Man hands on.
On a dull spring morning, he was driving to the supermarket. His youngest son was in the backseat. His son often accompanied him to the supermarket, as it meant he could charge around the aisles with one of the miniature shopping trolleys. A weekly habit his little boy had grown accustomed to. They were a few minutes into the journey when his son asked him, apropos of nothing, if he was a builder. The question hung in the air for a moment, before he replied, laughing, No, I’m not a builder, and returned his attention to the road. His son appeared to consider this for a moment, before continuing, You are a builder, you built our house. I’m sorry to say, he replied, that I’m really not a builder. His question answered, his son resumed staring out of the window. He wondered what had prompted the question. The boy had a very limited understanding of what building was, what being a builder meant. He knew his grandfather was one, and his great-grandfather too, which meant his father might also be one. Perhaps it was important to him to know, to establish the lineage, the line of inheritance, in much the same way a child is surprised to find they share a name with a long-departed relative.
A building had drawn them to Scotland. Specifically, a Victorian-era villa in a state of severe disrepair, in the same family for almost a century.. He and his wife were looking for a way out of London, and they had found it in this large stone dwelling, twice the size of their own home, and half the price. That it required extensive renovation was part of the appeal. They had swiftly fallen for its dilapidated charms, believing that it gave them cause to leave the capital, to abandon their rapidly gentrifying postcode and moderately hedonistic London lifestyle in pursuit of mortgage-freedom and self-sufficiency. Ascetic behaviour and hair-shirted restraint.
After quickly selling their modest semi in the furthermost south-eastern enclave of London, a house they had over-stretched themselves to acquire, they boxed up their possessions and headed north, driving the length of the country in a little under three days, and taking receipt of the keys to their new home the week before Christmas. with dust-encrusted pantries, cracked stonework and corroded cast iron drainpipe, it was clear that the house was in far worse shape than they imagined. It was a wreck, a near-ruin which had been empty and partly open to the elements for the two years since its previous owner passed away. They had viewed the house the previous summer, but now in the depths of winter, in the short dark days of northeast Scotland, the reality of the work required to rehabilitate their future home finally dawned upon them. He had seen the Tom Hanks and Shelly Long comedy The Money Pit. He knew what lay in wait.
He had worked on the renovation, incrementally, solidly, for almost a year, cracking his fingers and scraped his knuckles and bruising his knees. He breathed in so much dust and lime that he got a chest infection that flared up again once the air went moist and the nights drew in. In those early weeks, those halcyon days of uncurbed enthusiasm, each day was spent deconstructing, peeling back another layer of the house to expose its fissures and possible pressure points, the places where unanticipated, unmitigable disaster might be lying in wait. They filled two skips with plaster rubble alone. Every stick or lump of reusable material was conserved. Once the interior had been stripped out, and the exterior made water-tight and weather-proof, there was little of long-term concern. The house was structurally sound and free of dry-rot, and what little damage had been done through decades of neglect, neglect purely for the want of money, was easily remedied. They then set about reconstructing the house from the inside out.
In the first week their youngest son came with them to the house, watched them dismantling its interior piecemeal, and attempted to help with a tiny hammer. When the electrician came to price up the job, he followed him around with a small notepad and pencil, even though he could neither read nor write, and had no idea what the electrician was doing. By the end of the week it was clear that the work was far too messy for their son, and he was left in the care of his maternal grandmother, with whom they were living while the house was renovated, only witnessing his father’s endeavours through the narrative of his return, covered from head to toe in dust, as though each day he had walked through a fresh plume of ash from a hitherto dormant volcano. From time to time, he and his elder brother came to the house to see what little progress had been made, asking inevitable questions about when they would be able to move in, Later, when they moved into the house, with one room as a make-shift living room and kitchen consisting of a microwave, and the entire ground floor largely out of bounds to them, such was the jumble of discarded materials and protruding nails, the fine layer of plaster dust that crept into every corner and even up the carpet into their bedroom.
Each morning his sons watched him rise for his breakfast and then immediately set to work on the next task needed to push the house a little further on, move it closer to completion. Even though he had done all that, it still didn’t make him a builder. He was only playing at being one. Being a builder was something else entirely. He could understand the confusion. For his part, he was disappointed that he hadn’t been able to give his son the answer he wanted, to be able to say definitively that he was a builder. Yes, I am. Yes. And one day you might be one too. For, in essence, a father was a builder. Someone who brought security and warmth to the lives of his children by providing the emotional and physical protection their needed, in the form of money or bricks and mortar. And there was something in the method of his son’s enquiries which moved him. They moved him so much, and in a certain way, that for a moment he was overcome by emotion, and had to quickly wipe away his tears so that he could see the road ahead.
A memory came to him then of being his son’s age. It was one of those memories that is usually obscured but from time to time returns unbidden, always bringing pleasure with it. He is sitting beside his father in the cab of an old Transit van. It is a midsummer’s day, dry and warm. Perhaps his brother is with them, but he’s unsure, he can’t picture or place him. It seems to be just the two of them. His father is at the wheel, driving with the driver-side door drawn back, the black tarmac rushing past a few inches away. He likes the door being open. There is something carefree and reckless about it. Sometime slightly rebellious. Something typical of his father.
Air blusters in through the opening and riffles the fabric of their t-shirts. Occasionally an inquisitive fly flits into the cab, while others splatter like gory raindrops against the windscreen. In the back of the van is something destined for the tip. Garden waste, most likely. A bundle of barbed hawthorns, pruned shrubs and disinterred roots. For his five-year-old self, it is a great adventure. He still remembers the thrill of excitement trilling through his small body. He has been desperate to go to the tip, a place of myth and mystery that only adults are permitted to visit, for some time. He is still not sure what he will find there.
The van is heavy and unwieldy, with grumbling engine and reluctant brakes. Juddering velocity. Jutting up from the floor of the cab is a slender gear stick with a small, round knob, which vibrates violently whenever the van idles at a junction. His father reaches down to change gear with a broad and tanned hand, etched with fair hair, a hand perhaps more familiar with the rub of tools and machinery than the shape of his son’s head. The palms of his father’s hands are calloused below the fingers from swinging sledgehammers and pushing shovels. In places, his father’s fingertips are cracked, and his nails bitten almost to the quick. He has decided that he will one day have hands like his father’s.
The interior of the cab is stuffed with till receipts and loose screws and old tabloids and oily rags and empty fag packets. A skip on wheels. It has a strange odour which he will later trace to the combination of grease and dust and smoke and sweat. The smell of men at work, of straining and lifting and hammering and sawing, of knocking down and raising up and putting right. The smell his father brings home with him every evening he walks in the door, in time for his dinner, like a burnished deity.
When he was his youngest son’s age, his parents moved their family from a house on a quiet suburban street to a new house in an unfamiliar part of town. It was less than a mile from their old home, but it felt like a world away. Their new house was older, small, with less garden and located on a busy main road some distance from the town centre. Too far, and too dangerous, for his mother to continue walking them to school. The previous owner had been an elderly widow, not long deceased, and the house had an air of abandonment and protracted decay, with lace curtains studded with dead flies in the windows, carpets worn through to bare floorboards and a wild, overgrown garden, with several unruly, entangled rhododendrons. By happy coincidence, the garden backed onto the golf club where his father, and grandfather, played regularly. With the first tee just beyond the garden’s threadbare privet hedge, and the hallowed clubhouse a few yards away from his back door, it was clear his father had his eye on this house for some time.
