On a slick November night in '58 or '59 we emerged from the La Scala movie theatre in Dundee. 'Somebody Up There Likes Me' was showing and, even though a cold rain stung my face, inside my chest burned a warm glow from a happy ending.
We crossed the tramlines into an alleyway that led to the top of our street. He walked in front, paused at the side door of the Old Bank Bar, then moved on. We scuffed down a narrow flight of ill-lit stairs that gave onto a rectangular delivery area. Even at four or five paces behind I heard his hard breaths pushing out air, occasionally in quick bursts as if to clear his nostrils. Turning up the collar of a leather-patched reefer, he swaggered in loose-limbed fashion. I had trouble keeping up.
Some black cars were parked under a high swinging light moving back and forth, illuminating different parts of the glistening bodywork. Ahead a drunk man turned into the pend. He swayed forward, then shuffled his feet three or four steps so his bottom half could catch up. Singing softly, he staggered on, keeping his head down.
I moved to let him pass between us and when he drew level my father gave him an uppercut that seemed to send him flying backwards as his false teeth shot upwards. He landed near the front wheels of a Ford Popular and began to moan. In the breast pocket of a grey overcoat he'd placed a dark handkerchief. His shoes shone in glossy monochrome. He looked as old as my granddad, smart dresser too, like granddad. 'Are you waitin' on a doctor’s line! Come on!' I stopped staring at the man who could have been someone's granddad and ran to catch a guy who could have been a father. But he didn't fancy it.
That is one of six clear memories I have of my father and I being together.
The earliest is when, at six, I managed to get us thrown out of Billy Smart's Circus for 'abusive and threatening behaviour' towards a whip-happy ringmaster. A clown dispatched to placate my rage had to dodge a few infantile right crosses and suffer a couple of boots to his shins. Inconsolable, I was ushered out of a secret flap in the tent, followed soon after by my father clutching our refund. If reasons were needed to hate circuses, there's none better than the misunderstood hero-child victimised by red-nosed authority figures wearing big boots.
That evening worked out perfect for him. Not only had he fulfilled a reluctant commitment to take me to the circus, he now held the entry fee for higher jinx in The Opera Bar, not to mention the potential pint-magnet of a funny story. 'Gone tell us again aboot that time wee Geordie an' you got barred fae Billy Smart's,' they'd ask, taking another bottle of India Pale Ale from the carry-out. 'Aye, gone Harry, tell us.' Eventually I thought it never happened as reality became an ever-changing story.
A more fleeting memory reinventing itself with every visit is travelling pillion on a borrowed 500cc Triumph snaking back from Errol motorbike races. Aged nine and fearless, I swayed into every bend as we roared home to an untrendy dockland. Apart from a controlled dive off a high board, it's the closest thing to flying.
Our other three get-togethers were evenly spaced and, I suppose, bear witness to certain similarities in character. At 13, whistling on the last lap of a lengthy paper round, he (kind of) ambushed me in a tenement close. A smell of stale beer hung around him. 'Any tips the day?,' he asked through a cloud of Woodbine.
'Aye – stay away fae the hoose,' I answered, surprising myself with a rapid reply. He laughed. Next thing, I'm on one knee trying to gasp air into empty lungs. Anyone who's had all the wind punched out of them will understand. He walked away. I sat on the stair rubbing my belly. The rest of the papers were delivered whistle-free.
At 16 there was no 'kind of' regarding the ambush. In the 60s, like most cities, Dundee had a vibrant, living city centre. When the pubs and dance halls emptied we congregated at a coffee stall to drink weak tea, eat dodgy mince rolls and, depending where one stood, declare allegiance to one of the various gangs.
In the doorway of the Sixty Minute Cleaners at the back of the coffee stall, four of us pretended to enjoy a nightcap of cheap wine. I saw him turn the corner from the Overgate, and he saw me. 'There's your auld man, George,' nodded one of the guys. All I remember is walking towards him, then ramming my forehead into his face. He fell back but didn't go down, I followed up with a few hooks to the face and body. Just like he told me to. ('You're jist wee – so hit them fast and often – if they don't go down – run.') Forgot that last bit, of course, and while we were rolling around on the pavement, two giant coppers pulled us apart. What could be called a split decision.
When they discovered we were father and son they shook their heads and said they had more to do than 'sort out domestics.' 'Do you no' get on wi' yir da'?' quipped one, as the other assessed the damage to my suit. If it wasn't for the vice closing round my ribs I might have joined in the laughter. 'You'll take him next time, wee man.' And, sadly, at 19 it proved unforgettably true. In a narrow space between some air-raid shelters on a fierce summer evening we finally sorted out the pecking order. It was a no-contest, really, and it's sobering to beat up a man who terrified you during those important formative years. A ridiculous, hollow victory that rings like a broken chime. If anything was learned from that incident, it taught me never to feed off my emotions. We had a relationship built on fear and I reinforced its pointlessness.
