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My mum’s name was Mum, my dad’s name was Malcolm and his new wife’s name was Jessica. Every other weekend, I would leave our council flat in Hackney and go to Malcolm and Jessica’s place in Kent. It was a converted farmhouse called The Gables. They didn’t own all of it, just a large flat that made up 1/8th, but it had a driveway you could roll a skateboard down and about an acre’s worth of garden in the back. In addition, they had all the luxuries we couldn’t afford at home: a colour tv, a video, a sodastream, one of those hanging paper lampshades from Habitat.
And an Amstrad PCW.
You’ll hear all sorts of eulogies for the Spectrum and the BBC Micro, but very few for the Amstrad PCW. It occupied a particular space in the history of computers in the UK – ubiquitous and perhaps underloved. If you were middle class in the late 80s and you couldn’t afford an Apple Mac, you probably had an Amstrad PCW. It was cheap and self-contained. £399 got you a computer, a screen and a printer – everything you needed to word process, which was what most people (adults, anyway) thought computing was.
The PCW had a green-screen monitor, because Alan Sugar was savvy enough to know that shades of green were more high-tech than simple black and white. It used 3″ discs and as far as I know was the only computer that did so. The fact that the drives were mounted sideways seemed very cool to me. The non-standard media meant that to this day there are still boutique companies that specialise on transferring files from this format to something more useful – once 3.5″ floppies, now probably a USB stick.
The PCW was sold entirely as an office machine, but that wasn’t to say that fun couldn’t be had on one. That depended, of course, on what your definition of fun was. Malcolm once told me that he really enjoyed putting a load of numbers into a spreadsheet and then just playing around with them. I thought he was insane and would harass him to get some games. You know, real games.
Eventually, he relented and came home with a large grey box with colourful graphics on the front.
If gaming wasn’t going to happen on the PCW, then I had to look at other activities in order to get my computer fix at the weekend. I had a computer of my own, but my Amstrad was a CPC and ran on tapes. This had a disc drive that seemed impossibly quick. Given that you didn’t have to wait ten minutes to load up a program, I was itching to make the most of it.
I had a look at Locoscript, the word processor that came free with every machine, but something about it seemed off putting. For a start, it booted into a complex file tree system that seemed more like a database than writing a story. It seemed to complicate something that was supposed to be simple. So, I carried on looking.
Malcolm told me about Desktop Publishing, where you could make your own magazines and newspapers. This was definitely of interest to me. I was an avid user of stencils and Letraset, creating my own comics and magazines with short print-runs (often of one copy). The idea that I could do this on the computer, without having to rely on my dodgy pencil hand or inability to get all the words on the right line could be exactly what I was looking for.
As was usually the case with any activity with Malcolm, there was a distinct lag between suggestion and execution. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that I only saw him every other weekend, but a large percentage of it probably comes from the fact that there were always other interests, other hobbies and other purchases to be made. One weekend would be all about archery, the next fortnight model trains and then over the Easter holidays we would scour the sports shops of Kent and Sussex looking for a junior pitcher’s glove so that I could join Malcolm in his newfound enthusiasm for baseball.
One of them was a game – a real game – that not only had proper graphics and sound to sate my shallow tendencies, but also starred one of my personal idols (albeit in low-res, slightly tubby form).
The 1986 Batman game was an isometric puzzle-platform game created by Jon Ritman and Bernie Drummond and published by Ocean Software. It had graphics, which meant is was a proper game, but enough logical dexterity was required to mean that Malcolm enjoyed it, too. The conceit of the game was that the Batcave had been over-run with monsters and you had to retrieve the six parts of the Batmobile to make yours escape. In addition, you had to collect your bat-belt, bat-boots, bat-pack and bat-bag, which bestowed various abilities, such as being able to jump or pick up objects.
I never managed to escape from the Bat-cave. That game was hard, requiring pixel-perfect timing in order to traverse each room. A single touch from an enemy meant death. Walking on the wrong part of the floor meant death. Brushing against an electrified piece of the scenery with no marks to distinguish it from any normal piece of the scenery meant death. The obstacles were numerous, but the greatest obstacle was my own lack of confidence.
