Grandad used to phone in April to wish me a happy birthday, though he’d never get the day right.
Regardless of loose timing, this was quite an honour, one neither my mum nor little sister could expect. We must have bonded, him and me, during that time he came to stay, the only time we met.
Only how many of those April phone calls came, really? My memory’s rendition of this man – her dad – makes them an annual event, but I’m not sure there were ever more than two or three.
It’s hazy, like everything around grandad.
My mum hadn’t seen him for 10, maybe 15 years when he turned up on our doorstep out of nowhere over 40 years ago. I answered the door to this tall, slightly dishevelled old geezer, a small, slightly dishevelled old dog at his side.
We must have bonded, him and me, during that time he came to stay, the only time we met.
“Hello, young man,” he said, “can you please tell your mum that her dad’s here?”
I was a dazed and incurious six-year old, and took this with indifference.
“Mu-um,” I called upstairs, eyeing the dog with fear and fascination (we lived in a cul-de-sac of tiny terraced housing, and a dog was a rare sight) “your dad’s here”
I don’t think I’d ever heard her shriek like that before. Not even on encountering a spider.
He stayed with us for what I’ve decided along the way was about six weeks, though it could have been less than half that, or more than double, what with the haze.
What I do remember is that I loved him, I loved the stories he told, the sound of his voice, the density of his presence in the house, and more than anything else, I loved his dog.
Then one day, as suddenly and inexplicably as they’d arrived, they were gone. (It’s likely my mum “leant” him the money he’d been after all along).
And that was that, barring an indeterminate number of birth-month phone calls. Mum got news he was at death’s door in a nursing home on the coast when I was about 14-years-old. She and my auntie went down there at his request, forgave him the bad stuff, returned to their lives, then went back for the funeral a few months (or could they have been years?) down the track.
I didn’t go to the funeral. I can’t remember why or whether I had the choice. I was already mythologising the bloke, anyway.
What I do know about him: his name was Jack and he was in the RAF during the WWII. (This was the ruin of him, according to the venerable and long-suffering Queenie, his wife and my grandmother, who died before I was born).
A working class boy without too much education, he taught himself algebra so he could navigate liberators over the Atlantic. He had a hard time adjusting to life after wartime.
The sensitive, angry soul who relished the mess of life, but who just couldn’t fit in, or resist the call of the wild.
Jack could be very kind and very charming when he wasn’t drinking, which wasn’t very often. He got nastier as the years rolled on, fuse ever shortening, gambled, boozed and philandered more and more, and finally walked out on the family around 1953.
Lived on his wits, on the kindness and credulity of those he knew or picked up along the way. Slept in a car now and then, but never for long. Wrote the odd play for radio. Or maybe there was just the one.
Enough fragments to cobble together a nice romantic composite. The sensitive, angry soul who relished the mess of life, but who just couldn’t fit in, or resist the call of the wild. That he was the only family member I knew of who had blue eyes, like mine, added a pleasing detail to the kinship I sensed with this family phantom, a connection I nurtured through my own protracted, responsibility-eluding youth.
And now I’m all grown up, demons at bay, touch wood. Maybe it’s because I’m getting on, a parent now myself, that I wish I knew more about him. The name of that dog, for a start.
Mum passed almost 11 years ago. She never told me much, and I didn’t ask the right questions. All those conversations we should have shared, the visits I ought to have made. Bereavement’s bitter hindsight.
I wonder how bad the bad stuff got. What was it that finally severed that parent-child tie between him and his girls, the one that’s always meant to bind? I don’t know if he was kept out of their lives as his punishment, or if he just couldn’t be bothered to keep in touch, how much pain he caused or was in.
When families splinter, and members are cut off, secrets, half-truths and sentiment can fill their absence. Unless the questions are asked, and answered, the stories told and understood.
My auntie turned 80 recently. I caught up with her by email the other day. She described for me an early memory of when Queenie had taken her, aged three, on holiday to Dorset (UK) while pregnant with my mum. When they got back, they found Jack had pawned most of the wedding presents and emptied my auntie’s money-box, filled when she’d been born.
On that visit to the nursing home, she gave him the forgiveness he asked for, she says, but forgetting is the hard part.
Even for her, though, there’s a haze around my grandad.
“I always thought he was a pilot officer because he wore that lovely smooth material officers wore,” she told me. “Now I’m not so sure and wonder if he was ever commissioned. But he did look very good in that uniform.”
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