Marlboro cigarettes remind me of my stepfather. I guess he was the second stepfather I had, but some might argue that he was the first because he actually married my ma.
I wasn’t at the wedding, but I remember it because my ma wore a white suit with black spots slapped all over it. I bet it was classy as hell, but since I was eight or nine back then, I just thought she looked like a Dalmatian.
After the wedding they went to France on a boat and the Marlboro man lost his wedding ring in the sea. I guess nobody ever looks for signs till they want to see them. If my ma had looked for signs the lost ring would have been glowing neon. Another unseen sign was the mark of the beast, the three sixes that made up his car number plate, but that didn’t put her off either. I know that she noticed that sign because she had a Christian upbringing and that usually means you spot things like a string of sixes. It usually means you consider those things a bad omen.
The Marlboro man wore his thinning hair long and cowboy boots. He spoke in a different way to the other guys I knew and he didn’t hit my ma. I liked him. He made everything feel safe and I liked knowing that he wouldn’t throw the TV through the window. Not like the guy before him. That was stepfather figure number one or two, depending on your viewpoint. That guy was insane. I don’t mean a little crazy, I mean certifiably cracked.
I was too young to understand that back then. He was just the evil guy who had come straight out of a comic book to ruin my life. He would make you so scared that you would run away and he would stand there laughing, watching you run. He would lean against the door frame till you got a little way off, he would let you go maybe a hundred yards, and just as you thought you might actually get away he would sprint to catch you and pick you up by the legs. He made you feel like his prisoner, like a little mouse that had escaped from its cage.
That guy was hardly ever nice, but he did one thing that was sort of nice, he gave me a skateboard. He had held onto it since he was a kid. It was a red, sparkly 70s board with heavy rubber wheels. I rode the hell out of it. That old red skateboard was what got me into skateboarding. I guess I can thank him for that.
When the Marlboro man showed up things changed. There was more money, more food, more everything. My ma didn’t look so sad and she put on some weight and they decided to have a baby. I already had a sister, courtesy of the crazy guy, so I hoped for a brother and I got one.
All the time I had these stepfather figures I missed my dad. I saw him, maybe once a week, twice a week if I was lucky. I thought he was God or something. He was this elusive figure that I knew so well, but didn’t really know at all.
I would have done pretty much anything that guy could ask me to do. No questions. When people say they adore someone it never sits right with me, but I can’t think of a better word, I adored that man. I copied him too. I mimicked his walk, the way he moved. I got a row from my ma for spitting because he spat and I copied. I look a lot like him and I would beam with pride when people pointed out the obvious.
My dad would sometimes pick me up on a Friday and I would stay at his house. He had two new boys by the time the Marlboro man was on the scene. We would play together, watch scary movies or play Alex Kidd in Miracle World on our Sega Master System II. My dad would usually be downstairs drinking with his friends, but sometimes he would take the night off from it all. He would get us to sit with him and let us watch Predator or Conan the Barbarian. We would get Chinese take-out and he would push the sofa right up to the TV. We thought that was the coolest thing in the world. On a Saturday morning he would sometimes take us to the park and kick a ball with us. That was all I needed.
He might have kicked a ball with me once in a while, but it wasn’t my Dad who taught me football. It wasn’t my dad who explained the off-side rule in a way I could make sense of it. It wasn’t my Dad who made me get football. It was the Marlboro man with his stupid hair and his heeled boots. He would sit there with me, eating junk and drinking Cola, back when I didn’t understand the game.
He bought me my first real leather football, which might sound like nothing, but I kicked that ball till it was torn up and bald, till you couldn’t tell what colour it had started out. It was red and white, but I guess I’m the only person in the world who cares about that. He taught me cards too and when I think about it he got me into bands like Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac. I didn’t realize at the time but he came with a soundtrack that got into my bones.
