I spent the remainder of that summer holiday locked in my room. I don’t know if this suggests a certain degree of premeditation on the part of my father or even a sense of guilt about what he had done. There was simply never any way of knowing what was going on inside his head. What I do know is that the very next day, as the bruises broadened and my body began its slow recovery, he took the unprecedented step of venturing outdoors. He wasn’t gone long; just long enough to waddle down to the nearest ironmongers and purchase a sliding metal bolt. “If you can’t keep out of trouble,” he told me as he hammered it in place on the outside of my bedroom door, “Then it’s up to me to keep the trouble away from you.”
This was to be my reward for the unmentionable crime of being present to witness my father cry. Even though I was there that afternoon on his bidding, I am convinced that he was never quite able to shake off the shame of my seeing him in such a condition. It’s a spurious prognosis, I know, because I’m talking about a man who, before the eyes of his wife and child, had allowed his body to fall into a state of potentially life threatening disrepair without even batting so much as an eyelid. When he was stuffing his face like some kind of oversized human waste disposal unit, he had shown no remorse and yet somehow his display of emotion that afternoon had tipped him over the edge. Quite simply, he was mortified that he had allowed himself to reveal so much of his inner torment. And as I happened to be only living eyewitness to this scene, my presence was no longer required.
If I was hoping for any support from my mother I was to be disappointed. Although she could scarcely contain her own pain when she had washed and bandaged my wounds the night before, she still said nothing. As I sobbed in her arms, she resolutely kept her silence. Her devotion to her husband knew no bounds. I suspect that he would have had to have killed me in order to elicit a response from her that in any way resembled reproach, and even then I think she would have probably found some means of excusing the inexcusable.
After the howling I did not see my father for a long time; he made sure that our paths did not cross. As soon as his wife went to work in the morning he would climb the stairs to my room and bolt the door. When she returned the bolt was duly unlocked and my mother would bring me a warm drink and something hot to eat. Strangely enough, she seemed perfectly content with this arrangement. Perhaps she recognised that as long as I was up there in that room I was safe from her husband’s random violence. I spent most of the days reading; and when I grew bored of this I spent a long time looking out of my bedroom window. If I was hungry there were usually sandwiches to eat, which my mother made for me the night before; if I was thirsty there was water to drink, or sometimes, when I was lucky, a can of soft drink. Going to the toilet was more problematic; although a chamber pot had been provided for any liquid waste, no consideration had been given to solids. If I needed to defecate I simply had to hold it in until my mother came back from work, at which time I would be allowed to retire to the bathroom. To prevent such discomfort I learned to exercise self-control over my feeding habits, only eating and drinking at particular times of the day.
What effect this enforced incarceration had upon my young mind it is difficult to say. On the one hand I was relieved that I was out of sight of my father and his deadly rages; on the other I desperately missed the outside world – I ached to go out into the bright sunshine, to breathe air that was not fouled by my own smell, to talk to other people. In the long-term, however, I am not naïve enough to deny that this experience must have had some bearing on what Sophie and I were to do seven years later; I am not so foolhardy as to think that the two incidents are unconnected. I dare say that even the inimitable Dr Cohn would have no problem in making such a suspension of disbelief. When all said and done it was a simple case of cause and effect: he did that to me so I did that to him; he provoked and I retaliated; he pushed and I shoved. When the school holidays were over and I had completed my sentence I did my best to put the episode behind me. I pushed the memory of those long weeks alone in that room to the back of my mind and prayed that it would be an experience I would never have to go through again. Then my father attempted suicide and a miracle occurred.
The sequence of events was fairly straightforward: one evening I came home from school to find my father asleep in the living room. There was nothing, I am sure you understand, particularly unusual about this; after spending most of the day drinking and eating my father would often take the afternoon to sleep it off. However, when my mother returned from work later and he refused to wake up we began to suspect that something was wrong. Closer inspection of my father’s heaving carcass revealed that he had been drinking even more heavily than usual that day; more than a dozen spent beer cans lay at the foot of the sofa. More alarmingly, an empty bottle of my mother’s sleeping tablets rested among the clutter. It was already dark when my mother’s frantic shakings finally roused my father from his slumber. His mouth was coated with a film of dried spittle, his words were incoherent and his eyes were glazed over. “Frank! Frank! Wake up!” cried my mother. “I’ve got to know if you’ve taken those pills!’
