My Early Years

My Early Childhood

I was born in Birkenhead, near Liverpool, on 20th November 1973. My parents were living nearby in an area called the Wirral. My dad had a good job as a regional sales manager and my mum had been a teacher, but had stopped teaching when I was born.

When I was about two my dad gave up his sales job and we moved to the West coast of Scotland, where he took a job as a gardener on a private estate. We lived in a place called Ardmaddy for a couple of years and then moved to Achnacloich, both tiny places outside Oban.

I do not remember Ardmaddy, but I remember Achnacloich very well. In our house there was no central heating and we used to have one coal fire in the sitting room. There was no hot running water, and we had to use an immersion heater to heat water. We used to boil kettles for small tasks like daily washes. All the windows were very old, and during the winter the whole house was freezing cold. Sometimes the water supply would freeze, so we would collect ice from a nearby stream and melt it. We used to put lukewarm water down the toilet to make it work, and once a week we would go to the estate owner’s house for a bath.

We did not have much money and had to live on a very tight budget. We never had a normal evening meal; I would have something hot like beans or ravioli with bread, Mum would have something similar and Dad would eat sandwiches. Despite having little money, Mum smoked cigarettes. I remember asking Dad about this and he said they helped her nerves.

As I got older I became aware that my parents had a loveless marriage. They slept and ate separately and there was never any physical contact or affection between them. I never saw them hold hands or even kiss. Dad was affectionate and encouraging towards me, but Mum was distant.

Mum's Illness

Throughout my entire life my mother has suffered with serious mental health problems. There were times during my childhood when Mum’s illness was not too bad and she would just be very quiet. But when her illness was at its worst I can remember her talking to herself, shouting, laughing for no reason, and her mood changing very quickly. Sometimes she would be rude or aggressive. She took pills every day and regularly went to see a doctor in a nearby village. Therefore I knew Mum was unwell, but I didn’t know what was wrong.

I can remember that Mum would often read me a bedtime story, but when she was very unwell she would sit next to my bed talking to herself. At those times I would pretend to be asleep and hope that she would leave my bedroom.

There were times when Mum would become violent and my dad would have to restrain her. I never saw Dad use violence against her. The worst incident I saw was when I was approximately eight years old and I witnessed Mum trying to hit Dad, then kick him and spit in his face. He responded by holding her arms and pushing her out of the room. He got her outside the room and shut the door, and then Mum hammered on the door for a while.

No one in Mum or Dad’s families ever spoke about Mum’s illness. She could be in the room and very unwell but people would carry on chatting as though nothing was wrong. Therefore I assumed that we should never discuss her illness.

I can remember worrying a lot about it, wishing that I had a normal mum, like other people.

Memories of Dad

I can remember Dad being very hard-working and trying his best to look after Mum. He was very cheerful with me and we used to collect firewood, go for long walks in the countryside and work together on the estate.

Dad was very keen on values and he used to explain to me what was right and what was wrong. He was also adamant that people should stand up for themselves. I was bullied at primary school, so Dad made me a punchbag out of old clothes and taught me how to throw punches. I then hurt the bully and got in trouble with the teachers, but Dad gave me extra pocket money.

I can remember Dad being very hard-working and trying his best to look after Mum. He was very cheerful with me and we used to collect firewood, go for long walks in the countryside and work together on the estate.

Dad was very keen on values and he used to explain to me what was right and what was wrong. He was also adamant that people should stand up for themselves. I was bullied at primary school, so Dad made me a punchbag out of old clothes and taught me how to throw punches. I then hurt the bully and got in trouble with the teachers, but Dad gave me extra pocket money.

When I was about ten, I can remember a friend of Dad’s called Bob coming to visit. Bob had worked with Dad as a salesman, and had stayed in the company and become a senior manager. Bob offered Dad a very good job, but Dad declined. I remember Bob trying to persuade him to change his mind, but Dad continued to refuse. Later in this book I describe why I think Dad declined this job.
At times Dad was a bit of a risk-taker. Sometimes our car had no insurance because we couldn’t afford it, and Dad simply hoped that the police would not stop us. When cars were no longer roadworthy he used to rally them around the local fields and then sell them for scrap.

I can remember thinking that Dad didn’t like Mum’s family. He would be polite to their faces, but would spend a lot of time out of the house when they visited. My mum’s sister used to send letters and cards with long-winded messages of love, even though she never helped in any way. My dad would take these letters and cards into the bathroom and repeatedly read out the messages and then flush the toilet. He used to laugh every time he did this.

In the months before his death I can remember Dad being very sad. He had low self-esteem, said he was worthless and that he was a failure. In retrospect, I believe he had chronic depression. I also believe he felt exploited by Mum’s family. I remember feeling very sad that Dad was so unhappy, and also thinking that he was not a failure in my eyes.

