The Cusp


From Table Mountain, 1200 feet, five valleys

Slopes of fields enclosed by English planted hedges

Verdant, lush, rain soaked: summer has finally turned green.

The clouds shadows pass across the sky bringing deluge

These drowned months have kept the butterflies away

In the cloudy darkened corners of the farms

Their wings are silent.

As every gully floods, streams as torrents flow, so my daughter walks ahead

She skips off from the path

Her long hair platted

Over the hood of her hoody

Her long legs darting

She clambers up the overgrown slope, then stops

“I don’t want to get my hands dirty”

But, she must reach the top.

The teenage cusp.

In sunlight passage rushing up

Her smile is of a little girl

In shady moments, keeping clean, the woman appears.

The slope is climbed.

The hands remain clean.

The cusp remains unnegotiated.

My butterfly daughter has certainly appeared

Her unrivalled beauty, objectively observed, and

Perfect markings

Her force of nature flying endlessly

From waking to sleeping

Her power of immeasurable depth

The character

Both statuesque like her physique,

and knowing like she plays games,

but also limpet and ungroomed around the edges,

blend in this space, this mass

of her unquenchable being

only this light a butterfly

could sit so long

between these complex worlds

and still be happy.

Wales, 20th July 2012

Sonhood 25

The Hepworth at Kenwood has become for me my father’s grave

There was a kind of terrace. Roses, pots, Doric style columns and a space about four meters square. We walked out of the funeral service and the crying began or began again. But now it was unstrained because everyone around was crying. At least that is what I thought at first. But then I looked around. David was crying uncontrollably. Mum was crying in the same way but she was also looking at us children and crying in part because of the way in which we were crying. My sister was crying but it was very much within herself. Uncles and aunts were politely sniffing and the merry men who had been invited stood embarrassed looking at their shoes. And the anger unspoken built. Why did they come? To gloat at the end or to, as the phrase goes, pay their respects. For what? For the years they spent giving their labour to my father and taking from him an idea of friendship. Playing on his insecurities and need for respect, his well developed fantasy life born of his massive and unfulfilled creativity. They were paying back the excessive over time, the low interest loans.
I stood there, cried and remembered the most embarrassing moment of my growing up. After we had lost the big business we moved to a flat with a big garden. In the endless attempts my mum selflessly made to rebuild my father’s self esteem, she organised a birthday party. Now we did not as a rule do people in the way typical English families do people. We did relations, fine. But “local people” were different and anyone who was not family was in the end local people, no matter how long we had known them. Dad kicked against this because he wanted friends. His problem was that work was his only mode for engaging with people. Friends were always directly associated with the business. The pattern was simple. He would meet someone through work and they would talk. Nine times out of ten they would, if they were that sort of person, notice that this was a mark – a person who might need social affirmation more than the business relationship. So they would play on this, flatter him, praise him until my Dad would think they were friends. And when they became friends his small about of business ruthlessness would disappear. Exclusive garage repair contracts for all the companies’ vehicles, long lines of credit, hours of free business advice would follow. The pay off for dad was the feeling that he had a life beyond the confines of the bakery and home. But this birthday party was simply excruciating. No one spoke, or they spoke haltingly. The bakers did not know what to say to Dad outside work. Dad did not have a mode with them other than giving orders. I wanted the ground to open and swallow me up. All the boundaries between home and work had been broken down. The bakers did not know how to act in this social situation and nor did Dad. The conversation could not get much beyond Robert’s beer drinking preferences and a little light teasing. Before too long they started to leave and we returned to the flat. The birthday party was never mentioned, and, as far as I can remember, never repeated. Now the bakers assembled again. This time for Dad’s funeral and again they did not know what to do. They were not sure how to cope with the flood of feelings that were emerging from the family. And now, years later, at unexpected moments, those feelings can return. Grief keep is a gift that keeps giving.

There is a part of me that does not really believe my father was real. I have an idea of my father constructed of memories and photos. I have put that idea into this book. But now that my life has become so different I find it difficult to believe that he and his little world really existed. That I spent all those days and nights working in the theatre of pastries. That my Dad was the man that he was seems like something I have seen in a movie rather than something which I have lived and experienced. I wrote earlier about the dysfunction between my memory and the real chronology of my life in the bakery. The fuzzy static that enters your head in the transition from childhood to adulthood. Perhaps death too makes the signal warped, the feelings fuzzy.

We have to lose that sense of contact for a while to be able to cope with death. Otherwise I think we would go mad. Some people’s lives stop at the death of a partner, they die very quickly afterwards. As though the signal disappears altogether. When my Dad died something else seemed to take place. I seemed then all in a rush to feel the need to ask lots of questions about who he was and who I had been. But of course I could not ask him. I wanted to rest my head on his enormous warm belly as we sat on the sofa to watch the afternoon film. Indeed, I wanted to do something and something which in our culture at least will be considered old fashioned, and slightly corny. What I had come to understand was that beside all the conventional and conflicted feelings that a son has for any father, I also admired him and therefore wanted to honour him in someway. These words are jarring: admire and honour. What place do they have in this world. You grieve, be sad, cry and remember. But honour? You love, respect, fear. But admire? It is biblical and Edwardian at the same time. Yet it is exactly how I feel.

