Bolt-on brethren

My father employed a string of young men over 30 years or so as his apprentices. Brian, Michael, Adam, Len and Eoin were not my brothers but each of them was discussed across our formica kitchen table as if they were his adopted, errant offspring.

We heard frequent tales about each of these boys -their lamentable lack of spelling ability, their growing shrewdness in business under the old man’s harsh tuition, their fondness for toasted sandwiches, their new band, their public tears when chastised, their faithless wives. They were subject to a combination of public humiliation and devoted practical help with which I was familiar. When I visited the workshop they kept their heads down. I suspect, like me, they stayed that way for much of the time.

My bolt-on brethren and I received equal treatment. There were three main differences. First, I naively believed that I deserved some measure of preference. Second, these young men seemed all to gain my father’s respect gradually and third, unlike me, they could walk away. In due course, all left but Eoin who, although he failed in his obvious quest to marry The Chief’s daughter, succeeded nonetheless in being gifted the entire business.

I had always had, since age seven or so, the suspicion that I was somehow a disappointment to the old man. My lack of any footballing skills, my chubbiness, my growing reluctance to kowtow, my use of dangerously effeminate words (like “ethereal”) -all of these marked me as different. When young Eoin received his inheritance, my interpretation was confirmed and my humiliation was complete.

It never occurred to me until recently, just before he died, that he was giving these young men the support that he had needed, and missed out on, when he was young. It’s maddening that I never qualified for anything approaching his love, despite my best efforts. My conclusion is that he had been given none and had none, in turn, to give.