It was during April of that year, 1973. Marianne and I had returned home from our respective boarding schools for the Easter holidays.
Dad was in a Mood.
I can’t remember the cause of this particular Mood, but it had doubtless followed the usual path. It usually began with a minor event which, whilst being of no great inconvenience to him, had somehow reactivated his ongoing loathing of New College School. This seed, thus germinated, steadily grew into a dense thicket of hatred. It grew to entangle mum, me, Marianne, mum’s family members, dad’s family members, paying tax, paying school fees, paying wages, something that happened yesterday, something that might happen tomorrow … well … everything really.
Mum and dad were having an argument in the kitchen, although argument is too grand a word for their pointless exchanges. There were no sublime propositions or counter-propositions. Dad was merely shouting, and mum was trying to placate him.
Placation was a useless strategy when dad was in a Mood. I know because I’d tried it. Several times.
My tactic was always the same. I would offer to make him a cup of tea. That’s all. Would you like a cup of tea? What could be more conciliatory than offering to make someone a cup of tea? His answer, without exception, would be…
“NO!” was Mood-speak for “FUCK OFF!”, but he abstained from swearing because he had standards. The furthest he went with expletives was the relatively mild bloody. To be fair though, he could pack more toxicity into “NO!” than most people could pack into a stream of even the most industrial language.
I knew, of course, that appeasement wouldn’t work with him. I’d experienced his torrential blast of “NO!” enough times to realise. I knew perfectly well that I was only feeding him with a chance to discharge his noxious waste in my direction. That was always obvious from the undisguised relish with which he seized the opportunity.
It’s really just an example of how desperation can sometimes trump reason.
Dad was shouting at mum in the kitchen. I could hear his shouting from my bedroom on the second floor. I could hear it from the downstairs TV room. His shouting pulsed and pounded through my very being. Even when he was taking a pause, he was still shouting inside my head. It felt as if the air inside the house had become viscous. Physical movement had become laboured. His demented rage made everything …. leaden.
I found sanctuary, of a kind, in the study on the first floor. There was a piano in this room, and a fairly good one too. I only knew one piano piece. The minuet in G Major wrongly attributed to J. S. Bach. It’s quite well known. It goes like this:
Daah da-da-da-da daaah (dum dum)
Daah da-da-da-da daaah (dum dum)
It was a piece which I practised obsessively. I must have played it a hundred times or so by then, with gradually decreasing ineptitude.
There, while playing the piano, I could still hear their purposeless, one-sided quarrel. It travelled upwards in the kitchen, to be absorbed by the ceiling, and then projected sideways along the floorboards towards the study. By the time it reached me it had reduced in volume to a an angry, undulating rumbling punctuated by occasional higher-pitched protests. I could pick out occasional words…
‘…BECAUSE OF YOU AND YOUR BLOODY SCHOOL…’
‘I’VE HAD JUST ABOUT ENOUGH OF YOUR…’
I had reached the stage where I was able to play the minuet all the way through with left and right hands working together. But it wasn’t perfect by any means. Sometimes it was necessary to slow down, just to make sure I’d anticipated the correct fingering. I tried to concentrate.
‘…TIME AND TIME AGAIN…’
The piano teacher at Bootham had told me that my playing lacked feeling, expression. He was completely justified in this criticism, but I didn’t see it as a priority. It struck me as more important to firstly get the hang of actually hitting the right notes. Feeling and expression could come later. I tried to concentrate.
‘… AND IF YOU THINK I’M JUST GOING TO…’
‘…AND YOUR STUPID…’
The fragile, rippling melody of the minuet struggled against the undertow of dad’s joyless ranting. My shoulders, arms, wrists and fingers were too tense. The notes were too staccato, uneven. My performance was becoming an insult to the composer. Nevertheless, I tried to concentrate.
