Dad was packing a suitcase and he was leaving and it was all my fault. I lay in my bed listening to the sounds from Mum and Dad’s room, the zipping up of the suitcase, the fastening of the buckle. The air reeked of cigarettes and anger.
The Time Traveller is there, watching, listening, wishing he could help. The boy is in a catastrophically bad way. He believes everything that’s happening, and that has happened, is entirely due to his bad behaviour and personal shortcomings. If he’d been a better son, a better student, if he’d been better at everything, none of this would have happened. Dad and Mum would not always be fighting, and tonight Dad wouldn’t be packing. The boy wishes he could throw himself on the exploding grenade of his dad’s terrible anger, wishes he could absorb it all, and save his mum. He’s seen all these movies about World War II. He knows what to do. But then, he’s also up for plain old begging, too, if that would help. Maybe blocking the front door and refusing to let Dad pass would work. He doesn’t know. He’s desperate. He can hear his family coming apart. He’s dead scared. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen.
The Time Traveller would love to help him out. Would love to sit down on the end of the bed and explain a few things. Such as, what the hell is up with the boy’s poor tormented dad. Right now the Time Traveller is older than the dad. The dad is a guy in his thirties who is having a really hard time with everything, but especially with being the provider, with holding down a steady job, with his wildly oscillating moods. He doesn’t understand why sometimes he feels like a million bucks, and sometimes he feels like an unpaid bill for a dollar-twenty-five. He knows that every morning when he gets up he has to go to work, fixing engines on boats. Sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes they’re bastards of things. Sometimes you have to strip the things down to nothing and rebuild them piece by piece several times before you isolate the tiny, secret problem. Sometimes it takes all bloody day to look like a genius. Sometimes the clients are arseholes, too. That’s always lovely. Who expect the impossible, or won’t pay up. All of them arseholes.
And some days, it doesn’t matter, no matter what, for some reason, you just can’t get out of bed. You can’t stop crying. You can’t go to work. Your wife has to phone in for you. You’ve probably lost jobs this way.
The Time Traveller understands all this, and has had this whole experience, too. But the Time Traveller has also had, and is still having, treatment. He sees a doctor and a psychologist. He has a whole bunch of medication to take every day. He has a diagnosis that he carries around like a brand burned into his face, and he feels as if he walks with a limp. The Time Traveller gets it. He’d like to urge the boy’s dad to Get Help Now, Boofhead, before you destroy all these lives around you, including your own.
Then he’d like to do a couple of other things. The boy, who here is about 13, has been through this apocalyptic scenario a few times. Mum and Dad have had another big fight, they’ve said dreadful things, and next thing Dad’s packing a bag. I don’t recall Mum ever packing a bag. I also don’t recall Dad or Mum engaging in any sort of physical violence. It was never like that, thank God.
(Although, when I was younger, there were nights when I’d be in bed trying to sleep, but there was this noisy kerfuffle from the other side of the wall, in Mum and Dad’s room. There would be muffled voices, and the occasional exclamation and cry. It would sound like someone was being hurt. A few times, before I understood things better, I yelled out, all noble, “Stop it! Leave Mum alone!” Which I can only imagine resulted in fits of giggles on the other side of the wall. Sometimes a voice would reply, “Go to sleep!”)
I went through much of my youth not understanding my father. He was baffling and unpredictable. Every day would be something new and unexpected. Sometimes good, sometimes not. Sometimes the end of the world–job lost, or sometimes I’d come home from school and find Mum and Dad packing the station wagon because we were going for a holiday to Esperance. Now. Today.
No-one sat me down, when I was little, and explained to me that my dad’s weird and scary moods, his erratic behaviour, his wild and sometimes very generous impulses, were all symptoms of an illness. Mum sometimes, when I was older, tried to sort of explain this but I didn’t really get it. I needed someone, at an early age, to say to me, “look, your dad is sick. He does a lot of weird stuff, and has strange and unpredictable moods. A lot of the time he seems angry with you, but he’s not. It’s just his illness. He can’t help it. He loves you very much and wishes he could tell you more clearly what’s going on with him. But he is not mad at you. Nothing is your fault. Hang in there. It’s going to be okay. He loves you.” It never happened, or if it did and I’ve simply forgotten, I can still say I wish it had been earlier, much earlier. I would like to have known, when I first started feeling like it was all my fault, that it wasn’t. It would have spared me a lot of what went into my breakdown when I was 16.
If I had a time machine, I would use it to go back to visit this version of my Past Self, and tell him all this, to give him this kindness. I might also invite the kid, and maybe Past Mum and Dad as well, to come with me to 2017, the present day, when Mum and Dad, now elderly, live across the road from Michelle and me. I would bring in Past Self and Past Mum and Dad, and show them. Look, this is how things turn out. It’s going to be fine, once you get some help. Because these days, as of just tonight, my parents were laughing and joking and we were having a nice time over cuppas. We were close and happy. We were as far from that night when I was a kid as it’s possible to imagine. And to me it’s about the only really useful thing you could do with a time machine, to make miserable people see that there is a point in carrying on, that there is a worthwhile future for them.