by Christopher Rush

The King My Father

October 29, 2009 | by Christopher Rush

OF ALL THE FEARS that darkened my days, none was worse than the fear of my own father. Why I call him king I have no idea, but it’s clearly something to do with Hamlet. The king my father. He was more of the wicked uncle than the father, more of the cutpurse than the king, a usurper whose reign of terror I resented, an alien figure, ever absorbed by the culture that surrounded him, never woven into the fabric of my mother’s fishing upbringing.

Every Eden has its snake. And so let me bring mine out of the undergrowth, to supplant the beautiful Adam I longed for and never got, the intruding serpent who made my mother’s life a misery, and still haunts mine.

My father was born on 9 May 1919 in Mid-dlesborough, the son of Elizabeth Hicks, housewife, and Jack Rush, bricklayer, journeyman.

A small black-and-white snapshot falls out of the folder of documents along with the certificates of birth and marriage and death, and I can see now with a shock something of what produced me. My father has conveniently dated and inscribed it for me, ‘Dad and myself, 1937’, so I know I am looking at my eighteen-year-old father and my paternal grandfather standing at the open door of No. 24 Bank Street two years before the outbreak of war.

My grandfather Jack was a Lawrentian figure: out for the occasion in his stocking soles and braces and collarless shirt, metal sleeve-garters clamped around his upper arms. He’s a small man (I can see where my lack of height comes from) but his shoulders are like a bull’s. And there’s the belt he’d unbuckle to thrash his son. One hand is thrust in his pocket, the other is round my father’s less impressive shoulders. My father is not yet fully formed, though in two years he will be classed as able-bodied. He’s much more smartly dressed however, quite a dandy in fact. Wide striped trousers and waistcoat to match, and what looks like a nice silk tie, also striped. I can see the gleam on his shoes. He has taken trouble with himself for the photograph. His thick hair is full of waves, falling away from the period-style middle parting. Good pronounced eyebrows – I wish I had them. I have his nose, though, long enough and straight enough, and I’m grateful for that.

One thing is missing – the wedding ring that will be slipped on to his finger in 1944. And the smile of the proud father – he doesn’t know yet that I am waiting for him in the womb of time, to be delivered by Caeserian section from the belly of his Christina, whom he has not yet met. He’s probably never even heard of Fife, though he’ll have heard of Hitler. So the finger is ringless as yet. But I’m struck by the artistic quality of the hands. Perhaps that’s because he’s holding his prop to help conceal his teenage embarrassment that his father is gesturing apparent affection. The prop is a banjo – an instrument that will feature in this interlude, now that I have been visually reminded of it.

But it’s the faces that fascinate me in the end: my father’s is handsome, no doubt about that, and acutely uneasy. Why had he lost all that uncertainty by the time I knew him? Was it five years of war? Was that what brutalised him? Or had that been achieved already, by his father Jack? Jack too has good thick hair, but beneath it the battered face stands out like a relief map of the Himalayas (he once beat up two policemen, my father proudly told me, who’d come to tick him off for being drunk and disorderly), and though he’s probably fifty, he looks seventy. except for the black hair. The eyes too are black, black caves lost under bushy brows. The great gash of the mouth seems slack – but when I look closely, I can see that it’s pursed and firm and unforgiving.

Photographs are old emotional territories, maps of the past, charts of the heart. I lay the 1937 one of my father beside the one of my teenage mother, leaning against a now vanaihed iron gate. It was taken in the same year, though she’s two years younger, at sixteen. She too is innocent of what’s in store for her: a brief wartime romance, followed by marriage to a violent and venegeful drunkard. That’s why she smiles so sweetly, with unclouded eyes and wide grinning mouth. Outside No. 32 Gourlay Street, St Monans. Where ignorance is bliss.

My next photograph is of a wedding. It is February 1944, and my parents have met, courted and married. And somewhere along the way, to use that quaint old phrase, fallen in love.

So there’s the photograph, the visual accompaniment to the marriage certificate. It would have been a black-and-white photograph – except that the artistry I noticed in those banjo-toting hands was no illusion. The hands have tinted the wedding photograph delicately, allowing us to get close to the colours of the occasion. My father was skilled at this, and villagers would bring their family photos to him to be tinted, for a few shillings or perhaps a few bottles of beer. No amount of skill, however, can tint away the poverty, or colour in the absence of ceremony. It seems to have taken place in a guesthouse, not in the Congregational Church, though its minister, the Reverend Lodge, did the honours.

