Home was a hugely different place than the bakery and my parents’ relationship was certainly different from the ones I observed between the parents of school friends. For a start they kissed. I never remember seeing any of my friends’ parents kiss each other and my friends commented on the fact that my parents kissed each other hello and good bye. Also they cuddled. And we all cuddled, on the sofa, especially watching afternoon films. As the youngest I experienced more of this than my brother or sister. I certainly always felt a physical closeness to them both and in our home in general. My father was very good, at least with me, at the everyday kind of displays of affection. His difficulty was in expressing a deeper level of feeling or rather in expressing more complicated sets of feelings. He was also unable to articulate clearly how he felt except through this very stylised kind of gesture and statement. What proved to me that the Dad who hugged me and kissed me goodnight sometimes, was the real father and the rather serve, shouting, angry and controlling person I saw in the bakery was someone else, were a number of key incidents like the discovery of the paedophile.
Work life balance would not have meant very much to my dad. I think that he set out to achieve a kind of mental balance by letting off steam on issues of substance with my mother and then simply releasing energy by engaging in his various combats at work. He did not sit and drink quietly to achieve oblivion – he worked and shouted his way through his male crisis points. Work was life and therefore work was also the arena in which his own problems had to be sorted out. In a sense he did in public and obvious ways – immense effort and verbal violence – what most men do in private ways.
There was, even when he suffered the two greatest tremors of his life, a sense of balance about him. The romantic in me likes to see this balance as the personal articulation of his sense of self expressed through his craft. That in doing this simple and ancient job he worked out physically and emotionally the problems he faced in the modern parts of his life as a businessman, a husband and especially as a father.
The two worst things that happened in my father’s life were the illness that affected my sister from her late teens and the loss of his company. It is obvious that he worked out the stress of the problems with his company in the way he conducted himself. The use of his voice, his physical size, his temper and shouting, but also the intimidating quality of his skill and expertise, his imagination and charm. These combined to reflect and channel the stress of what he was failing at doing with his working life. But there were also darker things going on that at the time I did not understand. Only once did we discuss it.
After I had gone to university to read history and politics at Queen Mary College in London I returned home less frequently as the terms progressed. But on one occasion I turned up unexpectedly for a weekend. I think I had just broken up with a girlfriend, or I was broke or something had happened at home to pull be back. I do not remember. Dad woke me early as was his habit when I appeared and asked if I could help out. I realised on this trip that he did not actually need me so I said no. I had only ever said no once before.
This had happened just after the largest configuration of his companies had been taken from him because he had misunderstood something. The millers who supplied the flour to the bakery were the biggest creditors. We carried a debt of around £50,000 with them on a turnover of around £1,000,000 a year. In other words the debt though substantial was not crippling. But the business had grown large and increasingly complex. Dad could not be everywhere to supervise things and the addition of the plant bakery generated many problems of logistics and personnel. Dad seemed to be spending more and more time in meetings and less time on the shop floor making the goods. On one level he liked being the businessman, but on another it generated a kind of stress that he found difficult to deal with.
For my Dad, the continuous challenge and central appeal of life in the bakery was that while much could go wrong in the production cycle it was open to being put back on course by sheer physical effort. The knowledge that he could swing a situation by his presence and his effort on the bake house floor was crucial to his identity. The challenge of the production run in the bakery was tangible. The clock was ticking; the deadline was dawn. Everything had to be ready for dispatch to the shops, hotels and restaurants of the area of Southern England our delivery vans covered. He could not achieve the same thing in meetings with creditors or accountants.
The suits from the millers asked Dad if he wanted help with the administration of the company. What Dad thought they meant was that they would provide some executive support for the paper elements of running the business. What they actually meant was that the company would be put into administration. The day after he had signed the papers, the administrators arrived to run the company. Our house and much of what we owned were tied up as personal guarantees to various investors in the company so the misunderstanding cost Dad his business and his family our home and many of our possessions.
