His was a desultory gait, plodding down the street, his awareness trying to clasp hands with reality but missing by inches. The peculiar gait was an irony as he knew exactly where he was going. But as none might say, a purposeless man will look it, regardless of his intention. The hour was late, sometime after midnight and well into that stage before dawn where logical decision-making is suspended and tomfoolery is king.
He was of average height, with a rather dumpy build hidden beneath an expensive black trench coat, his balding head covered by a small bowler hat. Round spectacles sat above a round nose, blue eyes squinting above a mouth that would not stop moving. The street was bare, fortunately, but had any been around to observe, they would have heard the man mumbling to himself, punctuating his diatribe with a wild gesture every so often. If one watched him for long enough, they would have seen the furtive glances up at the tenements lining the street, as though counting. There was nothing crazed in those calculating eyes.
He kicked out at a can lying in the street, revealing polished black shoes, charcoal trousers and a dark grey sock. The kick was mistimed, however, and his short leg seemed to swing too far, unbalancing him and sending him into a wobbling overcorrection that resulted in the street pole on the corner of the road making a brief acquaintance with his head.
“Ah, ferfugsake!” came a warbled cry from the pile of limbs that had just been upright and walking.
A door opened opposite the man, spilling golden light onto his struggle to push himself upright. Whoever was there made no effort to come and assist and it was another full minute before he had managed to lift himself to his feet, dust off his trench coat, return the bowler to his head and look up at the doorway.
No one was there.
He glanced at the sign above the door, which read Oedipus Laughing in golden lettering against a green backdrop. Casting a final murderous look at the street pole above his head, the man walked stiffly into the open doorway.
Beyond lay a corridor, carpeted a deep, lustrous gold. A closed door was to his immediate left, but the man ignored it, despite the very faint sounds of revelry behind it. So too did he ignore the sound of the door closing behind him. He made his way in, descending a staircase at the end which twisted to the right. At the bottom of the stairs, he exited through one last doorway to find himself in a sparsely lit tavern, dominated by shadow. He nodded to himself; the instructions he had been given were accurate.
Seven round wooden tables were spread across the floor, each home to two wooden chairs facing one another. The table in the far corner was occupied by two men speaking quietly, the ember glow of their cigarettes illuminating their faces every so often. The bar counter ran across the opposite wall where a solitary barkeep stood vigil, his face almost entirely hidden by a thick grey beard and long grey hair.
The man walked to the nearest table and removed his coat, swinging it onto the back of the chair. Beneath it was a pristine charcoal suit, of a colour to match his bowler. He sat down, turning and lifting a hand to signal the barkeep, who nodded morosely and set about fixing two drinks. The man turned back and paused, his eyes thinning as he took in the elderly gentleman now seated at the table opposite him.
“Don’t look so disappointed Henry. You came here to find me, after all.”
Henry continued to study the elderly man for a few moments, before he removed the bowler hat and placed it on the table beside him. He reached up and ran his right hand wistfully over his balding pate. He then removed his glasses, taking a moment to clean them with a very white silk handkerchief that had been sitting in the top pocket of his suit jacket.
The elderly man said nothing, though the shadow of a grin remained upon his face. The barkeep came alongside their table, putting down two copper mugs filled with beer. He moved off again. The elderly man immediately picked his up and, nodding his thanks to the barkeep, took three long gulps. When he set the mug down, he closed his eyes and smacked his lips.
Henry finished with his glasses and returned them to the bridge of his nose. For all the effort he had made to get here, he now found his voice had dried up. It was always the way with family; ten thousand arguments won in your head for every one argument you had in real life. And arguments with family never ended because when did anyone ever admit they were wrong? Never, Henry knew, never. It was all one big game of “I know better than you” and the taste of that truth was bitter to all.
“I need your help,” Henry managed, finally looking into the eyes of the man opposite him.
The shadow of the grin remained etched into the wrinkled visage and Henry was suddenly grateful for the gloom, grateful that he did not have to study that face he had once known so well. The elder was clearly waiting for something.