As the two of us watched, Frank Marshall began to splutter and cough; he tried to say something but his words came out in a jumble. Finally, as my mother grew more and more desperate, he managed to come to his senses for a brief few moments: “In the garden…,’ he spluttered, “I threw them in the garden…”
“Will, go and get the torch,” commanded my mother. Never before in my life, I recall, had I seen her so animated, yet at the same time she did not seem surprised. It was as if she had been expecting this, waiting for it to happen all these years, inwardly rehearsing her reactions to that moment when her husband finally decided that he could no longer live without his voice. “Go into the garden and see if you can find them.”
I did as instructed and located the torch in its usual resting-place under the sink. Then I went outside into the darkness and tried in vain to fulfil her request. I spent a good five or ten minutes looking for those pills but it was obvious that the exercise was doomed right from the very start. It will come as no surprise to learn that my father was not a person whom one could exactly describe as a keen gardener. In fact, since moving into the house the garden had remained completely untouched, he had been content to sit on his sofa and let nature take its course. It had become a jungle of brambles and stinging nettles and gorse grass that regularly invited complaints from the neighbours. Searching for those pills was like looking for a very small needle in several dozen extremely large haystacks. Even if my father had thrown them into the garden they would have been immediately swallowed up by the tangled undergrowth.
Eventually, I went back indoors and told my mother that there was no sign of the pills. This seemed to increase her desperation even more. Without saying a word, the torch was snatched out of my hand and she headed out into the garden herself. It was at this point that the reality of the situation began to assert itself. I took another look at the empty cans and the empty bottle of pills that lay on the floor, I took another look at my semi-conscious father, who seemed to breathing with some difficulty, and I made a decision. I don’t know if you’ve ever found yourself in such a situation, but I can tell you that as a means of making one grow up fast there is nothing quite like having to decide whether you father lives or dies. To me that moment in my life represents an unequivocal turning point: it was the day in which I ceased to be a child. The day that I threw away all childish trappings and began to function as an adult. I might only have been eleven years old and still waiting for puberty to arrive but I showed myself to be infinitely more mature than my mother.
After several minutes more had elapsed and my mother showed no sign of returning from the garden I went out to look for her. I found her on all fours, holding the torch in one hand, methodically scanning the tangled undergrowth inch by inch. She seemed oblivious to my presence.
“We’re going to have to call an ambulance,” I urged. “I really think he’s taken those pills.”
“No, no,” replied my mother. “He’s thrown them in the garden – he wouldn’t do anything so stupid!”
I tried again to convince her that action was what was called for but she stubbornly resisted all my efforts. She seemed entirely incapable of grasping what was happening, it had suddenly all become too much for her. She wasn’t just out there in the darkness searching for the pills that her husband was supposed to have thrown there, she was searching for everything she had lost in the last decade: her happiness, her youth, her pride. She was searching for her husband’s missing voice.
I left her outside and rummaged through her handbag for her purse. I took some loose change and ran down the street and found the nearest phone box (it had, of course, been many years since the family could afford such a luxury) and I called 999. I told the voice that answered that my father had taken an overdose of sleeping pills and gave details of where he could be found. They said that someone would be there within fifteen minutes. I slammed the receiver down quickly and made my way back. When I returned home I found my mother still on her knees in the garden and my father still lying on the sofa like a sleeping whale. Even though my young mind was charged with fear and confusion, the irony of the situation could not escape me. I knew that fate had just forced me to make a choice: the difference between my father dying and his continuing to make my life a misery had been decided by a one-minute phone call. A single ten pence piece had been all that separated life and death. I also knew that had I the time or opportunity to consider at length how I should have reacted to such a situation it is highly likely that I would have acted differently. It would have been a simple matter to sit and do nothing and let my mother take charge of the matter.
