Thursday, October 21, 2010

My Dad and his stories. . . .

Those of you who knew my father were aware that one of the greatest pleasures of knowing him was the opportunity to listen to the various stories that he told concerning his rather unusual life. The truth is that Roy was actually quite a shy man and he covered up his feelings of awkwardness by talking. He had had many exceptional experiences during his life, from stories of the Second World War to Los Angeles in the 1960s, and he had been an avid reader so he rarely lacked topics on which to ruminate in social settings. He almost always had some interesting story ready at hand which he usually related to his audience in an animated manner in an effort to cover up his almost constant feelings of nervousness. Despite being shy, my dad was also somewhat vain and actually liked being the centre of attention and genuinely enjoyed entertaining people with his anecdotes. He survived his twenty years of teaching because when he stood in front of a class of students he thought of himself as an actor and the students as an audience.
Some of Roy’s best stories revolved around the time he was attempting to become a criminal. Roy had grown up during the war years in England and suffered from the instability that those years brought to the lives of many. Like many children, he had been evacuated out of the Capital to the countryside to avoid the Blitz and these evacuation experiences were not wholly pleasant. His parents brought him home for the last two years of the war and so he saw the devastation first hand during the difficult period of flying bombs and U2 rockets. His time at school was severely disrupted by the war and by the time the Allies finally gained victory in Europe my dad was a somewhat troubled young man. Despite having a natural intelligence, he couldn’t bring himself to fit back into the school system and by the time he was 14 he had dropped out entirely. Being something of a romantic and an avid movie-goer Roy’s imagination fed on one too many Hollywood narratives and by the time he was seventeen he found himself determined to pursue a life of crime. He pictured himself as a thief, imagining an exciting and prosperous life on the lam.
            But Roy was not a criminal by nature. He was nervous, easily frightened, something of a coward, and felt a natural empathy for the victims of crime. Nonetheless, Roy gradually stepped up his life of crime from shoplifting and stealing personal items to planning to knock-over small shops. One day he set his eyes on a tobacconist shop because he thought he could get cash and cigarettes which he could sell to an uncle who had a shop of his own. He thought he was clever because he figured he would rob the shop and run down the street and catch a bus that would pass by the shop he had just robbed. In his mind this was a perfect foil because, he reasoned, no criminal would be found passing the scene of the crime he had just committed.
On a bright, sunny Tuesday afternoon he put his plan into action. Wearing a large trench coat, (the kinds that he saw criminals in the movies wear) he boldly walked into the shop with the intention of convincing his would be victim that he held a gun in his pocket. As he entered the shop the opening door set off a little bell which beckoned the elderly shop owner to emerge from the back room. My dad stood in front of the cash register and the old woman waddled up to him with a friendly smile on her face.
“What can I do for you young man?” the old women asked pleasantly. 
Roy made the shape of a gun with his right hand which was shoved firmly in his pocket and readied himself for the robbery. Sweat poured down the sides of his face as grew ever more nervous.
“Well. . . . is there something I can do for you?” the woman asked again, growing somewhat impatient.
Roy desperately tried to speak but nothing would come out of his mouth.
“What’s wrong young man? Cat got your tongue?”
Roy started thinking about cats and the enormous size of a feline that could actually bite out his tongue. He pictured the orange tabby that lived in the flat next door to his home and how terrifying it would be if it suddenly grew to six or seven times it usual size.
“Are you alright young man? The old woman asked him.
The voice suddenly broke him from his reverie and he desperately wiped the sweat from his forehead which was now dripping into his eyes and causing them to sting.
Realizing that he had irretrievably lost his nerve, and was now standing here looking crazy in front of this rather pleasant elderly lady, he suddenly asked for a pack of cigarettes which he quickly paid for and left the shop.
Now he was totally dejected. He had failed. What kind of criminal was he that he couldn’t even knock-over a small tobacconist’s shop in an out of the way corner of the old city? He sat on a nearby bench smoking the cigarettes that he had just purchased and chastising himself for his abject failure. But after a half-hour or so he had worked up his nerve once again and he returned to the shop with the firm intention of completing his mission.
