‘I fear I’ll do some damage one fine day...'
(Paul Simon - Still Crazy After All These Years)
When I was six years old my father went mad and attacked himself with a hammer.
People don’t go mad these days, not like they used to. They have phobias and ‘episodes’ and anxiety attacks instead. They have bipolar depression, or schizophrenia. I reckon there’s at least a dozen fancy-sounding psychoses to choose from - some you can even mix and match. But back in 1959 when I was a snot-nosed kid, things weren’t so complicated. Either you were sane, or you were mad. It was a two-sided coin, and the edge didn’t count. Dad’s coin flipped, got plucked out of the air still spinning, and was slapped down on the kitchen table. It said mad. From that point on, that’s what he was. A loon. A nutter. Three sheets to the wind.
Mum never told us the truth about what happened. She lied to everyone. She lied to me, to Susie, to the neighbours, to postmen and milkmen, to anyone who asked awkward questions. She even lied to herself. According to Mum it was his job that pushed him over the edge, but Susie and I always knew that was only part of the picture. Over the years we found one or two missing pieces and slotted them into place, but even now we don’t know the truth. Not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Susie was - still is - my big sister. She looked out for me. She’s four years older, and back then she understood a lot more of what was going on. But even I knew things weren't right, even I could tell that Mum felt guilty. It was obvious. However hard she tried to cover it up, little slivers of guilt kept sticking out of her whenever she dropped her guard, like the bits of broken bone I see poking out of Dad’s left hand whenever I dream about him. Yes, there was a shit-load of guilt floating around our house in those days. I just wasn’t sure where it was all coming from.
Dad worked at the same factory for years, putting in the hours, trying his best to keep the four of us on less than twenty quid a week. It was a trick that was always just the wrong side of possible. Other families managed on less, but Mom was never very good when it came to money. The pennies and the pounds just trickled away, slipped through her fingers. Wherever they trickled to, it wasn’t to a place where you could buy stuff for the house, or find clothes to put on our backs. Susie and I wore second-hand, and we sat on it, too. I remember Mom cutting out cardboard soles to slip into our shoes. We were walking clichés, Susie and me. Clichés are fine until it rains.
Then there was the shouting. Lots of shouting, late at night. Susie used to drag me under her bed. We’d lie there for hours, breathing in the dust, sneezing, waiting for it to settle.
Dad wasn’t home much. Mondays to Saturdays, sometimes Sundays too, he’d be at work, pounding sheets of metal into roof cowls, railway lamps, car doors, whatever the blueprints called for. We hardly saw him.
He hated his job, hated it even more than his dad had hated it before him. Many years later, I would come to hate mine more than both of them put together. I’ve often thought that there’s a warning sign in that trinity of facts. The trail-tracks of Crazy Gene.
These are the things I know about my father. He was in love. He was in love with reading, with the world of books, but to make a living he was forced to spend his days trapped in a world of metal. It was a world he detested: a world of oil and sweat, hot steel and aluminium. The noises, the smells, the constant, mindless grind of it all diminished him bit-by-bit; a little more each day. But he couldn’t let on how he was feeling. This was the 1950s, remember, a time when men were men, and if they weren’t they pretended to be. The war was still a fresh bruise, and whatever peacetime cesspool a man found himself drowning in, he was expected to remember how bad things had been before and get on with it. The rules were simple enough. You did your job, maybe went for a few beers with your mates, and at the end of the week you collected your pay packet. Then, like the song said, you started all over again. If you had problems inside your head, you hid them from everybody for as long as you could, because being mad was even worse than being queer, and your average queer didn’t last long on the factory floor.
Just before he flipped, Dad went to see a doctor. The doctor examined him, looked at him like he was some malingering piece of shit, and said there was nothing physically wrong. No way was he going to give him a sick note. ‘You’ve got to make more of an effort, man,’ he said. ‘Pull yourself together.’
I don’t remember Dad coming home that night, but Susie does. It had been a bad afternoon. Half the furniture in the house had been repossessed by men in brown coats because Mum hadn’t kept up the HP payments, and she’d been hitting the gin. Later on, after Susie and I had gone to bed, there was another row. I don’t remember that either, but Susie says Dad found us huddled together in the dust, crying. I think maybe that was the last straw for him. A few days later something snapped inside his head, and instead of pulling himself together he pulled himself apart.
People always say it’s the quiet ones that are the worst, don’t they? Well, Dad was a quiet one all right - still waters, running deep. When a quiet one finally flips, he doesn’t mess about. Dad went mad with a vengeance.
On Monday morning, at ten o’clock precisely, he suddenly stopped pounding the sheet of metal on his bench. He put down the hammer he was using, selected a heavier one - the heaviest of the half-dozen he kept in his toolbox - and in front of all his workmates began pounding himself instead. He demolished all four fingers and the thumb of his left hand, and shattered his right kneecap. He was about to start on his skull when his mate Charlie grabbed him from behind. Despite getting his nose broken - Dad was flinging his head backwards in some kind of spasm - Charlie held on until someone else managed to get hold of the hammer.
