James Worthy – Liverpool
My father only really fell ill once he’d recovered. He was clean. Clean as a whistle. Sparkling clean. Cancer clean. We ate a cheese sandwich in the parking lot of the Antoni van Leeuwenhoek clinic to celebrate. He was clean. The prostate cancer was gone, but not for good, it seems. No, the prostate cancer had only gone to fetch its big brother. And it was in early 2020 that the big brother walked into our lives. He introduced himself as Pancreatic Cancer, his hands were cold as ice. My father had bounced the little brother off every wall of the radiotherapy clinic, and then Big Brother came to take over.
It’s 2001. My father and I are flying to Rome, Liverpool is playing against the local A.S. It’s December. The stewardesses are wearing Christmas caps. Somewhere over Switzerland, my father reaches over and pulls up my jumper without asking.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“I just wanted to see whether you’re wearing a Liverpool jersey under there. You know what I’ve always told you, right?”
“Yes. Never put on a Liverpool jersey when you go to a match abroad.”
“Precisely. No sense in putting a price on your own head. If they see you’re British, they’ll cut to the chase. Two Leeds fans were killed that way last year.
“I know, Dad. That’s why I didn’t wear a jersey, just a normal vest.”
A couple of hours before the match, my father and I are sitting on towels, picnicking in a Roman park, when ten men come running towards us. They’re yelling all kinds of highly obsolete or nonexistent English swear words. I run away from the angry Romans, but as I sprint I hear only my own footsteps on the gravel path. I turn around and see my father folding up the towels.
“What the hell are you doing, Dad?” I shout.
“These are your mother’s favorite towels.”
After a fifteen-minute run, we duck into a building. A man at the door stops us, points to my father’s towels and says in his best English that this is not a swimming pool.
“Well, what is it then?” I ask.
“This is paradise,” the man says, before knocking on a dark-purple door. When the door opens, I find myself face-to-face with the most beautiful woman in Rome. The screaming Italians are closing in. They’re in an even bigger rage than they were at first, their designer coats are flecked with sweat.
My father puts his arm around my shoulder and together we heel-toe our way down the corridor behind the deep-purple door. While my father hangs my mother’s towels over the back of a chair, I tell our story to the bartendress. She sees that I’m young, and puts a bottle of cola down on the bar. Before I can ask her for a straw, she peels off her blouse. There are straws between her breasts. Five of them. I feel like taking one of them, but I’m afraid the other four will then fall to the floor. “How did those fellows know we were British?”
“Because Italians don’t go picnicking in the winter, darling.”
We’ve got tickets for the match, but instead we watch it from paradise, because it’s safe here. Batistuta and Totti are playing for the home team. Dick Jol is the ref. It’s not a good match. It’s the worst match ever, in fact, but by the time Jol whistled three times for the end of play, all the straws had been used up.
Just before we leave, I see my father using his index finger to count off all the scantily-clad beauties. I don’t know why, until we knock at the door of paradise again the next morning. The most beautiful woman in Rome opens it, and my father hands her a cardboard box containing fifteen fresh donuts.
The doctor asks my father how he’s doing and whether he could perhaps assign a number to the pain.
“Unfortunately, this pain goes far beyond numbers, doctor.”
“Well then, how would you rate your pain, Mr. Pugh?”
“Yesterday I felt like Fernando Torres, but today I’m Alberto Aquilani.”
The doctor turns and looks at me questioningly.
“The easiest way for my father to rate his pain, doctor, is on the basis of Liverpool player acquisitions. The worse the acquisition, the greater the pain. Aquilani was a hideous mistake, doctor. Which means that today he is in excruciating pain.”
“I’ve never come across anything like this, gentlemen. How football-mad are you two, anyway?” the doctor asks as he jots down the name Alberto in his notebook.
“A 10,” my deathly ill father sighs.
I go over to the bed and say that it’s okay for him to lift my jumper.
“We’re playing a home game today, right? At home, it’s allowed.”
“Everything’s allowed at home, son.”
“Except for dying, Dad.”
“Everything’s allowed at home, son.”
I have a room above a betting office that also serves as a tanning studio. The people who go in gamble away all their holiday savings, but come out again looking like they’ve just spent two weeks on the Canary Islands. That too is Liverpool. It’s still one of the poorest cities in Europe, but you see no poverty in the faces of the people. Only pride and birthmarks.
