As I drove the last few miles into Newcastle I saw the Angel of The North. The sheer size of the sculpture stirred me from darker thoughts. Its colossal wings seemed to be reaching out – a gesture of welcome for the prodigal son. Except, as I passed underneath, I realised it was symmetrical; what I’d taken as a welcome, could just as easily have been the angel turning its back.
In Wales, where I live now and where I’d driven from that morning, to describe a longing for home they use the word hiraeth. I had wondered if I’d feel something of the sort. But as I crossed the Tyne Bridge and looked down on the new quayside, I could only think that I’d made good time and with a little luck, might miss the rush hour.
I was parking the car when there was a rap on the windscreen. An old man was mouthing something to me through the glass. He was pitifully thin.
I lowered the window an inch or two.
‘You can’t park here son. You’re blocking the drive.’ He pointed to the house opposite with one of his sticks, holding the roof of my car to steady himself. His clothes billowed in the breeze.
I went to put the car into reverse but he gripped the lip of the window, peering at me though the glass. His face was wrinkled, white hairs bunching in his nose and ears. ‘Back up son’, he said, ‘you’ll be fine down the road.’
There was a familiar lilt to his voice and, almost with horror, I realised that he was using the word ‘son’ literally.
It was the first time I’d seen my father in more than twenty years.
He released his grip and I backed the car down the road.
When I turned to face him again, he was shuffling towards his house.
I sat with my hands on the steering wheel watching him cross the road. Some boys were playing football, using the gap between a lamppost and a car as a makeshift goal. A teenage girl who was pushing a flimsy buggy had stopped to watch them. One of the boys scored and the ball ran towards my father but they waited for him to move on before retrieving it.
I reached for my briefcase, taking out a large envelope. Inside it were photographs that my wife, Jane, had given me to show him. They would be something to talk about she had said.
I chose three, leaving the rest on the seat.
My father left me waiting by the door.
He was talking to some workmen who were fixing the guttering on his neighbour’s house. He was saying something about a camera that was fixed to the wall. Eventually, he turned, holding out his cold hand to greet me.
As I entered the house, I glimpsed a silver haired lady in the kitchen. I presumed this was Mary, my father’s long time partner - I had phoned her for directions before coming. She waved her hand to indicate I should follow my father into the living room.
The room was bright, more modern than I’d expected: leather sofas, Ercol units, a glass coffee table – there was nothing I recognised. In the corner of the room was a large flat screen TV, a jumble of wires linking it to a lap top computer on a trolley.
My father sat down, adjusted his sticks and pulled the trolley towards him. He started typing on the keyboard.
‘I don’t expect there’s much crime where you live?’
The TV screen powered up, displaying a black and white shot of the workmen next door. He pressed a key and the screen split into four images, each showing the house from a different angle. I could see the boys playing football; the girl with the pushchair had gone.
‘The kids are buggers round here,’ he said.
‘Once a policeman…’ I replied.
He pressed a key and the TV changed to a news channel. There was a bulletin of Gordon Brown making an announcement about the financial crisis. My father waited a moment before speaking.
‘The world’s gone mad,’ he said.
I didn’t reply; didn’t want to get drawn into conversation. I was shocked by his appearance, still taking in the surroundings. I found myself estimating how much he must weigh; perhaps seven stones. He watched the TV as I scanned the room and waited for him to speak again.
‘Mary says you’re up on business.’
‘Yes,’ I lied.
‘It must be important.’
‘Just a meeting.’
‘On a Friday afternoon?’
He looked at me and I returned the stare, focusing beyond his eyes so I didn’t blink; a technique I’d learned as a child. Give him detail, don’t hesitate...
‘I’m interviewing for an assistant. He’s a lawyer from Edinburgh. It was the only time he could make, so we agreed to meet here.’
‘Yes,’ I replied firmly.
‘I’d have thought he’d come to you.’
‘For God’s sake, Dad.’ I shifted in my chair as he looked at me again.
‘Did you drive over the new Tyne bridge?’ he asked. ‘You know true Geordies cry when they cross the river.’