It was just before these events that I had, for the first time, refused to work in the bakery and took a job doing filing in the offices of Abbey Life insurance company. Now the administrators were appointed and for some reason, entirely beyond me now, I accepted a week’s work doing packing. Dad simply could not understand it. But I came in and worked for the receivers as they slowly dismantled Dad’s empire and sold off what they could. We moved from our house to a flat, selling off much of our furniture, including the stereo and paying back the personal loans that been made by friends and family. My mother was still paying these back ten years later when Dad died.
On the later occasion when I was down from university I refused to work for him again. He had by now started again with the bakery at Yeoman’s Way. Maybe I had a hangover, I don’t remember. But I said no. Very few people in life except my mother ever actually said no to my father. In part his sheer physical effort had constructed a world in which virtually everyone was dependent on him in someway or another. He was shocked but like Mr Toad, whom he sometimes resembled, he was always ready to acknowledge a fault and I heard him say to my mother: “Why do you let me do it?” In the late morning when he got back I was just up and I rushed to apologise. But it did not go well and we did not see each other until evening. Not sure where he went. I took one of my long walks. In part to smoke Marlboro lights, in part to enjoy the sense of space and light across Bournemouth Bay and in part because that is what I thought undergraduates home for the weekend should do. I ended up in town and saw various people from school either home for the weekend or whom had never left. I returned home for super – there were limits, mainly budgetary, to the amount of time I could stay away. We sat in the kitchen to a pasta supper and I started to drink Dad’s wine. He came in.
I suppose I was drunk. I had not eaten since breakfast and then I drank very fast. The wine we had made together the year before fuelled the bitterness of the questions I wanted to ask him. But the wine was the excuse I gave myself to ask the irrational, emotion driven questions I wanted to ask him about the reality of our family life, a reality that I was running away from then and I continue to run away from now: my sister’s illness. We lived in denial of it much of the time. At least I believed that my father and I did. So that day at the supper table I asked how he had allowed it to happen? Why had he not done more to prevent it? I even asked him why he did not stop it now?
In the same way that I had refused to work for him once before, I had also challenged him like this once before. When I was fourteen and had began to read socialist works like Dos Los Passos, Manhattan Transfer and Nye Bevan’s, In Place of Fear. My first love remained soccer but I was beginning to move towards books. At the dinner table in our old house at Newstead Road, my father asked my brother to do a job for him at the bakery. For some reason that I really cannot reconstruct now, I said, “Will he get paid?”. My father ignored me. “But, will he get paid?” I was like a shop steward at a negotiation but I was also like my father, repeating the same phrase over and over again. Finally my Dad snapped “yes of course he will, you all always do”. He repeated this in slightly louder voices until I was finally silent.
My questions about Claudia, five years later, were directed at a different man. Between the two occasions he had lost his business and his home. I smelled a little weakness in him. I built slowly, I goaded him, provoked him until he began to yell: “Don’t you think I would have given my right arm for it to be different”. But though he yelled at me in the familiar voice, without swearing because he was at home and mum was there. And though he was still his full size and his full strength; still his shouting did not scare me. I knew he was telling the truth. His arm was his life. But in making him say them I had transcended his power over me. Stupid, stupid, teenage fool that I was I pushed his face into his own powerlessness.
The world is rightly obsessed by the cruelty that adults do to children but I think often of the cruelty that I did to me father. Maybe I needed to do it to become myself, to escape in a way that my brother did not while my father was alive. The size of the space that he physically and emotionally occupied in our lives was immense: in part by his presence but mostly by his absences. I needed to absent myself and I felt able to do this at a moment when he was at a low ebb. I did it through the emotional language he used with me: work. I realise now that I knew that I was causing him pain but I could not help myself. He had conceded that I was going to University to read history and not to the national bakery school. Formally the plan was that I would do my bakery studies later. But we both knew that would never happen. The fight, like all fights, in my family was apparently quickly forgotten.