Saturday morning: 9.54 a.m.: This time Marie is in charge of things: she’s had all Thursday and Friday to prepare for it and she’s leaving nothing to chance. On Marie’s instructions I call my mother and tell her that we’re coming to visit today. I ask her if she’s sure that my father isn’t going to order me out of the house again and she tells me yes, she’s sure he won’t. She asks me what time I’ll be arriving and what I’d like for my tea, and I tell her probably early evening and not to bother because we’ll get something to eat on the way. Then she asks me how long I think I’ll be staying for and I say I don’t know, the week-end probably. Then she tells me how much she’s looking forward to seeing me properly this time and I say yes so am I, although I am not. All very civilised.
Marie and I eat breakfast and then I go and check over the contents of the bag that she packed for me yesterday. Inside are neatly folded shirts and trousers, socks rolled up into balls, a brand new toothbrush still in its wrapper, a suit protected by a plastic zip-up, some shaving foam, even a couple of ties.
While Marie locks up the house I take the bags out to the car. It is then that I realise to my horror that I have forgotten to clear away the remnants of Ralph. As soon as I open the car door I am hit by his smell; and when I look into the back seat I can see a small forest of discarded dog hair. I think for a moment and then go back inside and tell Marie that it’s probably best if we went in her car; I’d forgotten to mention that my car had started playing up on the way back from my father’s: it sounded like a gear box problem and I wouldn’t want to tempt providence by risking another long drive. She seems convinced enough by this display of fancy footwork.
It is while we are putting our coats on to leave on that a further problem emerges: I discover with some alarm that the mobile phone I am supposed to have lost in Marie’s absence is still inside one of the pockets. I get a chance to remedy this oversight a couple of hours later when we stop at a service station for a coffee: while Marie visits the ladies I quietly drop the incriminating evidence into a waste bin, carefully burying it among the abandoned burger wrappers and plastic cups.
Marie drives: it is a sort of unwritten law that only she is allowed to drive her father’s car. She drives a little slower than I do; we listen to Jazz Fm and I smoke cigarettes. It feels a little like a trip to the dentist; I am too nervous to talk very much and Marie is wise enough to leave me to my own devices, to let me make whatever preparations I need to make for what is about to happen.
Noel and Liam Gallagher… John Lennon… Mike Tyson… Jesus of Nazareth… in terms of people who ended up not seeing a great deal of their father, I’m certainly in good company. And what happened to these people? The Gallagher brothers went in the papers threatening to beat up their estranged father if he ever came near them; Lennon ended up doing Arthur Janov’s primal scream therapy in an attempt to try and exorcise his childhood demons; Tyson simply blanked the father who appeared out of nowhere at the height of his son’s fame; and Jesus of Nazareth? …well we all know what happened to him… This is what I’m thinking as the countryside flashes by.
What makes a son hate his father, and what makes a father hate his son? Actually, I’m probably ill-qualified to answer this question, because if you shone a torch into my face and applied the thumb screws I’d probably be forced to admit that whatever my feelings are or have been towards my father, hate has never particularly been one of them. Intense dislike, sure… the occasional urge to commit patricide, maybe… but never really hate in the same way that I hate semolina… or used to hate Margaret Thatcher when I was younger… or Garry Bushell… or Jeffrey Archer… or the Australian cricket team sometimes.
It isn’t really worth providing details of the journey: It’s fair to say that both of us have already been down that road before. All I know is that my mind is a lot clearer: I don’t have Carol and the does-she-doesn’t-she-will-I-won’t-I-scenario to worry about; there is no Ralph sitting in the back of the car; and I’m not pressed into the driver’s seat wondering who’s been leaving messages on my answering machine at home. As far as I’m concerned the whole world could be calling and it wouldn’t make the slightest iota of difference to the way I’m feeling right now.
