FATHERS: Exhibition Text by Graeme Rigby
I can only speak of Seaham, because it’s what I know. The unemployment causes dads to be in the houses more, so they care for the children more. It’s as simple as that. I was married for six years and I was the one at home and me ex-wife was the one who worked. She could get a job and I couldn’t. I liked looking after me kids. I liked trundling them all down to the shop. I hate the nightmare of going round the supermarket with the three kids picking everything off the shelves and all that, but I actually liked looking after me kids, which loads of blokes, they say they like doing it, but when it actually comes to changing the nappy in the middle of the supermarket, looking for somewhere to change somebody, then they find it a bit of a pain.
Going out to work, at the end of the day, you’ve got something to say to the person you’re with about what your day has been. This happened. That happened. When you’re both unemployed and in the house together when the things are happening, you don’t have to explain them. And you’re sitting in the same house all day, every day, every week, every month, every year, it’s going to get on top of you. When you’ve run out of things to talk about, the niggles set in. We separated. I did lose the plot when we split. Me focus was the kids and so I decided to fight for them. There was one other lad that I knew of in Parkside who had his kids, but his wife had left the area and didn’t want the kids. I talked to him and found out what he’d been through and how he’d getten all the legal side of it sorted. I went down to see the solicitor over the divorce. I said: “I want to put in for the kids,” and he was a bit took aback at that.
It was when all the new laws came out about equal parenting. Luckily. Because if it had been before, I don’t think I would have getten the kids. When the Children’s Act came out and it had parents having both responsibility for the children, that gave me more of a foothold. I cut a deal privately with Barbara, which had got nowt to do with the law, that I would in no way stop her from seeing the kids. We might not like each other, but I’m a believer in: “That’s your mam. I’m your dad.” So she knows I wasn’t going to do her over about the kids. So she knows she was going to get to see the kids anytime she wanted. So it went through.
I moved to some two-bedroomed house up the top of Parkside and then I got custody of the kids, so I had me and three kids in a two bedroomed house and the council wouldn’t give us another one because I hadn’t lived there five years. Me mother lives in the same street as where I live now, me sister lives over in the next estate. I had massive support from them. Plus, the thing I had, as well, was massive support from me ex-mother-in-law and father-in-law and from all her side of the family. I don’t know how it came about, but I had massive support from them. Me mam would come round and I’m always one for exploration cooking, which is, like, I’ll throw owt in the pot and if it tastes nice I’ll eat it. But me mam didn’t consider this proper cooking for children, where my kids, they just used to lap it up. Me mam had to put us on track about some of the things I was making.
Our Jason went through the scruffy five, six year old thing, where it didn’t really bother us, but it seemed to bother the rest of the family, because he was always mingin’. He was always scruffy. Black-neck scruffy. I says: “Right, if he comes in clean, I know there’s something wrong, because then he hasn’t done owt. He hasn’t been out exploring. He hasn’t been playing with anything.” And he came in clean this day and I says: “Where have you been? What’s the matter?” “Oh, I’ve been round Nanna’s.” “What? What?” “She dragged us in. She put us in the bath.” “Why? What for?” “Oh, ’cause I’d been playing in the clarts in the back garden.” He’d been building a city in the back garden, in the clarts, with his little figures and me mam had put him in the bath.
Me and me mam had this big argument about what kids should be allowed to do, because me mam was really strict with me older sister, but really hellish with me. She used to help us dye me hair, when I was a punk. I don’t know if she expected me, with what was happening in me life, to flip back to this authoritarian-type person… At the beginning I wasn’t. And a canny bit into it I wasn’t. But then I realised, from the stuff she was saying, that I’ve got to be authoritarian. I’ve got to tell them to do something even though I dinnit believe they should be doing it. I’ve got to tell them to do this, tell them to do that, so that they get a perspective of what’s round them, because if I just let them run wild, which I did when they were about three, four, five, six, it causes a knock on effect.
I clicked on about the kids needing, not ground rules, but that type of thing – a stable base to work from, so I started talking to National Children’s Homes’ Action for Children. It ran a parent-toddler group, but it wasn’t a parent-toddler group when I went, it was a mother and toddler group. All the workers wanted to be really right on, call it a parent-toddler group, but there was a big group of parents and I was the only bloke… The laugh was, the first time I went there I got thrown out because I’d got the wrong day. I went up there, dragged the kids over, went in and there was this big back yard. The kids saw these bikes and they were on the bikes and playing with everything, but Tuesdays was ‘Social Services Referred Families’. So the workers had to come out and ask who the hell I was and what am I doing here with me kids. I had to drag me kids out, kicking and screaming off the bikes and the workers were going on: “Come back! Come back! We really want you to come back. You’re one of the first blokes we’ve had in here.”
