Tuesday 13 February 1979
So, this is how it would have gone down. He’d have been sitting in his armchair, the one directly facing the telly. I’d have sat my ten-year-old self on his lap, or maybe on the pouffé (that’s what we called it in the 1970s) in front of him. He’d have given me a 10 pence piece from his pocket, and I’d have told him about my day. I didn’t talk to him for the money; I talked to him because we both loved having a chat between the end of teatime and my bedtime. But the money came in handy.
I can’t remember what we spoke about that night. Maybe we discussed the excitement of the next day – his and my mum’s 20th wedding anniversary. I know I was excited about it. I’d been saving those ten pen pieces and had used ten of them to buy a china bell from the local market. It was wrapped and hidden in my wardrobe and the next day he was going to see it.
Except he didn’t.
Because on his way home from work he suffered two heart attacks. The ambulance crew brought him round after the first one, but his heart wore out. The second heart attack killed him.
Wednesday 14 February 1979
I remember a lot about this evening from so very long ago. I remember us having our tea without him. I remember standing the china bell on the table with the anniversary card around it. I remember what I watched on TV while I waited for him to come home. I remember my mum going to the front door at regular intervals. I remember opening the door to the police officers. I remember saying to my mum ‘He never saw the present I bought him.’
That china bell.
Way back when
He was 59 when he died. I was ten. That’s quite an age gap. He was older than most of my friends’ dads, but there were reasons for that. We were his second family. He’d been through this before.
There are things about my dad that I never found out about until long after his death; things that made me think, quite simply: My poor dad.
This is how it went down….
When he was 13, he came home from school and found his mum, dead, in a pool of her own blood. My own mum told me this story when I was in my 30s. For obvious reasons it wasn’t something he ever spoke about to me. I was too young, and maybe even if he’d lived it wouldn’t have been something he wanted to dwell on. Somehow, somehow he managed to live with what happened, what he saw. He managed to go about his life, to form relationships.
One of those relationships was with the woman who became his first wife. They had a son. When their boy was a toddler she left, with my dad’s best friend. Somehow he managed to live with this, managed to go about his life, to form other relationships.
He met my mum, had another son, then me. And then he went to work one day and he never came back.
His life was one that was built around people not coming back. It could have made him closed and wary. But he found a way to make it not matter. Maybe those losses made him crave company and family. I’m glad they did, because it meant for ten years I had a dad who took me to the park, to the seaside, who built sandcastles with me, who watched me bounce and soar on trampolines embedded in south coast beaches, who read to me, who talked to me every night before I went to bed.
And so when I think about what he went through, how he suffered, what he lost, and what he was emotionally brave enough to look for again, I no longer think, ‘My poor dad.’ I think ‘My amazing, open, fantastic, optimistic dad.’
Jacqueline Downs lives in Crystal Palace where she is a writer of short stories, an editor of academics and a mixer of old-fashioneds.