What is it that I admired in this man? Well that should be clear from what you have already read. I admired his hard work and dedication to his craft. His obvious sense of enjoyment and accomplishment in what he did. I admired the fact that he took pride in doing a job well and finishing it. So much of what I see and experience in my working life now is about getting by doing the minimum or complaining about how much there is to do. So many of the people I work with seem satisfied with mediocrity. To put it most simply, I admire the fact that my father was not satisfied with mediocrity. He did not want a job done, he wanted it done well. The making was the thing not the balance sheet. The older I get the more sense I see in this approach to life.

The other concrete thing I admired about him was that he tried to let us know that he loved us. He was not a model father and he did not live in a way in which I have modelled my life. But from a very unpromising background he tired his best to let us know how he felt about us and I admire him for that. And I want to honour him because I never made it clear enough to him when he was alive that I loved him too.

As his coffin disappeared I tried to understand the distance between me and that small body that I helped to lift out of the bath in Nice. That plastic body I viewed in the funeral parlour. The man I cried for uncontrollably in the space outside the chapel at the crematorium.

I am fourteen years old. The dispatch is full of fresh bread and cakes. They are neatly packed in wire baskets and trays. All the orders are correct and properly packed for delivery. The packers are smiling, the bakers happy and the goods themselves let off a smell and colour of contentment. Everything is ready. The oven is warm but not fully hot anymore. I feel warm, comfortable. Am I in bed? I thought I was at work. What is that voice? What is it saying: “Titch!…tictch!…TITCH!”. “What, Dad?” “Boy you are asleep on the wrapping machine? Come on boy, wake up and get back to work”. He walks away whistling. Dispatch is half full. Orders are incomplete and it is still two hours till dawn. Better find a doughnut to give me some energy.

[This is the end of the first draft of Sonhood]

Sonhood 24

Shortly afterwards my parents and I went to the Sicilian resort of Taromina for a New Year Holiday. Holidays with my father were generally good fun. At the height of his business we had taken a series of expensive package tours. One trip sticks in my mind. The flights were chartered and left at odd hours of the day and night. Dad was working up to the last minute and had not had time to change. He was still literally and metaphorically covered in bread flour. We arrived late for check-in and were last to board, making ourselves unpopular with the other passengers. An old man kept asking for heating to be turned up until the plane was boiling. Finally this old man took his coat off and there was load applause from across the aircraft. Mum hushing Dad up from cheering as well. We called the man shop steward. For the rest of the flight he complained about everything. Transfer from the airport to hotels was by coach. We began to drop people off at various little hotels. People starting playing a game of guessing whose hotel it was next. We passed through large palatial gates and along a winding drive way. Both Mum and Dad were asleep. The shop steward began to ready himself. We turned a corner and the most beautiful hotel, literally a palace with uniformed porters, the works. The guide called the name of the hotel and no one moved. Shop steward had started to get up but now sat down. Dad stirred. “What, yes this is us”. The dishevelled Brivati disembarked to open mouths, leaving a trail of flour behind us.

By the time of this New Year trip to Sicily our means were considerably reduced. But it was still a lovely hotel. It was also a relaxed trip until something strange began to happen at meal times. Dad was always a fast eater. Now he was gulping down his food, then leaving the table and returning red faced and watery eyed from the bathroom. It soon became clear that he was not keeping his food down. After they returned home he continued to lose weight quickly. In July I had my viva for my PhD. After lunch with my supervisor and the examiners I took a train to Southampton. Dad had been admitted to hospital there for some check-ups. He was down from 18 to about 10 stone. The viva had gone better than I could have hoped, in fact we took the doctorate from the meeting room and deposited it straight in the library without a correction. I was on a high but obviously worried about Dad. I told him my news about the viva. He was visibly moved, proud and pleased. He told me his news: terminal cancer.

In September I had my graduation. Taking immense trouble Mum brought Dad up for the event. He was now close to being a skeleton, maybe 8 stone. Dressed in a dark suit with a fedora hat, he was exaggeratedly old. Dad loved fun fairs and always wanted to go. He liked the old boys, the characters of the fair. His old age was compressed into a single year because of cancer. He had looked forward to being an old man, an old character and he tried in those few months to distil his old age into the way he walked, talked and dressed. Nothing would have given him more pleasure than to have been an old man who helped the bake house out of a crisis – pulling them out of the shit. He never had the chance.

My grandfather’s skin was rough and deeply lined. Tears would roll down from his eyes sometimes and his skin was so tough that he would not notice them. His mouth seemed set into his face as though he had had injections of botox. In contrast Dad, despite the many burns on his arms had soft skin, a clear complexion and smooth cheeks. On the day Dad died it took me a while to get home from London. It was evening when I arrived and my brother drove me over to see the body at the undertakers. They had just closed and the cleaner did not want to let me in. Finally, after a certain amount of shouting, the boss came down and opened up the room where Dad was laying. But it was not Dad. His cheeks had been made hard by the embalming; his hands had become puffed up. His emaciated body was rigid in his death suit. He seemed shorter, more concentrated and his skin was like steel. He had become his father.