It was a gradual process, but the group of parents accepted that I was the actual parent who was looking after the kids. I was stopping there and I was with them and I was playing with them and I could play with them better than most of the mothers. Because NCH were promoting parents actually playing with children, which you get little of, physically playing with them, getting down to the level of being on the floor. That’s never been a problem for me. I’m always the first one into the lego or the playdough. They saw me and they said: “Well, if he can do it and he doesn’t feel crap about it…” I got talking to some of the workers and there was a: “Oh, it’s good you’re coming down. We’d like to introduce you to some dads we’re trying to get into NCH and all that…” So they said I became an ambassador for NCH: “Look at him, he’s doing all right. Look he comes here, so ye can come here as well!” It became like that.
We set up a men’s group. At first we limited it to single parent dads, but the concept was too constricting. The staff’s idea was just a male version of a women’s group and we didn’t want that. We didn’t want to sit in a room and discuss how we felt about things. We did do it, but we didn’t do it sitting round a table, drinking coffee and stuff like that. We got government funding; we got funding from Easington Council. We moved it out of the centre, so it was like a group that could go anywhere. None of us were workers. We were all just parents, because we expanded it to just dads, but it became mostly unemployed dads, because we were the ones who were caring for the kids.
We decided to go for little day trip things. We went go-karting or we’d go fishing or we’d go anywhere. If we found something different, we’d do it. We done a sponsored coast to coast bike ride from Workington, which was really good. We got away for about four days and the group that done that are a really strong, tight-knit group. You could do anything with that group. Anything at all. They wouldn’t be scared. Where, if you get a group in and they know each other, but they have no bond between, they’ll not talk about how they feel. If someone doesn’t want to talk about how they feel, they won’t. But if they feel safe within the group, they’ll talk about things. They’ll talk about looking after the kids. Stressed out about this. Stressed out about that. We used to use the group as a dumping ground for like getting the stress out – whether it’s about kids, partners, whatever, but the group itself took it all on board, worked it out. You could dump your stress, you were dumping it, you were not giving it to somebody else.
Then, me and some friends, we wanted to do something for the kids to do in the summer holiday, so we thought we’d just put on some little crêche type thing and that turned into a whole day thing, which then turned into a whole week thing and it was getting bigger and bigger all the time. From that, a thing called SKRAP – *Seaham Kids’ Recreation And Play* – was formed. It was really good and we decided what we also needed was qualified staff to look after the kids. We couldn’t afford qualified staff, so the only option was for us to train. The upshot of it was we all became qualified. We set up SKRAP and we were doing a roaring trade. Everybody wanted to come to our playscheme. We were held up as some massive, community-based, grassroots thing that didn’t take shit from anybody. Out of SKRAP, POPS was developed, which was like an Out of School Hours type of project. The Community Centre wasn’t big enough, so we had to use the Youthie. We were getting 70 kids a day. The main thing was, we were doing this for all the other kids, but we had our own with us all the time. None of them missed out. I liked that: doing a job and having me kids with us at the same time.
We had a bit of a problem. I can talk about it now. Jason was ill, just with a leg pain. I was going to the doctor’s and it was treated as growing pains. Then it got that he was in serious pain, proper ‘pain’ pain. We ended up in hospital, but we were in the system three months before he got diagnosed as acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, which is a cancer of the blood cells. First it was diagnosed as bone tumours, then, after biopsies and this special machine and he had major ops on his legs, it was diagnosed as bone virus. So, even though it’s really serious – it’s like eating away at your bones – I was happy that it was bone virus and it wasn’t cancer. Then it was lymph cancer, then it was back to a different bone virus. There was another cancer in the middle, then there was something else, then it was childhood rheumatism. And then, at the end of the three months, I was visiting a friend, whose son’s got cancer and they were in Newcastle General, and the first consultant, who’d seen us months ago, saw us and said: “How’s the treatment with Jason going?” I says: “It’s not going well. He doesn’t look any better to me.” He says: “Do you mind if I ask the consultant you’re under now if we can go for another set of biopsies?” I says: “I have no problem with that, at all.”
