Dart Valley Writers U3A

 

 

 

Steve Smith

 

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Fire and Water

 
   

He was a pervert; he was also a hero.

Christ! I can so clearly remember our mother going absolutely ballistic at him when I told her he'd been trying to touch me up.
" You bastard! If you dare do anything like that again I'll bloody kill you!  Do you understand?  I said 'Do you understand?' "  she blazed.
 I must have been ten or eleven, and I've never seen her like that, before or since.  We were all a bit frightened.  Poor Anne, though.

My dad was a fireman; he looked like one, too. He was big and very strong, with a ruddy face.  You knew when he was about because he dominated every situation with his loud voice, his physical size and what he clearly thought was his wonderful sense of humour.  He was a man in charge, although he must have known he'd met his match with Mum that day.  He never tried it on with me again.
It's difficult to know where he got it from.  As far as I can remember his parents lived like mice in a tiny house, only coming out when they really had to, and scuttling back in as soon as they could.  Grandad had been a plumber and his wife, whom for some reason we called Aunt Lilly, worked in admin for British Coal.  It must have been like wrens raising a cuckoo in that house when Dad was a teenager.  How is it that some folk, like him, have the confidence - or feel they have the right - to make life fit around them, rather than be like Anne, who always tried to fit herself into other people's expectations and desires?

I could tell so many stories about Dad.  I can remember going to the Town Hall to see Dad climb up on the stage to receive a medal for bravery from the Lord Mayor.  We were so proud then, even if he did go out afterwards and get paralytic. I remember he came home eventually and we gladly sat around whilst he told us the story we had already heard several times.  We felt, I suppose, that his courage said something special about us as a family.
"It was so bloody hot in there I could see metal things melting where they stood; and the glass in the telly was all bent and twisted."  He could tell a good tale, and we loved it; how he went upstairs in this burning house although his Team Leader had said he shouldn't; how he found a teenage girl in the flames, but couldn't save her; how he went on through the flames. . .
"And then I saw her.  She was just a mite, standing in her cot screaming.  I had my breathing mask on, looking like a monster from outer space, so she was probably more frightened of me than the fire.  Anyway I just grabbed her, wrapped her up in her blanket like a bloody parcel and put my fist through the window.  Straight away I was knocked off my feet.  Someone - probably Dave - must have heard the glass break and turned the primary hose on the window.  When you get hit in the face by a flow like that you know it!  Blimey, I was gasping for air, and my mask had gone flying. The kid was God knows where; everything was swimming.  Anyway, I somehow found the little bundle and managed to get her out of another window . . ."
The story ended with the babe safe in the arms of her dad and the mum kissing our Dad over and over with tears running down her face.  He was a hero, my dad.

Christmas was Dad's time, too.  When I think of Christmas I mostly just see Dad doing something: usually something daft, like standing behind the telly pretending to be a puppeteer, with his hands dancing about above the set as if the actors below were on strings.  He was probably just envious of the attention they were getting, the silly sod.  Anne was in hospital that year, I remember, and two months later she had starved herself to death.

I should tell you a bit about Anne.  She was beautiful; dark haired and with a pale, delicate skin.  She was quiet and very caring; at least that's the way I remember her.  I was three years younger than her, and I recall how I used to lie with my head in her lap, and she would stroke the soft skin of my forearm for ages, just because I liked the feeling.  And sometimes she would let me fiddle about with her hair, trying out different styles, and putting all sorts of things in her hair, like knitting needles and coloured pipe-cleaners.  When she went to hospital and died I felt so awful; as if it was my fault in some way, because I was alive and she wasn't.  I guess all three of us must have felt bad, although we all dealt with her death in different ways.  Mum started to go the church every day, and I suddenly felt cut off from her and became very quiet.  Dad, of course, made a great show of his grief and got drunk even more often.  I remember his friends apologetically bringing him home, with Dad in floods of self-pitying tears.  Anne was 16 when she died.  Oh Anne.  Oh Anne.

"God knows what he's going to do with himself now!"  Mum dreaded him retiring.  Dad pretended he was looking forward to "doing sweet FA", as he put it, but neither of us could picture him watching afternoon telly, or digging an allotment, or going down the Club in the afternoon.  He would surely need the excitement, the adrenalin of his work, but some weeks after he'd retired Mum rang me up and said, "You won't believe this. He's lost it!  Your dad has bought a bloody boat!  Here we are, living in the middle of England, and he spends his lump sum on a bleeding boat!"
It must have seemed crazy to her.  It was typical, of course, that he wouldn't consider what Mum wanted, but the boat did give him something to do.  He spent endless time and money on repairing the thing, and then towing it to the lakes, or to the sea, and he risked his life in it again and again.  He loved it, and let's face it, Mum was pleased to be able to continue her life much as before, that is, until the cancer took her.