Sonhood 23

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.

Sonhood 22

The small family bakery business is in terminal decline. Supermarket in-store bakeries and large chains are gradually wiping out the kind of bakery business my father ran. The harder question is whether the kind of man my father was is also disappearing. He loved his children but was never entirely sure what to do with them until he could bring them into his own domain. He was the kind of man for whom work was life, but who would cry at the thought of a grand child. He was a first generation immigrant, a typical masculine emotional enigma and the best crusty bread baker of his year at college.
What I come back to over and over again as I think about him is the quality and meaning of all these memories that I am writing down. It is such a conventional question that it seems like a cliché to even repeat it here but: why do we remember what we remember? Camus, the philosopher I used to pretend to understand in sixth form, argued that if you have lived free for a single day you have enough to remember for the rest of your life in prison. I think about that idea very often. What was freedom for a child like me, a happy child growing up in a mostly contented home? Why do I remember so little of school and so much of the bakery? I think in part this must be about status. In the bakery I was one of the boss’s sons – “Here comes: and sons.” my Dad used to say – and therefore sure of my place in the hierarchy. It was not a high place exactly but it was clearly defined so long as I continued to behave in the way that was expected of me. Sometimes I overstepped the mark.
At Elliot Road there was a production manager called David. I have no idea how good he was at his job but I always suspected he was one of the people my father carried because they were charming and good at talking, a key also to the way my father always indulged me. It was early on a Saturday morning. Everyone was working flat out. Dave was late. I heard my father shouting to someone in another part of the bakery: “Where the fuck is he?” and we all knew who “he” was.
Finally David arrived. He came straight into the creaming up room where I was working. I said, “Afternoon Dave”. It was the kind of banter I often heard amongst the bakers. A fairly gentle kind of teasing went on all the time. I very rarely joined in because I was not one of the bakers. So long as I behaved I had this sort of protected status. But I was not one of them so I should not have attacked. I should never have entered their verbal games. “Its okay for you, part timer, you haven’t had people phoning up about your house all night”. He was shouting, raving really. Crashing bowls and whisks onto the table. I knew he had been selling his house and trying to buy another. I had no idea why people would have been calling him all night about it. Of course I realise now, having bought and sold houses, that it was just stress speaking. Stress made him attack me like that. At the time I was devastated, close to tears. I hide for a time amongst the flour sacks on the far side of the bakery. Then crept back to work. Much later I sidled up to him and apologised. “That’s okay, you just don’t know what it has been like”. As he talked he filled 6 and 8 inch sponges with fresh cream in a neat spiral, replacing the lids and cleaning the nozzle. His stress soon got much worse. The house move went through and he became much like his old self, chatting about anything to anyone, usually cheerful and working for long periods in the production office, just as he had always done.
Dad then made him redundant. It was the first indication I had that something was quite wrong with the little world. It was the first real attempt my Dad made to get to grips with the managerial side of the business. He did not really believe in management. Consequently we did not have any managers as such who were not also on the production side. There was no one to think strategically except my father. It was a typical problem for a small business that had quickly grown into a large business. The trouble with Dave was that the nice guy who had come back when the stress disappeared was not up to the job. He was sitting in the production office as usual when I went to see him after hearing the news. He looked at me and said, “It is like a piece of the furniture going”. I wanted to say, echoing the talk at home the previous evening, “If you had spent less time on the furniture, then you wouldn’t be going”. But my previous encounter with him stopped me. My values were that sitting in an office was not getting the job done but rather being lazy. Dave was no manager but actually what my father needed most was more time sitting at his desk looking at the numbers and the margins and planning. Or he needed someone to do this for him while he made the stuff. Instead another production manager was appointed and things quickly went back to normal.

New beginnings

At Gigino’s

It is time to love a poet,

time to turn towards myself, stop doing all the loving,

let myself be loved.

It is time to love myself.

Happiness survives for as long as it does so,

open up and trust the waters that flow will not

drown us.

My poet looked up and saw me.

She blushed in the light of what might be

and then she became liquid, all at once we filled each other up.

Now I need to know you better.

In the better knowing of you

I stand a chance to drink from our springs and

for a while now, I will not know thirst.

After

it will become quieter

those shouts inside your head will be becalmed

the scene absorbs amid children

daily routine

for granted is the refrain 

natural that it would calm down

comfortable we do become

life at our age, place, time.

but then the question of your face arises

the softness of your skin

the depth inside your eyes

and then

the sweetness of you compromises

any real attempt at normalizing you.

the loveliness of you

the endless fascination of your neck

before we begin to mention your smile

each kiss reminds me 

so I will silently shuffle past received wisdom

and whisper, oh yes that is true but not my dear when we are talking about this women, let me be clear: the rules do not apply to you.

Poem for the Weekend: Happily Ever After

Poem for the Weekend: Happily Ever After.

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