It was the day of my father's funeral that I thought again of a moment in my life when I must have been around five. It was one evening, probably close to midnight, and my mother knocked on the bedroom door. My sister was asleep in the other room - my younger brother who would have been perhaps one and a half was sleeping there too in his cot. As usual, I couldn't sleep and I was playing on my rocking horse when she knocked on the door and instead of the usual request that I get into bed and turn out the light she said she was so pleased that I was awake and could she sleep in the bedroom as well. There were plenty occasions in the past when I had knocked on her door and made the same request, but I remember when she asked to sleep in my room I felt less the frightened boy I would often feel than momentarily the man of the house. She got into the bed that would soon be my brother's when he grew out of the cot, and I recall my mother explaining what had happened. She said that she had been reading in bed when she heard a hard, sudden knock on the window, and the sound of footsteps quickly leaving. Were they trying to break in or stare in, had they got the wrong flat or the right address but were looking for the former tenant? We had moved in six months before and years later my mother would tell me that the previous tenants were a couple of young drug dealers who often had clients turning up at the door, and they would occasionally still turn up in the first couple of months that we were living there. We had moved into this flat in Finchley and were in a mezzanine that covered the ground and the first floor, with another mezzanine flat above ours. The flat move, I would later discover, was a further attempt to save my parents' marriage - the first, my brother's birth, had hindered rather than helped it. They had a third child hoping that it would firm up the marriage; instead, they discovered it was exacerbating their frustrations with each other. My brother's birth made the previous flat they were in still more cramped; they reckoned they were even more in each other's way.
So they moved to the flat in Finchley and for the first couple of months my father lived there too, but then he seemed to stop coming except to pick us up at the weekends and take us to the cinema, where I remember seeing The Three Musketeers at a theatre along Finchley High Road. I recall too mock sword fighting with my dad on the way back to the flat, and going to a favourite ice cream parlour, which served thirty-four flavours of ice cream and the person serving us spoke in the thickest of Italian accents as if reflecting the thick, creamy quality of the ice cream. I have no memory of my father sleeping the night except for the weeks just after we moved in, and in time realised this was because he had moved in elsewhere with another woman not far from the cinema we regularly visited.
It was during this time that I couldn't or wouldn't sleep. My mother might have assumed I was restless due to my father's absence; I might have been inclined to believe I was taking advantage of my father's flight: that my father would have insisted the lights be turned off by eight in the evening, and there I was after he left still playing at midnight. I would also later assume that I was allowed to do so because it meant there was someone awake into the night as my mother it seemed couldn't easily sleep either, and hence her relief when she knocked on my door after the loud noise at the window and saw me still awake.
As she got into the bed after turning the main light off, she said that I really needed to get to sleep much earlier, that I had to get into a better routine. I suspect she was talking about herself too. A few minutes after that, as if not caring whether I was awake or asleep, whether she was speaking to herself or speaking to me, she said that while it was reassuring to have me there awake, a strong young man she could rely on, she wished that my father had been here to protect her from this unwanted stranger knocking on the window, unaware, it would seem, that he had gone off with another woman, thinking instead that he had only gone to live for a little while with his mother.
That night was twenty-five year ago, and I hadn't thought much about the incident since, reckoning numerous other tales from my childhood were of more importance still. My brother was always closer to my father and indeed went to live with him and the woman he left my mother over for most of his childhood as we became half-brothers even if we were of the same blood. My sister and I were asked one afternoon around six months after that incident, when my brother would have been only two, whether we wished to live with our mother or our father as they fought over custody. The idea was if both my sister and I chose the same parent all three of us would go with the one chosen. Both my sister and I agreed we wished to stay with our mother, but as my father got up to leave, my brother crawled off the couch and started moving towards him. My father lifted him up and held him as I never recall him holding my sister and me, and when it came time for him to leave, it was as though my brother sensed this was the moment where he would have to make a decision that his hardly sentient state would have denied him. He crawled after my father again, this time bawling, and over the next few weeks it was arranged that he would go and live with my father and his partner. He stayed with them until he was seventeen, went off to university, and they would remain close after that. My father owned a pawnbroker's shop in Kilburn that he retained until he became ill in his late-fifties, and when my brother bought a place with his girlfriend in his late twenties, after my brother got a well-paid job in a media firm near the Post Office tower, my father said he should buy in Kilburn. Our father had a friend who would buy flats in this part of London cheaply and do them up and sell them on. He managed to get my brother a good deal and managed to keep his favourite son close by. Each Saturday lunchtime my father would leave his assistant to take over for a couple of hours and he, my brother and my brother's wife would meet up at my brother's place for a lengthy lunch.
My father was alone at that stage, and I could see, on the couple of occasions that I joined them when I was in London, that these lunches meant a great deal to him: that he would carry his loneliness through the door, leave it there for a couple of hours, and pick it up again on the way out. In the last years of my father's life he couldn't so easily visit, and so it was my brother who would see him in the flat he still owned not far from the cinema along Finchley Road. During this time, for the first time in many years they went to see a film together, my father feeling he needed to get out of the house even as the debilitating disease was hindering all but the most cursory of movements. My brother helped him into his car and they drove no more than a few hundred metres to the cinema. The cinema now had a lift which they wouldn't have had twenty-five years earlier. My father rued the idea that he wouldn't have noticed all those years before the lack of facilities for the disabled and the infirm, and now if he would go out at all that would always be the most important aspect. But the lift was out of order and seeing the look of disappointment on my father's face, seeing how determined he had been to see this film set in sixties London, and which would bring back to him memories of the city that he knew when he could wander freely around it, my brother insisted that he would carry him up the stairs. It was perhaps a moment of humiliation, but my father said that he'd had many of those in recent years, and held firmly onto my brother as he took him up a flight of about twenty steps. They watched the film and my brother could see that at certain moments during it that his father was crying. Later, when they got back to the flat he started reminiscing about the past, about London, about my mother, about us.
