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Crying in McDonald's
"Messing up is okay, and life is hard sometimes."
I hope Father’s Day was great if you were celebrating it. Whilst some enjoyed last Sunday, others found it difficult: those who’ve been trying to become fathers, those who’ve lost their own or grew up without one, and the many who still bear bruises from a rough childhood.
The New Fatherhood explores the broad vistas, high mountains and deep canyons of fatherhood. Dec Bowring reached out to me almost a year ago and pitched an idea for an essay: he isn’t a dad, but wanted to write about the complicated relationship he had with his own in the hope it might help others understand “that messing up is okay, life is hard sometimes, and your kids can love and forgive you just as much as you’d hope.”
Today I wanted to dedicate this space to anyone who has been through it, and is doing the hard, necessary work to break cycles, heal their inner child and raise better humans.
When Dad didn’t turn up, sometimes my grandparents stopped the tears by taking me to McDonald’s.
I was 7 years old when I’d had enough of him not showing up, perched on the staircase’s first step, my self-assembled bag still on my back. I told my Grandparents—my parents, via proxy—that I didn’t want to see him anymore. I’d grown up fast.
Fleeting visits at whichever address he’d blagged came over the years, one-off appearances before the curtain descended again. There was the time I’d “illegally” left school at dinnertime, went to the chippie where my Auntie worked, and she’d pass me free food, saying, “Your Dad’s in the bookies ‘round the corner. Been a few years since the last time. Go on, see him?” And just as forecasted, I found him the way I’d expected: swigging from a can and thumbing coins into a slot; he’d spent the notes a long time ago. There was the time I’d given him a typed letter, when I’d started secondary school to explain how I love him, miss him, and want to spend life with him. It lasted a couple of months before his number got disconnected. He wasn’t at the bookies anymore.
Dad had me when he was 15, or thereabouts. At 15, I was flunking detentions for forgetting to do homework, thrusting newspapers through the letterboxes of cantankerous pensioners, and taking bedazzled mirror selfies in Claire’s with friends I’ve long forgotten the names of, getting home before the streetlights blinked on. He had a premature baby to contend with—I arrived 3 months early. Lupus claimed Mum’s life a year later. Although Dad had a network of family to bolster him, you can only help someone so much.
By 2013, I’d left secondary school with low exam results and enrolled in a prestigious Sixth Form College after writing letters to the Principal, begging for a place and a chance to prove myself. I hadn’t seen Dad since his number was disconnected 3 years prior, but there I was, stomping down the street to my earphones’ rhythm, for him to fall out of a phone box, drunk again, grabbing my arm. I felt embarrassed and nearly fobbed him off, yet thrilled to see him, so I meekly took his number, expecting it to be out of service in a week. It turns out he pawned his phones at CEX for fast cash. I’d later work there part-time and search his name to find multiple addresses where he’d been crash-landing over the years.
We arranged to meet a week later.
This time, I was 17 years old. Older than when he became a father himself, I turned up at the time he’d suggested. Outdoor table. Our area of town, Newton Farm—no actual farms to be found—was changing. The council flats he’d hitchhike into with girlfriends, where I’d had sporadic overnight stays with him, were being torn down, replaced by boxy Americanised houses with grassy lawns and pathways in identical patterns; Tetris blocks fitted together. A constant was the roadside McDonald’s, next to this changing face, my childhood decadence. With no money for a flat deposit, or anything more long-term than that month’s rent, Dad forwent beers for dinner. He always did when I stayed on occasional weekends. I felt in the lap of luxury. A kid, 6 years old, associating a visit to Dad’s with a meal emblazoned with that cheeky clown face on the box. 7, being entrusted to carry the tray to the table as “you’re a big lad, now”. 8, now wondering why Dad didn't cook. I’d sit tidily, lining up the corner of the napkins against the tables’ edges, fill paper sauce holders exactly to the line, and wait patiently. Dad would upheave everything for an outdoor table so he could roll tobacco.
That was the past. In the present, I looked around. The trees lost their leaves, the road was straight, grey, and long. This was the kind of town where people left school and landed jobs in factories, garages or care homes, the names of which everyone referred to by shorthand because there’s fuck all else to do for work and everyone’s there, toiling with their cousins and siblings. Cargill, the meat processing plant; Broomy Hill, the most well-known of a hundred elderly care homes; Rotherwas, the industrial estate where metal is worked. Almost everyone I knew worked in retail, so stating “down Asda’s”, or “at the New Market” earned nods of immediate recognition. People don’t give exact addresses in taxis, as locales are unsearchable on Google. “The Hop Pole, please, drive” I’ve heard friends ask; that bar closed 10 years ago and has rebranded twice. “Top fields, please!” to a particular signless grassy patch where the next council estate over ends. “Behind Odeon” refers to the local bus station (in itself behind a former Odeon chain cinema; it’s now an evangelical church), whilst “the back of Tesco’s” intricately refers to a smaller alternative bus depot and taxi rank, incidentally housed in a Tesco supermarket car park.
By now, my friends from school seemed to be getting a deposit together for a 70’s box house, or buying a Ford KA only to be stuck in the same traffic daily, marvelling like it was a new thing.
We rekindled contact for the last time shy of a decade ago.
He arrived a sharp-ish 17 minutes late, and I swallowed the radiating pangs of heartache, dormant from my childhood. I watched giant lorries roar past the window—our town is a popular trucker lay-by, if that’s any indication of the place. The beeps of the fryers frenzied, as ill-disciplined kids around me were bribed by their parents to behave, rewarded for their belligerence with a Happy Meal. His familiar silhouette bounded in with his familiar walk.
