The first and only time my father said that he loved me was when I was eight and a half years old. Out of all the cloudy images and half-memories that would revisit me throughout my life, this was the most distinct: June twenty-third, nineteen ninety-five.
June twenty-third of nineteen ninety-five was a glorious day. I know that because it was the last thing I had wanted. A gleaming red circle marked Oak Grove Preparatory School’s annual sports day on the family calendar that hung in the dining room. I’d purposely not prayed the entire week before, because I had wanted God to be outraged at my heresy and strike our house with lightning. This would then electrocute me through the frayed wire of my Noddy nightlight I clutched in my hand as I drifted off every night. A lack of life would excuse me from just about anything, including competitive running under the British sun for an afternoon.
But God is all-knowing. I cleverly deduced this on the morning of the Armageddon when I did in fact, wake up. Sunlight permeated through my curtains long before it was time to get ready and forced my eyelids open to the bloody horrors of reality. I squeezed them shut the moment I was conscious and willed myself to spontaneously combust.
My memory is hazy from getting up to going downstairs. This was more or less how breakfast had went:
My mother: Would you like another sausage, darling?
My mother (to my father): Aw, poor thing. Look at him. He’s nervous!
My father (to my mother): It’s sports day, Debbie, not Marine boot camp. At the rate you’re stuffing food down his throat I’m surprised he can still walk.
My mother (to my father): That doesn’t mean he’s not nervous, Robert. Anyone would be! (then to me) Darling, are you sure you don’t want any more?
My mother (to herself) Look at that. What a brave boy, my son. Powering through his fears.
I was in fact extremely nervous. I would perform terribly, like I had done for the last three years, then I would sulk in the car ride home and my father would refuse to look at me during dinner. But that didn’t hide the fact that I would still have to run in front of an expecting audience.
Sports day was a spectacular event for a village of eight hundred and fifty-three. Nearly everyone would turn up, from the incoherent toddlers to the ancient people that probably shat at the airhorn. The local council and businesses sponsored the event every year and brought all sorts of foods and games for anyone who wasn’t competing.
At least it would be over soon, I had told myself. This feeling of faint euphoria lasted until a Miss Collins or Collier or Colby at the registration booth told me I’d be doing Adrian Bell’s events for him.
But I’m Max Beckett, I’d told her. Not Adrian Bell.
Miss C had laughed like I said something funny, which I hadn’t. Of course you aren’t, darling. She had a reassuring tone, which greatly confused me. But poor Adrian’s come down with a dreadful fever and you’re above him on the list. Since you’re not doing any of the same events, we thought it’d be okay to put you on them. You don’t mind, do you?
Of course I mind, you hag.
That is what I thought silently, although I can see how the lack of accurate punctuation would make you think otherwise. The thought of my father ignoring me for more than a night was saddening. Not only would I have to endure a silent twenty-something hours, the threat of military school was constantly looming as a result of last year’s sports day.
So I nodded miserably. Miss Colliwhatnot had beamed brightly at me and patted my head like how one does to a small dog. Good boy! Now here’s your wristband. I’d get some food quickly if I were you. Your sixteen hundred starts in twenty minutes.
Needless to say, the sixteen hundred and hundred meter hurdle went awfully. At least I’d only finished last for the first. I had knocked over all the hurdles and gone around the side for the last one, disqualifying me. In all fairness, however, I did not leave the track since I had simply hopped around the hurdle. The umpire was undoubtedly biased.
Cricket ball throw too was embarrassingly horrible. Due to my lack of upper body strength and hand-eye coordination, my cricket ball left my hand seconds too late. It had landed on the grass next to my feet and skid a couple of feet away from the scoring field. This made me the first person in Oak Grove Preparatory School’s sporting history to get a negative score.
I didn’t realise that was possible, Mister Wheeler had told my parents.
Neither had I, my father had replied. Something in his tone had told me he wasn’t as amazed at my record breaking -0.55 metres as Mister Wheeler was.
High jump, long jump and discus were not and will never be discussed. At last, now I had the small consolation that it would be over very soon; or that God was actually only stuck in traffic on his way to heaven and he’d end my misery before javelin. I deduced that that was highly unlikely.
My mother had been smiling throughout all my misdeeds and failures, but my father had looked like a brick wall (not in appearance but rather approachability). However, I was comforted by the thought that it could not have gone worse than last year, and even that was mostly forgotten in a week.
