The raw summer light framing the dark blue curtains became like a silent alarm. The movement around the otherwise still house at this time grew familiar and made the bed feel luxuriously comfortable. Without a roof the heavy snow fell on everything, and eventually all my stuff disappeared completely beneath it and everything became white, except for the bed, where I lay with someone I barely knew, but held tightly. She was smiling and beautiful and there was an intensity between us and such warmth that a circle had formed where the snow had melted before it could settle and we were completely dry and deeply happy. I couldn’t tell what anything was and the snow continued to fall. The prolonged coughing in the kitchen seemed to disturb everybody into a temporary and collective concentration. Sometimes minutes would pass. Closing the paper and folding the cigarette into the glass ashtray next to the paint spattered radio on low, he spoke harshly to the cat who dashed out of his way from its spot at the top of the stairs. Entirely black, at night in the dim light of the table lamp it was everyone’s habit to hold the bannister and turn sideways and miss out that first step just in case. Everyone except dad. Who yelled when he remembered or frantically clutched at the bannister at the last moment and took it personally. The toilet would flush and it was almost time for the bedroom to fill with a sickening light and smell and everything to contain a sickening feeling. Determined to be the first on site, leaving a moment later than he’d planned caused an uncomfortable 2 hour drive along the M1 to Elstree, meaning whenever a van sat waiting on site before us, his grim and confusing irritation made my heart sink at the prospect of getting up earlier still. It was this kind of insight into the life he’d led for decades that I feared the most when agreeing to work with him for the rest of the summer before leaving for university.
Returning home broke from months travelling the Middle East, I got a job back in the local car parts factory I’d worked in to fund the trip. The strong smell of metal and oil was identifiable at the gates, whilst inside the deafening sound of thumping machinery and the sight of every detail exactly as I remembered caused a momentary panic, made worse by one of the older women who’d been at the factory the majority of her adult life spotting me whilst working bits of fiddly metal through her machine with a mesmerizing dexterity before dropping each identical and usefully unidentifiable unit into a castored bin, “Well, was it worth it?” she said without breaking concentration. She had the same cat mug. Everyone had their own mug next to the machine they were allocated. The 10 minute morning and afternoon coffee and tea break came as a great relief. Some people stole extra minutes by taking a toilet break they didn’t need but the machine counters were tallied throughout the day and people were warned if it didn’t read as it should. Her hair was so thick and wild that even though I was standing at her side I couldn’t see her face. “Yes,” I said finally, staring at all that hair and recognising a bitterness in my voice, the tan fading from my arms, wondering if she’d meant it the way it came across. She turned to look at me a moment continuing the fluid motion of her hands and seeing her expression for the first time I couldn’t tell either way.
A few of us fled these doors for the full 30 minutes lunch break, getting as far away as possible before clocking back in with moments to spare. Even a single minute over, inked conclusively on the card, meant docked money. Someone had calculated that even though his journey took almost precisely 10 minutes, this at least meant a near blissful 8-10 minutes in his own house sat at his own dining table alone. He went rally racing at the weekend using written-off classic cars that he’d get back into usable if unsellable shape with various, amateurishly painted numbers on the side. These cars pulled up in the car park beyond the tall PVC strip curtains of the load bay with a flamboyant pride. Even though it cost him precious seconds, he offered me a lift as long as my destination was on the way, and walking through the curtains he’d always be ready at the gates glaring anxiously out the wide open passenger door with the engine roaring as though a robbery was taking place. Most didn’t see the point in leaving for such a short time and headed for the miserably small canteen to eat their food in a silence that seemed near total except for the odd crisp packet and character with a habit of working more pumps out of their machine way after the bell had sounded across the otherwise empty factory floor, determined to be the last to stop and prove some bewildering point, like dad, angrily pulling up alongside the other white vans with the same disappeared logo of some electrical firm gone out of business that you could still see clearly even though the letters had long been removed. The first time the windows came down in the morning cold, the clumsy conversation and relentless swearing startled me and dad became almost unrecognisable in front of my eyes. Nobody swore in the house. Mom wouldn’t tolerate it. We couldn’t stand to see mom genuinely upset.