Six decades later I have a better understanding of my father, one of the millions of men who hadn’t gone to graveyards and to flowers, every one, but had gone to girls instead, surviving a five-year relationship with 32,000 tons of cold wet metal to enter a post-war period of much dreamed-of peace and plenty and to dig their hands deep into chronically empty pockets. But they were ripe for romance when they came up to the Scottish naval airbase of Crail, HMS Jackdaw, a few miles from my mother’s village and a few yards from where I live now, and met girls like my mother at the sixteen hops – girls who were equally entranced by the sudden disembarkation into their lives of shiploads of clean-shaven southern sailors. Can you wonder that they fell in love, in the way that people did in the forties? I used to thumb through those tinted photographs of my father, looking ridiculously lean and impossibly handsome, and saw at once why my mother had fallen for him, though I spent my childhood wishing she hand’t. But I’ve been busy unspending my childhood since it ended, and it has taken the death of my father and years of sweated prose to achieve this moment of – what can I call it – reconciliation? Not quite, but let’s say recognition.

My father is in a sailor’s uniform – which simply means he didn’t have to spend the money, which wasn’t there anyway, on a bridegroom’s outfit. The demob suit will come later. But his telephonist bride has no uniform to disguise the fact that she can’t afford a white wedding. Instead she does the best she can: a feathered forties hat, rather stylish actually, dark brown coat open to show the painfully thin pink dress, handbag and gloves found somewhere almost to match the coat, borrowed probably. If she’s wearing anything in blue, it’s not on show. And those shoes – too clumpy for her slender but shapely legs.God, she’s lovely! All slenderness and smile, a strawberry blonde, a beauty.

That night they take off all those wartime togs, my mother carefully removing the green leaf brooch pinned over her left breast, and suddenly he’s all over her. And a cold coming he must have had of it in the unheated accommodation in which I was conceived: rented rooms on a steep windy hill overlooking the harbour, a fishmonger across the street and a blacksmith next door. Once she told me she was a virgin till her wedding night, and urged on me the same restraint. I was off to be a student in the swinging sixties and I followed neither her precept nor her example, but her theory was that a man quickly loses respect for a woman who has submitted to him before marriage. An unfounded belief, but it reflected the starchier forties. What she didn’t know, on 25 February 1944, was how quickly her own matelot would lose respect for her, no matter how pure she’d kept herself.

Exactly nine months later (less two days) I was born, the punctual product of honeymoon passion. But well before then, the Emperor Hirohito had sent his greetings once again, and passion was put on hold until the end of the war.

That’s when the trouble started. The outbreak of peace spelt bad news at No. 16 Shore Road, where hostilities were waiting to happen. The sailor was home from the sea.

As soon as I could walk I used to join the cats in the gutting sheds before graduating to the fierier delights of the smiddy, watching the brief lives of sparks. Born in the forge, they flew out on the wind, where they died like bees in the street. Briefer still the stars struck by the hooves of the Clydesdales, clashing on the cobbled floors, the sound of iron on stone, mingling with the hooting boats, the screaming gulls.

My father soon realised that life in an east coast Scottish village was not the paradise he’d dreamed of, and he urged my mother to turn her back on her people and return with him to Middlesborough. It was asking the impossible. So the able-bodied seaman, who’d learned the art of signalling in the employment of His Majesty, settled for signalling of a different sort at the local railway station on the princely wage of two pounds ten shillings a week. Bricklaying in Bank Street or signalling in St Monans – there was little financial difference and not much else to do. He saw the trains in and out, and I saw myself as a two-year-old engine driver – till one day I was lifted on to the footplate, saw the red furnace roaring within, and looked straight in the mouth of Epp’s hell. Death by water seemed preferable and I returned to my first fancy, to be a fisherman.

But the earliest Christmas present I can remember was not a boat, it was a Hornby railway set. I can picture it nearly six decades later: the curved lines of the track that fitted together to form a circuit, the smart moss-green engine with pistons that actually operated the wheels, the tender, heaped with shining black plastic coal, and all the carriages with their doors and windows. It was beautifully made and doubtless expensive. A world of signalling and telephone operating had gone into its purchase. So it was a pity that I broke it on its first day. How was he to know that the son he had produced was destined to be useless with tools and a menace with his hands? Before the Hornby I had played with gas masks which looked, felt, and smelt mysterious. I took some stupefied and fleeting interest in the Hornby and then damaged it, not hugely or deliberately but through innate practical clumsiness. I was sitting on the floor at the time, holding in my hands two pieces that should have been one, when I looked up and saw a strange sight. My parents were dancing. No, they weren’t dancing, they were gently wrestling. Recollection has made sense of it. He’d made to strike me, and my mother, fiercely protective always, had intervened. grasping both his hands. I can see the sweet winning smile on her face as she looked up into his eyes, quietly pleading, and the reluctant smile on his as he submitted to her soft words and strokes, her face in his chest, so petite. She wooed him away from me and I was saved. He glared at me. “Next time you’re for it,” he seemed to say.

