Do you think you could beat your father in a fight? What about when he was in his prime? My uncle asked this very question at my father’s birthday dinner last weekend, and my father, without a hint of irony or humour, gazed straight into my eyes and told me he would ‘massacre’ me, even now. He’s 59 years old with a hernia and a beer gut, I am 25. The hubris. This simply won’t stand. Something must be done.
I am going to break your nose, old man. Not now, not today, while you’re old and feeble and your best years are behind you. There’d be no satisfaction in that, there’d be no challenge. No, father, I’m going to go back to the 1980’s, I’m going to find you, and I’m going to make you wish I’d never been born.
I bought the time machine from a jumble sale at the race course. It’s held every Sunday, and my mother always said you could find anything you wanted there. Irish travelers roll through town every few weeks, they’re a little hit and miss, but whenever they appear they bring the good stuff.
Last week I paid them a visit. I told them what I needed and they listened intently, nodding and chin stroking, and within minutes they’d produced a tin box, rusting, decorated with indentations in the shape of old motorcars. I don’t know why such a tool would be presented in an old biscuit tin, but it’s of no consequence. I paid fifty pounds for it, it’s only single use, but it was a small price to pay for the satisfaction of bludgeoning my father into shameful and hilarious submission.
I asked one of the travelers for a demonstration of the tool before buying it. Three generations crowded me at once to show which buttons to press. A young boy of around 14 eventually took to the fore, elbowing his friends aside. Using a duplicate tool, he bid me to lean in as he demonstrated the launch procedure.
The time machine was largely a bundle of wires, like somebody had turned an old radio inside out, and had on one face a rotary dial pad that the boy clicked round eight times, thereby inputting the desired day, month and year. With the date locked in, he used two thumbs to firmly depress a red oblong-shaped button on the top of the device.
A shrill whistle blew and steam began pouring from the object, and a miniature piston started pumping, slow at first, but gaining momentum with every second. The whistling grew louder, and a lower bass note joined it; the two notes together made me feel nauseous. And then, without ceremony, flash or sound, the boy was gone, along with his device. The grass that had been depressed by his shoes gradually unfurled itself, and the wisps of smoke from the time machine curled away on the spring breeze.
We stood in silence for some time. The child’s family looked stupefied, but I didn’t trouble myself with asking why; my mind was too busy fizzing over with ideas. As soon as the boy had vanished my heart had begun racing, all I could picture was the look on my young father’s face as I punched it inside out. ‘Thank goodness it works!’ I cried, jubilant. I stuffed a fifty pound note into the shirt pocket of the nearest of the travellers, who were now busy looking for something or other, and I strode off past the many car boot stalls, satisfied.
That night, in my kitchen, I prepared a packed lunch for the journey and watched back to back Top of the Pops 2 episodes in order to perfect my disguise. No use going back in my own clothes, I’d stick out like a sore thumb, and I didn’t want to be rumbled before I got the chance to karate chop my old man’s wind pipe and finally prove my superiority. I had to blend in. I had to be discrete. I settled on a bright blue and pink shell suit, and dyed my hair platinum over the kitchen sink. I meant to pierce my ear, but in the end I hadn’t the stomach for it and instead used a clip on earring that I dug out from a dress up box in the attic. I looked in the mirror, and I saw that it was good.
I intially left my mobile phone on the kitchen counter; I figured I’d have no use for it in the 80’s, but then reconsidered and pocketed it – I’d take a photograph atop my defeated father, in order to prove my victory in the present. I set the dates on the rotary dial, and pressed the oblong button. The whistling began, and the mini cogs set to whirring. Quickly, I crept into the living room, where my father was asleep in his chair in front of the television, liver spotted and rotund and balding. I glared at him and felt hot, vengeful blood flush my face.
‘Fuck you, old man,’ I whispered at his slumbering form, just before the bass note sounded and the universe gobbled me up.
I was burped back out two seconds later, and for a moment found myself rather blind and deaf. Travelling through space and time is, it turns out, quite disorientating. As my vision came back, I found that colours were all topsy turvy. Yellows were purple, pinks were black, greens were a sort of furry liquid amber, and reds were glittering silver fireworks. It was all very pretty, but also unsettling, and I was relieved when I blinked a few times and the colours drifted back to their rightful places.
Once the universe had re-calibrated itself around me, I checked the street signs to get my bearings and set off to find the man who gave me sentience and give him the beating of his life. If the machine had worked correctly, it was 1983, and my father would be a 25 year old man, my age, for a fair fight. He was in the Royal Navy through the latter half of his twenties, and so I headed to his old naval barracks to find him. However, it seems I should have researched my dates more carefully, because it turned out my father was stationed in Singapore. Bollocks.
The journey to Singapore was uncomfortable. I hitchhiked to Liverpool and spent a week trawling the docks every morning until I found a merchant vessel headed that way, and talked my way aboard. Once we were at sea, I helped out on deck a little, learned the ways of the ocean, and had a brief romance with a young blonde Swedish man named Olle that regretfully ended in a fistfight over my cheating him in a game of cards, and I was marooned at Cape Town by the ship’s captain, Captain Matthis, who was inept and I believe in love with Olle as well.