A second fridge stood in the garage to maintain food for 8 people, where stacked tins of paint lined an entire wall like the food in the cupboard and the smell permeated everything like our long discarded toys which caused dad to yell about not being able to ever find anything. He found it easier to keep most of what he needed in the back of the van where everything took on a silvery layer, making it difficult to pick out anything in particular without concentrating. There didn’t seem to be a pylon standing in any field we passed when out driving somewhere that he hadn’t painted at some time. We enjoyed this display of pride as kids, especially as it came as such a contrast to the man who’d enter the house and collapse on his front across the rug in the lounge to read the newspaper, demanding silence with a venom that unnerved everyone but my eldest sister until mom came in with a mountain of food on the biggest plate in the house. The steam climbed around his face as he ate in the same position. I tried to eat like this once but found it difficult to swallow. Pushing the emptied oblong Pyrex plate away his head lowered steadily toward the print to doze. Snoring with his mouth open next to a picture of naked breasts once, my eldest sister folded the paper in a funny place and called mom in. She laughed in her usual way that concealed her teeth, went out to the garage and returned to the kitchen. Mom hated to cook and Dad complained bitterly about the pylons.
A new job was coming up in London and they needed extra people. Even though it meant seeing the back of the factory and far better pay, I sensed it was inevitably a mistake to say yes. Such a thing had never come up before, even when my brother was out of work for a period of time and sending sarcastic CV’s. We’d joke about the prospect in our bunkbeds and threatened to start eating on our front the next thing whilst licking food off breasts. Making too much noise, mom threatening that dad would be in next was always the last warning she needed to make. I was the watcher in the wheat when anyone worked on a tower alone, finishing off the miniscule sections missed by the painters working furiously down the line. The linesmen refused to sign-off anything missing a fraction of paint. My intention was to breathe the paint odour I adored and read in the van, but that very first day I forgot the book and could only find a day old copy of the Sun amongst all the stuff on the dashboard. Bored, watching dad work his way down the tower, the reality of his job looked as brutal as anything we’d imagined. Feeling cold with the back doors open, I got out and looked across the field to the men scurrying about like insects devouring what remained on the bones of a large animal, closed the doors and sat back inside. I stared out the window. I wondered about pretending to be dead in my seat.
Hitting the ground eventually, furious and thirsty and covered in paint, he headed across the now baking field for water and the carelessly made cheese sandwich he’d wrapped that morning in old sliced bread packaging. Hearing him rage suddenly, I realised the back doors of the van hadn’t opened from the outside for years and clambered over the chaos of things in the back to grab the screwdriver from the exposed door panel but couldn't figure out how it released the broken catch. Radiating anger through the dirty glass, he came round and grabbed at a dust sheet to cover his seat before climbing into the van smearing silver on anything he touched and swearing like crazy.
As though in the factory canteen, we ate our food in brooding silence. The need to finance everything fell entirely on dad’s shoulders.
Later that week, gathering equipment one morning from the shipping container on site, everyone stood preparing for the long day ahead by smoking and breaking off the dried layers of paint from their paint belts by hurling them to the ground and applying Vaseline to any exposed bit of face. They each looked upon my sedentary role with open hostility. Unlike the line-manager's good-looking daughter brought in to do the same job, who seemed unblemished by the insulting simplicity of the task in the eyes of the others. A flatbed lorry carrying large sacks of ballast pulled up to be unloaded. Reeling from all this animosity, I seized the opportunity to prove something and climbed up to remove the heavy bags one after another with an ease and purpose that silenced the group. Finally somebody spoke, "Well, we may not know much, but us Browne’s certainly know how to work hard,” he said. Pausing at these words, full of a sudden loathing, I continued hauling the bags figuring not to bother mentioning the 2 years spent at graphic design school or the university place in September and longed more than ever for these weeks to pass.