Three old women are standing in front of the door, smoking. I look at the TV screens in the window. Horses with little men on them run from left to right. I walk into the betting office and put twenty pounds on the horse with the prettiest name. A man behind me starts to snicker. I turn around and look at him. He could be my father. He gives off an air of long days at the docks and stale bread.
My father had a welding and construction firm at the harbor in Amsterdam-North. When I was little, I always smelled his fingers when he came home from work. They were full of burns and steel splinters. Then I could smell all the things he’d made that day. Railings, boats, submarines, banisters. My father could make anything, but what he made the most was people happy.
“The horse with the prettiest name never wins,” the man behind the counter in the betting office says. We look at the screen together. We watch my horse fail to make the finish. His Dream. The name is prettier than the horse, and the dream was without a doubt prettier than the race.
At the corner of Lime Street is the pub my cousin told me about. This is where I will meet my father’s oldest friend, a former classmate. I order a cider from the barmaid and look around in the meantime for a grey-haired man, but the pub is more or less deserted. Only a girl at the bar. She’s using her thumbs to type sentence into her cell phone, at the speed of light.
“This is my daughter, Amber,” the barmaid says. Amber is a lovely girl. If Lennon were still alive, he’d write a song about her. Amber, Amber, Amber, her smile is the answer.
“Me and my boyfriend are having a row,” she tells me in broadest Scouse. People from Liverpool are called ‘scousers’ and they speak ‘Scouse’, a nasal, bumpy dialect full of gutturals. Hard and gritty, but also melodious. Scouse sounds like a jazz trumpeter who’s locked himself up in a sea container.
I never heard my father speak so broadly. He was extremely proud of his background, but after a few failed job interviews someone told him it was because of his accent. His resumé was worth no more than a blank page, because the trumpeter was playing in an unfamiliar key.
My mother, by the way, was born in Amsterdam’s Jordaan neighborhood, and people told her exactly the same thing. She couldn’t find a job until she came to grips with her accent. I’m very grateful to my parents for their adaptive skills. Some members of our family saw it as a form of betrayal. Precisely the same thing that bothered John Chapman about John Lennon. He had started believing in himself too much. Apparently, it’s important not to believe in yourself more than your family or fans do.
My parents entertained high hopes for themselves. They wanted to become much more than what they were. Two children of the backstreets. Scruffy clothes, boots down at the heels. But they never got too big for those boots of theirs, not that, no, they looked through the holes and saw a future that many said wasn’t lying in store for them at all.
They met in 1974 in a bar on Martelaarsgracht. My mother thought he was a taxi driver. Which, in Liverpool, he might have become. My father replied jokingly, and the rest is history.
Everything is history.
On their forty-fourth anniversary, my father was cremated.
“Would you be Chugga’s son then, lad?” an old man with tattooed knuckles asks me. He pulls up a stool next to mine and lays a keyring and a telephone on the bar. An old cell phone in a new holster, and the keyring is immense. My father had a keyring like that too. Maybe that’s something all Liverpudlian men do, impress people with the size of their keyrings. As a little boy I often took my father’s down off the mantelpiece. I thought: my father can really open a lot of doors.
“You look like him,” says the man.
His words touch me. Lots of people I know say that I look like him, but that doesn’t touch me. That say that because that’s what I want to hear. And I want to hear it so badly. There is no greater compliment. I don’t know this man, but he knows my father, and he says so. He says that I look like my father.
“Let me say right away that your father made the right choice when he left. I often think about the morning he sailed off. He asked whether I wanted to go along, but I told him I couldn’t swim. That I was afraid of water. That was the truth, still is. But I think about that morning every day. If only I had left along with your father.”
“In 1970 he signed on with the merchant marine. Liverpool in those days was a crazy place. The Beatles broke up in 1970. That created a lot of consternation. The city sort of lost hope. In our day, you had three choices. Either you went to work at the docks, or you took up soccer, or else you bought a guitar and started a band. No one I knew was a good enough soccer player or songwriter. The only one who made it was your father’s cousin. He was the drummer with The Searchers. The second biggest band out of Liverpool. Chris Curtis was a genius. Lennon thought so too, but the other Beatles thought he was an idiot. That cousin of your father’s toured with The Stones and wrote a couple of beautiful songs.
