We set off earlier and earlier to arrive before anyone else. The light of the landing lit up the bedroom as dad looked in without saying a word, waking me instantly with the threat of leaving a moment later than he’d planned making an uncomfortable 2 hour drive along the M1 to Elstree. This kind of insight into the life he’d led for decades was exactly the kind of thing I feared when agreeing to work with him all summer before leaving for university. Whenever a van sat waiting on site before us, dad’s grim and confusing irritation made my heart sink at the prospect of getting up earlier still and seemed to highlight the unending differences between us.
The middle child of 6, I was the first in the family to go into further education. None of us really knew anything about dad’s job, or cared much, save for the simple notion that he painted pylons and that every visitor to the house felt the need to comment at just what a hard worker our dad was. We shrugged at the normality of it all. An entire wall in the garage was lined with tins of stacked paint like tinned food on a shelf and the smell permeated our discarded toys which made dad yell about not being able to get to anything. He found it easier to keep most of what he needed in the back of the van where everything took on a silver veneer, making it difficult to pick out anything in particular without concentrating. Driving somewhere, there wasn’t a pylon in any field we passed that dad 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 collapse on his front across the dishevelled rug in the lounge to read the newspaper upon arriving home, demanding silence with a venom that unnerved everyone but my eldest sister, until mom came in with a mountain of food on the only oblong 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 empty Pyrex plate off the paper his head lowered steadily toward the print to doze. Kind of snoring next to a picture of naked breasts once, my sister folded the paper in just the right place to make dad with his mouth open look foolish and called mom in to look. She laughed in her usual way that concealed her teeth, and returned to the kitchen. Mom hated to cook and Dad complained bitterly about the pylons.
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 save enough to fund the trip. Seeing me walk back in, one of the older women who’d worked in the factory the majority of her adult life said without looking up from her work, “Well, was it worth it?” Her hands moved the bits of fiddly metal at pace through the machine with a mesmerizing dexterity, dropping each identical and usefully unidentifiable unit to the heaped pile in the castored bin to her left. Pulling the machine’s guard down to the repetitious sound of the steel strip being thumped into shape, 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 without stopping 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 drive home took 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 amateurishly painted with numbers on the side. These cars sat 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 ready to take off 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 cold early light, the clumsy conversation and relentless swearing startled me enough to shift awkwardly in my seat surprised at how unrecognisable dad became in front of my eyes. Nobody swore in the house. Mom wouldn’t tolerate it. We couldn’t stand to see mom genuinely upset.
When offered work on the next job coming up in London, even though it meant seeing the back of the factory and much better pay, I sensed it was inevitably a mistake to say yes and finally work with dad. The offer had never come up before for my brother and I, even when my brother was out of work and sending sarcastic CV’s. We joked about the prospect and threatened to start eating on our front the next thing whilst licking pictures of breasts. I was the watcher in the wheat when anyone worked on a tower alone, finishing off the miniscule sections missed by the swarm of painters working furiously down the line. The linesmen refused to sign-off anything missing a fraction of silver. My intention was to read in the van and breathe the paint I adored the smell of, but that very first day I forgot the book and could only find a day old copy of the Sun newspaper 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 pylons with miniscule men scurrying about like insects devouring what remained on the bones of a large animal, closed the doors and sat back inside, staring out the window. I wondered about pretending to be dead in my seat.
Hitting the ground, furious and thirsty and covered in paint, dad 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 many 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.
We sat 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 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 a similar job to my own, who seemed unblemished by the insulting simplicity of our task in the eyes of the others. A flatbed lorry carrying large sacks of ballast pulled up to be unloaded. Reeling from this monosyllabic 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 someone spoke, "Well, we may not know much, but us Browne’s certainly know how to work hard,” dad 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 seemed as incongruous as his beautiful daughter looked as the only female in the group, wearing less than anyone and dealing 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 but absolutely no common sense. Fixing the post and struggling to think of a single helpful 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. When it was decided to let one of the watchers go, fearing they would think him nepotistic to keep his daughter on instead of me, 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 awkward 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 dad at the top, he said conclusively that there was no way on this earth I was related to Dave Browne, who stood in the air 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. It was only when the majority of pressure had moved on he admitted he’d felt the burden of being the sole provider for everyone and at this the 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 ugly sunburst-shaped clock greyed with dust and worry as I had always felt sorry when watching through the banister 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 4 sisters on their regular visits and this reminded me of something John Peel said about hardly ever crying before turning 40 but after how he hardly ever stopped. I still couldn’t ever imagine him being truly old. The pain of his swollen joints seemed to keep him young. His storytelling and humour and drinking kept him young. In the summer it was still light outside when he went to bed.
The phone in the hall went and we both ignored it through habit. A habit I’d picked up when watching him pass by the phone as though stone deaf, not the slightest bit embarrassed when it was for him after all. Except when I answered and said to the person asking that he was in bed. Only to hear the feeble hinge of my parents broken bedroom door handle turn unnecessarily. Rushing down the stairs pulling on clothes, dad glared at me with a wild-eyed disbelief as if I'd said an unforgivable thing and snatched the phone from my hand. After speaking with a painful submissiveness, he hung up and turned on me with a bitterness that drew a laugh from the lounge where my brother sat watching TV, resentful at all the years stuck in our tiny, overheated bedroom together. Dad's patience had worn beyond repair and I wondered if it had ever appeared to my brother and sister, or even in my earliest memory, when his dreams had travelled less distance and the seriousness of everything seemed like a game and almost adventurous, but this was different. He yanked the smoke-heavy curtains to the middle and asked why I would tell someone he was in bed at this time as if a pensioner lived in the house. Some sodding decrepit pensioner who went to bed at this time. No longer watching his programme, in a kind of shock and delight and with everyone else out the house, my brother enjoyed the scene and his laughter seemed to spur dad into new fits of rage and examples of feebleness. Going upstairs and lying in bed to listen to the radio, the radiator whistled and the heat poured out unremittingly. To turn it off would flood the carpet. To kill the radiators at the main switch meant no hot water.
When he left carrying a bin bag of his stuff, my brother looked around finally and said he couldn’t believe I was going to have this room to myself. I had wasted no time in dismantling his bunk bed into the garage and the space around me echoed the freedom I had found at college, still radiating from the epiphany that I could choose the people who surrounded me; actually choose my friends, 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. He drunkenly pissed through the mattress one Christmas. 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 in between the slats of wood. He was often angry around this time. I retreated into a silence that I could see unnerved him. One Christmas he said the sooner we went to sleep the sooner it would be Christmas day. 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 waste 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 complete silence as he took them all. Listening intently for a second, 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, dad 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 was instantaneous. He turned the music up 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 home and the summer passed quickly. I left for art school vowing many things. 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 and wrestled violently to the ground by the police and returned to the home, where he remains.
Watch BBC documentary Silvering Up, recorded the same summer with many of the same gang: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhIf6163H4c&t=32s