Before the ambulance arrived I was left alone in the living room with my father. Just me and him. Him grunting and wheezing and dreaming whatever dreams went on inside his big fat head. Me looking at him, examining his great overblown body; its ugliness, its lack of shape, trying to remember what the person beneath these acres of rolling flesh looked like. Then I did two things that even today I can’t really explain. First I found myself holding that head of his in my arms, tenderly running my fingers through his greasy hair; telling his lifeless form that I loved him, tears running in torrents down my face. At one point he almost regained consciousness and for a moment our eyes met and he seemed to remember who I was. Then I suddenly found myself losing control; and even though I was physically incapable of doing much damage I found myself slapping and punching his corpulent features with all my might, yelling at him, swearing at him, telling him how much I hated him, how much I despised him with every fibre of my being. This was the scene that several burly ambulancemen arrived at the house to find: my mother on all fours with her torch in the back garden, looking for something that was not there. Me in the living room, standing over the enormous inert body of my father, punching and kicking him like a madman,
It took seven men to lift my father. When the ambulancemen realised that they were facing an impossible task, reinforcements had to be called. As he was too large to fit on to a stretcher, my father was carried manually into an ambulance: three men taking his legs and lower torso, four struggling with the upper and middle body. They carted him off to hospital and pumped his stomach. Inside, they found plenty of evidence of his self-abuse. In that gargantuan gut of his were enough crisps and chips and pies and saveloys to feed a small Third World country; likewise, the amount of alcohol that his blood contained would have been fatal to a person of lesser stature. Also present were precisely 33 triazolam tablets.
When Frank Marshall finally awoke some time the following afternoon he was not a happy man. Amazingly, his recollections of what had occurred the night before were crystal clear. Although he had appeared to be out to the world, it seems that he was actually conscious the whole time. He had seen me cradle his head in my arms and he remembered me hitting him. When my mother and I appeared at his bedside he looked at me with an expression of immeasurable anger. As always, he said little but I knew that I would be in for trouble when they let him out of his bed. Before that could happen, however, there were questions to be answered. First on the scene were the police, who wanted to know exactly what had been going through his mind the night before. Had it been my father’s intention to take his life? They asked. And why had my mother left it to their eleven-year-old son to call for help?
My father answered their queries in a dull monotone. No, he hadn’t meant to take his life – he had just drunk a little too much and lost control. No, he didn’t know why his wife had left it to their eleven-year-old son to call for help – perhaps you’d better ask her. He was then given a full medical examination and told that before any discharge would be permitted it was compulsory that the hospital psychiatrist pay him a visit. The medical examination revealed a dangerously high blood sugar count, as well as a cholesterol level that had gone completely off the scale. It turned out that if his intention had been to commit suicide, my father need not have bothered taking any sleeping pills to effect this task, his lifestyle was already doing the job for him all too efficiently, thank you very much. He was more than 16-stones overweight and literally eating himself into the grave. The doctor gave him less than five years if he didn’t mend his ways.
It was the hospital shrink who turned things around: he was the person responsible for the miracle that I spoke of earlier. It started much the same way that it had all those years ago when a slim-line Frank Marshall had first lowered himself on to Dr. Cohn’s Harley Street leather couch: the shrink asking questions, my father not interested but forcing himself to respond so that he might be allowed to return home to the sanctity of the sofa. “Why do you eat so much, Frank?” had been the doctor’s first question. “It doesn’t look to me like you do it for enjoyment. There must be a reason.”
The shrink’s name was Raymond Bennett. Remember that name should you ever find yourself facing dietary problems of a similar nature to the one that turned my father from heartthrob into Sumo wrestler. I believe that he’s still practising, somewhere off of New Bond Street, if my memory serves me right. That afternoon, Bennett listened as my father went into auto-pilot and reluctantly told him The Story. I was a singer… I was going places… I’d just signed a record deal… The girls loved me… You know the sort of thing. If you were hearing it for the first time, Frank Marshall’s sorry tale certainly made interesting listening.
