Father Figure

Catriona Yule


A kaleidoscope of arms and legs grapples for air as fans surge the stage and I'm thinking back to Neil Young, Reading, 95. Neil's stomping with Pearl Jam, the trendy young grungers looking comatosed alongside the dinosaur thrashing his acoustics into woodchip, the orchestra in his head relentlessly exploring intricate rhythms. The king is gone but he's not forgotttttten. This is the story of Johnny Rotttttttten.

Reading buzzed that year. Warm skin lazing on cider-grass, inhaling sweet fumes, gazing the sky. There's happiness so magnified that it fills you right up to the top 'til you're just brimming with sunshine. You can almost feel the soul of the person next to you and give them some of your happiness, you've got mountains.

I'm basking in the glow of this indulgent reverie when suddenly a face in the crowd becomes illuminated. We're both standing in Glasgow Exhibition Centre for Neil's tour with Crazy Horse and I can feel her stare, psyched up and tense. She is absorbing every pore of the pre-show atmosphere, screening the crowd for the unexpected. She scans my face and searches her brain for a file with my name on it. It comes back negative. I stare back and then it drops, I'm standing beside Jane. It takes me what seems like years to recognise her and then I realise she's not with Ray.

Ray'd been my former workmate, the only guy who hadn't mocked me in my first anxious weeks as a trainee reporter. New and naïve, I was often the butt of practical jokes, but Ray was different. Music connected us. A belly full of confidence and a grin that spread from here to Oz, he'd lend me records, Young, Springfield, Purple and Hendrix. Scoose me while I kiss the sky, doo, doo, doo. It was great to laugh. Really laugh when your whole body is reduced to convulsive spasms. Made me feel so light, I could float.

But there was Jane minus Ray and it felt like lead. It was as though the last balloon at the party had just burst. I remembered the morning Jane had dropped in to the office with Sally, their five year old on her arm, laden with Marks & Spencer bags, shopping trolleys still clanging in her head. Sally perched on Ray's lap, tapped at his typewriter with one finger, pulled his hair while he tickled her armpit. Playfully like gorillas but protective, father and daughter. Proud of his creation, like nothing he could ever write.

Ray was typing copy, an essential piece for the next edition but Sally always came first.

"Daddy, can I have a guitar? I saw a guitar with rainbow colours on it today. I really want to learn".

Jane snapped, "Oh Sally, I've already said you can't have it. It's too expensive and you won't play with it".

Ray looked round at the desperate eyes pleading him to change her mind. It depressed him not to say yes but he didn't want a public confrontation with Jane. He had to get the story finished in an hour and he wanted the opportunity to discuss it calmly with her when he found the right moment.

Weeks later, over coffee, he confided in me. He felt sometimes that he and Jane were so close it was like wearing each other's skin and yet they were oceans apart.

He wanted to nurture Sally into a happy creative child, not to mollycoddle, but to inspirit her dreams but Jane was convinced that self-denial had made her a more complete human being and was determined to adopt the same philosophy in raising her daughter. It was not that Ray didn't accept the need for discipline but her inability to appreciate the difference between a child expecting another toy and asking for a musical instrument visibly angered him.

He could still remember when his father had taken him to a music store to buy his first bass. Six years old and adrenalin checked the alarm clock every half hour, willing sunbeams to blast in through the gap in the orange striped curtains. Not any Christmas since had beaten that day, the day his fingers gingerly pressed the frets, then twanged the first note. He wanted Sally to have that experience, to give her the freedom to express herself in ways he'd never yet discovered on paper. There were times when his soul became a madness possessed by the rhythms of the chords. A passion so strong that nothing else came close until he first held his daughter.

Flashbacks of conversations are still flooding my brain when Jane's new partner joins her in the crowd. He is taller than Ray, white hair, gentle hands, every gesture apologising for age. Basking in the moment, she parades him like a shiny new pearl she's just reeled in. His arms a blanket, her unit complete. They decide to sit on the floor, and uncertain of how to act, he bends down cardboardly, opposite a girl, trying to unify the circle. He stares disapprovingly while the girl shows off her black nail varnish. She is smart, punky, defensive. People try to put us down. Talkin' 'bout my generation.

Jane and the girl are like sisters, exchanging mental notes on butterfly tattoos and lipstick. They discuss the girl's boyfriend, apparently back stage. She's avoiding him. I assume he's part of Neil's entourage and I crane my neck to hear more. Whistling deafens my eardrums as people start pushing, heckling. Neil Young bounds on to the stage. Security guards appear with a journalist in tow. Camera in hand, he enjoys the attention and swings round, drinking in the atmosphere of hysterical fans. The grin widens, soaking centre stage and instinctively I want to yell Rayyyyy but the girl shrieks, masks her face, tears smearing black lines on her eyelids.

"Oh my God its Dad. Oh mum, I think he saw me".

And then I know I've heard Sally and I'm numb with hurt. For the guy whose wife has left him, for the daughter who doesn't see, for the partner who can't connect.

And for the guy who'd give his daughter a rainbow if he could.


Published in The Eildon Tree Issue 8, 2002
(Scottish Borders Council)
and in Night Train, 2012
(Blue Salt Publishing)

The Eildon Tree 8 Night Train

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