[After an unfeasible break, I am again continuing with my dark humour memoir of life at the edge of the Nineties. I’ve taken a long time out from writing due to a personal mishap, but am now set to continue. Eventually this will evolve into a bigger story of a generation lost at sea: its trials and triumphs, intrigues and disasters. The whole thing will be called “High Fields” unless I come up with a better title.]
In the final days before dad’s death from liver failure, my sister was beside herself. She had returned from life in Hong Kong to see her father in hospital, but had been told that his condition wasn’t life-threatening. She hadn’t been prepared for a death in the family.
She hadn’t been prepared for dad’s harsh last words to her, either. He had been out of it but even so, him saying “You’re just a lost little girl in a lost little girl’s world and what are you going to do without your old man?” wasn’t the homecoming she had expected.
She was stopping at mum’s for a couple of nights so I went round there to talk to her after a dinner that mum whipped up with baffling normality. For her and second husband Don, life went on as usual, its routines ossified with the mechanical predictability of an old clock.
It could have been a Tuesday, which was Shepherd’s Pie, or possibly a Thursday: sausage and mash.
After yoghurt for pudding, we all sat in the living room while Mum and Don doled out the future for us. I didn’t say anything but it was clear I needed her to stay. I thought she would regret not going to the funeral, but my mother had other ideas.
“You get back on that plane,” mum was telling Jodie. “You’ve got your life in Hong Kong. There’s nothing more you can do here.”
“If you don’t you’ll regret it,” Don added.
“But what about me?” I suddenly wailed.
“What about you?” mum snapped. “There’s nothing she can do to help. So you’ll have to go through it on your own. God knows, I did with Daddy.”
Jodie was crying too now.
“Will you be all right?” she sobbed.
I could only shrug. The answer was ‘no’, of course. But how could I say that?
And so the next morning, she flew back to her life in Hong Kong and out of this narrative, save for the odd phone call.
Divided, we fell.
The funeral day arrived. I wore my job interview suit with black tie and black armband and waited for BGC to come and collect me from the empty family house.
Rain fell slowly in a January haze as we lifted the coffin out of the hearse. Even with six pallbearers, my father’s coffin weighed heavily on all of us.
Although dad had always expressed his wish to be cremated and scattered at sea, my stepmother Fat Arse [AKA Amanda Ann Ryder] had overruled everybody with her appeal to authority as The Grieving Widow.
He was buried in a grave at the small Medieval church in Wixford, South Warwickshire. His headstone was donated by the Chockheads of the Aircraft Handler’s Association, and was finished marble that bore the wrong date. Along with the wrong date was the Latin inscription ‘Nostris In Manibus Tuti’- ‘Safe in Our Hands’.
[The grave will only appear once more in this narrative. It wasn’t something any of the family had wanted, but Fat Arse had insisted he be buried so she could continue to care for him in tending the grave. In the event, she never visited the site again. Its purpose had been served, as a backdrop to her public grief, despite her talk of tender weeding. My aunt still visits every six months to tidy it as best she can.]
All sorts of people from the last forty years of dad’s life were at the funeral, all processing their own private grief. I knew most but wasn’t in the mood to speak. I’d already refused to speak at the funeral: what was there to say? In retrospect, I could have given a reading of ‘Do Not Go Gentle into that Goodnight’, one of his favourites, but it was only months later that I remembered.
One or two women I didn’t know had come to pay respects- no doubt mistresses from some time or other. Possibly they had been recent conquests with their shiny, new griefs that nearly upstaged Fat Arse, who made sure only to be with her family and give ours a berth.
His wake at the village pub divided along friends and family, the former choosing to send his alcoholic death off with copious drinking- led, judging by the jovial shouting from next door, by Fat Arse herself.
In the bar, my cousins talked quietly and I managed just about to agree that it didn’t feel like partying was an appropriate response.
Not at all.
Coming back from the Gents, I was collared by Keith the Taxi, a regular at my dad’s old pub.
