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As I walked down from the station towards it, I began thinking about the dreadful scene which precipitated my departure from home at the age of twenty-one.
I was supposed to go to university - but when I overheard my father telling my mother how much in debt he was as a result of paying for my extremely expensive and ineffectual education, I decided not to go to university at all, but that I would join the family business instead.
My father was really rather pleased. My mother was horrified, but she consoled herself with the thought that perhaps with someone of my brilliant academic bent beside him, my father’s business might pick up.
She put up with it for about three years. And every morning, my father and I would take the bus into Tottenham Court Road and open up the shop, which was just opposite where Lasky’s now is. Then it was coming up to my twenty-first - and Dad told me that he was going to change the name of the shop from Wilfred Conway Ltd. - to Wilfred Conway and Son Ltd.
I said that while I was highly appreciative of the honour he was doing me, I thought this might be a good opportunity to change the whole name and image of the shop altogether. I think Electric City was the name I suggested. My point was that you had to get young people to come into the shop. I thought we should start moving away from white goods and start getting more into stereos and music. I was full of good ideas. I wanted to try out some of the new Amstrad lines, you know, affordable stuff. And I thought we should sell records as well. And car stereos. And we’d fit them in. And we could sell them cokes and cups of coffee and tapes, while they were waiting.
I was full of enthusiasm. My father was full of caution and, well, boringness.
“See, the thing is, Dad, why does work have to be so excruciatingly boring?”
“Because, Ralph, that’s what work is. If it wasn’t boring, it wouldn’t be work.”
He just didn’t get it
At which point, my mother finally exploded.
“Oh for goodness’ sake,” she yelled at me, “do you want to end up like him?”
My father was sitting between us. She was staring me in the face. It was an incredibly awkward moment. I couldn’t look at him.
“I knew,” she started. “I knew all along. You had the whole world at your feet. But you wanted to come and work for your father. Alright, I didn’t say anything. Maybe you’d make a go of it. But he’s just dragging you down with him. Please, Ralph, it’s not too late. You’re still young enough to go to University. You could still make something of yourself, instead of this. It’s bad enough having one failure on my hands.”
I heard a sort of “ouf” from my father’s side of the table, as of one who has been viciously kicked in the solar plexus.
There was a harrowing silence, during which I couldn’t think of a single word to say. My mother realised, I think, that she had overstepped the mark - but having stepped over it, she was determined to maintain her position. She glared at me. I could not return her gaze. I looked down at my gooseberry crumble, a dish I’ve not been able to stomach since that day. She turned defiantly toward my father.
I could not imagine what he would say or do. I have a feeling he wanted to burst into tears. Then I thought he was going to hit her.
Stab her with your fork, I thought.
At the very least, I was sure he would divorce her on the spot. What he in fact did, which quite astonished me, was smile. Then he said something which under the circumstances was pretty classic. He said: “Irene, would you please pass the custard?”
I couldn’t take any more of this. I left the room, and five strained days later, I left home. If I was going to be a failure, I wanted to be a failure on my own account - something, I suppose, I’ve rather succeeded in.
I found myself a job as a delivery driver for a wine merchant in Lamb’s Conduit Street, and that’s how I first met Joan, delivering a box of Chiroubles, I believe it was, from Georges Duboeuf, the King of Beaujolais, to the restaurant in Chelsea where she worked.
I would like here, if you don’t mind, to pay tribute to the late great Felix Parker, whom I loved as a son, in an ideal world, should love a father. It was his habit at the close of business to open a bottle or two of something interesting and to share it with whoever happened to be around. This tended to be his nephew, a moron, who worked full time in the shop, an ever-changing assortment of part-timers, a variety of friends and family, who were always popping in and out and, when I joined the team, me.
In my family, wine never featured much, but I found that I took to it like a duck to water. It turned out I had an extremely good memory for flavours and, in no time at all, I could tell a gamay from a merlot at five hundred paces. Felix decided to take me under his wing and teach me everything he knew, and when he had taught me everything he knew, he enrolled me in the Institute of Masters of Wine and funded my studies there.
