Lily sits uneasily in the Green Room rehearsing her question. What gets in the way is the room itself. She’s always felt anything might happen here. Her mum says it isn’t the room but her dad. His lack of stability and the fact he’s not been around when they needed him. Her mum wants her to ask her dad for financial help for uni and in her mum’s opinion, the Green Room is the best place to do it. Lily has her doubts about that. Home is definitely out, mum said. But when Lily asked why, she just shook her head. It’s the same with both of Lily’s parents. There’s never any discussion – their opinions are always fixed. The two of them never agree about anything. As far as Lily can remember they’ve battled against one another, holding up their separate opinions like banners. She, always caught in the crossfire – a limp puppet.
“Will you help fund me for uni, Dad? Please help. I’ve been offered a place.”
There, she’s asked before the courage has drained out of her. Whew. But the tricky thing about her dad, is, he’s slippery. He can become a different character at a minute’s notice, he might be anyone. You have to be quick, guessing which part he’s playing so you can adapt.
“Will university make you a better person?” Is the first thing he asks. His voice acerbic, his eyes losing the smile they’d had the minute before. His lips already hardening for attack. Lily can tell from the sound of her dad’s voice he’s playing a part at this moment. But which one? She looks at him searchingly, hoping it will become apparent. It doesn’t. Maybe he isn’t as good as he believes. He sees himself as an actor of supreme brilliance, so the thought is sacrilegious. Lily enjoys the thought. She struggles to find a reply that won’t lead to further derision. The Green Room is the room of possibility. Lily tries to see it as vibrant and the uncertainty as exhilarating. Is her dad part of Lily’s future? Right now, Lily isn’t sure she wants him to be. She has her second controversial thought today. And she asks herself, ‘who the hell is her dad?’ This bit of a character, that bit of a character. An accumulation of several roles?
“You can’t answer me, admit it.” Her dad’s looking at Lily as though she’s too airy-fairy for her own good. He has the contemptuous sneer of a man who understands money and the world and the basic common sense that makes everything tick. It doesn’t matter if it’s one of his many parts that’s speaking. It still hurts. Lily shivers.
“Look me in the eye,” he says.
But Lily knows the hopelessness of trying to do this. Sometimes her dad’s eyes are two black holes, an empty lost look to them. It feels as if he isn’t anywhere. Her mum is volatile. Her dad only has enough energy for volatility when it’s some character driving a part. You know where you are with her mum even if it gets uncomfortable at times. With her dad you’re never quite sure of the ground beneath your feet. And Lily’s aware that before a performance he plays even more parts than usual. They sort of burst out one by one, beyond his control. Later on he’ll be knocking back the booze. He’ll be just as hard to reach. There’s no good time when she can ask for money and get a happy outcome. Though it does feel as if he’s being more difficult than usual. The truth is he’s on the point of leaving her mum for good though Lily is unaware of it yet. Such allegiances as he’d ever felt have already switched elsewhere. Lily is on shaky ground. An emotional shift has already taken place. So the conversation in the Green Room was dead before it started. Lily the daughter, no longer somebody he can even see.
“Bit much, you trying to touch me for money before my show.” His voice is heavy with self-pity.
“I suppose she put you up to it.”
Lily, unwilling to betray her mum by a word, hunches her shoulders and hangs her head. An unwitting posture of guilty acknowledgement. He snorts in disgust.
“University!” He spits, as though the word and the whole concept are pawns in some traitorous game being levelled against him. The force of his conviction makes Lily start to feel he’s in the right and she’s in the wrong. Why does she want to go? An unworthy wish aimed as an arrow at the long-suffering, helpless dad. Lily doesn’t want to see things this way but youth and inexperience are pitted weakly against her dad’s guile.
So it is in the Green Room where her dad refuses Lily any financial help. If she wants to go to uni she can damn well stand on her own two feet. As he says the words, “Beyond my comprehension,” he is called from the Green Room to the stage, leaving Lily alone between the swathes of curtain and the door.
The Green Room is placed between the world and the performance, a room in which the roles to be played have not yet started. Lily tries to picture the future, but her mind draws a blank. The room is bright, smells of new paint. People wait inside the room and hope for a favourable outcome. Knowing this makes Lily’s own fate harder to bear. But as she sits on alone here, the tension starts to slip away. She finds she doesn’t care to see the play itself; neither wanting nor needing to watch her dad in the part of a provincial school-teacher, or a second-hand car salesman, or a hotelier. She’s already seen too many such parts.
Lily, now a marine biologist, is attending a conference on the Beluga Whale with her colleague, Joe. With time to kill before their train home and noticing a late-night café near the station, they walk through the door. A stranger accosts them.
“Look me in the eye!” the stranger says.
Lily knows him straight away. It’s her dad. She hasn’t seen her dad for…, twelve years? It’s a shock. Look him in the eye indeed! Lily remembers her dad’s eyes were always unreachable. And now, she sees the eyes of a habitual drunkard – red rimmed. Lily looks away.
“Got a bit’ve money for a meal?” The voice continues. It’s a voice without shame. She realises it’s only an act.
“Bit of money?” He repeats.
The café interior is a dingy yellow room smelling of musty paper and old banana skins, of burnt scrambled egg, the sweet-and-dead stench of faded daffodils. A dismal lifeless space where, from whichever angle you look the conclusions are the same. Her dad wheezes forward to Joe and Lily, a hand outstretched.
“Got a cigarette mate?” He asks Joe. Any minute now he will notice Lily and call out. “Lily my girl. Look here, it’s your dear old dad. Don’t you know me, girl?” Words that will shame Lily to the core. He will create a major dramatic scene. “That daughter of mine,” he’ll go. Lily feels hot at the thought of what might be coming at any second. She must be the one to make the discovery known placing herself in a position of strength, making the thing easier to bear. She swallows hard, there are tears in her throat, she can taste them.
“Dad,” she murmurs, starting forward.
A painful anger rises up. She’s pleading for her dad’s attention, trying to get noticed. Now, as at so many times in the past, her dad looks right through her. She finds she’s unable to catch his eye. He’s focussing on a picture on the wall behind, then in one blink his eyes have travelled elsewhere. The truth is her dad’s eyes can’t be pinned down. They look through and beyond everyone. Lily shuffles back, about to take this denial personally. Then she stops herself. Her dad hasn’t recognised her.
“Got a cigarette to spare?” he’s asking.
Joe pats at his pockets. This brings on her dad’s best beaming smile. He’s throwing out all the charm, opening his mouth wide. Lily sees he is practically toothless.
“Hey there.” The café manager calls out, “No begging in here. You know the rules.”
He’s hardly embarrassed or even apparently listening. It seems to Lily this little scene happens fairly regularly.
Lily gives him a fifty quid note which he holds up to the dim overhead light – to bless it or test it. Then he’s through the door in a flash.
“Sad old guy,” says Joe. “What a state he’s in.”
Sitting on the train waiting for it to leave Lily decides not to mention a word to Joe or her mum. She knows by experience there are some things in life that can’t be changed however much you might wish otherwise. You just have to let go. And anyway, by the time the train starts moving, Lily seriously questions whether it was her dad she saw at all.