I wish my dad had drank himself to death. Instead, whenever he got mad, he’d grip his thumb inside his palm and his breathing would get weird and tight. After years of barely-suppressed anger, patches of his cheeks and nose went the purple-red of good beetroot – a whisky shine without the whisky. The coronary was the least surprising thing that ever happened to him: he’d been alone, sitting in his chair, watching the TV blare something about immigrant hordes. With nobody else to shout at – not me, not mum, not even old Ms Potts from next-door, who stayed far away from the fence – all his anger went inwards and popped his fucking heart.
He insisted throughout his entire life that alcohol was the devil’s brew. He didn’t drink, or swear, or jerk off. I know good folks like that too, but dad wasn’t good folks. Dad shouted his way through life, and he shouted his way through two marriages, and he shouted his way to an early grave.
There’s this thing called learned helplessness. You put a puppy in a box that it can’t escape. It tries and tries to break out, but the box is just too big. The puppy turns into a dog and now it’s much bigger than the box but it still can’t leave: it knows it can’t, so it doesn’t try. I tried to stop dad from shouting when I was a kid. It always ended up with me on the floor, and him towering over me and shouting. One time, he’d been watching the rugby and trying to eat mashed potatoes. Some went down the wrong pipe and I tried to hit him on the back, like I’d seen on TV. He spanked me with his belt so badly that I couldn’t sit down properly for days. I was twenty-five when he died.
I got him a copy of The Divine Comedy for his birthday once. Passive-aggressive, I know. I didn’t think he would read it. He did. He told me loved he Inferno. He told me about Mr Wilkins from the bowls club, who was a fat fuck; about young Ms Perkins who worked the desk, and how she was probably a whore; about the widowed Ms Potts from next-door who was a treasonous bitch and wouldn’t meet his eye at housie. Inferno had ‘em all, he told me. Each one slotted into their own hole where they’d be tortured until the Almighty had time to sort ‘em out. A circle for cowards and a circle for killers and a circle for little brown babies born to the wrong religion.
Dad never touched a drop but I know deep in my heart that if he had, it woulda fucking killed him. He would’ve taken to the bottle like a drowning man clinging to a raft. I never met a man more in-need of a drink, and less inclined to take one. I wanted him to drink so he’d just stop holding it in. Maybe he’d have killed me and then mum and then himself, and maybe he’d have collapsed inwards and left a pile of clothes and skin on the kitchen’s vinyl floor. Either way, we’d have been rid of him.
Dad got so mad that he just fucking died. I came home to find him, bug-eyed and purple, clutching at his chest with one hand and reaching out to me with the other. He was still twitching. He might’ve been dead but it was hard to tell. I couldn’t bring myself to touch him. learned helplessness, innit? I sat and watched him die, or maybe I just sat. The man on the TV shouted about the Deep State and dad didn’t shout at all; he didn’t even make a sound.
I’d get up to call for help, then get close to him, then spin around and sit back down and chew another fingernail until it bled. I watched him until rigor mortis kicked in – his shoulders squared and his knees stiffened, and for the longest minute of my life I swore he was coming back from the dead to beat me until I couldn’t sit down. His empty eyes rolled and his purple skin was black and glossy. He was a giant again, a monster with a bulbous wagging tongue, and I was a kid staring him down. The change in position forced him up out of his chair and he staggered, then fell. I swear, as he fell, I heard him cussing me out. He couldn’t have, but the sound made it to my ears anyway.
He loved Inferno, but I’m still not sure he read it. The fifth circle is for the wrathful, and the seventh is for the violent; cowards don’t even get through the gate. They’re non impegnato, uncommitted, unable to act or leave. Dad died, and I did nothing. There’s no place in hell for me, but there’s two for him so I think it shakes out.
Maybe he’s suffering somewhere. That makes two of us.
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