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Sunday 17 June 2018

Always Check Your Boots

I'm going to begin with one of the stories my dad told me, one of my favourite ones.

Once upon a time he was driving through a godless bit of desert - he didn't tell me which one - when it started getting to the hot bit of the day, so he hauled the jeep over, put up some shade, took off his boots and got some shut-eye. He didn't want to cook the engine or himself.

Anyway. He sleeps for slightly longer than he intended. So when he wakes up, he's all a-flutter, as anyone is when they sleep for too long and they have somewhere to be.

So he does what everyone that lives in that kind of environment does - before he puts the boot back on, he checks it.

Finding himself eyeball-to-pinchers with one of the biggest scorpions he's ever seen.

So he says some choice words, probably something like "oh bother me that is quite a large example of Androctonus Crassicauda, I had best be careful," and grabs the heel of the boot and upends it over the side of the jeep. He hears a bump, feels the boot get lighter, looks inside once more just to make sure, then puts the boot on - minus its visitor.

He's still shaking his head and tutting over the encounter, so he only just notices in time that - as he picks up his other boot - it is even heavier. And it makes an angry sound.

He takes a look.

Your average Arabian Fat-Tailed Scorpion gets to about four inches. The one dad dumped out of his other boot was perhaps just a little bigger than that. The one in this boot? The one in this boot was about the size of a wharf rat, which is as big as necessary to fuck with you, plus a couple of inches.

He looks at this thing. Its tail is pointed at him, the claws and business end down in the heel of the boot.

He holds the boot over the edge of the jeep and shakes it.

The boot makes an angry noise. It doesn't get any lighter. There's no bump.

He shakes it again. The noise is angrier.

So he has to explain to his mother and siblings why he drove all the way home with only one boot, and a scorpion suddenly got a foot on the property ladder.

We only ever see a slice of someone. We don't know them completely - we can't. We only see the side of them they want to show us, or know how to show us, or think they should show us. My dad was the best dad he knew how to be, which - well, honestly, wasn't great at times. I suspect this is because his own father was totally alien to him, an old man even when my father was born, and not a kind or giving one according to anecdotal evidence.

I was lucky, insofar as when he got sick - not sick like a bad back, he had that since before I was born, but sick like cancer - we had a lot of time together to put things back together again, and there's nothing that takes the ego and sting out of a male-male relationship like terminal illness.

For a couple of years we repaired bridges and became friends again. I wasn't his alpha-male competition and he wasn't some loud angry tyrant. We talked about the world, he passed on a lot of good lessons, and we actually enjoyed each other's company.

Then at the end, when the palliative care involved painkillers and medication that truly started to mess with his perception of the world, things got odd again. His memory started lapsing. He'd forget that he asked me to do things, then get angry about it. He'd be three-quarters asleep most of the time. The last time I saw him I am not sure he recognised me.

I knew the alternative was pain that was basically unbearable, because my father was the kind of man that would only take painkillers under intense duress. Morphine stopped being strong enough. It was the ketamine that really started to cloud him.

I had the time to say goodbye, and I had time to say it before it became a rush. Which is good, because when I said it the last time, I honestly don't think he heard me.

He had no funeral. He despised religion. He was cremated in a private non-ceremony and my mum scattered his ashes.

I see a lot of him in myself. Not always things I like. My dad had a hell of a temper, and at times, so do I. The joy of knowing things. Pride in knowing you've done a good job, frustration when you can't or when some presumably unreasonable thing prevents you. Distrust of political and corporate organisations.

The mother of one of my favourite youtubers, Danny Avidan, once described his father in a very specific way: "He could turn lemonade into lemons." There's some of that in me, there was a lot of that in my dad. Like him, I'm not good at whimsy - and, like him I suspect, I suffer from depression.

He didn't like father's day much. For obvious reasons.

I talk a lot about lessons he taught me. Some of them deliberate, some of them by good or bad example. I think the one that I have found the most useful is to always pick your battles - but I think the one with the funniest story behind it is to always check your boots.

I still do. Every time I put them on.

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