The tension really began to peak around Strensham Services, just off the M5. Daniel had been getting increasingly anxious about visiting his father for weeks, but up to this point he’d had the good grace to bear it in silence. Daniel didn’t like to make a fuss (or so he vehemently protested) so whenever something was troubling him he found it best to push whatever it was deep, deep down and seal it away in the darkest lead-lined chambers of his soul. Then he could simply forget about it, until it boiled over and manifested itself as a pointless argument, or an act of petulance.
Which was exactly what was about to happen now at Strensham services.
‘Could you have managed to dress any gayer?’ Daniel asked Jackson, his fiancé, who was now returning to the car with two Costa coffees in hand.
‘Yes.’ Jackson replied.
He was wearing an elaborate paisley pashmina, and a black leather motorcycle jacket over a white shirt. ‘Don’t you like the jacket? I wore it for your dad, he likes motorbikes right?’
‘Yes and please never say “I wore it for your dad” ever again. The jacket’s fine but lose the scarf at least.’
Jackson made a sharp intake of breath, holding his hand to his chest in faux outrage. ‘This is not only Gucci, it’s also vintage. My mom gave it to me.’
Jackson’s mother was American and so he could get away with using the Americanised vernacular (mom) even though it infuriated Daniel, which Jackson knew.
‘Yes alright it’s gorgeous but we’re going to Wales. They don’t care about fashion and they don’t care how fabulous you are.’
‘Well you can tell that to Dame Shirley Bassey love.’
‘You can tell her yourself, she’ll probably fucking be there, the amount of people they’ve invited round.’
Jackson could usually tell when Daniel was joking, even though Daniel wasn’t that funny. But this did sound as though he was actually being serious.
‘Ok, I think you just need to take a breath. Here, drink your soy caramel latte and pull yourself together. Man up!’
They both laughed at this, Jackson had a natural lightness about him, which always helped in these situations. It was one of the things Daniel admired most about him, as he himself could muster a panic attack out of something as minor as not being able to find a pen, or being slightly dehydrated.
Daniel started up the car to continue on the journey, which had already taken them three hours from Manchester.
For the last twenty-two years Daniel’s father, David had lived in a small ex-mining town in South Wales, about thirty minutes from Swansea. David had never planned to end up there, and couldn’t exactly explain how he had. Although divorce had undoubtedly played its part. And in the way that middle-aged divorcees tend to do, David had quickly remarried, to a woman named Lydia, who was kind-natured, caring and funny. And to whom the teenaged Daniel had shown little more than contempt for the the first few years after meeting her. Something for which he now felt terribly guilty, although he consoled himself with the notion that teenagers’ brains are still developing, and so they can never be held accountable for any of their actions.
Driving down to Wales was, for Daniel, like driving back in time. Like peeling back layers of old paint which had been applied and reapplied over the years until finally what was revealed beneath them all was a window, from which a young man stared glumly at a bruised skyline. Untamed landscapes lashed by vicious, horizontal rain. A topography of indifference.
As they neared the small town, the Black Mountains stood huge and imposing in the middle distance, like a row of prop-forwards waiting to halt anyone who tried to enter, or (more likely) anyone who tried to leave.
Growing up, Daniel and his brother Fletcher were sent by train once every two weeks to stay with their father. They would leave immediately after school on a Friday and come back on Sunday night, just in time for homework before school on Monday morning. On the alternating weekends their father would drive up to Cheshire to visit them.
Fletcher played football and rugby, on a Saturday and Sunday (he was the star player on both teams). Daniel’s interests were very different. He was musical, to a point, and David would always take an interest, and ask him to play him something he’d learnt on the piano. And in these situations, Daniel’s fingers would turn instantly in to sausages. His brain would rise up in mutiny against him as he hacked his way through a piece of Mozart or Vivaldi or Kylie Minogue. And although his father would shake his head in disbelief at how talented his eldest son really was, Daniel would only ever hear the bum notes he had hit, screaming in his ears while he lay awake at night. Even now, whenever he couldn’t sleep and his brain started dipping in to the anxiety archives to amuse itself, those piano concertos were always the first out of the bag.
Childhood never really ends, it doesn’t just happen. It resonates throughout our lives, no matter how vehemently we try to tune it out. And deep down, Daniel was still the awkward thirteen year old kid who desperately wanted to please his father.
Over time, visits to Wales became less and less frequent – and eventually stopped altogether.
It had taken Daniel a good twenty years to actually feel comfortable with who he was, to find his own path. But in making all of that effort, he’d kind of forgotten that other people’s paths were intrinsically linked with his own.
‘How long’s it been since you’ve seen your dad?’ asked Jackson.
‘I’ve seen him once in five years, when I introduced him to you.’ Jesus, saying it out loud it suddenly made it seem so awful.
‘Ok, that’s a long time.’
‘It’s not that I don’t want to see him.’ said Daniel. ‘It’s just that the time goes by so quickly, and before you know it you’re practically estranged.’
‘Does your brother still see him?’
‘Yeah Fletcher sees him all the time, of course. There is no aspect of life in which he is not perfect.’
‘Well we need to make a good impression then. What will the Welsh people be like?’
