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 handle- bars 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.’
‘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.
Jennifer Breen is the author of In Her Own Write: Twentieth-Century Women’s Fiction, and co-author of Romantic Literature. She edited the two ground-breaking anthologies, Women Romantic Poets, 1785-1832 and Women Romantics, 1785-1832: Writing in Prose. She is also the editor of Wilfred Owen: Selected Poetry and Prose, reissued by Routledge in 2014.