‘You wanted me to talk about my dad’ I say.
It's nearly the end of our last session. I haven’t planned it. The words just pop out. I’ve been prattling on about my painting, the journey ahead, the food, anything to avoid talking about Lucy or Harry or anything here on the boat. I can tell Joe is getting frustrated. We don’t have much time.
‘Well...’ says Joe, looking troubled.
‘He was a gardener. Worked for the local parks and gardens department.’
There’s a challenge in my voice – I know it. I feel so angry.
‘That doesn’t sound very terrible. I was expecting something – I don’t know...’
‘Like a paedophile, or a terrorist?’
‘Maybe. Frankly I’m disappointed. Why didn’t you want to talk to me about him before?’
‘I just didn’t want to talk about him’ I say, defiantly. ‘Plus I like coming here – it’s just I’ve never been allowed to talk like this before – didn’t want to give you everything too soon.’ I smile apologetically. Now I feel guilty for wasting his time, and sad because we’ll be there soon and this will end. ‘Is that ok?’ I ask.
‘Of course’ he says quietly. We sit in silence for quite some time. ‘So let me rephrase the question. What did he do to make you not want to talk about him?’
I have to think about this.
‘I don’t think he was really interested in kids, and after my sisters were born and he had the snip they thought that would be it. Then I popped out and he had to stay home to look after me while mum went out to work.’
‘Sounds like you think he made a big sacrifice for you though.’
‘I suppose, but somebody had to. I mean, he wasn’t just going to walk out on me. He did what he had to do. He did it for mum. He really loved her. Can’t think why...’
‘Why he loved her so much – she always talked to him like he was thick.’
‘She never respected him, ever. He was just too soft – let himself be pushed around all the time.’
‘But you didn’t respect him much either by the sound of it...’
I consider this. All I know is that when I think about him it just makes me so angry and I don’t know why. ‘I just stayed out the way’ I say.
He looks at me. ‘And Justine looked after you quite a bit too you said.’
I nod ‘She got me up in the morning, made me breakfast, got me dressed for school.’
‘And your dad? Where was he?’
‘Around, doing stuff.’
‘In the shed?’
‘No, he was around the house in the morning – he took me to school when I was little – on the back of his bike.’
‘And in the evening?’
‘He made dinner, got me ready for bed, you know.’
‘Read you a story?’
‘Sometimes, maybe, when I was little.’
‘Can I ask what your mother was doing all this time?’
‘I don’t remember her being in the picture much – I think she worked late quite a lot... Sometimes she picked me up from school in the car – I remember that.’
Joe frowns at me. There’s something wrong. I feel so angry whenever I try to talk about them. I still don’t know why. I mean, I know a lot of kids have terrible parents – violence, neglect, abuse. I never had any of that. I suspect I’m just a whinger, making a fuss about nothing, but I press on anyway.
‘I think maybe things went wrong later really.’
‘When in particular?’
I sit and try to think. None of it seems very important.
‘I don’t bloody know’ I say exasperatedly. Now I’m just frustrated with myself. I can’t think straight.
‘Gabriel, did they ever really make the effort to talk to you would you say? I mean really get to know you, find out who you really were, what you wanted?’
I want to say something about it not being possible to talk to teenagers, but stop myself, because here we are after all, as Joe pointed out before. ‘I don’t remember’ I say, avoiding the subject.
‘What do you remember doing with your parents, either of them?’
I shake my head. ‘I told you, I stayed out the way mostly.’
‘Did you ever – I don’t know, help your dad in the garden?’
‘I used to watch him sometimes. Actually he tried to teach me some stuff –“pricking out” – hah! I always remember that. But he always seemed so – I don’t know – frustrated about it. It was like, I was always in the way somehow, or really clumsy. I think I was a bit of a div to be honest.’
‘A div, a wally, a prat. You know, stupid. He used to tell me stuff and it just didn’t go in, so I either had to ask again or hope it didn’t matter. He got pretty frustrated with me. A lot of people did. I was always doing things the wrong way, except they made sense to me, or getting blamed for things that weren’t really my fault and at the time I’d be feeling really stupid or embarrassed but then later I’d think... There was one day I was doing some potting up for him on the bench in the shed. Some job he’d given me to do, potting on the tomatoes or something. Anyway, later on I’m in the kitchen and he says “You’ve done these a lot of good” and he’s holding up his glasses and he tells me I’ve filled his new glasses case with grit and he goes on about how much they’d cost to replace, just in this muttering, grumbling way he had and I just felt really stupid again. I said sorry, but then, later I thought “Why leave them on the potting bench?” It’s just a stupid place to put them but of course I didn’t say anything. I suppose I thought just because something makes sense to me it’s no reason to think it makes sense to anyone else. In the end it doesn’t matter if something’s actually a good idea or not does it? Not if people don’t want to know...’
