On Balance, Lot’s Wife Probably Shouldn’t Have Looked Back
My daughter, Rosie, loves Christmas so much, getting deliriously excited for days before, filling the house with her joy and fizzing energy. She always insists on the little formalities – leaving out a carrot for the reindeer, and a glass of whiskey for Santa. She takes charge of hanging the stockings over the fireplace. She makes sure the presents are neatly arranged under the tree. (We’ve taken on Mrs McG’s family traditions, in which Father Christmas fills the stocking with bits and bobs, toiletries and sweets, while the major presents have a human origin, and sit beneath the tree. Her happiness always makes me sad. Probing that sadness is too painful. But I’ll do it anyway. No, not probe, but at least I can cast a quick backward glance, like Lot’s wife, over my shoulder, at the smouldering ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah.
My parents were both nurses, and met in Manchester, while my mum was training at Ladywell TB Hospital. Her background was impoverished rural Irish; he was the son of a Scottish miner. They’d both left school at 14. Her maiden name was McGowan, and she tells a story, funny and sad, about giving birth to my older sister Catriona, in Crumpsall Hospital, in North Manchester. She’d trained with several of the nurses in the hospital, and was heartbroken when none of them would speak to her, hurrying past the maternity ward without a glance. It was only later that she found out it was because they assumed that the fact she was still Margaret McGowan meant that the baby was illegitimate. It wasn’t that they were shunning her on that account, but, rather, they wanted to spare her embarrassment about it. That was in 1964. I came along in 65. By 1971 there were five kids, and we had moved from Manchester via Leeds and Hull to the small town of Sherburn in Elmet, in the dead zone between Leeds and York. By then my dad, clever, blustering, funny: a bullshitter and storyteller, but also gentle and kindly, had become a hospital manager, a job heavy with responsibility but, back then, modest in salary. My mum worked a couple of nights a week, as well as keeping house with a fierce pride. Small, pretty, but with the immense strength that comes from nurse training, she was terrifying and lovable in equal measure. It’s hard to know how she could have controlled the five of us without that fierceness.
We had just enough money. Throughout my childhood we never had a family meal in a restaurant. Holidays meant staying with Granny in Scotland or Granny in Ireland, except for one glorious summer, when I was 8, when my mum took me and Catriona to visit our relations in Ohio. All I can remember is the extraordinary size of the ice-creams and the malted milk shakes. And changing into my swimming trunks on the sandy shore of a swimming lake. The American teenagers we were with all just swam in their cut-off jeans, and I recall the embarrassment as they watched me, giggling. It was my first intimation of the shame and excitement of sex.
But Christmas. We had the same decorations throughout my childhood – lines of green and dark-gold tinsel, draped over the pictures. An artificial tree. I’m growing emotional now, thinking about the sacrifices my parents must have made to buy us the toys we wanted, packing them into pillow cases at the bottom of our beds. I shared a room with my brother Niall. I was a hateful brother. A sly and calculating bully. He was always good-natured, loved by all who met him, but I persecuted and oppressed him, mercilessly. He grew into a huge, handsome man, charismatic and adored. His long yellow hair fell out, but he still rocks the bald look. My children call him Uncle Shrek.
Everything about Christmas was good. The massive tin of Quality Street, hidden by my dad, but always discovered by us. The box of Satsumas (though we always called them Tangerines). The huge turkey. My mum was a terrible cook, so my dad did it all, while my mum made things as beautiful as she could.
So why the sadness? Is it just because of that Christmas morning in 1975, when I got the two things I wanted most in the world. First, the box (too big for the pillow case) containing the Subbuteo World Cup edition, with real working floodlights, and special men for taking corners and throw-ins, and tiny St John’s Ambulance stretcher bearers, and even a clutch of press photographers for behind the goal, as well as all the normal Subbuteo equipage. And then, buried deep in the pillow case, when I already thought that my happiness had reached its zenith, another small box, this one containing my first ever watch: a small black, wind-up Timex.
In the playground at the end of the street all the kids were out with their toys, and for once there was a surfeit of footballs. And we played for a while, Graham Doran, and Simon Morely, and Chris Jones, and Sean Jordan, who lived not in the new Barret-style estate where we lived, but in the Highfield’s council estate at the other end of the village, and my little brother, Niall. And then it was time to go back for Christmas dinner. And I looked at my watch, and saw that it wasn’t on my wrist. I searched the ground until my dad came angrily to shout me in. But the watch was gone for good. My dad was resigned about it. I never got another watch, until I went to University, and bought my own: a Swatch watch, with a black face, and black numbers, and black hands, which in time I gave to a girlfriend. She threw it away, after I broke her heart.
But it isn’t the little lost Timex watch either. It’s the everything. It’s childhood. It’s that I wasn’t good. It’s that I wasted what I was given. It’s that despite my laziness and cowardice and weakness and dishonesty, things have gone Ok for me. Better than I deserved. I had the luck that should have gone to my big-hearted brother, to my lovely and talented sisters. Perhaps, reaching back, the luck that should have gone to my parents, who worked themselves into the ground for us. It should have gone to my dad who had stories frothing out of him like the foam on an overfilled pint; it should have gone to my fierce, beautiful mum, who I once caught crying over Thomas Hardy’s The Trumpet Major, but who was forced into the role of domestic tyrant to keep in check the insane destructive centrifugal energy of the five McGowan kids. I wasn’t nice or kind to any of them. No, I can’t even take refuge in those absences of virtue. I was a bad brother, a bad son. And what this fills me with is not the good old Catholic guilt. I love guilt, thrive on it, because guilt is something that you can assuage, something you can pay for. You repent, you’re punished, and then you’re absolved. What I feel about the past is not guilt, but guilt’s dark, Calvinist shadow: shame. You feel shame not for what you’ve done, but for what you are. And you can never escape it, never be forgiven, never find salvation.
For Christmas I got some socks, which I needed, and some more socks, which I would have needed if I hadn’t just been given the earlier lot of socks.