“I want to talk to you about something,” he said. “In private.”
Sat in his car, he pulled out a packet of football stickers and proceeded to paint a picture of untold wealth for me if I invested in his business idea: stickers. I didn’t quite know what to make of his sudden plans that he enthusiastically rabbited on about, plans that teetered on the brink of schizophrenia. I was bewildered, thinking the stickers were kind of metaphor for life and death but no. Keith the Taxi, brain addled by countless pints of Stella Artois, was going to take on Panini with my expected nest egg.
I declined and made my way back to the bar.
“They need a fucking good slap, the disrespectful cunts,” cousin Andrea was saying as a drunken cheer announced the start of Chelsea Pensioners next door.
In the event, nobody got slapped. We drank a few sombre drinks then made our separate ways.
In the week that followed, I started to take care of finances and so on.
This consisted of phoning my bank to say I didn’t have funds to make the first repayment on the loan I had taken out to pay off my overdraft.
I asked if I could delay this due to bereavement and they said no. They weren’t interested in such things. If I didn’t pay then they would consider it a default.
“Yeah well FUCK YOU!” I shouted down the phone. “Fuck you and fuck your fucking bank, you won’t get a penny out of me!”
Slamming the phone down, I turned to see Fat Arse observing me over a freshly-poured pot of tea.
“I’m going to need some housekeeping money,” she said. “You’re dad’s not around any more and things have to change.”
The financial picture she painted was not pretty. It was a Francis Bacon tryptic of howling discomfort, cashed in policies and good money thrown after bad. She said there was barely enough left to pay the mortgage interest.
Starting to job hunt, I pored over the thin gruel of the local Sits Vac columns and studying the Job Centre cards on my signing day.
Given that this was a wealthy area popular with tourists, the jobs were mainly just poorly-paid service sector work in the bars, restaurants and hotels that serviced Shakespeareland. There were commission-only roles in ad sales and double glazing, too, neither of which I was equipped to do right then.
I looked over the cards of the Miscellaneous section and there, amongst the part-time Dog Walking and Diet Club Organisers, I found two openings that might suit me. One was working as a runner for a new TV programme being filmed in Shakespeareland and the other was for Assistant Drama Technician at the local college.
While I wouldn’t argue that I was a perfect fit for either of these roles, I had a degree in Drama and TV [together with English] and would be prepared to learn on the job. If I couldn’t get either I’d have to go back to working at a call centre.
The first interview I had was for the TV Runner position. Ragdoll, a local production company, were about to start filming a new show for small children.
“Yeah, we’re gonna call it Teletubbies,” said the enthusiastic producer as he outlined his vision. “It’s gonna be really trippy. Like acid for kids, basically.”
“Sounds timely,” I said.
Then he cut to the chase. “So tell me, Earl- what exactly does a Runner do in a TV production?”
Despite having ‘TV’ in my degree I knew even less about the actual production process than my old TV lecturer who had once sat in on the making of a dog food commercial, an experience he had shied away from discussing in detail.He slept in his car from Monday to Friday besides, returning home to the South for a shower, shit and shave at the weekend.
“Well, they do whatever they’re told to do,” I said, hoping he would appreciate my vague eagerness.
“Yeh, but specifically,” he said, leaning back. “What are the job responsibilities?”
“Well, collecting and delivering things,” I said.
I’d never been on a TV set. I didn’t even like the medium.
“Sandwiches?” I volunteered.
All I could think of was how my dad had just died and it was important to remain composed.
As I didn’t get the job, perhaps I’d have been better off breaking down in tears and apologising for not being more prepared. Who can say?
I could have been Tinky Winky’s fluffer; I could have made good as a cog in the manufacturing of baby crack.
Instead I ended up working at the college.
Fat Arse was pleased, for a while, that I was paying some rent. Apart from this, we spent days barely speaking, afraid to occupy a house whose centre was missing. Often I would return to an empty house as Fat Arse went to stay with her parents or one of her sisters.