When I graduated from the Institute with the highest marks in my year, Felix took me to Paris to celebrate, with lunch at Le Grand Vefour and dinner at Le Tour d’Argent. The highlights of this wonderful weekend were a stonking bottle of 1945 Chateau Palmer and a gorgeous 1969 Gevrey-Chambertin, Clos St-Jacques from Fernand Pernot. All I have to do is close my eyes and breathe in. There. I smell them. I taste them. I am intoxicated.
Six months later, Felix Parker Wines went bust. It wasn’t just Felix’s exuberant generosity, although that had a lot to do with it. He was also, as he was the first to admit, an absolutely crap businessman. Added to this, he was a dedicated gambler. There were weekly poker games in the back room at Lamb’s Conduit Street, at which I became a regular attendee, not as participant, but as sommelier. When Felix wasn’t drinking the profits, he was cheerfully redistributing them to his poker cronies.
But the bankruptcy did him in. Felix took to his bed and was dead before the year was out. He left me his private cellar, the last benighted dregs of which languish in my so-called cellar at home.
You may not believe this, but before Felix died, I never drank to get drunk. Sure, from time to time, I drank too much, and I was frequently intoxicated, but with the thrill of whichever wonderful wine it happened to be. Mostly I tasted, then spat it out. Smell, taste, analyse, record, remember, spit. Taste and spit. Taste and spit.
When Felix died, I stopped spitting. And when I stopped spitting, that’s when I started to unravel. And that’s how I ended up here.
The last time I saw my parents was about two years or so ago - just before the move to Brighton. I went round to the old house.
“I bet you got a good price for it,” I said.
“Not bad,” said my father - at the same time as my mother said: “Very disappointing. This area’s gone down a lot.”
“Well, still, it’ll be good to get out of it all. Nothing like a bit of sea air,” I said.
“I’ve always liked Brighton,” said my father.
“I hate Brighton. God’s waiting-room,” said my mother. “I’d rather be going to Siberia.”
“I’d rather you were going to Siberia,” said my father.
I was impressed. This was a distinct improvement on Irene-pass-the-custard.
So there I was, with the sea on my left, as I strolled along the front, past the Brighton Conference Centre, as seen on television, past the lovely gleaming Grand Hotel - and came at last to the Metropole’s massive red-brick bulk.
In I went.
The foyer was seething with delegates to some conference they’ve got going on here. The place is infested with noisy red-faced people in ill-fitting suits, with name-tags pinned to their lapels.
I struggled through to the reception desk - whence I was directed round to the appropriate lift.
Their flat is on the sixth floor of this hotel. I stepped out of the lift, and into the corridor, which is just like all those corridors you see in American made-for-TV films - totally unrealistic. Well, the fact of the matter is that realism and reality are poles apart.
I rang the bell. Then, after a goodly while, I heard a voice. My mother’s.
“Who is it?”
I heard the chain being slipped into position. Perhaps she thought I’d come to murder her. Then her face appeared in the crack.
Last time I’d seen my mother, her hair was brown. Now it was grey. It was a shock.
She recognised me. Then she looked at me. She looked at my exterior. Her gaze passed over my face. I became aware of the bristles that covered it. Her gaze went down. I felt the grime on the neck of my T-shirt, my grubby pullover, even though my coat was buttoned over it. This book throbbed under my arm. Then all the way down to my feet, my sneakers, her least favourite form of footwear for men, especially when in the condition that I suddenly became acutely aware mine were in.
“I’m sorry about my appearance,” I said. “Can I come in?”
“What do you want?”
“Can I come in?”
She let me in.
“I was just going to bed,” she said.
“It’s very early.”
“There’s nothing else to do down here.”
“He’s out. Look, Ralph, I’ve really got a dreadful headache.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“I can’t talk. Your father will be in. I’m ..... You must excuse me.”
This whole conversation took place in this tiny hall they have here. Immediately on your left is the sitting-room. And to the right, there is a little corridor - with the bathroom just past the kitchen, and the door into the bedroom at the end of it. Through this last door, my mother now plodded. No mention of if I was staying, where I was staying, where I would sleep. She was not interested. She had gone to bed.
I walked into the living-room.
The place is swarming with cupids. And the telephone is in its own special basket of gilt and green velvet plush. I sat down on what purports to be an armchair and looked at the onyx coffee table.
Never mind what I was doing here, what were my parents doing here? What are they doing here?
