Lost Dog 4-6
It was gran who told me that my dad was a soldier. I could tell that she
looked more favorably on my father but she was loathe to discuss him,
fearing that she would somehow compromise my mother. The few details
I learned resonated with me throughout my formative years. The image
of my father fighting for Queen and country lodged itself in my mind.
Suddenly a reason emerged as to why he had walked out. He'd walked
out not because he hated us but because he'd been called to a higher
duty, a duty that, once completed, would allow him to return.
There was no photo of my father, none that I'd ever seen. Surely, I
thought, a photo existed. And surely I had a right to see it ? I
began to badger my gran whenever I saw her. "I want to see him"
I said. "Do you know where mom keeps her photos ? She's hidden
them somewhere to keep me from seeing him."
One afternoon, with my mother safely away at the hospital, attending her
therapy group, I urged my grandmother to help me find a photograph of
my father. At first she resisted but eventually, after an hour of my
unrelenting nagging, she acquiesced. We entered my mother's bedroom
and found a shoe box hidden in the wardrobe beneath a pile of winter
jumpers. Inside were a collection of photographs, faded photographs
in filtered Technicolor that showed my teenage mother and my father
astride motorbikes, entwined on a beach, sitting in a pub, the table
awash with bottles of stout and shots of whiskey. I sat on the edge
of my mother's bed and studied each photograph in turn. There were
photos of my father in combat uniform, also photos of my parents
wedding at the central registry office. I held the photos as if they
were gold shavings so precious to me were the images. The photo I
held for the longest time was a portrait of my father cradling me on
the day I was born.
After an hour or so my grandmother said my mother would soon be home and we had to return the shoe box to the wardrobe. I resisted, of course, content as I was to sit with the
photos regardless of my mother's imminent arrival. I sat with them for as long as was possible before my grandmother prized them from my hands and returned the box to its hiding place.
From that day on I went into my mother's bedroom at every opportunity. Whenever I
was alone in the house I took out the shoe box and spent time familiarizing myself with the secret past-life of my parents, a life that had ended in acrimony and hatred barely a few weeks after I was born.
She found out, of course. So angry was she that she screamed - a piercing
high pitched scream that seemed to defy human reason. And she hit me,
squarely across the cheek, yelling in my face that I was just like
him, my father, worthless and undeserving of her love.
It was at this time that I began to run away from home.
Shortly after the incident with the photographs I began playing truant from
school. I was thirteen years old - a vulnerable age, I suppose. The
carefree boy who enjoyed nature and animals was beginning to
transform into a moody pre-pubescent with the weight of the world on
his shoulders. A year earlier I had moved from junior school to the
local comprehensive. It was a hideous place - a collection of late
seventies functionalist buildings, all in various states of
disrepair. The children who attended were children from the nearby
council estates and the adjoining lower middle class areas. There was
religious assembly each morning and bullying on an industrial scale.
If you were Ginger, disabled, a swot, weak, overweight or, heaven
forbid, a person of colour, your life at school was guaranteed to be
as miserable as could be. My life was made miserable because I was
the child of a single parent and we lived not amongst the lower
middle class or on a council estate but in a shared rented house.
What's more, I stupidly told one of the older boys I liked animals
and that I wasn't interested in sport. From that moment on I was
classed as weird, a nut-job. The only boy below me in the brutal
social hierarchy of my class was a second generation Jamaican
immigrant named Everton. When I became Everton's friend things got
Everton and I sought strength in friendship. But even a united front didn't prevent the bullies from seeking us out. Harassed, punched, spat on, our lives became unbearable. Everton bore the brunt of the abuse. I was merely deemed a black-lover; he, though, was deemed less than human.
We began to skip school. We'd meet up and take the bus into the city centre, making our way to the market and earn money unloading sacks of vegetables or sweeping
up. Everton was a slim, rangy boy but a hard worker. He didn't speak
much, conscious no doubt of his Jamaican accent, but when he did
speak his sentences carried a buoyant rhythm that seemed to mirror
the freedom we felt away from school.
My mother had now started working part time at the same motel as my grandmother. I grew more and more distant from her during this period. For a short time
her employment seemed to energize her, lifting her out of her
depression. Despite only working a few hours each morning she
regularly arrived home very late. It was many years before I
discovered the reason why: she had started an affair with a work
colleague, an affair that, like all the men she got involved with,
only made her even more unhappy.
