Father! Father! Burning Bright

Alan Bennett

On the many occasions Midgley had killed his father, death had always come easily. He died promptly, painlessly and without a struggle. Looking back, Midgley could see that even in these imagined deaths he had failed his father. It was not like him to die like that. Nor did he.

The timing was good, Midgley acknowledged that. Only his father would have managed to stage his farewell in the middle of a ‘Meet the Parents’ week. It was not a function Midgley enjoyed. Each year he was dismayed how young the parents had grown, the youth of fathers in particular. Most sported at least one tattoo, with ears and noses now routinely studded. Midgley saw where so many of his pupils got it from. One father wore a swastika necklace, of the sort Midgley had wondered if he felt justified in confiscating from a boy. And a mother he had talked to had had green hair. ‘Not just green,’ muttered Miss Tunstall, ‘bright green. And then you wonder the girls get pregnant.’

That was the real point of these get-togethers. The teachers were appalled by the parents but found their shortcomings reassuring. With parents like these, they reasoned, who could blame the schools? The parents, recalling their own teachers as figures of dignity and authority, found the staff sloppy. Awe never entered into it, apparently. ‘Too human by half’ was their verdict. So both Nature and Nurture came away, if not satisfied, at any rate absolved. ‘Do you wonder?’ said the teachers, looking at the parents. ‘They get it at school,’ said the parents.

‘Coretta’s bin havin’ these massive monthlies. Believe me, Mr Midgley, I en never seen menstruatin’ like it’. Mrs Azakwale was explaining her daughter’s poor showing in Use of English. ‘She bin wadin’ about in blood to her ankles, Mr Midgley. I en never out of the launderette.’ Behind Mrs Azakwale, Mr Horsfall listened openly and with unconcealed scepticism, shaking his head slowly as Midgley caught his eye. Behind Mr Horsfall, Mr Patel beamed with embarrassment as the large black woman said these terrible things so loudly. And beyond Mr Patel, Midgley saw the chairs were empty.

Mrs Azakwale took Coretta’s bloodstained track-record over to the queue marked Computer Sciences, leaving Midgley faced with Mr Horsfall and Martin.

Mr Horsfall did not dye his hair nor wear an earring. His hair was now fashionably short but only because he had never got round to wearing it fashionably long. Nor had his son Martin ever ventured under the drier; his ears, too, were intact. Mr Horsfall was I detective sergeant.

‘I teach Martin English, Mr Horsfall,’ said Midgley, wishing he had not written ‘Hopeless’ on Martin’s report, a document now gripped by Mr Horsfall in his terrible policeman’s hand.

‘Martin? Is that what you call him?’

‘But that’s his name.’ Midgley had a moment of wild anxiety that it wasn’t, that the father would accuse him of not even knowing die name of his son.

‘His name’s Horsfall. Martin is what we call him, his mother and me. For your purposes I should have thought his name was Horsfall. Are you married?’

‘Yes.’

Horsfall was not impressed. He had spent long vigils in public toilets as a young constable. Many of the patrons had turned out to be married and some of them teachers. Marriage involved no medical examination, no questionnaire to speak of. Marriage for these people was just the bush they hid behind.

‘What does my son call you?’

‘He calls me Mr Midgley.’

‘Doesn’t he call you sir?’

‘On occasion.’

‘Schools ...’ Horsfall sniffed.

His son ought to have been small, nervous and bright, Midgley the understanding schoolteacher taking his part against his big, overbearing parent. He would have put books into his hands, watched him flower, so that in time to come the boy would look back and think ‘Had it not been for him ...’ Such myths sustained Midgley when he woke in the small hours of the morning and drowsed during the middle period of the afternoon. But they were myths. Martin was large and dull. He was not unhappy. He would not flower. He was not even embarrassed. He was probably on his father’s side, thought Midgley, as he sat there looking at his large inherited hands, and occasionally picked at one of a scattering of violet-painted warts.

‘What worries me,’ said Horsfall, ‘is that he can scarcely put two words together.’

This was particularly hurtful to a man who, in his professional capacity, specialised in converting the faltering confessions of semiilliterates into his plain policeman’s prose. He could do it. At four o’clock in the morning after a day spent combing copses and dragging ponds, never mind house-to-house enquiries, he could do it. Why not his son?

