There was a guy standing opposite me on the Tube. Head shaved to hide a receding hairline, face creased like a used napkin. Wouldn’t look out of place on Jeremy Kyle. I call him Dad, but he’s more like the weird uncle you warn your friends about before they meet him. To most people, his name is Nick and I inherited his gangly limbs, and uneven hairline, and bushy eyebrows that monopolized my face until I picked up my mum’s tweezers at fourteen.
I’d last seen him a month ago in an unkempt field on a Kerikeri organic orchard – that’s where he’d built a shack around a rusty caravan and marked his territory by planting marijuana around the back. While he was walking over to say goodbye a bee flew into his Croc and stung him. I was more embarrassed about the Crocs than the shack. He spent his money on cask wine and lived rent-free on other people’s land, so the shacks I was used to. The Crocs were new. How he ended up there is anyone’s guess, seeing as he grew up resolutely middle class in the North of England. He would say that he failed his 11+ and went to a bad school and there were no jobs when he left. I would say that he shouldn’t still be talking about school at fifty-six years old.
It was colder in the UK than in Kerikeri, and he was wearing steel-toe boots from a charity shop instead of Crocs, but he was otherwise the same. The Tube was taking us to a train that would take us from King’s Cross to his hometown, a place around the corner from Blackpool and opposite Wales called Lytham St Annes. When I told the immigration officer at Heathrow I was going there he seemed confused, and once I arrived I realized why. It was technically a coastal town but even during high tides the ocean was indistinguishable from plains of mud and silt. There were no trees, only rows of redbrick homes, and my grandparents had carpet in their bathroom and a mosaic of Tenerife on the kitchen wall. On every surface in the house there were pictures of my face in frames that said ‘love’ and ‘family’. Unfamiliar, because my mum always said professional photographers were con artists and if she wanted pictures of us she would take them her-damn-self. In the lounge, next to my cousins’ private school headshots, was a photo of me and my brother, Flynn, barefoot, in hand-me-downs, and dangling from a Pohutukawa.
‘Oh my god. How did you get that?’ I said, terrified of what I might find in the dining room.
My nana said, ‘Doesn’t your other grandmother have photos of you and Flynn?’
I shrugged. ‘She has albums, but she really only gets them out when the priest comes for tea.’
If you believed the photos you’d think my brother and I visited every other weekend. In reality, it was my first visit in seventeen years, and Flynn hadn’t been at all. Growing up, there was always enough: we got one pair of shoes a year, and had carrot sticks in our lunchboxes instead of Roll-Ups, but there really wasn’t money leftover for jet setting. I paid for my trip. Nana and Grandpa offered, but I didn’t want them to think I was like my dad.
When I came downstairs in the morning, my grandparents were doing crosswords in the conservatory. Grandpa was long-limbed like Dad and me, and almost completely bald, but he combed the remaining white wisps over to give the illusion of hair. He was a traditional man and had an analytical, competitive nature that reminded me of my brother. He said ‘good morning’ from behind his newspaper and crossed his legs. Nana had flown out of her chair as soon as I walked in and was simultaneously offering me breakfast and asking how I slept. She was slender and stooped with age, and had a thick, silvery blonde head of hair that she got done fortnightly. She was warm and gentle, and she talked a lot, which filled the silences that unfamiliarity created. At the kitchen table, Dad was watching Al Jazeera.
He said, ‘Morning, Chicken.’
‘Nick, would you turn off that dreadful program?’ Nana said. ‘It’s so depressing in the mornings.’
The TV said, ‘The death toll for the quake is expected to rise as more bodies are discovered…’
‘Then how am I supposed to know what’s going on in the world?’
Grandpa, without lowering his paper, chimed in. ‘Turn it down at least, Nick.’ Dad turned it down. I had milk on my cornflakes and it tasted different from milk in New Zealand.
