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A Shout From The Attic: One Miserable Saturday

...My stepfather, Tommy, was referred to as “Your Dad” and my biological father, George, unflatteringly, as “Your bloody Father!” The only good word I heard about him was when, aimed at my reluctance to dampen my features with soap and water, mother informed me, “Even if your Father had no shirt to his back, he would always wash himself before he left the house!”...

Ronnie Bray recalls the agonising day when he waited for his father.

For more of Ronnie's vigorously recounted life story please click on A Shout From The Attic in the menu on this page.

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My kinsfolk have failed,
and my familiar friends
have forgotten me.
Job 19:14


Apart from a few early memories I have no recollections of my father to help me to understand what he was really like, except to note that he was often spoken of by grandmother and mother in pejorative terms that were doubtless justified. I did not know that at the time, and often felt wounded by their hurtful remarks about him, that only a boy in my situation could understand.

The aspects of him that he permitted me to see were, with a couple of notable and revelatory exceptions, benign and benevolent. It is a strange thing to have someone described with monotonous regularity in negative terms and yet feel so much warmth toward him, as if he was real, wonderful, and within the limits of my experience. Perhaps boys need fathers to be heroes even when experience shows them that they are not. If our fathers are not good fathers, we reinvent them to be able to face the world on equal terms.

I must have negated all that had been transmitted to me about my father over many years to continue to hold such a warm place for him in my heart. Maybe it is simply that the absent and idealise is preferred over the present tangible mediocrity. That may be the reason that step relationships are scattered with so many of the moribund and dead. After my early infant memories of my father and the horrors he perpetrated on us, my next remembrance of him does not include him except by his absence.

When I was about six or seven, perhaps even younger, I was told that my father was coming to see me and take me out for the day. My sister René was not invited. He did not accept that she was his child, although he had married my mother when he must have thought he was. This inconsistency was typical of everything I remember of my father’s later years. My stepfather, Tommy, was referred to as “Your Dad” and my biological father, George, unflatteringly, as “Your bloody Father!” The only good word I heard about him was when, aimed at my reluctance to dampen my features with soap and water, mother informed me, “Even if your Father had no shirt to his back, he would always wash himself before he left the house!”

On The Day, someone washed and dressed me, stuck my hair down with corporation hair oil, – it sprang back up when it dried out – and sent me to wait outside, for Father was not welcome inside the house.

It was a beautiful day. The brilliant sun shone almost audibly, and caused a haze to shimmer up from the wide stone slabs on Fitzwilliam Street’s causeway, and the gas tar, in which the cobblestones of the roadway were set, bubble up creating exotic-smelling pools of irresistible sticky stuff, that added to the ecstasy of the heady summer fragrance of June blossom and honey that hung in the air as if waiting for homage. The glory of the day suffused every breath that warmed its way inside me. It was one of the longest days I have ever known.

Hour after hour, I stood in Fitzwilliam Street, looking up and down its length for the arrival of the mysterious stranger whose face I could not remember. I trembled with anticipation at the prospect of reunion with someone who would surely love me and take me, if only for a while, from the darkness, despair, and misery of that awful house with it’s bizarre population.

Hour after hour passed as the leaden weight of an increasing sense of futility grew in my heart. He would come. He had promised! I did not go in for dinner from fear that I might miss him. From time to time, I ran through the passageway, avoiding the coal hole lid in case it gave way to make sure that the back of the house was still there. Of what can a child be sure? What are the certainties of a powerless existence?

I do not know how long I had waited before I was forced to admit that my hero was not coming. All the hopes I had entertained, that someone might, somehow, rescue me from my unnamed fears, and lift the dark ceiling that oppressed me, were dashed as the hard echo of despondency rang in my ears with a piercing Munchian scream. I was frozen by the noise; paralysed by the awful awareness of my wretched self-deception.

Time seemed endless on sunny childhood days and the minutes droned by like lazy bees. Hours stretched into daylengths as I wandered up and down the passage into the back yard, then into the street again to break the monotony. The sunshine was cracking the flagstones the gas tar still flowing from between the cobblestones.

He never came. I should have learned something about my father that day. I internalised my disappointment and never held it against him, but from that day, I expected disappointment to follow each promise. Trust was the second victim of his non-appearance on that day when I learned the soul-destroying bitterness of disappointment

In the calmer, still sunlit early evening, I was called from my solitary vigil and sent to my attic bedroom. I drew the blankets over my head to shut out the cruelty of life, curled into that position which provides comfort for all wounded souls, and cried myself to sleep, not understanding what it was that hurt or why.

The experience wounded me and contributed to my lack of competitive spirit: what is the point of competing if you are bound to lose? From then, I expected very little from life and I have not often been disappointed.

While I may not have been the best father in the world, I never made any promises to my children that I did not mean to keep, and have never broken a promise to them. As I make promises my children and grandchildren, I see the ghastly spectre of a little boy who trusted a promise, only to have his faith crushed, his trust repudiated, and his heart broken.

Who would thoughtlessly harm the sweet, trusting innocence of a child? Promises to children are sacred and must be kept, whatever the cost, or the world does not seem safe for them.

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