While work started on the house, the family moved into temporary accommodation. This consisted of a touring caravan taken on loan from his maternal grandfather, parked up on the driveway of their new home. An arrangement his mother was not altogether thrilled about. They lived in that caravan for two to three months. There is very little he remembers of that time, other than vague memories of fraught dinners around the formica table, corroborated by his father’s account of returning home from work to see a saucepan, specifically a pan of carrots which had boiled dry, being thrown out of the window, at which point he reversed out of the driveway and went to the golf club. His father, a pragmatic optimist, often saw the funny side of these things. His mother, struggling to cope with the new reality, did not.
Their bijou campsite quickly became a building site, a boggy morass of demolished brickwork and excavated clay. Much of the back garden was dug up, with trenches scraped out of the ground for an extension which would double the size of the house, and a neighbouring garage. For him and his younger brother, the building site became a playground. A small excavator was left on the site for a few days, and together with his younger brother he spent hours sitting in the driver’s seat, fiddling with the levers. Later they ran along the corrugated concrete in the footings for the extension or made tracks in the building sand for their cars, which inevitably found their way into the brickies’ mortar. Scores of his father’s golf buddies came to inspect the work, peering over the hedge as the extension began to take shape, the blockwork rising from the morass like a life-sized Lego construction. Once the inside of the house was made watertight, a kitchen hurriedly installed and a bathroom plumbed, to his mother’s great relief they were finally able to move out of the caravan, which was hitched to the back of his father’s car and returned to his father-in-law, and into the confines of a house no less chaotic, and no more liveable.
Other houses followed 125 Middlewich Road. One Manor Road. The Old Coach House. Each property a little grander than the last. More ornate features. A bigger acreage. Each a bigger commitment than the last, requiring more investment, more materials, more manpower hours, more time, more chaos after they moved in. As he became older, his own involvement grew, until with the last house his parents bought, a large Victorian era coaching house, he could say definitively that he had put some fragment of himself into it, like a fingerprint pressed into wet cement. He had made his mark.
He took his sons to a building site close to his old home. It was a small site, barely large enough to accommodate the two small detached houses on the plot. Both were in modern red brick, with slim front elevation, apex porches and narrow front windows. A temporary metal fence fringed the site’s perimeter and leaning against the fence was a small sign bearing his grandfather’s name, the name of his father’s firm. Unfinished buildings like these had long been part of his life. He felt at home in their cold, darkened spaces, the exposed brickwork and rough concrete screed. The smell of sawn timber and wet plaster. Building is in the blood, his father sometimes reminded him. Building is in the blood. Home is where the heart is.
As they pulled up in his car, he embarked upon a little speech he had partly prepared, which even though he knew they couldn’t possibly understand now, he hoped they might remember in a partial way. You see these two houses, boys? These houses have been built by your grandpa. Your grandpa is a builder, remember? Well, these two houses are the last your grandpa will ever build. The last two. And the firm that has built these houses, that firm was set up by your great grandpa, my grandpa. So your grandpa, and my grandpa, have built a lot of these houses over the years. Hundreds. And these are the last two. And when these two are finished, grandpa is going to retire. Remember these two houses boys. These two houses represent the end of an era.
After almost forty years at the helm, his father was shutting up shop. He’d wanted to retire for years but kept putting it off, something he felt he couldn’t do while his own father was still alive. Then there were his employees to think of, some of whom were like sons to him, who had joined the business straight out of school and now had children the same age as them when they started their apprenticeship. Now most of his workforce had already gone, taken the redundancy pay and set up on their own. Some were leaving the trade altogether. There was one joiner left snagging and fitting out these two houses, a lad who joined the firm as an apprentice and stayed for almost thirty years. Once he was gone, the business which had survived three financial crashes and several recessions, be no more. Not for the want of work, but for the want of someone to take it on. For the want of a successor. For the lack of an heir. His father had done all he could to find one. And when push came to shove, the fault for this lay not at his father’s door, but his.
In 1953, almost a decade after the end of the Second World War and a few years before Harold Macmillan’s never had it so good speech, his late grandfather set up his building firm with little more than a wheelbarrow and a bag of lime. It was a story he often liked to recount in his later years, irrespective of whether the audience was unfamiliar or well-versed in the mythology. The humble beginnings were of critical importance to the story, and the humble beginnings were without question. Born between the wars to a publican and his wife, his grandfather was the youngest of nine children. Eight boys, and one girl. All eleven family members squeezed into the rooms above a coaching tavern on the outskirts of a Cheshire market town. Spit-and-sawdust territory. It was a lively environment, and being the youngest, his grandfather was a sort of forgotten child, closest to his only sister. The biographical details of his elder brothers, and the extended family they sired in Cheshire, the Potteries and beyond, remain a mystery.
Upon leaving school he became an apprentice bricklayer, narrowly avoiding conscription in the dying days of the war and later fulfilling his national service as an air cadet. Once demobbed he returned to the building trade and established his building firm a few years later. His grandfather’s life story, and that of his father, begins with his courtship of his wife-to-be, a local farmer’s daughter. They were married in the early 1950s, and his father was born, the first of two boys, part-way through the decade. Macmillan’s benevolent observation aptly summarised their lives. They moved to a large house in a small village just outside their home town, to the back of which was a large plot, known colloquially as the yard, which became the focus of his business operations. In addition to his office, there was a carpenter’s workshop, which he remembers his grandfather leading him into as a boy, and proudly showing him off to two of the men working in there.
A successful local businessman, his grandfather was an active part of his local community, with a large circle of affluent friends, highly regarded by those he met through the Rotary Club, Probus, the Golf Club, or his local Methodist chapel. His grandfather taught himself to play the piano in his family pub, revelling in both the applause and the free drinks. Over time he became a skilled pianist, though one unable to read music prevented him from finding employment in the entertainment industry. In later years he could still be called upon to play the piano or Hammond organ for the pleasure of family and friends. One Christmas, sometime after his grandfather had retired, he happened to accompany his mother to the local bank, where she had gone to pay in a handful of cheques for his father. As they approached the foyer, he could hear someone jauntily playing Christmas carols on a portable keyboard, and when he walked in, he saw it was his grandfather, working up and down the keys with his nimble fingers. Perched at the end of the keyboard, a bowl of Quality Street confectionery, which he insisted his grandson dip his hand into. There was something wonderfully incongruous and sweetly serendipitous about it, as if it had been orchestrated by his grandfather solely for his benefit.
