Monday, December 06, 2010

AmsterDad

Hello there. If you haven't subscribed to my tweets, then you probably don't know that I've just come back from a weekend in Amsterdam with my father. My stepmum - his wife - has gone abroad to visit her daughter, so my Dad thought it would be nice for the pair of us to go away somewhere.

I readily agreed.

Now the first thing I have to say is that I love my Dad. He is after all my Dad, and all that love stuff's pretty much a given. In fact as a child, I thought of myself a mere extension of him, just a shareholder in his DNA. We look pretty similar too, or did when we were both younger, we have the same love of good comedy and bad food, and both competitive and non-competitive sport leaves us cold. It's almost as if we're related, or something.

Then there are these wealth of differences; Dad's quite the prude. He doesn't drink or swear, two things I couldn't do without. He's also socially very quiet, whereas I want to talk and debate and gossip and learn. That was something I hadn't really noticed before, and to tell you the truth it was a rather depressing observation. In many ways, I guess my old man's really quite innocent. If I didn't know better, I'd swear he was still a virgin.

Secondly, vitally, I have friends and regular readers who I know have lost their fathers and from that perspective what follows may sound phenomenally ungrateful and mean-spirited, but that's not my intention. This is just a post about our trip. The destination in fact is largely irrelevant. This, I hoped, was going to be the ultimate Hollywood Father and Son buddy road-trip story.

The night before we left, Dad arrived at my flat where I presented him with new gloves, a scarf, a hat and thermal vest, as he mentioned he had none of the above and my overactive imagination saw him dying of hypothermia if I didn't buy them for him. North-western Europe is after all in the grip of this fucked up Arctic front, and we had to dress accordingly if we were going wandering around Holland's largest city in the open air.

Dad returned the favour by asking for a glass for him to leave his false teeth in overnight, then coughing and snoring so violently that despite a wall between us, I got just a few hours sleep.

By the time we'd stepped off the plane at Schiphol airport and got blasted with a -8 gale, I was pleased that I'd lent Dad a rather practical thick coat of mine, as opposed to the thin summer jacket he intended to bring. There had been very little I could do about his genteel slip-on shoes though, other than give him a thick pair of socks to wear.

We were in the cab to the hotel discussing the merits of various airports, when Dad mentioned Johannesburg.
'When were you in Johannesburg?' I asked, confounded.
'When we went on safari,' he replied as if it were a matter of public record and I was completely mental.
'You went on safari?' I squawked.
'Yes,' he replied, astonished. And that was that.
'So what happened?' I had to volunteer.
'We saw some animals.'
Silence.
'What animals?' I asked for the sake of progress.
'Elephants.' A pause. 'Tigers. No, wait,' he muttered to himself. 'There aren't any, erm...'
'Tigers...'
'Tigers, yes, in Africa.'
'Lions, then?' I prompted.
'There were lions,' Dad said, before naming a half dozen other mammals and a couple of birds ("Those black and white things..." "Penguins, Dad?") as I brooded over his neglecting to tell me for the last 2 years about the "best holiday" he'd "ever had".

After freshening up at the hotel (where Dad walked in to the toilet while I was sat on it so he could tell me something about the curtains - and no amount of my yelling seemed to make him leave), we walked gingerly through the snow as I walked beside him at pensioner-speed on full alert in case Dad slipped, until we came across a magical bar where I had my first holiday beer and Dad had a hot chocolate and cake.

It was a bit disappointing to see my father with very little to say for himself, even after I asked a pointed 'What would you like to talk about?' when my questions about his wife, father and childhood, work, wikileaks and footwear were met with vague answers or shrugs. Dad then refused to so much as taste my Dutch beer, shouting loudly that he doesn't drink the stuff after I asked him once too many.

Then he fell asleep at the table.

Once we got back to our hotel, it was my turn to sleep whilst Dad sat in the corner reading the Daily Mail - then again fell asleep. It was 9pm by the time we both woke up, and with snow falling heavily outside we decided to stay indoors and eat at the hotel's pricey restaurant. The waitress was simply adorable, not that I said much to her. All my talking revolved around asking repeated 'How's your entrecôte' to Dad as he had fuck all to say in return, so we sat there in total silence as if we'd had a huge argument except, bizarrely, we hadn't. I just have a father who, it transpires, has no basic conversational skills, and certainly not any sage paternal wisdom to impart or real interest in my life. He's just quiet, and it infuriated me; 36 years on, and I hadn't even realised. So much for our special trip, our doubtless last holiday together. Dad had nothing to say, and that was pretty much that.

