I have recently had one of the most important second thoughts of my life. I decided to stop hating my stepfather.
I had hated him for some 40 years. I had hated him for insinuating himself into the home where I was being brought up by my mother and grandparents: for his awkwardness and weakness in front of my mother; for his narrowness, his distrustfulness, for his greed and meanness, for the state of tension in which he held himself and all about him. I knew that he a Pole had been through Nazi invasion, Soviet prison camps, the war, postwar labour in coal mines and on road gangs. It made no difference.
I don’t believe I resented him for marrying my mother but I hated him for failing to be a father to me. I carried a memory of him transforming the shabby little idyll of my first years, growing up in East Fife with my mother and grandparents, into a battleground of all against all. I had a version of my upbringing within me in which the stratagems, hypocrisies and treacheries to which I resorted in the family became second nature and were his doing. When I wasn’t blaming or hating him, I. would pity him—in an abstract and scornful way.
We had full cause of tension. Unable to be the master in his house because the house was my mother’s and she was the mistress of it, he fell back on self?pity. Much of their life seemed like a grisly gavotte in which each would seek to manoeuvre himself or herself into a position of blamelessness. She was unable to conceive again, and had a hysterectomy. He had no stake in anything. Neither I nor, I think, my mother had any inkling of what that meant. He saw himself as bereft of the attributes of manhood. My mother thought she had given him everything. I thought they fucked me up—and unlike Philip Larkin’s “mum and dad,” I thought he had meant to. They divorced when they were in their early 70s, splitting the little property in Dundee so that they both lived in tiny flats. I scarcely saw him—although he loved my son.
My mother’s death two years ago did nothing to dissolve this knot of hatred for my stepfather. Though we embraced at the funeral, we quarrelled furiously after it—I erupting in…