I spent three weeks in Cape Town requesting voyage to Singapore every morning on the docks, but the jealous Captain Matthis had put the bad word out about me, and no captain would have me aboard. I decided then that I would have to travel the rest of the way overland, which was a difficult decision to reach because I would now have to travel up the entire length of Africa with no money and would, in all likelihood, die in the process.
I didn’t die, however, in fact after a brief stint of near-starvation and several hold ups in the slums of Johannesburg, I rather thrived. The bleach in my hair had all but grown out, by now, and the once dazzling blue and pink tracksuit was reduced to varying shades of tan. My Hi Tec Silver Shadows were now Low Tec Brown Rags. After contracting a virus from drinking out of a contaminated water source in the slum, a young, troubled yet hopeful couple nursed me back to health in their shack, and before long I was on the road through Mozambique.
I saved the life of a young boy in Maputo by dragging him out of the way of an oncoming bus, and when he introduced me to his father that evening, I told him of my journey to kick the shit out of my own father in Singapore, and the elderly gentleman offered me an old motorbike as thanks. I cleared the rest of the continent with only minor incidents; I was shot at when I absent-mindedly left a petrol station without paying in Tanzania, and I was headbutted off my motorcycle by a giraffe in Kenya, which sent me spiraling several metres into a gorse bush and broke several ribs, which I bandaged with the ripped off sleeves off my tracksuit jacket, and anxiously hoped would be healed before the showdown in Singapore. Otherwise though, all was well.
In Somalia, the Port of Mogadishu was vibrant and chaotic. I once more took to walking the docks in search of an appropriate vessel and, with all the bad luck in the world, I once more stumbled up the gangplank of that devious Captain Matthis. He saw my approach, unaware as I was that the ship was the very same that marooned me, due to my exhaustion from the intense Somalian heat. The bastard allowed me to reach the top of the gangplank before he sprung into view and, with a maniacal cackle, kicked me in the chest, whence I tumbled back down halfway before rolling over the side of the plank and plunging into the azure waters of Mogadishu. This was the final insult.
I traded my motorcycle and my Hi Tec Silver Shadows for a giant swordfish, sawed off its nose with the aid of a local boss-eyed fishmonger, and with his help, stormed the galleon of Captain Matthis to reclaim my honour. We fought our way through the ship, and despite my best efforts, my crooked-sighted comrade was overwhelmed in the kitchens and thrown overboard through an olive oil-lubricated porthole. Defiant, I fought on alone and made it to the bridge where, sword drawn, I broke down the barricade and dueled the wicked Captain and bested him. On his knees before me, he wept, and confessed his jealousy of my passionate and sexually gratifying affair with Olle. I graciously acknowledged his admission, and accepted his apology.
I claimed his sleeping quarters as my own, in victory, but conceded that I did not know how to sail a thousand ton ship, and so agreed the sullied Captain may continue at the helm, provided I was in Singapore within the fortnight. He vowed that he would get me there, come hell or high water. They turned out to be ill-chosen words, because both were to come on our crossing to Asia, and, though we reconciled, sadly Captain Matthis was lost at sea, somewhere off the coast of Sri Lanka. He didn’t fall overboard; he was still on the ship somewhere, we just forgot where he was. We think he may have become locked in a toilet cubicle on one of the lower decks, but there were just so many different toilets and we simply didn’t have the time to check every single one.
With our Captain missing, the other sailors and I were concerned that we may never reach Malaysia. However, we soon discovered that sailing is, contrary to popular belief, incredibly easy. You just point the ship to where you want to sail and let it find its way. We arrived at Padang on the country’s Western coast within my requested fortnight, and I bid farewell to the crew, who had become like brothers to me, except for the fact that they were all women, and so I suppose that I should have said they were like sisters, but it’s too late to turn back now.
I decided that in order to reach Singapore, I would walk straight across Malaysia as the crow flies, however my plan was foiled within thirty minutes when I hit a large brick wall and realised I had made a foolish choice. I hitched a lift with an aerospace engineer on her way to a family dinner on the far side of the island. She was breathtakingly racist and I didn’t enjoy the conversation one bit, except for one brief exchange in which we discovered we had a mutual love of brutalist architecture, particularly the work of Ernő Goldfinger.
At the coastal town of Dumai on the far side of the island we parted ways. She gifted me a magazine on late 1970’s London-centric brutalism, and I snuck aboard the ferry to Singapore. The crossing took an hour, and the ferry struck a school of majestic donsol whale sharks and sank several metres from the Singaporean dock, but on the whole the trip was uneventful.
Once I had waded ashore and helped drag several unconscious locals from the wreckage, I was so flustered that I quite entirely forgot why I was there for a good few minutes, and had to sit on a rock to collect my thoughts. My father’s stupid smug face drifted back into my thoughts, and my resolve was tempered into finest steel. ‘I’m coming for you, old man,’ I said aloud, as I wrung out the tattered remains of my tracksuit on the dock and stalked away, barefooted, and the sinking Dumai ferry exploded behind me.
