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Trio Publishing Mark Cunnington


The Fear 




My fifteen-year-old son, who has never knowingly turned off an electrical appliance in his life, is continuing to use energy in his usual unconcerned manner. Supposedly, the younger generation are the most aware of green issues, but I suspect, given a direct choice between saving Planet Earth and being denied their gadgets, our globe could be in trouble. I can recall one occasion when he left a room devoid of artificial lighting, but only by inadvertently bumping into his bedroom light switch after tripping over a pile of discarded clothing.


Mentally cocooned from reality by a swathe of electrical devices, he sits on the settee watching a DVD on the HD TV while conducting his social life with dextrous fingerwork on the keyboard of his laptop. He only pauses from this seemingly full-time task to occasionally look up and laugh at the film and to answer the constant stream of text messages on his charging mobile phone. I notice the laptop has a lead running from it and is charging. My son has also charged himself. Discarded chocolate biscuit wrappers, a crisp packet and the remnants of a bowl of cereal lie at his feet like flotsam being washed against pier struts.


Another message arrives on his phone as I secretly watch from the living room doorway, a voyeur in my own home, and Jack replies by texting on his mobile in a blur of nifty double thumb work. Fingers for laptops, thumbs for phones – a complete aerobic workout for both hands! I briefly ponder whether he’ll be a surgeon or a concert pianist when he grows up. The smart money is on him being neither. Maybe he’ll be completely unemployable. I admit to worrying about what he’ll ‘do’ when he reaches the end of Year 11 if his dream of becoming a professional football apprentice doesn’t come to fruition.

Underneath Jack’s hoodie, which is pulled up and covering his head in the traditional manner of shock-horror-endemic-social-breakdown-feral-youths-are-everywhere newspaper articles, I know there lurks the two telltale white threads that connect iPod to eardrum. If it weren’t for the heavy bass rumble emanating from the surround sound system I would probably be able to hear their hissing sibilant signature – the modern digital music equivalent to an irritating mosquito.

I can’t begin to quantify why he’s got the sound up on the TV and has iPod headphones stuffed in his auditory canals.

This snapshot of the modern male youth, to a man in his fifties, isn’t an attractive sight and I feel, once again, compelled to launch into Monologue 3. I resist, bite my tongue and say nothing. Monologue 3 consists of a series of vaguely connected issues (my issues) concerning the nature, content, pixel resolution, colour – or lack of it – and number of television channels available during my teenage years. It also covers the physical contact required with a TV in accessing all three of them. Music comes within M3’s remit – proper music, not today’s fifteen-minutes-of-fame karaoke ‘stars’ – and, specifically, the art of listening to an album all the way through. It covers the inherent difficulties involved in attempting, should you have a hideous attention deficit, to track jump, or in today’s parlance, to ‘shuffle’. Once in my stride, this invariably leads me to pontificate on the art of lifting a stylus without scratching prized vinyl before moving on – rather hypocritically – to the sensations felt during the monotonous fast forwarding/rewinding through pre-recorded cassettes in order to find the start of a certain track on a battery-drained Sony Walkman. I usually finish this section with a short diatribe concerning the labour intensive delights of recording a personally compiled, all-killer-no-filler C90 from a mono Dansette record player, via a microphone, to a cheap Bush cassette recorder where you can, if you listen carefully enough, actually hear the washing machine start its spin cycle halfway through Highway Star by Deep Purple.  M3 then concludes with a passing observation on how talking face to face with another human being was once the most popular form of communication. It was, after all, how I met Jack’s mother. I asked her out, face to face, at her best friend’s 25th birthday party when both of us were in the same room at the same time.


M3 is usually given a seven out of ten on the eyeball rolling scale of derision from my son and daughter. If I’m brutally honest I’d probably give it at least a five myself. Who in their right mind would ever want to listen to a music cassette again, even with the advent of gap search? Not with it likely to haemorrhage its shit-brown skinny ribbon of ferric oxide music muffler at any moment, saddling the would-be listener with the task of having to re-embowel it via the surgical application and twisting of the blunt end of an HB pencil.


