Inheritance - story for Dying Matters Week
My father used to say to me – and he should have known that I needed my own stories – he used to say, “I’ll give you a story. I’ll give you a story to write about.”
The truth was he had hundreds of great stories, about his sister Elsie, about the factory, about getting away from Manchester and going to Oxford, all through his life stories just happened to him.
The story that I loved most as a child was about Elsie and my Dad. Elsie was a bold girl and my Dad was her little brother and bookish and weedy. The older kids had to take my Dad with them when they went out, so he ended up being the football post when my Uncle Harry played football with his mates, but this day Elsie was taking him to the pictures. My Dad had four marbles in his pocket.
Elsie dragged my Dad along and parked him in the queue outside the pictures with strict instructions not to mess about and not to move an inch, while she went off to see what was what and who was who and generally do more interesting things than hang around with her kid brother. When she got back to him, he was crying. “What you crying for?” “I’ve dropped my marbles.”
“For crying out loud,” Elsie said, her mother’s words.
The marbles had bounced and rolled away down the incline and Dad had been told not to move. “Well, that’s that,” said Elsie and my Dad’s snivelling turned into a loud wail. “Oh, for goodness sake,” she said. “Right,” she said. “Right, you lot, who’s got his marbles?”
She moved down the queue berating boys who were smaller than her and lacked their own bodyguard. “Own up, who’s got his marbles, who took his marbles and put them in their pockets. That’s thieving, that is, show me your marbles, that’s his, that one is, give it back.” She worked her way along the line, dispensing slaps, taking marbles, until she couldn’t hold any more. “Here,” she said to my Dad and filled the pockets of his short trousers with treasure. “Now will you pack it in with your skriking” and it was time to go in and see Dan Dare.
One story that I liked when I was older was about a boy Dad knew in the Air Cadets, a good looking blonde boy. He was one of the apprentices at Metro Vicks during the War and he had a girlfriend called Vera or Janet, but I don’t think my Dad knew her, and I don’t remember the boy’s name. Anyway, the thing that made this boy special, apart from the good looks and the blonde hair, was that he was going to be a pilot and fly planes.
When I was growing up in the 1960s Sunday afternoons were still hallowed by old black and white war films and so I knew that when a pilot stepped out of the cockpit he had come from the skies where he had been tested and proved himself a hero. My Dad was just as certain that his friend was going to join the pilots and the sun would glint off his blonde hair and – you get the picture.
One morning this lad gets his call up papers, only instead of a letter from the RAF, what he gets is a letter from Ernest Bevin, and he’s to join the Bevin Boys and dig for victory underground, burrowing for coal in a deep dark pit for as long as the War shall last.
They found him hanging, his belt looped around his neck, in the outside lav.
And the next day, Vera, or Janet, hanged herself too, in the lav at the back of her house.
Dad got away from the factory thanks to National Service, and the Labour Party League of Youth and Extramural Classes at Manchester University and these were the years of being a golden boy when it seemed that everywhere there were hands to help him along the way of becoming something more than a fitter;
although his father always held that there was nothing better than a fitter unless it was a toolmaker.
So next thing Dad is at Oxford doing PPE, and having a scout to polish his boots and I don’t know what else, and there was another student there who was my father’s double, except that he had green eyes and my father’s eyes were blue. There was a lovely girl, too. The girls were always lovely in my Dad’s stories – think Audrey Hepburn.
The lovely girl was married to a Nigerian student. When their baby was born, but born white, the Nigerian man murdered his lovely wife and was sent to prison.
Four years or so after that my father went to work in Nigeria, a year or two before Independence. One day he was driving from Ibadan home to Lagos when a man up ahead puts out his thumb to hitch a ride. Dad stops and the man gets in, looks across at my Dad and says, “Hello, Peter.”