And so there we were at the funeral, my brother and I, two people who could never be close, (perhaps since we were separated partly by our own choices at an early age) talking about my father, his father, our father. One of the stories he told me took place not long after he had moved out of the flat and into the Finchley Road apartment where he lived with the woman he had left my mother over. My brother said our father had left not because he no longer loved my mother but that he reckoned she no longer loved him. A few weeks after my mother and father had moved into the Finchley flat they had been invited to a party by the neighbours in the flat beside ours. The neighbours were no doubt relieved that the drug-dealing couple had moved out, and a family with three children appeared like a huge enough improvement that it was a good reason to throw a party, and also to invite mum and dad too. They agreed to go and agreed also, amongst themselves, to take turns popping back into the flat to make sure we were all right. There were around forty people at the party, my father reckoned, and amongst them were those in professions rather more august than his own. There were artists and actors, lawyers and doctors, there were wines he felt he was expected to know and light dishes that he'd never heard of.
The people renting the flat it seemed were less successful than some of their friends: the husband was an actor who admitted he signed on as often as he found work, and she would get the occasional commission but mainly painted hoping in time that her work would sell. She explained to my father what she was aiming to achieve but while some of the names she invoked weren't unfamiliar to him (Picasso, Van Gogh) the context she offered them in seemed to him obscure and abstract. He felt uncomfortable. Our mother, however, appeared happier - perhaps because she was receiving attention from a couple of men who told her that she should consider acting, or certainly modelling. Not everybody can act, they admitted, but some people are so obviously photogenic and even I knew as a young boy my mother was perceived as a beautiful woman. She said that might be one way to pay the rent, and my father overheard it as a slur on his manhood and as a remark that momentarily had turned my mother into a prostitute. He left after that, thinking someone ought to look after the kids, but stayed in the flat till the end of the evening. My brother asked him if he would often look after us, and my father admitted he didn't while he also confessed that he felt inadequate next to the others in the room that night. When my mother came back he wasn't sure whether he wanted to start an argument or say nothing at all and accept the marriage was over - that their attempt to save it with another child and a move to a bigger place hadn't helped and he knew that there was another woman who would love him how he wished to be loved. She had started working for him several months earlier and she had talked about her loneliness, her childlessness, her unhappiness in a relationship where the man wished to see her no more than once a week, and where she suspected that was because he was busy with other women the rest of the time.
My father told my brother that during that particular moment he felt more for this women working for him than for my mother and thus left our mum. Our father never knew whether our mother had slept with anyone else, but my father reckoned she probably did - during the fortnight before he left her, in the days after the party, she seemed buoyant and enthused. She dressed more provocatively he thought, though this could have been the summer weather coming in. Yet it seemed like she was dressing for someone else; clearly not for him.
And so he left, but in those first weeks staying in his new lover's flat he would not return with her after work to her place, but would sometimes say he needed to stay late and, after closing up the shop, drive over to our place and hide behind trees and bushes, determined to find out whether our mother had another man. I wondered when my brother told me this whether his father really believed she had, or somehow hoped she might have to alleviate the guilt of leaving her. My brother didn't know - but what he did know was that one evening our father came round later than usual. He'd been drinking at a pub nearby and walked the ten minutes to the flat, perhaps hoping to stay the night as he was far too drunk to drive home, maybe expecting to find another man's car in the driveway and the same man in my mother's bed. What did happen however was that he walked round to the back of the block of flats and found a ladder he'd recalled was located there, pushed it up against the wall and started climbing it as unsteadily as he'd just been walking. As he reached up to my mother's bedroom window, he swayed lightly, pushed his hand out to grab at something and it thumped against the window-pane. He quickly then lowered himself down the ladder and stumbled away.
I then told my brother my version of the events that more or less matched his own but from inside of the house rather than outside it, and added that I didn't doubt that our mother had flirted with men at the party as I would sometimes recall how she would look forlornly lovely for shopkeepers as they would give her 50% discounts; how she would get us into the outdoor swimming pool for free because she knew someone who worked there, how she did do a little modelling sometimes and joked that she had just sold her body. But I didn't have a sense that she wanted my father to leave, even if she were to answer honestly she probably wished my father had been a painter, an actor, or a doctor, lawyer or financier - to be more glamorous or secure in his profession. But he was a pawnbroker rather than a stockbroker, someone who would deal in other people's desperation and by the end of his life, my brother believed, felt plenty of his own. But what I now see is a man desperate even then, and a wife at that moment so in need of his company that she tapped on her son's door rather less forcefully than my father had accidentally knocked on her window. It now seems terribly poignant that the man she believed she was afraid of was also the man who our mother wished could protect her, and there my brother and I were, many years later, piecing the story together, once again on different sides.
© Tony McKibbin