Ten years ago today, I was about to board a plane to Plymouth, having rearranged it after making a trip to see my father a few weeks before in South Africa, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. It was just after the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London and security at the airport was high, with lots of testosterone-filled, armed policemen.
I travelled a great deal for work in those days, the length and breadth of the country, and not without mishap. My boss at the time was brilliant and he was both a little in awe of the scrapes I could get into whilst travelling and sometimes benignly irritated.
Some of these were absolutely my own fault, some were helped along by providence. My father thought they were hilarious and often ventured the thought how a highly organised person who, as he said it “could command the attention and respect of 90 people in different locations across the country to run their sites exactly as she wanted” could end up, for instance, booking herself on a flight to Ireland the day before she was actually due to fly.
His response to my email about getting to the airport, realising my mistake and begging an over-tired booking desk clerk with 4am eyes to “please for the love of God, get me on the next flight to Belfast” before discovering I had neglected to bring my passport, engendering another round of anxious over-emotional enquiries as to how I was actually going to be allowed on the plane was simply this:
If you plan a trip across the sea to Ireland
Then maybe…… before you get to close your door
You will stop and check upon your tickets
And find you left the very day before.
Then there was the trip to Manchester that took far longer than it should have (but being an organised person, I had got up an hour earlier and left myself an hour’s grace before my meeting), which left me just enough time to dash into the client’s office with my presentation, which was … several hundred miles away, at home … still linked up to my internet. I’d helpfully brought the bag along so at least had a mouse.
The day was salvaged by the fact I’d sent my colleague a copy of it and I presented it from her laptop … but I was rendered workless by its absence and spent the time trying to look busy, whilst my inbox filled up. It was the days before blackberries were common so all I could do was take phone calls, including one from my boss – “have you seen that email …”. I decided to go home early in disgust, getting on a train that, unbeknown to me had been late on arrival and the staff had thought it best to get it straight back into operation, without replenishing catering.
I had a seven hour journey back to London in the height of summer on a train that contained not even a bottle of water, but did have a broken down airconditioning system and no opening windows.
I then traversed a London fraught with tube and train problems before staggering in at midnight. The day was truly ended for me by going out to feed the foxes in the pitch dark, tripping over a large plant pot and ending up face-down in the muddy remnants of the summer shower that presaged my arrival home.
Dad, whose nightshifts were legendary, was still up as I pinged him a quick email and he responded with “go to bed, go directly to bed, do not do ANYTHING else”.
Whenever I flew home, Dad would stay up all night and track the flight on the internet. When he finally got a mobile, I would always be greeted by a text when I landed at Joburg – normally along the lines of “don’t forget to collect your luggage”. Once, I arrived on a four hours late connecting flight in the height of the Christmas season, my internal flight long gone and landed in Durban by the time I got there.
The airport was beyond chaotic and I sent Dad a text to explain the situation and that I was in the world’s longest queue for a new flight, which were being offered on standby only due to the sheer number of people whose journeys had been snafued.
I got a series of texts back, directing me to a slightly shorter queue with a lady “who has long brown hair with a red clip in it and the loveliest voice” who would hand over the tickets he had bought for me when, at 3am, he realised my flight was not going to land in time.
Not only had he bought them for me, he had then stayed up to talk to the booking staff at SAA in Johannesburg and got the lady to describe herself so that I could identify, in the chaos, who had my tickets for a flight that afternoon. He advised me to check in asap. I did.
When we were kids, I under-estimated how much “just happened” because my Dad would keep a watchful eye on us. Sometimes he seemed to be everywhere, just in time to catch us as we fell, or warn us to avoid the drop.
As an adult, I often relied on, but never took for granted, his ongoing care of me, even as I lived on the other side of the world.
My Dad was born in the 1930s, my Mum in the 1940s. They had a very traditional relationship, with very split male-female roles. They managed to produce very modern children.
I hid for a while the fact that my partner and I were living together until it became so obvious it was unavoidable. My Dad asked me why I did that and I took him back to a conversation we had had as a teenager where he had warned me about co-habiting.
“No” he roared over the airwaves, “I didn’t say don’t live together, I just said don’t live together in a man’s home, because if the relationship doesn’t work, you’ll lose everything”.
“R lives in your house, so that’s fine”.
Dad had an irrepressible sense of humour and loved the electronic age. He taught himself how to use a computer and once email came into play (much cheaper than faxing), there was nothing to stop him communicating any time he wanted to do so.
I will regret to my dying day not thinking to keep the emails he sent to various work addresses as long conversations about various serious and also completely fictitious things would occur, randomly and go on for days.
There was the whole saga of the dwarves living under his desk, who he blamed for creating the mess that inevitably surrounded it – fag ash, discarded paper, coffee cups and in the middle of it all, the tiny hoover I had bought him, to try and prolong the life of his oft-breaking keyboards who all seemed to succumb early to a mixture of coffee and ash, still pristine in its packaging.
There was the time that my sister, on hearing I had probably met the man I wanted to marry, raised the issue of “how do you know when” with Dad, which started the most tender conversation about the nature of love at first sight and how it had only happened twice to him and he had married both women.
His first marriage was for him, a shameful piece of his history, not because he did anything bad but because it was for him, a personal failure.
His first wife’s family, who adored him, were still in contact and were presented on their various visits and phone calls, as extended family which was fine when we were children but engendered questions as we got older. We each found out in different ways, by mistake, an overheard conversation and it was only in later years that he was able to talk about it comfortably.