In truth, I’m no Luddite. I’ll take my dose of digital when it suits. I sneak a glance at my revolving glass CD stand, rammed with a selection of duplicated music mimicking the bulky vinyl I squirreled away in the loft years ago. Not all progress is bad. Besides, the way I’ve been feeling lately I think I might need to get a bit more with it. Unfortunately, I suspect the use of the phrase ‘with it’ immediately ensures I have no chance whatsoever of becoming it. And thinking the CD is a modern method of listening to music is as dated as it is laughable.


In my defence I’m not completely mired in the past and don’t view life through the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia. Far from it. I have a smartphone, a laptop, am reasonably computer literate, I surf the net (what an over-glamorised phrase for such a mundane activity), use email and we own an HD TV, a DVD player and a Sky+HD box. If gadget-wise we’re fairly fashionable then the same can’t be said about our family modes of transport. Clare runs a bland estate car and I have a white van for work. Needless to say there is no smart sports convertible parked on our drive and nor is there a motorbike to up my cool status. Tantalisingly, what I have got is a full bike licence and somewhere scattered about the house there are pictures of me riding various motorbikes in my youth. The one of me astride my last bike, a red Honda CX500, is in a frame sitting on the mantelpiece.


“I’m off to do Nan and Pop-Pop’s shopping and take it round to them,” I hear myself say.

(There was a phone call after midnight last night from my father’s neighbour saying he had knocked on her door in a state of confusion. The neighbour had to take him back home and put him indoors to make sure he was safe. I hope it’s not the start of another worry thread.)

   Jack doesn’t hear thanks to the headphones, so I send him a text instead. The last one I sent him read, ‘Dinner’s ready!’ – I was in the kitchen, he was in his bedroom. A disheartening glimpse of modern family life tempered only by the fact we all ate together, at a proper table, off plates using cutlery. I sent that text with a capital letter, apostrophe ‘s’ and an exclamation mark. I shake my head at the recollection, conceding my grammatical insistence both dates and ages me. If I don’t buy a motorbike soon it may well be too late. Too late for what, as ever, remains indefinable.


By the time I’ve shut the front door Jack’s already sent me a text back. ‘Gd luck hope pp ok’, it reads. Ruefully I admit to needing it.


The first dozen or so times I did my parents’ shopping made for a peculiar experience. Without my wife or two children in tow I became acutely aware of how it felt to be a single man of a certain age groping his way around a soulless superstore. If pushing the trolley solo wasn’t bad enough, then filling it with goods for a man and a woman in their eighties massively compounded the unease. Plucking out Steradent tablets, denture fixative creams and talcum powder from my trolley and placing them on the conveyor belt of ridicule, for all and sundry to see, including the checkout girl thirty years my junior, was nothing short of horrific. It wasn’t only the occasional purchase of those squeamishly embarrassing products that made me cringe, it was the everyday humdrum items as well. It was the fourteen readymade meals. It was the endless tins of soups, baked beans (some with sausages, some without), spaghetti hoops and ravioli. It was the sixteen bottles of supermarket brand isotonic drink, the cream cakes, the coldwater prawns, the biscuits, the packets of Werther’s Originals, the chocolate bars, the one box of cat food and the hideous 2 litre bottles of milk with their beacon of a blue cap. The blue cap of cholesterol. I was buying full fat milk. Throwback milk! What single person below the age of sixty-five, disregarding those with a death wish, drinks full fat milk nowadays? And to top it all, in a similar vein (one hideously furred up), I was buying white sugar, white bread, salted butter, and to further boost the sodium chloride scene, individual plastic cellars of salt.


My uncomfortable self-consciousness wasn’t caused only by what I was buying. By definition it was ramped up a few notches by what I wasn’t buying. I wasn’t buying any fresh vegetables. I wasn’t buying any fresh fruit. I wasn’t buying any fresh meat. I wasn’t buying any fresh fish. I wasn’t buying any fresh poultry. I wasn’t buying anything fresh apart from the milk, the cream cakes and the coldwater prawns – the last two items being my mother and father’s respective favourite delicacies. I wasn’t buying any single individual component of any one meal. Everything in my trolley said, ‘Heat me up in a microwave and eat me within ten minutes flat.’ And because I wasn’t buying anything specific for children or for a woman I felt as if everyone thought I was eating my 7½ minutes-in-a-800-watt-microwave culinary delight in a one bedroom flat, on my settee, plate on my lap, watching porn, with only a flea-ridden cat for company.