‘You show me up, Martin, having to come along here. I don’t grudge coming along here. But what I would like to have come along here as is a proud father. To be told of your achievements. Be shown your name in gilt letters on the honours board. Martin Horsfall. But no. What is it? It’s “Geography: Poor. History: Poor. English: Hopeless.” Why Martin?’

‘Why Mr Midgley? And why “hopeless”? “Geography: Poor. History: Poor. English: Hopeless.” Is he “hopeless” or are you?’

‘He doesn’t try.’

‘Do you challenge him? We challenge him at home. His mother and I challenge him. Does he get challenged at school? I don’t see it.’ Horsfall looked round but caught the eye of Mr Patel, who was smiling in anticipation of his interview. Mr Patel’s son was clever. Blacks, Indians. That was why. Challenge. How could there be any challenge?

‘I never had chances like he had. And I dare say you didn’t. We never had chances like that, Martin.’

At the ‘we’ Midgley flinched, suddenly finding himself handcuffed to Horsfall in the same personal pronoun.

‘Soccer facilities: tip-top. Swimming-baths: tip-top. Gymnasium: tip-top. I mean volleyball, Martin. If somebody had come up to me when I was your age and said, “There are facilities for volleyball,” I would have gone down on my knees. What do you say?’

The question Horsfall was asking his son had no obvious answer. Indeed, it was not really a question at all. ‘Justify your life’; that was what this dull and dirty youth was being asked to do. Not seeing that justification was necessary, the son was silent and the father waited.

And it was in the middle of this silence that Miss Tunstall came up to say the hospital had telephoned. Except that, sensing this was not simply a silence but an essential part of what was being said, she did not immediately interrupt but made little wavings with her hand behind Mr Horsfall’s head, who – a policeman and ever on the watch for mockery – turned round. So it was to him that Miss Tunstall gave the bad news (a man in any case used to transactions with ambulances, hospitals and all the regimes of crisis). ‘The hospital’s just rung. Mr Midgley’s father’s been taken ill.’ And only then, having delivered her message did she look at Midgley, who thus heard his father was dying at second-hand and then only as a kind of apology.

‘They’re ringing the ward,’ said Midgley. ‘It’s a fall, apparently.’ One ear was in Miss Tunstall’s office, the other fifty miles away in some nowhere behind a switchboard.

‘You want to pray it’s not his hip,’ said Miss Tunstall. ‘That’s generally the weak spot.’ She had a mother of her own. ‘The pelvis heals in no time, surprisingly.’ She did not sound surprised. Her mother had broken her pelvis and she had thought it was the beginning of the end. ‘No. It’s when it’s the hip it’s complicated.’

‘Switchboard’s on the blink,’ said a voice.

‘Join the club,’ said another. ‘I’ve been on the blink all day.’

‘It’s the dreaded lurgi,’ said the first voice.

‘Hello,’ said Midgley. But there was silence.

‘She took a nasty tumble in Safeways last week,’ went on Miss Tunstall. ‘They do when they get older. It’s what you must expect.’ She expected it all the time. ‘Their bones get brittle.’

She cracked her fingers and adjusted the spacing.

‘Maintenance,’ said a new voice.

‘I’ve been wrongly connected,’ said Midgley.

‘It’s these ancillary workers,’ said Miss Tunstall. ‘Holding the country to ransom. Other people’s suffering is their bread and butter.’ She was wanting to get on with a notice about some boys acting the goat in the swimming-baths but felt she ought to wait until Midgley had heard one way or the other. Her mother was 82. The last twenty years had not been easy and had she known what was in store she thought now she would probably have stabbed her mother to death the second she turned 60. These days it would only have meant a suspended sentence or if the worst came to the worst open prison. Miss Tunstall had once been round such an institution with the school and found it not uncongenial. A picnic in fact.

‘Records are on the warpath again,’ said a voice in Midgley’s ear.

‘It never rains,’ said another.

‘Should I be sterilisin’ this?’ said a black voice.

‘Search me, dear,’ said an emancipated one.

