December 28: xmas with my olde dad part six

Buying presents for my olde dad was never easy even when he was a younger dad. Once my sister made him a ‘tool box’ from a shoe box and crepe paper that she had seen on Blue Peter. He had thrown it out by Boxing Day. My mum made him get it out of the bin and parade it in front of my sister again, This time with gratitude. This act was alien to my olde dad even then. Now, forget it. On Boxng Day we were at my other sisters for dinner, and DVDs of the children when they were little were put on. I myself am hardly able to contain my boredom, but olde dad is completely uninhibited: He suddenly acquires a bad back (not even the bad shoulder!) and he has to be ferried home. Suits me. We got back in time for Match of the Day. Olde dad took a yellow card for the lads, as they say. This year I didn’t bother. Got him some chocolates. Everybody else had taken the clothes options already anywy. Longjohns; woolly hats; jumpers galore; gloves; thermal socks. It makes no difference. Two years ago I bought him quite an expensive posh jumper from some fancy shop. I saw it was still in his cupboard unwrapped yesterday. And last year I got him some fur-lined leather gloves. They’ve vanished and he’s back on the old acrylic £2.99 gloves he’s always worn. So there’s no point bothering. You learn to treat the whole business as ritual rather than real life. You repeat the lines laid out for you because new ones won’t be heard anyway, and you worship the old objects once more on the altar of the olde dad. It’s the only way. Bend unto it or be swept away! Resistance is futile. All hail the power of the olde dad ritual!

December 28: xmas with my olde dad part five

We are sitting in the living room at nine o’clock in the morning. Olde dad is having his first cup of tea. I am having my first cup of coffee. Olde dad had not yet put his teeth in. I have not yet put my eyes in.

– You know where is bread. You know where is turkey, says olde dad.

– Yeah. I’ll just have a banana for breakfast.

– Ah.

– Have you got your choppers in yet?

– What?

– Have you got your choppers in yet?

I know olde dad’s choppers don’t go in till 9.30 but you’ve got to ask to oil the wheels of conversation.

– You know where bread is, you know where turkey is, says olde dad again, as though it is some saying of the ancient world.

– Ah, I say.

– What are you having for breakfast?

– I’ll just have a banana.

– What time is it?

– Half-past nine.

– Ah! What are you having for breakfast?

– I’ll just have a banana.

– Have honeyhoops.

– A banana’s all right for me. I think I might have another cup of coffee though.  Push the boat out.

David comes down from the bathroom.

– You had breakfast? asks olde dad.

– I had some toast.

– You know where bread is, you know where turkey is.

David asks me: What are you having?

– I’ll just have a banana, I say

December 27: xmas with my olde dad part four

This morning I was awoken by the carbon-copy of a conversation I had already participated in six months ago when I last stayed here, but this time it was my brother David playing my part. Olde dad says I have to go to see doctor. David says what’s wrong? Olde dad says I’m bad. David says where do you feel bad? Olde dad says everywhere. David says why don’t you have a cup of tea and see how you get on? David was up early to go for a walk in the hills. Olde dad had handbagged him in the hall.

After a cup of tea the crisis was nearly past. The doctor was forgotten but I had to go to the chemists for pills (olde dad calls it the pharmacy for extra gravitas).  I said let’s push the boat out and have another cuppa. Olde dad takes two types of pills. One called Somethingaprazzle which is for his stomach; the other is an ibuprofen type pain-killer for his shoulder which aches now and again. I tell him he’s gor a bad shoulder because he sits around all day and a bad tummy because he eats shit. I try and phrase it nicer than that. But he wants to be taking pills. He is astounded and dejected that he isn’t iller than he is. Everyone of his generation is now dead – wife, brother, sister, all the family of his wife, all those uncles and aunts of mine in Manchester or Australia – all dead, all gone, and he’s left with the younger generation who don’t understand anything. And he isn’t even ill! He’s actually fighting fit. It’s a scandal! He’s hunting round for an illness to have. There is decline, of course there is decline, but there is no big enemy. He’s involved in a skirmish but he wants a battle. The other day he went to the dentist. The dentist said what’s the problem? Olde dad said I’ve got a bad shoulder. I try imagining the look on the dentists’s face. Olde dad is like Fabrice del Dongo in Stendhals’ novel La Chartreuse de Parme. Fabrice rides all the way from Italy to a place called Waterloo to fight next to his hero Napolean but when he gets there he kind of misses the battle. Wherever he rides off to, the battle seems to have shifted on from. He sees some horses disappearing over a horizon; he hears some explosions in the distance, he spies some soldiers in fancy hats who might be generals, but he can never get himself into a centre where the key action is taking place. He is always on the margins. He’s like a man who comes to the dentists with a bad shoulder.