I wondered if I should be made to wear a disposable boiler suit for the duration of my shop with ‘Pending Coronary’ written across the back in orange letters. However, to have worn such a garment would have been a falsehood. The crux of the matter, the unknown detail to any casual observer, was the food in my trolley was not for me. My parents both have dementia and the food is for them. Without me to buy it they would starve because they are now incapable of buying or cooking food for themselves.


The last thing to add, in response to any food fascism, is I buy what they like to eat and what makes life easy for the carers who prepare their food. The carers are allotted a solitary hour to prepare an evening meal for my mother and father and get them ready for bed. I’d like to see any health-conscious celebrity cook deal with such a ridiculous timetable. Besides, eating a high fat/high salt diet is the very least of their worries.


The first time I did their shopping, when the checkout girl asked if I needed help with packing, I was so self-conscious and confused I genuinely considered it a judgement on my helplessness. Such was my state of mind I completely failed to appreciate the question was standard issue.


My reply tried to set the record straight. “No. I can manage, thanks… I’m actually doing this shop for my parents. They still live at home, but they’ve both got dementia.”


It sounded, to my ears, more of a lie than an assertive statement of fact. My refutation popped out into the open like a wilful jack-in-the-box at the first opportunity. It was a desperate denial, one stating my shopping was in no way a marker for my life. I immediately felt I’d mouthed the adult verbal equivalent of a school sick note for being excused from cross-country – one bearing a forged parent’s signature. I remember becoming extremely flustered by my conflicting assessment of the situation and wondered if over-egging the pudding wasn’t self-defeating. By association had I partly become what I was trying to deny? A stronger personality wouldn’t care what anyone thought. Perhaps the checkout girl hadn’t thought anything of the kind. After all, she was a checkout girl dealing with hundreds of people a week, from all walks of life, passing her till like endless ships in the night. More likely, the uppermost thought in her mind wasn’t one concerning insightful customer lifestyle judgement, but how much longer to go until her shift ended. On the other hand, when her shift did end and she met up with her fellow checkout operatives, the conversation may well have turned to the ‘loser of the day’ award.


With conflicting thoughts careening across my head I opted to repeat my emphatic denial. Accordingly, when I paid, I made an elaborate point of putting the store loyalty points on my supermarket bank credit card and paying with another. I paid with a debit card wielded by myself but funded by my parents – my Lasting Power of Attorney debit card.


Faced with this ongoing embarrassing prospect, and shopping at a similar time every week, I soon found myself recognising members of the checkout staff to who I had previously enlightened my parents’ plight. Yes, sad or not, I stuck to the verbal denial and my, ‘This isn’t my shopping...’ mantra every time. Consequently, over the weeks I gravitated to being checked out by one particularly friendly, tiny bird-like Thai lady. From the outset she seemed to accept my sick note without questioning the iffy signature and I found myself going to her checkout even when there were others with a shorter queue. She seemed safe, she seemed to accept me and it saved me the embarrassment of repeating the mantra to an inordinate number of checkout operatives who might well cross-reference at the end of the day. I used to picture a huddle of them standing alongside their lockers with one saying, ‘The man doth protest too much, methinks.’


On one solitary occasion, Jack came with me – under protest, obviously – and on seeing her perched on her chair, like a sparrow on a fence, I suddenly felt a deep justification to prove to her I wasn’t a fraud and to show off my son. I wanted to show her my wonderful eldest child and demonstrate my life wasn’t as reflected in my trolley. I made some lame excuse to Jack about how quick and efficient she was and we installed ourselves behind a couple buying enough food to keep a family of eight going for a month. Jack, who is always on a tight time budget when it comes to anything not directly linked to his benefit, grimaced and moaned constantly during our wait. When eventually it came to our turn and she started to run my parents’ food across the scanner, she asked me a question in her accented English.


“This your son?” I nodded expansively. She looked fondly at Jack and then coolly at me. “He don’t look like you.”


I’ve avoided her like the plague ever since. Now she probably thinks I’m a sad lonely paedophile.


