Chapter 11 appears tomorrow. The previous chapters are all on the post immediately preceding this one.
Max O’Brien was fifty years old, and, as Minnie assured me, both highly cultured, and a successful entrepreneur. He had driven up in September from South London, and was staying with us a few days en route to certain old and treasured friends in Edinburgh. O’Brien wore elegantly tailored shirts, had neatly groomed and raffish silver hair, and was altogether suave and shapely. His eyes were affable and seemingly kind, but also rather distanced, and at times as if feebly self-protective. His oldest child often talked of us as being similar, and she used the terms ‘sharp’ and ‘focused’, but also added unexpected epithets like ‘pointed’ and ‘thrusting’. The unintended double entendre was apt in my case, as indeed where Minnie was concerned, I was always thrusting, and this thrusting from the hip had, so to speak, a considerable pointedness. But how it applied to Max O’Brien, even metaphorically, I was unable to make out. If I’d had to summarise him in a few words, and after being only an hour in his company, the adjectives would have been, ‘fussy and querulous’ and ‘incorrigibly self-centred’. O’Brien was emphatically no lion of a man, nor any other heroic and resistant species as far as I could see.
After hugging Minnie and shaking hands with me, he went straight to the piano in the corner and began playing with flair some standards of Bill Evans. He stayed there maybe an hour and Minnie beamed at him proprietorially, as if to say isn’t he great, a prodigy, a piano player as well as my Dad? He was one of those pianists who lightly rocks to the side, and whose head had a corresponding oblique inclination as he played. He was definitely at home and very happy with the piano, and when he stopped it was only to request a cup of coffee. I went through to the kitchen, and he followed on to chat, though with an obvious paternal purpose. He swiftly learnt I was doing some college lecturing, but expressed concern that it was only six hours a week. There was something inordinately elderly and fretful about his opinions, as he instructed me about funds and income and financial security, things considerably at odds with the bohemian jazz ideal supposedly his. Meanwhile, and while the kettle was boiling, from his jacket pocket he brought out a small cloth object and genially quizzed me.
“Know what this is?”
It looked like a blue flannel facecloth, though it had a pouch either side, so I wondered perhaps if it was something surgical or medical, possibly involving suppositories.
Max guffawed. “Not at all, much more simple. This, my boy, is a revolutionary cloth for drying the body, not just the face, even though it is so small. The pouches are for putting your hands in. When you’ve had a shower or a bath, you pouch your mitts, and use this as preliminary. It’s phenomenally absorbent cloth, and so it soaks up about eighty per cent of the wetness. You squeeze it maybe once as you dry. The result of course…”
He looked to me for the answer, but also for a layman’s dizzy wonderment, and the latter I duly feigned. But the answer to his prompt I got wrong…
“The result is that you don’t need a towel?”
O’Brien tsk tsked. “No, lad. You do need one for a final drying of the body, but you barely make the bathtowel wet, once you’ve used this little feller. So the towel doesn’t need to be dried or laundered, and arguably if you were a couple, you could both use the same one for two separate showers. Absolutely revolutionary, not to say remarkably ingenious, eh?”
I nodded politely, and wondered what Bill Evans would have made of it, and if he would ever have had a handy little domestic sideline like that.
Max explained that he had read about it in a Guardian science article and had contacted the inventor, whereupon, following some protracted negotiations, they’d taken out a joint contract with a commercial manufacturer. Before long he would be getting thirty per cent of the profits, when the crowds flocked frantically into the shops, or ordered it from suitable ads in Tit-Bits and The People. At that point, he took a breather to drink his coffee, which was a luxuriant performance in itself. In those days living modestly and not really knowing what good coffee tasted like, I survived on Nescafe, and when funds were ample, on Gold Blend. Max O’Brien seemed happy enough with instant coffee, though he insisted on an exact, unswerving quantity of milk, and with only a precise soupcon of sugar. He was one of those people who can make a whole one act drama out of their enchanting idiosyncrasies, as for them they are a topic of abiding interest for the whole universe, not just themselves. But Max was, unfortunately, no mordant Samuel Beckett, describing with gusto the favoured breakfast of that reclusive hero, the one who liked to have toast charred to a precise black degree, then smeared with rotten Gorgonzola. I stopped listening to O’Brien on the subject of the perfect cup of coffee after five minutes, while Minnie gazed at this fastidious connoisseur with daughterly devotion. He was obviously used to being paid court by certain reliable admirers, though doubtless not by Minnie’s mother, Myra, who had divorced him a few years earlier.
