Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Christmas To Forget

I didn't know it that night, but this was to be the last time I’d see my father.

We sat, my mother, my brother David and I, amid the over-the-top tinsel and decorations in the modest hotel restaurant. My father wore a dark gray suit, stiff white collar and the tie of the Durham Light Infantry, probably the only person among the forty or fifty others in the room to be wearing a tie.

This was his way. It was how he'd been brought up. I can remember him even on sultry August days at Whitstable, sitting with his knees drawn up on the crowded beach with a neatly folded copy of the Daily Telegraph, and wearing a wool serge suit and highly polished black shoes with sock suspenders. He may not have looked it, but he was comfortable.

But now it was Christmas Day, 1957. I was 26, and he'd turned 70 a few weeks before. Looking back, I find it hard to believe that this gaunt, burnt-out man was 13 years younger than I am today.

It was an odd, superficially festive little gathering. We went through the traditional courses of roast turkey with sage 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 strangers to one another, and also that the old man had barely any future left.

David and I never really knew our parents. 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. The only time my father and I ever touched was to shake hands whenever we met or parted.

Nor have David 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 one-pound notes and half-crowns 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 on the steep slope down to the concrete walkway along the sea-front. The tide had turned, and now dragged 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 like your new life, Johnny?"

After eight 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 had a roof over my head, three meals a day, excitement and the company of friends. It had been like living in an expensive gentlemen's club, with my own driver, even my own servant. But suddenly I was alone, friendless in an attic room in London, and about to start a new life. Though I didn't admit it, I felt lost, and a little scared of the 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. "What about you?"

My mother took my arm as we walked. It was something she'd rarely done.

"No," she said. "I'm not happy. But then I haven't been for years. Not since I married your dad. Surely you must know that."

I didn't know. I was speechless. Had this happened today, were she 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.

"I was wondering . . . well, why you married him," I said, "were things so different then?"

"Not really," she said. "I escaped, you see. You know the story. Your grandfather had walked out years before. There we all were. Mother and five unmarried daughters in that beastly cramped little house at North Foreland. It was like 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 voice.

She looked up. "You're angry, aren't you?" She released my arm. "I'm 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, smiling.

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 words 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. The circumstances were odd. In their final years together, the old man snored heavily, and 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 almost miserly 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 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.

And nor did I.

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