Perhaps it was because Dr. Bennett was only a few years older than my father and had made it his business to keep a watchful eye on modern developments in psychoanalysis that made him reach the conclusion that he did. Or perhaps it was the fact that he practised his trade in a hospital, which gave him the chance to exchange opinions with other members of the medical profession. Whatever the reason, Dr. Bennett did not immediately leap to the same conclusion that Dr. Cohn had all those years ago. Yes, my father’s bit on the side probably hadn’t helped matters when his voice had originally bid au revoir, opined Dr. Bennett. Yes, Dr. Cohn might very well have been correct in his diagnosis: it could indeed have been the unearthing of his secret lover that had caused all the problems. Dr. Bennett, however, was a man who preferred the obvious to the exotic; prior to enlisting the aid of Messrs Freud and Jung, he was more inclined to follow his nose. Had it ever occurred to my father that the loss of his voice could have been caused by nothing more complicated than a simple allergy?
Although, my father’s response to this suggestion is not recorded it is fairly easy to make an educated guess as to what he might have said. Of course it had, he doubtless would have replied; in fact, he had lost count of the number of allergy tests he had taken in the intervening years, some of them here in this very hospital; better men than Raymond Bennett had put that theory to the test on numerous fruitless occasions. Fortunately for my father, Dr. Bennett was not a person to be easily deterred; once he had a bee in his bonnet it was in his nature to pursue it to the ninth degree. Dr. Bennett asked his patient when was the last time he had taken an allergy test. Four… Five years ago, my father had replied. Don’t you know that things have moved on considerably since then, revealed the doctor. Hadn’t he ever heard of such a thing as a RAST test?
Until the late sixties the only available means of determining if a patient was suffering an allergic reaction had been the so-called scratch test. This painful procedure involved gathering samples of suspected allergens and pricking the patient’s skin on the forearm, upper arm or back with a pin that contained a minute portion of the sample. It was rather like the test that witchhunters had once given to helpless old ladies to prove that they were in league with the devil. If the area reddened or became swollen within 20 minutes this usually meant that the doctors had found what they were looking for. At the outset of his problem, Frank Marshall had been subjected to this form of medieval torture more times than he cared to remember. They had checked his reaction to all manner of foodstuffs, drinks, pollen, dust, fabrics… you name it and they had tested him for it yet everything had come up negative. In 1969, however, scientists in America had come up with a far more efficient means of hunting out these annoying allergens. The radioallergosorbent, or RAST test, worked by testing blood samples in the laboratory for specific amounts of IgE antibodies, which are present if there is an allergic reaction to a substance. The procedure, Dr. Bennett explained, would only take a couple of weeks to complete.
At first my father was not interested. As far as he was concerned his voice had buggered off for good; no amount of picking and poking would ever convince it to return. He’d been through all this before and there was no point in doing it again. He just wanted to go home, back to his sofa, back to his beer cans, back to his bread and dripping. But Dr. Bennett was not to be deterred. What’s to lose other than a few millilitres of blood? he urged. Surely, it won’t do any harm for a fresh eye to take another look? Dr. Bennett was stubborn. He refused to let it go. Eventually, my father’s resolve crumbled and he agreed to take the test.
Two days after his attempted suicide, they let my father out. Needless to say, I had not been looking forward to this and instead of offering his enormous bulk a greeting as it made its way to its preferred location, I cowered upstairs in terror, waiting for the pounding of those footsteps on the stairs. I did not have long to wait. The very moment that my mother was out of the house I heard that distinctive sound and readied myself for another of Frank Marshall’s lessons.
It goes without saying that, I got a hiding. However, it was nowhere near the beating that I took on the afternoon of the howling. This one consisted of only a half a dozen slaps and a few kicks and was over in less than a minute. My father didn’t even seem angry as he was doing it. There was an absent-minded quality to the whole proceedings, a pre-occupied air, as if his heart wasn’t really in it. It was like he was going through the motions, hitting me through sheer force of habit, hitting me for a reason he had long since forgotten about. When it was over I didn’t even cry