A SWIFT COUPLE FOR THE NERVES

Then at five to seven I wander out into the Nelson car park and wait. All these years of not knowing and here I am, waiting on the bloke that fathered me... I sit on the wall and smoke a fag. Through the pub window I can see the big railway clock hung over the bar. Five past... Ten past... Quarter past... I light another fag and make a decision. Five more minutes then fuck it... It’s strange, but I almost start to feel relieved. As the big hand reaches the four I tell myself it’s for the best, throw my dog-end down and slide my arse off the wall. I start to walk when a silver Jag pulls into the car park. A burst of starlings spiral up from the tarmac, and through the windscreen, grinning, the driver holds a flat palm up as he swings the car across my path. Fuck… I walk slow around the back-end of the Jag towards the driver’s side. The electric window whirrs down and there he is. Big grin, gold chain, suntan. Billy?... Mick?... He leans back and pushes the passenger door open, and with grin still fixed he nods towards the seat. As I get into his car the smile on my face feels like it’s made of brick. We look at each other for what could be a few seconds or half an hour. Apart from his blue eyes he looks just like me, but fatter. We shake hands and he doesn’t let go. Well? he says, and I hear myself laugh, a laugh that doesn’t sound like me. I loosen my grip. He doesn’t let go until I make a slight tug. I knew it was you, he says, I’ve seen you before... Yeh? I say. My voice sounds thin so I sit up straight-backed and tighten the muscles in my stomach... It was in Halfords, he says. A few years ago. I saw your name badge... Yeh?... Yeh. I was going to say hello I but didn’t. Thought you might not want to talk to me... He shrugs, pats the steering wheel then turns the ignition key. He grins again. His top lip glistens a little as the engine purrs. Shall we go for a drink somewhere? Don’t think they’ll serve me here, he says, nodding towards the Nelson, laughing. We drive through the orange-red sunlight and make small talk. I take quick glances at him while he drives. It occurs to me that I should feel something for this man but I don’t… Or do I? It’s strange but I picture myself hugging him, crying and shit, but the thought of it makes me want to thump myself in the face. He talks about his building firm and I picture myself punching him, that same punch I’ve given him every time I’ve thought about meeting him. I look out the passenger-side window. He pushes a CD into the player, and the intro to Sympathy For The Devil flickers like a midge-cloud between us. He smiles at me. I smile back.

In the pub he tells me that he’s thought about me lots. I look at him as he talks. Is this what I’ll look like when I’m older? I watch his fingers as he raises his pint to his lips. He has fingers like mine. Or am I just thinking he does? He asks me how I’ve been. I’m sick of small talk now. There are things I need to know… Why didn’t you ever contact me? I ask. He looks down into his glass. Because I didn’t want to stir things up, he says. He looks up from his pint, looks me straight in the eye. I don’t look away, and for sure there’s something there, something bruised... Didn’t your mother talk to you about me? he says. I drink to the bottom of my glass in one tilt... Bits, I say... Like what?... Like, how you were a burglar, I say... My words seem to hang like fag smoke between us. He laughs, long and hard, then finishes his pint in one. I’ll get us another, he says, patting me on the shoulder as he heads to the bar. 

In the next pub he knows the landlord. It’s a shitty dive in a scrubby little village near town. I watch how the landlord looks at Mick, listen to how he talks to him. The landlord likes Mick. You can see it, hear it. Mick asks me what I fancy and the landlord looks at me. This is my son, Billy, Mick says. I nod and smile. The landlord grins, shakes my hand. He’s a grand man, your dad, he says... We sit in a blush of sunlight by the pool table. I watch dust float in the air for a moment... So what do you want to know? Mick says. Why you didn’t want me, I say. Mick’s eyes twitch, then narrow. He sighs. I did want you. Your mother didn’t want me. Your grandma hated me. I tried. Really. I wrote to your mum when she was pregnant with you, when she was in that home in Sheff. Told her how much I loved her. She wrote back saying she didn’t want me. Believe me Billy, I really loved your mum... I say nothing because I don’t know what to say. Mick drinks... Still do, he says. Something jags inside me, like the drop of a weighted rope. I imagine my mum hearing this, my stepdad... I saw you at the Town Hall steps, he says. When you were a baby. I thought you were being adopted. That was the plan. But your mother kept you. She didn’t want me though. And that was that… Mick seems to harden. We both drink, and I feel myself softening. My mum has told me nothing good about this man, and however I imagined this moment, however I saw this conversation past the point of me punching him in the face, it was nothing like this... I’m beginning to realise, probably for the first time in my life, that even those closest to you can tell you half-truths, lies... This man, in the fragments I’ve been given, was painted a complete bastard. Maybe he was back then. But he doesn’t seem a bastard to me here, now. He just seems hurt... Tell me about your mum and dad, I ask Mick as he puts his empty glass on the table wiping his sleeve across his mouth. He sighs. My dad was from Ireland, he says. Buggered off when I was five. My mother died when I was seven. I were brought up by my aunty... He shrugs, picks his pint pot up, wobbling the glass a little as the froth begins to settle in the bottom. There’s a moment’s silence between us. I become aware that I’m copying him. I put my glass down. Where in Ireland was your dad from? I ask. Dunno, he says, smiling… We have Guinness and a double Jameson each to celebrate our Irishness. I’m happy to have Irish in me and I tell Mick as much. I tell him about Nannan’s dad being Irish too, and a strange look comes over Mick’s face. I remember what he said about Nannan earlier. I decide not to mention her again. We have another Guinness and double Jameson. Mick puts his hand on mine. He tells me he’s sorry for not getting in touch. Tell me about my brother and sister, I say. He looks at his watch and smiles. You’re meeting them in half an hour, he says, It’s your sister’s birthday.

We listen to more Rolling Stones in the car. Loud. We drink cans of Holsten. We joke about fuck-ups. We swap stories of brawls and scrapes, almost shouting over the music and the rush of warm air coming through the open windows. I like Mick. A lot. And as we get out the car at the Saltergate Social, I realise that all my life I’ve been missing this, that all my life I’ve been trying to be good and failing, that all my life there was no need to try and be something I wasn’t. We walk across the car park shoulder to shoulder and everything starts to occur to me at once. This is my father. This is the part of me that I’ve been denied my whole life. My dad, who’s as far from a fucking angel as you’re ever going to meet, and look at him... happy, smiling, laughing at life’s fuck-ups, half-drunk from behind the wheel of a silver Jag.