The following day, having had a fitful night due to Dad's excessive coughing that finally eased into him snoring like a tranquilised bull elephant, we took a cautious taxi in an absurd snowstorm to Anne Frank's house, where he cried at the end and couldn't speak (which didn't account for much.)

We left to eat cake in silence, not because we were numbed by the fucking holocaust, more that my father was concentrating on chocolate, spooning it into his grateful gob in slow motion like a placid toddler. Once outside and with a blizzard raging, Dad, who'd deferred all decision-making to me right down to what we did, staggered so slowly to central station that we froze, unable to build up any kind of kinetic energy against the cold. I bought us both a sightseeing trip in an indoor canal boat which would've been great if condensation hadn't steamed up the windows. It also would've helped if the man sat behind me didn't repeatedly scratch the itch at the back of his throat by making those long, nasal guttural snorts I fucking despise for well over an hour. And whenever I turned to my father, I was delighted to see that I'd spent €13 for him to sleep.

On leaving the boat, the cold left us unable to browse restaurants for long and we wound up in an overpriced tourist clip joint where I ordered something a bit different - sauerkraut and sausages, which turned out to be nothing more than a chopped up Mattessons pork phallus on a bed of mashed potatoes and cabbage.
Dad ate his ham and eggs in silence, and in the process of wolfing it down, he managed to spill his full glass of OJ all over the table, my maps, one thigh, my gloves, and the floor. I didn't want to trouble the already aloof and grumpy waitress, so I grabbed a rag and cleaned up around him while he continued to eat like an oblivious baby.

Once outside, I was transfixed by Amsterdam's cannabis cafes and their brazen presence on an otherwise mundane high street, the occasional waft of dope emanating from a store and floating down the road.
"Dad, quick, stand here! Do you want to know what marijuana smells like?"
"Not in the slightest, thank you."

Instead, Dad's excitement was reserved for a shop full of tourist crap, pausing in consumer glee as he stared at an absurd floppy-eared cap in the window. It even had a pair of grey balls.
'I'm gonna get that!' he exclaimed. I shook my head and sighed. Never mind the perfectly practical hat I'd bought him from Marks & Spencers two days earlier. Dad clearly wanted to stand out in public some more.

Once we got back to the hotel, Dad didn't wait for me to remove his coat. He's developed a bad hand which has caused him to lose his grip, but is determined to ignore it at any cost. And that cost was the zip of my coat which he'd managed to wrench clean off, rendering the whole damn coat un-do-upable.

'Well that's that ruined', I said as I threw the zip into the bin.
Dad then fell asleep.

After a meal that night (I had to cut Dad's lamb for him as he was struggling with his knife), Dad realised he couldn't find his mobile phone. As far as I was concerned, this was the last straw; despite a fully functioning brain (that didn't want to trouble its communication region), Dad was entering some kind of incapable second childhood. We located his phone eventually - it had fallen from his pocket in the €8 cab we took to the restaurant, and the cabbie wanted €30 to drive back and return it.

I tried not to get angry. It wasn't my father's fault that he'd lost his phone per se, but he wasn't entirely blameless. Keys, wallets and phones, those kind of day-to-day items which are normally about ones person, should remain as such. It was yet another irritation that could've been avoided. The morally dubious cab driver turned up at the hotel some time later, and Dad handed him the last of our physical cash (I don't care how 'busy' that fucking cabbie claimed to be; I would never ask someone for money to return their stuff), and that night I got to spend more time being kept awake by Dad's snoring. I even recorded it on my iPhone for posterity, but for some reason he took it personally when I played it back to him this morning, further evidence, he claimed, that I'd been on his case all trip.

We went to the Van Gogh museum (once Dad had his morning chocolate cake) where we had an argument. He said Gauguin was the artist who cut his own ear off. Then he walked into a bench.
As we arrived at Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' period, the intense library-like atmosphere was shattered by Dad's phone screaming violently into life with his Glenn Miller ringtone. Embarrased, I distanced myself from him as he struggled to release it from his pocket whereupon it got louder, then held a loud converstaion with his equally deaf friend while he remained totally oblivious to the glares of art-loving tourists.

