Reflections on my father

I read a short story on another blog tonight. It made me think about my father, for the first time in ages.

His name was Arthur, and he was born in Bermondsey, South London, in 1920. As a young man, he joined the army, and was posted to Woolwich Barracks, home of the Royal Artillery. When he was still just in his teens, the Second World War broke out, and he went to the Kent coast, to operate anti-aircraft guns near Dover. After Japan entered the war in 1941, he volunteered for service in the far east, and was posted to India. Promoted to sergeant, and eventually to Regimental Sergeant Major, he enjoyed a relatively comfortable war. He lived in his own bungalow, and even had servants, who lived under the porch. He went big-game hunting, and played both cricket and football for army teams. He was in charge of Indian troops, and he came to have a great respect for them as soldiers.

During this time, my mother, like many young women during the war, was writing to soldiers overseas. He received one of her letters, and later met up with her, presumably on home leave, agreeing to marry when peace came. At the end of hostilities, he stayed on in India for some time. On the voyage home, he stopped in Durban, and developed a great fondness for the life in South Africa. Arriving back in England, he told how he wanted to join the police force there, and start a new life in the sun. My Mum was having none of it, and refused to consider such a wrench from her family. I don’t think he ever forgave her, but he stayed in London, and they married in 1947.

He found work as a maker of tea-chests and boxes. He was always good with tools, and the work was regular, and reasonably well-paid. He was popular with almost everyone, and had a wide circle of friends, as well as a large extended family. At weekends, they would all meet in local pubs, where he would sing on stage, often accompanied by my uncle. My first memories of him are of a man smelling of hair oil and tobacco, with jet black wavy hair, and an olive complexion. I didn’t take after him, looking like my Mum’s side of the family. He was dark, and looked continental, easily passing as Jewish, or perhaps of some foreign extraction. There was talk of a Spanish connection way back in the family, but I never could confirm that. He was always smartly dressed, and as far as I was aware then, a good provider. But he wasn’t a settled man. He longed for something more, a better life somewhere.

From early on, I was a great disappointment to him. Somewhat spoilt by my Mum, I did not display the aptitude for sports that he would have liked. I didn’t seem to be able to learn to swim, no matter how hard he tried to teach me, and my abilities at football, or any sport, did not reach his standards. I didn’t ever run fast enough, or act tough enough, for his liking. My white-blond curly hair and blue-green eyes marked me as one of my Mum’s family, not his. I didn’t realise this of course, and as a child, I thought he was amazing. I watched him work on his car, and studied how he drove it too. He dressed me in suits and ties, and I accompanied him on visits to relatives and friends. When he took us on our annual seaside holidays, he played for hours on the beach, constructing cars from sand for me to sit in, or helping me build ambitious castles. Yet still, something inside me always sensed his overriding displeasure with me, and I wanted him to like me more.

As I got older, our relationship grew steadily worse. He often argued with Mum, and I only found out decades later, that she had discovered he was having various affairs with other women. I spent a lot of time in my room, reading books and comics, and writing on an old typewriter. In an effort to get me out of the house, he bought me a bike, and taught me how to ride it. As he did so, he hurt his back, slipping a disc. This was to cause him great pain, and necessitate operations later on. He never let me forget that he did that teaching me how to cycle. By the time I reached my teens, he tried to get me interested in car mechanics, and various jobs around the house. When I showed little aptitude or interest in such things, he became angry, regularly declaring that I was ‘useless’ and that I always would be. There was some redemption when I did well at school, and he seemed genuinely proud of my exam results. I got the feeling that he resented my academic leanings, and comparative success, but he never let on, if he did.

He would get his own back, by making me help him do jobs and chores. Hard manual labour in the garden, or hours spent in a freezing garage, holding tools or torches as he worked on cars. At some stage, I would invariably do something wrong, or with insufficient enthusiasm, giving him the opportunity to once again exclaim that I was useless, and I might as well leave him to do it alone. One particular evening, he added the words ‘I never wanted kids anyway, you were a mistake I was tricked into.’ I let that go at the time, but it always returned in my thoughts. By this time, he had changed jobs, and had spent many years working in the record industry. This gave him a boost in social status, and the chance to work away from home a great deal. On his return, he would present me with dozens of records, all the latest hits. But this was more about showing his ability to source this bounty, rather than the genuine desire to give me gifts. Once I was in my twenties, we hardly spoke at all. He was always out, often staying away overnight, and his relationship with Mum had deteriorated noticeably.

When I was nearly 24 years old, Mum told me that she had seen our house up for sale in the local estate agent. She thought it must be a mistake, and confronted him when he got home. He told her that he was moving in with a male colleague, and could no longer live with us. As his was the only name on the deeds of the house, he was entitled to sell it, and would give her half the proceeds. She asked me not to get involved. She was so shocked by it all, she didn’t even bother to fight him, and awaited her fate once he left. Despite the disruption to our life at the time, and something that would have more serious repercussions later, I was actually pleased to see the back of him. As we suspected, the ‘male colleague’ turned out to be female, and he had rather boringly just left my Mum for another woman, without having the courage to tell her the truth.