‘I felt nothing.’ My voice was clipped and sharp.
Gordon Brown had finished his announcement, but my father carried on watching, commenting on the bulletins, trying to draw me in. For fifteen minutes he searched for questions, fidgeting in the lull between stories. What if interest rates went up? What a mess they’d made of Iraq. Did I know that Kevin Keegan had resigned that morning?
I had forgotten, how before I left the North East my father would always try to steer our conversations to current affairs. He didn’t do this because he thought I would be interested, though sometimes I allowed the pretence. He did it because it was safe ground. Because by talking about the news he hoped to delay the inevitable. For most times I called, he knew I was coming to confront him.
Nothing has changed I thought – he’s still as wary of me as ever.
When I was a child my father had terrified me. He was a big man: muscular, short tempered and at times, extremely violent. One of my earliest memories is my mother making me a pair of long trousers, to hide my bruises in school the next day.
But it wasn’t the beatings that terrified me most. It was the ever present menace, the constant fear they could begin at any moment. And perhaps worst of all, the interrogations that preceded them. My father had an obsession with the truth. If he sensed the tiniest of withholds he would question me again and again, his anger rising until eventually it spilled over into slaps and belts.
As a small child, I had neither the strength nor the words to hit back. My way of coping was to create a world that he couldn’t be part of. I invented codes to keep secrets from him. I learned his shifts so I could plan my ‘escape’ when he was out of the house. Once, as a punishment for some misdemeanour, he threw away every one my toys – so I learned to make shadow puppets by shaping my hands; I’d flash the shapes behind his back as an act of defiance.
I was in my early teens before my father was diagnosed with manic depression. Shortly after, he retired from the police on grounds of ill health. Only later did I learn that he’d suffered a breakdown, brought on by years of working in the vice squad. At the height of his illness he would spend days alone in the bedroom, watching the CCTV cameras he had rigged to the eaves. Silence was a given, visitors were banned – even relatives did not come to our house.
Each of us found our own response. Paul, my elder brother, withdrew into himself then left for college. Jonathan, my younger brother – and who was spared the worst – became ill with nervous tension. Years later he would suffer from depression himself and it is perhaps telling that he has remained the closest to my father. My mother invariably turned to me.
Psychologists say that the root cause of anxiety is a dilemma of whether to fight or flee. The adrenaline rush we experience in the face of danger is a primeval response – one that in our ‘safe’ modern world, we recreate through horror movies, roller-coasters and the like. They say too, that those who seek the biggest thrills – free climbers for instance – are really seeking control; a tiny part of their life where their actions alone determine their fate.
Later in my life I would become a good climber; I would learn too – from my wife and children – that unconditional love brings with it a power to conquer many of our fears. But at the time there was something else that would give me strength. Something, as it happened, that I learned by accident.
I learned that if I stood by the bay window my father wouldn’t hit me.
I was perhaps thirteen at the time and I don’t recall the reason for the row, but I remember as I backed towards the light he stopped beating me. It was the first time he had ever held back and I realised in an instant why it was happening. I remember the adrenaline too. I remember shouting at him, knowing that so long as the neighbours could see me, he wouldn’t raise his hand.
Gradually I learned that by facing up to my father I could control him. By the time I was seventeen I was as tall as him, but it wasn’t the prospect of my hitting back that stopped him. It was because he knew, no matter how bad his anger, that I would find the strength to confront him.
Often, after one of his outbursts, I would lie awake at night, replaying the scene in my mind; shaking as I recalled his threats and how eventually, he’d backed down.
It was an intoxicating feeling.
A shaft of sunlight flooded the room, making the TV difficult to watch.
‘So what else shall we talk about?’ I felt for the photographs in my pocket. ‘Would you like to hear about your grandsons?’
‘I know all about them,’ he said, hauling himself up to the computer. ‘This is a marvellous invention.’
He clicked the mouse and the computer screen displayed my company’s website. There was a picture of me and the other directors. ‘I always knew you’d do well.’