Dad's Goodbye and the Journey South

One Sunday, when I was twelve years old, the day started out like most other days. Dad and I spent some time together collecting firewood whilst Mum was doing housework. However, later in the day Mum and Dad had a big argument, and Dad decided that they would separate. Dad said he would stay in Scotland, and Mum and I would travel to her parents in Widnes. At first Mum would not accept this, but then Dad packed her and my bags. He was not angry as he did this; he just calmly packed what we needed to travel to Mum’s parents.

There was an evening bus that travelled from Oban to Glasgow and it passed near our house, so the plan was Mum and I would catch the bus to Glasgow and then get a train to Widnes. When it came time to leave the house, Dad held out his hand to shake mine. I shook his hand and saw the tears in his eyes. I reached my head up to give him a kiss and he kissed my cheek as I kissed him.

Mum and I went outside and stood waiting for the bus. I could see Dad in the house, in floods of tears as he watched us. He then came outside the house sobbing, holding a handkerchief to his face because he was crying so much. He shouted, “Goodbye, Michael, I love you,” and then went back into the house. I think even then I knew something was wrong in the way he said goodbye.

The bus arrived shortly after this, and Mum and I left for Glasgow. I can remember sitting on the bus not knowing if I would see Dad again. I also thought about other parts of my life, such as not having had the chance to say goodbye to my schoolfriends, and wondering where I would go to school and if I would enjoy it. Every part of my life seemed to have been ripped apart, on what had started as an ordinary day.

When Mum and I got to Glasgow we had missed the last train to England, and we did not have enough money for a hotel, so we spent the night in Glasgow Central Station. At night the station had a lot of homeless people and alcoholics sleeping there, and I can remember being scared. Mum fell asleep in a chair, so I stayed awake and watched our bags. Two alcoholics sat near us, so I moved our bags closer to me. One said in a soothing voice, “Don’t worry, I would not steal from a little lamb like you.”

In the morning we caught the first train to continue our journey to Widnes. I did not know it at the time, but Dad was already dead.

As we were on the train close to Widnes, my mum, who was really unwell and speaking to her voice a lot, pooed herself. I didn’t know until we stood up to get off the train, and I can remember other passengers laughing. I could not believe people were laughing when we were in such an awful situation. I can remember feeling both embarrassed and very angry.

Dad's Death

We arrived at my Mum’s parents and they criticised Dad for separating from Mum. The next morning, whilst I was eating cornflakes, they told me the police had been during the night and said that Dad had died. My grandparents then drove Mum and me back to Scotland.

When we were back in Achnacloich a policeman visited and read me a letter that Dad had written before he died. It said he loved us and he was sorry. After reading it the policeman said, “That is the most difficult thing I have ever had to do.”

Mum kept saying that Dad was still alive and he must be at work. My grandparents then left to drive to a shop in Connel to get some food, so I was by myself in the house with Mum.

In the living room, a seat cover had been taken off an armchair, and it was folded up and on top of a sideboard. I picked up the seat cover and opened it. It was covered in a huge bloodstain. I knew I was staring at my dad’s blood. I spoke to Mum about it and showed her the seat cover. She then burst into tears. I went upstairs and sat on the end of my bed, feeling numb. Even though I was twelve years old I didn’t cry or get upset, I simply sat there, knowing that tough times were ahead. After a while I came downstairs and realised that Mum had started a bonfire in the garden. She had dragged the armchair outside and set fire to it.

How Dad Died

As an estate gardener, one of my Dad’s tasks was shooting rabbits that were damaging crops. For this he had two shotguns.

After Mum and I had caught the bus to Glasgow, my dad had tidied our house, walked to his work and collected a shotgun from his gun cabinet. He came home, pointed the gun at his chest and shot himself. His body was found in the armchair the next day by a neighbour when he did not arrive for work. I hope he died instantly and did not feel any pain.

Returning to School

I returned to school three days after Dad’s death. I think my main reason for going back so quickly was that I did not want to be in the house with my mum and grandparents.

After Dad's Death

My dad’s funeral took place at a crematorium outside Glasgow. At the reception afterwards, my grandfather (Mum’s father) said to me, “Your father has taken the easy way out. You are now the man of the house, so it’s now your responsibility to look after your mother.” I remember thinking this was a dreadful comment for a grandfather to make to his twelve-year-old grandson under any circumstances, but to do so at my father’s funeral was even worse. I felt that he did not want to take any responsibility for helping with Mum and had not shown any consideration for my feelings at my dad’s funeral. I can remember feeling both sad and angry.

The house we lived in came with the gardener’s job, so we had to move. My dad’s employer, Mrs Jane Nelson, was a very kind woman and she allowed us to stay in the gardener’s cottage for several months until we found a house. The choices were moving to England to be close to family, or stay on the West coast of Scotland.

The Move to Bonawe

My grandfather arranged for a council house in Bonawe, a tiny hamlet 15 miles outside Oban. My grandparents stayed with us until after the move, but continuously complained and blamed my dad for the situation. Whilst I was disappointed and angry with my grandparents’ comments, it is worth mentioning that they did stay with us during this time. No one from Dad’s family came to help with the funeral or the move. Shortly after the move, my grandparents returned to England. For the next five years I rarely saw any relatives.