I didn’t have long to wait. As soon as I discovered language he discovered that his son, apart from being clumsy, was also a linguistic dunce who couldn’t pronounce the letter r – a malady common to two-year-olds. But in my case it was obviously a sign of stupidity or stubbornness, or it was just sheer laziness, the Scots, so he maintained, being slovenly in their speech through their innate indolence. They just couldn’t be bothered to get the pronunciation right. Later it was decreed by him that only English should be spoken at home, or anywhere else for that matter, and although I slipped into Scots in playground and street, and at my maternal grandparent’s house, it was always with my head turned over my shoulder, to ensure he wasn’t within earshot. Otherwise there would have been trouble. As a matter of fact he rarely visited my grandfather’s, but when he did I was struck dumb, unable to identify myself comfortably with either camp. Then I was accused of being a rude mumbler and told to speak up for God’s sake – “Or I’ll make you sing out, sonny boy, if I ’ave to clip you across the bleedin’ ‘head!”

Such was the noble English that rolled from his tongue. One day I unwisely pointed out that his omission of certain letters was not dissimilar to my own. I don’t suppose I argued a particularly cogent case, but I put my toddler’s point of view and was thrashed for bloody cheek.

Personal tidiness was another of his obsessions. A boy on the loose with other boys in the salt-and-tar environment of a working fishing village is not going to stay spotless. I was as physically adventurous as my friends and came home strained and torn. Each missing button, each scuff and snag were punished by clouts across the head, punctuating the tongue-lashings and the black looks. Complete bedragglement meant a belting.

“You come ’ome like that again if you bleedin’ dare!”

Even my injuries – bruised forehead, grazed elbows, skinned knees – were thrashing matters, whereas in grannie’s house they meant hot water and ointment applied with smiles and shakes of the head. Tender loving care had been left out of his vocabulary, perhaps as a result of his own experience of the father-and-son relationship. Not that I could have understood that at the time. I simply saw how other boys ran into their homes bleeding and begrimed. with never a hesitation or a tremble at the front door. I usually crept in the back.

Money – or the lack of it – lay at the gnawed heart of my father’s bitterness, and I suppose I symbolised the frustration of his hopes. He’d had five years of his youth ripped out of his life by the war, and had come up to Scot-land to settle for life as a railway worker. Not that there would have been any money in Middlesborough. The family he left behind could tell him that, and did. But it was natural and easy to blame the place he was stuck in, and to lash out at those who were nearest and most vulnerable. For some reason he had chosen not to be a fisherman, though his naval experience would have given him a good start. Possibly, like many wartime sailors, he was simply sick of the sea and had vowed never to leave the shore again. I don’t what was in his head, because he never told me. We never talked.

So here he was, a two-pound-a-week signalman with no prospects and a useless sort of son. Was this what victory amounted to? And those years of dodging torpedoes and dive-bombers – for what?

For some men, the love of a good woman is enough to banish discontent. But my father was a malcontent, and the good woman failed to satisfy him. My mother worked long shifts at the telephone exchange, also for a meagre wage, but somehow even their combined pittances couldn’t pay the rent and the bills and leave enough over to eat. Holidays were out of the question.

The other consoler of bitterness is the bottle – and this is what my father took to. But he who drains the bottle drains his pocket and his pride. And so the vicious cycle ran round us, closing tighter and tighter until it erupted in violence, violence that went beyond the level of the seemingly statutory thrashings, and embraced my mother too.

She was a thrifty and selfless soul who spent little on herself all the days of her life.

All her care and concern was for those around her, her mother, father, siblings, me -and even the man who abused her. Only once do I remember my gentle grandmother breaking out in black anger, when I was maybe seven.

“Look at you!” she addressed my father. “Waltzing in here all done up like a tailor’s dummy in your three-piece suit and your fancy tie! And your wife bare-legged and it bitter winter out there! Haven’t you got more need to go and buy her a pair of stockings and a decent pair of shoes!”

He walked out. And bought not a pair of shoes or nylons but a skinful of beer. When he came home that night, raging drunk, I could hear the slaps and shouts going on for so long, I got up and ran to the bedroom. She was cowering in a corner of the bed and he was over her with his arm raised.

“I’ll bleedin’ kill you! I will an’ all! I’ll bleedin’ swing for you!”

I believed him. In my terror I ran to the woodshed and came back with the axe. By the time I reached the bedroom he slipped in his stupor and was sprawled on all fours in front of the bed, his head lowered, as if for execution.

I lifted the axe and looked straight into the horrified eyes of my mother. She screamed and I dropped the axe. This roused him and he turned, reached up and seized me by the hair.

“You get back to your bleedin’ bed! And you get up again if you bleedin’ dare!”

Everything was bleeding – including my mother. That was the night that fear turned to hatred.


Extracted from HELLFIRE AND HERRING: A CHILDHOOD REMEMBERED published by Profile Books at £15.99

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