Doted

Doted
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Photo by Petras Gagilas (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Petras Gagilas (copied from Flickr)

Doted is a strange word, isn’t it? On the one hand it means a fondness or an uncritical affection; the feeling an adult might have for a small child or a pet dog. A couple newly in love might dote on each other too. When our hypothetical couple get to know each other better this doting wears off because the honeymoon stage is just a stage and once it passes there’s a tendency for the cold light of day to get into things. The relationship is never the same again; scientists on the internet say you get two years: tops. That first doting is immaturity and foolishness. A kind of infirmity; a lack of sound judgement: caused by love. The word is related to dotage; an archaic expression denoting madness, senility, dementia. When Lear curses Goneril, first with sterility and then, if she must have a child, with an ungrateful one, she dismisses his ranting as merely a product of his dotage. Her father’s cursing doesn’t count because he’s too fond and too old.

***

When I was little I was close to Mum’s parents and never met Dad’s. It came as a surprise to me that they were dead. When I found out, I asked him when and how his Mum went. I’d never known anyone who had died before. [private]

“It happened some time previously and from a lack of breath,” he said. Then he slapped at his leg and forced out a laugh. It was long and loud; a machine gun rattle.

When I was really little, I used to join in the laughing. He had a reputation, amongst people who didn’t know him, for being a good fun kind of guy. Life and soul. Something like that. When I was a little older, I noticed something. This laugh, be it ever so loud and out of control, was something he performed with his eyes open. He kept his eye on you because he wanted to make sure, perhaps, that you got the joke. That there would be no more questions.  He fed himself his own punch-lines too, well prepared and wedged into the conversation whether they made sense, or not.

“Did you go to her funeral? Where was it? In a church?”

I’m like a dog with a bone sometimes. That’s what people say about me. I didn’t drop it. I never do.

“The only thing you need to know is this,” he said, “the good Lord said, ‘come forth’ but she came fifth, and only won a bag of nuts,” he bent over laughing, yelping with it. It sounded hard. Like work, like pain.

I asked him what his favourite subject at school was.

“Noughts and crosses,” he said, then the laugh. This time, it sounded more like what it was: pleasure at my frustration.

I asked which colour was his favourite.

“What’s yours?” he said.

“Red.”

“Yes, that’s mine as well.”

I wouldn’t hold his hand. Even then I knew that laugh was too loud, too long. He wasn’t in complete control over it. Other people walking through town that afternoon turned their heads to look at us. He became shameful.

***

Despite the laughing Dad never seemed that happy. He worked twelve hour shifts in a factory that turned plain cardboard into waxed cardboard and turned the waxed cardboard into fish finger boxes (I only know this because Granddad worked there too.) Dad complained about the long hours and having to come home to an untidy house full of children that were rapidly outgrowing it. His primary pleasure in life was walking the dogs. There were two: a black and tan mongrel beset with persistent, incurable mange that Dad had adopted from the RSPCA and called Max, after Mad Max, because as soon as he’d brought the puppy into the house, the thing had gone totally crazy and started to play the fool, jumping into the air and snapping at flies buzzing around the lampshades. That dog had grown up into whatever the canine equivalent of a depressive recluse is and when it wasn’t being walked, slept under Mum and Dad’s bed. We could hear it scratching itself raw, spraying dandruff over the carpet and whimpering through the artex-swirled ceiling.

After we got Max, Dad developed an interest in wildfowling, guns and the shooting of birds. He decided he needed another dog, a better one than Max. So Earl arrived: an expensive, pedigree black Labrador that lived outside in a large kennel Dad built especially for him out of old wooden pallets from the paper factory. Earl was not a pet, and not to be petted. We weren’t to feel sorry for him, out in the cold on his own. Earl was a working gun-dog and the twice daily walks which were mere exercise for Max and a time to do his business were training periods for him. Dad took them seriously and conducted the sessions for an audience of plastic, life-sized decoys of teal and mallard. He directed the action with a stop-watch and a stick. For a time, not a long time, I got up early, before school, and accompanied Dad, Mad Max and Earl on these walks/training sessions.

We lived in a small terraced house – a two up, two down that had been, sometime in the Seventies, been made into a three up, two down. The place lay in a warren of terraced houses just like it, between the town centre and one of the arterial roads out of Preston to the south. Grey though it was, we were only fifteen minutes’ walk away from the nature reserves and farmland on the south bank of the Ribble and the dirty footpath alongside the north bank of the river which led along it to the docks.

