When I was seventeen, I decided it was time to get to know my father. I’d seen him only once, very briefly, since I was two years old.
Discovering he was in the UK, I made arrangements and told my mother I was leaving, that I didn’t know when I’d be back. On a cold day in March 1986, I alighted from a train at a remote station in the east of England in my leather jacket and steel-capped Doctor Martens.
There he was. Smoking. Casual. Quick-eyed. Did we hug or just shake hands? I don’t even remember. I was scared and excited. This was either a new world or another dead-end. What must he have thought of my gaunt, hollow face, my collapsed Mohican and wild beard?
We went to a pub and got drunk. They knew him there; everywhere he went people knew him or if they didn’t they soon couldn’t forget him. “This is my number one son,” he said to the landlord that day and he said it wherever we went for the next four or five years.
We drank standing up – a habit of his enabling him to gauge his level of inebriation. The conversation was simple. He did all the talking. “I never did anything to hurt your mother,” he said. He said it over and over in many different ways. I was embarrassed. I tried to explain that it was none of my business, that I didn’t really want to know. But for a long time, that was all he said whenever we were drinking together.
I don’t think he was telling me. I think he was telling himself.
I ended up working and travelling with him as a cold caller and salesman for the next few years. I was already experiencing depression, anxiety and panic attacks by then. I’d hoped the new start would fix everything but it didn’t.
Two good things came of it all, though. I did begin to know my father – through his charm and rage, and through his language – and I was thrown into an extremely challenging job without any means of escape. To quit would be to go home, beaten and ashamed.