The Prodigal Son by Amanda Prowse

Published Tuesday, 13 August 2013
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Charlie was a hoarder. Not of material stuff, quite the opposite. In fact his shiny, glass-sided Docklands flat was sleek, clear and dust free ...

The Prodigal Son by Amanda Prowse
Amanda Prowse visits a difficult father-son relationship in her moving story. (© ITV)

Socks were balled and stored according to colour, and his collection of spices was kept in identical plain glass jars, hidden from view behind glide touch drawers of cool grey. If the Sunday papers were not read within an hour of purchase, they were consigned to the recycling bin, he disliked their haphazard spread over the coir-covered living room floor. Vince used to watch him as he glanced at the various magazines, booklets and leaflets advertising conservatory blinds, until he could stand it no longer. 'I can see your OCD receptors twitching from here,' Vince would tease from across the room. 'I can't help it,' Charlie would offer by way of his own, lame defence.

No, Charlie was not a hoarder of things; he was a hoarder of emotions. His grief at losing both his mother and his first lover lay in a little pocket that he had sewed beneath his heart; he would dip into it almost daily, raking through the embers of grief that filtered all other feelings.

Grief was not the only emotion that he held onto with an athlete's grip. There was also the gut-wrenching fear of his dad's words, a fear that felt like a rock sitting at the base of his stomach. Even after a brisk walk, a glass of chilled white and a night of laughter, he could still feel it nestling next to his bowel. A cold reminder that he should be trying harder to live a different life.

Charlie had promised his mum that he would go and see his dad at least twice a month and that he would phone him to make sure he had taken his pills and had watered the tubs. He hadn't, he didn't, and he was forced daily to swallow the bile of guilt. He had lied to her, for the first and last time, not intentionally, but a lie nonetheless. His mum had been the last remnant of glue that held them together as a family and when she had passed away a decade ago, he and his father had drifted on opposite currents that took them further and further apart with each passing year. When his mum had lain on that sagging mattress, asking - pleading - for this one final thing to bring her peace, he had agreed readily, not fully understanding how hard it would be to exchange pleasantries over a heated pasty and chips, while his dad's words replayed in his head, making him feel small and ashamed. He did it once and then he opted out.

Yesterday, when the willing intern on reception had patched through the call to his vast, black desk, he had drummed his fingers, agitated by the disruption to his routine, and distressed by the news in equal measure. He had of course thought about his father over the last ten years, but could only consider his passing with something close to relief. He let out a heavy sigh, which only replenished the kindling of guilt that regularly sparked into flame.

That night, Charlie was chopping curly kale on the wooden block when Vince's voice had popped into his head, 'You should go. You need closure, both of you, no more and no less.' He spoke with the dispassionate voice of a surgeon, and his clarity made it seem like a necessary administrative task, rather than the climbing of a slippery emotional mountain which Charlie would doubtless fall off and hurt himself. He had lain awake into the early hours, watching the little red lines of his digital clock re-form with regularity: markers that marched him through till dawn, when he was still undecided when or if to make the trip. When the alarm beeped at 6am, he thought of Vince again. Closure. He was right. He packed a small overnight bag and slid onto the leather seat of his car.

And there he was, travelling back 'up t'north' as his friends called it, to say goodbye to the man that had shaped his whole life. Charlie wore an expensive handmade suit, and a heavy, finely tooled precision watch glinted on his wrist as he revved the three litre engine, which roared beneath the metallic bonnet of his sports car. Any onlooker would admire these trappings by which they might calibrate their own success, and yet he would trade it all without a blink for the one thing he yearned: a pat of approval from that calloused hand. The hand that twitched into a fist when Charlie finally admitted his 'gayness', as they called it, one Christmas. Charlie had laughed until the tears rolled down his face and once he had started, he couldn't stop, retiring to his bed to soak his pillow with Yuletide distress. He had thought of it every Christmas since.

To come out to this big man, a man who had dug coal in a mine, a man who had fought a war, took guts, more guts than Charlie possessed. He had instead written a letter, leaving it propped up on the teapot on the dining room table, addressed to them both. His mum told him his father had read it, but neither party ever mentioned it again.

Charlie had felt different his whole life and it was with relief he learned of his sexuality, happy that he wasn't just mad as he had thought. Sex education in the fourth form had left him reeling. While the whole class squealed with fascination and embarrassment at the mechanical, comical act being described, he felt nothing but revulsion. When he could stick the label on himself that others found so hard to utter, it gave him an identity and a group to which he felt aligned and for the first time in his life, he knew he wasn't alone.

His mum called him her special boy; his father called him her Nancy boy. It made him cringe every time she called him this throughout his life, because in his head, he heard his father's words, following as sure as night followed day.