Admitting this to the line-manager when working alongside him he replied that I shouldn't ever wish my life away. His open-toe sandals looked as incongruous as his beautiful daughter seemed as the only female in the group. Wearing less than anyone, she dealt with any attention that came her way with a distance I admired. The money was too good to care. He asked me to tie up the fence post sprawled on the ground connected to 3 lengths of barbed wire that formed the gate to the field with a looped wire attached to the fixed post. Confused and enfeebled by the long day doing almost nothing in the blazing heat, I made an odd calculation under his gaze and lifted the post in the air attempting to thread it through the loop instead of simply staking it in the ground and fastening the loop over the top. Shocked, he silently stepped forward in his sandals, took the post from my hands and told me I'd make a perfect university student, seeing that I had brains and absolutely no common sense. Fixing the post and struggling to think of a single useful thing I could do, he said I may as well stay near the gate, got in his van and drove to the next field. I watched as he pulled up to the tower and shouted something up but they didn’t seem to hear or care much for what he’d said. There was no time. When it was decided to let one of the watchers go, fearing they would think him nepotistic to keep his daughter on, I was surprised and disappointed to hear I was to stay.
Sharing this feeling, one of the men who sculpted human-size clay heads in the back of his van whenever it rained despised my presence to such a degree he seemed to avoid catching my eye in case his disgust hardened into the kind of anger he didn’t like to carry around. He kept the heads in a duffle bag. I found their scale and detail hugely impressive and told him this but it didn’t make a difference, and in a similar incident to the makeshift gatepost, when something had to be hoisted to the top of the tower I stood in the wild square of grass below unable to work out how to attach the tool securely to the rope they’d sent down. The calls rained down to send the fucking thing up and to stop fucking about, and in the confusion I made a mess of it and partially sent it up before it inevitably worked loose and came spinning violently back to the ground. Nimbly, and with precision, the head-sculptor positioned every step down in a way that communicated his anger and disbelief at what had just happened. He fixed the thing to the hoist himself bellowing to the ground the whole time before climbing past the horizontal gate back up the tower. Waiting until he neared the others, he said conclusively that there was no way on this earth I was related to Dave Browne, who stood in the air silently looking on.
At the weekend he stood in the kitchen and drank with commitment whilst listening to 50's rock and roll, smoked continuously and spoke regretfully about things. He knew all the words and hated the towers. None of us really knew anything about his job, or cared much, save for the simple notion that he often worked away for weeks at a time in different places across the country and that every adult we knew felt the need to comment at just what a hard worker he was. The sincerity in these words was obvious, but it didn’t seem to mean anything, and we shrugged at the normality of it all.
It was only when the majority of pressure had moved on that he admitted to feeling the burden of being the sole provider and at this the gently curling cigarette smoke and ticking clock and everything in the house I knew every inch of and had longed eternally to escape seemed to freeze at this simple confession. I felt sorry that he'd worked his life away for us and this wallpaper and sunburst-shaped clock greyed with dust and worry as I had always felt sorry when watching through the balusters at the sight of him crawling up the stairs on all fours like some kind of wounded animal. His body a wreck. His core of boiling anger that in many ways had defined him as much as the drinking had lately cooled into a more philosophical and shockingly emotional reflection. He would cry around my sisters on their regular visits which brought to mind John Peels’ confession that he hardly ever cried before turning 40 but after how he hardly ever stopped. I still couldn’t ever imagine him as truly old. The pain of his swollen joints seemed to keep him young. His storytelling and humour and drinking kept him young. He filled his speech with colloquialisms picked up from all over the country.
