Sunday, 6 March 2011

The handshake

Gerard and David April 1965

An extract from Peril
My father’s appetite for handshakes was infinite.
A first memory is of sitting in my shorts and braces on the Long John table for a sibling photograph, and shaking his big, cool hand. And my baby brother David, not yet able to sit up unaided, having his hand shaken as mum held him up for the ritual.
‘Goodnight, Gerard.’
‘Night, daddy.’
‘Goodnight, David.’
Mum did kiss us, on the forehead.
Our goodnight handshake was physically the closest I ever got to my father, except for a series of punches when we had our first teenager versus adult confrontation over a table-tennis ball.
Hmm, I hear the Freudians amongst you. Problems with intimacy and emotion. Not entirely accurate. As we grew into little men there was intimacy. Hours spent together down in the shed, working all kinds of wood into different shapes. Dad knew young hands would struggle to work hardwood with hand tools, so he started us on balsa softwood and then we moved on to white deal and pine. Whilst other kids were swinging in the playground, David and I were in full attack across our quarter acre garden. My Saracen’s scimitar whirled against his sturdy Crusader’s sword, blades as sharp as wood can be.
‘Re-sharpen, re-sharpen,’ David would call when our finely honed edges became dented.
No doubt the neighbourhood of retirees was annoyed to hell by our noisy antics as David and I were the only kids in the street. Mum and dad had moved the family to an affluent retirement area, a zone of natural wisdom. Next door Dennis, a retired bank manager, was building the concrete hull of his dream boat in a garage. He built it too wide to get out of the garage. How wise was that?
We played sports, but never with other kids. Just us and dad, at weekends. Dad had good eye to hand coordination, as did we, but what he didn’t have was two functioning legs. As a child he had contracted polio and his right leg was grotesquely withered. This led to a strange gallop when he had to run, and a tendency to lunge with his weak leg. According to him, this had lent itself to fencing and boxing at university. No team sports.
The surgeon’s remodelling had reshaped his foot many years earlier but the result was continuous wear and tear due to an unnaturally high instep. He was always at his foot, scratching and peeling the dry, hard skin from the ball and heel. That gave me a phobia of other people’s bare feet. Unless they belong to a beautiful woman.
But dad’s interest in one-on-one sports made sense to me. I could see how he would have had to defend himself from bullies throughout his life.
The first week in high school I found myself under attack. A tall, scruffy boy named Daly spat all over my new school blazer as it hung in the sports changing rooms. The gap between his front teeth was perfect for spraying spittle and he had all the lads laughing at my expense. Daly was bottom of the barrel and looking for someone to exchange places with.
‘After school, Daly,’ I said.
When sports period was over, the tough guys tried to get us to fight in the classroom but I resisted. Daly looked worried.
‘Let’s forget it, Mayes,’ he said.
I shook my head. The insult had to be paid for.
At the home bell I followed him down the field to the school buses and, just before he tried to board his bus, I kicked him repeatedly in the thigh until he went for me. Then I pulled on my black leather gloves and went to work.
Daly hadn’t a clue. I danced around him, in the lopsided style of dad, and let fly with clinically accurate punches, mostly at eyes and mouth. The exchange was almost soundless and he didn’t land a blow. It felt so very good.

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