My Dad’s name in the Manchester years was Harold, in the years of re-invention it had become Sean. Peter was the guy with the green eyes, and the man hitching the lift was, yes, you’ve got it, the man who murdered the poor lovely girl.
After Nigeria my parents settled in Palmers Green and what a story wasteland my life in North London was. I longed to have a double or meet tragic people. Not in Palmers Green. Dad used to say that Robert the Bruce had a castle round the corner but we walked for hours and never found it. The cat next door lost all his fur. Stevie Smith lived on the other side of Green Lanes. Maybe more things happened on her side of the road, but maybe not.
As he got older Dad got around less and less and told his stories more and more. He preferred his audience reverential, which made me the opposite, but he liked that I’d bought a house in Manchester, just a mile or two from where he grew up. Dad and I would have a laugh on the phone about Flixton or other places that nobody went to, unless they fell asleep on the bus. Chorlton was the place to be, we crowed, and I suggested he and Mum come back to Manchester to live and he thought about it but he never did.
There was some warning of the end of the road, when out of the blue, Dad couldn’t work the remote for the TV. There were words he couldn’t spell and for a few days I thought the worst –Alzheimer’s, dementia, some form of losing his mind. Then it turned out it was a urinary infection, and he was back to normal, and he was pretty sure he’d had a T.I.E. and there I was finding out about urinary infections and mini strokes. It’s kind of on a need-to-know basis, isn’t it, getting old, suddenly my stiffening bones understand the way my grandmother used to get out of a chair. For all the relief of it not being Alzheimer’s, there was still a shadow, something impending, and both my sister and I were there for Christmas.
Christmas Eve, bottle of wine, we’re all together, isn’t this great. In the night it falls apart. Dad can’t get to the toilet because he thinks the door is on his right when it’s straight ahead and Louise is coaxing him along and he’s so sure the tap turns this way that he twists the handle right off. Then he’s back in bed and telling the doctor he’s a little bit confused and we tell him we love him and hold his hands. Eventually the doctor decides for hospital and the ambulance men are kind but we can only find two left footed slippers, as if we’re all in the crazy world where doors aren’t where they’re meant to be, and clockwise taps go anti. There’s snow on the pavement and my Dad in his two left slippers heaves himself into the ambulance because he’s too big for the ambulance men to lift him in.
We find the right footed slippers later on and sort out a pair but he never wears them. He’s wheeled down the corridors on a bed when he goes for a scan. We sit around and talk to each other and hold hands some more. Dad starts rubbing his forehead, rubbing and rubbing, but for a long time no-one’s sure what’s happening, is it a stroke, or maybe its another infection - brief relief; and then he’s getting agitated and then they sedate him and when the sedation wears off, he’s not quite there anymore.
He’s still alive, but his eyesight’s gone and his kidneys have packed in, and he can’t talk. We hold his hands and try to stop him lashing his arms and legs against the bed frame. We get Mum to sing to him and she remembers how on long car journeys they used to take it in turns to think of a song for each letter of the alphabet and then sing the songs together, and we do that, singing for Dad in case he can hear still, Birds In The Trees Seem To Whisper Louise, Catch A Falling Star And Put It In Your Pocket, We All Live In A Yellow Submarine. Days later, we’ve got into a routine, found places to sleep, know what to eat in the canteen, who to ask for things and we’ve drunk tea and more tea and still more, and we’re waiting for it all to be over, and we’re used to it. New Year comes and goes and a few days later Dad goes too. He leaves behind a suddenly sharp and yellow face.
Nowadays, a year and a bit on, I’m on the East Lancs Road or at Boggart Hole Clough and thinking I’ll tell Dad when I get home, where I’ve been today. Sudden, sharp pain; which I don’t mind. I like to be reminded of him. I’ve claimed Dad’s stories. I am fierce and protective in how I love them. No more irritation. The story of his dying has no coincidence, no tragedy – the slippers don’t count - no laughs. A man, dying. His wife and his daughters loved him. That’ll do.