By the age of sixteen his father was desperate to leave school. He intended to take a course in bricklaying at the local college, with a view to entering the trade, though whether he would be entering the family firm was not altogether clear. With his grandfather, he attended an open day at the college. Discussing courses with the enrolment officer, his grandfather interjected and informed the enrolment officer that his son didn’t want to be a bricklayer, he wanted to be a quantity surveyor. The enrolment officer explained that the quantity surveying course it required A-levels, which his father didn’t have. It would be possible to take the course, but his father would need to pass his A-levels first, in order to complete the QS course. For his father, this would double his expected workload, an unfortunate eventuality for a teenager who had left school specifically to dodge A-levels. His grandfather didn’t seem to think that it would be a problem, and his father was enrolled on the course. A few weeks later, his father met one of his former English teachers in a local shop. His father was no lover of literature, and he and the English teacher hadn’t got on particularly well. When his father explained to the teacher that he was attempting to pass three A-levels in less than a year, the teacher said, But you’re not A-level material, before turning on his heel and walking out. By the end of the year, his father had his two A-levels. When his father passed the exams for his QS qualification, he was the youngest in the country to do so.
By the end of the Seventies, his grandfather had successfully expanded his building firm to a medium-sized business with a fleet of vans and a payroll running the gamut from brickies, roofers and joiners, to plumbers, plasterers and labourers. He was by now under a lot of pressure. Each morning his grandfather lined up his employees, young apprentices and old lags, for their daily bollocking, before dispatching them to site with a flea in each ear. If anything, the firm had become too successful, and had grown beyond his capability, or the capability of anyone, to manage it single-handedly. He was having anxiety attacks and heart palpitations. After his GP advised him to take a nip of whisky whenever he felt an attack coming on, there followed a number of incidents where his father or uncle had to pick up his grandfather from some layby or other, after he’d experienced a panic attack while driving and had one nip too many. It was a difficult time. The business was doing well but his grandfather appeared to be driving himself into an early grave. His father had swerved joining the firm and found work with another firm, his first job after college. His grandmother, terrified of the effect the business was having on her husband’s health, asked his father to help ease some of the pressure. If he didn’t, she warned her eldest son, the business would kill him.
When he was eight years old, his younger brother brought chicken pox home from school. Both he and his brother were kept off school for a fortnight, and being highly contagious, they rarely left the house. Coming in the weeks following Christmas, he viewed having chicken pox as a pleasing extension to the festive break, save for the agony of the persistent itchiness, which preventing him sleeping at night and made him irritable during the day. His brother, not known for his tolerance of discomfort, seemed to fare worse, than he did, and he came to loathe the sickly smell of chamomile lotion, the milky solution his brother wallowed in at bath time.
Sometime during that fortnight, he and his brother were left in the care of their father. Their mother had some unspecified appointment, possibly a hairdressing job for an elderly customer where the presence of two pox-ridden children would have been inconvenient. Not that this wasn’t of considerable inconvenience to their father, who had several appointments of his own to keep that day, which precluded nursemaiding his sickly progeny. It appeared he had lost the argument over this matter, as he and his brother were dabbed with chamomile, wrapped up in multiple layers of clothing, and bundled into the back of their father’s crimson Saab 900. His brother was inconsolable.
The January weather was particularly miserable that week. Just a couple of days before he had sat in their best living room doing his homework in front of the fire, with the crisp light of the new year warming the room. Now heavy rain lashed the windscreen of his father’s car like a plague of wet flies, which the Saab’s oscillating wipers swatted at furiously. Apart from instructing his brother to keep the noise down, their father drove in near silence. Eventually they pulled up at a red-brick building, a half-finished house without windows and doors. Their father explained that he had to go into the building for a little while but would be back as soon as possible. He left the key in the ignition and the heaters and cassette player on.
In the car they had been listening to Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms. The one with a metal guitar hovering in the air. It was one of their father’s favourite records and had become his and his brother’s too. It was fair to say his father favoured a certain type of music. Guitar-driven, bombastic rock, often with a gruff vocalist. Dire Straits. Chris Rea. Simple Minds. U2. Music by men, mostly for men. Almost all his early encounters with music had taken place in his father’s car. He was fascinated with the music cassettes with their silken tape and the spools with their little teeth. That these produced the music he was listening to boggled his little mind.
Dire Straits were a band formed by two Geordie brothers of Celtic heritage, Mark and David Knopfler, whose relationship fell apart almost as soon as they found success, and whose fractured fraternity remained unreconciled at the time of the recording of Brothers in Arms. When he came to listen to the album again much later, this sundering animosity underscored the album’s tone of lachrymosity. The world-weary ‘So Far Away From Me’, the noodling intro of ‘Money for Nothing’, with its falsetto refrain and noodling synths surrendering to the track’s staccato drum solo and a crescendo of power chords, the chirpy keyboard line and jubilant woo hoos of ‘Walk of Life’, the upbeat anomaly among the album’s pervasive doom and gloom, the curling, seductive saxophone of ‘Your Latest Trick’, the gently persuasive melodies of ‘Why Worry’, the faux-militarism of Ride Across the River and ‘The Man’s Too Strong’, rolling thunder of the title track, Mark Knopfler’s grass-soft vocals, and the war-torn melancholy.
Now the sun's gone to hell and
The moon's riding high
Let me bid you farewell
Every man has to die
But it's written in the starlight
And every line in your palm
We are fools to make war
On our brothers in arms
With nothing else to do while they waited for their father, he opened the case and removed the sky-blue insert to read the song lyrics. These had been printed in pink, which against the sky-blue made them barely legible. Some of the words didn’t make any sense to him. There were big words like antidote and , and others, like faggot, which he didn’t really understand but took to be like a swear-word. The lyrics offered him a glimpse of a kind of poetry. They weren’t poetry, but they aspired to be. The album sold in the tens of millions, but few who bought Brothers in Arms were buying into Knopfler’s jaundiced world-view. They just wanted to that intro to ‘Money for Nothing’. They wanted their MTV.
Side One finished and Side Two began, then Side One returned, and after that Side Two again. His father remained in the building. His younger brother was still sobbing, curled into a ball on the backseat, crying for their mother. That is what he remembers most clearly of that morning. The cold rain, the fogged windscreen, his brother on the backseat and the spools of the cassette ushering in the next track, as he stared at the half-finished house and willed his father to emerge.
FUCK FUCK FUCK OFF YOU FUCKING SHIT FUCKING CUNT
Now in his teens, he is at home, playing computer games in his room on the Amiga 500 he shares with his brother. It must be the holidays, or perhaps he is on study leave, for it is the middle of the day and he has the entire house to himself. Both parents are out, and his little brother is elsewhere, either at a friend’s house or with his mother.
FUCK CUNT FUCKING FUCK
The game he is playing, Lotus Esprit Turbot Challenge, is a street racing game. Straightforward, if a little monotonous, with clunky graphics and the tinny sound redolent of an early Casio keyboard. For almost an hour he has been completely absorbed, too distracted to notice if either of his parents have unexpectedly arrived home.
OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE
no matter how hard he tries, he still cannot get past one particular level, a not especially difficult level but one that continues to frustrate him, even though his eventual victory will be ultimately pyrrhic once the game is over and the computer switched off, but his persistent inability to overcome this obstacle to self-realisation causes him to become more and more angry, with himself and with the game.
