John Duerden by Nick Duerden

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I have no real defining memories of my father, and those I can muster he probably wouldn’t thank me for. There are few remaining photographs of him (my mother took scissors to most of them), but those I do possess picture him as young and blonde, and whippet thin. I remember him only in snippets: coming home from work one night in a bad mood, his temper made worse to find his sons fighting. He roared. I remember him lost behind a newspaper on Sunday afternoons, a pint of beer warming by his feet. I remember him telling us to be quiet, that he was watching the news, Dad’s Army, had had a long day at work and just wanted a moment’s peace, was that so much to ask? And I remember the late night arguments he would have with my mother in the kitchen while my brother and I lay unsleeping in our shared bedroom, all too aware of the raised voices, the slammed doors, the wretched weeping. After particularly bad ones, he would disappear for days on end, with no word of contact until his sudden return, always unannounced and out of the blue, beaming, laughing again, a force of nature, with a brand new camera to dazzle us with or, one time, a stylish white Rover with cracked leather brown seats. This would send my mother half crazed, money we didn’t have spent on luxury items we couldn’t afford.

The contradictions between them were vast, unnavigable. With him gone, we’d be barely scraping by, my mother eking out a vegetable casserole for days because the fridge was otherwise empty. With him back, we’d be pushing the speed limit down quiet streets in the kind of car we normally saw only on The Sweeney. He dressed well, above his station, in camel hair coats and leather jackets, Sloane Square stylish in a pocket of south London where few could ever afford to be. On our council estate, he stuck out like a sore thumb. I remember – and this was an odd sensation for an eight-year-old – being mildly embarrassed by him and his swagger.

I do remember good things, too: him introducing me to Laurel and Hardy, The Beatles, Spike Milligan and Fawlty Towers. But mostly I remember his absence. He kept long hours at work, and was required to travel frequently.

And then one day, a day that must have seemed inevitable to us at the time, he stopped coming home altogether. One day he was around, the next he wasn’t. He vanished.

I was 10. I adapted.

The morning I turned 18, the post arrived, and with it a birthday card. Inside was a photograph of a man, a woman and a young child, a girl. I didn’t keep it for long, but I recall its gist, my father talking about water under the bridge, his new family, and how about we meet up and start over?

I said no. He hadn’t been there when I needed him; now, newly adult, I needed no one. It wasn’t until 20 years later, after having become a father myself, that I eventually reconsidered. People told me that when you have a child yourself, it alters the relationship you have with your father. I had no idea if that were true, but I was at last curious to find out. I wrote him an unavoidably awkward letter, and sent it to the last known address I had.

A day later, my phone rang.

We arranged to meet outside the Victoria Palace Theatre. As I approached from a distance, still two traffic light crossings away, my gaze passed quickly over the neatly dressed old man standing to the left of the main exit doors as I tried to pick him out amid the lunchtime crowd. By the time I made it to the second crossing, I realised of course that it was him, that this old man was my old man. I would not have recognised him. He was my height, and wearing autumnal colours: brown and beige, in corduroy and cotton. Now deep into his 60s, he still had a full head of hair. Bodes well, I thought.

I approached, and we made eye contact. The seconds slowed as we took one another in. I said his name.

“John?”

He looked at once surprised and shocked, and was likely as nervous as me. He removed a glove and shook my hand.

“I wouldn’t have recognised you,” I said.

“No, I suppose you wouldn’t,” he responded. “It’s been… it’s been awhile.”

We settled upon an Italian a minute’s walk away, and I was grateful for its proximity. But it was still a minute of palpable awkwardness: what to say, how to say it?

When I thought of it later, the lunch seemed to speed by, but actually it endured a full two hours. The conversation, however, never did flow. Instead, he let me take the lead, the initiative, and so much as I do in my job, I asked him questions: tame ones at first, and building up to those I most craved answers to. He recollected the old days: how, for example, when I was just four weeks old, my mother, who had occasionally worked as an interpreter, landed a job with Cliff Richard, translating one of his hit singles into Italian. She spent an evening with him – a perfectly chaste one, inevitably, Cliff being Cliff – while my father was left alone with me in the small studio flat they would soon move out of. He was terrified, he recounted, of the responsibility, and had nothing to help him cope except some expressed milk in a bottle and a mental list of instructions on what to do in case I cried, crapped or worse. I did all three, he told me, sending him into a panic.

He told me about his drinking years, and how he spent much of the 1990s fighting an illness that very nearly finished him off. He told me about his new family, the woman he had been married to for almost 30 years, and his 22-year-old daughter, my half sister.

And then we broached my mother, their marriage, their separation, his comprehensive disappearing trick. As he spoke, picking over his words with care, the crows’ feet around his eyes deepened. These were questions I had harboured for decades, and yet I regretted the pain they caused him now. He spoke calmly, matter-of-factly, about the enmity between them, the increasing acrimony, and he refuted the affair my (now late) mother always suspected him of having. And he told me how he thought it best simply to walk away, and to start again.

“The worst thing I ever did,” he said. “My failure as a father to you is something I will never recover from.”

I did not know how to respond to all this – with anger, acceptance, forgiveness; a combination of each? – and so I just listened, and took it all in.

When the bill came, he reached for it.

“The least I can do,” he said. “Allow me that.”

I looked around me, and found that the restaurant had emptied. It was mid-afternoon. Time to go.

“Right,” he said, timid but hopeful. “Where do we go from here?”

We walked back out together into the grey afternoon, and he told me to call him if I’d like to, but if not, then that was all right too. Outside the theatre, we shook hands. He was heading one way, me the other. I turned to face the road. The lights were red for pedestrians, but I saw a break in the traffic and decided to make a run for it. It was only afterwards I thought about what this must have looked like from his point of view, had he been watching me go. It would have looked as if I were running away from him, as fast as my legs could carry me.

An easy conclusion to jump to, but not, on this occasion, the right one.

Nick Duerden is a writer and journalist. He lives in London with his wife and two daughters.