“Does this one have a name?” I asked.
“YEAH,” he said. “THAT’S THE TICKLING TO DEATH OF JESUS.”
My dad went outside to fetch some wood and I continued to look through his art. He’s always painted, as far back as I can remember, but he’s been working particularly hard recently, since being semi-retired, and his style has really come on, developed a new freedom. Here were disco dog walkers, nightmare medieval murder scenes in complex mirrored formation, Spiderman giving money to a busker, a bank of Feline Gods staring down in judgement at the grotesque figures at a pedigree cat show. I was so mesmerised that time must have briefly frozen and when I looked out the window after what I thought was four seconds, my dad was 200 yards away, wrestling a log near the small river that runs behind his and my mum’s house. Seemingly another four seconds later, he was back inside, one hand full of kindling, another full of chocolate.
“He’s always got a load of wood in his hands,” my mum had told me earlier. “I ask him to wash them but he forgets. There are black marks all over the walls and banister.”
I pictured a different house, in a parallel dimension, that my dad lived in alone, unmarried: a remote, dirt-floored shepherd’s hut, strewn with spilt acrylics, rabbit carcasses and Yorkie Bar wrappers. The embers of a small fire burned outside with arcane pieces of masonry scattered around it.
The phone rang and my mum picked up. It was my auntie Mal, wanting to plan our walk for today. My parents live on the east side of Nottinghamshire now, but I’d been wanting to walk through the countryside over on the west side, bordering Derbyshire, where we used to live, as I’ve been researching some of the history of the area, which is sometimes referred to as “DH Lawrence Country” with either pride or deep seated resentment by its residents. My mum handed the phone to me and Mal and I agreed on a basic five mile route, with a four mile epilogue just in case we felt ambitious. “… Then those who feel like going all the way can,” said Mal.
“OOH MISSUS!” said my dad, who’d clandestinely picked up the other receiver and been listening in.
Clandestinely picking up the other receiver and listening to conversations has long been a habit of my dad’s. Perhaps the most memorable example of this was the time my mum was talking about a life drawing class she’d attended, at which their village postman turned out to be the model. Just as my mum had reached the story’s climax, my dad, via the other phone, chipped in: “EVERYONE RECOGNISED HIM BY HIS SACK.”
We completed the fifty minute drive to Chris and Mal’s house, then set off on foot towards our target: the tiny nearly-hamlet of Bog End, via my old secondary school and an estate of pebbledash houses where a kid called Ian once threatened to hit me with a hammer. “YOU LOOK LIKE YOU’RE MADE ENTIRELY OF MOSS,” my dad said, appraising Chris’s fuzzy green jumper. My mum, Mal and I admired the Victorian pattress plates on the beautiful dark red brick buildings of the old brewery: heartbreakingly empty and unloved for a decade, its windows periodically smashed by local schoolkids, but now being readied for a mixture of residential conversion and demolition. I had my first ever pub pint nextdoor to here, in The Nelson And Railway inn, and I remember thinking it tasted astonishingly fresh, due to the brewery’s close proximity, but also that it seemed sort of weak. This was no doubt due to the fact that the only alcohol I’d consumed in any quantity previous to that had been Carlsberg Special Brew. I didn’t know at the time that Special Brew had a reputation as a tramp’s drink and, at 9% alcohol, was knock-a-horse-over strong. I just thought it was what you drank, because that’s what Beau O’Dowd, who could pass for 18, bought me and my friends from the off licence on Hardy Street when we were on our way to a school disco*.
Down by the old railway cutting, with the brewery buildings in the background, the footbridge restored and the white dog shit that peppered it during the 1980s gone, it was easy to imagine the old branch line train chugging down here. My dad and I agreed that there is something uniquely eerie about railway cuttings, that they retain an atmosphere like few other places. We paused to take the atmosphere in then I went and ruined it.
“LOAD OF BOLLOCKS,” he said.