CUNT FUCKING TWAT
His gaming ineptitude in comparison with the intuitive skills of his peers, and even his brother, is profoundly infuriating, and when his Lotus is once more halted by one of the computer-operated cars in front of him, he cries out with a roar of invective as shrill as it is indignant.
NO NO NO FUCK YOU YOU STUPID FUCKING CUNT FUCK YOU FUCKING FUCK OFF
At that precise moment his father appears at his bedroom door. He is unable to gauge what sort of mood his father is in, if he is going to instruct him to turn the game off and do something else, or shout at him, but before he has chance to offer an apology for swearing, his father has crossed the threshold to his bedroom and punched him hard on the left arm.
DON’T. YOU. USE. LANGUAGE. LIKE. THAT. IN. MY. HOUSE. EVER. AGAIN.
The words are accompanied by additional blows, and he flinches in anticipation of a slap around the head, feeling it almost inevitable, but it doesn’t come. Instead, his father leaves his room, walks back along the landing and down the stairs, out of the front door, gets into his car and returns to work.
His father wasn’t a violent man. He never abusive, nor an alcoholic, nor a drug addict. His family didn’t live in a climate of fear. On the occasions that his father lost his temper, it rarely manifested itself as destructive rage, and never as physical danger. Excluding being smacked once or twice as a child, it was the only time his father took a hand to him, and given his behaviour, perhaps it was understandable. That didn’t make it any less shocking. It might have been that there was something else going on that he didn’t know about, something cumulative about his behaviour that had caused his father to snap, or simply something frustrating which had happened at work that morning. For his father, work always came home, whether it was materials being stored in the garage or one of his men turning up in one of the company vans or customers calling in the evening or his father rising early at the weekend to prepare an estimate while the rest of the family slept. That they moved home every four or five years to properties in need of extensive renovation didn’t help. But when his mother stopped her hairdressing business to help his father with the firm’s administration, the family home came to feel like an annex of the office, one in which he and his brother frequently got in the way. It inhabited the space of their home, altered the shape of the things within it. Everything held an intrinsic value, everything came at a cost. Once he and his brother were told off for wearing jeans on the sofa, as the upholstery couldn’t cope with the rugged denim. Another time, they broke the base of a different sofa by practising dropkicks while watching Wrestlemania. Everything came at a cost. Especially children.
Something had happened when his father came into the business. Something that remained unspoken. His mother referred to it, cryptically, as causing bad blood and almost splitting the family, though she was, on occasion, partial to over-exaggeration. Whatever it was, it left of trace of a fracture in their relationship that was never wholly settled, even at the time of his grandfather’s death. Certainly there was frustration and resentment on the part of his father, a sense that he had been compelled into a course of action against his will, a decision which cost him financially, tied him to the business for the rest of his working life, and set him on a course that he had tried to resist. That it made him a wealthy man was irrelevant. His working life had been one of stress and struggle, of strained family life and the pressure of his inheritance, the urgent need to keep the firm profitable and his employees in work. Spotting opportunities. Raising capital. Buying land. Reinvesting. Visiting clients and preparing estimates. Earning a living. A phrase that frequently cropped up around the family home when he was growing up. Earning a living. As though life itself had a monetary value attached to it. When he was ten years old his father was hospitalised with pneumonia, the doctor’s diagnosis was that he was working too hard. He was advised to take it easy. It took him almost a month to recover, and he never regained the good health of his youth. The façade of his invincibility was irrevocably damaged.
There must always be a struggle between a father and son, while one aims at power and the other at independence. It was Samuel Johnson who identified, with typical incisiveness, the schism between fathers and sons. Difficult, distant or disciplinarian fathers. Errant, feckless or infuriating children. As was customary, he scoured literature for rough approximations of the strained relationships within his own family. Daedalus watching his son tumble into the Mediterranean. God hanging his son out to dry. Lear calling for his daughters’ compliments. Polonius, the eloquent windbag. Claudius, the smiling, damned villain. Pap Finn driving his son Huck into the wilderness. Mr Mortmain in his dilapidated castle, selling off his furniture to buy food. Captain Jack Boyle unable to work due to the pain in his legs, and another Jack, Torrance, stalking his young son with a mallet through the corridors of the Overlook Hotel (in Stanley Kubrick’s film it became an axe). Lascivious fathers, like Humbert Humbert infatuated with Lolita, and Michael with Amber, not his daughter but no less inappropriate. AN Dyer trying to escape mortality by cloning himself. Old Nick stepping into the room. Failed fathers. Failed men doing what they do best. Behaving badly.
Troubled childhoods blighted the biographies of many writers he admired, pushing into the position of outsider within their own family, detached observers of their own pain. Henry Bukowski beat his son every day with a razor strop. Sydney Larkin collected Nazi memorabilia. Tony Harrison’s working-class father struggled to come to terms with his son’s scholarly proclivities. Frederick Cheever turned to drink when the New England textile industry went into decline. Samuel Auster was a reluctant grandfather. Kingsley Amis dispensed with his copy of Money when his son Martin appeared in the narrative. Sir John Mortimer followed his father into the legal profession, fearful that his writerly ambitions would be pooh-poohed by his formidable patriarch. With his mother and maternal grandmother, he saw a West End revival of Mortimer’s A Voyage Around My Father, which detailed the writer’s fraught, yet ultimately respectful relationship with his late father. Towards the close, after Mortimer’s father had passed away following a stroke, the young Mortimer observed, You walk into the sun and no-one is taller than you, and you are in no-one else's shadow. But I know how I felt. Lonely.
For every difficult, distant or overbearing patriarch there was an equivalent mild-mannered, benevolent or nurturing paterfamilias there to rebalance the cosmic order. King Priam. Atticus Finch. Pop Larkin. Mr Bennett. Bob Cratchit. The elder Bazarov tolerating his son’s interruptions. Thomas Schell placing a final call from the World Trade Centre. One Christmas he had watched the TV film of Roald Dahl’s book Danny, the Champion of the World, one of the few he had failed to read, perhaps on account of its lack of overtly grotesque characters. Danny lives with his widower father William in a gypsy caravan in a small village, where his father ekes out their hand-to-mouth existence by working at a filling station and garage. After a wealthy landowner tries to force them off their land, William plots to poach the landowner’s prize game pheasants using poaching techniques he learned from his own father. In the film, as in Dahl’s book, William is a valorised as a caring, gentle father, and it was notable for being the first time he had ever seen a father tell his son he loved him, on television or in real life. Danny’s father William was played by Jeremy Irons, with the role of Danny played by his own son, Samuel. It was several years before he realised that there was an interesting duality at work in the film, an acting dynasty being forged in much the same way Peter Bogdanovic’s comedy-drama Paper Moon catapulted Tatum O’Neal, cast opposite her father Ryan, to superstardom, winning her an Oscar and ruining her life in the process.
Dynasties and empires. Emperors and heirs. The pressure of inheritance.