It was hit and miss with my dad. Sometimes he would turn up, but a lot of the time he was a no show. I know now that he was just drunk or stoned, but back then I took the rejection like a bullet. I remember sitting on the doorstep one Friday afternoon when he didn’t show. My ma kept telling me that he wasn’t coming. She pleaded with me to come inside because it was getting cold and dark but I just couldn’t do it. I felt like if I took my coat and backpack off he wouldn’t have a chance to turn up and change things. It would be like nothing else could happen. It would be like the end of a story. My ma would always read me a story when I cried for him. She bought me a lot of books back then.
I wasn’t the kind of kid who needed a load of stuff to be happy, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first Christmas with the Marlboro man. It was the first time I had stayed up past midnight and it was the first Christmas that my ma didn’t cry.
I got a whole heap of neat things that Christmas. I got my first train set. It wasn’t just any old train set. It was a two track set nailed to a piece of four by six. It had the makings of an entire village. He said he had only started it because he wanted to teach me how to make models. He wanted me to help.
A man of his word, sure enough we went to the model store every Sunday. We would choose one piece to add to the world we were building together. Every week I would watch the village come alive with buildings, fences and people. Hell, he even made mountains out of chicken wire and plaster and painted them. I would read model magazines and write down which trains I wanted to get when I had saved enough pocket money. It was a father and son bonding exercise straight out of a movie.
I know he could have just built the whole thing, bought eight trains at once if he liked, but I guess he was trying to teach me a few things.
I didn’t notice when the Marlboro man was at work all the time. I didn’t even notice when he got tired of his life with us. I only noticed when my train set disappeared. He wasn’t there when I found the empty space it had occupied. My ma was left trying to explain. It wasn’t a long conversation. He had sold it. He had sold it because it was worth a couple of grand by then and he needed the money for something. That meant he was leaving, or we were. It didn’t matter which.
There were other stepfathers, of course there were, but I wouldn’t give them a chance. They seemed like jerks, but maybe they were okay. I couldn’t risk finding out. I stayed quiet, didn’t get too involved. I decided that you only get one dad, and whatever dad you get that’s it, you deal with it like a hand in a game of poker.
I saw the Marlboro man years after he left. I got in a cab after a night out drinking. He was the cab driver. I knew his voice right away. His hair was shorter and I couldn’t make out if he had his trademark boots on, but it was him. He knew who I was but we didn’t mention the fact that we shared a home once. He was playing Tango In The Night on the CD player in his cab. I said it was a good record and he agreed. I paid the fare but I didn’t give him a tip.
I learned a lot from the Marlboro man. I learned the importance of perseverance, I learned to have patience, I learned how to paint miniature people. I also learned never to think that anyone will stick around. Come to think about it I learned a lot from all my stepfathers. I learned that hitting a woman hurts her forever and I learned that it is not easy to raise children.
I am in the same position as those guys now. I find myself cooking for other people’s kids, taking another man’s son to the emergency dentist. I find myself watching other people’s children opening their Christmas presents and it makes me think of the Marlboro man. It also makes me think of my dad. I recognize parts of them in myself. I hope I have got the balance right and I don’t think I’ve ever made somebody’s kid feel the way I felt, but you can’t ever really be sure how a kid might feel. Not having your dad around can do funny things to you.
I still see Marlboro man every once in a while, in town or at the store. The guy doesn’t even nod to acknowledge me, but I can forgive him. I can even forgive the psycho who beat my ma. I know now that he was just ill. I can forgive the guy who was indifferent, the guy that just didn’t want kids around. It’s my dad that I have trouble with because he did the real damage. He hurt me more than any of those guys. I can forgive him for being unreliable. I can forgive him for turning up drunk and for forgetting my birthday. I can forgive him for the missed chances and the tired excuses. I can forgive him for not being the man I needed him to be. I can forgive him because he is my father and I love him. I can even forgive him for making me love him. The problem is I know how it feels to love a kid now. I forgive my father, but every time my kid smiles at me, I find him a little harder to understand.