After seeing an image of my step-father on Facebook with an accompanying comment that read: “He was a handsome man”, I couldn’t stop my blood from boiling. I hadn’t thought about him for years. I hadn’t wanted to think about him. What follows appeared in a highly fictionalised version in my book Permanent Moments. This, however, is what really happened.
When my mother married my stepfather, we moved out of my grandparent’s house, where we had been living for six years, and into his house at 64 Sandgate, South Shore, Blackpool. He was not the brightest of men and, as I was soon to discover, he had a quick temper and when his anger took control and words failed him he inevitably resorted to violence. He began beating me for the slightest infraction of his rules within days of his marriage to my mother. I didn’t receive slaps or spankings from him – he punched me hard, usually in the chest so the bruises were never visible under my clothing – and he never did it when Mum was around. I was eight years old when he started and Mum never believed me when I told her what he had done.
He worked the night-shift at Sutton’s Bakery in Blackpool and was part of a lucrative fiddle in which all the night-shift employees were actively involved. Every night, he and his cohorts would steal a tray of cakes or bread from each of the vans and sell them on the open market. The losses were put down as damaged stock, but the continued pilfering mounted up and eventually came to the attention of the management, who promptly despatched a private investigator into the midst of the night shift employees. My step-father was caught red-handed and arrested after only a few days of the detective’s covert investigation. When he appeared in court he pleaded guilty to a charge of theft and was politely asked by the judge to pay a fine or spend three months in prison. He paid the fine. After his sentencing, details of his nefarious activities appeared in the Blackpool Gazette, much to the shame of my mother.
I was a teenager at the time and therefore always hungry. I was about to go out to see one of my mates and to stave off the pangs of hunger I went downstairs into the kitchen and made myself a jam sandwich out of two crusts of sliced bread. My step-father caught me taking the sandwich up to my room and beat me up for stealing and made me throw the sandwich in the bin. My mother was out, of course and so it gave him power over me. In retrospect I should have pitied him and his moronic inability to see the hypocrisy of his action, but all I felt as I nursed my bruises was blind hate. I loathed him and wished he were dead.
It was about two years into the marriage when Mum began to believe the stories I had told her about the regular beatings I received from my step-father and then it was only because he started to beat her up. My only safe haven from the rows and beatings was my grandparents’ house, where I would occasionally run away to. Once, during a toxic row that was going on the next room that I knew would end in violence and much to the alarm of my younger brother, I tied two sheets together, dangled them out of the bedroom window and shimmied down them to the top of the coal shed and ran off into the night. It was about one-thirty in the morning when I arrived at my grandparents’ house. Not wanting to wake them so early in the morning, I made my way around the back and fell asleep on the cold concrete floor of a neighbour’s open and empty garage. The neighbour was an out-of-work actor and I must have given him the fright of his life as I emerged from the darkness as he pulled his car into the garage. He recognised me and asked what I was doing. I told him I’d run away from home and didn’t want to wake my grandparents up.
“Well, Stephen,” he said softly, “I think we’re going to have to.”
He took me round to the front of the house and rapped on the door knocker until a light came on in the front bedroom. My granddad, bleary eyed and with a tired expression, opened the door. “Sorry to wake you up, Bill,” said the neighbour, “but I found Stephen in my garage. He’s run away from home, apparently.”
“Again?” said granddad. “Well then, you’d better come in. Thanks Jeff.”
Both my grandparents had false teeth, as did my mother. Unlike Americans, we British were renowned for being somewhat deficient in the dental department. Whether it was because going to the dentist was a frightening and painful experience or that oral hygiene was not considered to be of any great importance or that it was easier to clean your teeth when they were out of your mouth remains a mystery, but for some unexplainable reason the practice of having all your teeth pulled out was widespread and Mum had all of hers removed when she was in her mid-thirties and replaced with a set false ones that she left soaking overnight in a fizzing glass of Sterodented water by her side of the bed. My grandparents disliked Mum’s choice of husband intensely and one time when I was with them my grandma said to me, “I told your Mum it would be bad luck to have all her teeth out. They were her lucky teeth, you know.”
“They were her only teeth, grandma,” I replied.