To crown his little lecturette, he said that delicious as the coffee was, he would save half of it for later, once he’d woken from his imminent nap. I looked at him with bafflement and thought he must be joking.
I protested, “But throw it away, Max. It’s only Nescafe, and I’ve plenty more, and plenty of milk…”
I saw Minnie flinch minutely at the last three words, and suddenly realised that the banal business of coffee drinking, had helped me become efficiently alienated from both father and daughter inside only a matter of days.
“Nonsense! Mustn’t let it go to waste. If you find me a little saucepan, I’ll happily warm it later.”
I could not believe this incredibly cock-eyed frugality. “It will taste really horrible if it’s warmed up…”
He beamed his repudiation, as if he were a genius who could spot arcane but excellent pecuniary miracles, which I could never hope to do. And I realised it was the same as his wonder-working infinitely absorbent flannel towel, that little article of entrepreneurial genius. He was addicted to pursuing a wily, crafty ingenuity, and for saving pennies in a curmudgeonly yet zestful way. In ancient sexist parlance, current still in 1976, Max O’Brien would have been called an Old Woman/Old Fusspot, and that was exactly what this fifty-year-old divorcee was. Meanwhile anally retentive, as a crushing standard cliché, came rather later, and could be an all-purpose abuse term, but with this jazz loving entrepreneur, it would have been an accurate diagnosis.
Max decanted his cold Nescafe into a milk pan and covered it with a saucer for who knows what precise purpose. To prevent dust and microbes settling in the brown soup? He then went upstairs for a nap, with a promise that this evening he would take us out for dinner somewhere definitely grand. Minnie cried wahey, and suggested an exclusive hotel in the Lakes with an elegant diner, and he acceded with a tender blown kiss. He also smiled paternally at me, though my hunch was he would wish I were fatter, had shorter hair, less beard, and a full time job. I was tempted to tell him I took nothing off Minnie, that we went scrupulous halves on everything, but felt it might be all too abrupt as he was heading for bed, and would need edging into the table talk, possibly tonight, over the exotic starter and exquisite fish dish I would order, just to get the most out of his wonderful Magic Flannel and all that it represented.
It was a gourmet Lakes restaurant, with impeccable linen and napkins, candlelight, and impressively ungrovelling service from a burly and affable hotelier from Surrey. Minnie and I began with baba ghanoush, then had perfectly fresh tuna steaks. Max ordered French onion soup, afterwards wading through an enormous and very bloody T-bone. The only hitch was the background music, which was real valium supermarket fare, intended to cheer and reassure and keep one’s mood ever light, as appropriate for any beaming Lake District tourist with a hefty disposable income. Max winced, as did I, and we would have given anything for some Bill Evans to go with the fine and pricey Chablis he’d ordered. Because he was driving, he shoved most of it our way, and Minnie who had no head for wine became sweetly tipsy and started to play unabashed footsie below the table.
“You two,” Max announced in a majestic tone that seemed genuine and heartfelt nonetheless, “you two seem right together. Both young, both good looking.”
Minnie squeezed my hand possessively and I did likewise, and was certainly ready to second the Chablis and the candlelit bonhomie. The bill for three proved to be about the same as I made with a week’s college lecturing, thirty pounds, which could of course be made to go a very long way in 1976. It was five pounds more than our monthly rent for a start. Max looked almost noble, even timeless and hieratic, with his silver mane against the flickering candle. I suddenly decided I almost liked him, or at least as long as he wasn’t disappearing for invalid’s naps, and warming up a horrible mess in a milk pan, just like every pouting neurasthenic before him. In any event, the evening went perfectly, and Minnie seemed heartened that I accepted this household idol, who was her one and only Dad. She had already told me, as anyone after brief acquaintance would have realised, that she had been devastated when her folks had divorced. Myra her Mum down in London was notably on the feckless side, the larder always empty because she survived on take-aways, and never hoovered, nor dusted, and didn’t even notice that the windows were grimy and hideously blotched whenever the sun shone. No, no, Myra O’Brien wasn’t depressed or anything, she had a good administrative job, and two of her younger brothers at home for company, but yes, she was plain feckless, and preferred sitting on her alarmingly spreading behind to all other options.