“Chris gave all his old suits to your father. That’s why he always looked so natty back then. Chris was eight years older than him. They were thick as thieves, those two. God rest his soul, Chris. Your father’s too, of course. But your father and I were no Chris Curtises. We had no talent. So, your father went off to sea and I, I stayed behind and made a huge mess outta things.”
“What do you think would have happened with my father if he’d stayed in Liverpool? Would he have made a huge mess out of things too?”
“If he’d of stayed here, he wouldn’t have lived to seventy. That much I know for sure. Maybe I used to be a complete burk, but your father was too. I remember this one time, when we were both about eleven and walking around town. I saw a busker, a big man with a violin. It was my idea to rob him. I took off running across the city with a couple of bags full of coins. I’ll never forget the sound that made. When I looked over, I saw your father running with the violin in his hand. ‘Bring that back, you silly tit,’ I shouted at him. I never saw your father laugh so hard. When a scouser says ‘back’, it sounds like ‘bach’. Our ‘ck’ sounds like a ‘ch’. But I didn’t get the joke I’d made by mistake. I only found about Bach years later, in the nick. But your father knew who that was when he was only eleven. He was different. Too thick for the street, but too clever for prison.”
“What were you in the nick for?”
“It’s not going in the book, is it?”
“Of course not. Why would I want to cross an ex-convict?”
“Back in the eighties, I robbed some dealers a couple of times. Was that wrong of me? I never bothered my head about it. I busted the things that needed busting. Your father had cancer, right? Well, I was a sort of chemotherapy, but then in the underworld. I never killed anyone. Not me. I stole drugs and money from the rotters. In fact, I was sort of a constable without the badge.”
“Tell me again that I look like my father.”
“James, you look like your old man. You look like Chugga.”
“Where does that ‘Chugga’ come from, anyway? Everybody here calls him that.”
“Chugging is what the old steam locomotives used to do, we grew up with them. Your father was a sturdy fellow, and blessed with a sort of relentless strength. Chugga.”
I think back to the morning of his cremation. To all the clouds that came out of that smokestack.
The five months during which my father was dying were perhaps the finest in my life. Death crept towards him like a stray cat, but he wasn’t afraid, he just put out a saucer of milk and some cat chunks for it. He looked death in the eye and patted death on the head. That’s how big Dad was. A skyscraper of a man. He wasn’t scared to death of death, he was like a father to it. Everything my sister, my mother and I did during those months was so full of love and meaning. One morning my sister and I printed and filled out a do-not-resuscitate order. My father needed to sign it too.
As a teenager I’d made numerous attempts to forge my father’s signature, but I never succeeded. His signature was magic. An impregnable fortress of whorls and loops. That particular morning, the signing of the order took a good two minutes. I knew that pancreatic cancer was a real bastard, but I’d never expected it to twoc my father’s signature. My sister and I were material witnesses to initial larceny.
“Well then, help him out a bit,” my sister said. She knew about my past as an amateur forger. The look in my father’s eyes when I put down the ballpoint pen is one I’ll never forget. If gratitude could dance, his eyes that morning were the LED-lit dancefloor. A raw gratitude, the likes of which I’d never seen.
Before my father fell ill, I was afraid of the word ‘palliative’, but these days I wish I could erect a statue to it. My father drowned in an aquarium while we tossed the most beautiful fish into the water. That’s what palliative care is. Allowing someone to drown in beauty.
My father took about twenty pills a day. One to stop the pain, another to stop the fear, but after a while he became afraid of pills. One day he let me know that he would only take them if I did the same. So I pretended to. I put them in my mouth, but kept them under my tongue. Until, one evening, something went wrong. I became too nonchalant. I don’t remember which medication it was. Trazodon? Oxazepam? Oxycodon? Temazepam? Whatever it was, that evening I jumped into the water with my father and together we did some synchronized nocturnal swimming. For a bit, I saw the fish that he was seeing. A rainbow of scales. All the fish were gorgeous. They blew mercy from their gills. The deeper we dove, the higher we got. When I woke up the next morning, I saw that I had sent IMs to all my exes.
Translated by Sam Garrett