I stood up and looked out of the window. The window overlooks the front. I saw the sea and West Pier, sticking out into it. The Pier looked singularly spooky and full of possibilities out there. It looked like a runway. It looked like it was waiting for something to land on it.
I yawned. I was extremely tired. I thought of taking a bath - but the chances of my falling asleep and drowning in it were high. On the other hand, what was that to me? If I drowned, I’d only pop back to life again.
One of the features of the furniture in the living-room is that none of it is the right size for lying down and going to sleep in or on. So I lay down on the carpet-covered floor, looked up at the golden cupids clinging to the perfectly inappropriate chandelier and went to sleep.
I woke up, to a certain extent, when my father finally came in. He did not come into the living-room. He did not see me. I only saw him in silhouette, through the glass in the living-room door. It has some of that nice wired glass in it. He seemed to be wearing a jaunty cap. Then he passed through the frame, and I heard bathroom noises. Then he went to bed.
After a while, I went to sleep again - and I did not wake till early this morning. My bladder woke me up. I went, with joints creaking after my night on the floor, to the bathroom, peed. The bath looked too inviting for words. I twirled the taps, stripped off my stinking clothes and climbed in.
Oh, the bliss of that bath.
I poured some Fenjal into it and the milky white stuff curled through the water. I gave myself up to physical sensation.
Then there was someone on the other side of the door. It was my father. The door opened a fraction and our eyes met in the mirrored wall over the sink.
“Hello there,” I said.
“Do you mind if I have a pee.”
“Go right ahead.”
He came in and loafed out of his pyjamas and peed. I observed the paternal penis out of the corner of my eye. I could not help thinking that’s where I come from. I was once a sperm inside those balls – unlike, of course, Jesus, who wasn’t. I mean, well, you know what I mean.
Dad flushed the loo, brushed his teeth, and then he started to shave. He did not seem to be in the least inclined to talk - but he did seem to be happy for me to be there. Well, he wasn’t noticeably unhappy.
I watched him shave. Amazing. He taught me how to shave.
All my childhood - I suddenly remembered it. I remembered being small and watching him shave like this. It was such a good memory,
“How old are you now?” I asked.
“Sixty-three,” he said.
It struck me that when I was but a sperm inside his balls, he was the same age as I am now.
“I’ll leave you to it,” he said.
He left the bathroom.
I washed my hair and washed myself. Then I climbed out of the bath. I helped myself to his shaving kit and removed the stubble. I noticed the scales, dropped my towel and stood upon them. I weigh twelve stone and 1lb - or 169 pounds. It occurred to me that 169 is 13 squared. Then it occurred to me that I am 31, and 31 is 13 backwards. I was wondering whether this was significant, when I heard the front door open and close. Shortly after this, the departure of my father, there came a knocking at the bathroom door. Old mother Conway.
“Hurry up. I’m late.”
I picked up the towel, wrapped it round my middle and came out of the bathroom. She was back in the bedroom with the door closed.
“All clear,” I shouted.
She came out of the bedroom as though she had been waiting on the other side of the door. She looked at my face, saw that it was shaved and said:
“Well, that’s better.”
And she swept into the bathroom and shut the door.
I made myself a cup of tea and took it into the living-room. I heard her come out of the bathroom and go back into the bedroom. Then she came out of the bedroom and into the living-room, stopping en route to get her coat out of the hallway cupboard.
She was holding a yellow plastic bag.
“How’s your head?”
“Pardon? Oh - much better thanks,” she said, then, holding up the yellow bag: “I’ll drop these in at the launderette.”
They were my clothes that she had picked up off the bathroom floor.
“Launderette!” I exclaimed.
“Well, there’s no room for a machine in this .... “
She groped for the mot juste and failed to locate it. Off she went.
There were some eggs in the kitchen and bread in the bin. I scrambled the former and toasted the latter and ate them on the little flap-up table in there.
Then I found my father’s bathrobe. Having donned it, I came in here, into the living-room, put this book on this gleaming mahogany table, under the gilt mirror, on the wall opposite the windows, and began writing in it. And here I am. Here I jolly well am. Sea. More gulls. Swooping squabbles. Hold on - there’s someone at the door.
See you tomorrow..