Here’s the thing, Jack doesn’t look like me and from my point of view, for all the wrong reasons. From his point of view it’s for all for the right reasons. Physique-wise, we’re not too far removed; what has set us apart is time. Lack of exercise and the dreaded middle-age spread has robbed me of my once reasonable body whereas Jack is nearly as tall as me and has a bona fide body fat percentage of nine – as opposed to my estimated twenty and rising. A county standard sprinter and currently signed to a professional football club’s U16 team he has a lithe muscular torso, powerful legs and a cardio-vascular fitness level I can only dream of. I reckon I could still take him in a fight – if I could catch him. It’s facially we’re worlds apart. Jack has jet-black hair as thick as a lion’s mane, dark eyes and implausibly perfect and blemish-free skin – all of which he inherited from his mother. My hair, what’s left of it, is light brown where once it was blond and my sagging skin has the faint pock-mark remnants of teenage acne. I wasn’t bad looking when I was young, but Jack is a here and now Adonis. The trouble is, strangers don’t readily take me for Cinyras. I can understand it, but it doesn’t mean I like it!

Walking alongside Jack underlines my invisibility to any female under the age of thirty-five and the bulk of older women. I watch with muted pride as women double-take him, despite his tender years, and then with a tinge of disappointment as they studiously ignore me. At the athletics club, where he works on his sprinting during the summer football break, his posse of young girls wait their turn to talk to him during rest periods and the same admiring eyes turn whenever they can to watch him storm down the track. Football’s no different. If he’s playing for his school there’s always a gaggle of giggling girls watching him until a teacher shushes them off to class. If the match is taking place after school they invariably stay on and watch. He takes the attention with easy charm, as if it is the most natural thing in the world to have every female within sight clamouring for his company or a glimpse of his body.

I once asked him if he realised how good-looking he was only to be smacked down with a blistering riposte.

“Oh, my, God! How much up my own arse do you think I am?”

“I didn’t mean it like that…” I started to protest.


“You’re a freak!” he told me, walking away.


‘Freak’ is one of Jack’s buzzwords – mainly as an adjective for describing me and Chloe, his younger sister, or anyone else not upholding his viewpoint. In fairness he might not be too far off the mark using it to describe me.


Jack’s school-based female adulation is a sore point as far as Chloe is concerned and she constantly rails against the intolerable burden of attending the same school as her ‘hot’ elder brother. Being two years younger her friends are not on Jack’s radar, but this fundamental mixed-school rule doesn’t appear to diminish their enthusiasm for using Chloe as a conduit for their fantasy to get to Jack. I can appreciate it must be a bit wearing, fielding constant enquiries as to his whereabouts, what he’s got in the pipeline, his current social status and whether Chloe has heard Jack ever mention their name or, better still, say he fancies them. When she moans about it I often tease her and tell her to hang on in there and consider a time in the future when Jack is a professional footballer and the opportunities this might afford her in becoming a WAG. She normally gets physical when I mention this, either hitting me or throwing the nearest object to hand at my head.


“Shut up! God! You make me so cross when you say that!”

As I see it, the situation is this; Jack is stepping through the sunlit front door to embrace Alpha manhood as I slink out the back at night into the rain trying to…? What? Hold on to Beta manhood? Gamma manhood? Have one last desperate stab at reclaiming Alpha manhood, even if it’s only an A-? Jack, my parents, and me stuck in the middle. More than what I once was in youth, what I might become in old age and what I am now.

It’s the middle bit that’s the sobering thought because it’s the ‘now’, the present, the immediate, the reality I may be able to do something about. I certainly don’t want to end up like my parents, although I realise I may have no control over it, and if my son has a better youth than me, then good for him. I’m his father and I love him and my daughter far beyond any notion of envy. Like any parent I deeply want them to be happy and have the best of everything. The fact of the matter is, and I know it’s a dreadful cliché, lately I have felt pressure to make what I am now different. Different and somehow, in a way I cannot as yet define, better. And to do it quickly, before my time runs out and I no longer have the means, the mental capacity or the energy to make it happen. The trouble with all this hyperbole is the past has started to get in the way.


Like most men faced with a mid-life blip, to put a tag on it, I’m not too sure what it is I want or how to obtain it. The idea mid-life redemption can be found waiting around the corner has destroyed many a man because most men see the corner as a route demanding to be circumnavigated via a reckless manoeuvre. A reckless manoeuvre sure to destroy loved ones and many cherished ideals. In the grand scheme of things, so what? All logic tells me to deal with it, stop being so stupid and grow up. And grow up gracefully. Deny all the marketing, the glossy lifestyle magazines, stop worshipping at the altar of celebrity culture and age as nature intended. Quite. If nature had intended me to take up skateboarding she’d have made my knees more flexible. (Is there a form of plastic surgery to obtain flexible knees? I expect so, the knife seems to be the in vogue panacea to counteract ageing.)


