That form, sat gathering dust in the front room, seems an appropriate metaphor for my young life.
This was my place at university studying modern history. Ours was the first academic year under the system of tuition fees as the 'prizes for all' culture had clashed with an obvious lack of taxpayers' money and made the old system of “if you're good enough you can go” unsustainable. I'm not entirely sure what the answer is and maybe people do respond in a more motivated fashion when money for which they're personally liable is on the table. What I do know is that sending thick middle class kids to university makes little sense, that opening it up to the terminally dumb diminished the value of the qualification by definition. Now we're in a messy and complicated world where apparently you're fucked and burned if you're under the age of 35 and don't have a degree, but at the same time they have a real terms value of practically nothing.
I'd told them repeatedly that this needed to be completed as the deadline neared. Predictably enough, I don't have their national insurance details, or know how much they earned in the last 12 months, and nor do I want to. Intrusive as questions like this might be, I suppose it's a necessary part of ensuring people don't falsely cry poverty. There's also the matter of student finance, which I'm hesitant about getting involved with as I don't trust my parents not to convolute some crisis as an excuse to snatch this money I'd be liable to pay back. The deadline approaches and the form remains untouched. What about all this nonsense Bob had talked about being backed to the hilt? Of how they'd do anything within their power to make this thing work? Then it's passed, and passed by a few weeks, then a whole month. My place at Uni has now been flushed down the toilet.
Bob, Irene, thanks a fucking bunch.
Fearing their response, that they would somehow turn this around and make it out to be my fault, I 'tell' them that I've changed my mind about higher education and will be looking for a permanent and full-time job instead. Bob goes ballistic, telling me “don't piss into the wind then tell me it's fucking raining”. Deano is in startling shit-stirring form, simultaneously arguing that I should be forced to go to university against my will, that anyone who is in higher education is a 'bum' and a 'parasite' who needs to 'get a proper job' and that, possibly inspired by Pol Pot, we should close all educational centres and institutions that cater for anyone over the age of sixteen. Presumably everyone would leave school and become a farm labourer or sweep a factory floor. But then again, who would design the equipment being used on the farm, or the finished product being assembled in the factory?
Wouldn't someone like that need a degree or similar qualification?
It speaks volumes about our family that my parents actually take this bollocks seriously, and begin to argue the 'merits' or otherwise of it. Please understand what I tell you about Teenage Kickings, this book I'm writing – IT IS NOT A WORK OF FICTION. I really did grow up around these people, people so determined to maintain a position of superiority over others within their family that history, a sense of what mattered and the rules of life as we knew it were constantly re-written. Over time it became apparent that whatever choice I made would be the wrong one, that when it came to Deano and my parents it was a case of “heads we win, tails you lose”. For Rob, it had been even worse as he was promised he could go to college if he got the required results.
He promptly went out and did enough to get on the computing course he'd lined up, only to be told that, well, they'd actually taken it for granted that he would fail and not meant what they'd said. I'll repeat that for the removal of doubt – his own parents were sat there, hoping he would miserably fail his exams so that they could send him out into the world of work and wouldn't have to support him through further education in any way. As for Deano's role in this, he'd done many things with his life and I'd reached the conclusion that my personal thoughts on his choices were none of my business. Why he hadn't extended the same respect I have no idea, nor is there any satisfactory explanation of why his rather demented and contradictory views, motivated first and foremost by the monumental chip on his shoulder, were being taken so seriously – outside of what Rob and I both knew which was that he meant more to our parents than either of us ever would.
Someone, please just tell this prick to shut the fuck up – and then shoot him.
Amazingly, I end up negotiating 'permission' for a year out, which is absurd considering that I didn't really have a place at a university anymore. However, the suggestion that either Bob or Irene were in any way responsible for this would have been a capital offence and I very much doubt the authorities would ever have found the body. Deano looks mightily pissed off, but probably does not know this reality, namely that I could not have gone anyway, that when push came to shove neither Bob nor Irene could be bothered to fill in a piece of paper. Bob makes a tasteless remark about “protecting his investment” and I shake my head, part of me wishing that I might finally see some of this phantom 'investment' that he's wittering on about. How about holding a job down for more than five minutes, shithead?