The mornings I went out with Dad he strode too fast for me and I had to trot alongside him to catch up. He had a routine and the dogs knew it. Off the leads here, stop to collect sticks here, pause to look at the river and check the weather here, perhaps a cigarette and a chance to do your business here, turn and come back here. I was additional, an imposition. He mainly ignored me, walking fast and, as he walked, gesticulating and muttering under his breath. Sometimes he would lose himself completely and start speaking out loud. It never made much sense, but the odd phrase or two became clear: picking his teeth up off the floor and time and time and time again and have it out once and for all and no need to get so aerated and told you, more than once, to stop creating. He’d get all worked up and walk faster and faster, jabbing his finger in mid-air, droplets of spit flying off his lips and building up at the corners of his mouth.

What was he doing? Replaying, perhaps, a scene of injustice he’d suffered at the paper factory, or allowing himself the chance to say something to a superior he’d never be able to get away with in real life? Maybe he was talking to his Mum, getting off his chest things he should have made time to say before she’d had her lack of breath and been called forth. He could have been hearing voices: paranoid, nasty little accusations about his wife, his eldest daughter, about how people always seemed to be staring at him, judging him, wanting something, maybe planning to steal or kill something that belonged to him. Why would they do that? The bastard, ungrateful kids. Or the clever fucks writing newspaper articles. Smart Alecks on the telly, every night, without fail.

It frightened me. I wanted him to stop doing it. His rages, tantrums, his smashings up of things and people were evidence enough that there was something not quite right. Worse after drink, but not much better without it. But this muttering to an invisible audience was worse, somehow. It was public and embarrassing. I asked him about it. Of course I did.

“What are you talking about?”

He’d frown, wave me away, tell me to shut up. Sometimes, I would insist.

“You’re arguing with yourself. What are you thinking?”

My demanding infuriated him and however I worded the question, smartest of all Smart Alecks, a little bastard fully determined not to be frustrated this time, he waved me away or ignored me entirely. He would carry on ranting or he would explode and drag me back to the house by my shoulder, my arm, my hair, throwing me through the front door and complaining to Mum that, yet again, I’d managed to ruin everything and would she do something with me, once and for all, otherwise he wasn’t going to be responsible for the harm he would do to himself or someone closer. When I was with him he was beside himself.

Alone with Mum and complaining about him, she’d only sigh wearily.

“What did you say to him this time? You must have said something to set him off,” she’d ask.

“Nothing,” I’d reply. “I said nothing.”

***

I go to the best Uni that will take me and study English Literature because he can barely read and it will piss him off. But all reading King Lear does is make me want to call Mum. I stand at a payphone and we skirt around what I want to ask, giving it plenty of room to breathe; to come forth.

She says, “of course, you were his firstborn”, and, “when you came along and up until you were two years old, he doted on you.”

“Doted” is the actual word Mum uses when she tells me about this, the word she uses to batter back the memories I have. So I will give you only three examples because then you will know I am not lying and because all fairy tales obey the Rule of Three.

One

This man who doted on me until I was two deliberately slammed the front door on my hand. Then he did it again. My sister called 999 and told the operator he was killing me. When the police arrived he spoke to them in the kitchen and denied everything. Later, when invited again to answer questions, he told a social worker that I’d been “creating” and he’d been trying to pull me into the house, to close the door and stop me from running away.

Two

This man who doted on me until I was two was cleaning his shotgun in the living room when something I said or did angered him and he held it against my head and told my brother and sister to watch. Told them about leprosy. I thought that was what Lazarus had died of but I wasn’t sure. I knew better than to ask: he didn’t read The Bible. He told them it was very catching and they had to treat me as if I had it from this day forward. He hit me on the forehead with the end of the gun. Pushed me over with it. Told me if I ran out of the house and got run over he would stamp on my dead body and laugh.

Three

I am ten years old, in pain, irritable. We are all at the kitchen table, eating. My mother has just taken me into the bathroom and run the shower on full blast and told me that I’m not ill: this is a good thing. I can have a baby now.