‘Hello,’ said Midgley. ‘HELLO.’

Softly Miss Tunstall began to type.

Midgley thought of his father lying in bed, dying but not wanting to be any trouble.

‘No joy?’ said Miss Tunstall, uncertain whether it would be better to underline ‘the likelihood of a serious accident’. ‘And then they wonder why people are stampeding to Bupa.’

Midgley decided he had been forgotten then a crisp voice suddenly said: ‘Sister Tudor.’

‘I’m calling about a patient, a Mr Midgley.’

Noiselessly Miss Tunstall added an exclamation mark to ‘This hooliganism must now STOP!’ and waited, her hands spread over the keys.

‘What is the patient’s name?’

‘Midgley,’ said Midgley. ‘He came in this morning.’

‘When was he admitted?’

‘This morning.’

‘Midgley.’ There was a pause. ‘We have no Midgley. No Midgley has been admitted here. Are you sure you have the right ward?’

‘He was admitted this morning. I was told he was seriously ill.’

‘Oh yes.’ Her tone changed. ‘Midgley. What is your name?’

‘Midgley.’

‘Are you next of kin?’

‘My father is dead,’ he thought. ‘Only the dead have next of kin.’

‘I’m his son.’

Miss Tunstall folded her hands in her lap.

‘He’s not at all well.’ The tone was reproachful rather than sympathetic. ‘We think he’s had a stroke. He’s been lying on the floor. He ought to have been in hospital sooner. There’s now the question of pneumonia. It’s touch and go.’

‘It’s touch and go,’ said Midgley, putting the phone down.

‘How old is he?’ said Miss Tunstall, noticing she had typed ‘tooling’ for ‘fooling’.

‘He’s 74.’

Her mother was 82. She ripped out the paper and wound in another sheet. Life was unfair.

The door opened.

‘Been on the phone again, Midgley?’ said the headmaster. ‘I’m the one who has to go cap in hand to the Finance Committee.’

‘Mr Midgley’s father’s ill,’ said Miss Tunstall, once again the apologetic herald. ‘Apparently it’s touch and go.’

And she started typing like the wind.

‘Of course you can go. Of course you must go. One’s father. There can be no question. A filial obligation.’ Midgley was in the headmaster’s study. ‘It’s awkward, of course. But then it always is.’ It was death. It was a reshuffling of the timetable.

Midgley’s thoughts were with his father in Intensive Care.

‘Was he getting on in years?’

No effort was being spared to keep him alive and in the present and yet grammatically he kept slipping into the past.

‘He’s 74.’

‘Seventy-four. Once upon a time I thought that was old. You won’t be gone long? What, three, four days?’ In his mind the headmaster roughed out a timetable whereby Midgley senior could decently die, be buried and Midgley junior be back in harness. Radical surgery on the timetable might still be avoided.

‘Let me see. It’s English, Integrated Humanities and Creative Arts, nothing else, is there?’

‘Environmental Studies.’

The headmaster groaned. ‘That’s the awkward one. Pilbeam’s off on another course. That’s the trouble with the environment, it involves going on courses. I’ll be glad when the environment is confined to the textbooks.’

‘Ah well,’ said the headmaster. ‘It can’t be helped.’ He had never understood the fuss people made about their parents. ‘Both of mine were despatched years ago. A flying bomb.’ He made it sound like a victory for common sense.

‘He must have fallen and not been able to get up,’ said Midgley. ‘He was lying there two days.’

‘An all too familiar scenario these days,’ said the headmaster. ‘Isolated within the community. Alone in the crowd. You must not feel guilty.’

‘I generally go over at weekends,’ said Midgley.

‘It will give Tomlinson an opportunity to do some of his weird and wonderful permutations with the timetable. Though I fear this one will tax even Tomlinson’s talents.’

The headmaster opened him the door.

‘One must hope it is not as grave as it appears. One must hope he turns the corner. Corners seem to have gone out of medicine nowadays. In the old days the sick were always turning them. Illness is now much more of a straight road. Why is that?’

It was not a question he wanted answering.

‘Antibiotics?’ said Midgley, lingering.