By then, our Jason was in serious pain. He’d had three bone biopsies. They use this new machine. It turns your bone into a lattice-work and takes these sections out of your femur. We got this other set of tests and they came back with leukaemia and I just lost three days. It was one thing to be tellt it – he could have cancer, but then he could not, then he could have and then he could not, but it was always ‘could’. This was definite. This is when someone says to you: “Your child has got cancer.” And me world just dropped out from under us. I was with a girl called Deb, then. I’m not with her now. But she got me through that and I will thank her for the rest of me life, because I was a total wreck. Tears well up every time I talk about it. It was a nightmare. I was trying to be brave for him. I divvent knaa why, because he was the one going through it. But I just couldn’t. I’d look at him and burst into tears. I’d go and sit in the toilet for an hour and cry. Hard cry.
And every time we went to a new place for an x-ray or something like that, they’d tell Deb, even though she wasn’t our Jason’s mam. They’d look automatically at Deb and tell her. And I’d go: “Excuse me, I’m the dad…” It’s not like they were telling both of us. We were both standing and they’d focus on Deb: “Are you all right?” and that. And she’d go: “This is his dad. I’m not his mam.” And they’d be all apologies and click into PC, but when it came down to it, they’d talked to someone else and I got really stressed about it. Till they got to know us on the ward and that I was the dad that stopped in. But things are going good, now. There’s ups and downs, but he used to have a limp, he used to be in a wheelchair, now he’s not in a wheelchair. Then he was on crutches, now he’s not on crutches. Things have got better. I shaved me head in solidarity with him, going through the chemo.
Our Amy was two when I went out with her mother, but access has always been about both of them. It’s been tried from the other side that it’s not about both, but they’re two aren’t they, a family. They don’t come in ones. At the end of the day, I love her as much as our Callum. It’s cool.
I was with their mother four or five years, then we split up. It was just a proper, living nightmare from then on. I was ill. I had things like I wasn’t allowed to see them for three month and if I went to get access, she kicked off big style. She had a solicitor. They’re just total lying, thieving, cheating bastards, but they know what they’re doing. There was a string of injunctions against me for being a raving psychopath. They’d watch you go to work on a morning, then they’d come and bray on your door. I had people phone us from somewhere I hadn’t worked for two years, they said: “There’s someone been here to serve an injunction on you. I told him that you don’t work here anymore and he just laughed and went, ‘I know,’ and walked out.” Then they’d run straight up to the courts and go: “Mr Gough is a fugitive. We have been to his known place of work. We’ve been to his house on numerous occasions…” And they’d have the times wrote down and it’ll have been when you were at work, but the judge doesn’t know this. “Please grant us an ex parti injunction.” An ex parti injunction is I can’t stand there and go against it. And then they’ve got an injunction against you and you’re not allowed to get near your kids. They used to do that on a Thursday, when I was due to pick the kids up on a Friday. I was seriously bad with it. Turning up and having the bairns snatched off us. All that.
It makes marvellous reading, what they were saying, but even though it’s rubbish when you’re reading it, it never actually got read in court, because it was always ex parti injunctions and I could never get against them. And they had legal aid. They actually stood next to me in the court and the bloke says to me: “Look, we can play this game all day, Mr Gough, because we’re legal aided.” Five grand debt I had and they were doing that on purpose. And I was saying to them, in the courts: “It’s not a game. It’s about me kids.” They used to have all the hooligans turn up in court and stand behind you as if they were with you. It was a proper horrible time. But never mind. I still haven’t paid the solicitors. I got that much debt through it. It took about three years to get things sorted.
I finished work, didn’t I. And I got legal aid. This is when the light shone through. For the first time ever, I could respond. I couldn’t pay five hundred quid to have a solicitor stand there and tell them they were all arseholes. I knew it and everybody else knew it. I’d actually started representing myself in court, learning the ins and outs of it, writing my own things out… But then I got legal aid, so we actually contested the injunction and they withdrew it straight away. They didn’t know I’d finished work. They didn’t know I’d got legal aid. They knew it was all crap, but they’d had three years worth of crap. For the first time, the judge was going to have to listen to what they had to say. You should have seen her little solicitor, as well. Tch! Tch! Tch! Slap him round his head. Bless him. It was great.