She’d spend weekends away and not return until Tuesday. When she did, we’d minimally communicate and, not being rude, avoid each other’s company.
The last thing we did together was go see Mars Attacks. It wasn’t the kind of film dad would have been into. He’d have just considered it Hollywood bullshit.
The only solace during this time was continued clubbing in Birmingham. I couldn’t see much beyond the merry-go-round of kick ass techno nights, going there along the A3400 in my mate Dave’s car and sometimes my rattly Peugeot 205.
The two of us were generally being joined these days by the techno head teens Dave was selling pills to.
They were as strident in their dismissal of other forms of music as the Khmer Rouge had been declaring a Year Zero. Guitars were for grimmers.
Bands were bullshit. Everything was different now.
I got by through viewing existence as a succession of weekends spent riding high and midweeks that sank low as the winter sun. Merging with the techno singularity was just a shot away. The dark corners of the Que Club and Institute became the most significant spaces of my spannered situation. House of God; Atomic Jam; Space Hopper; Ultimate Orange. These were my new families. They were my congregation.
I knew it wouldn’t last.
One evening a month after the funeral, Fat Arse handed me a brown envelope.
“This is yours,” she said. “I’m going out to my parents.”
After she had pulled away in dad’s Lotus I sat down and opened up the envelope.
It was the Will.
I knew, of course, dad’s finances had gone disastrously awry due to over-investing in a property development partnership with a guy called Ian Walker- who had promptly disappeared in the wake of it all going tits up, leaving my father with all the debts to pay. Of course I knew that. That was why he had drunk himself to death, after all; helped every step of the way by Fat Arse, always ready with a vodka for hubby. Still, I expected something. One always does. And in a Medieval house full of antiques, I could picture in my mind’s eye the old man decreeing a painting of sailing ships or the phrenology head to his sole son and heir.
It was a surprise, therefore, that the will was a boilerplate off-the-peg job that simply left everything to Fat Arse. There was no mention of his children, nor of any other family member.
I looked at the date the will was drawn up- last November, soon after his row with my sister and when I had been away on tour. I looked at the date the will was signed. It was two days before he had finally died, at a time when he had been slipping in and out of consciousness.
I looked at the witness signatures- Dad’s old Navy pal Mick Cooper and Canadian Jake. I had wondered why they had come to the hospital. Now I knew.
And when the family had been bundled away- when we were consoling my grandmother in the canteen, her terrible cries of “It should be ME! Not my little BOY!” cutting us to the quick over cups of vending machine coffee- Jake and Mick, far from simply paying their last respects, -were busy witnessing the will that dad hadn’t signed back in November. A will that he no longer knew the significance of.
I looked at the scratchy, spidery scrawl that in no way resembled his signature and wondered what the fuck.
What the fucking fuck.
Through the years, he had always promised a third of his estate to each of us- Jodie, myself and Fat Arse. So it was an unpleasant surprise to not read any mention of my sister and I. The boilerplate text left everything to Fat Arse. We would get nothing.
When Fat Arse returned the next day, I made a pot of tea and sat down at the kitchen table with her. I wanted to express my enormous sense of dread but couldn’t find words that were politic enough.
I started with a word I had only recently learnt: ‘codecil’.
“I don’t understand why there were no codecils,” I said. “Jodie and I aren’t even mentioned.”
“Well, what do you want?” Fat Arse replied, waving her arm at the cottage full of antiques.
“It’s not that…” I said. “I’m just sad that dad didn’t think about me.
“Look, we had enough going on,” she snapped. “And I still do. I’ve inherited your father’s debts as much as anything. It’s me who’s sad.”
We drank tea in brooding silence for a bit then she changed the subject. “How’s the college job going? Settled into it?”
“I guess so.”
“Only, now I’ve got a better picture of how much your dad had left, I’m going to have to put up your housekeeping. It’ the only way the mortgage can be paid.”
“You could get a job,” I said.
“How can I work, when I’m like this?” she hissed frustratedly, eyes welling up with angry tears.
