Friday, November 29, 2013




I didn't know it that night, but this was the last time I’d ever see my father.
            We sat -- he, my mother, my brother David and I -- amid the overdone  decorations in the modest hotel restaurant. My father wore a dark gray suit, stiff white collar and the tie of the Durham Light Infantry, the only person among the forty or fifty others in the room to be so dressed.
          This was his way. It was how he'd been brought up. I can remember him even on sultry August days at Whitstable, our oyster-fishing town in south east East England,  sitting with knees drawn up on the crowded beach with a neatly folded copy of the Daily Telegraph. He wore a dark wool serge suit, black sock suspenders, and highly polished black shoes. He may not have looked it, but he was comfortable.
            But now it was Christmas Day, 1957. I was twenty-six, and he'd turned 70 a few weeks before.  Looking back, I find it hard to believe that this gaunt, burnt-out man was twelve years younger than I am today.
            It was an odd, superficially festive little gathering. We went through the traditional courses of soup, roast turkey with sage and chestnut stuffing, Christmas pudding aflame in brandy, and mince pies. We pulled the crackers and blew the whistles and read and laughed at the bad jokes that spilled out of them, and we raised our glasses to the future. But the sad truth was that the four of us were relative strangers to one another, and also that the old man had barely any future left.
            David and I never really knew our parents well. We were both sent miles away to a boarding school when I was eight. I don't remember ever sharing a feeling or fear with my father or mother. It's not that they weren't kind to us, or even that they didn't love us. It was simply that neither knew how to show affection.
           I always addressed my father as "sir," and the only time he and I ever touched was to shake hands whenever we met or parted.
           Nor had my brother and I ever known each other well, even though we were together for endless years at school. He was more than three years older than I, and while I had been outgoing, cheeky and garrulous, he was a quiet, solitary boy. My parents never seemed to notice that as a teenager, and later as a man, David had no women friends, and rarely brought home any of his many men friends, who seemed to have oddly diverse social and educational backgrounds.                  
            The meal ended, as Christmas and Easter family dinners always did, with what my father called ‘a nice healthy walk.' When he’d paid the check, counting out the pounds and shillings with care and attention like the bank clerk he’d once been, we faced into the cold sea air, heading for the beach.
            It was dark, unlit steep slope down to the concrete walkway along the sea-front.  The tide had turned, and was dragging on the coarse, flinty shingle below us. Out on the horizon the beam of a lightship pulsed. Ahead of my mother and me, David and the old man walked more briskly.
            As we strolled along together my mother turned to me. "So how do you like your new life, Johnny?"                   
            After nearly nine years in the British Army I was on leave, and in a few days would begin my first civilian job. In the service,  I'd always had a roof over my head, three meals a day,  the excitement of action, and the company of friends. It had been like living in an expensive gentlemen's club, as an infantry captain with my own driver, even a batman to do my chores. But suddenly I was alone, friendless in a little attic room in a none-too-classy part of London and about to start a new life. Though I wouldn’t have admitted it, I felt lost, and apprehensive about my future.  
              I lied in reply to my mother's question. "Fine, Mum. My new life's fine."
           "But are you happy?" she asked.
           "Happy enough," I said. "How about you?"
          My mother took my arm as we walked. It was something she'd rarely done.
          "No," she said. "I'm not happy really. But then I haven't been for years, not since I married your father. Surely you must have realized that?"
                I hadn't. I was speechless. Had this happened today, if she were still alive, I might have said, "Do you want to talk about it?" But I didn't. We walked on.
          "What are you thinking?" she asked.
               By now we'd fallen back some way behind my father and brother.
             "If what you've said is true, I'm wondering . . . well, why you married Dad," I said, "Were things so different then?"
                "Not really," she said. "I escaped, you see. You know the story. Your  grandfather had walked out on us years before.  There we all were. Mother and five unmarried daughters and a brother in that beastly cramped little house at North Foreland. It was like living in a pressure cooker. Then I met your father at a friend's house. It seemed  . . ."
              "It seemed what?” I heard a sharp, involuntary edge in my own voice.
           She looked up. "You're angry, aren't you?" She released my arm. "I'm so sorry, I've upset you. But, you see, marrying him just seemed to be the way out at the time."
             My mother changed the subject and we caught up with the others.
             "What are you two chatting about?" my father asked.
          My mother laughed. "Oh, you know. Shoes, ships, sealing wax . . .”
               Two days later David and I took the train back to London. For weeks I turned my mother's revelation over and over in my mind, but I never told David.
               My father died less than three months later. He went to sleep one night and never woke up, but the circumstances were odd. In their final years together, the old man snored heavily, and so my parents slept in separate rooms. At least, that was the reason they always gave for sleeping apart. And there was something else; he'd become quirky about money, and had for years locked the bedroom door behind him, hiding his billfold under his pillow. 
            Every morning, at seven sharp, my mother would make a cup of tea and take it to his door.  She'd knock and, waking, he'd rise and let her in. On that final morning, of course, there was no answer. My mother climbed a ladder to the open bedroom window to find him dead.
            Was it the wine on that Christmas evening that caused my mother's impulsive admission?  Or did she need the release of this tragic secret to unburden  herself, to share her load?  She lived for another 30 years, and died in her 90th year, but she never mentioned it again.
          Nor did I.                                                                                    


1 comment:

  1. Dear John, Happy New Year to you and Lynn. I am ashamed to tell you that this is the first time I have visited your blog. I skipped the piece on tea and went straight to the last Christmas dinner you spent with your father and your mother's shocking revelation. How sad that you and your mother never spoke of it again. And how courageous of you to write about it. It is wonderful that you have turned out to be the warm, demonstratively loving person you are. (Actually I saw the beginnings of a novella there somewhere.) Take care. May you and Lynn continue to be surrounded by loving family and friends.