The game was played using the cursor keys marked ←↑↓→ to move in the diagonal directions ⬊⬈⬉⬋. This required a mental disconnection between the brain and the fingertips so that the conscious mind couldn’t interfere with what the digits were doing. The fingers knew instinctively which direction was which and as long as the little Batman kept moving, where wasn’t a problem. As soon as he stopped for a moment, however, my brain would purge all knowledge of which way was which and I would become unsure as to which key would guide my chubby caped crusader in a north-easterly direction. Both up and right seemed equally plausible and I would find myself gripped by indecision. It didn’t matter that I had pressed the right key seconds ago. I now had no memory of which way was which and in a game as punishing as Batman, the slightest mistake would almost certainly mean doom. So I would sit there, hunched over the keyboard, betting my life on a 50/50 chance, red or black at the casino.
To make matters worse, Batman had no patience. If you stopped moving for anything more than a few seconds, the little figure on screen would fold his arms, tap his foot and look directly out of the screen at you, indicating that you should shake a leg and get on with it.
Logic dictates that I should have chosen the right key at least half the time. As I recall it, though, I went the wrong way and plunged to my death nearly every time. Whether this innate lack of proper direction was a learned or genetic trait, I’ll never know for sure, but amidst all these distractions – the bike, the computer, the search for the batmobile – I hadn’t picked up on the fact that Malcolm didn’t go to work any more.
Although ours was an every other weekend and a portion of the school holidays type of arrangement, the difference was clear to see. While the most of the things remained the same – the house, the TV, the soda-stream – all the things that mattered changed. Or maybe they didn’t. When you’re a kid, it’s difficult to see what’s happening in the lives of adults – strange, inexplicable creatures that they are – and on reflection it’s possible that what seems like a bolt from the blue was probably a long time coming.
That’s what happened with Jessica. I was surprised when a letter arrived from her, telling me that she’d left Malcolm, but when I thought about it, it made sense. Things had been bad there for a long time and even though I probably wasn’t very nice to her most of the time, she had done what she could to shield me from most of the unpleasantness. Maybe Malcolm did, too, but he was less aware of what was wrong than everyone else. When the issue of Jessica leaving came up, all he said was “I suppose you know about…” and that was that.
The weekend visits continued, but they became less regular and less fun. I stopped bringing friends along with me. Even if they had wanted to come, I wouldn’t have wanted to expose them to what was happening down at the Gables, or what was happening to Malcolm. Besides, there was something I liked about the fact it was just me and him. Even though a lot of times it wasn’t fun, it still felt special that it was the two of us together. We were a duo, although not that dynamic. The house was still the same in many ways, with the VCR and the PCW, but aside from those three-lettered things there were definite signs that all was not well. The hazards didn’t compare to those in the Batcave. There were no bionic dogs or electrified floors, but instead rotting food and smouldering cigarettes. Not as exciting, but more real, more scary.
As time went on, Jessica – quite reasonably – stopped paying for a house she didn’t live in and Malcolm had to leave.
Because faith in one’s parents is the last vestige of childhood and it’s terribly difficult to let go of, whether you’re 8, 18 or 80. Of course we all learn at some point that our parents are just people, with all the fallibility, fallacies and failures as us. Perhaps, though, this insight doesn’t come all at once. There’s a threshold that needs to be broken in order for the truth to out and maybe we have some sort of limited choice as to when this is reached. There are some truths that we know and understand before we are ready to deal with.
I knew that Malcolm was unreliable and had a flexible relationship with reality. On some level I knew this to be a fact, but on another I wasn’t yet ready to deal with it in any real way. I told myself that it was because it was the right thing to think the best of people, but that obscured a more horrible and tender truth.
He was my dad and I loved him.
It felt horrible to confess that. I knew that he had hurt my mum, my sister and now Jessica, but I didn’t really know why and how. Loving him felt like a betrayal, so I buried it deep and feigned indifference. But in my heart, I thought that he would get it together and that somehow things would be good again.
Me being me, I constructed elaborate fantasies out of this faith. I would calculate the missed weeks of pocket money owed by him and, sure that he would pay them one day and I would be able to afford some of that glorious, unattainable equipment advertised in my computer mags.
(He had also promised to buy me a car when I was 17, but I think I knew even as the promise was made that it was never going to happen.)
Of course it didn’t happen and as time went on I became less and less interested in him paying back my pocket money and more and more concerned with whether he was alive or dead and whether anyone would tell me.
In the end, we spent more than a decade out of touch.
And then a friend of the family told me that Malcolm had been diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing treatment. He said he wasn’t expecting anything from me or my sister, but that he felt that we should know. After a lot of umming and ahhing, I got the phone number from the friend and called him.