‘And what of my boys?’ I asked. ‘What do you know about them?’
‘I’ve been following Dylan,’ he interrupted. ‘He’s on the cycling web sites.’
‘It’s Michael who’s the cyclist. Dylan is only three.’
He wasn’t flustered by the correction.
‘Hasn’t Michael got a Welsh name too?
‘His middle name is Huw.’
‘That’s right, Jonathan told me.’
‘I have a picture of Dylan somewhere.’ He said.
He scrolled through photographs on the screen, mainly shots of my brother and his family, occasional pictures of my boys. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to show me that he cared, as if he were trying to say, look, I’ve been following your life from afar. Or whether it was some sort of defiance – you thought you’d stop me knowing, but look, I found out anyway.
‘Who gave you those pictures?’
‘Jonathan, sent them. You don’t mind do you?’
‘It doesn’t matter what I mind.’
I curled the photographs in the palm of my hand. This was my opportunity to say what I’d come to say.
I raised my voice to make sure he was paying attention.
‘Should I tell you about Daniel?’
He turned to face me.
‘He’s six foot tall already: muscular, inquisitive too – like you in lots of ways. Except…’
I tried to resurrect the sense of fear and hatred I’d carried through childhood, the long buried feelings of contempt.
‘Except he’s gentle and sensitive – he wouldn’t hurt a fly.’
At least, that’s what I was going to say. It’s what I’d rehearsed on the long drive from Wales.
For over twenty years I’d denied my father any access to my life, cutting off all contact when my job gave me an opportunity to move away. It was the ultimate control mechanism. I’d set out to free myself of him, and to do so I ensured he knew nothing about me. I told my brothers not to tell him where I Iived or to give him any news. He missed my wedding, the birth of my sons, my career, and so much more. But I’d reveal it all now. I’d show how I’d come through. I’d tell him of the three great joys in my life. If the photographs in my pocket were knives I’d twist them with pleasure.
Often Jane had asked me how I felt about my father. Always I’d answered that I was indifferent to him. I had cultivated that numbness over the years, coming to realise that indifference is more powerful than hatred or even contempt, both of which demand, at least at some level, that you care.
As my father waited for me to finish the sentence, I realised just how successful I’d been. This wasn’t my father; it was a wheezing, fumbling old man who was nervous and threatened by my presence.
The light from the window silhouetted his frail body. I felt no anger, no wish to punish or desire to hurt him.
‘Except, he’s only thirteen,’ I said.
My mother finally divorced my father – weeks after I left home. But for years he continued to exert his presence on the family. Often he would make threatening phone calls. For a long period he stalked my maternal grandparents. Occasionally he would write rambling letters, threatening suicide and talking of ‘taking others with him.’
It never occurred to me, not to deal with him, or even to consider involving others. My father was ill – that explained his behaviour if not exactly excusing it – and someone had to make sure he didn’t cross the line. It seemed natural that I should take that role. Perhaps inside me there was also my own rage; a pent up sense of injustice at the way he so dominated my life. Looking back, I was spoiling for a fight.
One evening, after some incident or other, I went to his house to confront him – I found him in the street. I was determined to stop the nonsense once and for all. I warned him that if he continued with his behaviour I would contact the police and his doctor too. For a moment I thought better of this as for the first time in years he hit me. It was an extraordinary scene. He stripped off his jacket and squared up for a fight, but I stood my ground, daring him to hit me again. I told him he’d made my life a hell, that I’d hated him since I was child and that it had to stop. He could punch me if he wished, but he’d never change the past. I was shouting, screaming the words with an anger I’d not felt before.
And as I screamed, far from hitting me again, he sank to his knees and cried. He begged my forgiveness; he loved me really, he said. I remember the neighbours watching from their windows as I turned and left him sobbing him in the road.
That evening, I knew the power had shifted for good. That he was as terrified of me, as I had been of him.
Soon afterwards, I moved to Wales.
The news programme had finished.
He was resting in the pile of cushions at the back of his seat, his face tight with pain. The screen had returned to the silent pictures of the house next door; the workmen were packing away their ladders.
