Father sat with his legs outstretched in front of the gas fire, his feet so close to the heat that the steam rose in a continual haze. He was still wearing his gardening clothes and the bottoms of his threadbare jeans were circled with mud which would eventually set solid and flake on to the carpet as he moved about the house.
As he dozed his head flopped to one side, the light from the standard lamp emphasising the weathered skin of his face and the dark circles of tiredness under his eyes. Even in this restless sleep it was as if he was fighting off some yawning slumber that had grown from a life of hard physical labour, poverty and drink.
Within the narrow limitations of our world I imagined we were never a particularly unhappy family, we were mostly respectful of each other unless father was suffering one of his tantrums. It often worried me that there were too many long periods of silence between us, but I think those were the times when the bonds were given space to heal. We lived in a sombre world, as efficient as it could be given how poor we were, but it was a solemn, colourless existence. I was very close to my mother and remained that way for the whole of my childhood, I would happily share with her the few secrets I could muster. I think she valued those little moments more than she ever let on.
I sat at the dining table reading a book about aeroplanes, every now and again looking towards my father to see if his head had dropped low enough to cause him to wake up, which he would do with a grunt and a sigh. But tonight, maybe because the room was sauna-hot, he remained motionless, snoring steadily and deeply.
I could hear mother in the kitchen putting dinner plates back into the cupboard and laying the cutlery back into a drawer, actions timed perfectly with the six o'clock chimes of Big Ben on the radio. She came back into the room and sat next to me at the table so as not to wake her husband but accidentally knocked her knee against the chair leg and he woke with a splutter.
"That was a meal that was!" he grunted, thinking we hadn't noticed him sleeping.
Then, in one move he lifted himself slightly out of his chair and grabbed a thick wedge of seed catalogues from the table.
"Best get those dahlia stakes in tomorrow young fella' m'lad."
It was almost as if he felt guilty about the time he'd wasted sleeping, I suspected it wouldn't be more than a few minutes before he started another little job somewhere about the house until tiredness claimed him again just after nightfall.
Father's garden was both sanctuary and triumph, two decades of tilling, composting and mulching had turned the soil from a heavy, sodden clay into a friable seed bed capable of providing the three of us with sufficient salads and vegetables for much of the year. It was a testament not only to his toil, but also to his expertise and experience. As well as a bounty of food, the garden supplied the house with an adornment of cut flowers of every variety. Depending on the month our kitchen window sill would be filled with pots and vases of daffodils, dahlias, chrysanthemums and gladioli. The mantlepiece and shelves of the living room and hallway were festooned with arrays of brilliant flowers that filled the dank air with their gentle bouquets and sweet perfumes.
At the weekend, when the weather allowed I would be encouraged to help father in the garden, a task I would perform dutifully, but with a feigned enthusiasm. Since he'd retired, the garden had become more of an obsession than a salutary pastime, his life depending on the rhythm of the seasons and the quirks of the English weather. He'd always been a man whose whole existence was founded on the principal of work, without it he was a dithering confusion. Mother and I knew that when the three of us went away on our summer holiday he became a little boy lost in his own foreign land where nothing was familiar and there was little to fulfil his innate need for purpose.
His dahlia beds were well known among the horticultural community of our village. The regimented rows of plants filled nearly half the garden, resplendent in late summer with masses of red, yellow and orange blooms supported by bamboo canes and twine to stop the wind from damaging their weighty heads. Father would carefully select a small number of blooms for the village flower show, covering the individual plants with fleece to prevent them from scorching under the summer sun. The show was the pinnacle of his gardening year but despite never having won a first prize with his dahlia blooms, he'd gained numerous thirds and a sprinkling of seconds. I struggled to see the difference between the prize winning flowers, to me they all looked pretty much the same. Father would tell me about how the lower petals of a winning bloom should never curl in a different direction to the main petals, or how the colour should be completely uniform across the whole bloom. But the whole thing left me cold.
When he'd finished reading his seed catalogues, father raised himself slightly off his chair again, pulled the flower show schedule from his back pocket and waved it at us.
"One week to go, and then we'll see who wins," he announced.
We both glanced at him and then smiled at each other, briefly linked in a little conspiracy of comradeship which, we thought, had excluded him. I suspect mother's undying loyalty to both of us was a constant source of worry to her, although securing allegiance and indifference was a juggling act she'd perfected over the years.
"Let's go and see which flowers are going to win young fella' m'lad," he said as he buttoned up his jacket.
I followed him out to the garden where he forced his feet into his boots without opening them and then stamped on the ground to make them fit. I slid on my wellingtons and looked over to where my bicycle leant against the shed, wishing I was somewhere else.
I followed him along a narrow gravelled path that wound its way among the flower beds. Little clumps of lobelia and alyssum spilled over the shuttering that kept the gravel from being kicked onto the soil, small patches of self-seeded forget-me-nots sprouted from muddy slopes where the timber edging had rotted. The sun had long since disappeared behind a bank of thick cloud and fat, oily drops of grey rain had started to wet the ground. My mood lightened with the thought that the afternoon's chores might be postponed, I looked up to the sky and willed the rain to pour down. Father saw me and smiled.
"Little rain won't stop us eh lad?"
I smiled and pulled the collar of my coat up tightly around my neck.
There was a purpose to his stride now, defiant of the weather and its potential to scupper the buoyancy of his mood. I followed close behind, hands in pockets and one eye on the horizon where a disheartening shaft of sunlight had broken through the dark blanket of cloud.
"Just a light shower, bright skies ahead," he said with a wry smile. "Let's get these flowers tied in against the wind."
