That was such a sweaty summer. I’d never experienced heat and humidity like it. It was hot. It was sticky. It was grimy.
And it was wonderful.
What a summer! Barely 20 and, although I left home under the shadow of yet another argument, I was so happy. In London. Working hard, partying harder and feeling like an adult. Breaking free. Life was good.
That was the summer of ’85. Crowded London, hordes of visitors, crammed Tubes, thronged streets and Live Aid. The buzz around the city was fab and I devoured everything it had to offer.
It didn’t take much thinking to decide to stay. What started as a summer job was quickly turning into a permanent move. I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want to go back to college. I didn’t want to feel the restriction of being a daughter any more. I simply wanted to be.
In a world of letters, postcards and landlines, I hadn’t spoken to my family in months. And I was so not up to speaking with them that day. Sunday morning and I literally crawled onto the landing to answer the phone, monkeys banging drums in my head, stomach feeling as if it had been scoured with Brillo pads. I was raw. A couple of hours of quasi-comatose sleep didn’t equip me to deal with the conversation that unfolded about college and fees. Sitting on the floor, eyes closed to contain the banging, with the receiver to my ear, I grunted replies to the seemingly endless list of questions. Dad became cranky as I became increasingly unresponsive. I wasn’t doing it deliberately. Did he not realise I was in a severe state of self-inflicted pain? I wanted, wished, prayed to get off that phone and back into bed for a few more hours before work. And I got my wish. Ringing off abruptly, he said he’d talk to me again – when I was in a better mood and considerably less hungover.
We never spoke again.
A gentle tap on my shoulder alerted me to the fact that there was an urgent call for me at Reception. All I remember as I hurried to the phone was worrying about the heap of trouble I’d be in for receiving yet another personal call at work. The Head Waiter nodded solemnly as he handed the receiver over and even his demeanour didn’t hint at what I was about to be told.
Dad was dead.
I struggled to take in what the voice was telling me, questions about what money I had to get me home, booking flights and all the details that really could have waited. I placed the receiver on the phone and with my knees buckling, felt the Manager’s strong arms scooping in to support me and bring me to the Staff Room.
I was numb, so numb I didn’t feel him rummage in my pocket for cigarettes before placing a lit one between my fingers. I kept going over and over what I’d just been told and thinking about Tommy Cooper. We’d seen him collapse on stage and when learning he’d passed, Dad said that’s what he wanted – to go quick, easily and in a place he loved. And he got his wish. On a warm August evening, playing golf with his best friend, he dropped to his knees and passed – “just like that…”
When I got the news, I felt that half of me had was ripped away. Until then, I never realised how intrinsically linked we become with a parent, how much of our own personality and development is intertwined with theirs. When the sadness began to lift from my chest. I realised part of me also passed that day. Dad was 58.
The grief was so intense and when it eased, I still missed him – intensely. He was my pal, my confidante, my ally, my hero – a gentleman and a gentle man.
And I consoled myself, confident in the fact that I knew him so well.
Or so I thought…
Of all the family, I felt closest to my dad. We’d disappear on adventures with me always blagging sweets at the end of each trip. He built a toboggan for us and we’d happily glide through the snow – him steering while I screamed like a child possessed with an uneasy mix of devilment, delight and sheer terror. When I started college, he’d sneak me a crafty cigarette or a vodka to pop into my innocent looking Coke to shelter me from the judging glare of mother.
We were mischief makers. He particularly delighted when people raised an eyebrow on him introducing me as his daughter, getting a kick out of them mistaking me for his mistress! A proud moment he had when I started drinking pints of Guinness, ‘a real man’s drink’ that would put hairs on my chest he delighted. It made me laugh while also terrifying me and follicle checks were regular from that day forth.
I knew my Dad so well – knew his strengths and knew his failings as clearly as he knew mine. And from the day he passed, I miss and remember him daily. I feel sad that he never got to be a Granddad as he’d have been such a super one, spoiling the little ankle biters like they had never been spoilt before. I feel a concoction of anger and loss when I see pals walk down the aisle with father bursting with pride, knowing I will never, can never, experience that. I feel at a loss not being able to chat to him, to lean on him, to get his encouragement, to earn his approval, to laugh with him. And I often feel incensed when I hear people moaning about having to visit parents, wishing that I could just have some more moments, even an hour, with my beloved father.
I knew my Dad so well – in terms of what he could be for me, the presence he could grow to in my life. But when those letters were put into my hand, my whole understanding changed in an instant.
When all others were asleep, I poured a large G and T and settled down to read the tatty, aged, pile of letters from the 1940s my cousin had given me. From boarding school, he dutifully wrote home to parents and siblings. To his parents, he sent greetings, thanks for cakes, sweets, pens and ink while asking for other items to be sent when possible. To his sisters, he thanked them for the crafty cigarettes they sent his way.
With each letter, I became increasingly taken aback by the familiarity and closeness of the text. The intimacy of relationships unfolding on those sheets hurt me. It wasn’t a sense of jealousy that made me recoil; it was a deep sense of loss. As I read paragraph upon paragraph set out in scrawled handwriting, telling of childish concerns about horses, pals and football victories, I realised I didn’t know my Dad at all.
I was awakening to the fact that my knowledge of my father was directly in line with my life, not his. My knowledge of him began when I was born and up to the time I lost him. I knew him as my father but I never knew him from the perspective of being a husband, a son or brother – of being a friend. He passed too early for conversations of adults to take place, where stories of these other sides could be revealed. And those who could fill in the gaps are now long since passed.
I wish I’d received those letters years ago. I wish I’d asked for information sooner. But most of all, I so wish I’d known my Dad better.
Dad and his sister, Maureen