Singapore is a building site by day and a hive of neon by night, and I spent a week roaming bars searching for my father, sleeping each evening on the living room floor of a gnarled old washerwoman, who let me stay with her in exchange for my cooking her evening meals. I would write haikus for her in the mornings, and she would giggle like a young girl at my foreign accent, and then I would head out anew in my quest for paternal blood.
I finally found him seven months after my quest began, when my broken ribs had healed and my tracksuit was reduced to a pair of skimpy shorts and a headband, from which my faded blonde locks fell in lazy waves. He was with his sailor friends, white uniforms, immaculate, and they were drinking in a smoky bar. I recognised him instantly, he looked the same as I knew him but tighter, his presence was more immediate, the top of his head didn’t look like a withered old apple left in the sun for six days. He looked like me, and I hated him.
I involuntarily shrieked ‘bastard’ at him when I first saw him, but caught myself and passed it off as an aggravated dust allergy playing up. I couldn’t risk his friends getting involved, and so I headed to the red light district and persuaded three prostitutes to do me a favour and distract his trio of friends. The prostitutes entered the bar, dolled up, and immediately the heads of the sailors turned. The girls, winking, enticed the boys over, where they overpowered them using the sinewy strength for which women of the night are famed, and slung them out of the bar into the street. They blew me a kiss and left, their perfume lingering after them. I was alone with my father.
‘Who are you?’ he asked.
‘I am your son, and I have come from the future…’ I paused for dramatic effect; I’d had a long time to plan this, ‘to massacre you.’
‘Another drunken RAF brat wants a fight, does he? Right-o,’ he sighed, then reached for a pool cue and cracked it in two over his knee. He held a half in each hand, wielding them like blades. He then strapped one to each forearm, lengthening his reach. I nodded with respect for his weapon proficiency.
‘Excellent,’ I growled, unsheathing my trusty swordfish nose.
‘What the bloody hell is that?’ he cried, as I leapt at him.
We danced the dance of blood together, crashing through tables and chairs, trampling brunches, swinging from chandeliers, hurling each other into the jukebox repeatedly, which played a new, perfectly fitting song each time, with hits including: The Boys Are Back In Town by Thin Lizzy, Sally Maclennane by The Pogues, Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen and Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting, by Elton John. I kicked him through the window and our fight spilled into the street.
He slung me in front of a tram car and though I rolled out of the way, the remnants of my clothing were sheared off by the moving vehicle, such was the narrow margin by which it missed me. Naked, I fought on, my Malaysian washerwoman cheering me on from her balcony, and as I parried and weaved and ducked, I thought of my journey, of Olle, of Captain Matthis, of the wreckage of the Dumai ferry and of the great world in which we all live. With every screaming thrust of my swordfish beak, my mind swam with images of home, of rolling green hills, and I suddenly felt the embrace of all that time and space, and realised what an enormous, maddening, but utterly divine life we all enjoy.
Suddenly, my rage for my father dissipated, falling away from me like a wheel of cheese bouncing away down a large hill in rural Gloucester, and finally, all that was left was an enormous sense of gratitude. I had seen the world, driven by rage and loathing and vengeance, humankind’s most powerful motivators. But… perhaps there was one more powerful still. Perhaps, truly, I had forgotten the ultimate driving force of humanity, beyond violence and ambition, beyond fear and hatred. My heart was filled, instantaneously, with a broiling, gushing influx of love for my father.
I stopped my onslaught; my father was on the backfoot, he had slipped and was sprawled on the dusty ground before me with my swordfish nose embedded in his shoulder. He looked fearful. I stood over him nude, and gazed upon his form with a new mercy coursing through my veins.
‘Father, I forgive you,’ I whispered, smiling gently at him, glowing with benevolence, ‘you are not my enemy. Through you, I have seen the world, made many friends and learned invaluable wisdoms. Truly, you have given me all I am. Thank you.’
He groaned in response, and I heaved my swordfish nose out of his body and stabbed it into the ground, where it stood.
‘Let this be marked as the spot where a son… learned to love… his father,’ I boomed.
The newly gathered crowd cheered and hoisted me atop their shoulders, along with my bloodied and confused father, and as they cheered, I knew the time was right. I pulled the time machine from within my shorts, and pressed the red oblong button. I disappeared.
The universe deepthroated me and gagged me back up into my living room, mere seconds after I’d disappeared. All was silent. My tracksuit was restored, my hair newly bleached, my skin several shades paler. The clock on the mantel ticked softly. My father’s programme was still on television. But he wasn’t in his chair.
A frying pan clanked the back of my head, and sent me spinning to the floor. As I lay dazed, my old father’s foot was placed gently in the centre of my chest.
‘Call me ‘old man’ again, you little shit,’ he muttered, and he retook his place in front of the television, the frying pan cradled in his lap.
You win this round, old man.