‘…TIME … AND … TIME … AND … TIME AGAIN…’
‘… SICK AND BLOODY TIRED OF HIS …’
“HIS”! Did he just say “HIS”? I couldn’t be sure. If he did, then he’d be talking about me. I was variously referred to as “HE”, “HIM”, “THAT BLOODY STUPID SON OF YOURS”. Any minute now, he’d be shouting “ALL THAT TROUBLE HE CAUSED”. He’d be referring to my suicide attempts as proof of my worthlessness. It would be triumphantly paraded as evidence. The past was never allowed to recede. The future was never allowed to advance. The past was always present. The past was the present.
‘…ALL YOU CARE ABOUT IS…’
‘I’VE BLOODY WELL HAD ENOUGH!’
Dad had bloody well had enough.
The Mood had reached its apex (or nadir, depending on how you looked at it). Unknown objects smashed into resonant surfaces. A door slammed, opened, and slammed again. Feet stamped up two flights of stairs. More banging. More crashing. An upstairs door slammed shut. Feet stamped down a single flight of stairs. They had arrived on the first floor.
Here the feet paused, reflectively. A pair of ears had heard the sound of a piano coming from the first floor study.
Daah da-da-PLINK-da daaah (dum dum)
Daah da-da-da-da daaah (DONK dum)
The ears communicated their discovery to the feet. There was business to attend to on the first floor. The feet stamped up the five steps which connected the lower and upper landings. They approached the study. Dad’s head appeared around the side of the half-open door.
“I’M GOING NOW AND I’M NOT COMING BACK!” bellowed dad’s head.
He fully entered the room. He was carrying a suitcase. He wanted me to notice the suitcase. This meant he was leaving. He really was leaving.
Relief competed with tension for control of my face. It would have been a mistake to appear relieved right at that moment. If dad had thought I was relieved then he might have changed his mind about going. Happiness was forbidden when he was in a Mood. His primary objective was to make people unhappy. He seemed convinced that his departure would serve as punishment to us, therefore I strived to look … punished.
He looked at me for just a moment. His head was turned slightly to one side, while his eyes expressed revulsion. This was how he mimed “I CAN’T STAND THE BLOODY SIGHT OF YOU.”.
He could say those words out loud as well. He often did.
He left the room.
My body remained rigid while I heard him descend the front stairs, cross the hallway, and open the front door. I heard the front door shut. It slammed shut. Yet another sub-atomic particle of insane anger had been converted into sound energy.
Dad had gone and he wasn’t coming back.
It was similar to that feeling you get when having recovered from a severe illness. You can feel normality streaming back and reasserting itself. Time resumes its natural flow, instead of pinning you to a single, unendurable moment.
I ventured out of the study. Cautiously. Like an animal emerging from hibernation, but still suspicious that spring hadn’t actually arrived. I needn’t have worried though. The air had regained its fluidity. The silence (the silence!) had returned.
The silence was everywhere. I wanted to immerse myself in the silence.
I drifted downstairs in the spirit of exploration and, after an interval, found mum in the kitchen. She was sitting at the kitchen table. She looked distant. Distant and numb. If she had spoken, I imagine she would have said ‘Thank God for that! Now what do we do?’.
She seemed different somehow. She seemed less like a headmistress and more like a person. I mean … more like a mother. Actually I don’t know what I mean. Sufficient to say that something had changed.
Marianne appeared from wherever she had been secreting herself. Probably in her bedroom on the top floor.
“Has he gone?”
We didn’t talk about what had just happened. We each had our own private interpretation of what it meant.
The afternoon passed in the way that it ought to pass during the school holidays. I played with Lassie in the garden. I listened to music on the record player. I tried playing the piano again. The notes had now re-acquired their pitch and timbre.
At tea-time, mum cooked us some oven-baked southern-fried chicken. We ate it while watching television in the downstairs TV room. (That’s Marianne’s recollection rather than mine. Food doesn’t linger in my memory.)
It was about ten o’clock in the evening when mum asked me to lock up. I duly bolted the front door, and slid the security chain into its track. It made sense to lock up because dad wasn’t coming back. He’d said so.