I stayed with my grandparents for a week once they had got my mother and step-father to agree to stop fighting. But, whether the absence of her lucky teeth were the reason for her poor choice in husband or not, the blazing rows and beatings continued until Mum could take no more of them. My step-father was an insanely jealous man who suspected mum was having an affair behind his back while he was on nights (he had got a better job with a higher salary working shifts at ICI almost immediately after being fired from Sutton’s Bakery – who says crime doesn’t pay?) and it was one of the reasons, I suspect, why he started beating her up in the first place. The problem with beating someone up when you suspect they are having an affair is that the person who is being beaten up thinks ‘if I’m being beaten up for the suspicion of having an affair, then why don’t I have an affair’.
Everything came to a head one day when my step-father, for reasons known only to himself, arrived home from a day shift and expected to find his tea waiting for him on the table. Mum was late home after visiting grandma and so he waited in the street for her. When she appeared at the end of the street he walked over to meet her, grabbed her by the hair and dragged her back to the house, whereupon he proceeded to beat her senseless. When I tried to intervene he punched me so hard in the face that I lost consciousness for a few moments.
When I came to, he was gone. “Where is he?” I asked mum.
“He’s in the shed looking for something.”
Oh God, I thought, if he finds my hidden stash of cigarettes in the shed he’ll kill me.
“Looking for what?”
“I don’t know,” she said as she stood up and walked into the kitchen, “but I’ve locked the back door.”
When he at last emerged from the shed I realised that my hidden stash of cigarettes were the least of our problems. He had found what he was looking for alright, and it didn’t resemble anything like a packet of cigarettes. As he approached the house I saw that in his right hand he was carrying an axe.
He stood outside the back door and as he took hold of the handle and tried to enter he peered through its half frame of glass and waved the axe threateningly over his head. “Let me in, you bitch,” he roared, “and I’ll chop your bloody head off!”
Mum stared through the glass and began to cackle at him. To this day I still don’t know why she did it. Maybe she had noticed the blatant grammatical error in his last sentence. “It’s or I’ll chop your bloody head off, not and I’ll chop your bloody head off, you ignorant illiterate pig,” I imagined her screaming at him.
But she didn’t say a word – she just stood there staring at him and he stood staring back. He could easily have smashed the glass of the window with the axe and then chopped us both up into little pieces, but he didn’t. Instead they just stared and stared at each other for what seemed like a lifetime until he dropped the axe onto the ground and wandered off into the approaching evening.
“I don’t know why he just didn’t let himself in with his key,” my mother said as he disappeared around the corner.
He returned later that night drunk and (like all wife-beaters) apologetic. I could hear him in their bedroom spinning his web of lies to my mother, about how he was really sorry and how he would make sure that it never happened again.
“Go to sleep.” I heard my mother say to him, “we’ll talk about it in the morning.”
But she had no intention of talking about anything in the morning.
It was about an hour later that I heard the first dull thud.
Two more followed in quick succession punctuated by my mother’s screams of “You bastard! You bastard!”
The door to their bedroom burst open and I heard him cry out, “You bloody mad bitch! Look what you’ve done!” My door was open and in the glow of the landing light I saw him stood outside, blood pouring down his face from an open wound on the top of his head where my mother had hit him three times with a Matteus Rosé bottle that had been converted into a bedside lamp, but which now served as an equally useful bludgeoning tool.
He hovered outside my door for a moment or two and I could see in his eyes that he was imploring me to help him. I had no intention of helping him – I wanted him to die, right there in front of me, but then I saw a flash of nightie leap up into the air, bringing the Matteus Rosé bottle down onto his head once more.
She must have thought he was planning to take whatever revenge he had in mind out on me and in order to prevent this incorrect assumption she acted like a lioness protecting her cub. Blood sprayed into the air as the bottle connected with his skull and he reeled around the landing for a few seconds before rushing downstairs and racing out into the night screaming, “Murder! Murder!”
No one was listening and before long the street outside fell into silence.
Mum waited for about five minutes before she went outside to check the street. He was nowhere to be seen. She came back into the house and locked the door. While she was out I went into their bedroom and saw that my step-father’s side of the bed was soaked in blood.
I didn’t hear her when she came back into the room – the fluffy slippers she always wore made footsteps inaudible. “It’s alright,” she said. “Come on and help me change the sheets.”
