Blackpool, July, 1946.
I imagine it was raining. Slowly, at first, in spits and spots, then all of a sudden all at once the heavens opened, scattering the couples cuddling on the seafront. I imagine that the heavy drops pulled on the bright lights on the pier just as they smudged Julia’s war paint, blurring the features beneath. Rain and tears mingled on her cheeks, becoming indistinguishable from each other. Lightning crackled and sparked overhead as thunder echoed Alfred’s roar…
Except… Mother Nature doesn’t always have this sense of ceremony. My own Blackpool was a doorstep on a night that was still and calm, where I basked in the warm glow radiating from suburbia’s bay windows whilst my home tore itself apart.
So perhaps the sun was shining and it was bright and clear on that northern street where I can see a boy who comes just up to my knee. He looks from Julia, to Alfred, to Julia as his father yells, “Who do you want to be with, John? Your mother, or me?”
A coin flips in John’s frightened head and he runs to his father’s arms, pauses, looks back, panics and carries on running. Then he hears his mother crying and wonders if he is allowed to change his mind. Before he can find out, I snatch him from that hot street because the only compromise is one where everyone loses. We cling to each other, John and I, and I stroke his hair and promise him lies to hide from the endless wondering ‘what if’.
He’s fifteen when we meet again, when we kiss but he goes too far so instead I insist we play guitar. He’s telling me about the woman who bought it for him. The beautiful, skittish almost stranger who plays him Elvis Presley and dances and smokes and laughs and couldn’t cope.
She’s with him, that’s just how it goes. But we find an old photograph album and there are the pictures of them and we see specious love that doesn’t exist and surely never has though the evidence defies it.
Next time, he’s seventeen and reeks of cigarettes, sweat and freedom in a black suit that doesn’t fit right. I offer my sympathies but my comfort is futile because this is beyond what I can fathom. Empathy is hard when you can’t possibly understand. So I clasp my hands and wish and wish that I could be better. There is only so far my empty embraces can go.
I felt invincible, forgetting my naivety and conceit. So I scrubbed until my fingers were raw and cracked and made a bed with crisp, white sheets and dabbed at his wounds and whispered, low, when he winced at the antiseptic. But I wound the bandages too tight and the infection flourished in the heat and all I did was make it worse by fussing.
So I don’t visit again until he’s just turned 30, when he doesn’t see me sitting in the corner of that white room where Alfred asks for money and forgiveness one last time.