But away from the restrictive influence of mother's authority, father's humour turned sour. His attitude to me changed from a cool acceptance of my apathy, to an impatient anger that I feared would develop into something more sinister. Past experience had taught me to be cautious of his fragile mood. Away from the house he became an irritable and intolerant version of himself. There was a deep vein of arrogance in him which generated an obstinate conviction that nobody else could do things as well as he could. Certainly not his son.
Father had a temper that simmered just below the surface of his usually affable temperament, one that could erupt without notice, brutal and furious. I had learned to respect his rages, to absorb the intensity of them rather than react to his cruel accusations. I would endure the spontaneous tirades by remembering the warm comforting words of my mother who accepted his anger with understanding and love. It was only when I feared for her wellbeing that I became scared for mine.
Father stood at one end of a row of dahlias and tied a piece of twine to the top of one of the timber stakes that he'd driven into the ground. He threw the ball of string at me so that I could tie it off on to a stake at my end of the dahlia bed but I fumbled the catch and it fell to the ground, rolling away down the sloping path.
"Come on butterfingers, this has got to be done before the wind gets up!" he shouted.
There was no mistaking the beginnings of one of his tantrums. I was sure he'd thrown the ball of string too hard and that there was little chance of me being able to catch it, a technique he'd perfected to make sure I understood my place in our partnership. I'd learned from experience, and from the chats with my mother, that the best way to keep from suffering the full wrath of his outburst would be to admit my incompetence and remain calm. Which I did.
I tied my end of the string to the top of a post at the edge of the flower bed and pulled it firmly so that father could tie the biggest and most prized dahlias to it with strips of cloth. He'd explained many times how important it was to use pieces of cloth so that the plant stems didn't get damaged by the thin string.
I watched him move slowly along the path, tying in each of the biggest blooms to the taut line. A gentle gust of wind blew a little cloud of dust across the flower beds, the plant stems bent over and the leaves rustled in the breeze. Father looked to the sky and then to me, which I suspected was his way of inferring the oncoming storm was somehow my fault and that we should hurry along with the job before the dahlia flowers got damaged.
There was an unnatural intensity to his movements now, he flicked his gaze from the plants to me, and then back to the sky in an exaggerated and agitated way, almost as if he had become possessed by some devilish spirit. The wind picked up and the dahlias bent further over.
"Well don't just stand there boy, come and help!" he shouted again.
I let go of the stake and stepped back up on to the path, but as my foot rose it caught on a section of the timber edging, I stumbled forwards and grabbed on to the string to steady myself. It stretched tightly with the force of my fall, one of the stakes snapped and I fell headlong into the flower bed snapping the whole swathe of dahlia stems as I collapsed on to the ground.
I lay still, stuck in a moment of time between disbelief and terror. I looked along the soil where little mounds rose and fell away to the end of the shortened horizon. I imagined being extremely small so that I could hide within the hills and valleys of the miniature landscape.
I got to my feet and held one of the broken stems with one hand, cradling the large flower head with my other. I knew father would be looking at me but I didn't yet have the courage to look back, and so, feeling utterly incompetent, I put the dahlia down and picked up another.
"JUST LEAVE IT!" he shouted as he ripped the string from the post.
I stood completely still and stared down at the ground, trying to avoid the view of the carnage that lay around us. A dozen once beautiful dahlia flowers lay by the path, some had lost most of their petals, others lay crumpled and stained like sad faces in the mud. The sun finally peeked from behind a cloud. Every plant apart from one had snapped off at ground level, their leaves already beginning to wilt in the warmth of the day, thick green stems lay at odd angles, tangles of string and strips of cloth lay coiled and knotted along the path.
I waited for the shouting to begin, I imagined I deserved everything that was coming to me. But father stood rooted to the spot saying nothing. I heard the sound of a radio from next door's garden and a seagull swooped down low, squawking like a baby. I could feel father looking at me and for a moment I considered running away, it was all I could do to stop myself from bursting into tears. I desperately wanted to be told off so that I could have an excuse to cry, but his silence left me struggling to understand why I wasn't being punished, which was a sentence in itself.
We sat next to each other in the warm glow of the fire. Mother with her hand on my knee, my head resting lightly on her shoulder. I'd told her what had happened, as had father earlier in the afternoon before he'd started his drinking. A little chink of light from a streetlamp seeped between the curtains and lit up a family photograph that stood on the mantlepiece. I felt the comforting blanket of mother's warm love and I closed my eyes against the world.
Father stumbled through the door and leant shakily against the table, mother stood up and put her hand on the top of my head. He wiped the corner of his wet mouth with the back of his hand and tried to pour another drink from the bottle he knew was empty, then threw it on the carpet. I watched it roll away underneath his armchair until it clunked against the wall. For a moment the room was silent again as they faced each other in the flickering dim light.
"The boy's a wrong 'un, he'll never come to anything."
The words felt so much like a punch, that I actually put my hands up in front of my face. Mother's mouth opened and closed again, starting to form some kind of a reply, but she gave in to his temper, as she had always done.
Father passed away the day before the flower show, his heart finally giving in to a lifetime of resentment and drink. Mother and I were the only two that stood at the side of his grave on the hot afternoon of his funeral.
A week after the flower show we lifted the dahlia corms that he'd left abandoned in the garden. We pruned off the dying foliage and replanted them in amongst a neglected border of wild flowers and grasses where they grew young, fresh shoots of bright green leaves. A few of the sturdiest plants produced flowers, although they were slightly smaller than they would normally have been. But to me, the small blooms looked perfectly placed among the haphazard collection of native flowers that sprawled through the border and across the little path that led around the garden.
Mother and I visited father every day, and as the soft summer breeze blew the dahlia petals across his grave, I looked up to the sky and I hoped that he'd found a place where he could be happy.