I wished he were dead but fortunately (for my mother’s sake) he wasn’t. A Good Samaritan had spotted him as he wandered down the street in his blood-stained pajamas and had driven him to Victoria Hospital, where the top of his head was stitched back together again.
Adrenaline was still raging through our bodies, keeping us awake, when he was brought home in an ambulance in the early hours of the morning. It was a summer’s morning and through the open window of the bedroom we could hear one of the ambulance men asking him about the nature of his injury.
“What happened to you then, mate?
“Well I came back from pub, I were a bit pissed, and I slipped and cracked me head open on’t milk bottle on’t doorstep.”
At that moment, my mother sprang into action. She leaned out of the open window and screamed so the whole street could hear, “No he bloody didn’t! I hit him over the head with a bottle and if he comes near me again I’ll bloody knife him!”
The next sound I heard was the ambulance being driven away at speed.
He stopped hitting us after he returned home from the hospital, but the rows continued and three months later Mum moved out, taking me and my brother and sister with her. I never saw him again. After my mother and step-father separated and then divorced, he never made any attempt to contact me and explain why he had behaved in such a Neanderthal manner, never apologised for all but ruining a part of my life that should have been lived carefree, happy and without fear.
A few years later, when my mother phoned to tell me that he had died, the only word that I could think of to say to her was this: Good. I hadn’t seen or heard of him since we fled the house with my brother and sister a few years earlier and I never wanted to see or hear from him ever again. My sister was just a baby at the time and never knew the kind of fear I had to live with from day to day, of being at the receiving end of his unpredictable and increasingly violent bouts of domestic abuse. I hated him when I lived with him and when I received the news of his sudden death I was painfully aware that I still hated him.
I began writing this as a kind of catharsis, but then I saw his photograph on Facebook, and upon seeing his image I realised that the old wounds I thought had healed were still festering away and that over thirty years after his death I still loathe him for what he subjected me to.
Christianity teaches us that forgiveness is a good thing. At a Baptist church group my daughter used to attend the leader of the group was a lawyer and he told me that you must exercise forgiveness but in order to get into heaven you must first accept Jesus into your heart.
“OK,” I said, “so I’m a billionaire and I do lots of good in the world, giving money to charities and donating to schools and hospitals and such, but when I die I don’t accept Jesus into my heart. Will I get into heaven?”
“No,” he replied, “you have to accept Jesus into your heart.”
“Alright then, so I’m Adolf Hitler. I’ve plunged the world into a barbaric war that lasted for six years and which, as a direct result of my actions, cost the lives of 66 million people. But before I shoot myself in the head I accept Jesus into my heart. Will I get into heaven?”
The illogical stupidity of his answer stunned me and made me wonder how such an intelligent person could believe such inherent nonsense. How could a well-educated person believe in a patently mean-spirited, sadistic, obviously senile, God, so out of touch with the world He (supposedly) created that He can’t tell the difference between what’s good and what’s not? It’s this ludicrous, irrational reasoning that made me the committed Atheist I am today. I have, however, tried throughout my Atheistic life to help others who are less fortunate than myself without having to believe in fairy tales or religious mumbo jumbo.
About twenty years ago I took a girlfriend to meet my mother and she was doing the usual thing of showing her the most embarrassing photographs she could find of me. When she came across a picture of her standing outside Blackpool Register Office on the occasion of her marriage to my stepfather, I looked at his image with disgust. “I hated that man,” I told her.
“He were all right,” she said.
“Mum, he used to beat us up.”
“Aye, I know, but he did buy you nice presents for your birthdays and Christmas.”
Time, it seemed, had erased all memory of the terrible six years we spent in his odious company, but no amount of time can eradicate the terrible memories I have of him, the feeling of helplessness, of being trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of physical abuse at an impressionable age, the self-loathing that followed and the idea planted in me by his fists that I somehow must have deserved it, that it was normal.
But saying that, as I have grown older, I have found time to forgive him for what he did all those years ago. It’s not out of any kind of charity and I certainly haven’t accepted Jesus into my heart, but rather as a way of reclaiming my childhood and remembering old mates like Mike Crossley and Pete Gallagher, whose friendship helped to dispel, for the briefest of moments, the dark clouds of fear and dread that were forever present at 64 Sandgate, South Shore, Blackpool.
But although I may have exercised forgiveness, I will never ever forget.