‘Sometimes one has the impression modern medicine encourages patients to loiter.’ It was Midgley who was taking his time. ‘Mistakenly one feels. God speed.’

Miss Tunstall had finished the notice about acting the goat in the swimming-baths and the headmaster now glanced through it, taking out his pen. She made a start on another notice about the bringing of pupils’ cars to school, one of the head’s ‘privilege not a right’ notices. Midgley still hesitated.

‘I’m not sure if we’ve couched this in strong enough terms, Daphne.’

‘It’s as you dictated it.’

‘I have no doubt. But I feel more strongly about it now. Nothing else is there, Midgley?’

Midgley shook his head and went out.

‘A boy slips. Is pushed and we are talking about concussion. A broken neck. A fatality, Daphne. I intend to nail the culprits. I want them to know they will be crucified.’

‘Shall I put that?’

The headmaster looked at her sharply and wondered if Miss Tunstall was through the menopause.

‘We must find a paraphrase. But first the problems caused by this business of Midgley père. Ask Tomlinson to step over will you, Daphne. Tell him to bring his coloured pencils. And a rubber.’

‘Tomato or my jam?’

‘Tomato.’

The hospital was fifty miles away. His wife was making him sandwiches. He sat in his raincoat at the kitchen table, watching her apply a faint smear of Flora to the wholemeal bread.

‘I wanted to go over this last weekend,’ said Midgley. ‘I would have gone over if your Margaret hadn’t suddenly descended.’

‘You knew they were coming. They’d been coming for weeks. It’s one of the few things Mother’s got to look forward to.’ Mrs Midgley’s mother was standing staring out of the window. ‘Don’t blame our Margaret’.

‘I just never expected it,’ said Midgley.

If you expected something it didn’t happen.

‘I expected it,’ said his wife, putting on a shiny plastic apron emblazoned with a portrait of Sylvia Plath.

‘I expected it. Last time I went over he came to the door to wave me off. He’s never done that before. Bless him.’ She donned a pair of orange gauntlets and sinking to her knees before the oven gave the Shift a trial blast. ‘I think people know.’

‘He does come to the door,’ said Midgley. ‘He always comes to the door.’ And it was true he did, but only, Midgley felt, to show that the visit had been so short it needed extending. Though once, catching sight of him in the rear-view mirror, waving, Midgley had cried.

‘He was trying to tell me something,’ said his wife. ‘I know a farewell when I see one.’ A fine spray misted the oven’s pale grey walls. ‘Shouldn’t you be going?’

‘Is it Saturday today?’ said her mother.

Ten minutes later Midgley was sitting on the stairs and his wife had started hoovering.

‘I’m not going to let him down. I want to be there when he goes,’ shouted Midgley.

The vacuum was switched off.

‘What?’

‘He loved me.’

‘I can’t think why,’ said Midgley’s wife. ‘It’s not as if you take after him,’ and she switched on again, ‘not one little bit.’

‘Joyce,’ her mother called, ‘when is that chiropodist coming?’

Midgley looked at his watch. It was three o’clock. At ten past Mrs Midgley took to dusting. It was always assumed the house-work put her in a bad temper. The truth was if she was in a bad temper she did the housework. So it came to the same thing.

‘He had strength,’ she said, dusting a group of lemonade bottles of various ages. ‘Our Colin is going to be strong. He loved Colin.’

‘Does he know?’ asked Midgley.

‘Yes. Only it hasn’t hit him yet.’

Hoarse shouting and a rhythmic drumming on the floor indicated that his son was seeking solace in music.

‘When it does hit him,’ said his mother, picking at a spot of rust on a recently acquired Oxo tin, ‘he is going to be genuinely heartbroken. There’s always a gap. It was on Woman’s Hour. Poor old Frank.’

‘I’ve never understood,’ said Midgley, ‘why you call him Frank. He’s my father.’

She looked at the 1953 Coronation Mug, wondering if it was altogether too recent an artefact to have on display.

‘He has a name. Frank is his name.’

It was not only the date, the Coronation Mug was about the only object in the house Midgley had contributed to the decor, having been issued with it in 1953 when he was at primary school.

‘I call him Dad,’ said Midgley.