The truth is, this is all nothing. In my case, skulking alongside this timeless hackneyed male crisis, there sits a much older, unique dilemma. It hovers outside my mental peripheral vision and rarely affects me on a day-to-day basis. Occasionally, it catches my mind’s eye, when memory nudges it into play, but overall I have learnt to live with it remarkably well. Recently, since my parents have become ill, my memory has started to nudge it into play more than I would like and I find myself recalling this older dilemma more than I have for decades. The past appears to be reaching out and trying to impinge on my present. It’s all very disconcerting.


The reason I have dealt with this older predicament so easily over time is my undiminished belief in The Pact I made years ago when, aged thirteen, I lay terrified on my bed crying uncontrollably in a state of numb disbelief. That odious night, the one indelibly etched on my memory – I would say ‘until I die’, but I’ve got parents with dementia and have seen what can happen – I made a pact only a thirteen-year-old boy could make. In my head, my young naïve immature head, I dealt with my chilling situation in the only manner possible. I told myself the reason why it had happened again was so it wouldn’t happen to me. In my mind I made myself the chosen one and rationalised that the reason yet another had been taken was so I might have the right of safe passage.

That was The Pact. Others had been taken so I could live. I still believe that today, completely, utterly and wholeheartedly without question. I also believe the cover of safe passage now extends to include my wife and my two children. I have to believe it. To do otherwise would have left me in a state of pervading anxiety exactly like my mother’s before her dementia struck. Even at the tender age of thirteen I was sufficiently aware I didn’t want to live the rest of my life the way she was living hers. If I hadn’t squared it in my head it would have destroyed me like it did her. My mother suffered from what I coined ‘extrovert paranoia’. She wasn’t frightened everyone was out to get her, she was frightened The Fear was out to get everyone she loved.


On the night I made The Pact I encountered, first-hand, in the stunning Technicolor, Dolby 5.1 surround sound we call reality, what I believed was the second manifestation of The Fear. The first manifestation (which I later discovered wasn’t the first, but was, in fact, the second), was only a childhood story and not an experience. A sad story told to me by my mother, often supplemented with faded monochrome photos, always with endless tears. In those early years of growing up, if I ever asked my mother why she forbade me from doing anything I wanted to do if it involved me being out of her sight for more than ten minutes, she would answer, ‘You know why, John. You know the story. I can’t let you go. The worry would kill me.’ Fortunately, others were around who would let me do things, but not until I was a little older. Not until I started primary school did they begin to gently unwrap the smothering blanket in which my mother tried to swaddle me.


My mother met her first-hand version of The Fear many years ago and, apparently unable to make her own pact, had been mentally crippled by it. It happened when she was a young woman of seventeen and had recently met my father. Undoubtedly in the full embrace of teenage love, her family – she, her sister, her younger brother and her parents – were hit by a giant wrecking ball of tragedy. What I didn’t know, until eighteen months ago, when I found and read the ancient newspaper cutting, was her father suffered an even earlier first-hand version of The Fear. I now had proof it had struck my mother’s family three times and not twice, as I had always believed. My father’s family had only been hit once, as if once wasn’t bad enough, making a grand total of four attacks of The Fear in all.


Finding the newspaper cutting was nothing short of a revelation and, if I’m honest with myself, it was the start of The Fear revisiting my mind. The newly highlighted event happened a very long time ago and although I didn’t feel threatened by it I did feel the start of the past’s influence touching my present. In a way, the newspaper cutting underlined the strength of The Pact – another had been taken and I hadn’t even known about it – and was a retrospective affirmation of The Pact’s integrity, albeit an affirmation hidden for decades, eventually revealing itself to me purely by chance. The problem was finding the newspaper cutting made me feel as if I was slowly being drawn into a time I would rather not have to consider. The awful events from that era were long ago dismissed thanks to The Pact and my life has been unaffected by them for nearly forty years. Yet, with this new discovery and my parents’ regression, due to their dementia, I felt the beginnings of an unease I hadn’t experienced since my teens. In my heart I felt the vague hint of a warning, while my head dismissed it all with two words. The Pact. It had never failed me, so why start to doubt it now?  



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