Much of early life had been spent on some building site or other, either his own home or some agricultural ruin, or a newly-minted dwelling, sometimes the back of someone’s garden, out in all weather, sun burning his shoulders or rain water dripping off his nose, developing callouses and biceps of equivalent size, back aching from the constant bending and lifting. Digging foundations, pushing around wheelbarrows loaded with earth and cement, dressing bricks by the pallet-load, unblocking sewage pipes, smashing apart interior walls, collapsing ceilings, installing land drains, battening insulation, laying York stone paving, breaking rubble into hardcore, tiling, underpinning, painting and decorating, endlessly sweeping sawdust and dirt. What some of his friends viewed as dead-end jobs for school-leavers, he saw as rewarding work which exercised both mind and body, requiring physical strength and a bit of nous. In the building trade, nous was always valued over intellect or scholarly impulses.
He first began working for his father in the summer following his GSCE examinations, a few weeks after his sixteenth birthday. In a sense he had already been working for his father for several years, undertaking household chores for his weekly allowance, but now he was formally stepping into the world of work via a heavily masculinised environment of graft and sweat, cracked fingernails and sunburned backs, tea and tobacco-stained teeth, filthy clothes and filthier language. He had first overheard his father swearing while on the golf course, but he noticed immediately that he switched gears in the company of his employees. The Men, as his mother referred to them. For there was something of the playground about some of The Men. Brought into the business as apprentices, now with wives and girlfriends and young families, still bickering and sulking and grousing and goading each other like schoolboys. Reprobate and for the most part hard-working, some were still preoccupied with the habits of adolescence. When they were acting up, they reminded him of the academically disinterested and disruptive personalities from his school. By and large they men saw further education, education of any kind, as a waste of time, and money. What you learned, and earned, on the job was enough. Being a student meant having either your head in the clouds, or your head up your arse. There was no small amount of truth in that.
With other building firms, employees came and went with the seasons, but there was some longevity in his father’s firm. For over a decade, a handful of men formed the beating heart of the business. There was Steve the plumber, his father’s cousin, twice removed, nicknamed Honky McTonkey from the time that he returned from holiday with a deep tan, he had a mischievous look to him, a glint in his eye, like there was a joke he was always in on. Two joiners, Big Simon and Little Simon, the former with a mop of straight black hair, thick set, intimidating and loud, the latter a chain-smoking miniature version of Ali Campbell from UB40. Bricklayers Belly and Nigel, chalk and cheese, one a neat and tidy worker who in a certain light resembled a young Frank Sinatra, the other a work-shy refusenik and frequently shoddy bricklayer, who in a certain light resembled a senior officer of the Third Reich. Then there were the apprentices, Rich, or Nobby as he was nicknamed by Big Simon, who joined the firm as a chubby school-leaver with a short fuse and over time became one of his father’s most trusted, hardworking employees, and Dave, the brickie, a stacked prop forward who once clobbered him over the head in school, a little slow on the uptake sometimes, but steadfast and dependable.
At any given time, his father had two labourers in his employ. Fetchers and carriers, labourers were always at the bottom off the pecking order, given the unskilled jobs like mixing cement, shovelling gravel or cleaning up after the brickies. One labourer was a curly-haired scouser who drove to work from Merseyside every morning. When this labourer worked, his sweat gave off the tell-tale sweetness of a heavy drinker, as alcohol from the previous night’s session seeped from his pores. Whenever the labourer stopped working to light a rejuvenating cigarette, which was often, his hands trembled. The other labourer lived locally with his disabled son and younger second wife in a small terrace in the centre of town. His first wife died in childbirth, and their son left with a severe disability. He was always angry. He looked like a furious heron that had been clad in grotty grey overalls. The pale skin of his hands and forearms were daubed with ancient tattoos, blue velvet splotches against his sinewy limbs, like his veins had run to blots. He was so quickly riled, about anything, that the other trades tormented him for fun. It broke up the monotony of everyone else’s day, made it go faster, although it meant having to wait until he had cooled down before he could be called upon to do anything useful. Even his father had difficulty convincing him to work.
When with the men, he tried to keep his counsel as best he could, did his work, ate his sandwiches and steered clear of the politics. He wondered that they thought of him, whether they viewed him as a worker or a shirker, or someone who would be issuing orders in a few years’ time. At that point he had little intention of going into the business. He had convinced himself he wasn’t built for it. It was a question of class, being working class or middle class. His family straddled the two. Working class roots, middle class aspirations. Even if building was in his blood, bossing others around wasn’t. Besides, he didn’t want to give any of the men the impression that he thought this was his birth-right, even if, to all intents and purposes, it was. It was his grandfather’s firm after all. A few had been with his grandfather before his retirement, and still held him in some affection. His father was a different kind of boss. He needed the men, true, but some were only there for an easy number. A cushy ride. They had to be licked into shape or kept on a tight leash. In his view, the work the men did, the bricklaying and the sawing and fitting and the welding, was as critical in keeping the business afloat as his father’s efforts in preparing estimates, keeping customers sweet and glad-handing suppliers on the golf course. Without the business there would be no men, but without the men, no business. He didn’t need to read Marx to work that one out.
One thing he quickly worked out was that he could ill-afford to slack off. Outside of the piss-taking and name-calling and general bitching, usually each other and sometimes about his father, there was a competitiveness to they way the men set about their work which had to be respectfully observed, and wilfully submitted to. One summer day, in roaring heat, he and Little Simon, Dave and labourer Ian tried to break up the concrete base of a demolished garage. They had one sledgehammer between them. For a couple of hours they took it in turns to hoick the hammer over their heads and smash it down into the concrete. While one man worked, his sweat-sodden t-shirt wrapped around him like a second skin, the others watched, smouldering fag in hand. Using a sledgehammer was much like splitting logs. Swinging the hammer over your shoulder, in a style reminiscent of a celluloid chain-gang, slowed the momentum of the head and overbalanced the user, thus decreasing the power. The legs had to be set far apart, and the head of the hammer drawn up quickly up before being pulled down hard to deliver a solid blow. Using the sledgehammer in this way required good core strength. It was, therefore, exhausting. Between them they succeeded in breaking apart a small corner of the base, revealing the mesh of a steel reinforcement. It was enough to convince his father it would be quicker, and easier, to hire a pneumatic drill.
At Christmas the men got a bonus in their pay packet and a bottle of whisky, and drinks down the pub after knocking off at midday. One Christmas Eve, he joined them in the pub. Some had already gone home, and those remaining had a distinct lack of seasonal goodwill. The apprentice brickie stomped outside for a fag, and while loitering in the entrance took exception to something a visibly underage lad said to him as he tried to get past. He watched the exchange unfold through the glass in the door, saw the brickie’s demeanour switch from drunken blankness to the kind of dulled, brute fury he’d seen in countless playground fights. Before anyone could stop him, the brickie punched the boy repeatedly in the face, knocking out his front teeth, and he fell through the open door holding his mouth. He pushed through the melee of the pub before returning with two agitated older men, his father and uncle, who stormed out of the pub door. He didn’t see the brickie again that night, but one of his friends returned to the pub with tears streaming down his face. The boy’s father and uncle had found the brickie pissing in the alley next to the pub and jumped him. Go and see him, he said to the men. He’s outside, go and see what they’ve done. He never was that smart.