            He walked boldly into the shop and stood proudly in front of the counter. Sweat started to once again pour down his face but he ignored it and tried to imagine what he might buy with the money from his robbery. But as he stood there with his new-found resolve completely intact he realized that the old woman was not emerging from the back room. He shuffled his feet impatiently and tapped his fingers on the counter.
“Where is that silly old bat?” he thought to himself. “I can’t stand here all day waiting to rob her!” He lifted himself on his tiptoes and tried to gaze behind the curtain that covered the doorway to the back of the store. Nothing seemed to be stirring. He cleared his throat loudly in the hope of attracting the woman’s attention but nothing happened.
His mind wandered back to the gigantic cats and a movie he had once seen about a lion hunter with one leg. “What’s so brave about hunting lions with a gun?” he thought to himself. “If you really wanted to be brave you should hunt lions with a butter-knife, now that would be something.”
He looked at his watch. It was nearly half-past five and his mother would be expecting him for dinner soon.
“People should really take better care of their shops,” he thought. “I am just standing here alone and I could do anything.”
Still nothing stirred.
Finally Roy idly looked down at the door through which he had just entered the shop. It was ajar by several inches and it began to occur to him that he had never heard the bell ring when he had come in this time. This meant that the old lady was somewhere in the back of the store and didn’t know he was there.
“Well that’s just great,” he pondered, “now how am supposed to rob her?”
But just before he called out to get her attention, the convenience of his situation dawned upon him. He looked down to where the cash draw was. It was open just enough to let him see the money that lay inside. In a moment motivated half by bravery and half by panic, Roy grabbed all the money in the cash drawer and stuffed his pockets with all the cigarettes he could. Then he bolted out the door and headed for the bus, determined to follow through on his plans to pass the shop after the robbery. He was elated with his victory.
The bus came quickly and he climbed the stairs to the upper level where one was permitted, in those days, to smoke. There was one other passenger on the top level and Roy uncharacteristically greeted him with a loud hello. The man smiled warmly.
Roy took out one of his many newly acquired packets of cigarettes and offered the man one, but he declined.
“You look happy,” the man said.
Roy grinned moronically and nodded enthusiastically.
“Did you just get a new job or something?” the man enquired.
“Sort of,” Roy replied.
Then, as he was always wont to do, Roy tried to cover his nervousness by talking.
“What do you do?” Roy asked the man casually.
“I am a police inspector.”
Roy coughed loudly and the color suddenly left his face. He felt like Bob Hope in My Favorite Brunette facing Lon Chaney for the first time. Suddenly the sweat began to trickle down his face again and felt himself go suddenly weak.
The man noticed his discomfort and inquired after his health.
Roy was barely able to mumble a response about being recently sick and experiencing a sudden relapse. He could feel the dozens of cigarette packets in his pockets and was suddenly sure that they must be obvious to his fellow passenger and that at that very moment the man was contemplating an arrest. Suddenly Roy thought that a oversized carnivorous tabby with a taste for tongue wouldn’t be so bad. Roy silently realized that he made a terrible criminal and that he better look for another line of work.
The man suddenly stood up and walked toward the seat where Roy was sitting. My dad closed his eyes and waited for the worst. He felt the man clapped him on the back and he put he hands out to await the handcuffs the way that he had seen people do in the movies. But when he opened his eyes the man had passed him by and was standing at the top of the stairs.
“You take care yourself,” the man said and suddenly disappeared down the steps.
            As the bus pulled away Roy turned and watched the man walk across the street and into the police station.
Despite the rather disastrous nature of the events, Roy sold his stolen cigarettes to his uncle and with the money he had taken he lived for several months while avoiding the terrible fate of having to look for a regular job. When he was down to his last pound he bet it on a horse, a sixty to one shot. It was the only real gambling victory he ever had and his winnings kept him for another few months.
This was not the only strange story that Roy had concerning his short life as a criminal, but he told it well, with laughter in his eyes and a genuine sense of relief that he had come from these shaky beginnings to lead a fairly prosperous and happy life. And anyone who heard him tell it would remember the gleam in his eye.
My dad is sorely missed.

1 comment:

Zastin Deviluke said...

Those are some great memories you have of him. We should keep a strong hold on those memories, and pass them on for years to come.