‘They’re nice. They’ll all call you bach.’
‘Bach. As in Johann Sebastian. It’s a term of endearment, It literally means small but they use it like we use mate.’
‘Sounds like a nice place to visit to me.’ said Jackson.
Truthfully, Daniel had no idea why he hadn’t seen his father in so long. There’s a strange thing that occurs in families and sometimes friendships where people fall out with each other without actually speaking. The longer the absence continues, the more each person starts to assume that the other thinks badly of them. Resentment has a knack of being able to grow anywhere, it only needs to be imagined in to being.
‘It is a nice place.’ said Daniel. ‘It’s just…it reminds me of growing up, you know? Of adolescence. I’m sure you spent your teenage years having a great time, seducing the captain of the rugby team and writing about it in your journal on a summer’s day under the shade of an oak tree.’
Jackson nearly choked with laughter. ‘You know that’s not true.’ he replied.
Daniel was constantly throwing these types of comments around. In truth, life had not been so easy for Jackson. While at university he had been beaten half to death by a gang of feral thugs and ended up with a fractured eye socket and a broken nose, he still had the scars. It hurt Daniel to think of him suffering though. And so he’d created this weird alternative history of Jackson, as if he were some princely Victorian libertine who lived a life of poetry and reckless abandon.
‘But for me it was different.’ said Daniel, ignoring Jackson completely. ‘I’ll never forget my dad saying to me one day, completely out the blue, “you know you can still see in through the blinds of the downstairs bathroom window, even when they’re closed”?’
‘So that’s where I used to…jerk off, as you’d probably say. I used to shower in there and have a wank in front of the full length mirror.’
‘Ok, wow. Probably didn’t need that image when visiting for the first time.’
‘Then one day my fucking dad just casually drops that information in for no apparent reason. I still don’t get how you can see through the blinds when they’re closed, I’ve been obsessing over it for years.’
‘Oh my god, Danny you maniac!’ Jackson laughed freely and longly at this.
‘It’s not funny.’
‘The point is that that episode pretty much sums up growing up for me. Just one long embarrassing nightmare that I never, ever want to go back to. Now stop laughing, we’re nearly there.’
Daniel parked the car at the end of the long driveway, realising immediately that there was no way he was ever going to be able to reverse out of it again in any sort of elegant fashion. He got out of the car, and just as he was stretching after the torturous journey, the front door of the house opened and a large black Labrador came flying out, planting itself between Daniel and the house, and barking furiously at him like it was fucking Cerberus, the Hound of Hades.
‘Ok, alright you stupid dog, be quiet, it’s only Danny.’ That was David, Daniel’s father, following the dog out of the front door. David had lost weight since Daniel had last seen him, in fact he seemed to be altogether smaller.
The dog stopped barking and started wagging its tail and then ran straight past Daniel, over to Jackson, greeting him as though he were the one true blessed lord and saviour of all dogs, ever.
Dogs fucking loved Jackson. Everyone did, this was typical.
‘Hi Dad.’ said Daniel, going in for the hug but making it a bit awkward by putting both of his arms under David’s, in the same way a grown man might pick up a toddler.
‘That’s a long way up.’ said David, recycling the same old trusty joke he’d used for twenty years to diffuse these embarrassing displays of affection.
Jackson spread his arms wide like Christ the fucking Redeemer and embraced David with the same ease and charm with which he did everything. He might as well have said enchanté as he did so. Daniel’s cheeks burned but he didn’t quite know why.
‘Come in, come in, let me help you with your bags.’ said David, who was practical in nature, and liked to be useful. ‘Come on Max, you too. You stupid dog.’ the dog eyed Daniel with a look of suspicion bordering on malice and followed closely behind Jackson’s heels as they entered the house.
It was just before five o’clock in the afternoon. The plan was to have a couple of drinks while the rugby was on, Wales versus New Zealand, before heading out for a curry for dinner. As predicted, the house was full.
David’s wife Lydia came bustling through the assembled throng and greeted the boys with a big hug before taking charge of the situation, introducing them to everyone present, even though Daniel had met them all before. Lydia was the youngest of seven children, which meant that she had about three and half thousand nieces and nephews, some of whom were older than she was which made everything even more confusing. She also had a daughter of her own, Jessica, who was six when Daniel had first met her and was now nearly thirty, although Daniel still thought of her as a child.
It only took a minute for the boys to be separated, Jackson was immediately accosted by Myfanwy, a kindly face on top of a box-shaped cardigan who was probably a grandma or great-aunt to someone or other who Daniel couldn’t remember. And Myfanwy had questions:
‘How long have you been gay then love?’
‘Well pretty much since records began I think, Myfanwy.’ said Jackson, smiling back at her as Myfanwy gave a little coquettish giggle as women (old and young) always seemed to do in Jackson’s presence.
‘Well as long as you enjoys it bach, that’s the main thing.’
‘I do Myfanwy. I loves it, truth be told.’ said Jackson, assuming the cadence of a Welsh accent without sounding like he was mocking.
‘Oh!’ Myfanwy now positively squealed in delight. ‘Good for you bach. Let’s go and have a drink eh?’