In the summer after university he spent three drunken weeks with the brickie and the apprentice joiner on a fireproofing job in Swanage. Installing foam perlite fire protection was a specialist service, one very few firms were able to provide, so his father could pretty much name his price. Frequently it involved rising at 5am to travel to a site, before returning home late. Many of the bigger, more lucrative jobs involved a week away from home, but many of the men shied away from it due to the nature of the work. Perliting was a grubby, dusty and relentlessly demanding job. It paid well but it was hard graft, pure and simple. You earned every penny. One team-member worked the perlite mixer, while the other/s carried eighty litre bins filled with cement-perlite mix into the pump, which then squirted the compressed grey foam between the exposed floor joists. Both required the wearing of overalls, dust masks, rubber gloves and the obligatory hard hat, making it intolerably hot during the summer months. The mixer and pump were absurdly heavy to lift, particularly to the first floor of the various properties where the work took place. The pump couldn’t pass the materials quickly enough, so its pipe always became clogged with solidified cement. From time to time Grains of perlite hung in the air of the mixing room, and the bonding cement burnt the exposed skin of the carrier’s wrists. Come home time, there were grains of perlite lodge under his eyelids, his body ached from running bins full of the pumping mixture up flights of stairs, and he had to fight sleep in the van on the way home.
For the trip to Swanage, his father had booked a static caravan on a campsite overlooking the bay, the Dorset hills sloping down to the coast. It was a stunning location, perfect walking territory, though he knew there was little chance of being able to slip off into the countryside. They were there to work and drink, and in that first week, the three of them treated the first week like an 18-30s holiday. At times it reminded him of being in Newquay with his friends. The banter, the booze, the talent-spotting. After a long day pumping perlite, the evenings involved a lengthy pub crawl followed by a nondescript dinner he could barely remember, before staggering back to the caravan to pass out. The next morning they would call in at the café with an attractive female owner to collect their breakfast toasties, choking them down while they sat in the van and tried to drum up the enthusiasm to put on their filthy overalls once more, before sweating out their monstrous hangovers shuttling back and forth between mixer and pump. Come home time, they would be ready for another pint, or a can from the fridge. He hadn’t drunk as much since Freshers Week, and when he calculated that all his wages were going to end up gushing into the fetid urinal in some seaside nightclub, he dropped a handful of ten-pence pieces into the campsite call box and asked if he wouldn’t mind having a quiet word. It never occurred to him that he could have said it himself. Towards the end of their stay, he fell into conversation with a group of undergraduates on the next table, found himself talking about going to Glastonbury and liking certain bands. The two men, unable to participate, started to take the piss, and he chided them in their ignorance, addressed them with his father’s words, put them in their place.
For even the most caring parent, children can be a blessing and a curse. Sometimes he was simply an ungrateful little toad. After much pleading, his parents had relented and bought him and his brother the Commodore Amiga 500, the first computer his family owned, as a joint birthday present. For £399.99 it would have been possible to buy a good quality used car for the same price back then. Perhaps that was why his father insisted he and his brother had to contribute fifty pounds from their birthday money, money given to them by other relatives. This, he felt, was a little unjust. Other friends had simply been given one for their birthday. All were blessed with gracious, generous fathers who were less insistent that their children come to terms with the cost of living. Middle class aspirations, working class roots. They died hard with his father, even if he once labelled Blackpool a working man’s slum when his younger brother asked that they holiday there.
Any sting he felt at handing over the money was swiftly soothed on his birthday, when he excitedly opened the box containing the Amiga. The computer came in a Batman-branded bundle which included the new Batman movie tie-in game, F/A-18 Interceptor, which he only ever used on demo mode, and the delightful New Zealand Story, his favourite game, which he finally completed when a school friend told him about the infinite lives cheat function. For a time, he played around with pictures using Deluxe Paint 2 and wrote embryonic stories on the word processor while listening to Dire Straits, albeit stories heavily indebted to others he had read. He had in his mind the idea of writing some kind of novel involving a young protagonist holidaying with his father in a hotel which is attacked by terrorists, but he didn’t make it past the first twenty pages. Before long he was using the Amiga solely for gaming. When more his dexterous friends came to visit, they played games together, or he sat and watched them complete levels he was incapable of.
Early on Christmas morning, a year later, he was trying to play a new game, one he received as a gift from his parents. The Amiga kept crashing. Losing his temper, he smashed his fist into the keyboard, damaging the underlying circuitry. He spent the rest of the morning shedding futile tears of contrition while his parents tried to mollify his ridiculous behaviour. Unable to repair the computer, in the new year his father put in a claim on the household insurance, and the Amiga was replaced with a new enhanced model, the Amiga 500 Plus, which he and his brother soon discovered that, due to upgrades in the operating system, was incompatible with most of the games in their collection. After days of begging his father to send it back, he eventually relented, and a new Amiga 500 was acquired.
By now, the Amiga brand was unable to compete with more sophisticated gaming consoles, such as the SEGA Megadrive and the SNES, machines with better graphics and more intuitive controls. A year later, he and his brother bought a SNES, chiefly because its version of Streetfighter 2 didn’t come with eight floppy disks. After that, the Amiga was consigned to the loft, much to his father’s chagrin. Well that was a complete waste of money, his father said, either about the Amiga or the SNES, possibly both. Playing computer games was anathema to his father. He didn’t even pretend to take an interest. Some of his father’s friends did, drunkenly joining in at Sunday barbecues or on New Year’s Eve, but his father wasn’t interested. As far as he was concerned, if you were gaming, you weren’t helping around the house, or in the garden. You weren’t working.
His father had been right. Computer games were a waste of money, and a waste of time. It pained him to look back on the summer days squandered and pocket money frittered through the console in his room, which was a portal to nowhere. Losing his temper and throwing his joystick across the room every time a little sprite died. Lost hours resulting in mediocre coursework and poor exam results. All the pound coins slipped fruitlessly into various machines in arcades across the country. Dungeons and Dragons. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Time Crisis. All for the hallowed space at the top of the leader board. The promise of being number one. Of being somebody in a world where there was always a second chance. Infinite lives.
In his first summer working for his father, he was paired with an older guy called Len. Len was a casual labourer whom his father often called upon for smaller jobs that weren’t worth troubling his permanent, skilled employees with. He first encountered Len a couple of years before. He and his father had gone to revive the overgrown garden of their old family home, which had been neglected by one of his father’s tenants. Shortly after arriving at the house, they were joined by a short man with close-cropped white hair, a trim moustache and a slight stoop. This is Len, his father said, he’s come to help. Len was five foot six, blind in one eye, deaf in one ear, with shoulders like the trunk of a tree and arms like its gnarled bough. He looked like the pocket-sized version of Steinbeck’s namesake. Labour was etched into his body, his hands were the colour of teak, his fingertips ingrained with dirt. As he and his father set about trimming the hedges with electric shears, Len worked through the tall grass with his scythe, tracing low arcing strokes to topple the high blades. Up to then, the only time he had seen a scythe was either in a museum, or in the hands of William Paterson, the actor who played the Grim Reaper in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. Now, for the first time, he saw one being put to its intended use, and it felt as though he had travelled back in time.
