Father’s Day 1970
This is the day my father lets us sleep, then brings us tea in bed. The sun streams in at unusual angles. He leaves his docker’s hook among the coats, and his gasbag empty, like a small dead animal. ‘Come on,’ he says ‘el día libre.’ My mother joins him. Perched on our bed, they laugh together as if they’re younger. ‘Let’s go,’ he says. ‘We’ll miss the train.’ My mother’s eyes scale cupboards, hands twitch, as she plans out a meal. ‘Potatoes and carrot.’ I see her lips move. ‘We need some eggs.’ Like King Canute, he stops her. ‘OK.’ He pats a large soft bag of purple and green, string-handled, spilling a patch of faded blue. This day he wears a summer weight suit, a light coloured trilby and sandals with socks. My mother’s cardigan is ruby red, with patterned frock, he hair swept back. We take the train. Fish paste sandwiches come out of his bag, a flask of tea. Moves close to mother. They kiss, and lipstick’s smudged on his stubbly pale face. This is the day when from the large bag come smaller white crumpled ones, stamped ‘Lucky Bag’. I get a frog, a sherbert lemon, my brother a disguise. False nose and glasses, we swap them round.
This is the day we lose ourselves in the sand. Wet, dry, we lie in it, dig, throw it over each other. The sea’s on the turn, exposing the rocks. We prize off limpets, attach them to lines; crabs cling on to land in our bucket. Twenty three later, we throw them all back.
This is the day we head off to a pub. My brother and I sit outside with outsize ice creams, fluffy with air. We all go for a walk, her fingers sea-clammy, smelling of Woodbines. She presses her palm into the centre of mine.
This is the day the evening comes down quick, and shadows appear. ‘When’s the last train?’ Her face harbours old things; time, washing of uniforms, meals she can make from almost nothing. Neighbours who twitch and gossip behind curtains. But this day is his. He’s grand with goodwill and beer and fears not a soul. Today. We give this to him, as all round a crowd gathers, scents something about to happen. He undoes the bag, and pulls out clothes.
And on this beach, it’s right this day as for the first and only time, with country and western suit, gangster tie, bell bottoms, he sings to us.
I first saw Kath McKay’s marvellous prose poem ‘Father’s Day 1970’ in a magazine. It subsequently appeared in Anyone Left Standing (Smith/Doortstop, 1998), which was the overall winner of the 1997 Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition.
There is nothing in the poem that does not feel absolutely right, both in terms of overall tone and specific, lived detail. Each time I read it I see new things: the father’s empty gasbag, ‘like a small dead animal’; the notation of Spanish, not English speech to announce the day off; his gesture of command to his wife ‘like King Canute’. We love novels of course, but as Peter Sansom says, a poem can give us in one line what the longer form achieves in twenty: ‘This day he wears a summer weight suit, a light coloured trilby and sandals with socks’. A man’s life, compressed into perfectly weighted language that bears the fruit of compassion because it is precise.
I admire the way the action is kept moving forward, from bedroom, to kitchen, to train, to beach, to pub and back with the tiniest of brush strokes: the mother’s twitching hands, the fish paste sandwiches and sherbert lemons, the twenty-three crabs, the ‘outsize ice creams, fluffy with air’. The repeating refrain of ‘This is the day’ announces each shift of scene, but it’s these details, spoken from the perspective of a child, which lift the poem both from schmaltzy romanticism and mere documentary accuracy: ‘Her face harbours old things; time, washing of uniforms, meals she can make from almost nothing. Neighbours who twitch and gossip behind curtains.’ The pun on the verb ‘harbours’ seems to bear a lifetime’s unspoken freight of sadness which stems from routine and the neighbours’ surveillance.
The use of the verb ‘twitch’ in that sentence is a direct echo with the mother’s same action as she ‘plans out a meal’ at the start of the poem. The tone in that instance seems to indicate anxiety mixed with excitement. The second time we see it we are viewing the mother through the eyes of others, their malice implied but not stated. The two ‘twitches’ appear to argue for a lack of hope in the poem, or at least of social mobility.
But. But the next sentence starts with a ‘But’. All is not lost: ‘But this day is his. He’s grand with goodwill and beer and fears not a soul.’ For a sentence bearing so many abstracts it is remarkably direct, remembering to bear its grief with song (‘grand’/’goodwill’; ‘beer/’fears’; ‘goodwill’/’soul’), like the father, for the ‘for the first and only time.’