It wasn't all laughs, of course. We were the classic nuclear family; encased in a shell and likely to explode at any time. Collision shanghaid communication. Consequently we carved out separate lives. Sneaking into the movies became a sanctuary from our bouncy single-end. His was any boozer he hadn't been barred from and my mother retreated into a rattle of pills swilled back with nips from a plastic container kept by the side of her chair. Behind a cushion adorned by the family friendly face of Pope Pius XII she stashed a hatchet, sometimes a poker, indiscriminately in buccaneer style, which may account for my 'ducking and diving' later in life. Can't see how she hoped to render him unconscious when he was halfway across an ocean.
When he did work, it took the form of lengthy trips on merchant ships or tankers sailing to faraway places. Not that life seemed any calmer during these many departures, only nervously quiet. Silence, interrupted by 'Housewives’ Choice,' 'Workers' Playtime' and 'Saturday Night Theatre' became the norm. Until he disembarked and another radio sailed out the window to crash in the back court. This may have been his idea of an outside broadcast.
After one trip to the States he actually arrived back with some money. He bought a second-hand radiogram from Paddy's Market. It took him and three other half-drunk losers an hour to carry it up two flights of stairs and position it in a mould-ridden recess. Its shimmering patina filled the alcove like a gleaming sacristy. On top – 'To really show it off' – he placed a whirling Chinese lamp that lighthoused a static willow-patterned tale of pinned-up wallpaper. Oriental hell became home for Uncle Max and The Man in Black. Scratchy 78s of Robert Johnston, Billie Holliday and Benjamino Gigli captivated me. Still do. One positive inheritance is an abiding love of music. But, predictable, his id drove him to kill the thing he loved and, one night, when the money had all been drunk, I sat awestruck as our beautiful walnut animal was reduced to kindling sticks. Frighteningly impressive best describes those few minutes that went on and ever on.
After another trip I hazily recall the room swirling in sweet smoke and people sitting round smiling their fool heads off. At 3am, on went the frying pan and next day's food got tanned. I wolfed a 'peece in original lorne' covered in nippy sauce.
A few days passed in placid mood while the contents of a see-through bag dwindled with every roll-up. 'It's coolie's tea,' he said, grinning stupidly, 'an' this is how you help it brew.' A tea-strainer, topped-up with this green loose leaf tea, had boiling water poured over it until the teapot held enough for a few cups. The he tapped the damp dregs onto a shovel which he placed on a gas ring to dry out. When dry, he spread it out on a newspaper draped across the table, then used more than one cigarette paper to build a tapered cone, twisting the narrow end. Him and his pal passed this reeking chimney to and fro, stopping now and then to slurp, red-eyed, from coronation mugs.
Those couple of days glided along in a fine and mellow groove until someone brought along some Country and Western records. From then the atmosphere spiralled downwards. Was the case of depression an absence of complicated tea, or Jim Reeves snivelling about a 'Little Bitty Tear' letting him down? I blame the latter. One thing worse than gratuitous violence is gratuitous sentiment.
Nowadays, on the very rare occasions he crosses my mind, I think of Mailer's observation on Alan Ladd being 'a small boy's idea of a tough guy.' He was blond, weathered and boxer-squat, the first person I'd seen wearing perfectly faded Levi shirt and jeans 'bought in New York.' And when this denim-clad Viking shoved off (again) on a wake of shredded linoleum I managed to submerge a dizzying feeling of ambivalence towards a falling idol. The whirling mass of contradictions bubbling in my 11-year-old head took some time to sort out but, gradually, a self-imposed order emerged from the familiarity of chaos.
They divorced when I was 11. During the proceedings I had to stand up in court to tell some of the things I'd seen and heard. No one should ever do such a treacherous deed even when the truth sounds like a betrayal. But I was made to do it and, in an attempt to hold onto a bit of myself, I spoke fast in a mumbling tone, then lowered my head.
Apart from seeing him by accident, I never had much contact beyond those three incidents mentioned earlier. I've no more understanding of his interior life than, I suppose, he did. He wore his angst and anger on rolled-up sleeves displaying all the sturm und drang of a colourless firework. Still, depending on where some people have been, it's difficult to imagine alternatives for them. He should have married the sea. Sometimes he spoke of it like his only true companion whose unpredictable dangers somehow tamed him for a spell.
He died in 1984. Taken by a bout of pneumonia in the aftermath of a heart attack. I travelled to Ninewells Hospital but thankfully he remained unconscious for the five minutes or so I stayed. On my return to Glasgow I phoned intensive care to be told he'd died an hour earlier. The world didn't feel less interesting without him.
Not many turned up at his funeral and I've never shed a tear. This has been easier to write than it was to think about. It may not be too late to grieve, but I just don't fancy it.
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