I guess I'm thinking about Dad because it's the anniversary of his death; a time when you're supposed to remember the positives of a man's life, and perhaps set aside the more negative thoughts.  I wasn't willing to care for Dad when real old age set in.  I was sure he'd be a bugger, and he was.  "Challenging" is the word that was used by the workers at the Care Home, poor lambs.  However, for me, and for him too I like to think, for us his weakness and growing dependency gave an opportunity to meet in way we had never done before.  Stuck in his wing-back chair he started to look forward to my visits.
"Oh, it's so lovely to see you again, my darling!" 
("Darling??!"  When had I ever been his darling!  Up until then "Four-eyes" had been the most affectionate name he'd ever called me.)
His softer approach to me now allowed me to soften too, and to start to enjoy the company of the man who had shared a big chunk of his life with me.
"Do you remember . . ?  Do you remember . . ?"  We were both at it that winter, enjoying a new intimacy as we brought back the past, shining with the golden glow of nostalgia, into our shared hours together, sitting in front of the Home's electric fire.  He no longer wanted to go out, or to talk much to anyone else.  He wanted, no, he needed to talk about his memories, and about the people and events that had made up his life: the Fire Crew, his school-friends, his family and most of all, himself, and I was happy to listen, and to add my own memories from time to time.

Then, "He's been a bit upset", the Matron told me one Thursday.  "I don't know what it's about.  He won't talk to me, but perhaps he'll tell you.  And he's been more challenging than usual."
Hmmmm.
"So what's up then, Dad?"
"What do you want?"
"Charming!  So shall I just bugger off home right now?"
"You might just as well."
"Oh, come on. You don't mean that.  Don't you remember . . .?"
"Don't start all that again!  I've had just about enough of the past!  Can't I just be let to die?"
"I'm sure it'll happen in its own good time, Dad.  So, what's put you in such a bloody mood?"
"I'll tell you.  Anne."
"Blimey! Anne!"  I sat down heavily.  He hadn't mentioned his eldest daughter for as long as I could remember, and as far as I know no-one had mentioned her to him either.  "What about Anne?"
Dad stared into the monotony of the regularly repeating electric 'flames.'  "I killed her.  I killed her as sure as if I'd stuck her with the carving knife.  I killed my own daughter!"  His voice was loud and his right hand beat on the arm of the chair.   Even the residents with dementia briefly looked alarmed.  I felt a sudden dread.
"Come on. Let's go to your room, Dad, and you can tell me about it there."
And he did.  How he had "done things" with her, that he ought not to have done, and how he had sworn her to silence.  How she had kept her word.  How she had gradually lost weight until she actually stopped eating.  And how he had carried on having sex with her despite all this.  How he was a vile man and how he knew now for sure that soon he would burn in hell forever.
"I think I must have been addicted, or something," he whined.  Even as he made his confession he was seeking an excuse, something that would allow him off the hook of his very obvious guilt.
Until I'd had enough. 
"You can't tell me all this!  That's incest!  What do you expect me to do about it?  She's dead isn't she?  You're bloody right you killed her.  You're a bloody monster!  Do you hear?  You fucking monster!  Animal!  Pervert! "
I was beside myself, almost hysterical.  I was shrieking and crying, cursing him and feeling for the first time an immeasurable empty space where Anne should have been.  A sister.  My sister.  Gone forever.  Fucked by this monster and then fucking disappeared into a wooden box.  My tears overwhelmed me and I fled from him.
Some time later I had recovered enough to sense that I was in the Matron's room, and that I was smoking a cigarette; not something I had done for ten years.  Matron was holding my hand, and had her arm around my shoulder.  I must have told her everything, I suppose.  Thank goodness she was there.  Thank goodness for her years of experience and her wisdom.  I talked and raved; she responded occasionally. Then we sat together for ages and ages not speaking.  How do humans cope with such things?  But we do.  "Oh God!" I eventually said.   I heaved a great sigh, and managed a weak smile.  She smiled back, and I knew then that despite all this I would be able to continue with my life.
I never visited him again.

 

Now I'm remembering the late afternoon session at the Crematorium.  It was a few months later and Dad had died.  Having been such a 'character' in his life meant he got what's called "A good send off."  I sat in the same crowded, impersonal, almost clinically clean chapel, even the same pew, while the same indifferent fire that had years ago consumed my darling Anne now reduced that noisy brutish man to ashes.  Like many others, no doubt, I could not avoid imagining my own coffin on those nasty steel rollers.  The fire awaits.  No fireman douses those hidden flames.
My husband held me close as we left.  We have no children.  My face was wet and my heart and mind vexed with the confusion of feelings and thoughts.  It would take time.  I was glad of the rain, and the closing darkness of the late afternoon. 
Matron met us amongst all those pathetic empty flowers and briefly held my hand.  "He did find some peace before the end," she said.
"Oh. OK. Thanks." was all I could manage then, but now, occasionally, I'm pleased to remember those words.  But there again, there are times when I wish that he'd died in absolute guilt-ridden anguish and agony.  For me forgiveness is not once for all.  It comes and goes, I find.  Like all the other feelings.  They come and go.  Like everything.

 

 

©SteveSmith May 2014