The sense of normality was intoxicating. It would remain this way until…
Until the doorbell rang, and I knew that dad had returned.
The doorbell didn’t just ring, but it pierced. It penetrated. It produced a sound which transcended all of the doorbell’s previous sonic achievements. The sound was solid, three-dimensional. It filled the house with its piercing, penetrating insistence. It just WOULDN’T stop ringing.
The doorbell stopped ringing.
The doorbell refilled its lungs.
The doorbell rang again. It pierced again. Louder this time. One single, continuous, deafening note reverberating from walls and ceilings, assaulting my ears with its relentless demand. ANSWER THE DOOR! It produced jagged, stinging harmonics. I had to screw up my eyes from discomfort.
That’s how I knew it was dad.
How did he do that? A doorbell should sound the same whoever was ringing it. A doorbell ought to be ‘operator independent’. How was he able to infect inanimate objects with his hatred?
Marianne swears that, when walking home along Northumberland Road, she was able to tell if dad was in a Mood just by looking at the frontage of New College. Ordinarily, its facade stared impassively, with imperious detachment, along the A452 towards Leamington town centre. After all, the house had been built in the 19th century. It was unconcerned with modern life. It was uninterested in the cars, lorries and busses travelling back and forth along the route to Kenilworth. It was unimpressed by the contemporary development of expensive luxury flats on the opposite side of the road. It simply gazed, abstractedly, in the direction of Leamington, dreaming of The Days of Empire.
Except when dad was in a Mood.
In which case, as Marianne rounded the final elbow of Northumberland Road, and New College hove into view, an altogether different facade would appear.
Now the first floor windows were eyes, blazing their disgust at the T-junction where Northumberland Road joined the A452. The portico was a mouth, sneering its contempt in solidarity with the eyes. The cars, lorries and busses were obscenities. The development of luxury flats tried to appear smaller, hoping to conceal itself behind the tastefully and sympathetically arranged trees and shrubbery.
It doesn’t sound plausible, does it?
It’s true that dad could amplify and distort the sound output from a doorbell. It’s also true that he could hammer a baroque minuet into atonal pulp. But the notion that his Mood could penetrate a couple of feet of Victorian brickwork simply exceeds credibility.
And yet I believe her. I really do.
I waded through the wall of noise to attain the front door. I removed the security chain from its track, unbolted the door, and opened it. Dad was standing on the other side. He was fuming. He was seething. He was explosive.
“WHY DID YOU LOCK THE FRONT DOOR!” he exploded.
Did that question really terminate with an exclamation mark?
Yes it did!
Because it wasn’t a question. Had it been a question, I could have answered “You said you weren’t coming back.”. He would have examined his recent memory and seen the truth of my reply. He would have been bound to say “Oh yes! You’re right. So I did.”.
But it wasn’t a question. The words had originated from within the bowels of his Mood-world. In this otherworld, reality was expected to re-configure itself around his immediate requirements. If his requirements changed (and they did!) then reality must also change.
I, by opening the front door, had become reality’s representative. I was responsible for reality’s failure. I had locked the door deliberately to thwart him. It had been done intentionally to frustrate his re-entry into the house from which he had previously declared his intention to permanently depart.
Except that he had never made such a declaration. That was now a fiction.
But he was carrying a suitcase wasn’t he? Doesn’t that prove something?
Well, yes and no. But mainly no. There was no suitcase. Anyway, such evidence would have been merely circumstantial.
I was silent. I was silent because I couldn’t think of anything to say. He had that effect on me.
Dad re-shouted the question, statement, accusation :
“WHY DID YOU LOCK THE FRONT DOOR!”
I repeated my silence.
This non-conversation was going nowhere. He stormed past me carrying his not-a-suitcase. (He could actually storm). He stormed away down the hall with a suitcase in neither hand.
I closed the front door, bolted it, slid the security chain into its track, and went to bed.