The kneepads I’m wearing are for men of my age and above to wear whilst performing DIY. They make kneeling down on hard floors a more comfortable experience. It’s hot. Too hot. And I dislike DIY. Almost as much as I dislike living in my new house.
Boy do I miss the old flat.
I stand up, use my right forearm to wipe the sweat from my brow and take a moment to inspect it. Beyond an off-white wall, freshly painted, a window is framed by an off-white matte, also freshly painted, and inside that a blue gradient of sky, softening to white where it meets a coarse, unrealistically bright green hedge. I take off the kneepads and two perfectly set sweat patches show on my trousers. I reach for the can of Fosters and take in half the can. Disgusting, even when cold.
The sun fills the room, denies the off-white its subtlety. Fucking boiling, fucking bright. Fresh beads of sweat have already formed on my forehead, and so I use my left forearm to collect them. Again, I inspect the pool and this time consider tasting it. Would it taste better than Fosters? Perhaps, but the Fosters is cold. I take another swig. Nope, that’s warm too. It’s impossible to get good beer round this way. I step into some plimsoles and slip outside to the garden taking yesterday’s cigarettes with me. I pick up a lighter resting on the BBQ, but the thought of lighting the cig makes me anxious, a bit sick actually. Fucking hell, what black magic has she practiced on me? You don’t need will power to quit smoking, you need the persecution of a loving spouse. I daydream for a second about writing a whole book of things that annoy me, then head back inside and start strapping the kneepads back on. I’m about to perform DIY, which, actually, I don’t just dislike, I hate. Dad died last month. Not long after that a man cycled over my thumb and turned the nail black. I kneel down and a few beads of sweat drop into the floorboard-gap-filling solution stuff I’m working with. I can’t drink Fosters anymore, I think. I need to do something about this. And then, I hate you, new house.
It’s over a year since I left the old flat. This house is is stupidly big. Pointlessly big. Greedily big. When people comment on how big the house is, I cringe, and then joke that it’s a mansion, hoping it’s not obvious that I’m ashamed of its size. It is a “fixer upper”, a term which just one short year ago carried zero emotional value to it, as far as I was concerned, and is now loaded with despair, regret, and rage. You’re lucky to own a house, mate! I want my flat back. I want my tiny flat back. That hideout. That concrete box. That compartment apartment. That sunless paradise. I miss it. I miss it. I really miss that old flat. And yes, “that old flat” is a literary tool I’ve devised to illustrate the predictable angst I’m feeling at losing control of the direction of my life after the death of a parent. The direction? What an idea! What fallacy. I’m an idiot. Edit: I’m losing sight of the illusion of control in regard to the direction life takes, as though choice is. As though I can navigate away from the boring zip line we are all queuing for. But “the old flat” is also just the old flat, a real space that I miss, that I knew I would miss. Knowing that I would miss it probably ensured that I would miss it.
A year has passed and now I’m on my way back. Just to visit. To take a peek. Armed with a fucking iPod. Dad’s. I don’t have anywhere else to go. The plan was to head to Sylvia’s – the Polish coffee place where I would get eggs Ben and stare with the intention of intimidating moneyed non-Londoners trying to show their visiting parents that the area is quite-lovely-actually – but at the station, on my way down the steps to street level, I catch the scent of cigarette smoke. Ugh. Nauseated once more. I stop by a bin at the bottom of the station’s steps. Do I need to… ? No. A banana skin is draped over the bin’s front, not quite flung with enough belief to take it fully inside. It sits there like a model at poolside, basking in the sun, toes stroking the water’s surface. I need a drink. The Railway Tavern it will have to be. Just across a narrow pathway from the station, it’s a proper shitty station pub. No character. No real regular crowd. Just people passing through. Terrible beer. Sky Sports. Horrible staff. I have performed some of my most toxically male heroic acts in this pub.