‘Do you really believe that?’
I’m trying to act like I haven’t really thought about it. I think it’s called being disingenuous but it doesn’t really work. I say ‘No, not really, but it’s true in a way isn’t it. If they don’t think much of you generally, or if they feel like they want to show you who’s boss then it doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong. People are more interested in being in charge than in having things done properly I think. They say they want you to use your initiative but really they just want you to do as you’re told without them having to tell you.’
‘Did that make you angry?’
‘Oh I was always getting angry about things. Didn’t do me any good.’
He leans back and has a stretch. ‘And I thought gardening was supposed to be a relaxing pass-time’ he says.
‘Yeah – like in “Being There” Did you see that? I love that film.’
‘Yes, like that.’
‘No, it wasn’t like that, well sometimes, but mostly I remember him being fed up because something had eaten his lettuces, or the cats had crapped in his parsley or something.’
‘Did he get angry a lot?’ Joe says this like he’s just realised something important. I’m sorry to disappoint him.
‘No. Just with the slugs and things. He never shouted or broke things. Mum was the one for that, not him. Mostly he was just erm...what’s the word? ...preoccupied – and sort of frustrated.’
‘Sometimes. It was hard to tell with dad.’
‘He never said anything?’
‘Not to me, not until later anyhow.’
‘When was this?’
‘When I was fourteen maybe – O levels coming up – they were both getting fed up with me – couldn’t understand why I wasn’t applying myself, thinking about what I was going to do afterwards. I didn’t know what I wanted to do...’
‘Had you thought about becoming a professional artist?’
‘Hardly’ and I smile and shake my head as if he’s just suggested I become Prime Minister but then I realise he’s serious.
‘Why not?’ he says.
‘Well...’ And I stop. I really don’t know why not, except people just don’t – do they? Not people like me. It’s just a hobby, something you do when you’re a kid at junior school.
‘I never really thought...’ I say. ‘I thought, you know, technical drawing or, I don’t know, working in an art shop maybe...’
He looks at me as if I’m a moron.
‘No’ he says, ‘you could have gone to art school.’
I look at him like he’s completely insane.
‘Why not?’ he insists. I’m thinking money again. ‘You get a grant’ he says, as if he’s read my mind ‘maybe a weekend job... and off you go.’
I can’t believe it. Do people like me really do that? Nobody mentioned this to me.
‘I had a friend painted for a living’ he says. ‘He didn’t make much but he was ok. Had to do other jobs sometimes, but he was doing alright, last I heard. He had a house, holidays abroad...’
I can’t believe this has really never occurred to me before. People make a living as artists. I suppose they do, but I always thought they were completely different to me, to us. Nobody I knew did anything like that for a living – we were all working in factories or offices like mum, or lorry drivers. People who did interesting things like write books, or travelled were like a different species altogether. Maybe his friend was from a posh family?
‘Did he get much help from his parents?’ I ask.
‘I don’t think so – he was pretty independent. Wouldn’t your parents help you though – if you showed you were keen enough?’
I laugh a little. I can’t imagine even suggesting it to them. They’d go mad.
‘Maybe’ I say, but I don’t really think so. I’d have to do it alone, I know that, but I could. I don’t need a lot of money. I could manage. And suddenly I feel quite excited about it.
‘I suppose I ought to point out’ he says, ‘in the interest of balance, that you shouldn’t be too cross with your parents. The world’s different to when they were your age. Back then you went out to work, got married, had kids and were bloody grateful. They just wanted a normal happy child who would do more or less what they did, only slightly better, and avoiding some of the more obvious cock-ups. They probably couldn’t imagine your life – the choices open to you. I’m sure they didn’t understand.’
And I realise this is one of the reasons why I’m so angry with my dad. He didn’t even try to understand. It’s because he just did as he was told, accepted what they told him to do, for years, cutting grass, weeding, sweeping up, on the council estates, doing the verges, picking up the litter, even though he had qualifications he did as he was told, and he never complained. I think he even liked it. He knew his place. I’m furious with him because he liked it – his mediocre, ordinary, tedious life. I tell Joe all this and he nods as if he knew all along. But it’s not enough of an explanation for what became of me. I know that. He knows that. Maybe we’ll never know.
‘Anyway, lots to think about’ he says and, unexpectedly, gets up and comes and holds out his hand. I get up and shake it. So it’s over. Time to go.
‘Good luck with everything’ he says, trying to look optimistic.
I emerge from my surprise at the suddenness of it all and say ‘Thank you’, also trying to look hopeful, and I leave that room and never see him again.
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