On my forteenth birthday Everton bought a bottle of his father's Hooch and we spent the day in a city centre park. In the afternoon the police picked us up and took
us both home. Not only was I drunk but I'd played truant. My mother got angry. During the argument that followed she once again hit me across my face.
This time, though, I hit back.
It was now that I discovered my mother was still in contact with my
father. Gran told me they had come to an agreement: he would keep
away until I was sixteen. Only then was my mother willing to
re-introduce us. She would keep him up to date with my progress at
school and in exchange he would send her a small cash payment once a
month. That way she was able to tell social services there was no
contact with my father and she would be eligible to receive her full
benefit allowance as a single mother.
After my brush with the law the agreement changed. My mother refused to have me in the house. By striking her I had committed a heinous sin. Perhaps the act
reminded her of her time with my father. Did he used to hit her too ?
She didn't say. But my actions revealed something to her - that I was
no longer bound to her, perhaps, or that she had failed in her
attempt to mould me into whatever image she had set her heart on. I
felt ashamed, of course, at what I'd done. But young stubborn pride
prevented me from reaching out to her. From that day on she could
barely look me in the eye.
It was decided that I would stay with my grandmother. She lived nearby, in a council flat that she kept spic and span. My grandfather had passed away a few years
earlier, succumbing to a lifetime of drink, and my gran struggled by
on a small pension and her part time cleaning job. She did all the
things expected of her - cut my sandwiches, left me a meal if she was
working, pressed a pound or two in my hand when I was short of cash.
She was a product of the war years - continuity in times of adversity
was everything. But we both knew things couldn’t stay as they were.
Twice a day she called round to see my mom, tried to convince her to
see a doctor, worrying herself sick that my mother's depression would
burst its dam and fatally engulf her.
It was nearly a month after the hitting incident before I saw my mother again. Gran
escorted me to the house, as if she was my minder and I was a
criminal which, I suppose in some people’s eyes, I was. Mom was
sitting in the kitchen with the woman from next door. When gran and I
entered the woman, Tamsin, made her excuses and left.
My mom asked how I was. She was shaking and her eyes were bloodshot. It was
ten o'clock in the morning and I could tell she'd been drinking.
My gran fussed around, boiling the kettle and making tea. Mom remained
at the far end of the kitchen, close to the door. I sat at the table.
I wanted to go upstairs into my bedroom but mom said she had some
important stuff to tell me. "Your father is coming here"
she said. "He wants to see you. He'll be here soon."
I didn't know what to say. Her pronouncement was so sudden and
unexpected. I hadn't seen my father for over ten years, couldn’t
remember a thing about him, only the fading images discovered in my
mother’s shoe box. It was clear that the meeting had been planned.
What did it matter if I thought it was OK or not ? I shrugged my
shoulders. "I suppose."
We sat in the kitchen for about half an hour. My mother’s constant fidgeting and chain
smoking indicated that my father had not kept to the agreed time for
his visit. After another fifteen minutes of waiting I was allowed to
go up into my room. My mother had clearly been in there during my
absence. My football magazines had been strewn across the floor and
my model dinosaurs and airplanes had seemingly been brushed off the
window sill in a moment of anger. I spent a few minutes clearing up.
The magazines and models seemed strangely alien to me, part of a past
life that was no longer important. As I replaced the dinosaurs and
planes I saw from my window the small white dog from next door. It
was running around in the garden, foraging in the overgrown grass. I
opened my bedroom window and called out to him. He responded to my
call, stopping in his tracks, his ears sharp and alert. I called
again and he began to whine, a mournful sound as if he were seeking
out a long lost friend. I went downstairs. My mother and grandmother
had left the kitchen and gone into the front room to look out for my
father so I slipped out into the garden. I called out again to the
little dog and this time he was able to sense where I was. He ran
over to the fence, panting, and I slid one of the broken wooden
panels to one side. He barked a welcoming bark and I took him up in
my arms, allowed his tongue to lick my face, felt the warmth and
eagerness of his tiny frame in my hands.
Then I heard my mother calling me - demanding that I should come back into the house.
I pushed Dog though the fence and replaced the loose panel. At last, my father had arrived.