Several years later, when he read the passage in Anna Karenina where Levin mows the fields alongside his workers, it was Len he pictured cropping the grass:
The old man, holding himself erect, moved in front, with his feet turned out, taking long, regular strides, and with a precise and regular action which seemed to cost him no more effort than swinging one’s arms in walking, as though it were in play, he laid down the high, even row of grass. It was as though it were not he but the sharp scythe of itself swishing through the juicy grass.
There was something of the noble savage about Len. Not primitive or backward, or indeed primal or aggressive, although according to his grandfather Len had been a bit of a rum bugger in his younger years, always getting into some altercation or other. It was his careworn, near-spent physicality which bespoke decades of hard work. Operari ergo sum ego. The physical effects of these decades were visible on his hunched and stooped body, the way he shuffled and ambled and grunted his greeting from a near-toothless mouth, how he bit into a tomato or smoked a cigar, or his broad, flat hands, twice the size of his own, which recalled an ape’s feet, his skin, tanned and leathered and toughened, as if he had been buried in peat for several millennia, like the Lindow Man, who had been unearthed in nearby Wilmslow a decade or so ago. It was work which defined him, made him corporeal, as year after year he gave more of himself back to the earth.
Their first job together was replacing a cracked drain for an elderly lady in Crewe. Len was supposed to pick him up first thing from the yard, but he arrived sometime after the rest of his father’s the men dispersed, pulling up in a wheezing Vauxhall Astra with rust spots and a missing wing mirror. Behind the car was a box trailer containing a range of earthworking tools bordering on the antique, and a registration plate which was attached by a wisp of string. After taking some time to negotiate the confines of the yard, shunting back and forth as to straighten out his trailer, Len finally switched off the car’s juddering engine and hauled himself out. He was wearing a torn red t-shirt which had faded to pink, and a pair of sagging brown trousers several sizes too large, which were held in place with a loose belt and had to be repeatedly hitched up to prevent them collapsing around his ankles. On his feet were a pair of flattened and scuffed shoes that looked like they had come out of production half a century ago.
In receipt of their instructions from his father, they set off for Crewe in Len’s car. Len drove incredibly slowly, perhaps due to his partial sightedness. Given his apparent disability, he wondered if Len should be driving at all, a question which continued to nag at the traffic massed behind their car. His driving technique was defined by an his obliviousness to the needs of other road users, and a rejection of the impulses and temporal demands that caused many, including his father, to drive at speed. He wasn’t a dangerous driver, he simply had no interest in being a good one, creeping up to T-junctions at ten miles an hour, pulling out in the too high a gear and bringing the oncoming traffic to a halt as he fumbled at the gear stick. Turning his deaf ear to the blaring horns and yelled curses, he would simply drive away, unperturbed, without altering his pace or uttering a word. As he came to learn, there was little sense of urgency with Len. He had one speed. Leisurely.
By the time they arrived in Crewe it was almost break time. They began excavating the cracked drain in the front garden of the grateful old lady, who had doilies on her windowsills and kept them in cups of tea as they worked. She and Len were of similar vintage, but he set about digging the soggy clay with the gusto of a man half his age. They made good progress, and had almost unearthed the damaged pipe when Len’s shovel struck a water pipe close to the drain, which was hidden just below the surface of the wet clay. The pipe began to emit a loud hissing noise. He stopped digging and rubbed his chin, rested an arm on his shovel as he peered at the pipe, and muttered, Is that gas?, before stepping clear of pressurised water spraying over the lady’s privet hedge and into the street, all the while grumbling and mumbling and rubbing his chin. Finding the cover to the stop value in the pavement, Len knelt down with some effort to lift the cover and turn the water supply off. Then he wandered off to find a phone box and call his father. An hour later, Steve arrived with to repair the pipe. Did you do this, or was it Len? Steve asked him, with a conspiratorial wink.
Doubtless they made an odd couple, Beckettian or Pinteresque, him barely sixteen and Len well into his sixties, but he saw now that his father had deliberately teamed him with Len as the muscle to his wise mind, the monkey to his organ grinder, or, more accurately, the eager chimp to his sage ape. For Len had no interest in yielding to the vale of restful sleep and continued to maul about heavy York stone at the age most men reach for pipe and slippers and TV remote. Len often like to smoke a cigar as he worked, and once the twig-like cheroot had been reduced to a stub, he would slip into his mouth and grind it between his teeth. Tobacco juice leaked from his gurning maw whenever he leaned over, or suddenly erupted into a fragment of some song, dimly recalled, which reflected the Sisyphean nature of their task. Usually it was some bastardisation of the Merle Haggard hit ‘One Day at a Time’. One day at a time sweet Jesus / That’s all I’m asking of you, which he would finesse with some nonsensical couplets of his own. Sweet Jesus You know / I heard him go / One day at a time. It was fair to say Len enjoyed having a working companion. It gave him a captive audience. Work slowed to a crawl as he recounted his past escapades, arguing with some figure of authority or besting an aggressive drunk in the car park of his favourite pub, or the time he slung one of his children’s teachers over his shoulder and carried him in to see the headmaster after the teacher had insisted the schoolchildren pick up litter which had collected in playground.
Some of his father’s younger men openly mocked him, as they sat trying to eat their sandwiches or read their copies of The Daily Star or The Daily Sport, while he rabbited on at them. If there was one thing that got Len’s back up, it was having his intelligence insulted. He had frequent run ins with Nigel, the porcine brickie with a brush moustache, who frequently treated Len with contempt, believing himself above such lowly work, and rarely offered assistance if someone needed it, something Len prided himself upon. Len and Nigel’s personal philosophies continually clashed and jarred. They were polar opposites. Arch enemies. He had a clear sense of right and wrong, dishonour and justice, and was interested in sport, particularly the repeated failures of Tim Henman at Wimbledon, and politics, if not holding a clear political, or what you might call ideological, view. To him, politicians were all the same. Untrustworthy careerists. Whenever they worked together, Len would suddenly stop shovelling, look at him with his good eye, and say, What do you think about…? Before setting off on some lengthy, digressive monologue, a slim proportion of which was audible, or even comprehensible, which he would to listen to while trying to look busy in case his father unexpectedly turned up. There was something in Len’s delivery of these monologues which was frequently hilarious, his repetition of certain phrases, his incredulity at the stupidity of his supposed betters. In regione caecorum rex est luscus.
After his grandmother died, his grandfather built a new house on a piece of land he had owned for several years. His father, much to his chagrin, was asked to do it, and together he and Len, he worked on his grandfather’s garden patio, cutting the stone and pointing up. His grandfather liked to see him working at the house, and he recognised that his being there would have brought him pleasure. His grandfather had reservations about Len however. Most people of his grandfather’s generation in their town knew Len, or if they didn’t know him personally, they knew of him, his reputation preceding him like a wet fart wafted on the wind. Class was at the heart of it. Many of his grandfather’s friends had striven to raise themselves out of the same class as Len, and now saw themselves as above him, even though they were dependent upon him to do the jobs they would not, or no longer could. Some years later, when Len was in his grandfather’s employ as a gardener, they had a bitter falling out, one which didn’t seem to resolve itself before Len’s death, peacefully, in his sleep, which was not a metaphor but precisely what happened. Finally yielding to that restful vale.
