A short story

Ken Preston

19 November 2023

I wrote this short story many years ago, before I discovered The Preston Curse. [1] It is a mixture of fact and fiction. I will leave you to work out what is what.

This creative writing as therapy helped for a while, but ultimately I would succumb and seek professional help. I am of the opinion that a consistent act of creativity, the art of thinking and making and doing, is essential for mental and emotional wellbeing.

But sometimes prescribed medication is the answer too.

So, I wrote this story, and it’s not particularly good but neither is it bad. And if you’ve read my Substack posts up to this point, you may well find it rewarding to read this one too.

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The first time I saw my father after he died he was lying in his coffin at the funeral home, family and friends standing nearby in small, tight groups and talking in hushed whispers.

The second time I saw him, some twenty-two years later, he was sitting in a café, smoking a cigarette in defiance of the smoking ban and drinking a mug of tea the consistency of soup.

He looked how I remembered him much earlier in his life, probably around his mid to late forties, around the age that most of our family photographs were taken. We weren’t a family that took photographs really, only on our summer holidays, and so my memories of my father are mainly of him posed in front of a tableau of castles, lakes, seasides, etc. Sometimes I am with him in the photo, sometimes he is with my mother, once or twice on his own. Always with a cigarette dangling from his lips, or held lightly between his index and middle finger. Always that lopsided smile, the result of contracting polio as a child, freezing the left side of his face in a permanent droopy expression.

That was the smile he gave me then, that lopsided, craggy grin.

I’m sitting here right now, opposite the space he has only just vacated, thinking back to that moment. Not your usual, everyday kind of moment.

I’m thinking, if this had been a film, how would it have played out? Would I have expressed shock, horror, disbelief? Perhaps I would have walked over and sat down opposite him, reaching across the table and clutching his hands in mine, and saying, ‘Dad, I can’t believe it! You’re alive! You’re alive!’

Well, I did walk over to him, and I did sit down, but I couldn’t say anything. That wasn’t a surprise, really. Even the passing of twenty-two years hadn’t weakened the grip The Great Silence had on me. Susan had come to realise that, eventually, perhaps before I had. She knew we can’t escape our parents, can’t break free from the grip they have on us. Like zombies in some B-movie horror flick, they always reach out from the grave and drag us down, wreaking their havoc all over again in our own families, on our own children.

‘Hello son,’ he said.

He took a gulp of his tea.

The Clock Tower Cafe, of which I had recently become a regular patron, served tea, coffee and hot chocolate in the same faded, cracked mugs. No fancy ‘Pots of Tea For One’ served in floral china cups with a dainty little jug of milk on the side here; no, you got your tea bag dropped in your mug, hot water poured on top, and there was the milk carton over there if you wanted to help yourself.

I noticed that Dad had taken the tea bag out of the hot water, ripped it open and dropped the soggy tea leaves back into his mug. That was how we used to drink tea in our house when I was a youngster. A spoonful of loose tea leaves dropped into a cup and hot water added, just like you might make a cup of instant coffee. Many a visitor to our house had been caught by surprise when drinking the dregs of their tea, only to find themselves choking on a mouthful of tea leaves.

“So, how are you?” I said, rather lamely. It was the best I could do, a miracle really, that I managed even to drag out that pathetic specimen of polite chit chat. Once I reached the age of eleven or twelve, I lost all conversational ability I ever had with my father. Of course he was dead by the time I was 21, and absent in spirit, and quite often in body, for most of the years in between, so I never had much chance to practice, did I?

‘Not bad,’ he said, and shrugged. ‘Fair to middling, I suppose. I don’t need to ask how you are. You look like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards.’

I rubbed a hand over my stubble and through my bedhead hair. I supposed I didn’t look too good but, to be honest, I’d stopped caring these last couple of weeks. The Clock Tower Cafe management did not require me to have a shave and comb my hair before I frequented their premises. They didn’t even require I have a wash, but some habits are harder to break.

‘What are you doing here?’ I said.