Hearing his voice was weird. There he was, on the other end of the phone, just like a real person. I asked how he was doing. He said fine. The doctors had given him the all clear on the cancer. I said that was good. He was sorry for all the things he had done wrong over the years. He said he was trying again and just wanted to have some contact. I said I understood, but that I wasn’t sure how much of a relationship I was ready for. Ten years was a long time. We would have to take it slowly. But we thought that was OK. We had plenty of time.
Except we didn’t.
He called me some weeks later. That pissed me off. I had been very clear that I wanted to be in control of this process. Perhaps it was unreasonable, but I felt I was owed it after a couple of decades wondering whether he was alive or dead. It was petty and maybe even spiteful, but I felt it was earned. Besides, it was a saturday morning and I was spending it with my new girlfriend and the last thing I wanted to was to have to deal with him.
We made stilted conversation for a while. I did would I could to make it as stilted as possible. Rather than say, “this isn’t a good time – can I call you back”, I acted haughty and passive-aggressive. We talked the film review website I was working for. He said it was interesting, because it used PHP and he preferred using Microsoft’s ASP.NET protocol. I really didn’t know anything about it, but thought that he could perhaps have mentioned my writing. By the end of the conversation, I was pretty pissed off.
“Unbelievable,” I said as I hung up the phone and got back into bed. Ten years and all he wants to talk about is programming languages.
I didn’t call him back. I didn’t get back in touch. I didn’t explain why I was upset. I just withdrew from him. Not because I was hurt, but just because I could.
It was the last time I ever spoke to him.
He died in a nursing home in Cheshire. At first I assumed he was there because of the cancer, but after going up there in order to sort out his things I discovered that the story, inevitably, wasn’t that simple. It wasn’t the cancer that killed him. In fact, he’d never had cancer in the first place. While he did have serious health problems – his diabetes had developed into coeliac disease and there were all sorts of intestinal issues that affected his day to day life – cancer was never even on his radar. Maybe he thought it was easier to relate than what he really had. Mum told me later that it wasn’t the first time he’d said he had cancer, with the motives for why he’d done it then being just as opaque as the more recent fantasy. There was plenty really wrong with him, though, as evidenced by the amount of medication my aunt and I found in his small, poky flat. Box after box of tablets, unopened and unused, dating back weeks and weeks. I don’t know why he didn’t take them, but it seemed to me like a very deliberate, very slow way of punishing himself.
We had his estate to deal with, as well as the results of the post-mortem. Cause of death was attributed to asphyxiation by blood and vomit, caused by the chronic stomach issues he was dealing with and that had been left untreated.
We sifted through his things. There were a number of cameras. I checked the digital ones for exposures and all I could see were single shots of the very same room I was standing in. There were also two laptops. One had a trackpad that worked, but the keyboard was broken. The other had a working keyboard, but no pointing device. Two halves that didn’t quite make a whole.
I found his passport and although I know passport pictures never look like the person, it was still a shock to see. He looked like an old man. I suppose by that point he was. Even if he was still comparatively young, he had perhaps seen too much and done too little.
When the business of the funeral and cremation was done with, I thought that there wouldn’t be much difference. After all, I had been living without him for most of my life, so what difference did it make? At least I knew where he was now.
But the difference was marked. Whereas before there was always the possibility of reconnection, now there was none. I wasn’t going to be able to let him have it, nor would we be able to work out a differences and come to an understanding. What was unresolved was going to remain so, with an utter sense of finality.
Without the possibility of him ever coming back into my life, it was up to me to come up with some sort of conclusion, to find some sort of peace with it al. Writing this has been part of the process. Perhaps not the end, because feelings are constantly in flux, but at least a way to put down a marker and signify that perhaps it’s time to move on to a new chapter.
I don’t have children of my own. I have no way of knowing what sort of father I would be, but I’ve probably reached a point where I’ve exorcised enough of my demons to realise that I would probably not be exactly the same as Malcolm. The mistakes I’d make would probably be my own. I have no way of knowing if that’s a good thing or not, but perhaps now I’m a little more willing to find out.
In IT, there’s a concept known as the Three-Fingered Salute – a combination of keys that will reset a machine, flush the memory and allow it to start up again. Unlike pulling the plug, which can corrupt the memory or perhaps fry a processor, it’s a reasonably safe way of starting again and sometimes unavoidable when you get stuck in a loop. One of the things I’ve learned is that it’s possible, perhaps even necessary, to perform these every now and again. Sometimes you lose things, but the clean slate you gain is usually worth the price you pay.