The Pity of It

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Jen­nifer Breen

Dad boasted he’d ‘read all of Shake­speare’s plays’.

He asked Mum if she’d read any of Shake­speare’s plays, but she didn’t an­swer.

‘Bug­ger all, I reckon,’ he said.

Of­ten we’d hear him—as if to sup­port his claim—recit­ing a few lines from Shake­speare’s dra­mas.

‘All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely play­ers’, he’d be­gin to enun­ci­ate in a loud voice. Th­ese lines, taken from As You Like It, seemed to be­come a kind of pro­logue to one or other of his solo shows such as ‘Dad shav­ing’.

This cameo, which he mostly per­formed on Satur­day morn­ings, be­gan with the sound of him strop­ping his cut-throat ra­zor on his wide leather strap. Then he dipped his short-han­dled thick-bris­tled brush into his mug of warm wa­ter, dabbed at his open pot of shav­ing cream, and spread the re­sult­ing white foam on one side of his face. He put the brush back in its place on the in­den­ta­tion in the side of his mug, briefly stropped his blade again, and, peer­ing into the mir­ror, slowly scraped the blade down his cheeks and chin to re­veal a red­dened hair­less skin. Af­ter he’d dragged the ra­zor down a sec­tion of his face each time, he rinsed the blade in his shav­ing pot. I watched, won­der­ing when he would cut his face with one of his scrapes.

When his shave was go­ing well, he’d sing songs made fa­mous by Ir­ish singers. ‘Kath­leen Mavourneen’ was his favourite. When he thought he’d nicked his face, he hit a wrong note. I could tell that he’d ac­tu­ally cut him­self if he yelled out, ‘Mary, Mother of us’, as if he were pray­ing for help; but I knew he wasn’t.

Some­times, when a cut hurt him, he’d cry out, ‘God have mercy on us’. Or even ‘Je­sus Christ!’ Mum didn’t like his blas­phemy, and she’d click her tongue against the roof of her mouth in protest.

On week­day evenings sans al­co­hol, Dad car­ried out his var­i­ous chores of sweep­ing and clean­ing the school, emp­ty­ing lava­tory cans, and chop­ping wood for fires at home and at school.

Later on dur­ing those evenings, be­fore we went to bed, he read aloud to my brother and me. He had a sense of the dra­matic, and suited his de­liv­ery to each poem he read. I ad­mired the way in which he de­claimed the po­etic drama, ‘Sohrab and Rus­tum’, al­though I didn’t fol­low the story. Then he pat­tered out the bal­lad of ‘The High­way Man’, so that the me­tre dom­i­nated and we could hear the gal­lop of the horse­man. For the story of Peterkin’s death in a nar­ra­tive in verse by Al­fred Noyes, he adopted a lugubri­ous tone. And he’d scare us with a poem about how ‘the Fe­ni­ans will get ye’, even though I didn’t know who ‘the Fe­ni­ans’ were. I rel­ished his brac­ing ren­der­ing of Banjo Paterson’s bal­lad, ‘The Man from Snowy River’: ‘And he raced him down the moun­tain side like a tor­rent down its bed…’

Dad’s love of ‘the grog’ seemed to in­duce per­for­mances of what Mum called his ‘Sturm und Drang shows’. Every Fri­day af­ter he closed his school on the dot of four o’clock, he hur­ried across to our house to get his Glad­stone bag out of the wardrobe. Then he put on his trouser clips and cy­cled—as fast as he could go—the six miles to Bright so he could drink at the Star Ho­tel with other teach­ers. He’d re­turn home al­ready half drunk. We could hear bot­tles of his sherry clink­ing a bit in his bag as he came down the pas­sage­way to the kitchen.

Af­ter Bernie and I had gone to bed, Dad would start drink­ing his sherry and be­gin to re­hearse his se­ries of com­plaints about Mum. I could hear him walk­ing on the pol­ished wooden floor around her. But she usu­ally be­gan look­ing at the lo­cal news­pa­per he brought back with him along with other rub­bish in the bot­tom of his Glad­stone bag, which he seemed to think would pre­vent his glass bot­tles break­ing if the bag slipped off the han­dle­bars of his bike.

He of­ten be­gan with his whinges about his lack of cash—his be­ing ‘in the red’ he called it—be­cause of Mum’s ‘wild spend­ing habits’. She spent too much on her own clothes, he said, and that made him ‘see red’. Then he laughed at his own word-play.

‘I’ll fix your over­spend­ing,’ he’d shout. ‘I’ll put an an­nounce­ment in that pa­per you’re look­ing at to say I’m no longer re­spon­si­ble for your debts. I’ll show you who earns the money around here! No shop­keeper will give you credit af­ter that! What will you do for money then?’


If I heard him rais­ing his voice, I’d tip­toe silently to the liv­ing-room door to lis­ten. Did my fa­ther think that my mother was his sole au­di­ence for th­ese mono­logues? She re­mained silent, just as I did as I peered at her— in my line of vi­sion—through the key­hole of the liv­ing-room door. If my fa­ther sensed that he had a sec­ond lis­tener, he showed no aware­ness of my pres­ence.

One of his rants—about a big ta­ble that had some­how dis­ap­peared—led to his ver­bal at­tacks on Mum’s favourite brother. ‘As for your brother, Jack, I don’t want to see him here again! He sawed my good hard­wood din­ing ta­ble in half. He turned it into two cof­fee ta­bles suit­able for a doll’s house. That ta­ble would’ve been fine in this dou­ble liv­ing-room. Just when we get a room big enough for that ta­ble, you have to get Jack to cut it in two. You think he’d have more sense than to fol­low your fool­ish whim. He’s not a bad car­pen­ter, yet he bug­gered up my per­fectly good ta­ble.’

‘Where are those two cut-down ta­bles?’ Dad bel­lowed out th­ese words as he reached a peak in his rant.

Mum didn’t an­swer. She seemed to curl her­self up into an even smaller ball on her set­tee.

‘It was you who left them in my mother’s garage, wasn’t it?’ he ac­cused.

‘You should’ve known they’d dis­ap­pear from there pretty damn quick. I bet she’s sold them both al­ready. Al­ways the bour­geois shop­keeper at heart. She made Dad sell his farm to buy a shop. All Dad could do af­ter he lost his farm was sit at the back of the shop drink­ing whiskey with her cus­tomers— “like a gen­tle­man”, he said.’

Si­lence. ‘At least he was never un­faith­ful to her. Not like you.’ ‘What about Fred­die, eh?’ I was anx­ious to know who Fred­die was, but Mum didn’t an­swer.

‘I’ll tell you about Fred­die,’ he cried out, as if she’d asked him what Fred­die had done.

Through the key­hole, I could see Dad—just like a dingo hunt­ing a lamb— stalk­ing round and round Mum who now looked as if she’d like to crawl un­der the sofa to es­cape him.

‘Yair, you had to spoil what my mate Fred­die had go­ing for us. We’d still be mates if it hadn’t been for you lead­ing him on like a bitch in heat. I bet you of­ten gloat over fan­tasies of your night at the Town Hall an­nual ball! I saw how you glued your­self to Fred­die at first in a foxtrot and then in a slow waltz! The next minute you’d both van­ished into the night. As if I wouldn’t guess what you were up to with him, you bitch!’

Then he stopped rant­ing and enun­ci­ated slowly his punch line, ‘So I don’t even know whether she’s my own flesh and blood!’

In an even more sub­dued tone, he added, ‘But yet the pity of it, Iago! O, Iago, the pity of it!’

I crept away to bed.

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