It was an uneasy embrace. He is not practised in these things. But it felt almost embarassingly good. I was nine again, 10 tops, and safe: I belonged. And my father kissed me on the cheek. He has not done that since I was a child.
Not since I was 15 and I told him I was gay.
I wonder now if that kiss signalled reassurance or forgiveness. I was home to make a documentary for BBC Northern Ireland and I knew, no matter how accepting my father was, that the end product would pain him. For it would cover not only my career in London but growing up gay on the Shankill Road and having Thomas "Tucker" Lyttle, the UDA's political spokesman, member of the Inner Council, the Godfather who ran West Belfast, as a parent. Loyalist macho man and his out, queer kid. Can you match these two opposites? Tune in and try. Try as I did, as he did, for years.
So we were having dinner on the last day of filming. My father is still trying, explaining the menu, teasing the waiter, keeping conversation on course. It is a clumsy performance but, looking back, I'm grateful because he did it for me. He was telling me, I think, that I was entitled to my life, entitled to be proud of it, and he was proud, too. I was no longer in his shadow, finally my own man.
I'm also grateful because I didn't know that six days after the programme was transmitted my father would be dead. A heart attack - his fourth - while playing pool, a vodka and coke to hand, his football team winning on the television. The king in his kingdom.
It was quick. He didn't even call out.
I watched the programme again yesterday evening. There's footage of my father in paramilitary uniform, marching, addressing the press, speaking at rallies, carrying the coffin of yet another murdered friend. And there's the ribbon of memory unreeling in my head. The man who dressed me every morning, who fussed over breakfast, who insisted on academic excellence, monitored our homework, whose interest in his children was fierce. He felt we deserved a chance. We could get out. My father had dreams.
I exploded a few of those dreams. The gay child does. The boy can't help it: no wife, no life. That's what my father (first) thought. He didn't want us to be ordinary, but he did want us to be "normal" (as if Belfast lives were normal).
Overnight I was alien as well as isolated. No, not isolated - still part of things but apart from things, the gay condition. The rejection wasn't one-sided. By simply being me, I was insulting my father's masculinity, a self-consciously honourable brand that only other hardline Protestants can comprehend. I knew it, and deliberately twisted his raw nerves - revenge for nights spent waiting for the phone to ring, telling us he'd fallen to bullet, bomb or booby trap. Or that he'd been caught killing or ordering the killing of some enemy of Ulster. Who knew?
I'd been taken hostage. Now I held him hostage. The gay child's rage, the refusal to be what is required. I made him question all he believed and demanded that he love me.
He did. Privately and publicly - a leap of faith unimaginable to the tabloids that linked us with a snigger: "Ex-Terror Boss Dies After Son's Gay Confession." My father is not in that headline: he was much more. Yes, there was the disappointment ("I just want you to be happy"), the guilt ("Did I do something?") and, initially, the shame ("What will my friends think?"). I felt shame, why shouldn't he? Yet we both beat our upbringing to conquer it. Because always, always, before his politics and before my anger, there was his love for me and mine for him, that indestructible bond between father and child that denies all difference and recognises no distance. This endures. Everything else is here, becomes the past and is gone.
That last night I asked him if we might talk. The time seemed right to tell him that, funnily enough, I'd done what he wished. I'd broken away, fulfilled at least one dream. I'd left but come back. Wasn't it curious how we got there in the end?
"Ach, John," he said, "I'm tired." True. He was worn out, hair fading to grey, lines harsh at the eyes and mouth. "We'll talk later." Then he teased me with a phrase minted to puncture my childhood impatience: "There's always later."
If there's a God, maybe there's a later.My Dad never liked unfinished business. I understand completely. I'm the same way myself. I am my father's son.Reuse content