Flying back home to the UK from New Zealand after my father’s funeral, I thought maybe it was finally time for a little cry. It was a late afternoon flight out of Christchurch, 37 hours back to Heathrow via Hong Kong, just four days after making the same flight the other way, and I was physically and emotionally banjaxed.
Dad died 20 years after surviving a then-rare quadruple heart bypass, an operation that was supposed to maybe give him another six years of life, but left him a paler version of his former self. The doctors, however, hadn’t counted on my mother’s sheer bloody-mindedness to keep him alive through two decades of further heart scares and hospitalisations thanks largely to a low-fat, beer-free, celery-bothering diet that greatly offended his Kiwi meat-and-two-veg mentality. Every time the phone rang late at night in my adopted UK home, it could have been The Call that sent me scurrying back to be a pallbearer. But The Call didn’t come until a brain tumour finally did for him. That was something Mum couldn’t help him survive.
As dusk deepened and the plane tracked along the beautiful line of Alps that backbone my homeland’s South Island, I tried to squeeze out a tear. If it was to come it would be more from duty than grief however because, unfortunately, Dad was a bitter and often unpleasant man after a life of disappointments.
(Sid Fyfe, above, on his 70th birthday)
His first great regret was being born too young to serve in World War II. Not because of any noble duty to defend Queen and country, he was just jealous that others born only two years before him had war stories to tell in the pub, and was pissed that he couldn’t get membership to the RSA (New Zealand’s British Legion equivalent), which would mean subsidised beer.
(Sid, above, at 20)
An easy-on-the-ear tenor, he was invited to try out for the New Zealand Opera. He moved to Wellington, where the opera was based, and scored a job at the Post Office while he went through auditions. Then came a phone call from his family back in damp, drab Dunedin that hauled him back to help nurse a father slowly dying of throat cancer. He never knew if he passed the audition. Dad gave up a promising engagement in Wellington, too, and only years later met my mother. They married late in life (well, late for the ‘50s) because, it often seemed, all their friends had already paired off and there was no one left to marry. I sometimes think she battled so hard to keep him alive after the heart thing because she enjoyed how miserable he looked at meal times.
In an admirable effort at self-improvement, Dad took the equivalent of an Open University accountancy degree, but during his sporadic study a love of the grog saw him ‘invited to leave’ numerous clerical jobs. As a result, by the time I was 13 the family had lived in 13 different houses in seven different towns (cheap rental housing often came with the kind of positions he applied for, so when the job went, so did the house). Even his own village grocer shop went tits up when he was accused by the franchise owners of having his fingers in the till. I never knew if he was guilty or not (other incidents make me suspect yes) but it signalled the start of a series of menial, often seasonal jobs to which he was ill-suited, but they were all he could maintain for the rest of his working life.
Along with the booze came violence. My parents fought loudly and constantly, my mother chipping away with jibes about his competence as a husband and father, him charging back with the blunt volume of his opera-trained voice. Eventually, inevitably, his temper found its way into his fists. When my elder brothers were old enough they would stand in between him and my mother, so when they left home it was my turn to act as protector. I was barely in my teens, having toe-to-toe fistfights with my father. Luckily for me he was a useless fighter when drunk, although he was better at it when wielding a belt with the buckle as the business end.
(The Family Fyfe in 1985. Andy is left, on bench in blue)
He wasn’t always a bad man, and to those outside the family he probably seemed amiable enough, if a bit hapless. After the heart surgery stopped his drinking, my mother says he even became a decent husband again, however by then I’d not just moved out of home but out of the country to get as far away as possible.
On that flight back to the UK, it was now or never to shed a tear. Never, it turned out. I wasn’t glad he’d died, but neither was I relieved that his suffering was over. All I felt was dull, crappy ambivalence. He was my dad, and we’re supposed to honour and love them, right? In some
way I did, but the good times/bad times ledger had too many entries in the latter column.
Still, his actions partly made me whatever sort of person I am, even if his influence is almost entirely negative, an example of how not to live a life. In some ways such inconclusive emotions about someone so important is more unfortunate a memory than simply not liking them.
Andy Fyfe is a freelance writer. Having spent his teenage years plotting escape from the slightly forgotten and faded NZ seaside town of Timaru, he now lives in the slightly forgotten and faded English seaside town of Hastings.