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.