December 26: xmas with my olde dad part three

We are sitting watching Bony M on Top of the Pops 2. It is Christmas night entertainment. These are the big hits of 1978. My dad turns round and looks at the clock. What time is it? he says. Eleven o’clock we say. Morining or night? he asks after a moment’s hesitation. Look around. We’re all around sititing watching the telly. The blinds are drawn. What do you think? I don’t know, he says, looking round. I can see his point. Here we are in 2014, watching a programme from 1978 with a confected simulacrum of a pop group singing about the exile of the Hebrews to Mesopotamia hundreds of years before Christ as though it were an update on a package holiday by a low-cost carrier.. A few minutes later the same question. Is it eleven at night or in the morning? Night, dad. That’s why it’s dark outside. It’s dark in the morning too. He’s right there and all. A few minutes later the same question. At this stage Abba are singing a happy song about being in love. !978. That was all up the spout by then too. They were divorcing. Basically, my olde dad’s main relationship now is with Time.They track each other; lose each other’s scent; lay traps for each other. I thought there was something wromg when he was eating his cereals after Christmas dinner, which we have about five in the aftrnoon. I suspected then that Time had given him the slip. If he does not follow his strict regime of events in the day, mostly food events, he’s adrift. Last night at half-one I was still trying to get him to go to bed so that I could sleep in the living room. He was still convinced it was the morning. He kept saying I haven’t done anything today.I just got up.. There is a passage in Proust where the narrator is astounded as to how each time we wake up from sleep we wake up with our own identity intact. It reassembles itself from the swirl of sleep in a sudden, miraculaous adjustment every time we wake up. With my olde dad that miraculaous reconstruction that should happen every time we wake up is starting to disintegrate.

December 25: xmas with my olde dad part two

I am sitting on the sofa in the extension part of the living room trying to read and I can hear my brother talking with my olde dad in the living room proper. My brother says: do you still take yourself to the barbers? There is a silence while my olde dad tries to understand the question. I too try and understand the question. I shout out from my sofa: What are you talking about? How else can he get his hair cut if he doesn’t take his own head there! Nobody can take his head there for him, can they?

My brother perisists:

– Do you still go to the barbers in the market square?

– What market square?

– The market square next to Crown Point.

– I don’t know where you mean.

– The square next to Crown Point where they used to have a market.

– What?

– In that square where they have a fountain next to Crown Point.

– Ah!

– Where they have a fountain.

– What?

– They have a fountain in that square.

– Do they?

– Do you still get your hair cut in that square near Crown Point where they have a fountain?

– No. I have hair cut in market square.

– That’s what I was saying.

– No no, I go to market square to get hair cut.

– That’s what I was saying.

– No I go to market.

My brother gives up. I return my eyes to my reading matter.