And that was that. In no time at all Jackson had managed to assimilate in to the world of Daniel’s father. Something Daniel himself had felt unable to do throughout his entire life.
As Daniel reacquainted himself with the old house, he suddenly noticed an image of his brother Flecther, staring out at him from a photograph on a shelf in the kitchen. The shelf contained many framed photos: there were photos of David and Lydia, and of Jessica and various others of the assembled guests.
And none of Daniel.
There were, in fact, two of Fletcher. One at his graduation (his second one, after completing his Masters). And one of him smartly dressed at an occasion of which Daniel had no knowledge whatsoever. This was the most troubling thing of all. Here was Fletcher, square-jawed, high achieving, straight. In pride of place on the photo shelf. Daniel would have burst in to tears right that second if it wasn’t for his father sneaking up behind him with a very peculiar offer.
‘Would you like a martini?’
‘What?’ Daniel, spun round, flummoxed by this completely unexpected question. Was it some sort of trick?
‘Er…yeah, sure, that would be nice.’ Daniel loved a martini, that first heady sip that was simultaneously icy-cold and warming at the same time. His absolute favourite.
‘I remember you saying you liked it so I got some in. What do you normally have it with?’
‘Well usually just a twist of grapefruit if you’ve got any?’ said Daniel, the words sounding instantly wrong when spoken in such an alien setting.
‘Oh right.’ said David, his expression dropping. ‘I don’t know about that, I thought it usually went with lemonade.’
At that moment, Daniel realised with horror that David was holding a bottle of Martini Bianco, the sweet Italian vermouth, popular with Baby Boomers, purchased from Asda, and which he now expected Daniel to drink with lemonade. As was no doubt the height of sophistication in the nineteen-eighties.
‘Well actually Dad…’ Daniel began.
‘Diet lemonade!’ said Jackson, appearing out of nowhere to rescue the situation. ‘If you have it, of course, Dave. I’m watching my figure.’
‘Oh not a problem, sure we can find some.’ said David, brightening again with Jackson’s intervention.
As David went off to find some diet lemonade, Daniel ran off to the bathroom to cry. Jackson, who’d witnessed similar situations erupting out of nowhere countless times, followed him there, and knocked quietly on the door until Daniel let him in.
‘What’s the matter?’ Jackson asked.
‘He doesn’t even know me at all.’ sobbed Daniel (rather theatrically in Jackson’s opinion, although now wasn’t the time).
‘He’s not a fucking bartender for god’s sake.’
‘Not the stupid martini. He’s got no pictures of me on the shelf.’
‘There’s a shelf with photos of everyone, in the kitchen. Two of Fletcher and none of me. None of US! He doesn’t even want me in his family.’
‘Ok, ok just hold on a beat.’ said Jackson, trying to calm Daniel by smoothing his shoulders, like comforting a hysterical child. ‘Would he even necessarily have a photo of us? A recent one I mean. It has been five yeas since you saw him.’
‘That’s not the point!’ Daniel was almost wailing now. Jackson had had enough.
‘Ok you listen to me. That man’s been nothing but nice to you, and to me since we arrived. I’ve already heard him telling people how good you are on the piano.’
‘Oh fuck he’s not going to make me play it is he?’ Daniel was trying to stop sobbing but he was actually just holding his breath, turning purple with the effort.
‘Yes. Everyone wants a sing-song but that’s not the point. He probably just doesn’t have a decent photo because you’ve never given him one. Have we ever even had the opportunity to take a photo with him?’
‘Right well there you go then, so let’s change that today. It doesn’t even matter anyway, your dad clearly loves you and photos don’t mean shit. He’s right there outside that door and you can have a photo with him any time you want. He’s not always going to be there and guess what? We, all of us, will be photos on shelves long after we’re gone. You’ve got forever to be a photo on a shelf, but only this moment to have a real relationship.’
‘That was very fucking poetic.’ said Daniel, in-between sobs.
‘Well just call me E.E Cummings.’ said Jackson.
‘What? I don’t understand what you mean?’
‘He was a famous poet. You used to jerk off in this bathroom. It’s a joke.’
‘For God’s sake just call it wanking, you’re not American!’
‘Fine, whatever Barbara. You stop crying and you march your little arse out there and choke down that martini like you’re an eighties housewife who just finished her Jane Fonda workout video and has an hour to kill before her husband gets home and stop being a little bitch.’
‘Ok then. I love you.’
‘I love you too.’
The two men exited the bathroom together, thankfully unnoticed. They found David still pottering in the kitchen and Jackson said, ‘where’s those drinks Dave? I want to watch these handsome Welsh boys running around in shorts, you can explain the rules to me if you like?’
And so the drinks were poured, and Daniel, Jackson, David, Myfanwy and a whole house full of relatives close and distant, sat down together to see Wales on the receiving end of a fairly comprehensive thrashing at the hands of New Zealand. Men groaned, women shrieked. And squashed together on the new three-seater sofa, three men sat and drank martini and diet lemonade, that none of them wanted, while the Black Mountains stood like sentinels out in the downpour. Perhaps just keeping an eye on this particular moment, before it disappeared behind the clouds forever.
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