“Please,” Henry added quickly.
“Manners maketh man,” the elder said, “I hope you haven’t forgotten, now that you’re the big business tycoon.” He took another gulp of beer, his Adams apple bobbing in his long, skinny neck.
Henry had known this wouldn’t be easy, but it was one thing to prepare yourself and quite another to handle what you prepared for with the suave grace you believe you own. He felt the anger rip through his chest, every one of those one thousand arguments now skittering in his mind like shards of glass, each one sharp enough to draw blood.
The elder held up a hand, stalling the impending tirade.
“Relax Henry, I only tease. Have some beer. It’s delicious.” He lifted his arms and studied them for a moment. “Look at this. Strong! Drinking like it’s the old days. Even my cough is gone. How great is that?”
“I am… glad, Father,” Henry said honestly, clamping down on his anger and keeping his tone polite. “I am glad that you can enjoy this again.” He lifted the copper mug and cocked one eye into the brew. It was a rich amber colour with a perfect head of foam. He took a tentative sip and instantly marvelled at the delicious taste.
He found himself catching the eye of the man opposite and nodding in appreciation. They both raised the tankards and bumped them together before each taking a long swig.
That was the other thing about family. How quickly things could go from mind-numbing rage to stomach-cramping joy, and vice versa. Families were so like the ocean; the surface calm and mesmerising at times, apoplectic with rage at others, and always, always with hidden currents swirling beneath.
“You said you need my help?” Father began. “What has the great Henry Mann got chewing on his heel that he would seek out my help? I don’t recall you ever needing it… before.”
Henry lifted his copper mug in honour, before taking another sip.
“Perhaps help was the wrong word. I need your advice.”
Father leaned back in his chair and let out a long, low whistle.
“Help is asked for. It is plentiful and everlasting if one knows where to look and who to badger. But advice? Advice is earned. It’s a rare nugget of gold that can lead a man to wealth or ruin. It shapes all thoughts that come after it and none can know just how deep its roots will burrow. Help is easy, Henry. Advice is dangerous. Are you sure about this?”
“I cannot turn back. Not now.”
Father nodded sagely, twisting his hands together in what, Henry realised, was a gesture of anxiety.
“Very well. How may I advise you, son?”
Henry took a few moments to think. “It’s chaos out there,” he began. “Men are jumping from the rooftops, families are starving, the world is collapsing. I’m watching it all fall to pieces around us. The company is mostly gone.”
Henry looked up at his father, studying the blue and grey eyes that were so much like stormy seas. He had expected outrage, anger, fury. He had prepared a dozen arguments in his mind to absolve himself of blame. He had gone so far as to write down his reasons. His excuses.
All in anticipation of a reaction that never came. Instead, Father continued to study him, quite calm.
“I thought the news might upset you,” Henry said quietly.
Father waved a hand, “Bah, it’s your company. In fact, it’s your life, as they say.” He chuckled to himself.
Relief, flavoured with disappointment, flooded through Henry and he took a moment to wonder at the emotions surging within him. The relief was obvious, and what did that say about him? What did it say that he had worked himself into near hysteria, afraid to be honest with the man he had most feared his entire life? The man he had most admired. And the disappointment? How easy it was to build your parent into something so monumental that every action yielded silent grief, for it was ever the wrong action.
“I can see the disappointment in your eyes, Henry. Even now it seems impossible to make you happy. Here I thought that by ceasing to care, I would finally grant you release. Instead, you choose to be hurt by it. Tell me, is there anything I can do right? Would that we could go back two minutes and I could shower you with rage. Tell me, would you feel better or worse than you do now?”
Henry stared. This from a man who had treated emotion like a disease, who had never once in Henry’s memory opened up about how he felt. It was akin to being slapped in the face. He took a deep breath to reply and then slowly let it out. He sagged.
“You’re right Father. Funny how your words mirror my own thoughts. Funny how it takes… this… for us to have this kind of conversation.”