December 24: xmas with my olde dad part one

I am sleeping on the living room floor at my olde dad’s again this year. The house is full, so there is no option but that’s fine. I have an idea it’s good for my back. I fold the double quilt in two, sleep on one half and cover myself with the other half. The house is heated like a sauna. Eventually I get to sleep. Then my olde dad starts his night-wanderings through the house. The first time he comes into the living room is about two in the morning. I have just dropped off. The light goes on with a loud clock of the switch. I am stirring. He pushes me. Are you all right? he says. I am now awake. Yes.Why wouldn’t I be all right? Are you cold? No. What did you wake me up for? He mutters and sits in his armchair under the full glare of the overhead light. I clench my eyes and try and get back to sleep. After ten minutes the light goes off. He’s gone back upstairs. I am just getting to sleep when he’s down again. Clock! goes the heavy light switch. I stir. I need a drink, he says. He’s sits in the archair above me and I hear him do one small gulp of a glass of water. Ten minutes later he’s back up. This is now the middle of the night. He’s back down again an hour or so later for a little walk round the living room. It’s maybe four in the morning. Clock! goes the light again. At six in the morning the wall clock starts its hourly chimes. It is a novel chime which has a different bird call on every hour. Six o’clock is the barn owl, seven is the wren and eight is the blackbird. Most instructive, but not necessarily what I’m waning after a sleepless night. But by eight my olde dad’s up again, this time definitively, sitting in his archair in his day clothes muttering information about the day.
When Helen comes down I hear him say; he can sleep, that lad. I look up through red raw eyelids to where he is sitting above me on his armchair like the victor ludorum. I’ve been here twelve hours, I’m exhausted. First blood to my olde dad!

December 17: following an itinerary with gaps from afar

At school I had a French teacher I liked. I was no good at French but I liked his manner. It was a Catholic school and he was atheist. He told me when I was in the Conti Club in Manchester one night drinking after hours that he had told the powers of the school that he would would never discuss religion with the pupils and on this condition he had got the job. As sixth formers we went to the Conti Club on Friday nights when the pubs were closed. For some reason I always drank rum in the Conti Club. I think I thought that was the existentialist drink. I believe I vomitted in the Conti Club toilets every time I went there. Years later when I lived in Paris we met up and he said he had been requsted to offer me a job at the school as a French teacher. I did not take up the offer and I said I could not easily do it because I was now an atheist. Ah! he told me. That would indeed have made it difficult as the school was now fervent in its recruitment of Catholic teaching staff. I said, how come you are still there then? He been converted, he told me. I was astonished. How had it happened? One of the priests who worked at the school (I shall call him Fr Black) had convinced him, won him over to the faith was how he put it. My old French teacher sang the praise of Fr Black, whom I had known myself. He had taught us religion with casual interest. The next I heard of my French teacher he had quit teaching and become a bookie. I met him once in a pub in Manchester, The Black Bull. The next thing, a few years later, was the news that Fr Black had been arrested for paedophilia. There was a picture of him on the front page of the Manchester Evening News looking like an degraded, snarling version of Hannibal Lector. My sister asked me had I known him? I said yes but not in that way. I wondered how my old French teacher fitted into this. A few months ago I googled him. There was a chapter in a book about 16th Century French literature he had written. It was the analysis of a poem by Du Bellay. He had gone back to teaching and had done a doctorat on Renaissance French literature. The whole book was on line. In the preface to the book the editor had singled out my old French teacher and his premature and sudden death at the youthful age of sixty. He would be missed.
You follow somebody’s itinerary from afar. There are more gaps than clues. Who knows how it all fits together?