A few weeks later, he was returning to collect some things, and his car broke down. He phoned the house, and Mum asked me to collect him from Sidcup, where he had left his car. I didn’t speak to him as I drove him home, and he got a taxi back to his car later, when I was out. I never saw him again, and never spoke to him again, after that day. In 1989, I received a call from his cousin. He told me that my father was dying in a hospital in Northampton. He had Motor Neurone Disease, and was not expected to last the week. ‘You ought to go and see him’, the cousin suggested. ‘Did he ask me to come?’, I replied. ‘Not as such, but I am sure that he would want to see you’, he insisted. ‘I don’t think so Roy’, was my reply.

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26 thoughts on “Reflections on my father

  1. You hit a nerve here Pete, I’ve actually put off reading this post until now as I knew it would make me think about by own father, which to be honest I prefer not to. It’s funny your recollection of your trip to Kenya reminded me only of one thing. My dad telling me on the morning of his flight that he was going to Kenya with his new wife, handing my £20 and telling me to get out of the house and stay with my sister. I was 15 at the time. Happy days. I may just have to do a post about him one day. Then again, maybe not. Oddly enough you posted this on his birthday.

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    1. Similar experiences, many years apart Eddy. Men and their fathers eh? It wasn’t really meant to be mate. If we were Lions, they would have driven us out. For what it’s worth, I would write the post, even if you don’t publish it. I felt a lot better after this.
      Hope it wasn’t too sad for you mate.

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  2. I am simultaneously sad and glad to have read this story: sad because of the pain inflicted on children by their parents, and glad because it is very well written, and expressive, without being melodramatic. If this was fiction, I would say that I loved the closing of the text (and I fully stand behind the choice…).

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      1. I enjoyed reading it, Pete. It’s not always easy writing about personal experiences and even when writing what is clearly fiction people try and guess characters’ real identities!

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  3. It must be painful to recall your past relationship with your father. Thank you for sharing Pete. Past hurts are tempered by time. There must be something wrong with WP or my PC, I couldn’t find the like button every time I open a post, it is always “loading” but I can’t see it.

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    1. Thanks Arlene, time does indeed help with these things.

      I sometimes get the problem you mention with wordpress. I generally have to log off, then on again, to cure it.
      Best wishes as always, Pete.

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  4. A poignant story very well told. Thank you for sharing this story.

    I can only imagine how shocked your mum was to find out he was selling your house out from underneath you. I’m still shocked just thinking about it. I’m so sorry, it must have been an awful time for you and your mum.

    I’m glad you rose above it and had what seems to me to be a full and rewarding life despite such a traumatic event. My response to Roy would have been pretty much the same.

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    1. Thanks Gretchen. It was a shock at the time, and quite surreal to see a photo of your own house in the window of a shop. He also sold it under market value, as he was so keen to get away, so this lost my Mum a lot of money as well. It is all a long time ago now, but it shows how such things affect you through life, when I am still writing about it 25 years after he died.
      Very best wishes, Pete.

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  5. Pete, I could write a post just as lengthy as yours about my relationship with my father, and you would see some startling parallels, except for the acts of adultery. My father is still alive, and still married to my mother. I’ve never understood why some fathers require that their sons follow in their footsteps, and why they feel their sons should exhibit the same skills and show the same interests. Sons are individuals who may or may not take after one of their parents, and they should be honored for their individuality, not condemned for it. Parents should strive to communicate, understand, and appreciate rather than judge harshly based on narrow criteria.

    I want to thank you for a very frank and well-written discussion of your father, which I found not only interesting but also very poignant. I think your readers, and those who know you personally, will all agree that you should be proud of your accomplishments in life, and that you are anything but useless.

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    1. Thanks very much for your kind comments David. I think that my father was a man of his time, someone who valued practical ability and physical prowess above all else. He also lacked skills as a parent, perhaps because he didn’t really want children to start with..
      Best wishes as always, Pete.

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  6. I’ve known you all my life… and never have I ‘known’ you til now. You, as well as your other cousins and uncles, you were super-hereos to me and Rob… the untouchables from a generation we dreamed about belonging to. We still hold all of you with such regard. You are up on a pedastal as one of the best. Your dad sure as hell should be proud of you. Personally, I cannot be prouder to introduce you as family!

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  7. Interesting and sad reading, Pete. I like the way you write. Somehow I was sort of relieved to see that you didn’t go to see him in his last hours. The ending of the story closes it in a way that makes me exhale “goooood” …

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  8. Very interesting Pete and lots I did not know. A story permeated with intolerance and misunderstanding. It makes me think how important it is to attempt to honestly communicate in the moment.

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    1. Thanks Ro. As I grow older, I really feel the need to get these things out.
      You are right about honest communication of course, but things were very different in the 1960s, as you will remember. Certain subjects were never discussed, and attitudes were different to today.
      Take care mate. x

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