Driving to his father’s building site they passed a vast residential development a short distance away. Little more than a year earlier, the development had been a field of gently grazing cows. In their place, rows of identikit houses, eighty in total, townhouses and semis with postage-stamp gardens, packed tightly into the plot like penned-in cattle. A large advertising hoarding broadcast its aspirational marketing blurb. Bucolic Cheshire village. Unspoilt countryside views. Quaint local amenities. Excellent schools. Perfect place to raise a family. A little further down the road there was another large development, by a different housebuilder. Sixty dream homes awaiting their owners. Huge tracts of farm land around his home town had been lost to redbrick and tarmac. Property development was lucrative, and not just for established businesses. As soon as a large detached house came onto the market, a developer snapped it up, demolished it, and squeezed several houses onto the plot. This was not about returning derelict buildings into use. This was about the pursuit of profit over the needs of people, over the ability of the town to absorb the change. Local services running at capacity, traffic backed up for miles. There had been protests and planning objections. Still the houses came.
It was a good time for his father to get out of the game. It had always been impossible to compete with the large housebuilders, something he had never sought to do, but the proliferation of major housing developments around their hometown was now leaving little room for manoeuvre. After scaling back the business he took over from his grandfather, his father resisted expanding a firm which much like an unwieldy Transit van had grown too large, too hard to control. Instead the firm entered a new phase, a second coming, one focused on the renovation of abandoned and out of use farm buildings. In the era of the Cheshire barn conversion, his father was king, his success the profitable consequence of spotting this opportunity, this gap in the market, while maintaining the firm’s reputation for quality craftmanship, professionalism and reliability. He had made a name for himself in the industry, and not simply as the son of his father. Nevertheless, for all his achievements, it was still his father’s name on the company stationary. Embossed on his business card. Stencilled on the white vans parked up in the yard.
The pressures of inheritance. At times he felt an enduring sense of enduring disappointment in himself; of having done ‘the right thing’ by himself, and not by his forebears. These two houses should have been built by him. As the first-born son of the first-born son, he was next in line to take the firm established by his grandfather into the next century. To take up the legacy of all the homes built and renovated and refurbished and extended. Seeds sown in labour, yielding blooms of brickwork. To cement the good work already done. This was his inheritance, his responsibility. His father hadn’t had the same luxury. When he was compelled to go into the business, he complied. His father had done his duty. Now it was been his turn. And he had walked away. Guilt churned inside him like the maw of a cement mixer. This was his inheritance, and he had turned his back on it.
If there was a point at which he could have realistically joined the business, it was after university. Living with his parents after graduating from university, working in a bar, deciding what to do next. From time to time he worked for his father, fireproofing or labouring, when he should have been in the office, learning the rules of business. He half expected his brother to show an interest, but then he had not worked for the business. For months his father had been pushing him on his plans, and all he could do was resist, dissemble, deflect. Playing dumb. The truth was he had no plan, other than smoking weed, listening to music, reading books and writing poems. It must have been profoundly frustrating for his father, who perhaps had hoped he would one day join the family business, to watch his eldest son become distracted by literature, his ambition nullified by weed. For his part, he knew what his father wanted to hear, and he knew that he would never be able to say it. One night, over dinner and several glasses of wine, his father seemed to concede defeat. Son, you can do whatever you want to do, his father told him. As soon as he said it, he knew he was being given permission to walk away.
As he showed his children those last houses, it was with the knowledge that he had been a feckless son. Feckless and indecisive and above all, a failure. He had failed to achieve what he set out to do when he turned his back on the family business. But the more he thought about end of this particular era, the more he began to understand that what bothered him most about it was that it demonstrated once and for all that he was no longer young. All the assurances and certainties and frustrations and loneliness of his youth had been encompassed in the fortunes of the family business. At times, his father had been unable to see beyond it. This altered slightly when his grandmother passed away, irrevocably when his mother became seriously ill. Now it signified that there was now absolutely no possibility of him upholding the family tradition. It was characteristic of his indecisiveness that he would only become concerned once this possibility was gone, and the new reality an indelible fact.
Sometimes he liked to speculate about the existence of an alternative version of himself, out there in a parallel reality, who left school at sixteen or dropped out of university, and went into the business full-time, became a builder like his father, and his father before him, who married his childhood sweetheart, had children young, him working all the hours and her tending to their infant son. They’d have had no money at first, but he would have worked very hard, spent long hours away from home to provide for his family and make a success of his inheritance, and little by little they’d have become more comfortable, affluent even, and as the first of his son’s came of age he would take him to site, introduce him to the men, young apprentices and old lags, usher him into his world of bricks and mortar, put a trowel in his hand and show him how to point up.
The vicarious drama of those tied to mundane, prosaic fates. Why should his story be of any importance, and to anyone other than himself? It was question he kept coming back to, again and again. There was no great tragedy, no trauma to speak of. His father was no more or less difficult than the next man, no more unreasonable, no less loving, undemonstrative or not. Yet the nature of their relationship was, inevitably, one of power and independence. Should he have followed his father into the business? Yes. No. Maybe. Whatever decision he had made, it would have still been the wrong one.
Echoes and mirrors. Walls and bridges. In the narrative of self-consciousness, nothing can be taken at face value. Truth does not necessarily follow telling. All is unreliable. Everything can be misremembered. It is not a perfect world.
Back at his parent’s house, he came across a stack of old black and white photographs, many dating from the years following the end of the Second World War. After his grandfather’s death, his uncle had found them while clearing out his house and passed them to his father. Among the photographs were several of his father as a toddler, knee-deep in snow or building sandcastles with his brother and father on the beach at Abersoch. In one photograph, most likely taken by his grandmother, presumably then pregnant with her second child, his father has been sat, awkwardly, on the bonnet of a large, dark-coloured car, possibly a recent purchase, and his grandfather has his arm around him to prevent him slipping off. Both are wearing heavy coats, and even though the drab winter light obscures the two figures, he can still make out his grandfather’s familiar smile. The face of the little boy is less clear. More uncertain, perhaps confused by the camera, of having to pose, stay still long enough for the camera to complete the exposure. With a full head of hair his grandfather resembles a young Eric Morecambe. Clearly it a time of great optimism for his grandfather, being happily married, with a booming business, one healthy son, another on the way. New car, fancy clothes. He has every reason to be happy.
Then, a different picture of his father, in the same coat, behind the wheel of a toy car, looking sidelong at the camera, smiling faintly, with a slightly unfocused look which gestures towards the poor eyesight he will develop later in life. There is something about the way his father looks, his facial features, particularly about the eyes and the rosebud of his mouth, which prefigures those of his own son, his youngest, as if this photograph of the past offers a glimpse of the future. He cannot help wonders what memories from that time his father retains. For his father, it is as if that time never existed, the period of great optimism, of never having it so good, and as he stares at the photograph he begins to feel very sorry for that little boy in his little car, knowing what he knows now about his father’s unhappiness, and he wants to step into the frame of the photograph and pluck that little boy out of his toy car, lift him up into an embrace, and not let go.