I seem to have opened the floodgates. It’s late, as I type this, but my head is almost literally buzzing with more memories of my father.
Well, here we go again.
Dad had a dog called Bobby. He was technically the family dog, but he adored Dad beyond all reason, and went with him after the divorce. Bobby was the sweetest dog ever. Some kind of mongrel, a kind of rusty red colour with floppy ears. Two quick things about Bobby. One, when you took him anywhere snowy, he would go crazy and snuffle around in it, only to emerge with a perfect little pile of snow on his nose. Adorable. Two, whenever he got wet (rain, tempting puddle), the black tips to the aforementioned floppy ears would dry in a kind of kinked, zig-zag pattern. Adorable plus.
I used to stay with Dad on the weekends, and Mum on weekdays. Really just because she lived much closer to school than he did. Dad was necessarily a frugal gentleman, and in the winter months his little house (where he still lives, with his new family), was unspeakably cold. I could literally see my breath fogging the air, in the kitchen. I would point this out to him, in a tone of shrill teenage incredulity.
At night, I’d get into bed and it would feel almost exactly like exposing my tender flesh to two sheets of ice. Instantly, my body would contract into a tense, shivering knot. I’d frantically rub my sides and legs, trying to warm myself up. When I felt brave enough, I would slide my toes an inch down the bed, grimace, and wait. Wait patiently for my rapidly failing bodyheat to warm up that inch of bed. Long minutes would pass, then I’d do it again. It felt like it took hours to warm enough of that damn bed to actually stretch out fully.
I would regularly plead for him to turn the heating on – not up, mind you, but on. “Nonsense” he’d say. “Put another jumper on.”
Then, and I remember this so very clearly, Bobby trotted past looking a little forlorn. Dad looked at him thoughtfully, then got up and turned the heating on.
Bobby was with us for a long time, but as he aged he started to kind of… fall apart. His senses failed him, his organs struggled. In the end, he was just a wreck. I wasn’t there, but Dad told us that, during a walk, he simply walked into a lake and drowned. Almost like he gave up. Like it was all too much for him.
We saw him in the vet’s office. It was heart-breaking. I tried to close his eyes, like they do in the movies, but it wouldn’t work. He just kept staring out, sightlessly, with those big black eyes of his. Later, I went with Dad and my sister Kate and… Maybe some others? Childhood friends Tom and Bill? I forget. But we dug him a grave at one of his favourite spots, near a patch of forget-me-nots.
We had a tough physical job ahead of us, digging out a big chunk of ground, and none of us felt particularly chatty. I remember making a conscious effort to keep our spirits up. I told stories about Bobby, all the good times he had given us. When it was my turn with the spade, I attacked the ground with every ounce of strength. Bobby did not deserve half measures. It was only later, when I got home, that I looked down at my mud-crusted shows and thought “That isn’t dirt. That’s grave dirt.” I don’t know why, but that moment really stuck with me.
Later still, My Dad wrote me a note thanking me for my help. I don’t have it any more, but it was beautifully written. He always did, and does, write very well.
As I mentioned previously, my Dad was a cabinetmaker for a while. He always used his hands, was always building or repairing something. He wasn’t just a DIY guy, he was creative. A genuine artist, from a family of exceptionally creative people. He made his own jam, and marmalade. At one point… Oh, man. I was actually heading for a completely different memory, but I have to share this instead now. Remember this song?
Tank fly boss walk jam nitty gritty, you’re listening to the boy from the big bad city. This is jam hot. This is jam hot.
My Dad always had much better music taste than I did, and the vinyl connection to prove it. He… Oh crap. I just thought of another great little story. I am rapidly losing track here. Okay, wait. So, he heard this song, and he heard those lyrics. With a kind of gorgeous sincerity that I loved then and love to this day, he told me “They’re right, you know. Jam does get very hot indeed. All that sugar means that the boiling point is much higher than water.” Bless him.
Another music story. Okay.
I love The Kinks, and it’s entirely because of Dad. I remember being in our local Our Price (which may give you some indication how long ago it was), and seeing a ‘Best of The Kinks’ triple disc set. Something like sixty tracks, for pretty cheap. Fantastic. I was on the phone to him later that day, and mentioned it to him. “Oh, that’s fantastic!” he said. “I just bought Fat of the Land.” Yeah. I was listening to Waterloo Sunset, while he rocked out to Smack My Bitch Up.
Right. Back on track. What was I talking about? Yeah! His hands. He worked with them a lot, worked with chisels and hammers and power tools. As a result, he had plenty of little nicks and scrapes and injuries and scars. My standard joke is that he’s got about eight and a half fingers, if you add up all the bits. The funny thing is, it only occurred to me a matter of days ago, looking at my own hands, that I quite like my bitten nails. I like having oil stains from my bike. I like my hands looking like his hands, because that’s how a man’s hands should look (according to some part of my brain, at least).