I step into the Tavern and it’s not right. I step out, take a look at the sign: ‘Craft Beer Co’. This is an actual thing. They have them in Central, and that’s fine, I’ve been to one up there. Silly prices for beer, and not just “silly” as in not £3.90, but silly for craft beer prices. £6.50 for the Beavertown beer you can get from other pubs for £5. I’m not surprised Craft Beer Co has moved in. But I’m stunned. There are bicycles in here. Bicycles! I look at my thumb, black. It’s rammed. Absolutely rammed. Sergio Ramos. I order a saison.
“Just to let you know,” says barkeep, “that one’s usually by the half pint, and is £8.30 at a pint.”
“Yep, that’s fine,” I confirm. But I’m not convinced that he’s sure that I’m fine with it, so venture to impress my credentials upon him: “Have you got any tronche de cake“?
“Err,” he takes a look at the bottles, “no.”
“What about tête de bite?”
“tête de noeud?”
“Ummm, no,” He wants a yes.
“Ahhhh. Mmmmm. Is that a bier de garde?”
“No.” I walk away with my £1.70 change. Stand on my own at the shoulder high table which is fixed onto a pillar. It’s off-white. This whole place is. It looks like my bedroom. I get out my phone and type:
It got really cold when dad died, despite it being spring. I wish he’d died during summer so that I might have been able to sit outside in peace and quiet.
I don’t know the song dad was listening to when he died, because presumably the iPod kept playing as paramedics worked on him, and sometime after they stopped working on him. The song that last played was by The Killers, which hurts my feelings way more than it should and makes it necessary to point out that the song he was listening to when his heart stopped beating played long before that. A look through the iPod’s history is not possible. It’s an old iPod. But he was shuffling through a playlist titled 1980s, which holds 123 tracks.
What do I wish he was listening to? Waiting for the “Great Leap Forward” by Billy Bragg‘s on there. That would be alright in a funny way. What do I hope he wasn’t listening to? Deacon Blue probably. “Chocolate Girl” is on the list. Suzanne Vega makes an appearance. She is in the ‘No’ pile too.
There are several songs on there that make me wonder, Why didn’t I talk to dad about that song? I like that song. Why didn’t we talk about music more generally? Everything I listen to is because of him, from him, informed by what he listened to.
And I write:
Childhoods inextricable of music.
I see a notification from Whatsapp from my partner and one from a stag do group chat for a stag do I didn’t attend. New song. I write:
There are a lot of songs I don’t know in this playlist. Who are The Bluebells? This is shed rock. But my dad was never much of a shed rock kinda dad, was he? Who the fuck are Fischer-Z? There’s an attractive tune called “So Long” on the playlist. Totally harmless. It’s the sort of song I’d allow myself to enjoy, then play endlessly all week before fossilising to a date-titled playlist. I’m listening to it for the first time. I wish I could be listening to it somewhere else. Not a white banker cunt bar in Limehouse. I wish I was on the train heading out. Or outside in the sun on my own. Perhaps the forest, but not perched uncomfortably on some tree stump like a contemplative moomin. Ideally I would be on a bench that has been dumped. That seems unlikely. I have not heard “Drowning in Berlin” by whoever Mobiles are, and I’m almost certain I have never heard “Trouble” by Lindsey Buckingham. Fuck, is that what Dad said Future Islands sounded like? I can’t remember. Shit. I can’t remember. Dad loved a singular catch to a song. He must’ve done. And I do too. As if on demand, “Echo Beach” kicks in.
I can’t remember though.
I think I have a headache. I need to take a toilet break.
People get annoyed with people who haven’t prepared their keys before getting to their car, like that bit in About Schmidt, and I feel similarly about men who don’t have their penis to hand by the time they approach the urinal.
I piss then shake.
Zip it up.
Take my phone out. Make a new Note. Write:
When I was about 7 playing football with my dad, I took a piss on some playing fields. I didn’t have any pants on. My parents were shit at that sort of stuff. I zipped my 7 year-old penis into the fly. It was fucking agony. What a way to go that would be.