As it had been our first mild weather day, we managed to walk a short distance to a pleasant bar where Dad was able to shatter the peace with his hacking cough, and I could sedate myself getting mildly drunk. We took a tram back after that, then checked out of our hotel and got a cab to the airport. In fact, we got as far as Britain, Dad's car, and about five feet up the road until we were screaming at the top of our voices at one another.

It was stupid. I was tired and wanted to go to bed. Dad had spent the flight fidgeting and complaining; his hand was hurting, he had pins and needles in his legs, and he kept dozing in and out of sleep. We were both knackered.
Dad had managed to drive out of the car park and down a country lane where his full glare lights were on. He turned a corner and was about to blind a car on the other side.
'Turn your beams off, Dad.' It was the kind of inconsiderate driving that's a pet hate of mine, even my Dads, as he'd full beamed a full-beamer in punishment-beam just a couple of days earlier as we drove to the airport.
'I know!' he yelled back. 'I was ABOUT TO before you TOLD ME!'

I said nothing. We drove to the end of the road, and after pulling out he took a lazy left turn onto the other side of the road.
'Turn in, Dad. You're on the wrong side of the road.'
My father sighed. He pulled left then inexplicably came to a halt.
'DAD, WHAT ARE YOU DOING? THERE'S TRAFFIC BEHIND US!'
'STOP TELLING ME WHAT TO DO!' he yelled.
The car behind overtook us angrily.
'JUST MOVE THE DAMN CAR!' I screamed, furious that he was using it to prove a point. 'DON'T JUST STOP IN THE ROAD!'
Dad crawled forward, screaming. 'YOU'VE BEEN TREATING ME LIKE THIS THE WHOLE TIME, WATCHING WHERE I WALK...'
'YOU ASKED ME TO! AND I DIDN'T WANT YOU TO FALL OVER!'
'I CAN WALK! I'M NOT A CHILD!'
'DAD, I'VE HAD TO DRESS YOU EVERY DAY BECAUSE YOU CAN'T!'
'... I'M NOT SENILE!!'
And so it went on until I decided to shut up, and we sat in silence for half and hour.

By the time we arrived at my flat, I gruffly told him to wait in the car as I ran upstairs and grabbed the belongings he'd left there. When I got back outside, Dad was stumbling out of the driver's seat to complain that we'd spent the whole holiday together and now I was treating him badly. I had to whisper for him to keep his voice down as it was late. I was also aware of a man smoking in the darkness trying to be inconspicuous.
'You've acted as if I can't walk by myself or do anything on my own...'
'Sorry Dad,' I said as I hugged him and he hugged me back.
He was still listing his complaints as I muffled an 'I love you' into the collar of my now-unzippable coat.
'I love you too,' Dad mumbled as he hugged me back.
Someone shifted awkwardly nearby.

Then my father clambered back into his car, and slowly drove himself home.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Audition

'Good news, or bad news?' my mother had said on Monday as she cackled down the phone.
'Uh...'
'Well here's the bad news,' she interrupted as I continued to think through my options. 'There's this audition...'
'For what?'
'A television commercial for (*well known product*), and they're looking for (*essentially stockily-built easily sunburned gingers*) and you have to wear swimming trunks for it.'
'Excuse me?'
'They're filming on a beach, hence the trunks.'

I decided to give my Mum the chance to finish before I told her to get stuffed. After all, I've never had any desire to appear on the TV sets of a million people with my gut out, and that wasn't going to change any time soon.

'What's the good news?' I asked with a sigh.
'It's in (*big Antipodean land mass*) on (*hot famous beach*)'



'What?'

'It's free flight and accommodation to a 5-star hotel overlooking (*famous Antipodean land mass beach*), and they're paying (*£stupid*)!!!'

I paused. That bit sounded pretty good. I just had a problem with the public humiliation thing.
And, once I thought about it, another trip abroad, alone. Yes, I'd be with, y'know, complete media strangers, but I'd really be alone again like when I'd backpacked and met virtually no-one, and this would be a very long way from home, doing something absurdly surreal.

