Bill by Ellen Storey

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When my dad took his own life 26 years ago, my predominant feeling was anger. That and pity for him.

He was not a merciful father. And he became progressively less tolerant of noise and therefore babies. My brother recalls him once walking me up and down trying to get me to sleep, and finally shaking me abruptly in exasperation. Apparently I got the message at that point. As a toddler I recall him telling me to shut up whenever I cried, but he could have figured out that he was often the one prompting me to cry in the first place. I must have reasoned very young that if I laid low and stayed completely quiet, I’d be OK. Aged around four my mother took me to see a pantomime performance and when the lights went low I whispered to her, “Mummy, am I allowed to breathe?” When I first came across a father disciplining a child in a controlled manner, without overt rage, I didn’t know what to make of it. It seemed so…wet.

In my first five years, my dad invested many hours in educating me when he came back from work and at weekends as he, as a teacher, had seen evidence of intellectual potential. He requested that the local primary school allow me to skip the first year, so that I became the little-girl-with-the-giant-brain amongst peers I had little in common with (most of whom seemed quite carefree, especially regarding punctuation). I was once made to stand on a bench and read out loud during assembly, which I never understood at the time. This precocious ability also alienated me from siblings who seemed to feel threatened/jealous, but the academic experiment didn’t last long. I don’t remember when I first felt ‘dumped,’ but I know that he lost interest in me and life in general not long after I started school. He didn’t remember my birthday, or the year I was born, and once sheepishly asked me for this information when filling out a form.

My dad was always volatile. How many times did I cower in the bathroom feeling the thumps on the door vibrate through my heart. But this had been interspersed with moments of humour and even exuberance; we clung to his scraps of humour when they made their rare appearance.  On a good day he would be highly amused at my occasional impertinence towards him. On a bad day the same audacity would have me fleeing the house to escape his wrath.

He was a great swimmer. He was intellectual. A modern languages teacher. He was a choir member and even a volunteer counsellor in his free time. He was a staunchly socialist educator who purposely chose a notoriously rough comprehensive school in Essex with a desire to help underprivileged children, since he himself had come from an industrial mining town and only achieved a University education through compensation paid out by a careless driver who put him in a coma and almost removed his arm: he had a scar that looked like a shark had tried to take it. He was 8 at the time.

Appearances were important to him. He did press ups every morning and pulled amusing faces admiring himself in the mirror. I’m quite sure that many saw him as a paragon family man. He once gave me a tired kiss for the benefit of a neighbour who had been looking after me for a week whilst my parents were away. That gave me the creeps big time as we never normally had any affectionate contact. One night aged 11 he was the only one home when I woke up with a crippling pain in my stomach. In desperation I went to find him and he gave me a hug, which was relieving on so many levels. He then went to mix brandy with hot milk, and this magic potion obliterated the pain almost instantly. Or maybe it was the reassurance that he was indeed human, and could see that I too had needs.

So, the occasional sunny spell. But life became increasingly tortuous crouched under his thundercloud, to the extent where I recall taking a mixing bowl upstairs to make a cake rather than endure his despondent stare into nothing, and the nicotine/ Radio 3 haze in the kitchen. Alcohol had exacerbated his mental health problems and he was now impossibly irrational. His virulent moods had less humans to infect now that my siblings had escaped the family home, so that he looked for more excuses to hurt me verbally/physically, when he could be bothered to notice me. He once called me down from my room to lecture me at length on how damaging my new headphones were for my ears. My mum seemed bewildered: “Bill, why are you going on like that?”  I couldn’t resist: “Because he’s pissed!” for which I received a boxed ear (oh the irony). At that point my mum physically intercepted him as he seemed to be enjoying himself.

A strapping boy in his fifties, he would go out to the ice cream van and buy one as some small reward for his painful existence. One Sunday afternoon I tripped and fell all the way down the stairs, landing at his feet. He stepped over me with his newly purchased cornet on his way to watch TV in the living room. But by that time I was 15, friendless, deep in depression (which I didn’t recognise as such) and past caring.

Perhaps the outside world got the best my dad had to offer, because there didn’t seem to be a whole lot left by the time he got home. The sizeable crematorium was packed out at his funeral, and we know from the letters received for months afterwards that he made a positive impact on many.

My mum grew quietly terrified at the prospect of her last child leaving home and a future alone with an impossible tyrant approaching retirement. The divorce talks/arguments began, and I turned the music up louder. This reality of finally being alone and facing up to himself provided the impetus he’d wanted for years. He went to his school’s chemistry dept and asked them for the most foolproof way to end your own life; they gave him a candid response. But no one needed to feel guilty. He’d tried and failed to end his torment in his early twenties, and people generally get what they want in the end. (Curiously, his younger brother also left some decades in between suicide attempts, but succeeded earlier this year). He waited until the last day of term  – I’d finished my last ‘O’ Level as they were then known. He went to a hotel to carry out his escape route instructions, writing a final note to my mum and another for my brother before he did so. His three daughters would just have to guess what he might have said to them, if anything.

I was very fortunate to have a wonderful stepdad who stepped in a few years later to start clearing some of the debris, and restoring some self-worth to me, and my family. But my biological dad convinced me that whilst some individuals are extremely beneficial to society, and exceptional/remarkable people with many important values/qualities, they are simply incapable of parenting. There may be many reasons, eg. a failure to advance very far into adulthood, or to master the art of empathy, or to truly accept themselves with all their inner ugliness. My mum tells me that he always wanted someone – just one friend – to tell him: “You’re alright, Bill.”

Clearly, he was unable to believe that for himself.

E Storey is a relatively patient friend/daughter/teacher etc who regularly expresses her angst via the singing of hearty folk tunes.