It was when Frank Marshall’s weight passed the thirty-stone mark that the howling began. I touched on this a little earlier and neglected to give you the gory details, but again, in view of the howling’s repercussions on my life I believe it to be a necessary part of this story. The year was 1971 and I was eleven years old. We were now living in a two-bedroom council flat in one of the poorest districts of Bristol and Frank Marshall chose the loveliest sunny day one can imagine to unveil what was to become one of the more disturbing symptoms of his malaise. More than seven years had passed since my father last sung a note and he was scarcely recognisable as the handsome young singer that he used to be. As the pounds piled on so his youth seemed to slip away. Although he was only thirty-three years old, you could easily have added a good ten or fifteen years on to his age. His hair hung long and filthy and his fat cheeks sat on top of a concertina of fleshy chins partially obscured by a unkempt beard already peppered with grey. The smart clothes that he sported in his younger days had long since been packed away into cupboards upstairs and he now wore whatever my mother could afford to buy him. Most of the time he dressed in a blue builder’s bib that had been purchased some years earlier because it happened to be one of the few items of clothing that could be bought off the peg which fitted Frank Marshall’s enormous bulk. Under this he usually wore a dirty white T-shirt that continually strained under the pressure of its owner’s bulging torso.
By now it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to even move, a situation that I inwardly celebrated because it meant that the beatings became more sporadic. His life, as ever, was spent on that old two-seater sofa in the living room, which because of my father’s size, was now used as a kind of giant armchair. One fat buttock would be placed on each cushion and he would sink into the middle to face the television set, surrounded by the usual detritus of beer cans, sweet packets, fish and chip paper and pie wrappers. Other than to occasionally yell at me or give some instruction to my mother, you were lucky to get a word out of Frank Marshall; most of the time he simply sat in that chair with that television set cackling and spluttering, feeding his face with whatever he could lay his hands on, completely lost in his thoughts.
You may be wondering where the money came from to feed his junk food habit. The truth is it came from us: from my mother and me. Although her work at the hospital barely brought home enough for the family to survive on, she made sure that the lion’s share went to her husband. All superfluous luxuries such as new clothing for herself or her child were sacrificed for Frank Marshall’s gullet. On her days off she would trawl the second hand shops for bargains; when she wasn’t doing this she was cooking for or cleaning up after her man, whose seat in the living room was constantly surrounded by a clutter of discarded beer cans and food wrappers. By this point he couldn’t even be bothered to get up from his chair most of the time, when he had finished eating or drinking – which he never seemed to do – he would simply throw the residue on to our threadbare carpet. My mother rarely complained, she just tried to carry on as if nothing was wrong, still hoping, no doubt, that one day the voice would return and she could go back to her former life. Nor did she say a word while her husband continued to grow … and grow … … … and grow. As the blubber accrued and the last vestiges of the man who used to be Frank Marshall were absorbed into the folds of panting flab permanently anchored to the living room sofa, Shirley Marshall simply got on with the job in hand. She didn’t seem to mind that she never had two pennies to rub together, that she seldom ate a proper meal herself, or that her son was practically dressed in rags, she just tried to do the right thing. As far as she was concerned, such hardships were merely the price that had to be paid for a return to normality.
Decca, of course, had long since abandoned my father. As had his manager, his agent, and all the other people who were once a feature of his other life. You can scarcely blame them for giving up on such a lost cause. Yes, it was true that Frank Marshall had once possessed a voice that could charm the birds from the trees; Yes, there was a time when Frank Marshall had it in him to become one of the biggest singing stars in the country; but that was the other Frank Marshall, the one that had shuffled off his mortal coil many years ago, the one that bore no relation to the great shit-bucket of lard that now spent its days sitting on a worn out sofa meditating like Buddha. As well as this, musical trends had moved on; now it was all hippie bands with long flowing hair singing thirty-minute songs about Frodo Baggins or King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. The market had changed: even if the other Frank Marshall was still around on the scene it was unlikely that his records would have found much of an audience. So one day the record company dumped him; they sent him a sheaf of legal documents to sign and they wrote off the advance they had given him. If they had really wanted to they could have made a cursory attempt to recover some portion of that sum but they knew that my father didn’t have a pot to piss in. Legal fees would easily have dwarfed any figure that my father was in a position to pay. Perhaps to soften the blow, the boys at Decca added a postscript to their official letter of termination of contract. In the event that his voice should ever return, they told him, he should give them a call.
When my father wasn’t lolling about on that aforementioned sofa like a giant bleached sloth, there were, however, rare occasions when he would show something of the old spark. These were the times when he elected to tell the story of that fateful afternoon back in Abbey Road studios. Then, for the odd moment or so, his appetite for food would vanish and his appetite for life would make a brief reappearance. Such occasions, needless to say, could never have been described as enjoyable; however, they were infinitely preferable to sitting in your bedroom keeping a fearful ear on the stairs for the sound of his approaching footsteps.
The afternoon of the howling began much this way. It was the start of the school holidays at the time, a period that I particularly dreaded as it meant six solid weeks cooped up in the house alone with my father and unpredictable fists. On the day in question I was unexpectedly called downstairs: “Will,” my father had yelled, “get your arse down here right now!”
