There’s a moment when it dawns on each of us that our parents are people in their own right, that the ridiculous little caricature of them we’ve been carrying around in our heads all these years is nothing more than a lie, and that their lives were probably just as full of adventures as our own, perhaps even more so. This discovery, of course, is an essential part of growing up.
For some people, however, it’s also the first step on the journey to becoming a writer for once you accept the intensity of your parents’ lives, you soon find yourself obliged to concede the same status to all the unglamorous old fogeys who were friends of your parents. And to your parents’ parents. And so on. History rapidly reveals itself as an enormous anthology of stories populated by compellingly idiosyncratic characters. All that remains, therefore, is to develop the skills necessary to write those stories down.
I can put my finger on exactly when this revelation occurred to me. It was at about nine o’clock on an evening in June in 1971. School would soon be over for me and already university was beckoning. Perhaps it was an awareness of impending separation that made my mother ask, ‘Did I ever tell you the story of how we came to call you Brian?’
I’d always been conscious that my parents came from a different world. They had not grown up reading library books and watching television. Instead they had scrabbled under bushes in search of hens’ eggs, driven cattle across muddy fields. As they grew older, they had cycled excitedly along the unlit lanes of rural Ireland to and from dances.
Theirs was a world with few possessions in which nothing was more precious than family and there was nothing more shameful than a family member who had been allowed to slip through the net. To lose a member of one’s own kith and kin was tantamount to a divine judgement upon the entire family. Yet this was exactly what had happened with my father’s younger brother. He had come to England a few years after my father and very quickly disappeared into a limbo of casual work and hard drinking. He had our address but he didn’t get in touch and no one had an address for him.
The impression I got, though it was never spelled out, was that there had been a falling out between the two brothers. My grandfather had died some years earlier and the family’s position had become precarious. Then my father, who’d been trying to find money in whatever way he could, had been obliged to leave the country in a hurry on account of a little difficulty with the law. That was how he’d ended up in London, a place where a man could keep his head down and not be noticed.
His younger brother may have resented being left to take on the burden of being the breadwinner. Whatever the case, when my uncle followed in his brother’s footsteps a few years later he did so without reference to the rest of his family, simply hopping on a boat, making his way to across the water and vanishing into the anonymity of 1950s Britain.
‘It broke your father’s heart and that’s the truth,’ my mother told me. ‘Many’s the night he’d be lying in the bed next to me, not letting on a word, but I knew that he was unhappy and I’d say to him, what is it Jack? And he’d say to me, I was just wondering where Brian is now.’
My father was a man of few words so this brief statement amounted to an admission of profound, almost existential, distress.
And then one day my mother heard that Brian had been seen in London. Not only that, but he’d been heard to say he would be going to a dance in Canning Town the following Saturday.
‘My first thought was to go straight home and tell your father,’ she admitted. ‘But I knew what he’d say. If Brian wasn’t going to come to him, he certainly wasn’t going to go chasing after Brian.’
When Saturday evening came round, there they were as usual, my father sitting in the armchair watching the television and my mother standing in a corner of the room doing the ironing. She waited until nine o’clock, then unplugged the iron and put on her coat. He looked at her in surprise. ‘Where are you off to?’ he asked.
‘I’m going to confession,’ she told him. But, of course, she did no such thing. She went straight to the dance hall and perched on a chair just inside the door where she could see everyone who came in or went out. She’d never met Brian but when a fellow walked in with the same long face as her husband and the same serious way of looking at people, like he was trying to see right inside them, she knew right away that it was him.
After a while the band leader announced a Ladies’ Excuse Me so she got up and asked whether she could have the pleasure of the next dance. He gave her a big smile and they stepped out onto the dance floor together.
Of course he began with the usual questions: do you come here often and is that a Cork accent by any chance, and she said no she didn’t and yes it was. And then she said, ‘Would you by any chance be Brian Keaney?’
He stared at her for a little while and then he agreed that he was. ‘But I’m afraid I don’t know who you are,’ he said.
‘No, you don’t know me,’ she agreed, ‘but you know my husband, Jack Keaney, and isn’t it an awful shame that he has only one brother in the world, and them both in the same city, yet his brother won’t call in to see him or even drop him a line.’
He didn’t say a word in reply but the pair of them kept on dancing and – here my mother paused – ‘I can tell you now, he was a lovely dancer,’ she assured me.
When the music stopped she thanked him, turned around and walked away. The whole time she could feel his eyes on her but she didn’t once look back.
When she got home my father was still sitting in the armchair, exactly where she’d left him. ‘Where in God’s name have you been all this time?’ he asked.
‘There was an awful crowd waiting for confessions,’ she told him.
No more was said about it. But the following Sunday she was getting the dinner when there was a knock on the door.
‘Who the hell is that?’ my father asked.
‘I haven’t a clue,’ she said. But when she opened the door there was Brian with a bunch of flowers in one hand and two bottles of stout in the other.
My father was delighted. Brian stayed to dinner and all the bad feeling was forgotten. From that day onwards he was in and out of our house like he owned the place.
When my mother had finished telling me this story she paused for a little while and then she said, ‘You know, sometimes I think to myself: supposing I’d been knocked over by a car and killed on the way to that dance hall. What would your father have thought?’
It was this last question that finally made the story open in my mind like some mysterious, dark blossom. My mother had demonstrated how a storyteller can encounter disaster vicariously through imagined characters based on extensions of herself and those around her. She had flirted with the idea of her own death, or at least of a serious accident on the way to the dance that night, and imagined the impact it would have had upon her relationship with her husband.
It was a speculation about an alternative future that could be conducted entirely safely but that nevertheless contained within itself the possibility of a complete misunderstanding of herself, her motives and her relationship, not to mention the possibility of my never having come into the world. This seemed, and still seems to me, to be exactly the kind of thing that fiction is made of.