Travelling Back to Dad

Now that mum has gone, it’s time for a journey back to dad.

Just after my daughter’s first birthday and my first year of a « difficult » fatherhood, I decided to set pen to paper and come to terms with the whole “Dad” thing, because it was only on becoming a dad that I really started to think about my dad .

I couldn’t tell you what fathers do . I never really had one . He dropped dead from a heart attack just a few weeks after my sixth birthday . I was woken up around six when the ambulance arrived . They took my dad to the hospital, clamped him into an iron lung to get him breathing, but by nine he was dead . My mum came home around ten, her face unrecognisable through her floods of tears . She then fell into my grandmother’s arms shouting “he’s dead .” This was about as hysterical as she got in front of my brother and I . As a family we’ve never gone in for big public displays of emotion, we like to bottle things up . Anyway, my mum took me to school, discretely dumping me at the entrance . On entering the classroom all hell let loose, the teacher screamed at me for being late, I told her that my father had just died, but the excuse, however valid, lacked any credibility coming from the mouth of a tearful six year old . I was made to sit in the corner and write lines for the rest of the morning , while the other kids had their art lesson . When the teacher eventually found out that I wasn’t lying, she never apologised for her actions and spent the rest of the year treating me as some kind of leper, because I had no father .

All this was back in the early seventies, when happy families were supposedly the norm . Right up until I was at secondary school, I was always the only one in the class that came from a one-parent-family. Though my father died through no fault of his own, our family seemed to have to carry his death as some kind of stigma . At junior school I felt almost as if I had to apologise for not having a father .

Holidays were the worst . Trundling off to France in my mum’s Renault five, for two weeks under canvas, loaded to the gunnels with tins of baked beans and Sainsbury’s tuna . Fellow happy campers would look on us with a distrustful and incredulous eye . A middle aged woman on her own in the heart of France with two young sons . There had to be something strange going on . Most of the other happy campers would give us the cold shoulder . Other women were jealous that my mum might be some kind of predator . As she said at the time though, when she actually saw what other women were married to, she was glad to be on her own . However, just to allay any fears on the part of other females, my mother always had a good line in “business trip” stories .

“And what about your husband ?” some fellow Brit would ask my mum as they sipped on their cheap plonk at the weekly campsite barbecue .

“He’s on a business trip in Switzerland, he’s flying out to join us next week .” My mum would then launch into long prosaic explanations of my father’s wonderful job. When he was alive dad had been a parliamentary correspondent for Reuters, on holiday he became chief political correspondent for The Times or Geneva bureau chief for the Daily Telegraph . These near hallucinogenic stories, these tales of pure invention, never seemed to explain that the only holiday we could afford was camping in France . There again this was in the 1970’s when camping still had a mystical aura of intellectual eccentricity .

All this just to say that there was such a stigma about being a one-parent family, that it was easier to be a fictional happy family . I could never explain the reasons for other people’s attitudes of mistrust or simple curiosity on the part of my peers. I was a six year old kid coping with death . I had to be able to explain death to other six year olds . What I was never able to cope with (and still can’t) is people who say “sorry” . “That’s okay” I say “he wasn’t your dad .” So I grew up without a father and as long as my peers have their fathers, I will always be fatherless, until all our dads have shuffled off this mortal coil .

Now that I am a father, I’m trying to work out what my precise role is . I have a few memories of stereotypical father-son things that my dad did with my brother and I, but they are not enough to serve as any real reference .

My mates at school used to talk about their fathers in glowing terms . They got taken to football matches, their dads would build them tree houses or go-karts, or they’d sit down play games together . My dad could play the piano and build sandcastles . I’d also like to add that he was a brilliant journalist, but none of this cut any ice at school when carpentry and ball-kicking skills were at a premium .

There were attempts to do proper father and son things with my brother and I . He once bought us both a tool kit, on the pretext that we were going to take up woodwork, but before we could get started, my father died and the tools sat gathering dust for years, waiting for someone less cack-handed than me to use them . …

… I was born at a time when fathers were the main breadwinners . They were shadowy figures that loitered around on the edge of a child’s existence . I feel that I am now beginning to loiter . Perhaps in future years I’ll have a technological role, teaching my daughter how to surf the net, (we’re back to virtual fathers again) or teaching her how to use her first mobile phone , all this from the man who can’t work his own fax machine . I asked Nadia what sort of father I should be . She just told me that I should be myself and do what my father did with me . It’s all a bit of a vicious circle, but I’ll follow her advice and do what my dad did best, build sandcastles .

May 1999

Mum could never tell me when Dad was born. Mum and dad had a fifteen-year age differential. On going through mum’s affairs after her death, I found her marriage certificate, bearing, amongst other information, dad’s date of birth – December 16th 1916. Now I know what mum could never remember, I feel that the link to dad is complete. The circle is complete.


Absent Fathers

And you laugh and you run and you jump in my arms

And my cold heart melts with your innocent charms,

And you smile and you shout and you call to me, “Dad”

And each time my heart breaks for what I never had.

And I fob you off  I’ve got better to do,

I’m present but distant I’m not there for you,

And you fall and you cry and you scream in the night

You want this distant man to put demons to flight,

And your tears fill my heart and they tear me apart

And I get destroyed as the man turns to boy.

I thought I could give you what I never had

But your childhood is mine with an absent dad,

And I sit on the sidelines over the years

Watching the best as it all disappears.

Must be with you and love you

From the first ’til the last

You’re growing up and away, too far and too fast.

Written for my daughter on her biological passage in womanhood – September 2010


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