I'll say this again – I didn't 'choose' not to go to university. By the time I ostensibly made that 'choice' my place was null and void. This is something that I would remember, despite their best attempts to re-write history and depict it as an act of free will on my part.
As far as they were concerned, my parents were infallible, incapable of wrong.
Deano's more pissed off about this than anyone. He realises that the second I'm out earning, the stick he has to hit me with and assert his dominance/superiority will disappear. A few nights later I'm instructed to take the dog for a walk. Ok, I don't want an argument. Then Lauren, spoilt little bitch that she is, chips in that she needs to be allowed to come with me. I'm dreading this but know how it is. When Lauren doesn't get her own way, she starts crying – and when Lauren starts crying, Bob has a ready-made excuse to turn violent. I walk the dog and it's getting dark, but she insists on us staying out a while longer. I really don't know what to do here – this seems irresponsible, but when Lauren doesn't get her own way, she starts crying – and when Lauren starts crying....I weigh up the options and decide that one more walk round the block is the lesser of two evils, the least worst option.
Whether or not it was, it was the wrong option nonetheless, and within seconds of coming home Bob has me in his signature move, choked and with my head being slammed repeatedly into the wall.
His performances here tended to follow a pattern. Initially, Bob would lose it and engage in some (usually relatively minor) act of violence to put the wind up you. You would then be subjected to some hackneyed nonsense about how you were 'on very thin ice' and suchlike. Then he would (sort of) calm down and go all pseudo-profound, repeating himself ad nauseum and saying several thousand words while managing to say precisely nothing at the same time. Some of these exercises in physical and psychological torture would go on for several hours and feel more like several days. You'd be asked 'straight' questions, hesitate while you worked out what the 'right' answer was and then be ridiculed or (as I was here) called something rude, like a “spineless wanker” or whatever, for hesitating and/or dancing round the head of a pin.
I'm able to filter most of this so that it's just noise, but it's obvious what this is really about. Oblivious or in denial about his own role in destroying my chances of going to Uni, Bob is pissed off with me for 'choosing' not to go and was just waiting for me to put a fingernail out of place, offer some sort of excuse for him to go off on one. Deano is wading in, suggesting he “throw the fucker out on the street for a few nights and see how he copes”. Everything comes under the radar, choices of clothes, my haircut, friends they've met a handful of times but somehow feel equipped to judge, my 'lack of a skill or trade' which, coming from a fake electrician and he of the abandoned apprenticeship is pretty fucking funny on reflection. It starts to dawn upon me, my older brother and my Dad actually hate my guts. Why? I'm not entirely sure, but I can see hatred in Bob's eyes and Deano's there, stirring the pot and pushing his buttons, thoroughly enjoying himself.
I head out the next morning, ten parts to look for work and ten parts to get away from them, thoroughly sickened by this moment of epiphany.
I realise that I'm entitled to JSA and, seeing as I'm actually looking for work, why not? At least it means I don't have to ask for handouts from home, effectively needing their permission to attend a job interview.
Deano finds a justification in his rather warped mind for 'opposing' this, although again nobody is answering the question, what the fuck has this got to do with you? I couldn't care if you're 'opposed' to this or not, unless you're offering to cough up every time I need to catch a train to Preston or whatever?
And if you aren't, then what exactly would you like me to do instead - sit on my arse and take your abuse on a nightly basis? Start sleeping in a shop doorway while you point and laugh? Slip off to some woods and blow my head off?
However bad things got, it would clearly never have been enough for him.
I'll never forget this period of time, and the lengths my own brother was prepared to go to, his desparation for me to fail, solely so that he could re-enforce his status as 'top dog' within the three of us. Nor will I forget that Bob and Irene were either too fucking dumb to see this was what he was doing, or actively complicit in undermining Rob and myself to protect 'the prodigal son' from reality. There at the back of my mind was the truth that dare not speak its name, that the supposed justification for the bile being showered on me, namely my university no-show, had actually been out of my control. But, once our family was convinced by and set on a version of history with which they were comfortable, there was no chance of small matters like the truth being allowed to get in the way.
