I wipe my face on my sleeve and take several sniffs. This is the biggest, most powerful, most important, most overwhelming THING that has ever happened between Dad and me. It feels like something sacred. It feels like we are each different people now, with a different relationship. I look back into the notebook again, and Dad’s intense lines of block capitals are still there, somehow angry and determined to get into your head, to say things to you, to change how you think.
From what I have heard at school, from other kids, nobody else has a writer for a dad. No other kids are themselves writers. This is something my dad and I have to ourselves, along with our illnesses. I’ve heard stories suggesting that mental illness and creative talents sometimes go together. I wonder about the people with mental illness who are not creative, who get no helpful, beneficial gift to at least partially compensate for the curse. What about them? All curse, no gift? You’d be a bit bitter, I think.
Dad’s found all his fags, and is sitting there burning through what must be his third since I started reading his piece. What can I say about it. He’s looking out the window, working very hard to appear nonchalant. But I know he’s not. He’s putting on a show here. He’s prickling with self-consciousness.
I say to him, “Thanks, Dad. Appreciated.” I kiss his unshaven cheek. I don’t know quite why I do this. I’ve never previously done it, that I can remember. I do remember that he used to do it to me, long ago, before I turned so inward, and retreated from the world the way I did. I long ago stopped kissing Mum, too. Stopped showing care and affection for anyone. Except Zonk, now I think of it. Zonk makes me smile. She makes me laugh. I kiss her tummy, and rub my face against her face and she licks me.
Dad, meanwhile, reacts as if he’s been shot. He flinches and flings himself about, he drops his fag, swears again, and dives into the footwell in search of it, muttering about burnt floor-mats, and muttering at me, “What did you have to go and do that for, bloody hell, Rob!”
No regrets. I smile a bit, but I also feel the first waves of anxiety. I shouldn’t have kissed him. That was a bit poofy, mate. That was too sissy by far. This is why nobody wants you on their footy team, because you’re weak and soft, you’re suspect, you stupid shit. You don’t kiss your dad. It is only okay sometimes to kiss your mum, briefly, very briefly, and always with a sense of hasty apology about it–but never your dad. He knows this, and you ought to know it. There’s a Men’s Code, moron. Learn it. Get to know it before you embarrass all of us with your soppy bullshit. You’ve embarrassed the poor bastard–IN HIS CAR! A man feels most at ease, most comfortable, in the driver’s seat of his own car. Maybe in the toilet of his own home. But certainly in his car. There he is the king. And you don’t embarrass the king in his own kingdom, and that means you don’t bloody kiss him!
The voices go on like this all day, screaming at me. It feels like I’m standing in the centre of a footy stadium, and the whole stadium is chock-full of people, a d every single one of them hate my guts and they’re all screaming at me, the same stuff, that I’m a poof, that I’m useless, that I’m a girl, that I’m weak, that I’m nothing, and all the rest of the hit parade. This is my life every day, all the time. It’s never quiet. I’m always surprised nobody outside can hear it.
Today at school I am a stone in the desert again like my dad. Nobody bothers me, asks me questions, says anything to me, or interacts with me in any way. From time to time I get up and visit the loo. I hear whispers in hallways. “Did you hear what happened to Stuart Cross?”
All day long I think about my life lately. The dead man. Future Bastard’s messages. And now Dad’s letter. I feel as if I’m exploding in shock. Things like these do not happen to boys like me. Everything I did know about teenage boys and their fathers suggested that they did not get along in any way. They were always at odds, even at war. Relations were always sour until at least the boy got married and had kids. Grandchildren healed all wounds, it seemed.
There was nothing that I’d ever heard of where it turned out that secretly the old man and the teenage boy discovered that despite their differences and complicated awkwardnesses, they had big, deep things in common. Or, if they did, they were only supposed to discover this late in the father’s life, say on the father’s deathbed.
While I sat in the school library, letting the day wash around me, wondering vaguely how long the school authorities would let me do this, I wondered if I should take up writing letters to my dad?
The whole way to school this morning, he said nothing to me, but he went through nine cigarettes, sucking through them seemingly in seconds sometimes, his breathing so loud it filled the car. He tormented the wheel. I felt for the machine. He said in his note that he always felt so unable to express himself, but sitting there this morning, I felt very strongly what Dad wanted to tell me. I could hardly move for how his feelings and thoughts filled the car, and seemed in fact to make the car go.
I imagined him regretting every word of what he said. Wishing he could say it again, but better, more clearly, more elegantly. More concise, maybe. But in either case, feeling terrible for having revealed that part of himself at all. He had worked so hard for so long to conceal it, and felt since his own childhood that he had to hide it (I remembered what he had written about how his parents had made him burn all his writing, and how everything he wrote was “SHIT”), only to discover that his own son carried the same stain, the same burden, and the same scribbling urge. A father and son who had never been able to connect, to see each other as people, even as family, as anything much at all other than total mysteries, now had one amazing thing in common if nothing else. Could we build on that? Or would that be the thread that unravelled the entire fabric?
Fiona found me while I was waiting for Mum to collect me after school. I was standing there in the teachers’ carpark, as usual, watching loads of kids stream onto school buses. Filling in time. Then a woman about Mum’s age appears next to me. She smiles. “Hi Robbie! I’m Fiona! Nice to meet you!” Then there’s a jolt of electricity, of pain, and I’m gone.