“Funny indeed. One day you will know the struggle yourself, son. One day you will face the every man’s greatest fear.”
Henry’s gaze sharpened and he swallowed a quick mouthful of beer, disappointed to see the bottom of the mug.
He took a deep breath and asked, “What fear would that be?”
There was silence for a few moments. Neither man looked at each other.
Then, softly, Father said, “To be the man your son looks up to.”
Henry, grimacing, turned and signalled the barkeep again. When he turned back to his Father, he struggled to keep the quiver from his voice…
“Ellie is pregnant. A boy.”
His father stared. The barkeep returned, two fresh copper mugs in tow. He placed them, cleared up the empties and vacated. Henry and his father held their gaze until he was gone.
Father clapped his hands and let out a joyless bark of laughter.
“And that is why you’re here? To advise you on the intricacies of fatherhood? Henry, my boy, you absolutely hated me as a father. What did you spend to get here? How much effort did it take to find me in this place? And all to ask me about fatherhood? Jesus, Henry.”
Henry grinned without humour. “I had a feeling you might think this was a waste. But perhaps that’s why I needed to try at least one more time. Hate you? I never hated you father, though I can see why you would think that. I hated the moments I wasn’t with you. I hated the scorn you had for me when I failed at something. I hated that you never taught me anything, but got upset when I couldn’t teach myself. Hate you? Father, I adored you. I would have done anything for you.”
Father waved a gnarled hand, eyes downcast. “Bah, hate what I did, hate me – it’s all the same. You have no interest in my parenting advice. You didn’t like me as a parent.”
Henry ran his hand over his pate once again. He blinked a few times, squeezing his eyes shut to try and rid them of the exhaustion he felt.
“Perhaps I didn’t like you. But I always believed that you believed in what you were doing. You had conviction, dad. Conviction unlike anyone I have ever met. You tell me that you know I hated you, that you know I didn’t like you as a parent… Which begs the obvious question. Why do it then? Why act like such a callous, heartless bastard?”
Father slapped a hand on the desk. He looked more frail than before, hunching over in the gloom. When he lifted his hand, Henry saw that it shook.
“I am still your father. Mind you respect that Henry,” he said, sounding tired. “Why? Because I needed you to be ready for a world that had no interest in being kind to you. I walked out of that house every day, while the world stood just outside with a bucket of shit, ready to line the red carpet, just for me. Your mother, she’s the soft one. She gave you the love you needed to be a good person. I gave you the hate you needed to be a great person.”
Henry cocked his head. “You truly believe that, don’t you? You truly believe that you did what you had to as a father?”
“If you’re asking me if I have regrets…” Father was quiet for some time. He took a slow sip of his beer, his thin arm struggling with the weight. “No,” he said finally. “No regrets.”
Henry, holding his breath, leaned forward, silently encouraging the elder to go one step further. A few moments went by and still Henry waited, sure there was more.
“How could I have regrets?” Father said quietly, lifting his gaze to his son. Henry let out his breath, refusing to turn away. “Look at you. My son. My boy. Soon to be a father. Surviving this black period, this depression. I look at you and I see success. I see greatness.”
Father seemed to sag in his seat. “I see the best of your mother and I. And you know what Henry? I have never been so proud in my life.”
Henry sniffed, raising his mug to disguise his efforts to hide the tears running twin tracks down his cheeks. He set the mug down, unsurprised to find himself alone once again.
The barkeep arrived, a raw smile on his face. He gestured for Henry to leave. Henry, nodding, made to pull out some money, but the barkeep waved him away. In a voice like gravel he said, “The debt is paid, sir. The debt is paid.”
Donning his coat and hat, Henry made his way back up the stairs and out the open front door. On the threshold he paused, listening to the soft sounds of laughter and music from behind the locked door to his right.
Smiling, he stepped back out into the night. For a moment, the golden light of the doorway lingered on his back and then it was gone.
Gone, as though it had never been.
Photo by Julia Sadowska on Unsplash (modified)