Two days later Max O’Brien set off for Edinburgh, and Minnie and I had a perfect day out on the hills, until we went to bed, and it was true to say the sky suddenly fell upon us with a curious vengeance.
One thing one rarely allows for in life, is the random revelation of catastrophic knowledge between two people, which the arguable innocent A thinks is harmless, and the more vigilant B thinks appalling. A is then even more appalled by B’s reaction, and B feels guilty about upsetting A, but on the other hand the truth is the truth, and the adage ‘trust your doubts’ is a priceless one. In our case, sat up in bed, we happened to be chatting about her parents, and Minnie explained how after the divorce, Myra had kept the family home in Vauxhall, while poor Max had gone into a one bedroom flat four miles away. I asked her where she stayed when she went down to London for a week, and she replied more often than not with Myra, but with (and she smirked with a rather whimsical fondness) her old Dad for a couple of nights if possible.
I went on interrogating, more or less thoughtlessly: “In his one-bedroom flat? You doss down on the couch in the sitting room?”
Minnie chuckled, God knows why, at what proved to be our abysmal point of no return.
“No. Not likely…”
“Max kips on the couch? That’s more like it. Good old Dad spoiling his favourite child.”
She grinned all too coyly, shaking her handsome head in a sprightly manner, as if we were playing Twenty Questions.
Not smiling, I snapped, “There are no other options left!”
“We both sleep in his bed of course!”
We were sat naked opposite a huge mirror, and I saw myself become pale. I turned on her with a frightening anger.
“You do fucking what?”
It took two seconds for the obvious meaning to demolish Minnie’s purring smile, and she blanched, and seemed to shake a little.
“Don’t be so stupid, Sonny” she stammered. “Don’t be so bloody awful. He’s only one bed, so what on earth’s wrong with our sharing it?”
I flung my aloft arms rhetorically, and then let them drop in despair. After what seemed a century, I muttered:
“It is weird, Minnie O’Brien It is fucking weird and it is fucking awful.”
Her voice came back as a righteous and ridiculous squeak.
“He’s my Dad, not a dangerous stranger. There’s nothing wrong. It’s your strange and horribly suspicious mind.”
I guffawed and stabbed my finger at her. “Here’s a challenge for you. And for your Dad, or rather let’s call him now your charming if rather elderly bedfellow. Go into any crowded room, Minnie, and look every person in the eye, and tell them one at a time and in a clear voice, that you, aged 24, share a bed with your Dad who is aged 50. While you’re at it, ask your Dad to do the same, and to tell them in his likewise crowded room, that he aged 50 shares a bed with his very nubile young daughter aged 24.”
Like a belisha beacon, she turned a remarkable rose red.
“Why the fuck should I? Or my poor Dad? Why the hell should we do something so completely bloody mad?”
I felt as if I were virtually aflame.
“You pathetic idiot. What planet were you born on? Have you heard of incest, or of paedophilia? If he’s doing it now, sleeping with you when you’re 24, what was he up to when your Mum was away, and you were 14, or even when you were 4? And don’t kid yourself, oh so innocent Miss O’Brien, neither he nor you would dare to tell the world at large what’s the truth. His friends would mock and laugh him out of the door.”
White then red, Minnie assumed a bilious green. She mumbled as if before execution:
“Hang on. Hold fucking on. There is only one bed in his flat. I can’t expect my old Dad to sleep on a lumpy couch.”
I glared at her tearful and ugly face, with infinite contempt.