In the summer it was light outside when he went to bed, and when the phone went in the hall he ignored it, even when he happened to walk by it as it rang as though stone deaf, not the slightest bit embarrassed when it was for him after all. With everyone else out my brother put on a banned horror film and we sat down to watch. The phone went and I got up to answer, confused more than anything, and I said to the person asking that dad was in bed. I heard the feeble, broken door handle spin freely on the inside of the bedroom door and the cat fled as he came rushing down the stairs pulling clothes on whilst glaring at me with a wild-eyed disbelief as if I'd said an unforgivable thing and snatched the phone from my hand. Speaking with a painful and alien submissiveness, he hung up and turned on me with a bitterness that drew a laugh from the lounge, my brother resentful at all the years stuck in our tiny, overheated bedroom together. He left the horror film on despite dad’s presence I noticed, and had turned the volume down to listen to what was being said rather than attempt to hide anything. Not that he needed to, or cared who noticed whatever he did these days. Dad's patience had long worn out and I wondered if it had ever appeared to my brother and eldest sister, or even in my earliest memory when his dreams had covered less distance and the seriousness of everything seemed like a game and almost adventurous, but this was different. He yanked the smoke-heavy curtains closed and asked why I would tell someone he was in bed at this time as if a pensioner lived in the house. Some-bastarding-decrepit-old-pensioner who went to bed at this time of the day. No longer watching the film, in a kind of shock and delight and with everyone out the house, my brother enjoyed the scene and his laughter seemed to spur dad’s rage into further examples of feebleness. I decided to go to bed and listen to the radio. The radiator whistled and heat poured out unremittingly. To turn it off would flood the carpet. To kill the radiators at the main switch meant no hot water. It was light outside.
Leaving with a bin bag of his stuff, my brother looked around the room finally and said he couldn’t believe I was going to have it to myself. I had wasted no time in dismantling his bed into the garage and the space around me echoed the feeling of freedom I had found at college, still radiating from the epiphany that I could choose the people who surrounded me; actually choose who to spend time with, not dumbly feel compelled to keep up the internecine relationships with those I despised, with no thought of how else to spend time at such an age other than lying in bed or go out cycling alone. He drunkenly pissed through the mattress one Christmas Eve. He’d not long been in and I couldn’t figure out what the noise was at first but from then on I always kept a bin bag ready to stuff between the slats of wood. He was often angry around this time. Angrier than ever. He seemed to have stopped caring about anything. I retreated into a silence that I was shocked to see actually unnerve him. One Christmas Eve he said the sooner we went to sleep the sooner it would be Christmas. To combat this loneliness I was bought a games console but it ended up in the garage with everything else, next to everything we ever wanted. It scared me how much time I could lose doing nothing. When he cried that time I listened in the dark. Until he lowered his arm from his bunk and pulled the door open next to us just enough to illuminate the stack of pills in his hand, shaking them gently as if to impart their ridiculous number, threatening to take them all. I lay in bed in silence as he took them all. Listening intently a moment, I threw off the blanket and went downstairs to call an ambulance. On the way to the hospital I remember saying to dad, Why did you and mom have so many kids? One of the youngest sisters cried inconsolably and ran up to their room to watch him leave the house for good with his black bin bag over his shoulder. It was really beautiful, and I felt for her, but it felt like the greatest day of my life.
Driving back, after a couple of cans, he mentioned that he should imagine it would be cold in the van with the doors open at that time in the morning. The release he felt on the way home from Elstree was instantaneous. He turned Classic Gold up on the radio and lit cigarettes. Told stories and joked about things, called everybody he didn’t like a bloody merchant. He enjoyed having someone to listen to all this over such a long journey and the summer passed. I left for university vowing many things and had the feeling that art was probably the most important thing I had discovered. David Browne gradually left the towers for more traditional painting and decorating before being forced into retirement in 2013 when the van was written off in an accident, and eventually due to increasingly poor mental health. Sectioned under the mental health act in 2015, he jumped the fence at the first opportunity and escaped down the road, before being caught by the police and returned to the home, where he remains.
A documentary was made early that same summer for the BBC, featuring the majority of the same gang, as part of a series called Picture This: https://youtu.be/EhIf6163H4c