I am wet between the legs and I get up to fetch my water glass from the living room. When I forget to close the kitchen door, this man who doted on me until I was two takes my plate off the table and throws it into the sink, where it smashes spectacularly, gravy hitting the window.

My sister smiles slyly.

Mum asks him to show some patience.

He says: “I showed enough patience when she first started; the dirty little bitch. She can’t use it as an excuse all week.”

***

After Dad threw us out we visited my Uncle Jackie and borrowed clothes from my cousins to tide us over. A bit later, Granddad and Jackie visited Dad at the house. Apparently they held Dad down on the couch while he thrashed and ranted and foamed, just to give Mum a chance to duck in and grab our things. She’d let us know there wouldn’t be time to collect everything. The three of us – me, my sister and brother – made lists. We weren’t to expect to get everything from the list. I asked for Toby Bear, a bashed metal colander and my Steven Livingstone adventure game books with the lime green spines, which, I argued, were numbered and came as a set and so counted as only one item. For herself, Mum took a pair of peacock feather patterned curtains she wanted for making into a quilt, a dressing table set made of irradiated green glass and a banana box she’d covered with brown paper and thumb tacks to look like a treasure chest. Inside were the family photographs.

I learned about the rule of three that winter from my English teacher. There are three Billy Goats Gruff. Rumplestiltskin visits three times. How many ugly sisters does Cinderella have? Our Cordelia had two. Three adjectives were very much excellently better than two. Two examples of a thing allows us to detect a pattern, and when the third breaks it, we’ll feel both relieved and surprised. It will be, Mrs Butterworth promised, satisfying. We’d be marked on our creative use of the technique.

Blood, sweat, tears.

Mum lies on the couch under her peacock tail curtains and sifts through her treasure box, touching our paper baby faces.

One

In this photograph I am nine months old and improbably blonde. Wearing a silver christening bracelet. On a swing, laughing. The sun is bright: I’m wearing some pale, striped cotton thing. There’s a tall privet hedge behind me and the depth of field renders my skin breath-takingly perfect; the hedge is a whirl of dense green against a late-spring sky a shade of blue that belongs to the eighties: you just don’t get it anymore. Dad isn’t in the picture because he is lying on the grass under the swing tickling my feet to make me laugh. The swing-park is a park-and-ride now.

Two

I am a toddler, perhaps eighteen months old. Wearing a duffel coat and sitting in a ride on Blackpool Pleasure beach. The ride consists of a seat (into which I am strapped) attached to a red and yellow plastic disc that rotates, flashes lights and plays It’s a Small World After All. At the height of the disc’s rotation I am four feet off the ground, in arm’s reach of Dad who is in the photograph, holding my hand and smiling.

Three

I am two now and I am wearing a pink dress and white Clark’s shoes and white ankle socks with a frill around the top of them. The dress has a yellow kite and a blue balloon appliquéd onto it. Dad is holding me up. He is wearing a vest and brown corduroy flares. He standing in front of a blue mini car on the street in front of our house. I am frowning and pointing at the camera. Go away. He is doing the laugh: I can tell by how he’s holding his shoulders; the way his tongue is raised out of his mouth.

I am still on the phone to Mum. I am always on the phone to Mum.

“When did he stop doting on me?” I ask.

Except I don’t use these words. I can’t bear to say them out loud. I say something like, “what changed?” or perhaps I do the laugh I have learned and say, “well that’s not quite how I remember it.”

The receiver is slippery in my hand.

“You learned to talk,” she says, matter of factly. As if it’s obvious. Family common knowledge. “You started talking, and asking questions, and you wouldn’t stop.”

***

Mad Max died before I went to university. He went quickly, during the night. It was probably a heart attack caused by old age and neglect. Can a dog die of mange? Earl went a couple of years later. Dad telephoned me to tell me what had happened when I was in a pub in Sheffield, having lunch with a friend. I hadn’t spoken to him in months and I tried to make my excuses but he talked over me, ploughed on, insisted I listen while he told me what the vet had told him.

Earl still slept outside, and Dad had been woken in the night by the sound of his metal water bowl overturning and scraping against the paving slab as the dog thrashed and yelped, its mouth foaming. He’d carried him in his arms – a 50 pound baby – into the back of his car and turned up at the emergency clinic wearing only his vest and some old cords.

