Sonhood begins here

The tension in the narrative of my family’s history is between two lives: my Dad and my sister. There was my father’s chosen way of life and the shape and texture this gave to our family. Then there was the tragedy of my sister’s MS. Dad’s story was much the stronger for the bulk of my childhood but it eventually began to fade when his business failed and then he got cancer. The other life story continued its complicated path. MS is a particularly vicious disease that gives the patient long periods of remission and then attacks them again, taking them down to a lower physical level on which they then stabilise for a time. One did not know from one week to the next which direction the illness would take. In stages it engulfed the lives of my sister and her husband Barry and then my mum. Claudia stopped playing her flute. Then she stopped painting. Then she gave up A Levels. But she has never stopped being Claudia. She had two children who in their different ways escaped from their mother’s disease. My brother moved sideways around it, involved but also detached by the demands of his own life. I got out to University in London. For my sister, of course, there was no escape. For mum no alternative but to cope. Slowly the dimensions of her life reduced. The busy business closed. Her husband died, her boys moved out and married. All that was left was her daughter and her daughter’s illness. I watch the person who was my mother. I watch the person who was my sister. They appear in momentary flashes. But after a while the fog descends again. It is a fog of rational anger and irrational planning for futures and escapes that will never come. It is a fog of irrational hopes and rational understanding of the impossibility of reprieve. For Dad this was a reality that could not be overcome by sheer hard work. It was a reality that he found difficult to face and later I understood his inability to face it as a sign of his normality.

On that snowy morning I did not yet see this. Dad remained immortal to me on that night in the Jag. But the crisis of that snowy Christmas and the way he managed it did make me think that he was not quite as omnipotent as I had imagined. Whenever I thought about the bakery I had always assumed that this was the morning that had somehow sealed my father’s financial fate and caused the loss of his business. It was so dramatic with the snow creating a backdrop for the vans’ headlights, with the ice providing a skating ring for the drivers trying to load, and it all taking place just before the beginning of the holidays. But I later realised that there were a number of years separating the events of the snowy morning and the end of my father’s business. These were years in which I finally began to engage with the academic world of school and stopped just playing football and getting by being articulate. I was verbal and sporty. I could not write or spell. Fresh from my remedial English classes I had a negative attitude to learning. From the age of about 13 I began to change and want to learn, overcome my dyslexia. But I have no memories of the bakery in these years. These resume in detail from 16. It is the teenage disjunction. My own world seemed to engulf me for a while and then things came back into focus in the lives of other people. This renewed focus on the little world coincided with the first really serious demonstration of my sister’s illness, which raised even more profound doubts in my mind about Dad’s potency.

As we drove through the early morning I savoured and was grateful for the feeling of closeness. I liked the blueness of the cigar smoke, the greyness of the ash and the redness of lighter he used to re-ignite it when it went out. I am not sure he inhaled that much. He liked the look and the feel of the cigar. He smoked them until the very end of his life. Even when he had cancer I remember my mum occasionally finding a tin of café crème or manikins, in his overcoat. In the silence of the Jag and in the atmosphere of this smell, we drove, too quickly, across the virgin snow through Southbourne. For a time we followed the same route that I took on my bike to school in the morning. Then instead of turning down Christchurch Hill we went into King’s Park; past the AFC Bournemouth stadium, round the roundabout and along the edge of Queen’s Park. Then onto Bournemouth College (now University) as my mother constantly reminds me and through Kinson to the industrial estate. All the way the feeling of closeness remained and then the Jag pulled up outside the bakery. The moment passed as Dad climbed out of the car and watching me slip a little on the snow and muttered “Stupid Boy”. We had arrived. On this snowy morning two generations of Brivati are awake and driving to work. Nothing else was said on the ride into the bakery. At 3am in the cigar smoke filled jag. My father always lit a cigar after he had cleared his throat and nose, there was a silent tenderness. Once we were at the bake house he became the boss and I was just as likely to be shouted at as anyone else.