We didn’t see anything of Dad for a long time after that. When he eventually came home, he wasn’t the same. He’d got the push from work and nobody else was going to offer him a job, so he sat in his chair in the living room all day long, staring at the wall, sometime reading a little. Once, I saw him crying. You don’t want to see your dad crying when you’re six years old. I started spending the time I wasn’t either asleep or at school out on the streets, playing Cowboys and Indians with the other kids if they let me. Sometimes they wouldn’t. Sometimes they took the piss, said my dad was a loony. But however bad it got, I stayed out of the house as much as possible. When I had to come in for meals I made sure I never went into the living room. Not if I could help it.
For a while Mum had a job cleaning offices in the evenings, but it didn’t pay much. With hardly anything coming in the arrears began to mount up. I don’t know what would have happened if things had carried on the way they were going, but they didn’t.
Early one morning, Dad got out of his chair. He walked out the front door and took a solitary bus ride out of the city, back to the village where he’d been born. There was a railway line running through the place in those days, crossed by an old wooden bridge. He’d taken us there a few times, Susie and me. We liked the place because when the steam trains thundered through beneath your feet, you found yourself lost for a few seconds, vanished in a great grey-white cloud of smoke. You could smell it in your hair and on your clothes for hours afterwards.
But Dad wasn’t there just to smell train smoke that day. He was looking at trains, but thinking hammers. The stationmaster saw him walk to the centre of the bridge, climb the wooden railings, and chuck himself directly in front of the 10.25 from Birmingham. He timed it just right, too. The train hit him like God’s own hammer, the biggest fucking hammer in the universe. And it did a much better job than any of the half-dozen he kept in his toolbox could ever have done.
* * *
I was about thirteen, my second or third year at school, when we started to study heredity. Our biology teacher, Miss Loseby, introduced us to Mendel and his performing peas, and as soon as I’d worked out the basics of what she was talking about, I began to worry. I imagined I had a cowboy wandering around inside me. He’s still in here, even today. I call him Crazy Gene.
Crazy Gene’s a particularly mean-tempered son of a bitch. He looks a lot like I tried to look when I was six, when I was busy rounding up all the Indians who kept yelling ‘Loony’ at me. He wears a black cowboy hat, a red bandanna, and dusty blue jeans. On his hips, low-slung, he carries two Colt 45s, loaded with DNA, and his stamping ground is Nucleus City.
I know for sure he as good as murdered my father, and I’ve got a gut feeling he winged my grandfather a few times, too. Maybe his father before him. Crazy Gene is bad news, and the more I learn about him, the more I feel the rip of his rusty spurs as he walks the long trail through my bloodstream, tearing a capillary here, rupturing a cell wall there.
He didn’t cause me too many problems until I got to university, but once I was there the fun really began. That spicy mix of girls, dope, booze and examination pressure was just the kind of set-up Crazy Gene liked best. He started shooting up the town, and I started to self-destruct. There weren’t just lost weekends - there were entire lost weeks. Shitty grades, sessions with university counsellors, you name it I was in it. But we stuck it out. Somehow we came through, Crazy Gene and me. We even got a decent degree, a teaching qualification. We even picked up a wife along the way.
And then we taught. For twenty-four years, we taught. Crazy Gene gave me a pretty hard time once in a while, but I knew his tricks by then, and although he winged me more than once, I usually managed to stay upright - long enough to convince whoever needed convincing that I could do the job, anyway.
But one week before my forty-sixth birthday, he finally got me. I’d always known he would. He ambushed me one dark night and, following in my dad’s footsteps, I went mad myself.
It was easier for me than it had been for him. Like I said, forty years down the line we don’t go mad. You don’t hear folks using the word, not in public, anyway. Whatever they might say in private, to your face they feel obliged to look sympathetic, to give understanding nods, to talk about ‘stress’ and ‘depression’. ‘Pressures of modern living,’ they say. ‘How’re you coping, with it?’
Yes, things are better now. If Dad could just have hung on to his sanity for another forty years, life would have been a sight more comfortable for him, and for us, too. You never know, he might even have gained a little street cred. There’s almost a touch of glamour attaching to nervous breakdown nowadays, isn’t there? Especially if the broken happen to have money and fame, if they’ve been on TV. Every trashy magazine on the stands has some vaguely familiar face talking about Prozac, about a long and painful struggle with that old dark night of the soul. The corridors of Publication House are clogged with minor celebrities, full of fading pop singers and ex-soap-stars, hoping the revelation of a history of mental illness will reinvigorate their flagging careers. Dad would never have believed it, but in the 1990s a cupboard containing a crazy skeleton or two can come in very handy if the public’s attention has started to wander.
But me, I don’t feel glamorous. Well, I wouldn’t, would I? I’m no pop singer. I don’t even watch the soaps, let alone star in them. No, I’ll tell you what I feel. I feel scared. Shit scared, if you want to know the truth. I’ve started dreaming, see, dreaming about things I’d rather not dream about. I’ve started dreaming about hammers, and about clouds of smoke and about wooden bridges and steam trains.
And more than anything else I dream about Crazy Gene. I dream about him scraping his spurs through my bloodstream, shooting up my neurones, whistling softly to himself as he walks his long, lonely trail through my guts and bones and brain.
Published in Issue 19 of Peninsular. Won £200 First Prize in Competition.