Tell me about the moment you realised your father wasn’t God. Actually, no, let me guess. It the time his hammer broke his thumb? You sat there fascinated as furious tears rolled down his cheeks. Or better yet: his reaction to that man screaming at him in the street. Head down, he took your hand and led you silently away. Refused to discuss it later.
For me it was in the summer of 1988, at the end of a wooded lane half way up the Wicklow mountains. The sun neatly halved by a ridge of hills, with broad oak leaves dappling its remaining light over me, my dad and our rusting Hiace.
We had the fridge half way out the back of the van when the moment in question happened. I looked at my father’s straining neck muscles, and then out at the woods around us. Then back at my father again.
“This is wrong,” I said.
“What’s that?” He looked up at me, raised eyebrows, half grinning.
“This is wrong.” I pointed at the fridge. A child’s pudgy, little fingers. Carrying no weight. “Mrs. Tierney says we have to look after the environment.”
His face shifted from open curiosity into the guarded, blank expression of a man who’d been of the receiving end of shit like this his whole life. A look that betrayed no distress at this unexpected quarter of attack, just a kind of professional innocence. “Ah fuck, Thomas.” He sighed. “I’m trying to make a living here.”
“It’s bad, to litter. The ozone…” I faltered, already out of my depth. There was a lump in my throat. I felt warm.
He glared at me and dragged the refrigerator out of the van in one huge movement. It slid solidly into the ditch and settled next to a washing machine full of paint tins. I stood looking down at it.
He tapped the back of my head and we climbed into the van. Two minutes later found us back on the main road, heading east. “You want chips?” I nodded.
“You know,” he said, “these teachers don’t know everything, you know. Your da knows plenty they don’t know.”
“Okay Dad.” The problem was that Mrs. Tierney had been a reliable arbiter of truth and justice since the day I’d sat down in front of her, however much I’d often wished it otherwise. My father’s record failed in comparison. He sensed that, I think.
The significance of this brief exchange hardens in hindsight. As does the significance of anything, I suppose. It marked the beginning of a shift. Tentative lines were drawn between us. For my part, there was the realisation of my father’s grey morality. But for him also, it was a moment of clarity, perhaps greater than my own. He had never before imagined he’d end up raising such a useless little gobshite for a son.