It took three years going through the courts. At first, during that time, I was supposed to have them only one night, but that was about maintenance. If I had them three nights, I wouldn’t have to pay maintenance. She wasn’t even getting it. The government got it, because she was on the dole, but it was all part of it. It was as bad as that. But it come to a point, where I gave up getting myself stressed out and worried about that. And I have them three nights, irrespective of if I have to pay extra or however it works. They come three nights. They usually come Friday, Saturday, Sunday and that’s cool.
The nice thing is getting a bit of a routine, when your life and your relationship with your kids has been so disjointed. Saturday morning getting up and doing the breakfast lark. Dinners. And it’s nice for the kids when they’ve got a routine, knowing that they’re coming here on a Friday. It really hurts when your kids are saying: “When will I see you?” And you don’t know. And it could be next week and it could be whenever. But once you’ve got that settled and the kids know that on Friday, outside the school, you will be there. It has a big effect on them and on yourself, knowing that you’re able to do that. It is a big thing. Well, it was to me, anyhow. It took a lot of the pain away.
I get fifty quid a week on the Nash if I’m not working. But they’re not expensive to keep, really, kids. Are they? Not in Seaham. Seaham is geared towards unemployment. I didn’t realise it when I was working. I didn’t have far to fall, anyhow, because I was working part-time. I’d had a good job, I’d had good money, then I went part-time, then I was unemployed. Then you look round and you’re in Seaham. They had three pits and they’re all shut down. It’s a quid a pint. It’s not as if your social life dies. You can get stotted on a fiver. You’ve got Aldi. You’ve got Quicksave. Our Cal just wants to eat Super Noodles. The fruit’s cheap. Our Amy is an only-vegetable-soup kind of kid. Clothes and that, there’s Hartlepool and all the big outlets. The clothes aren’t a big deal, so it isn’t such a killer.
I used to take the piss out of people who bought Nike tops and all that. It was like: “Oh, fashion victims. It’s a big conspiracy.” They’re not, man. They’re the best things you can ever buy. You put them in a washing machine and do they ever, ever run? Never. You can put them on Ballistic. 150 degrees or whatever. And you can put them in with, I don’t know, a can of oil and they’ll come out clean. You’ll hang them up and they’ll iron themselves. Our Amy can have her white strides on and fall off her push bike and get dragged down the Church Green, come back with dog shite on them and everything and they’re in and out the washer. They dry as they come out as well. You don’t even have to dry them. They’re just amazing things. I’m sure that’s what’s on the Space Shuttle on its re-entry. They just wrap it in old Nike tops. They’re phenomenal. Having said that, I’ve never been and bought one yet, like. Loads of people have them and because they’re so durable, you get given them.
Another thing about Seaham, the difference between Seaham and the estate up in Sunderland where their mother lives, Seaham’s a town. With it being for mining, it’s like any colliery. I was brought up in a colliery. The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker live here. Up there, they all shut their shops and go home. And the kids don’t have the freedom up there that you’ve got here. They don’t have the friends, as well. You still see the games like You Cannot Cross the Golden River played in the street and Fast Train to London, all of them sort of games. Summer nights, even Autumn, on the street, the kids are all out on either side. And they’ve got a camaraderie, the kids round this street and the next. They’re really mixed. They go to the Youthie together.
Usually, when they go to the Youthie on a Friday, I can just go to the bar. The Youthie’s finished at nine and I’m sorted by then, anyhow. I found, going to the Marlborough in the Summer – the Marlborough is only a hundred yards, that way and the kids play on the grass along there – at first, you think: “Eee, if one of the kids hurt themselves. ‘Where’s your dad?’ ‘He’s in the pub.’…” I can see them from the Marlborough window. They’ll come in and out and get crisps. The bar staff know them. But I’ll go in there and have a pint and even though, ‘Where’s your dad?’ ‘He’s in the house,’ it’s actually further, you still have this thing at the back of your mind. It’s right, isn’t it?
We go away, as well, though. In the summer, we throw all the gear in the van, put the mattress in the back and go up to Witton Castle. We went to Berwick a bit earlier in the year and Berwick was a bit pricey. Brian Poole without the Tremoloes, bit of a leather jacket coffin-dodger, he was, up there forgetting the words to Silence is Golden. It was quite a spectacle. They did like the show bit of it, but it cost big style. Whereas Witton Castle it’s six quid and they don’t haunt us to go on the slots or anything, they just play. I’ve done it 6 o’clock on a Saturday, when they’ve come in from playing. “Howay, we’ll go to Witton Castle.” “Oh! Howay, then.” Our Amy got everything ready. I gave her the job and she’s got it all sorted and she goes: “Callum, get the cards. We’ll have a game of cards on the way up.” He’s away in the house and he must have been thinking to himself: “Get something special…” So he turns up with Buckeroo, Operation, the lot. There’s one field up there, the transit field. I bet there’s ten transits up there and they’ve all done their beer run. You get the table out, you get the cooker out. They let the dogs run about up there. You go in the river. We spend a lot of time up there just swimming. It’s always just weekends, but we get a few in. I don’t know if I could hack a week of it, like.