The seemingly small problem was that the P.E. Department thought that Year 4 sized midgets such as me, myself and I would be able to wield the beast that is a full-sized javelin. It was relieving to see that even my fellow peers of similar stature were failing miserably; I would only be one among the crowd. My father had seemed slightly enlightened by the fact. His only son, his pride and joy, wouldn’t be ridiculed by the miniscule percentage of people who haven’t seen my blunders already.
Lyla Aldridge and Sienna Ashton performed less than admirably. Their javelins landed flat on the scoring field. Charlie Axeter and Gordon Baxan did slightly better, but only reached an impressive score of five and a half metres combined. I remember their names because I’d looked it up on our whole-school portrait in the attic. I also remember that Charlie Axeter was now facing fifteen years for arson and minor assault.
Now for the most memorable moment of all: my throws. I wanted to go home with my father being in the best possible mood, so eight-year-old Max Beckett held the wobbling javelin above his shoulder as professionally as possible. The first two javelins landed on their backends, but as I held the third one up in the air with a shaking arm, I had smiled. I had another year to think of a plan that would result in my eventual demise before sports day in twelve months, this time possibly involving our faulty radiator and my wooden bed.
So I ran up the track heroically and swung my arm back to throw my weapon at some imaginary pigeon flying through the air, because pigeons are devils. It was at this moment that the Year 8’s hundred-meter began, and the airhorn was so frightfully loud that I had released the javelin just a tad early. It went downwards forcefully, like how gravity tends to make things do, and straight through my right calf.
There were blood, screams, and pain. This is how the ancient gladiators in Latin textbooks felt when speared to death, I remember thinking. I would like to say I had a life-changing hallucination or perhaps a religious experience, but it was mostly my father slapping me in the ambulance so I’d stay conscious. Being the utterly rebellious pre, pre, teen I was, I nodded off after fifteen or so slaps.
I was in and out of consciousness after theater. A few of the outs include:
- A very pretty nurse was sat next to me with a hand over my forehead. She had turned around and told a less pretty nurse about how extraordinarily below average my testosterone levels were for someone my age.
- An old man sneezed very loudly in the bed next to mine and set off an alarm followed by many panicking doctors.
- There was a crowd of people crying very loudly at the bed next to mine.
- The bed next to mine was empty.
- My father was sat next to the pretty nurse and holding my hand. He wasn’t crying, because my father doesn’t cry. There was water streaming from his eyes that highly resembled tears, but they were definitely not tears. I know this because my father doesn’t cry.
Max, he said. I know you won’t hear this, but I do love you. Most of the time.
Of course, he denied this and told me I probably had some sort of hallucination in the days following my release (I had been kicked out the moment the less pretty nurse declared I could walk, when I most definitely could not). I had told him I wished it was a hallucination, because that would have been cooler. It’s only now I think about it that I realise how bad that sounds.
That was also the beginning of the very unfortunate, yet predictable relationship between my father and the pretty nurse. My mother found out three years later when she received a one hundred and nine pound bill for a bouquet dedicated to ‘Darling Charlotte’. It was only then that I made the educational guess that my father did not, in fact, love me. It was purely for darling Charlotte’s benefit that the words came out of his mouth.
Wanton bitch, my aunt said. Divorce him and take a settlement.
I had asked what wanton meant. She told me it was a type of dog breed.
An average sane person, such as you, might be wondering what the moral of this account is. The cynical sort would say that the idea of true love only exists for personal gain; the optimistic sort would say forgiveness can move mountains. An average online dweller in the twenty-first century would simply say that the NHS needs better funding. I agree with all and none of you, because I don’t have the first clue what the moral should be. Perhaps, just maybe, the intention of this anecdote is to entertain the reader and not to provide a deep philosophical meaning to our mundane lives.
And yet sometimes I wonder. What makes Robert Harold Beckett shine in God’s eyes more than any of us? Because there had to be some angel of forgiveness that hypnotised my dear mother to let him back into our lives after a mere two months. I did not and still do not see why I myself did not receive this wondrous gift, whereas people like him do; I like to think of myself as a good person who has mostly good intentions and does mostly good things. The only exception to this was running over a pigeon with my bike at the age of six, because pigeons are devils. In my defense, all the previous pigeons had fluttered away the moment my bike threatened to cross their path.
I’ll shamefully admit that I still do that to this day. Maybe it’s the very idea of rebellion that keeps me on my toes.