Dad went off at a tangent here. He talked about the mess on the inside of the car; the difficulty in driving with the dog having seizures beside him; the bite on his hand the vet had advised him to “get looked at”. He digressed further and described what a gentle nature the dog had; about how well disciplined and loyal he was, about how this bite on the hand that had fed him wasn’t evidence of anything to do with Earl’s character but only how affected he’d been by whatever sudden illness he was suffering from. A brain tumour, perhaps.

What he didn’t tell me but found its way into his story anyway: the dog had a crate in the back of the car and Dad was assiduous about using it but this time, for Earl’s last journey, Dad had him in the front passenger seat, stroking him as he turned the steering wheel with one bloodied hand.

Too dramatic?

As he spoke, going on and on in grief-stricken circles, I made apologetic gestures towards my friend; wiped curly fries through a puddle of mayonnaise on the side of my plate; signalled for another pint. You could still smoke inside pubs then. I worked my way through my packet, smoking one after the other until my eyes were dry and my throat stung.

Dad told me about our street; how it had gone downhill since we’d moved out. Scallies and junkies and taken to hanging about in the back ginnel to do their deals. Maybe one of the scallies was worried about being caught with something on him he shouldn’t have and had chucked a bit of contraband over the wall. That was the word he used: contraband. And guess what? The dog really did have something in its stomach, some piece of latex, which implied he might have eaten something he shouldn’t have. Perhaps cocaine or amphetamine, the vet had suggested, judging by the symptoms of its death. The vet was very curious about it all. Was going to do a post-mortem. Maybe even get the police involved. She’d know for sure in a day or so. She was a woman but she was still very good. Very sympathetic, but women are, aren’t they?

I said nothing.

Dad started from the beginning. He wanted to tell me the story again right back from the time he was awoken in the dead of night by the metallic noise of the water-bowl being tipped over and hitting the flags in the yard.

“I’m out, Dad. I can’t talk anymore. I’m with a friend. I’ll ring you back tomorrow, yeah? Let me know what the vet says.”

I didn’t phone him back, even though Mum, who had been divorced from him for seven years said she was worried about him, that she felt sorry for him.

***

The new dog is another black Labrador and its name is Princess. I haven’t spoken to Dad in several years now and I doubt, very much, that I will again. But I still live where I used to and so does he. Very often, as I am driving my children around I see him crossing that main arterial road on the way to the river, wearing camouflage gear with a lead in his hands. Princess is trotting fast, trying hard to keep up, and Dad is shouting as he walks. He is gesturing to himself. He jabs the innocent air with such force that people have to cross the street to avoid him.

I had to stop at two kids. Medical reasons. I have one he barely knows and probably wouldn’t recognise and another he has never met. Mum says he’s opened savings accounts and divided my inheritance between the two of them all the same. Sometimes I want to stop the car and ask him a question but I always drive on and leave him to it. My father dotes. When a tree’s heartwood rots botanists describe the trunk as ‘doted’ so perhaps I dote too.

It is eminently possible, given the realities of Elizabethan theatrical practice, that for some early productions of King Lear, Cordelia and The Fool were double cast. My poor fool is hanged, Lear says, and the audience in the know, the audience who have, just for the moment, suspended their suspension of disbelief and allowed themselves to notice that the actor playing Cordelia is also playing the fool, is allowed the tiniest of morbid chuckles. They’re allowed to pat themselves on the back: they weren’t fooled after all; they always knew Cordelia was an idiot in disguise, and a poor one at that. [/private]

Jenn Ashworth

About Jenn Ashworth

Jenn Ashworth’s first novel, A Kind of Intimacy, was published in 2009 and won a Betty Trask Award. On the publication of her second, Cold Light (Sceptre, 2011) she was featured on the BBC’s The Culture Show as one of the UK’s twelve best new writers. Her third novel The Friday Gospels (2013) is published by Sceptre. She lives in Lancashire and teaches Creative Writing at Lancaster University

Jenn Ashworth’s first novel, A Kind of Intimacy, was published in 2009 and won a Betty Trask Award. On the publication of her second, Cold Light (Sceptre, 2011) she was featured on the BBC’s The Culture Show as one of the UK’s twelve best new writers. Her third novel The Friday Gospels (2013) is published by Sceptre. She lives in Lancashire and teaches Creative Writing at Lancaster University

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