We talked about everything. My boyfriend situation. What I study in college. How he hid from a disgruntled family from the Traveller community after getting into trouble. How he found work week-by-week, painting houses or fixing bathrooms on the Welsh coastline, swiftly losing a job after fighting with the bosses and bottle, he finally had a new girlfriend. They broke up because he stopped drinking and he realised he needed to be alone and sober for the first time. I wanted to cry for him. I told him how I thought he was in grief for years, and how his drinking didn’t register as a flag because his peers drank a lot. He was reeling from what he had gone through. He battled his own demons, becoming unreliable. Sometimes he bailed on our weekends together because a job came up and he needed money after spending the rent on booze. Other times, he was stupored in his suffering.
I don’t think he ever told anyone exactly how he felt.
When it came to order—his treat—he uncrumpled some grubby pound notes from his pocket. The paper ones fell to shit. He asked what I’d like.
“Nuggets, please. And a Fanta.”
He chuckled to himself. “What about something a bit… Stronger? Big Mac and a Coke? Full fat”.
I got the Nuggets. He assigned signifiers of masculinity to everything—even food. His dinner was bar fights and bookies and cigarette smoke. Oil and grease. He looked at mine, the fizzy fruity bright orange of my drink—all cartoonish. We said, “Cheers.”
He grabbed his burger with both hands, the bun holding reliably, then side-glanced me, a nugget between index fingers, watching me carefully dipping it into the tiny Sweet Curry pot. He glanced at me suspiciously; questioning something. Repeat six times. He didn’t say anything else about that. I knew he felt inner conflict about my sexuality, but his love was unconditional regardless. He made sure I knew that. He’d apologised, almost tearfully, for our entire meal, about how he wasn’t there when he knew he should’ve been.
The sky was dimming, and the chilled air was starting to come in, so we agreed it was time to part ways. I grabbed his hand, holding it gently. Before I spoke, I noticed how hardened they were. He was only 34. All that hard work, grabbed on the fly. “I don’t hold anything against you”, I said. I looked into my own eyes staring back at me. “You were suffering. Still are. You did your best with what you had. What matters is you’re here now.”
I saw my eyes in the shape of his but he looked away, forcefully staring ahead. He tearfully let go of my hand to sip the last bit of coke, then repressed his emotions, and hugged me tightly. “You’re my boy, always will be. No matter where I am.’
That was it. No more texts. He fell into another relationship with a woman who suffered from addiction, and I think he got caught up in a web. A few months later, in early 2014, he died. Preventably, accidentally, untimely. His girlfriend explained that she’d last seen him in “2013 or so.” He was sober, and on a phone call with her, only to excuse himself as his son was “bombing it past and he wanted to grab him before it’s too late.” I remembered that phone box encounter but with sickening guilt. I assumed less of him.
I moved to a city, earned a degree, didn’t use it, and now work a variety of strange, fun jobs that let me be surrounded by funny people making a simple living. Then when I go back home, maybe two or three times a year, I take a walk up that straight road, looking at the townhouses with Audis and BMWs parked in the driveways, I see the glowing Golden Arches of McDonald’s; the oily smell of salt growing closer. I order my food via a machine, tap my iPhone, and sit at a posh American diner-style table to wait for my order to arrive. How different it all is. The food is fundamentally the same. The table is in the same place, roughly, as when I met Dad. I take a bite. The salty softness of a Nugget is familiar. That golden starchy batter should be sold on its own; it’s divine. It’s there I remember him in my mind.
I move outside after finishing my food. It’s time to go. Almost. When the beeps of the fryers stop wafting through automatic doors, and the roars of cargo and cars quieten, I hear him. The roadside birds, brave in their pursuit of food, tweet nearby. Kids too young to be out alone, but stronger in numbers, cut across the road on BMX bikes and swear at the police who sit idly. The last of the sunlight blinks and flickers through a sad attempt at beautification—a line of artificially-planted trees.
For a moment, I think about how the last thing we have, do or see usually traumatises us. My grandma never touched a chequers board again after playing it the night her Mum died in a car crash. Gina Yashere, a comedian I idolise, wrote in her memoir about her Mum never being able to eat Polo Mints after missing her Dad’s flight to find some, inevitably the last time she’d see him. Annoyingly, I like McDonald’s too much. As a fussy kid who wouldn’t eat anything, my family dressed healthy food up in polystyrene packaging to trick me. The Golden Arches signified comfort, even after Dad died.
I see his teary eyes in my mind, hearing his apologies for not being around. I get up alone—and tidy my tray away, I’m not an animal—and leave the bench unoccupied. But it’s not really empty. I hear what I said as we both readied to leave for the last time nine years ago: “It’s alright, Dad. You’re here now.”
That’s all from me this week. Hello to the new readers who’ve come via ParentData. This issue was slightly different from our standard format. For those who’ve been here longer than a day or two: I approached the wonderful Emily Oster and asked if she’d be interested in collaborating to raise awareness of paternal postnatal depression, which she gladly agreed to. A reminder that all essays I write about mental health will always be public and are available here. You can also go to the website and click “Mental Health” to get to them.
A new reader emailed and has kindly allowed me to share it here:
Thank you for the work you are doing.
My wife shared your essay on paternal postnatal depression (she follows Emily Oster's newsletter) and it has shed a light on a lot of what I have been feeling, and the ways I've been behaving, over the last year since our second child was born.
It's difficult to admit these feelings and behaviors, but my wife and I have recently begun discussing them. I know I should seek professional help, and I've admitted (kind of) as much to her in the past, but I haven't been able to bring myself to do it. Going down this rabbit hole and reading a few articles on the topic tonight might just be the nudge I need.
Thank you for highlighting this experience and sharing that there are ways to seek help.
As always, send feedback to the usual place: