My dreams of a university education evaporated when I saw that I would have to get a job and ease the family’s finances. I went knocking on the doors of advertising agencies, and was immediately offered a placement as a copywriter in a Regent Street company on the condition that I learned to type and painted my own office. Say what you like about the seventies; it was never hard to find work in London.
I’d thought this would ease tensions at home and that my father would be pleased, but instead he was furious. It was not that I had shown initiative and escaped, but that I had so easily achieved my ambition without any effort at all. When I went back to the family home he refused to speak to me. I couldn’t simply stop going there because to do so would have punished my mother, so I continued to return and made matters worse with each fresh visit.
When my father realised that his sullen, accusatory silences were having no effect on me he extended them to my mother, so that the house became a virtual tomb. The situation worsened with explosions of temper and destruction that caused my mother to call the police, although she would never have considered anything as drastic as divorce. I couldn’t understand what was going on, and had no way of putting the situation right.
My father was not a cruel man by any means. He was trying to find his way through life without accepting advice or financial support from anyone, including his own family. Once he had hidden behind a door when a friendly neighbour came to call. Nobody in our house believed in self-help, therapy, or self-awareness. No-one would have dreamt of checking for signs that something might be wrong. The idea of mental wellbeing was either frowned upon or ridiculed as being unmanly, a waste of time and money.
The darkening situation affected my younger brother, who avoided being left at home and went to stay with friends. My mother became so isolated that I now realise she suffered the symptoms of a nervous breakdown, taking to her bed, unable to cope.
It struck me that something must have happened in our past to create this damage, so one evening after work I met my mother in a café and we talked, very awkwardly, about their marriage. Getting any information from her was like pulling teeth, but she described one event that finally provided a key.
My father had once worked in an innovative scientific unit and had been destined for great things. When the unit was offered funding in Canada it was assumed he would go with them. But I was just about to sit my exams and teachers had advised my mother not to uproot me from London, as I was expected to do well. My father had watched the unit leave without him. Shortly after, he changed careers and became bitterly unhappy in his new work.
Suddenly everything made sense. He had abandoned a decade of hard graft so that I could step straight into my chosen career without any kind of sacrifice or compromise. Meanwhile, he had lost his status and his purpose. Lines of regret etched themselves deeply into his face, until he looked as old as my grandfather. Bill had worked hard all his life and had been left with nothing to show for it but an ungrateful son. The family that should have been all he needed had failed him.
After I had my first novel published my mother told me that, much to my amazement, he was proud of me. The subject wasn’t mentioned, of course, but the next time I went home I offered to cut his hair, and my offer was quietly accepted. I arranged the towel around his neck. As I began snipping, I thought of him standing in the darkness at seventeen, firewatching as phosphorescent bombs left trails above St Paul’s. He was imagining life among the stars, thinking of what might have been.