We drive at a leisurely fifty-five and hit Exeter by around two o’clock. I sit in the passenger seat chewing on boiled sweets, almost into my second packet of cigarettes. I think about my father’s voice on the phone the other day: how weak and frail he sounded. I think about Carol: what an idiot I’ve been, how could I possibly have imagined that a girl like her could have been attracted to a fat old loser like me? I think about Louise in the pub last night: the tears running down her poor shattered features. I think about Marie: relieved that I’ve not lost her, that I’ve managed to salvage something from the wreckage of my behaviour over the past fortnight. And I think about my job: about how unfair the whole situation is, about how cruel people can be; and yet somehow I’m happy, I’m pleased to have found an escape route from a life that was killing me with an unremitting precision every bit as efficient as the cancer that is destroying my father. Then, at about two-forty-five, I see a red brick tower emerge on the horizon, and we’re driving into the centre of Starcross.
The sun is shining at last and there are more people about than before. The little grocery shop-cum-post office is now open and someone is inside talking to the shop-keeper. The tide is out and I can see several men wearing bobble hats scampering about in the sand looking for cockles, something which I myself used to do to pep up my pocket money when I was a child. We pass the Anchor pub and I instruct Marie to turn right, then we’re parking outside my parents’ house.
Before Marie even has time to pull on the handbrake I see the front door open and my little old lady mother is loping towards us. She comes out into the street and looks into the car, smiling. Marie waves hello to her and I open my door and climb out on to the pavement. Then, before I can do anything about it, my mother reaches out and has her arms wrapped around me, hugging me like she used to. She says: “Thanks for coming, love.”
Marie closes her door and stands across from us, watching this mother and child reunion. She is smiling, too. Then I pull myself awkwardly away and announce: “Mother… this is Marie…”
My mother stands up as straight as her little old lady body will allow and says softly: “John… please… don’t call me ‘mother’…”
Marie cuts in before I can respond: “Hello Susan… it’s nice to meet you at last…” she says warmly.
Then my mother walks over to Marie and gives her a hug and looks over her shoulder at me and says: “Are you two married, then?”
And I tell her no we’re not, although to all intents and purposes Marie is my wife because we’ve been living together for such and such a time… And my mother shakes her head knowingly and says: “You should get married, you know.… there’s nothing like a good wedding…”
We move inside the house and perch ourselves on chairs in the living room while my mother puts the kettle on and goes upstairs to inform my father of our arrival. The living room is much as I remember it: a well worn three-piece suite, large screen television underneath the front window, flowery patterns on the carpet, cheap ornaments from Blackpool or Weston-Super-Mare or somewhere like that on an old, chipped dressing table.
Marie and I sit and stare at each other without saying anything. Now that she’s finally managed to get me here I’m not too convinced that Marie is actually enjoying herself as much as she imagined she would. She seems shocked by the house, by its lack of size, by its poverty; it’s certainly a far cry from her parents’ house in nice middle-class Barnes. Perhaps she now understands why I didn’t want her to see all this: it’s not that I’m ashamed of my past – it’s just that when it’s being splashed all over the front pages I prefer to have a little editorial control.
The tea arrives and my mother tells me that my father is not feeling too good today but if I don’t mind the state of his room I could go and see him in a few minutes if I feel up to it. While she saying this to me, Marie suddenly holds her head up and sniffs the air a little, apparently she’s picked up on the cabbage smell that I noticed on my earlier visit. My mother sees her doing this and turns to towards her and says: “It’s not pleasant, is it?”
And I frown: “What is that smell?”
And she replies: “It’s him… your dad…”
I remember reading in a auto-biography of Lauren Bacall that every time she kissed Humphrey Bogart in the months leading up to his death, she could smell his cancer. This, I imagine, is what it smells like.
I tell my mother that I’d like to drink my tea first (which, I discover, has been loaded with two sugars) and compose myself a little. We make small talk. My mother asks Marie if she works for a living and Marie tells her about her publishing career. My mother looks Marie up and down, evidently impressed. Then Marie asks her what she does for a living and my mother laughs and tells her not to be so silly, that’s she’s too old to be working these days. And I interject and tell Marie that my mother used to be a hair-dresser, which I thought she already knew.
I finish my tea and look nervously at my watch, not registering what time it is. Then I stretch my arms and yawn and tell my mother that I’m ready.