The Old Man Living

My dad used to have this saying, “Taking back on giving is worse than the old man living. “ I don’t know where he got it from, and for a long time I didn’t really know what it meant, but one day he explained it to me, and because I was a freaky little kid with an ear for the macabre, the explanation – and the saying itself – wedged itself into my brain.

“What it is, see, if you give somebody a present that you’d really rather have yourself – then maybe you get jealous at ‘em for having it, especially if they don’t appreciate it quite the way you would – you get so green about it all, that you end up taking it back off of ‘em… you don’t necessarily have to steal it, maybe you just ask ‘em for it back – but, it doesn’t matter either way, it’s still a terrible thing to do, Guy, a terrible way to behave. They say it’s worse than the old man – that’s the devil himself – living. And every time you do it, you give the old man just that little bit more power. Then one day… one day…”

He was always like that, my dad, coming up with these scary little stories to stop me doing things. Don’t eat wild blackberries because witches might have peed on them; don’t steal the cat’s eyes out of the middle of the road because for every one you cut out with your pocket knife, a real cat loses its eyes too; don’t go walking through Harry Siswick’s fields because once Harry Siswick caught a little boy trespassing and painted him from head to toe in creosote – and that stuff stings. So there was nothing unusual about the ‘old man living’ advice, except maybe something in my three-gaping-hole face gave Dad cause to think again. Maybe he realised at that moment just how wild my unstoppable six-year-old imagination could run – like a dish with a spoon, like a cow over the moon; or maybe he just heard the words out loud – not just in his head – and felt some quiet call for restraint. Whatever the reason, I do remember he started to backtrack, almost immediately.

“Well, in truth, it isn’t really as bad as all that, Guy, it’s not really going to… but if you put it in your mind that it is… if you tell yourself it is, make a little story out of it – if you make the consequences of your actions as serious as ever they could be – then you won’t ever do ‘em, will you? That’s the way I think, anyway. That’s what I tell myself. Now do you want some Angel Delight or what?”

So that was my dad, always trying to scare me into being a good kid, only scaring himself worse in the process. But whether you agree with his parenting methods or not, they had the desired effect. I grew up a relatively honest, unselfish, and reasonably well-behaved child, teenager, and young adult. And then I met you, Keri.

First job out of school, sweeping and answering the phones at Waxman’s. You started at the same time, as a secretary – though you had always eyes on bigger things. Ambition was never a problem for you, was it, Keri? Well – except maybe my lack of it.

I never argued with anyone the way I argued with you. It made me wonder just why the hell I was bothering. There had to be an easier way of going about this whole girlfriend/boyfriend absurdity. And yet… and yet you were like that little tag of fingernail you get, just down the side where the nail pulls apart from the skin. You tell yourself you shouldn’t bite it – just leave it to grow out! – but bite it you do, and it bleeds, and it hurts, and no good ever comes of it. You just can’t stop yourself. I should have given up on us long before I did, Keri – or maybe you should have. One way or the other, it wasn’t ever going to work. Yet neither of us would, would we? Neither of us did. What, did we get off on the self-destruction? The bickering? Or was it just some sick, masochistic part of me that was addicted to your incessant carping? Looking back now, I do quite wonder.

The thing was, no matter what I did: nothing was ever good enough.

If I gave you flowers: they were always the wrong colour. “Red and white flowers mean blood and bandages – are you wishing an accident on me now, Guy, is that it?”

If I made you dinner: you gagged on the ingredients. “Oh my god – there are tiny scraps of your fingertips in the grated cheese! Don’t you even know how to use a grater?”

And if I bought you a gift – I mean all that money I spent on that bloody Wayang Golek puppet – it was an antique, for god’s sake, hand-carved in the mountains of Western Java like about four bleeding centuries ago! Did you appreciate it? Did you–!? Just stuck it in the bloody cabinet with your green baize Kermit and your hand-knitted Fingermouse. I thought being a collector, you might understand its worth. How much I had to save to buy it for you. Everything I had to sacrifice. But no, all I got was:

“That’s nice, sweetie – but it’s a little creepy looking.”

And:

“I don’t like the way her head kind of hangs to one side. It’s like she can’t even look you in the eye.”

And:

“Guy’s such a cheapskate. You know he won’t turn the heating on in his flat unless I’m there. And he saves his bathwater to wash the car. And the other week, he bought a second hand nose trimmer – second hand!”

Of course, it never occurred to you that maybe my money was going elsewhere. Like paying off the loan I took out to buy you that bloody puppet in the first place, foolishly thinking that maybe you’d appreciate its beauty, its delicate reserve, it’s value. 17th Century Wayang Golek, for Christ’s sake – look it up in Forbes! And besides, I only bought that nose trimmer because you wouldn’t ever shut up about my nostril hair. Nothing. Ever. Good. Enough.

Anyway, one day, I finally came to my senses. Do you know when that was? I was driving you home after work, must have been almost Christmas and the roads were anarchy. Nose to tail to nose to tail, like a pack of dogs sniffing each other in the park. And I wasn’t letting anyone out. Not from the side roads, not from the junctions, I didn’t even stop for the lollipop lady when I should have. I just wanted to get you home. It occurred to me then that things had changed. See, when we first went out, I’d stop for anyone when I was driving. I wasn’t in any kind of rush because I wanted to draw out the time we spent together. The longer the journey, the better. But now? Now I couldn’t wait to drop you off.

So we had the big scene. And the row to end all. Things were said – we both said things. After that, there was nothing left but to collect our things and go. You had some things at my place, I had some at yours. So we agreed on an exchange. I’d bring one box round to yours, you’d give me another to take away. I imagined the exchange would take place on your doorstep, but you just had to insist on being all civilized about it, didn’t you? Invite me in for a cuppa, behave like adults, part on good terms… maybe you were trying to show me you could change? Or maybe you just wanted to leave with the moral high ground. Well, you got it.

I took the puppet while you were in the kitchen. I knew you wouldn’t notice, it’d been pushed way to the back of the cabinet behind those three wise monkeys your sister got you for your birthday. She spent, what maybe fifteen quid on those things – at the most. Yet you’d given them pride of place. God, my flaming Wayang Golek should have had the whole bloody cabinet to itself! But you didn’t… You never… What a waste.

So yeah, I took it. Put it in the box along with my Ben Folds CDs and my black T-shirt. Drank your tea – which was weak, by the way – and got the hell out of Dodge. And if ever I’ve regretted anything about the time we had together, I regret that. See, my dad? He was right on the nose. “Taking back on giving is worse than the old man living.” In its own nasty way.

No, I didn’t bring about the second coming of the Antichrist. There was no blood in the sky or fire and brimstone on the riverbanks. The world didn’t end with the lick of a serpent’s tongue, all organ music and missiles, but still, a tiny part of me… the good kid who always listened to his dad and tried, whenever possible, to respect his advice… that kid hunched his shoulders, screwed up his face, and walked off into the gloom.

And the puppet? It’s worth nothing to me now. Less than. If I could give it back, I would, in a heartbeat. Sometimes I dream about breaking into your house in the middle of the night and slipping it back in the cabinet behind Kermit and the monkeys, but it’s too late for that now. I don’t even know if you’ve noticed it missing, or what you think of me for taking it back, but believe me, Keri, if I could undo one just thing…

Because yeah, Dad was right. I don’t know about the old man living, how that would feel, but to me? This feels a whole lot worse.

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Rol Hirst was the first man in space from Huddersfield. The Russians still beat him up there.

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