Charlie gripped the steering wheel and indicated at the junction of the M6. As he navigated the lanes, he was thinking about Sports Day, a year after he had come out, when he was 15 years old. Charlie had watched as Julian Merryweather carried off the first place ribbons for six out of eight events. Julian's father, the portly Mr Merryweather who owned the cobblers on the high street, had stood at the finish line, hoarse from roaring, with a fist raised high above his head. 'Come on my son, come on Julian!' His son's winning efforts were rewarded with a crushing hug and the words, 'I am so proud of you!'

'I am so proud of you... '. Six words that had never passed Charlie's father's lips.

He had cried himself to sleep that night. The next morning, Charlie was still raw from the look of disgust on his father's face as he planted face down after the first hurdle, and tried in vain to catch up with the runners. For the first and last time, he had stood tall in the kitchen door and he had shouted at his dad. While his mother hovered, horrified, with a skillet full of scrambled eggs, Charlie shouted as loudly as he could, 'I would love for one day, to be Julian Merryweather, I would love to have a dad that was proud of me, I would like to know what that felt like, just for one day!' His dad had paused momentarily from chewing his toast. Then he sipped his tea and continued with his breakfast as though his son hadn't spoken. It would be another episode put down to Charlie and his 'girly hysterics'.

It might have been the last time Charlie had shouted, but not his father's. That came seven years later, when Charlie rushed home to say he had been accepted to teach sport at a summer camp in the States. His mum had rushed forward and wrapped him in an all-encompassing hug - she often did this, as if she could compensate for her husband's lack of expression. Charlie held the letter in his hand and spoke to his dad, over the din of the television. 'Did you hear what I said, Dad, I've been offered a place at a camp, to help teach disadvantaged children over the summer, before I go to uni... ' His voice had trailed off, embarrassed.

His dad had sat forward in his chair, his shirt sleeves rolled above his elbow to reveal his meaty forearms. 'I heard you, but what I want to know is, who the hell in their right mind would let you near kids?'

Charlie did not shout, he simply took a deep breath and continued to stare at his father. 'I think you might be confusing homosexuality with paedophilia. The two are usually mutually exclusive. And that is certainly the case with me.' Charlie's dad leapt from the chair. 'Is that right? You think because you talk with your fancy voice, going off to your fancy university that it makes it ok? I'm here to tell you it doesn't! You turn my stomach, you and all your kind, its not bloody natural! You're not bloody natural!'

His mother cried from the hallway, hollering through her tears, 'Stop it Graham, just stop it!'

He spoke to his wife, though he kept his eyes fixed on his son. 'Stop it? I'll stop it when he stops nancying around and gets himself a girlfriend. That's all it needs to stop this malarkey.'

Charlie had giggled with nerves, but inside he was fuming. It was the final straw to see his mum so distressed and his father so full of anger. From that day on, he only went home when it was absolutely necessary, often meeting his mum in secret, holding clandestine afternoon teas in Claridges or early suppers at his flat when she could escape for a day. She had met Vince, and although she had been fidgety and tongue-tied, she had at least sent him three packets of his favourite mint imperials afterwards. It was acceptance of sorts.

Charlie followed the dictatorial voice of the sat nav and pulled the car into the car park of the hospice. His first impression was that it was like a newly built budget hotel, soulless but functional. Someone had placed plastic tubs, jam-packed with pansies, either side of the automatic doors, and they provided a welcome splash of colour. He smiled at a nurse who wheeled an elderly lady past him on the path.

'Hello!' she waved at him vigorously as though they had met.

'Hi,' he waved back.

At the front desk, a woman wearing the name badge Lynda smiled and signed him in. She was wearing a tabard embroidered with the words Dementia Unit, and she indicated that Charlie should follow her as she walked briskly along the linoleum-covered floor that licked up the walls by a couple of inches. She stopped by a door whose name plate had been filled with a hand written piece of card: Graham Miller. Someone had drawn an elaborate ring of flowers around the edge, and coloured it in with red and green felt tips that, judging from the grainy strokes, had run out about half way through.

Charlie stared at the old man that lay in the bed. He turned as if to seek reassurance from Lynda that he was in the right room, and as he did so, his eyes darted over a photograph of his parents on their wedding day.

His dad was frail and old, so very old, he had lost his bulk, and with it his authority. Charlie had never felt he measured up physically and yet now he was the bigger man. His father's chin sprouted grey, whiskery fluff. It was the first time Charlie had ever seen him anything other than clean-shaven and it bothered him. He tiptoed closer, not wanting to wake the dying man as he slipped towards his final rest.

The bedroom was small but not cramped; more like well-organised student digs, with just enough shelves and cupboards for someone with few possessions. He wondered for the first time about the house in Forrest Grove: was it still crammed with all the things that he and his mother had acquired over a life lived together for 70 years? Picturing his old bedroom in their three-bed semi, he wondered if the traces of him still lingered in his collection of books - 'Get your head out a book and come and play cricket!' - and car badges - 'Why don't you stop collecting bits of scrap and work out how to earn the money to buy one!'