Eventually he broke the silence.
‘I have a tumour,’ he said.
‘I know. Jonathan phoned me last week.’
‘They didn’t tell me for months, but I knew what it was.’
‘Perhaps they weren’t certain?’
‘They knew; they just lied.’ he spat the words from between clenched teeth.
I let him go on.
His recalled his visits to the hospital, recounting in detail the dates, the names of the doctors, the tests he endured. They were lying all along, he said. He’d looked up the symptoms on the internet.
‘What is the prognosis?’
‘You know what they told me?’ His voice was quivering. ‘We’re talking months, not years. That’s what they said – that and a morphine prescription.’
‘What about treatment?’
‘They don’t give chemotherapy to people my age.’ His teeth bit down on his tongue, curling it into the corner of his mouth - a gesture we knew well as children. ‘They denied it of course,’ he tried to pull himself up but fell backwards at the effort. His face purpled, his teeth ground harder on his tongue.
‘They’re a bunch of bloody liars,’ he said, punching the arm of the settee with a limp fist.
I have thought a lot about that punch since. It was pathetic, and yet at the same time it was somehow noble.
There was nothing I could say.
His cheeks were damp with tears.
There was a tap on the door and Mary came in with a tray of tea. She put it down and shook my father’s arm.
‘Are you awake, pet?’
He didn’t respond so she covered him in a blanket and sat in the armchair by mine.
‘He won’t eat,’ she whispered, ‘but I try to tempt him.’
She passed me a plate of sandwiches that were cut into tiny triangles. ‘Forgive me for not saying hello. I thought I’d leave you two together.’
Her face was flushed and she was younger than I’d expected.
My father stirred in his chair and we both watched him, waiting to see if he’d wake.
‘It’s time for his morphine, but we’ll let him sleep shall we?’
I nodded. ‘He was showing me his computer,’ I said.
‘That thing; he’s on it all day.’
‘It’s quite impressive for his age.’
‘I suppose it gives him pleasure. He likes searching for information.’
‘He was always good at that.’
‘Just not so good at other things.’ She drank some tea and looked at me over the rim of her cup.
‘You know the history.’
‘I do. But he’s changed a lot. We’ve worked on it over the years.’
Is he still on Valium?
‘Not any more, it’s bad for his temper. He gets depressed sometimes, but I say ‘I’m here if you need me pet’. We’ve learned how to cope together.’
‘And what about the anger?’
She looked at me sadly. ‘It’s very rare nowadays. He’s always sorry afterwards.’
I wanted to say that he always was, but I let it pass.
I found myself curiously drawn to this gentle lady. I wanted to ask her what she saw in my father, why she had stayed with him all these years. As if anticipating my thoughts she said.
‘We’ve had a quiet life. It’s all he could cope with, but he’s looked after me in his way.’
‘Did he ever talk about the past?’
‘I tell him he can’t change what he’s done. It’s best to look forward. Your leaving was a blessing in some ways.’
I placed the photographs on the arm of the chair and reached for my coat.
‘This must be Dylan,’ she said, pointing to the smallest child in the picture
I leant towards her so we could look at it together.
‘Tell me, which one is Michael? I hear he’s a cyclist.’
We talked about the boys and I explained how they had transformed my life, how becoming a father had been such a revelation - a journey without maps, I said.
She turned to the next photo.
‘This must be Jane – she’s very elegant.’
‘She’ll be pleased when I tell her,’ I laughed.
‘And is this where you live?’ the third photograph.
‘It’s in Pembrokeshire, on the tip of Wales. Do you know it?’
‘I went there once – on a coach trip with your Dad. We went to a castle and I said to him, this is near where Mark lives. I’m sure it was Pembroke.’ She looked towards my father – he was still sleeping.
‘You should have called in,’ I said.
‘I would have liked that.’ she replied.
Mary showed me to the door.
My father was still asleep; we didn’t disturb him.
I drove westward into a red sky. As I passed the Angel of the North, the last rays of the sun were sinking beneath the horizon.