Riyadh: Sunday 20th May 2012
The year was 1996. It was a glorious morning in late May, the sort of day which, in Britain, announces with improbable confidence, the arrival of Summer.
I rose early and while making breakfast in the quiet before my family rose, I noted the lengthening grass in our back garden and decided that I would mow the lawn before my parents asked me to do so. Partly this was because I was a loving son. More importantly it was a recognition that I would probably be required to perform this task in any case and it made sense to do this before it got too hot. But I imagine that I had a more insidious purpose too. I probably wanted to ingratiate myself with my father, whose opinion mattered greatly to me and whose view of University Students (I had not long completed my 1st Spring Semester) was characterized by a withering assessment of their work ethic in relation to those who actually earned a living.
This was an opportunity to show myself in a considerably better light. Unfortunately for us both, my father’s reaction to my efforts was not as I had expected. Opening the upstairs window and shaming me in front any neighbours up early enough to enjoy the glorious morning, he shouted down that if I was going to cut the grass, I could at least do this properly, otherwise leave it to him.
This was cutting. Not only was this holy unfair criticism (and fairness mattered greatly to me), but it also implied that I had only undertaken this chore, at his behest. This was a brilliant undermining of my own, somewhat pompous, ends. It probably never occurred to me that cutting the grass was the least I could do around the house to which I had just returned for the summer. (I would, before long find a menial summer job, but had yet to do so and was not if truth be told, entirely sure how to go about getting one). Rather than the great favour I imagined myself to be performing, I was instead merely doing the very least which should have been expected of me. Moreover, I suspect, I had unwittingly embarrassed my father, who probably fully intended to do the grass when he got up.
None of this occurred to me, however. All I saw was that I was made to look like a lazy good-for-nothing in front of our neighbours. My beatific gesture had backfired. Moreover, I was deeply offended by the criticism of my grass-cutting ability. I had performed this task many times and was hurt that this evident fact should have been ignored and my efforts be made to look amateurish. Critically, my ego had been bruised. Foolishly equating cutting the suburban lawn in the morning with an enhanced sense of masculinity (as though Neanderthal man liked nothing better than to start-up the Flymo on a Saturday morning, before burning some Woolly Mammoth cutlets on a gas barbecue) I not only felt undermined but emasculated.
Mine is a stubborn sort of pride and I finished the garden, allowing my rage to spark and catch within me, before mellowing into a hardened bitterness. By the time I returned to the house, my father was sitting in the kitchen, where he thanked me for my efforts and told me that it had finished up all right in the end. Even now, I would like to tell you that I spoke with the calm steel of “Dirty Harry” Callaghan, out of the side of my mouth, a picture of controlled contempt, but arty 19 year olds are rarely capable of such displays of male prowess. Never-the-less, I was able to make up for this with a decent level of pomposity. “Dad,” if said, piously, “I love you to bits, and you know I would do anything for you, but I will never cut your grass again.” I think he treated this as something of a joke comment; his teenage son, over-reacting as usual. It would soon be forgotten.
But I fancied too, that I detected an element of respect in his demeanor. He was a man who could appreciate a show of pride when he saw it. He didn’t ask again that summer.
As anyone who has ever been involved in a family feud can testify, arguments between loved ones are often epic in their intensity whilst banal in origin.
No civilized human would remember this incident a year on. But fast forward to May (or possibly June), 1997. The weather was cool but clammy, with puffy, low clouds exposing grey bottoms as they scudded across the sky, driven by a bluff westerly breeze, and separated by cracks of blue sky which threatened half-heartedly, the possibility of a fine afternoon. I woke at 11am and descended the stairs. My father, who had been up for hours, was cheery. “Morning, Son, I was wondering, do you fancy cutting the grass for me?”
I must have rehearsed this moment a thousand times. I would not rub it in his face. It was important to be placatory but keep my tone level and leave no doubt as to the depth of feeling which I felt over the matter. This was after all, a moral point I was making. “I’m sorry, Dad, I’ll do anything else you ask, but I won’t cut your grass.” I steeled myself for the response which, when it came, was flatter than I had expected. Clearly he had half expected my response. Indeed, it later dawned on me, he had rehearsed the conversation, himself; shown me the respect of asking if I would perform this chore, when he could simply have commanded that I do it and tested my resolve. “Understood.” He said.
It was a curious moment, the first time in my life I can recall specifically conflicting emotions. On the one hand this was elation itself. This was not really about the slight my father had caused. It had nothing really to do with my Dad, at all. It was a coming of age; a rite of passage; evidence that I could hold my own in a world of men more powerful than I myself could be. But it was also utterly un-comment worthy. Except by those neighbours, who’s opinion had uncharacteristically mattered the year before. They would see my father sweating in the sun, trawling back and forth with the lawn mower and cast judgment over an idle son who would be so disrespectful as to not help out his father. Moreover, I was acutely aware that in taking what I had previously imagined to be a principled stance, I had inadvertently absolved myself from ever having to devote time to this again. What might have felt like a win-win situation, instead felt like a sort of defeat: more Spiv than Spartacus.
But while it bothered me, it didn’t bother me that much. The following year, my mother asked on his behalf, if I would consider cutting the grass, and I refused. It was entirely convenient by now, allowing me to get on with the important business of getting on with life, although I cannot now imagine anything I might have done which would have been more memorable, useful or beneficial to the family. After that, I was never asked again. My father would simply go out and perform the task himself.
And so it might have stayed. And had it done so, I would probably not be recounting it now. In the May of 2003, my parents travelled to Cyprus to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. My father had bought a pergola which arrived the day they left and which lay, in its packaging (a sort of green sock, such as might have contained 1950s camping equipment) awaiting assembly on the morning I arrived home from work (having completed a late shift in the pub the night before). Standing at the same window as I had in 1996, it occurred to me how pleased they would be to arrive back and see the pergola erected and the garden furniture out. But to make a half decent job of this would require the grass to be cut, allowing the sun to spread over a crisp green surface, the quintessence of the English garden lawn.
I set to work.
I couldn’t quite complete the job of erecting the pergola. A two man assembly job, I simply couldn’t reach far enough to attach the roof to it’s legs and I was obliged to batten them down until my father returned and the job could be completed. But then, that was never something he would mind. He appreciated the effort and, although it went un-commented upon, the fact that I was willing once more to cut his grass was undoubtedly welcome too.
He would pass away suddenly that autumn.
I will try to make a point of cutting the grass when I next return in August, and when I do I will think of my father, and the simple love and respect he showed a son, too self interested to notice.