“You’re a fool. Old, you reckon? He’s 50, not 95. He’s no invalid, though I agree he really loves to think he’s one. Why can’t the silver-haired genius sleep on his couch, instead of with a young woman, who just so happens to be his daughter? And tell me,” I added, damn near murderous, “does your mother know all about it, these bedroom rendezvous, only four miles from her, with dear old Max?”
She started coughing violently. She only smoked once in a blue moon, and had forgotten the precise art of inhaling.
“Eh? No. Fuck. Fuck, I don’t know…”
I snorted grimly, a vicious counsel remorselessly seeking the ultimate penalty.
“You think Max purrs and tells Myra that he sleeps now and again with her oldest daughter? I’ll bet! What does he say to you in the morning? Don’t tell Mummy, eh popsy, keep it our nice little secret? In fact, that might be one very good reason why she divorced him, the charming little creep.”
Minnie threw away her fag, and began weeping and hiccupping in pitiful sequence.
“Don’t be so utterly horrible…so … horrid… so horribly disgusting!”
I snorted again, seeking only the kill and nothing else.
“You’re talking like a Secret Seven girl, Minnie. Your dirty silver-haired Daddy, is the disgusting one. I’ve never heard anything so mad in this space age year of 1976. Though don’t get me wrong. He probably doesn’t do anything in bed, other than shuffle and make familiar repetitive movements with his hands. But for God’s don’t check on the state of his pyjama flies in the middle of the night… or you might be a trifle shocked.”
She started to groan as if she had been beaten, and just perhaps she had.
“Stop it, will you! Stop it! Don’t be so evil and and so…!”
I wanted to let it all come spewing out like so much shit. I was just in the mood for rampant arson and pillage, as I thought of smirking, mincing Max.
“As soon as I saw your Dad, entrepreneur O’Brien, I knew he was good and weird. Him and his magic money making towels. A proper man’s job, eh? Plus, he takes all these soothing naps at four in the afternoon…”
She bared her lips, like a terrified animal, with apparently one last bit of fight.
“He’d driven up here from London, nearly four hundred miles!”
I scoffed at that lying brittle voice.
“No he didn’t. Don’t be such a liar! He said he stopped at a friend’s in Lancaster en route, and you were listening. A three-hour journey, plus he had a motorway stop…and maybe a restorative little nap in the car.”
She snarled then whimpered, then started to get hurriedly out of bed.
“I’m not listening. Not any more! You’ve made a revolting and disgusting mystery out of absolutely fucking nothing.”
I grabbed her fragile wrist and roared:
“You bloody are listening! Think I want to fuck with a woman who reckons it’s fine to sleep with her fucking Dad?”
She shrieked at me in horror: “You’re completely mad. It’s not like that!”
I leered theatrically. “I’ve just realised something momentous, and it’s enough to take my breath away. Very charming indeed, and it’s the first time it’s crossed my innocent little mind. He’s called Max and you’re called Minnie = Mini as in Minnie Cooper. Maximum and Minimum. Get it, you idiot?”
“What? You what!”
“Anyone who warms up cold Nescafe in a saucepan, is a Grade A weirdo, and a budding pervert, end of fucking story. Also one who naps like a geriatric, after a two-hour drive that includes a scheduled tea break. Admit it, neither of you would dare tell the world you share a fucking bed, and you were a real genius weren’t you, to let your dirty little secret slip.”
At last I allowed her to get up, to get dressed, and depart. She made curious extended motions of checking her handbag, then rushing down to her Honda, presumably before vanishing to the end of the earth. She was away precisely five minutes, then returned muttering she’d had two glasses of wine tonight, and was therefore over the limit. She climbed into bed and snuggled against me, but I turned a back fashioned of pure concrete, and knew come what may, this was it. The very name, the very word, Max, stuck like a rock in my poisoned gullet.
“Good night,” she said, before the wine took effect and her tuneless little snorings commenced. I stared at her guileless sleep with loathing. How could anyone possibly sleep after a terminal row like this?
I said nothing, and had the compelling if ludicrous thought, that every father on the whole of the earth should immediately be seized and done away with.