The Os in the list have both Orange Juice (“Rip It Up” obviously) and OMD (“Electricity”, “Enola Gay”). Yes! Great tracks, but not the songs I hope he died listening to: there are just worst ways to go. I need to remind myself what “Messages” is. Just after the Os of 1980s we have Paul Simon‘s “Boy in a Bubble” and “Graceland”. I bet he loved the Graceland album. Everyone does.
I play “Gumboots”. I look out the Craft Beer Co’s window, thinking I’ve seen one of the old kids from the estate, from that little flat I loved. It’s not him.
Joy Division are missing aren’t they? Ah. There’s a separate playlist for them. That makes sense. The Clash have one too. Yazoo do not have their own playlist. “Only You” plays. I love this. It’s the tune that was #1 when I was born. I check to see if this is definitely true and it’s not. A few days before, xmas number 1 “Only You” was knocked off the top spot by Paul McCartney’s ‘Pipes of Peace’. Thank fuck these things are irrelevant.
I finish my £8.30 and head for where I used to live. Why? I’ve started writing now, I might as well go. It’s an ex-council block. East London thick brick. Rubicon cans on the stairwell, faulty lifts. A kid called Abdi that tries to sell you weed every time you see him, even though you tell him that you don’t smoke weed. It was him that I thought I saw walking past the pub. He’s got a dog. He told me that it is was rare for a Bengali to have a dog. I wonder if he’s still here?
The old flat. I skip up the concrete steps and the sound of my shuffle, like a spade into cement mix, reverberates somewhere beneath me.
It doesn’t feel good being here. Feels like I’m on LinkedIn looking at an ex. I’m just outside my old front door, on the communal balcony. It’s hot. I look at my forearm, deposit the sweat from my brow. Look at it. Rub it against my T-shirt. I think about having a cigarette. I feel anxious, a bit sick actually. But I do it anyway. I smoke.
Looking out over the old road from this balcony feels iconic. Perhaps that word feels right because what I’m doing is false. I never stood here, looking out on the road, its people. This is just where I walked to come and go, and to take the rubbish to the chute.
The cigarette is talking to me. It’s telling me straight.“Valentine Heart” by Tanita Tikaram plays. This would’ve been a nice way to go, or at least to have played right before all the pain. As would “Catch My Fall” by Billy Idol. Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting” a bit obvious probably. There are three Kirsty MacColl tracks and none of them are bad. I had no idea.
It’s hard to pick. None of this is by his favourite bands or they wouldn’t be in this playlist. “The Whole of The Moon”? He really liked that track, didn’t he? It sounds like my childhood.
Cigarette has it right: My time at this flat was spent inside, cultivating a life shared. Arguing and learning and arguing and learning. Sleeping. Learning to be not alone. Teaching someone how to be alone. Working. Working at it. Making a home. I hadn’t really had one before. Look at that front door. The only thing I wanted to change about this place the whole time was that door and we never got round to it.
I want to be fifteen years old and in dad’s CK One and Silk Cut smelling Skoda Octavia whilst he tells me something very boring about Michael Stipe. But that will never, ever happen again.
It’s time to take my black nailed thumb home.
When I cried out on the playing ground that day, 7 years old with my foreskin caught in the metal teeth of my jeans, dad rushed towards me. He unzipped the jeans and I saw him wince. He was on his knees and I held my arms aloft, doing that silent cry that kids do when they experience what they believe to be agony. I held my arms aloft and he lowered himself in to hold me.
On the train heading back an American family at the front of the first carriage are talking about the driverless train. They are very taken with this. The mother repeats, over and over, to her nerdlinger toddler, “Look Jacob, you’re steering the train.” Look Jacob. Look.
I get home and can hear American voices on the TV, too. This means she’s home.
“Hellooooowuh” she calls from the couch, and I pick up a letter as the front door closes behind me.
“Hi,” I say, walking into sight, scoring the envelope.
She sees it. “A card, for your dad?” She looks at me.
“Nope. Wedding invite.”
“Oh,” she says, turning her attention back to the TV, “put it with the rest.”
Cover image courtesy of Colm Linehan via Flickr