Sunday, October 22, 2006

Him Upstairs

Sometimes God would just turn up uninvited. Usually at the most inopportune time. I’d just be getting settled in front of the tele with a microwave lasagne, or be wandering half naked round the flat, when I’d hear him tramping down the stairs.
I’d chuck some clothes on and try make the place look half respectable - closing the kitchen door so that he wouldn’t be able to see the pile of untended washing up - and wait for him to knock. In the beginning, I used to try and hide, pretend I was out. But there was no point. He’d just keep banging at the door until I couldn’t take it anymore. I’d have to open up and pretend I’d been asleep.
“Asleep?” he’d say, shaking his head gravely. “In the middle of the afternoon?”
Either that or, if he did give up and trudge back up to his own place, I’d have to spend the rest of the day shuffling around like a mouse, pretending I wasn’t there. It just wasn’t worth the hassle.
I wouldn’t have minded so much if there had been any point to his visits, if he’d wanted to borrow a cup of sugar or something. But he was just a lonely old man.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not completely heartless and I’ve known loneliness as well as anyone. And I didn’t mind keeping the old codger company from time to time. But it was just getting to be a bit much. It got to the point where he’d come down everyday. I’d get home from work and as soon as I turned the key in the front door he’d be waiting on the stairs.
“Alright?” I’d nod half-heartedly. “On your way out?”
He’d purse his lips together and shrug. “No. Not really,” he’d mutter a little sadly. There would then follow a protracted, awkward silence – a standoff really - while I waited for him to leave and he waited for me to ask. He always won.
“Cup o’ tea then?” I’d say.
“Oooh, that’d be lovely, son” he’d reply. He always called me ‘son’.
Things would invariably then progress in much the same way. He’d follow me inside and I’d put the kettle on, making small talk as I offered the plain chocolate digestives. But small talk never lasted long. There was always something for him to moan about. Pick a subject, any subject, and he’d launch into what was wrong with it.
For example: “It’s all about money. That’s what people worship nowadays. No one gives a damn about anything else. It’s just money, money, money...”
Or this: “Bloody fags an’ queers everywhere. ‘Alternative lifestyle?’ My arse. A fag’s a fag, simple as that.”
There’s more: “’Course, it all started going wrong when women started going out to work. Oh I know your not allowed to say it, but women weren’t made for work. Women were made to raise the kids. It’s no wonder they’ve all gone off the rails.”
On and on and on: abortion, equality, immigration... It was like talking to someone who’d fallen into a coma in the fifties and had only just woken up. Even if I tried to steer the conversation onto less contentious subjects, he’d always find something to moan about.
“D’ya see the game last night?” I’d ask.
“Football? Don’t get me started on football. One of man’s better inventions admittedly, but even that’s gone to the dogs. Oh yes, a lot of very talented players - very gifted players. But do they acknowledge what they’ve been given? Do they hell. No appreciation that’s the trouble.”
See what I mean? It was hopeless. And there was no arguing with him. What he said was carved in stone.
He was like some bitter old man who couldn’t accept the fact that the world had moved on, never missing a chance to bask in past glories whilst pissing on someone else’s fire.
“So you’re a writer then? I wrote a book once.”
“Yes, I think you may have mentioned it.”
“Big seller too, translated into almost every language.”
Which of course wouldn’t have mattered had he been a little more reasonable about that tower in Babel. But I let it slide.
“’Course, nowadays everyone assumes it was ghost-written. Like I couldn’t possibly have written it myself. As if I’m just some Z-list celebrity with a book deal rather than the creator of... everything!”
But the worst was when he started talking about his kids. About how they’d deserted him. How they didn’t care about him anymore. “An’ after everything I’ve done for them,” he’d say. “It’s as if I don’t exist.” Always the same thing. “All they do is bicker amongst themselves. An’ then they blame me for everything! It’s as if they’re descended from monkeys.”
Blah, blah, blah....
He would veer between indignation and melancholy. There were several times when he was close to tears. “Maybe it is all my fault?” he’d say. “But what can I do? I tried. I really did try my best for them kids.”
“Of course you did,” I’d say. “And I’m sure deep down they know that.” Well, what else can you say to someone in that state?
“’Course, they got the other fella now ain’t they? Bloody devil.” Oh he hated that other fella. But then the two of them had had their share of run-ins over the years. But the more he talked, the cooler the other guy sounded. “Of course they love ’im. Let’s ‘em do whatever they want. Turns a blind eye to everything: drinking; smoking; sex; drugs...”
And he’s got all the best tunes. But again, I let it slide.
“No discipline y’see,” he’d go on while I tried to stop my eyes from glazing over. “Let’s ’em get away with murder. Encourages them half the time ” And then we’d sit in this awful silence while he brooded on it. “Sometimes,” he’d say, “I just want to wash my bloody hands of ’em.”
More silence. And I’d be left to rack my brains for a way to get him to leave. Only he hadn’t finished yet. “Of course, it’s different when the chips are down.” he’d say. “Who do they come running to then? That’s right, their old dad.”
In spite of everything, it was hard not to feel a pang of sympathy for him at this point.
“They come back and it’s all, ‘I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.’ And of course I forgive them. I’m their dad, right? I welcome ’em back with open arms. And they say, ‘If you just give me this’ or ‘If you could just do that, eveything’ll be ok.’ But they expect me to make things right for them jus’ like that. In an instant. And if I don’t... well then there’s hell to pay. They start swearing an’ taking my name in vain, shakin’ their fist and yelling: ‘I knew you couldn’t help. I don’t believe in you anyway!’”
He would allow himself a rueful chuckle. “And do you know what I say to that?”
“Tell me.”
“I say: ‘Well then, what are you talking to me for?’”

Dan Broadbent

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