December 15: paris: fabrice and Frau Maximovic

The past is a country that not only drifts gradually away from us but also one that becomes more and more mysterious. I remember when I was about twenty-two and I was living in Paris. I did some English language tutoring to make some money and I went to a flat somewhere – can’t remember where it was – and there was a single mother and a little boy called Fabrice aged eleven and I had to give him an English lesson. I did this for a few weeks. There was no dad. We got on well and the mum liked it that we got on well. And then it was the summer and it all stopped. Anyway, I must have left my address because many months later I received a letter from Fabrice in English telling some terrible story. The mum had got another boyfriend and the boyfriend used to beat Fabrice and the mum and her new man had Fabrice taken away to a home, some kind of institution. The English was so bad that it wasn’t really clear what went on. I sent a letter to the home address but got no answer. I don’t know what happened. I think Fabrice had invested in me and I, oblivious, hadn’t particularly invested in him. This disparity in investment crops up a lot in life. I find myself thinking about my life in Paris a lot more these days and the more I think about it the more mysterious it all becomes. Who was I then? How come I didn’t see things? Maybe I just saw other things. Is it that I was younger and blinder? Or do things just reveal their mystery from distance? Close up things all seem so obvious. I wonder what Fabrice is up to now.
There was Frau Maximovic too. In the early years I spent in Paris I met all kinds of strange people. We used to exchange English and German conversation. She lived in a large but totally empty flat near the Eiffel Tower. I remember whenever I came she let me in, then went off to the bathroom to put her make-up on, which I could see through a mirror on the back of the open bathroom door. She would have been about forty, I suppose. She needed to improve her English for some hoped-for bi-lingual or tri-lingual secretarial job that never seemed to materialise. One day, after many weeks of translating her Spiegel articles into English and Newsweek articles into German, she told me I had to come quite late one day for a special session before an important interview she had for an important company. Companies were always important to her. I said I would. This special session was built up and up. We would do this and that for her important interview in the special session. I arrived and she wasn’t there. I phoned back a few times but there was no answer. She had disappeared. I never saw her again. What happened to Frau Maximovic? It was mysterious. I suppose she was just part of the flotsam and jetsam of metropolitain life. Fragments of lives that just bob up to the surface for a moment and then drift out of our ambit. I never imagine it ending well for Frau Maksimovic.

December 10: barbers, baldies and barthes

Got my hair cut at the barbers today. Women are bemused when I tell them I just turn up with no appointment and get it done for £11. I do leave them £12 mind. I’ve always been generous like that. And then they say: but don’t you have to wait? And I say: yeah, there might be three or four blokes ahead of me, so I might have to wait half-an-hour sometimes. They gasp. How long does a haircut take? It’s ten minutes in my barbers. Anyway, I don’t mind waiting. Where else am I going to read The Sun? And in any case, it’s mostly bald blokes whose hair they’re cutting. Though – I realise – barbers take longer with bald men. It’s with bald men that they are able to demonstrate their art at its most elevated reach. You see, the less hair there is to cut, the more the work of the artist recalls the work of the semiotician. Here we are in the realm of the theatre of hair-cutting, what Barthes in his celebrated work of popular sign decipherment, the hermeneutic masterpiece that is ‘Mythologies’ (Editions du Seuil 1957) refers to as ‘spectacle’. Indeed, the barber enacts the ritual of hair-cutting for the baldie and it is for this peacock performance that he is rewarded with £11 or maybe (if he is lucky) £12. Oh yes, it’s a semiotician’s wet dream down my barbers.

December 10: la rue des boutiques obscures and lidl

I left my book in Lidl on Saturday. I had it in my jacket pocket and must have transferred it to the blue moulded plasic holders they have before forgetting it at the bottom when I was packing all my stuff up at the till. Or maybe I left it on the conveyor belt.
it was ‘la rue des boutiques obscures’ by Patrick Modiano. I went back today but it was gone, definitively snapped up by some discerning house wife or husband. I imagined it appearing amongst the cold cuts, rubbing shoulders with the frankfurters and smoked gammon, another innovation from this German market-leader. It is particularly annoying as I had nearly finished the book and now have to decide if I am willing to fork out another £8 for a mere 20 pages of unread text. I’m probably better off just chalking it down as a read book. Modiano is pretty enigmatic at the best of times. I’d probably be none the wiser if I completed it and I’ll probably best remember it as adrift somewhere amongst German staples and delicacies inthe Lidl of the mind. ‘La boutique des livres perdus’ is how I might retitle it. They didn’t have any rye bread either today. Which further proves how things are flying off the shelves at Lidl.