Anyway, within a couple of weeks, Deano would have fucked it up bigtime, but not before trying to drag me down with him.
I'd kept hearing stories that he liked a good ectasy-fuelled 'gurn' at the weekend, but wasn't sure what to believe. It's also fair to say that my views on narcotics at the time were somewhat stupid and ill-informed, inspired by the panic around illicit drugs that seemed to wilfully ignore the number one cause of crime, disorder and ill health in Britain, which of course is alcohol. He comes home one Sunday afternoon and is talking complete shite, stringing words together that might all appear somewhere in the English dictionary, but in a random order that says 'data, not information', makes zero sense and has no discernible meaning. He then claims there's a monkey in the window, that people are bleeding when they quite demonstrably aren't. He picks up a brush and starts stroking the thing, believing it to be the dog. Irene offers a pearl of wisdom, the hilarity of which displays her own stunning naivety.
“Go to bed, you're pissed”.
I try to explain that this is not something alcohol-induced and calling a doctor to ascertain exactly what's been consumed here might be a good shout. His own stupid fault or otherwise, we still don't want a fatality on our hands. She's not listening.
Later that night, Bob and Irene have hit the hay and I'm watching TV when Deano comes back downstairs, STILL ABSOLUTELY OFF HIS HEAD. He strokes the brush/dog again, then makes a worrying move towards a bottle of whiskey in the kitchen. Eventually he's coaxed upstairs but there's precious little chance of him, or anyone else in close proximity, getting a decent night's shuteye. What was that about the three-to-a-room shambles being a 'temporary solution?' - more than five years on, here we were, really wishing we didn't have to put up with him stomping around, talking random bollocks about some Italian bloke called Giovanni, presumably somebody he was hallucinating to be in the room at the time. He then chows down on a sock which he's hallucinated to be a kebab.
How the fuck is he still like this the best part of twelve hours after coming home?
What exactly has he taken?
How much...and when? And no, I don't want some.
Anyone amused by this story should know that it isn't remotely funny at the time - you're terrified of interacting with this guy in any serious way for fear of saying the wrong thing, interfering with the make-believe world that's in front of him and provoking a spontaneous and unpleasant reaction. Terrifyingly, he goes downstairs and you hear the front door close. He's out wandering the streets and...I'm just glad I can finally close my eyes and forget all this bollocks.
Amazingly, Bob hasn't woken yet.
The rest of the story is something I'd hear second-hand, but it involves some violence on imaginary adversaries in a garden, the filth being called and Deano being brought home at 5am. Apparently the weekend had been driven principally by LSD, Ketamine and one or two other stimulants – with the benefit of having got a life since I won't go all puritanical on the question of mind-altering substances, but it might be a fair comment to suggest that punching the crap out of trees that you imagine to be people might be a sign you've over-indulged. This time it's his turn to cop one of Bob's sermons, which I'll admit I never experienced while off my head on alcohol, illicit drugs or anything else. Is it easier or even more insufferably painful to listen to? I have no idea whatsoever. What I do know is Deano's response was an act of despicable cowardice.
He repeats the story about my alcohol-induced hospitalisation twelve months earlier, in an attempt to shift the focus onto somebody other than himself. Now Bob had been away while I'd drank myself into the back of an ambulance, which was a lucky break of the ball in many respects. However, it had been something that he'd mentioned more than once, referenced as a card he hadn't yet played, potential blackmail material. Now, with his back against the wall and his eyes staring down the barrel, he'd decided to play it. Fortunately, both Bob and Irene decide not to re-visit something that had been dealt with at the time, and at least Irene, to her great credit, is thoroughly mortified by the depths Deano had been prepared to sink to. When this was replayed to me the next day, I wondered exactly what I'd done to merit that kind of vitriol.
Why had the humiliation less than a week earlier not been enough for him?