I couldn’t answer.
“Things are worse than I thought,” she said. She picked up the local paper and flicked to the Sits Vac- the first time I had ever see her do this.
She shook her head at the paltry sums on offer and at the dearth of decent positions on offer locally. It was a limited selection as I knew only too well. She had my sympathies.
“How about this,” I offered. “You could sell up and buy somewhere smaller. Then you could even afford to give Jodie and me something.”
I thought I was being practical but she took it very badly.
The newspaper she was holding suddenly screwed up. Shaking, she picked up an apple from the fruit bowl, studying it intently.
“I mean, that’s what his original will said,” I continued.
She suddenly screamed, “You’re not having ANY of it!” then leapt up, smashing the apple down on the table with such force its skin split open in an explosion of apple juice and pulp.
Things were suddenly violent and chaotic with her throwing cups, plates and kitchen ornaments at me, shouting “How can you even think such a thing, when I had nine wonderful years with your father?”
Elbowing a dinner plate away before it collided with my forehead, I rushed at her to restrain her. I was shouting at her “How can you say that? I had twenty-three years with him!”
She changed tack from trying to lash out at me to crying bitter tears and, despite the sobbing, managed to pick up her car and house keys, put on a coat for outside, get in the car and drive off.
The clock ticked.
I went and lay on my bed and waited: for the phone; for her car to return.
Eventually, a car did pull up but it wasn’t her. It was her dad.
He told me that Fat Arse couldn’t go on living with me and that, as she was now the owner of the house, she wanted me gone as soon as possible. She would stay at her parents in the meantime.
What could I do?
I spent the next day touring the grottiest of Shakespeareland’s hovels, trying to find something my minimal budget could stretch to and agreeing to pretty much the only place I could afford.
I had a month’s rent but needed another month as deposit, so drove to my grandmother’s. Her and her husband were the only people I could now turn to for help.
They moaned and complained and made me feel even worse than before. They told me I should never have fallen out with Mandy and that my situation was nothing to do with them. This was about it for family solidarity.
After I pointed out I would be very shortly homeless, they grumblingly agreed to loan me the princely sum of £250, against a stack of post dated cheques for £25.
“When are you ever going to learn the value of money, Earl?” said Doris.
“You’d be better saying sorry to Mandy and lumping it,” said Philip.
“I don’t know, you kids today. All this gallivanting,” said Doris, whose stern Welsh Conformist upbringing gave her a very disapproving view of such things.
When it came time to move, I drove back from work to the family house with my friend Randy Cows. He could offer support in case there was any scene.
Fat Arse’s dad was there.
He pretended to cut the bushes as I loaded the hatchback. When I had finished loading, he stopped his imaginary topiary and limped towards me on his gammy leg, pudgy sausage fingers outstretched.
“Keys,” he said, tonelessly.
As he took possession, a hint of a smile flickered in the corners of his mouth then was gone.
“Is that it?” I asked.
I got in the car and started the engine. As I reversed the car onto the road, I suddenly decided that shouting “Fucking wanker!” at him would be a good thing to do. So I did.
I pulled off without seeing his reaction. He was probably chuckling.
And so I arrived at my Fortress of Solitude / Pit of Despair / Bachelor Pad in the centre of Shakespeareland.
I had the ground floor front room of a terraced house that had been divided up into depressing domiciles for the divorced, the drugged-up and the deranged.
The house had until recently been a notorious brothel. In fitting with the Shakespeareland theme, it had been called the ‘As You Like It’. For years, it provided executives relief and blowjobs for the jobless until an expose in the News of the World led to it being raided and shut down by the police.
The new owner decided to change the premises from somewhere people could screw prostitutes to somewhere he could screw tenants.
Here, I would come to lose a fortune in feeding the pound coin electricity meter. I also lost most of my wardrobe to an aggressive black mould and much of my mind, which dribbled away bit by bit with each bong, bomb and blim, until it was no longer clear what, if anything, would be left.
But that’s another story and shall be told another time.