I used to fence every week. I loved it. Sword fighting! What’s not to love? My Dad drove me there and back. It was about half an hour away, as I recall. One time, I got into his car with all my gear, and about five minutes into the journey he presented me with a bowl of chocolate ice cream, completely out of the blue. My brain could barely process what had happened. The only place – the only place – that that bowl exists, with ice cream in it, is his kitchen. That little recontextualisation was… extraordinary.
He once told me “Expect the worst. That way, if it happens, you’re ready for it. You’re prepared to deal with it. And if the best happens, it’s a lovely surprise.” I still think that’s good advice.
I used to be fascinated with role-playing games as a teenager, but never really had enough people around to get a game going. I read the rule books over and over. Devoured the settings, the people, the gods, the spells, the treasures, all of it. I created dozens of characters, all of whom were destined to never so much as pick up a sword or utter the first syllable of an incantation. I was optimistic – or maybe just naive. I wanted to prepare an adventure, just in case. And I wanted props! Imagine how cool it would be if I could hand my players physical items during the sessions!
I went to Dad, and I asked for a couple of pretty specific items. One was an amulet used by a religious group who worshipped the goddess of the dawn. A kind of rosy red wood was needed. The other was… Wow, I think I even still remember the name. Mielikki. The goddess of forests and rangers and druids and shit. Her symbol – a unicorn head.
My Dad went away and he hand-carved those two items for me. He literally made me a sunrise-coloured amulet, and a wooden token with a carved unicorn head on it. They both looked amazing, and neither of them were used in any way, for anything at all, ever. I am not entirely convinced I fully appreciated his efforts at the time, but I sure as hell do now.
I was five. Or six. Or seven. I actually have no idea, but I was young. We were in town, and Dad stopped into his bank to get some money out. He must have needed cash for something, because it was a decent wodge. I had never seen so much money, at that point, so I asked if I could hold it. “Sure. Just be careful with it.”
A thought struck me, suddenly. I could play a joke! Make him laugh! I immediately pretended to steal the money, and dashed through the bank’s front entrance.
The only problem was, the large plate glass door was shut, so I just slammed into it and fell onto my arse. I don’t think my poor Dad had ever been so embarrassed in his life.
I used to love getting out of bed and sneaking downstairs for snacks. Dad would inevitably be down there, in the quiet, in the dark, reading or whatever. He would grudgingly get me an apple or something then send me back to bed.
Sometimes, he would do this amazing thing I had completely forgotten about until tonight. He sat by his (pretty swish) hi-fi set up, complete with record player and needle, and he would read entire books into cassette tapes for the blind. Just in his spare time, in the evenings. Whole books. Then, of course, tiny Tom would open the living room door a crack and peer in. He’d sigh, stop recording, have to deal with me, then try to figure out where the interruption happened so he could continue recording as seamlessly as possible. I apologise, blind people, if sometimes your ’80s audiobooks sounded a bit disjointed. I just wanted an apple.
My Dad did not just finish food, he left his plate gleaming. Almost every meal was accompanied by a piece of bread and butter, which he’d mostly save until the end. He’d use it almost like a dishcloth, carefully steering it around his plate until every crumb, scrap and drop was absorbed. This lodged with me pretty firmly, and I hate leaving food on my plate to this day. It is incredibly dangerous when in America, because if you always clear your plate you will die within hours. Those guys are nuts.
In another example of ‘why the hell didn’t you realise this earlier’, it took me years, if not decades, to twig that he cleared his plate so thoroughly because that’s what he saw his father do. And his father did it because, well. The war. Rationing.
His father was called Gordon. Never grampa, or granddad, or gramps, or anything like that. Gordon. Gordon and Sheila.
Gordon was a canon. A man of the cloth. Church of England. He Christened me, Christened my sister, and – this will sound weird, but stick with me – he even married my Dad. He was a tall, handsome guy with a full head of white hair, great sense of humour, and quite possibly the originator of the bonecrushing Mayo handshake. He was in the RAF during WWII, and apparently was a bit of a wrestling fan to boot – my kind of guy.
I was living in Bath when my Dad called to say that his Dad had died.
Dad was… surprisingly calm. He told me Gordon had died in his sleep. Everyone was being told. Necessary arrangements were being made. He’s a pragmatic man, my father, but I still remember being surprised at how together he was. Then he said “The family are all getting together” and he paused, correcting himself “Well, the ones who are left, anyway.”
And that was it. In that split second, the enormity of what had happened smashed into him, and he burst into tears on the phone. I had never heard him like that. I was hearing… pure, animal anguish. I was hearing a heart as it broke. I immediately burst into tears too. Unstoppable sobs wracked my body. One of my flatmates, Viv, happened to be there and – although she had no idea what was happening – she saw my state and gave me a big confused hug as I wept uncontrollably, and struggled to get any words out at all to my grieving father.
Here’s a terrible thing. I was terribly sad that Gordon had died, of course I was. It was sudden, and awful. But in that moment, I realised something. My Dad had just lost his Dad. This is what losing your Dad feels like. I will lose my Dad one day. I will feel this way. Oh, no. No no.
That was what really shattered me. I still don’t like even thinking about that moment, that realisation, that feeling.
Time to stop.