The Great and the Good –
For my dad 24/5/17-15/7/77
My father died on St. Swithin’s day, 1977, and it rained for a long time after that.
We were given no notice of this major event. He lived three score years, depriving us of those very important ten, when he could have seen me married, could have seen his last grandchild born; could have known her, if only for moments. My daughter will only ever know her grandfather through my eyes.
He was the steely structure around which we built our lives and when he died, the foundations were almost blown apart.
I suppose I should have read the writing on those walls which once existed. But at twenty two, you have mental dyslexia. Unplanned events shock you. You haven’t learned to watch out for life’s secrets. But then, what can prepare you for the sudden failing of a heart? Even if you are given last moments which are irreversibly spiralling downward.
My father planned everything. He planned my birth, whilst Mum always says she has no idea how it happened at all. So heavily into planning was he, that we were stunned to think that he could not have been aware of his imminent departure. One week after his death, I realised that he could not have possibly known. A renewed ten year passport arrived in the post. It is clearly my most redundant possession and yet my heart has never been able to part with it.
No. My father was more prepared for his death when he was stationed in Nairobi during the war. His letters, immaculately uncensored, reminded his mother that there was thirteen pounds in his Post Office savings account, which could be claimed from the superintendent “should anything happen to me”. Apparently my grandmother sat in her Belfast terraced house and cried for days afterwards.
I believe the key to my father’s sudden surprise in his last moments was given to me in our Ford Escort van outside the Cash and Carry store when I was seven years old. After a deal of philosophising about the unknown secrets of life and the stacking of tinned tomatoes, I told him that death frightened me. He said, “Then don’t give it any attention.”
He held no death insurance. “That’s like backing a horse you don’t want to win,” he said.
Dad’s unplanned event shocked him. He gave himself over to mental dyslexia on a voluntary basis. He would never have agreed to teach my sister’s eldest daughter ‘Battleships’ if he felt that he was not going to fulfil that promise. We were so cross about the ‘Battleships’ and absence of his UHU glue for filling the gaps. Grief is a long, hard road no matter how many times you have been round the track.
In the years following his death, I searched for pieces of him in anybody. I scoured the streets for his likeness in the faces of old men, despising them for their differences and their survival.
I looked into myself for a recognition of the inevitable genes that must be passed on. I saw none. It is only in recent years, when identity has become more fully stamped that I see the similarities. He was able to settle the attention of a room upon himself with one subtle stroke and a string of jokes. I’m not a straight copy. I’ll do it with anecdotes.
We found my father’s secrets in the week after he died. Cupboards full of them. Notebooks full of those jokes in alphabetical order, with key words to aid memory. He was heavily into mnemonics. I realise in writing this that I have my own notebooks. Each anecdote is carefully recorded for future public scrutiny. There’s the love of order and penny counting, an insistence on dental hygiene and the similar way I labour the changing of car gears.
What else did he pass on? Eccentricities. Like the time he laid eggs on East Croydon station. He asked my mother to sew up the pocket in his overcoat. He boiled the eggs at work. He ran for the train.
My sister and I watched a man in the main street, surrounded by people, staring up at the sky, lost in thought. It was ages before we realised it was Dad.
I have shopped in carpet slippers and once set out in mid-winter for Africa in ballet pumps.
He told me we were here for our children; to give them a better life than we have ever had. And that our children would pass that on, until eventually there would come a generation that would have this planet and other planets for themselves. Heaven.
He gave me his surname. He gave me his initials. J.E. And he called me by my own Christian name, without offering up any pretentious nicknames.
What he wasn’t able to give me after the age of twenty two, was his presence and the lumps of nepotism I watched being heaped upon my contemporaries. And I was angry with him for it.
I was angry that he had spent his life posting me notifications of what the future might bring and failed to deliver his final notice. I was angry not that he said the cup of tea I made him was rotten, but that he had not told me it was his last one. It was the most important cup of tea I was ever to make in my life and I didn’t know.
My dad ‘raged against the dying of the light’ in those last moments, whilst I looked on helplessly and my sister held a bottle of Lucozade. My mum told him it was going to be all right. It was not going to be all right for a long time. We were to continue raging for him; with one another and against one another.
The day after his own mother died, I took the train up to Victoria with him. He was heading for the sleeper to Stranraer and for her Belfast funeral. He silently took a secret from his coat pocket. He smoothed his thumb over the creased faces on a faded brown and cream photograph, as if in a caress. It was a photograph of his father and himself, aged about nine. I was nineteen. I had never seen a photograph of my grandfather or my own father as a child.
“Do you still remember him?” I asked naively. I was then the same age that he had been when he lost his father.
“He is as clear and close to me as my mother is now,” he replied. Then back into the cupboard of his pocket the smoothed out photo went. He looked out of the train window and stared up at the sky.
There are moments which herald the future and this was one of them. Doors open and the future comes bounding in. I lost him quite soon after that railway ride. For, on his insistence, I was to accept a good job in Canada. And, setting aside the months after his death when I could no more tell you what he looked like than God, I can safely say I carry a clear picture of him in some pocket of my brain. That is all I am doing now, some forty years on; taking the picture out and showing it the light.
Above all, my father gave me his ordinariness. Few are born to be great. We were born to be ordinary. I cannot paint this man with words. And I cannot describe the sense of ‘all rightness’ I felt when I looked out from the school stage on first nights and caught the light from a Fresnal glinting on his huge spectacles.
He was not a famous illustrator, or writer, or movie star or a successful businessman. He worked as a railway clerk at Clapham Junction station. He owned a grocery shop. He did shift work and he wasn’t always there on Christmas mornings because people still had to travel.
He was a man who gained respect by what he did rather than what he said. “A gentleman and a scholar,” they said of him at his Orange funeral on the Newtownards Road. “A man who always paid his dues to the Lodge promptly and in full.”
But he could be pedantic. He switched off lights when you were in the room to save on fuel. He paid up domestic bills before we went on holiday leaving us short of the extra luxuries. He could talk dental appointments when you wanted to talk career crisis. I cannot count ‘quality time’ conversations with him past the age of eleven. He never hugged me past the age of nine.
He never sat on a pedestal. He doesn’t now. I did not worship the ground that he walked upon, because he and his Protestant ethic taught me to worship nothing but our Creator. In short, and in time, we re-built our walls because he had laid the foundations so solidly.
My father was not great. Good job; I had no need of great men when I was a child.
But he was a good man. Good enough. For me.