“You never cook me a proper dinner.”
He was bullying her again.
“All the boys at work tell me they come home and their wife has dinner sitting on the table for them. I’m the only one who doesn’t have a dinner waiting when he gets home. What kind of a wife are you?”
“And do all those men stay out drinking in the pub all night? How am I supposed to cook a dinner when I never know what time you’ll be home?”
But he won the argument. When it was over she felt bruised, battered, guilty.
So the next day she decided to cook him a big roast dinner.
It was Saturday but we never did things the normal way. Dad was working on the building site, because he was on a big job at the time, and they were struggling to finish by the deadline. More often than not, this was a deliberate ploy to get overtime from under-pressure companies.
Mum cooked up a huge roast. Beef, gravy, potatoes, cauliflower. I was dreading it. I hated beef, gravy and cauliflower. I used to sneak it into my pockets and put it down the toilet, until I got caught by peas floating back up the u-bend.
Six o’ clock comes, and the children are called to the table.
No sign of Dad.
An empty chair, a steaming pot.
Quarter past six.
Lucy looks hopefully at the empty chair, but it is devoid of expression.
We sit there without a word, until she speaks.
“Eat your bloody dinner.”
It’s cold. I hate it when it’s warm. None of us wants it when it’s cold.
But we sense that Mum has been dealt a grave injury so we force down mouthfuls. No one speaks. No one needs to. Someone, maybe me, begins retching. Brussels sprouts.
Chair legs dragged backwards over lino, swift movement and a slamming door. Mum has gone. We sit. It’s not yet safe to move. Elizabeth dutifully chews on a carrot. She will later prove to be the only supporter staunch enough to have consumed the entire cold contents of her plate when I survey the wreckage of the table.
Eventually, when food has been pushed artfully enough around plates to appear to have been eaten, some deposited in the bin, some down the sink, and some in the loo, the girls congregate with Mum in the front room. They say little, but share an unspoken female solidarity from which I, as the only representative of the male species present, am excluded. They cuddle and sprawl into and over her, and she complains about this, but they know she doesn’t mean it. They watch Murder She Wrote while I try to read in my room.
Just before ten, I feel it is safe to sit quietly beside the brood as they watch the end of TJ Hooker, unobtrusive as one of my gender can be around such indignant disapprobation.
The ad break. A cup of tea is made for the aggrieved. We settle down as the News at Ten chimes in on ITV.
Dong. “Poll tax riots in London today.”
Trevor McDonald, a hint of admonishment in his tone.
Onscreen, a broiling throng, banners, clenched fists, jostling, surging.
Dong. “Casualties as protest in Trafalgar Square escalates into running battle.”
Half a brick, a riot shield, a collision. Men running. A police officer clutches his bandaged head.
Dong. “Scenes among the worst in living memory.”
Dad tears across the screen, those familiar grey trousers, dirty white sleeves rolled up, dark locks flying. A crunching blow, a policeman’s jaw, a helmet arcs through the air.
One second. Two seconds. Three.
Then a surge of euphoria as we realise what we have seen, and we are whooping, screeching our delight. It’s Dad! On telly!! Hitting a copper!!!
“That’s it, get to bed, all of you!!!!”
We are not easily subdued. This makes it all alright, surely Mum can see that? Several smart recriminations make us certain she cannot.
Upstairs we go, muttering, smarting, still excited.
Downstairs a door slams. The house is consumed in foreboding silence.
At last, the theme from Hill Street Blues signals a partial return to normality.
Some of us flit from bedroom to bedroom.
“Did you see it? It was amazing! Dad on telly!”
A floorboard creeks. The ad break. Catlike, tensed, we prepare to dart back to our rooms. The danger passes, but we dare not tempt fate again.
Too excited to sleep, we brim with excitement in our beds, waiting for Dad to return like Father Christmas down the chimney.
The victor heralds his return with several thumps on the front door. It is after midnight. Had I slept? He is singing, drunk, happy.
Curtains twitch, as we strain to catch a glimpse of Dad, except for Elizabeth, who remembers to hold him in contempt from her bed. Dad is clutching that copper’s hat in one hand and holding a bunch of flowers scavenged from a neighbours’ garden in the other. He is drunkenly unsteady on his feet. Mum remains in her room, as we measure her determination not to let him in.
“Kerry, for fuck’s sake, will you open the door. I have a present for you!”
Her resolve cannot hold out forever. Eventually, she goes down and opens the door.
He leans in to bestow a beery kiss and the neighbours’ flowers on her, as if that will make everything alright.
She launches into him for parading drunkenly up and down the streets at midnight, not coming home for dinner, setting a bad example to his kids. They enter the house.
We know his charm will thaw her frostiness as we press our ears to separate bedroom doors, until tiredness and our beds overtake us.
We felt the pain he’d inflicted on Mum, and we vowed never to be like him when we grew up. But that night, he was also our hero. Nothing is ever simple with family.
He told me over black pudding the next morning, “We’d a great view from the building site when it all kicked off. Once I saw police getting a hiding, I said ‘Right, lads, down tools, we’re taking the rest of the day off.’”
“What were you protesting about?”
“I couldn’t give a shit about the poll tax, Christopher. I just don’t like the police.”
As he sipped his coffee I finished my egg and bacon, and wondered how I’d ever be as strong and indestructible as my Dad.
Disclaimers: Some of the names have been changed in the interests of privacy. In no way does the author condone violence towards the police, or any other entity.