My four-year-old son has, inexplicably, begun to fear the dark. It’s a common childhood phobia, but he’d not had it his whole life. He’s also started following me around the house before bedtime, asking for his bed to be moved further away from his bedroom door, and questioning whether burglars could come into the house at night.
In one respect, this is unsettling behaviour. But in another, it’s perfectly normal. My son is developing his sense of fear, which comes with a sense of self-preservation and protection. It’s a safety mechanism necessary for human survival, and which isn’t seen in the youngest children, who run merrily across the road without checking for traffic or try to jump from a great height. I was pleased to see my son expanding his emotional palette. Other, more mature emotions like worry and stress and awkwardness and desire and lust would come later. He already had jealousy. It came with the arrival of the first of his two younger brothers.
But seeing my son like this did make me pause, and cast me back to a time when I too was fearful in the house at night. I remember being a little older than my son was, about seven or eight, with the feeling at its strongest when my father went out. Dad was builder, not a shift worker or executive who travelled. And when he went out at night, it was to a local kafenion which filled me with anxiety – partly for his safety, and partly for ours.
Growing up as an only child in the 1980s, I always saw Dad as the physically stronger parent.
Growing up as an only child in the 1980s, I always saw Dad as the physically stronger parent. He fixed his own car when it broke down, carried bags of concrete mix around the backyard, and fired a shotgun when he went rabbit hunting. He shaved his thick Greek stubble weekly, smoked full tar cigarettes, and drank whiskey. He taught me how to ride a bike, kick a ball, and hammer a nail. But he didn’t put me to bed at night; that was ‘Mum’s job’. So was cooking dinner, which Mum prepared for Dad before he went out for the evening to his beloved kafenion, and often didn’t return home until after midnight.
The kafenion is a Greek café, and a small slice of Greece recreated in other parts of the world. I had visited Dad’s kafenion on a few occasions, always during the daytime, and always sent inside by my mum to retrieve him. She didn’t set foot inside the kafenion, which was traditionally strictly a man’s space. Mum also knew that making me go in created fewer marital arguments. Dad could say no to her, but he couldn’t to me.
I had visited Dad’s kafenion on a few occasions, always during the daytime, and always sent inside by my mum to retrieve him.
I remember being overwhelmingly intimidated by Dad’s kafenion. It was situated in a crumbling hundred-year-old building and up a dark flight of steep stairs. It was a large single room with a coffee machine, bar, pool table, cigarette machine, and irregular tables and chairs around which the men sat, drank, smoked, talked, played cards and backgammon, and shared horse racing tips. The carpet was ripped, the paint was peeling, the pictures hung crookedly on the walls, and the toilets stank because no one ever cleaned them. There was sometimes a nude calendar behind the bar.
Even in broad daylight, the kafenion struck me as a somewhat seedy and depressing place. I could only imagine what it was like at night. The patrons seemed shady. There were no security guards – the rules were unwritten and self-policed. There were no set opening hours – it simply closed when the last person left. I was pretty certain the kafenion wasn’t licensed to sell alcohol, and the police just turned a blind eye. The kafenion didn’t have a name and wasn’t advertised. The men who frequented it just knew it was there.
Even as a small child, it stressed me out to worry about my dad in the kafenion. I loved him, and my mind raced as to what might happen in such an underground venue late at night. By that age, I’d seen enough TV to know that adult men had disagreements and argued, and that things could then escalate. What if someone disputed a poker hand and pulled a gun…? After all, Dad had a gun – in the hallway cupboard at home, with the cartridges locked in the garage. Or what if the kafenion got raided by police and Dad was arrested? Dad also drank and drove. What if he was breathalysed on the way home and caught over the limit, or – worse – had an accident?
Looking back, it all seems so reckless. But those were different times.
Mum never had the night off to go out. Because she didn’t work, Mum supposedly had ‘the days off’, according to Dad. She saw her friends then. Dad worked during the day on construction sites, earning money to put bread on the table. Weekends were family time. Which left night-time as Dad’s only opportunity to relax and unwind.
With no night light for reassurance and no gentle radio for distraction, I lay alone in my big dark bedroom for hours listening to the noises of night.
Alone at home with Mum, there were yet other worries weighing on my immature young mind. With no night light for reassurance and no gentle radio for distraction, I lay alone in my big dark bedroom for hours listening to the noises of night. A car backfiring in the street outside was a gunshot, a louder boom in the distance was an explosion, and the house’s floorboards creaking was an intruder creeping. But more than anything, I was listening hopefully for the sound of Dad’s old Ford Cortina pulling up in our driveway. It was our family’s only car, and Mum didn’t drive.
After several hours lying wide awake, I would wander into the living room all bleary eyed. Sitting up and knitting or watching TV, Mum would lament my inability to find sleep, and reassure me that everything was okay. But I could tell that she was worried too, she hated Dad going to the kafenion, which only fuelled my fears. When things got desperate, she phoned the kafenion, which had one of three outcomes. First, my parents would talk, with Dad dutifully telling Mum that he was heading home soon. Second, whoever answered the phone would say that Dad had just left, which was invariably a lie to buy him more time. Or third, and worst of all, whoever answered would say that he hadn’t seen Dad all night, which caused all manner of arguments with Mum when he finally returned home.
In my darkened bedroom, under the safety of my blanket, I would breathe a huge sigh of relief.
But to me, it was all forgotten the second I heard Dad’s car shuffle into the driveway and his keys rattle in the door. In my darkened bedroom, under the safety of my blanket, I would breathe a huge sigh of relief.
Dad would eventually tire of the kafenion and stop going. But only after many years and many more sleepless nights.
"It’s after midnight and your son is still awake. Go into his room and kiss him goodnight so he can finally get some sleep."
Those stubbly goodnight kisses scratched my smooth young cheek like rough sandpaper, and smelt of whiskey and nicotine. And yet, those kisses were some of the sweetest imaginable because they took away the fear. The family was together again, all safe under one roof.
As I see now with my own son, kisses and reassurance and togetherness are, deep down, what a child wants.
Peter Papathanasiou and his wife welcomed their third son earlier this month. You can follow Peter on Twitter @peteplastic.
Peter Papathanasiou’s debut book is published as Little One by Allen & Unwin in Australia and as Son of Mine by Salt Publishing in the UK.