Charlie cracked open the small window, trying to let the fetid scent of death escape. It seemed that his father exhaled the sickly sweet smell with every breath. He sat by the side of the bed and studied his father's paper-thin, yellow skin. He stared at the prominent veins that throbbed in his temple and neck. The dying man's chest rose and fell slowly, too slowly for Charlie to believe that there was another breath coming, but there was. Each breath crackled like the worn out stylus that had scratched against the aged vinyl of his mother's Perry Como LPs on a Sunday afternoon. His father turned his head, his eyes cloudy, seeming to seek out the space behind him - searching for what, Charlie could only guess. This was what this big man was reduced to. He was not impressive or intimidating, but was shrunk, in every sense.

He thought of Vince who had fallen into the icy swirl of death as he held him in his arms, Charlie had thought his heart might burst with the grief, even picturing the moment he passed was enough to twist his gut with sadness and stop the breath in his throat. This was nothing like that, not even close. It was sad, pitiful, but was lessened by lack of love and any nice memory; it was muted by all the words that had gone before. If he thought of Vince he heard him saying, 'Do you have any idea how utterly smashing you are?', and it made it smile. Recollections of his father's words had the opposite effect; he could see his dad mouthing the words, 'There used to be a law against it, still would be if I had my way, string 'em up.' Charlie could never forget that his own father had suggested that he wanted to see him hang for falling in love.

A thin, spiky-faced nurse bristled into the room and barely acknowledged Charlie, who sat upright on the green vinyl chair, feeling awkward. She spoke to his dad as though he were a toddler, 'Hello Graham, how are you doing lovey?' She bent low over him and placed her hand close to his mouth before placing her fingers against his neck. She smoothed the hair from his forehead and bent low again before she turned to Charlie. 'You must be Graham's son.' Her tone was accusatory, blunt, unforgiving.

'Yes, yes I am.' Charlie nodded into his lap, suitably admonished. He knew that she judged him for not coming sooner, but she only knew three months of their story, not the other 52 years and 9 months. He wanted to explain, but decided against it. It was nothing to do with her, nothing to do with anyone. Let her think what she wanted. Soon, he would never have to see her again, what did it matter what she thought?

'It's good that you are here.' She nodded towards the bed, suggesting that his father's death would be sooner rather than later. 'If you need anything, or your dad's in any discomfort or if anything changes at all, then press the button.' She pointed to an electrical lead with a red bulb on the end that lay on his father's bedside cabinet.

Charlie sat for 20 minutes before he found the courage to speak. 'This is a nice place dad, quite peaceful. I drove up; I've got one of those flash cars I always wanted. I must admit, I loved it for the first few months, but the novelty wears off quite quickly and now its just the car, and has become like every other car I've ever owned, just a means to get around.' He was silent again, uneasy at the lack of response, it was like talking to an answerphone, uncomfortable after a while. He thought of all the things he wished had to said to Vince and it oiled his fears, this was his last, his only chance. 'Truthfully, I don't know how to feel really dad. I'm sad about not seeing you for all this time, but I'm much sadder at the fact that you never really got to know me. You're my dad, the first person I should be able to call, but you're not, you're the last. I'm a good man, I am.'

Charlie started to cry, but it had been a long time, and the sensation was strange. 'I'm a good man,' he uttered through his tears, 'But for a long time, dad, I felt worthless. I loved mum and you loved her too, I thought that might have been enough to make us a team, but it wasn't, was it? Maybe she loved me too much, I don't know -- ' he took a breath, trying to regain control ' -- I never wanted to let you down, dad, I never wanted to disappoint you.' He pictured all those winning ribbons, lined up in Julian's hand. 'But I didn't know how to be the son you wanted me to be. It's a shame dad and such a bloody waste, such a bloody waste. I think you might have liked me if you'd only got to know me.'

Charlie looked up, his father's chest was still, and his eyes, now glassy, looked ahead. He stood and walked to the side of the bed. His father had gone. He bent low and kissed his dad on the forehead, 'Goodbye dad.'

The spikey nurse came into the room and sighed as she closed Graham's eyes and tucked the sheet around his form, keeping him snug. 'Sweet dreams, Graham.' She turned to Charlie. 'All the arrangements have been made and we will comply with all his wishes.' Her voice, again, was curt when addressing him.

'Thank you,' Charlie whispered, 'is there anything I have to do?' He swallowed the sob that built in his throat.

'No, as I said everything has been taken care of.' Again, she swept him with a look of disapproval. 'You are free to go.'

Charlie gathered up his jacket and glanced back at his father. He walked outside, not noticing Lynda who smiled over her computer screen. Reaching for his car keys, he took a lungful of clean northern air.

'Excuse me?'

The spikey-faced nurse approached him. 'I nearly forgot, he left you this.' She handed him a card, a postcard of a book cover, The Picture of Dorian Grey, written by Oscar Wilde, the most famous poof his dad knew. Charlie smiled. He sat in the driver's seat and turned it over in his palm. On the back, in his father's spidery hand, he read, 'You are my Julian Merryweather, I am and always have been so very proud of you.'

© UTV News
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