Coming from Frank Marshall, such a sentence could almost have been described as gentle. It may not seem so to you, but to my young mind the words elicited a feeling of intense relief because I knew there was a good chance that whatever it was he had planned for me would not involve a thrashing.
My father was sitting in his usual place as I approached the wreckage of his inner sanctum. Without acknowledging my presence he cleared his throat and opened up a can of beer. Then, for the umpteenth time, he began The Story. I stood in the doorway listening as he detailed the events of that fateful day many years earlier. He was a singer … He was the best singer … He was good looking …He was a hit … Everybody had wanted him … He had made a joke of it when his voice had first done its vanishing act in that studio: ‘I told ‘em to look on the floor and see if anyone could find the bollock I’d just dropped, ha ha,’ … He’d never believed that something like this could happen to him…
It was all fairly standard stuff.
“You should have seen the girls,” he whispered to me as he motioned for me to take a seat across from him. “You should have seen the girls… I could have had any girl I liked … You know that? Any girl I wanted.”
Like all other aspects of my relationship with my father, there was a pre-defined set of rules to be followed on those occasions when Frank Marshall elected to tell The Story. First of all, unless responding to a specific question I was to keep quiet – very quiet; I was to say nothing yet at the same time make it clear from my body language that I was treating his words with extreme seriousness. This was usually achieved via energetic nodding of the head at appropriate moments, as well as a series of sympathetic sighs delivered at crucial points in the narrative. Any variance from this procedure would, I am sure you can guess, bring about a short, sharp shock that would leave me clutching the side of my face in pain.
“Do you know what it’s like to be able to sing?” my father continued in his Welsh brogue. “Do you know what it’s like to get up under those lights and really sing?”
Although at this stage in my young life I was sufficiently familiar with these words to have been able to recite them backwards, the question had to be treated with respect. The rules of the game forbade me from offering a direct response, instead, if I was to escape punishment it was essential that a certain expression of anticipation be maintained on my pre-pubescent features.
“No, you don’t do you?” he continued. “How could you know? How could anyone else know what it’s like?
“I was twenty-two years old,” he announced, his voice rising. “Twenty-fucking-two years old and they said that I was the kiddie. They said I could go all the way … all the fucking way … And then…”
My memories of what happened next are indelibly stamped on to my mind. As I sat there looking at the giant blob that was my life’s greatest torment, my father began to sob. It was, I remember, the first time that I had ever seen him cry. Indeed, it was such a break from recognised behavioural patterns that for a while my young mind was tossed into a slipstream of panic. How was I supposed to react to this unexpected development? Was I to stand my ground, so to speak, remain sitting in that chair and say nothing? Was I to offer comforting words: tell him not to worry, tell him that everything was alright? What was I to do if I was to survive this surprising turn of events?
My father began to howl. Closing his eyes and jabbing a finger towards his open mouth, Frank Marshall pulled his head towards the ceiling and howled. This was no human sound; I’m not kidding. It was the cry of a wounded dog, a hundred wounded dogs; it was a howl of anguish dredged up from the very bottom of his soul. Had you not been sitting in that room staring at the originator of that sound with your very own eyes, you would never have believed that anything human could make such a noise. The howl was unspeakably disturbing; it was as if I had been given access to the very core of my father’s unhappiness. And it went on for a long, long time: me rooted to my chair transfixed by this distressing apparition and him sitting three feet away howling out his pain. Then I did something stupid.
I don’t know why I did it; I simply have no idea of the motivation behind my reckless behaviour. Such was my confusion, I tend to think that by this time all rational thought had been superseded by pure instinct. Whatever the case, some internal voice demanded that I do it. And so I climbed to my feet and moved over to my father and placed my arms around his neck and hugged him.
He smelt of alcohol and sweat. Of cigarettes and farts. His beard tickled my face and his body heat enveloped me. I don’t remember what I said to him exactly. They were probably not even words, just noises; in any case, they were totally drowned out by his ear-splitting yowls. It was the first time I could remember being so physically close to my father but my gesture was not prompted by love; it had more to do with guessology, it was an attempt to do the right thing at the right time. Unfortunately, it was an action that I would live to regret.
Gradually, my father became aware of my presence. Slowly, he seemed to come to his senses. Like an unwound clock his shrieks subsided, his howls diminished. Finally, he wiped his tearful face with his chubby hands, sniffing and panting, eyes swollen and red. Then he turned to me and regarded me coldly for several seconds. Then the beating began.
This, I have to tell you, was no ordinary beating. This was King Beating …. Prince Painful … Lord Thrashing of Sorechester. It was, in the true sense of the expression, the hiding of a lifetime. My father kicked me from pillar to post that fine sunny day. He administered an onslaught of such intensity that it moved beyond time or space. His pummelling fists took on a life of their own and my mind became separate from my body. The pain was so great that it ceased to be pain anymore. I was literally able to look down on the scene and observe my father in action, to watch him kick my curled up body into kingdom come.
Needless to say, I was not a pretty sight by the time that my father’s rage had finally burned itself out. Both eyes were already blackening, one of my ears had somehow been torn during the affray and now bled profusely; my two arms contained the imprints of my father hands and my tongue was numb from where I had accidentally bitten down upon it. I lay at the foot of the stairs and waited to see what he would do next. Then I vomited, a stream of glistening yellow syrup, and then I closed my eyes and tried to imagine I was somewhere else.