I sighed.
'What?,' my mother snapped. 'You don't want to do it?'
'It's just that, y'know, it'll be in public and there'll probably be a crowd of people watching, and I'll be all semi-naked and everyth...'
'Awww,' she began - not a motherly, comforting ahhhh, more an angry, revving-up to an argument - before shouting all the bullet points back at me.

Which, yes, admittedly, amazing.

'But I'll have to audition,' I argued, 'and I'm not going to get it.'
'Not with that bloody attitude.'

Damn woman. This was going to be like that audition a few years ago where I had to remove most of my clothes, and yell 'I am Boris Becker' from 4 different angles including, for some reason, the back of my head.

I didn't get that gig either, but I did vow never to do fucked-up starving actor shit like that again. Truth is, I kinda like the idea of acting. I just have no talent or background in it whatsoever.

And then, in my mind's eye, I could see me silhouetted, shoulders slumped, as I walked towards a plane and a fifteen-billion hour journey as I wondered what the hell I was doing only to strip and gurn and hideously over-act to camera, jumping up and down and squealing like a giggly schoolgirl - a fat one in tiny unflattering Speedos - and being rewarded with, okay, handsome pay and a free trip to Austral somewhere hot, but also tremendous humiliation as the footage is fucking televised to Great Britain between Hollyoaks and the news. And then I imagined kids stopping me in the street; 'Oi, aren't you that bloke from that (well-known product) ad?' and I still to this day don't know if 'Yes' or 'Fuck off' is the best response.

'I... I don't know Mum. No, thanks very much. No, it's not for me.'
There was a silence before she snapped back.
'Fweng?' She said, part questioning, mostly authoritative. 'You've got to do it.'
'Erm, Mum, I'm 36.'
'I don't care. It's (*£stupid*). It's a free holiday to (*etc*). You can see Auntie Anon when you're there. She's recovering from cancer.'

* * *

'Aw shit,' I yelled, 'I'm so sorry, can we go again?'
One line I had to remember, five short words, and I missed my cue. I was too busy thinking, 'What am I doing standing semi-naked next to an equally half naked actor called Malcolm?

'We'll go again,' said the guy with the camera.
'Acting. It really is basically prostitution,' I pondered as I twanged self-consciously at the elastic. My fat, the new fat I've put on since losing it over the summer, was spilling over my shorts like angry waves crashing onto battered rocks.
I stared at Malc, my new half-naked friend who treated me like I was some kind of audition-threat. He was giggling as he said his lines. Giggling, I thought, because he was delivering them as he stared at my nipple.

My strange nipple.

My strange, puffy nipp- wait, was that my cue?

'Oh fuck!' I yelled, 'I'm so sorry, I've missed it again.'
'One more time.'
And I said my line. I'm doing it, Mum, I'm doing your fucking audition, semi-naked. Happy?
I tried, but it wasn't great. The line just didn't come out well. For some reason, the whole lights thing, the being filmed; they just weren't getting my A-game.

'Okay guys,' said the cameradude. 'Swap over. Fweng, you're now playing Dean.'
'Uh, but I thought I was supposed to be the fat pink one?'
'You are, but we need to see what you can do.'

I was so fucking far out of my depth. I can't do lines. I couldn't even remember five words.
'Uh-'
I grabbed a nearby storyboard from the floor, but it was no good. I could remember the first line, "Hello..." but it was all downhill after that, once the cameraman read his part. I only had room for a sentence.
'Look, seriously guys, this isn't going to happen. I won't be able to memorise this in a few seconds. Best if we don't bother.'

The cameraman looked a little surprised, probably because struggling actors don't turn anything down. And besides, that gig's for them, not some bored office manager whose mother's friendly with a theatrical agent. It just wasn't fair for me to step in and take work from the strutting, bronzed ego-maniacs like the arrogant dickheads waiting in reception.

And when I'd dressed, and thanked the receptionist for sitting there with a straight face and wishing the other guys good luck, I called my Mum. She seemed shocked when I told her I fluffed my line, twice, and devastated when I told her I couldn't play the other role.

And that's when I realised that she really wanted me to do it, because it would have made her proud.

And then the guilt came crashing in. Guilt, and tremendous relief.