Why, when under a bit of heat for the first time in a long time, was it me he'd turned on and gone for? Little things like that reveal so much about a person's mindset.
When he returned from a similar binge in a similar state about a week later, Deano was given an ultimatum by our parents. It's worth clarifying that he wasn't thrown out as such, merely told to cut out or at least lighten up on the narcotics, or make arrangements to live elsewhere if he wanted to keep making those choices. Faced with that particular 50-50, Deano decides that the drugs do work, and he's going to stick with them. The following morning, Rob and I are told to pack his stuff while he sets up base at a friend's house. I'm asked how I feel about his departure – does it really fucking matter? Ok, I'll tell you how I felt at the time – good fucking riddance and I hoped he would never be back. This bastard had taken every available opportunity to have a little dig, pushed Bob's buttons to the point where I feared for my physical safety and then who had he gone for when he found himself in a hole, solely as a result of his own actions?
Why on earth would I feel sorry for him?
The nine and a half weeks he was away were the closest thing to normality that Rob and I would experience in our young lives. Something we never properly accounted for at the time was that Bob was out of the country for the overwhelming majority of that period, and Rob's transformation in terms of confidence and self-image just defied belief, but not before he'd delivered a few words of wholly unnecessary gratitude that sent a chill down my spine. Rob turns to me about a week after Deano's departure and says he wants to thank me 'for not bullying him or making him feel small like Deano did' – er...what? Although the picture had become gradually more clear over the previous few years, it was around this point that the level of dysfunction in our family, how oppressive and militaristic it had been, and the effect this had had on the weaker individuals or black sheep within it, became apparent.
That he actually expected to be mistreated, and had no genuine belief that he was worth anything better, was a sad indictment on all of us, myself included. I resolved there and then that 1) I would do everything within my power to undo any role I might have played in him getting to this state and 2) I would fight any attempt by my parents to bring Deano back, if only so he would never feel like that again. Rob's confidence very gradually but very definitely lifts, I land myself a job where I would spend the next four and a half years, and (hand on heart) two months go by without a single ruck, argument or fallout. No conflict, no raised voices, nobody looking to assert themselves or dominate anybody else. Then Bob throws a spanner in the works. He meets Deano in a pub, comes home with some sob-story about how he's 'starving to death' and destroys the nice yin-yang balance we had going on.
Sickened by the duplicity of the man, who'd sworn he was 'on our side', I go out for a few hours.
It was only at this point that I realised something about my biological father. He actually needs conflict and people falling out around him as a justification for him to throw his weight about, lay down the law, get across a few 'home truths' and what have you. The previous nine weeks, while representing bliss and the start of a brave and bright new world for Rob and myself, had been a nightmare for him. Love, peace and harmony had left the man feeling curiously redundant, surplus to requirements and with a greatly diminished justification for his own existence as the enforcer. As things stood within that environment, no enforcer was necessary, and bringing the cause of so much friction back was, incredible as it sounds, a situation with which Bob was altogether more comfortable.
I told him what Rob had said to me about his expectation of being bullied, and asked him why he was breaking up something that had been more civilised and sane than anything we had recognised before. We were given a story that would turn out to be as big a fabrication as 'the dodgy dossier' on which we the Iraq war started. Apparently, Deano was five stone wet through, suffering from chronic malnutrition and resembling an inhabitant of Auschwitz. His situation was deadly serious and approaching a state of life or death. We had to do something now, or it would be on all of our consciences were we to do nothing and then hear of him passing away. Once I discovered that this of course had been a disgusting pack of lies designed to yank at our heartstrings and guilt complexes, I would never trust a word that Bob told me again.
I would also discover, much later, that Deano had no wish or intention to come back, was happy partying with his friends, and needed to have his own arm twisted. He was even told, amongst other things, that his brothers were really missing him. In some ways, he was as much a victim of this mess as anyone else, having gone of his own accord in the first place and never actually asking to return.
Rob and I would quickly return to the status of second class citizens.
Ok, one more serialisation and then we're out – here's tonight's listening and take it easy.