‘He’s not Dad is he. Not my dad. I call him Frank because that’s the name of a person. To me he is a person. That’s why we get on.’

She was about to hide the mug behind a cast-iron money-box in the shape of a grinning black man then thought better of it. They had too many things. And there would be more coming from his dad. She cheered up slightly.

Her husband kissed her and opened the back door.

‘It isn’t though,’ he said.

‘It isn’t what?’

‘Why you get on. Treating him like a person.’

Seeing her stood there in her silly apron he felt sorry for her, and wished he had kept quiet.

‘You get on,’ he said (and because he was sorry for her tried to make it sound as if she was justified), ‘you get on because you both despise me.’

‘Listen.’ She brought him away from the door and closed it. Mrs Barnes next door, who had once described their marriage as uninhibited, was putting out a few opportune clothes. ‘Your father is 74. He is dying. Considering the time you’ve been hanging about here he is possibly already dead yet you resent the fact that he and I were friends. I seem to have married someone very low down in the evolutionary chain. You might want one or two tissues.’ And she darted at him and thrust them into his pocket.

Midgley opened the door again.

‘It’s just that when you and he were together I didn’t exist.’

‘I am married,’ she shouted, ‘to the cupboard under the sink.’ A remark made more mysterious to Mrs Barnes by the sound of a passing ice-cream van playing the opening bars of the ‘Blue Danube’.

‘He is dying, Denis. Will you exist now? Will that satisfy you?’ She was crying.

‘I’ll make it right, Joyce,’ said Midgley. ‘I’ll be there when he goes. I’ll hold his hand.’

He held hers, still in its orange gauntlet. ‘If I let him down now he’d stay with me the rest of my life. I did love him, Joyce.’

‘I want him to stay with you the rest of your life. That’s what I want. I think of his kindness. His unselfishness. His unflagging courtesy. The only incredible thing is that someone so truly saintly should have produced such a pill of a son.’

She took off Sylvia Plath and hung her behind the door. She had stopped crying.

‘But I suppose that’s your mother.’

‘Shut up about my mother,’ said Midgley. His mother was a sore point. ‘My mother is dead.’

‘So is your father by now probably. Go!’

Midgley took her by the shoulders.

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‘Father! Father! Burning Bright’ was the original title of a BBC television film I wrote in 1982 but which was subsequently changed to Intensive Care. The main part, Midgley, had been hard to cast, though when I was writing the script I thought it was a role I might play myself until, that is, I got to the scene where Midgley goes to bed with Valery, the slatternly nurse. That, I thought, effectively ruled me out as I didn’t fancy having to take my clothes off under the bored appraisal of an entire film crew.

Not that it would have been the first time. In 1966 I was acting in a BBC TV comedy series I had written which included a weekly spot, ‘Life and Times in NW1’, in one episode of which I was supposedly in bed with a neighbour’s wife. The scene was due to be shot in the studio immediately after a tea-break, and rather than brave the scrutiny of the TV crew, I thought that during the break I might sneak onto the set and be already in bed when the crew returned. So I tiptoed into the studio in my underpants, failing to notice that a lighting rig had been positioned behind the bedroom door. When I opened it there was an almighty crash, the lights came down and everybody rushed into the studio to find me sprawled in my underpants among the wreckage and subject to a far more searching and hostile scrutiny than would otherwise have been the case. No more bedroom scenes for me, I thought.

However the role of Midgley proved hard to cast and after a lot of toing and froing, including what was virtually an audition, I found myself playing the part. Like some other leading roles I have written, it verged on the anonymous, all the fun and jokes put into the mouths of the supporting characters, while Midgley, whom the play is supposed to be about, never manages to be much more than morose.

It was in the hope of finding more to the character than this that I decided, before the shooting started, to write the story up in prose. When I’d finished I showed it to the director in the hope that it might help him to appreciate what the screenplay was about. He received it politely enough and in due course gave me it back, I suspect without having read it, directors tending to form their own ideas about a text, one script from die author hard enough to cope with without wanting two.

So I put it away in a drawer in 1982 where it has remained ever since. I’ve dusted it off and publish it now, I suppose, as part of an effort to slim down my Nachlass and generally tidy up.