept him off his feet and before I knew it I was on top of him by the front door, my forearm across his throat and I was screaming in his face that if he ever touched her again I’d fucking kill him. If he’d struggled then, I think I would have killed him, but he didn’t, he just lay there looking at me. Then my mam ran across and started kicking him in the head and I had to fend her off. Fucking chaos, it was. I can’t remember how the night ended.
I first left home at 19. I hadn’t gone to university at 18, partly because I didn’t know what I wanted to do and partly because I didn’t get very good A levels. But part of it was that I couldn’t trust my dad enough to leave him alone with my mam and my gran. I tried to make my own way in life but kept bollocksing things up so I ended up moving home four times before making the final move. The last time I slept at their house was in 1995. I was married by then, living in Manchester, and my wife was pregnant with our first child. I’d been out with friends in Liverpool and ended up in my childhood bedroom, in my old single bed, alone. I woke in the early hours to the sound of raised voices, I heard my mam screaming at my dad, calling him a fat little cunt. I couldn’t make out his reply but I suspect it wasn’t pleasant. They seemed to assume the next morning that I hadn’t heard any of it; they were making veiled, lighthearted references to the things they’d said and done to each other. I feigned ignorance till it was time for me to go home. I never stayed there again.
My mam died in 2003. She was 59. She’d admitted to her drink problem a couple of years earlier; she’d begun making angry, late night phone calls to my sister, brother and me, complaining about one of us to the other or just being plain nasty to whomever she was speaking to. She began to realise what she was doing, apologised and said she’d get help. She never did, though she cut right down on her drinking for the past couple of years of her life.
My dad still drinks. He drinks most nights and all weekend. I know not to phone him or visit him when he’s drinking. I time my visits and phone calls; to the outsider it looks like I’m neglecting him but I really can’t take him drunk. It’s been like that for the last 13 years. And it will carry on like that. But now I don’t know for how long