Later, we walked to a park with a pagoda and a pond where a koi fish had died and risen to the surface. The trees were bare, and the ground beneath them littered with crunchy leaves, as if they had gotten a fright and dropped them. The grass was patchy and tattooed by muddy bike tyres. My grandparents had stayed behind, muttering about crosswords and washing that needed tending to, but before we left I had to take inventory of my layers to convince Nana I was warm enough. It was as though they were trying to let us bond, but I really wasn’t there for Dad. I was there because I wanted to know the other half of my family, and he was a side effect of that.
My legs were long, so I never had trouble keeping up with anyone except my dad. He strode around as though slowing down had grave consequences and I wheezed along behind him, clutching my asthma pump inside my pocket. He pointed out an empty aviary where he used to bunk class, and a piece of pavement he was thrown onto when the park’s caretaker grabbed the handlebars of his bike.
‘You’re not allowed to ride in the park.’ Dad said. I glanced at the tyre tracks in the grass.
At the pagoda we stopped and I sat down. The seats were metal but felt like ice and it was somehow colder under cover than out. I puffed on my inhaler. Dad said, ‘You kids are spoilt in New Zealand.’
‘My lungs aren’t used to the cold.’ I replied.
When I was growing up you couldn’t do anything without being snitched on. Kohukohu was the epitome of small town New Zealand, and everyone had their noses in other people’s business. For my friends, it meant their parents finding out about them shoplifting a lollie bag or scratching swear words into the side of the wharf house, but for me it was usually the other way around.
At least once a week, I would get on the school bus and a kid would turn around and say, ‘Hey Faith, my mum said your dad…’
Or, ‘Oi Faith, I seen your dad…’
Or, ‘My Nan says your dad is the reason my dad is always hung-over.’ It didn’t bother me as much as you’d think since most of those kids also waited outside the pub for their parents on a Tuesday night. What did bother me was that sometimes he’d get on the bus, wearing a trench coat and taped-up sunglasses, and hitch a ride to Okaihau. I would have to slide down in my seat for an hour and a half while he told the bus driver about me in a loud, Lancashire accent that turned ‘us’ into ‘oz’ and ‘mate’ into ‘may’.
One day my friend leaned over and said, ‘Is that your dad? I seen him hug you the other day and I thought he was kidnapping you.’
My dad never managed to get residency, so he flew back and forth every six to twelve months on his parents’ bank account. If you asked (or even if you didn’t) he would say that New Zealand Immigration was deliberately keeping him out of the country. I would say that he never finished filing the paperwork. My parents even got married so he could stay. The night before, Dad got too drunk to reach the back of his head with the clippers, so he had a ponytail on his wedding day. Maybe that was a bad omen because once they were married they were never really together again. My mum always said she loved the person Dad used to be, who created art and played music and saved injured wildlife on the beach. By the time I was nine months old they were living separately because he wasn’t allowed drugs near the baby, but it would take fifteen years and another baby for the relationship, haggard and hopeless, to be abandoned for good.
It couldn’t have been later than four o’clock, but it was already dusk in Blackpool. Dad said it came alive in the summer, but it was a strange shell of a place in the winter: the piers were empty, the rides closed and the whimsical Blackpool Illuminations turned off. It was windy, too, and cold enough that I had flattened my hair with a beanie and yanked on a second pair of socks. He, too, was bundled up, in a secondhand blue parka from his brother-in-law, and fluffy hat with ear flaps that Nana detested. ‘Let’s stop at the bottle store so I can get some wine.’
I thought – you had wine with breakfast and lunch, wasn’t that enough? But I said – ‘OK.’
‘We can take it to the pier.’
I said, ‘I am not sitting on the pier with you drinking wine out of a bloody paper bag.’
‘Well, there’s no paper bag.’
I thought – that’s not the point. But I said – ‘I’m not drinking on the pier with you.’