When I first got access, I just used to get them on a Saturday. You see them all in MacDonald’s, don’t you, between opening and closing time and, bless ’em, they haven’t got a clue. Saturday dads. They’re sitting with their kids. They think that’s what it’s about, having a kid. And they’ve been on the slash the night before: they’re all sitting with their heads in their hands. You can go to MacDonald’s and watch them anywhere in the world. So, I had a Saturday dad thing, but I avoided the MacDonald’s trap and then, gradually, I started getting them more and more. At first it’s hard, getting your head round it, sitting at home on your own when they’ve gone to bed at 8 o’clock, 7 o’clock. You’re going: “What happens now?” and you’re walking the floor, but you get used to it and it’s: “What happens now is you chill out, you read the paper, you do something.” I wouldn’t swap it for the world, now, mind.
A routine for the weekend is, they get picked up from school, we go to me mother’s, see her, see me granny, me sister and that. My family’s all close. They always go there on a Friday and we all take our kids and have our tea. The kids drag us out at half past five, because the Youthie starts at six or half past six. We drive down, they dash in the door and get changed and they’re off to the Youthie. If it’s a summer night and all the kids in the street are walking up together, they go with them, or I’ll walk up with them, take the dogs, have a bit chat. I’ll drop them off, then go up for them at half past eight, meet them outside at nine-ish. Again, walk back with the dogs, through the wood. We go to the chip shop. Religiously. He loves gravy and chips, our Cal. He was saying last week to the woman: “Will you be me dad’s girlfriend, ’cause you’re great with chips.” I’m just like: “Shurrup, man!” So they get chipped up. If the weather’s cool, we sit on the Churchie and have a bit chat, what’s happened during the week, what’s happening with this, that and the other. Then back here for half nine, quarter to ten. I’ve stopped putting the telly on. They go to bed, because they’re shattered. They’ve had a long day. Even our Amy, who looks wide awake and I’ll say: “We’ll do Plan 6,” where Cal falls asleep and she gets back up. And I’ve waited ten minutes to have a bit crack on and I’ve went and they’re both out.
Saturday morning, Cal used to get up at seven to play on the computer. And by the afternoon he’s got a chocolate eye on and he’s chewing people. So he got banned off it and, sure enough, he sleeps longer, now. And what’s been happening is Amy’s been lying around watching telly and I’ve made his breakfast and she was like: “I don’t want me breakfast.” And then he’s gone out to play and she’s come through and went: “Oh, I want me breakfast, now…” All that carry on till eleven o’clock, so it was just like: “No. This is what happens on a Saturday morning. We sit down at half past nine, in there, round the table, and have our breakfasts.” And they love it. Last Saturday, we’re sitting there and our Cal goes: “What shall we chat about now?” It was hellish. I don’t know how long I’ll keep it up, but I’ll definitely make an effort.
Sometimes I drag them out for a walk on Saturday mornings or we’ll go fossiling or something, but usually Cal’s out playing and she hangs in here. Comes to twelve and she gets ready. I got her into the art club at the museum in Sunderland. It’s a proper, taught thing. I waited two year to get her in. She likes getting dropped off on the motorbike, having a blast along the seafront. She’s just started getting the bus back herself. She gets a fiver: she gets herself something to eat, it’s two quid in and she’s got her bussie home.
Sundays are different with school being the next day. All the kids have to be in for half seven and it’s bath night for them all. It’s all religious stuff on the telly, so the kids aren’t really hooked to that. It can be off. They’re washed and it’s pyjamas on straight away. Sundays are nice. It’s, like, cuddling up on the settee, make sure the homework’s done for school. “Oh I forgot this…” and the cookery recipe will come out or something daft like that. With our Callum, it’s always the big PE panic. It’s different to Friday and Saturday nights. They go to bed earlier. You’ve got a captive audience and they have too. It goes both ways. They look forward to it.