‘You look as though you need some help.’ He took a drag on the cigarette. Benson & Hedges, the only brand I saw him smoke. ‘Thought I might give you some fatherly advice, you know, shoulder to lean on, that sort of thing.’

I grunted, and said, ‘That would be a first.’

He took refuge behind his mug of tea, looking more embarrassed than I had seen him in … well, a long time. Actually it was difficult to remember a time when he showed any sign of embarrassment, so maybe today was a first. There was that time when I came home early from school and found him and my mother having sex. He should have been embarrassed, she certainly was, but I don’t recall that he appeared so. I do remember him looking at me from beneath the sheets — thank God for small mercies — and saying exactly what he had said just a few moments ago: ‘Hello, son.’

Of course, that memory led me back to a couple of weeks earlier, when my parents had argued bitterly and furiously over the course of Sunday lunch, and then let the disagreement simmer until I caught them at home when they should have been at work. The weekday, mid-afternoon sex had been a way of making up, forgiving and forgetting. Only we couldn’t forget, could we? Not that particular argument, no. Especially not me, I still carry the emotional scars of that humdinger some thirty years later, I can still feel the pain welling up inside of me every time I think about it.

My father stubbed out the last of his cigarette, unfiltered, and lit up another. I remember someone saying once, it might have been my mother, that he had started smoking when he was fourteen. Got through sixty a day at one point. Smoked until he was fifty-six, when he was admitted to hospital for surgery to remove the tumour in his windpipe. Even back in 1985, patients weren’t allowed to smoke in hospital, and so when they finally let him out three months later, he had managed to kick the habit. Not much good it did him by that point though, he was dead two years later.

He put his mug down and looked at me, no, he squinted at me through a hazy cloud of smoke.

‘How’s Susan, everything all right?’

I took a breath, fully intending to speak, to say something, maybe even go some way towards answering the question. But nothing happened. As usual. So for a moment or two I said nothing, glancing sideways as though something had caught my attention across the room.

‘Well,’ I said, finally, dragging the words from my chest like a rusty nail from a wound, ‘not good, really. She left me, a couple weeks ago.’

Now my dad grunted. Or was it a laugh? I risked a quick glance in his direction and we locked eyes, just for a split second, before I looked away again.

‘Me and your mum almost got divorced once, you know.’

‘Yeah, I know.’ I stared at the scarred, stained table top. ‘I remember a trip to the library once, her picking up a book on divorce and waving it at you.’

That, I suppose, had been an attempt at humour, but it hadn’t been very funny, not for me at least. Living in a house where the peace had been fragile at best for the last few weeks hadn’t been easy. Living in a house of messages communicated through the only child — tell your mother this, tell your father that — had been worse still.

Tell the child something he wants to hear, for God’s sake.

‘Me and Susan aren’t going to get divorced. We’ll work it out.’

‘Like me and your mum did?’

No, not like that, I thought, and it seemed to me that I didn’t know if I was speaking the words out loud now. Not like that. Perhaps that mid-afternoon bout of hanky-panky had been a last-ditch attempt to save a relationship, but it didn’t work, did it? The Great Silence began to creep up on us then, and reigned over our family for the next decade, until all that smoking and beer drinking, and all those fry ups took their toll, and The Big C arrived and usurped The Great Silence for top spot in our happy little family.

Some children live with years of physical and sexual abuse, but there are other, unintended, ways of abusing a child. The little, subtle, inadvertent ways, the emotional distances, no one to hold you, no one to hug you, no one saying, I love you.

I must have loved him once. There’s one particular photograph I have of my father, this one taken not on holiday but in somebody’s back garden, I think, and he’s standing in front of a rather large hedge, cigarette in hand, smiling at the camera. I’m there holding his other hand — I think I’m about two years old — but I’m not looking at the camera. I’m gazing with utter devotion up at my father, absolutely nothing else in the whole world matters at that particular moment; I can’t see anybody or anything else.

Just him, my dad.

Why can’t I remember that feeling? All I remember is his short temper, the evenings he spent down the pub, the Saturday afternoons sat in front of the telly, watching the racing or the boxing.