‘I’ll get some for later then.’ The store didn’t have the five-pound bottles, so we just walked along the Promenade. The piers were now just teetering silhouettes, looming over miles of sludge and sand, but no water. Nearby, a guy with a metal detector looked for loose change and jewellery lost during the summer months.
‘This is the curse of the North, you know.’ Dad gestured to the metal detector guy. ‘People from the South hate us. There’s no jobs for anyone, and it’s cold, man. It’s bloody grim in the North.’
I pretended to be interested in a nearby seagull, snatching chips off the pavement in front of Blackpool Tower. We crossed the road to wait for a bus back to Lytham.
‘Blackpool is the only place around here that’s alright, man. Lytham is suffocating, it’s fucking depressing. There were no jobs when I finished school, you know? They didn’t teach us anything, anyway. What were we supposed to do besides get high?’
I thought – have you considered blaming something other than your shitty schooling? Like, perhaps, persistent drinking over forty years, or poor decision-making. And for once, I said it too.
He said, ‘That’s too simple. Everyone just blames the alcohol because it’s easy.’
I said, ‘It’s easy because it’s accurate.’
He said, ‘That’s propaganda.’ I gave up.
When we got home we played backgammon, and he won. That night, I FaceTimed my mum and ranted about him. She kept AA chips in her purse and her house always smelled like day old incense. I wanted her there with me, as an ally. She hmmm-ed and yeah-ed at all the right times, and when I was finished, she smiled. ‘I hate to call the kettle black, but that man is an alcoholic.’
The day before I flew back to New Zealand we took a train from Preston to London. Our train was cancelled, so Dad just got on a random London-bound train. I was uncontrollably anxious the whole time. It took about three hours, mostly through greyish, draughty farmland and derelict platforms where people huddled around suitcases, drawing their coats tighter. It reminded Dad how grim it all was, so in between trips to the bar in carriage three, he talked about the state of things (‘There’s no hope for people like me in this country.’), and Theresa May (‘She doesn’t care about the poor.’), and his secondary school (‘They didn’t teach me anything. What a waste of time, man.’).
We stayed in the Premier Inn. It was one of those hotels that were connected to the terminal by a draughty tunnel. Our room was on the fourth floor down a maze of dingy corridors and it overlooked the car park, but it was OK. We watched the BAFTAs on TV and Dad drank all the sachets of coffee and tea and had to go downstairs and ask for more. We had bar food for dinner so he could drink three mugs of beer, and he talked about being a good parent. He said, ‘I never hit you.’
‘Yes, you did.’
‘Well, never closed fist, right?’
‘Well, exactly. There you go. That’s just discipline. It’s character building.’
In the morning he woke up late and made soup from a sachet he’d brought from home. He squinted at the news on his phone, held at arm’s length, while I got dressed, packed up, tidied up and brushed my teeth.
‘Want some soup?’ He offered, ‘It’s cream of mushroom.’
I said, ‘I don’t like mushrooms.’
‘You can hardly taste them.’
‘No, thanks.’ I slipped my toothbrush into my bag and perched myself on the edge of my bed, checking the time every minute. Check out was at 10 AM, so Dad went to shower at 9.50 AM. Mum always complained about him keeping her waiting, but recalling the arguments I’d heard from her car’s backseat, I said nothing. We checked out eleven minutes late. The tunnel from the hotel to the terminal seemed longer on the way back, and Dad pushed a luggage trolley with two black bags on it, which would’ve caused alarm if left unattended. After I left he was going to Brighton, where he had built a shack in someone’s back garden on a council estate. He said it was a shame I didn’t get to see it.
The terminal was quiet; the only people around were breakfasting or businessmen. He had coffee, then we browsed Union Jack mugs until my gate opened. At security he said, ‘Take care of yourself, Chicken.’
‘You too.’ We hugged, and for a second I wanted to cry. I didn’t.
He said, ‘I’ll call you in a few days.’
I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll let you know when I get there.’ Neither of us meant it, or maybe he did, but he never called.