We turned a couple of sharp corners, past my nan’s old house, and met a friendly tortoiseshell cat with a sardonic military officer’s face and Chris and I gave it some fuss. “I think that’s your cousin’s cat,” said Mal. “Yeah, I think it is,” agreed my mum. It seemed surprising, but perhaps wasn’t as much so as I initially thought. Quite a lot of my family still live on these roads and almost all of them like to decorate animals with lavish and privileged lives, so there’s a fairly strong chance that if you meet a promiscuous pet in the street, it will be one of theirs.
“You’re lucky,” said Mal.
“Two,” said my mum.
“NO. YOU’RE FORGETTING ABOUT THE SHED.”
“Oh yes. You’re right.”
Once every month my dad would walk a mile through the woods from this house and deliver our very reasonably-priced rent to Lady Barber by hand at Lamb Close House. He knew the two main rules: 1) Don’t Mention DH Lawrence, and 2) Know Your Station In Life. More than half a century after Lawrence’s death, the Barber family still nursed a grudge about the thinly veiled, none-too-flattering versions of their relatives in his novels. Researching a Lawrence piece for The Spectator to coincide with the centenary of the novelist’s birth, in 1985, the journalist Richard West was told upon visiting the area that Lady Barber’s husband, Sir William, would on no account talk to him about the subject. When Sir William was still alive, early in our tenancy, he once played the piano for my dad and invited him to play a game of Name That Tune. Later Lady Barber asked him to compile her a jazz mixtape. She could be cruel, too, however. Once, as my dad left, after delivering our rent, she pointed to her dog’s bed and announced – to her own great amusement, but my dad’s puzzlement – “And there’s your dog blanket, Mr Cox!” One another day, he was shown around the grounds, through a nursery full of Victorian toys, garages housing top of the range 1920s cars and a huge greenhouse containing a lump of coal which, in my dad’s words, was “THE SIZE OF A TRANSIT VAN”: a touching memento of when the family first realised they could make money off the sweat, toil and blood of the poor.
Unlike the Peak District, only a few miles north west, this has never been renowned Walking Country and, unsurprisingly, we passed no other ramblers on our route through the countryside but, as we return to the outskirts of Kimberley, we are joined by a few men with dogs. One, a black labrador, barely out of puppyhood, gleefully nudges a red ball through the park. “LOOK OUT FOR THIS BASTARD,” my dad advised Chris and me. “IT WILL HAVE YOUR FACE OFF.”
Mal and I suggested that perhaps he was being unnecessarily negative.
“THAT’S MY JOB,” said my dad. “I’M LOOKING FOR THE CLOUD NEXT TO EVERY SILVER LINING. I CAN’T WAIT TO HAVE A SLEEP ON YOUR AND CHRIS’S BED IN A FEW MINUTES. I’M KNACKERED.”
“Why not take a few quiet moments to yourself right now?” I suggested. “Relax and don’t speak for a bit. It might help.”
In the pub, we had some lunch while two men on the table opposite discussed their favourite motorways. They agreed that the M62 was their least favourite. My dad showed us his mobile phone: a clamshell one from the earlier part of the previous decade, which showed an alert for 144 unread messages.
We decamped to the living room and went through some old books that he and my mum were giving to charity to allow for more space in the house. He handed them to me so I could check I didn’t want any of them myself. “THIS IS FOOKIN’ BRILLIANT,” he said, passing me one. “THIS IS SHIT. HE’S A MEDIA WAZZOCK,” he continued, passing me the next. This went on for some time, and there appeared to be no middle ground in his critical appraisal. Later, my mum and I chatted about her artwork and her cat, George, and, as we did, my dad sketched on a pad on his knee.
“Mick, you don’t see Tom very often,” my mum said. “Why not stop drawing, just for a little while?”
“I CAN’T,” he said.
*I looked up Beau O’Dowd during the writing of this piece, for the first time ever, and was elated in a small way to read an article in the Nottingham Evening Post announcing that, having been made redundant from his factory job, he is starting his own “microbrewy” in a shed, with another one of my old classmates, Anthony Reynolds. I assume that Beau and Anthony are starting a microbrewery, not a microbrewy, but I like the Post’s typo and hope they keep it. I suspect that what Beau and Anthony will be brewing will not be Special Brew as merely sniffing it can kill people of our age.