Oh, and the arguments. Like the time when I was little, and he locked my mother out of the house, and it was snowing. It sounds trite, I know, but it’s true; it was winter, and it was cold, and it was snowing outside, and I could hear her banging on the door, shouting, pleading to be let in. I remember asking him, as he sat in the chair feeding the fire with lumps of coal, what that noise was. I knew full well what it was, but I didn’t want to admit to that, it seemed wrong somehow to let on that I knew he had locked my mother outside.

It’s a ghost, he replied.

A ghost? I wanted to say.

But you told me ghosts aren’t real, I wanted to say.

But I didn’t.

I just kept silent.

And so did you.

Or that Sunday afternoon when you argued over lunch, and you pushed her off her chair. At least that’s what she accused you of doing. You said it was an accident, you just bumped into her. You both went at it then, didn’t you? Shouting and screaming at each other.

And then you brought me into it, the eleven-year-old pawn in your screaming match of chess. Told each other you didn’t want me, threw me back at each other like an unexploded bomb in your stupid little war.

Well, I suppose neither of you actually said you didn’t love me, did you? But then neither of you had ever told me you did love me, so what’s the difference? The eleven-year-old boy I was burst into tears, and looking at you now, the forty-four-year-old man I am felt like doing exactly the same thing. My mother apologised almost immediately after, told me she didn’t mean it. I had to wait another hour or two, wait until things had calmed down and you and I were sitting in the lounge together, just the two of us, for your apology.

Only you didn’t say you were sorry, did you? No, all you could drag out was, All right, son?

Hello son.

All right, son?

No, you never said much of anything to me, did you? Neither of you.

That particular incident was never mentioned again, just buried under the metaphorical carpet like all the other shit. Some children grow up watching their fathers hit their mothers, or even getting hit themselves. Not me, I grew up in silences mainly, an absence of things unspoken.

I love you.

I hate you.

I want to leave you.

I can’t live without you.

I can’t live with you.

And the worst of it all? Despite all the years I have travelled from that point, I can now see history repeating itself. The arguments I have with Susan, the distance growing between Johnny and me. When was the last time I told him I loved him, cuddled him, picked him up?

When did The Great Silence sneak into our lives? Into our family?

I was slowly changing, calcifying into my father, and powerless to stop it.

I looked across the table at him, locked eyes again, only this time I didn’t glance away. I think he was probably reading my mind, because I could see the regret, the sadness, in his eyes. He reached out a hand, palm up. I hesitated, just for a moment, and I took it in mine. His flesh was warm and dry.

The last time we held hands was twenty-two years ago, sitting by your sickbed in my bedroom. We’d moved you there because it was on the back of the house, and quieter than the spare room on the front, which got all the traffic noise and disturbed your fitful sleep.

We used to take it in turns, my mother and I, to sit by your bed. We never said much, it seemed like there was so much to say that we couldn’t say any of it, so we sat in silence. And then one afternoon you held out your hand, just like now, and asked me to hold it. And so we used to sit in your room, my room, holding hands, and saying nothing, because there was too much to say.

And all the while, you slowly died in front of me.

My Dad squeezed my hand, bringing me back to here, to now. He let go, picked up his mug and drank the last of his tea, being careful not to drink right down to the bottom and get those tea leaves. He picked up his newspaper, open at the racing results, and stood up.

‘Got to go now,’ he said, holding out his hand once more.

We shook hands, and he left.

And so I am sitting here now, gazing at the space he has only just left.

And I am wondering if he was ever really there at all.

And I am thinking that maybe, just maybe, history does not need to repeat itself. That I can escape the worst shackles of my parents, and maybe become the man they intuitively sensed in me that moment they first saw my wrinkled, scrawny little body, dark eyes peering up at them in the delivery suite.

Thinking that I have been given a second chance, and it would be a terrible shame to waste it.

I pull out my mobile and call up Susan’s number.

I hesitate a second before tapping the connect button.

It rings once, twice, three times.

And then she picks up.

A photo of the author as a young child in a garden with his father.
1. There is no Preston Curse. This is something I have made up.