My mother thought it was hilarious. His first wife’s name was Cynthia, her’s was Eve. He once made the mistake of calling Mum by his first wife’s name (to be fair, the topic of conversation had just been the welfare of Cynthia’s mother), leading her to tell everyone that he couldn’t tell the difference between “Evil and Cyn”.
Dad, like me, had a long rope for people. You could keep on and keep on letting him down but at some point he was going to let go of that rope and never look back.
It was with Cynthia’s family that this happened most abruptly. She and her brother were in Johannesburg, with her Mum, Mrs Brown. Other relatives were still living in Zimbabwe, somewhat precariously.
For someone who made the law his life’s work, he had an unbridled, ongoing irritation with it and was never afraid to break laws he felt were stupid and unnecessary.
P and A had been married for years and he sadly passed away after a return of the cancer which he had survived some time ago. She was stranded in Zim, with no way to get from there to Australia, where her surviving son lived.
Dad stepped in and wrote several letters to the authorities, claiming she was his cousin and had rights of entry into South Africa, breaking several laws in the process. It worked and not only did she fly to South Africa and then to her son, but Dad scraped together the money that got Mum and my sister up to Johannesburg, to meet her off the plane and ensure that poor, distraught lady left the country with a proper goodbye and onto the right aircraft.
During the arranging of this, Dad’s best friend and Cynthia’s brother, took offence to Dad doing what he should have been doing and sent an email around to various family members, telling them he was a sentimental old fool. Sadly, he also copied in Dad.
Dad, very hurt, withdrew. My mother, absolutely incensed because G had all the means at his disposal to help the lady and no inclination to do it, leaving it to the “sentimental old fool” to save her life, wrote back not to him, but to everyone on the email list, telling him exactly what she thought of him, in very singular terms.
Dad never bothered to speak to him again.
In his later years, he started a business with the help of the Legal Resources Centre in Durban, writing legal manuals on the laws affecting Black people in South Africa, selling these to universities, libraries, schools and government offices.
He and I found endless humour in the fact that he often broke the law, more often in order to help someone, less often just because he damned well could.
His early years as a policeman in Zimbabwe earned him a full driver’s licence for cars, trucks, motorcycles and everything with wheels, stopping short only at trains. Post-apartheid, a new law came in which meant that every driver had to apply for a new driver’s licence, costing them several hundred rands. Dad refused to do this and spent the last five or so years of his driving life doing so illegally.
His love of people and of life kept him young and as his body aged, his mind did not. Whilst he got grumpier he also retained an amazing sense of humour. When I was planning my marriage, unsure as to what to do with a guest who was known for getting drunk and coming onto women, he suggested a guest placement in my garden which would make it easy for someone to push him into the conifer bushes or, as he put it:
“i.e. locate such putative offenders in the immediate proximity of the conifers…. into which they may be neatly “brushed off” or “accidentally” tipped and thereafter abandoned to await rescue at a convenient moment……if ever”
This particular email, several pages long was ended with:
Have found myself pontificating…..
Will continue later……….
The response to a fraught,irritated email from me, whilst juggling work, home, meetings and cats, finding the time to dash out to put money in Dad’s bank account, only to discover that I had the wrong number was this:
What happened is that somebody extracted their digit. This was so unusual that confusion reigned thereafter. So I have put it back.
When my brother, in the height of the war he started with my father, sent him an email hysterically accusing him of ruining his life and chasing away all the girls who had ever loved him, my father refuted this by making a list of all his girlfriends and rated them charmingly and appropriately.
The one he rated above all was the entirely unsuitable lady who had two kids. I’m not sure whether he ever sent the list to him, but it made me snort with laughter.
Going back to that day, 10 years ago, as I stood at Gatwick, waiting for my flight to Plymouth, my mind was occupied by organising my workload for the following month, and I was making arrangements to be able to go back to SA and work from there as far as possible. I’d said to my boss just the day before that I was going to put everything in motion and then go home, coming back only once Dad had died. He had kindly agreed to give me whatever time off I needed.
I had been comforted by the fact that after his admission to hospital, Dad had rallied and the matron I had spoken to at the weekend had said he had “several months” yet.
So when the call came through from my brother to say my father had just died, I responded in shock as much as grief and looked for a quiet place, any place, where I could talk to him, then make the inevitable arrangements that would cancel my next few days of meetings and the meeting I was due to attend when I landed.
Not really noticing the armed policemen, I had not realised the picture I presented to them, my laptop in a rucksack, at an airport, having an emotional conversation on the phone, a few days after the worst terrorist atrocity ever in London.
As I wheeled away from people and policemen, I gathered a following of men with guns and as I found a spot, I finished the conversation with my brother and looked up to find myself pretty much cornered. I’m probably lucky I don’t look that middle-eastern because when I yelled at them to fuck off, my father had just died, they didn’t shoot me but instead apologetically searched my belongings before I was able to call my client in Plymouth, my boss and various other people who needed to know I was not going to be available for the next week or so.
It was pretty much the ultimate travel-related snafu which being “nearly got shot by anti-Terrorism branch”, rated higher than Ireland, higher than Manchester.
Somehow, I suspect my father would have simultaneously approved and called me a stupid cow :).
Ten years without such a large, wonderful personality in my life has been hard.
Knowing that there is no-one truly looking out for me in the way he did, even harder.
My father transformed a childhood in which he was raised to be normal and not stick his head above the parapet for anyone or anything into a joyful, sad, spirited conquering of the world in which he lived.
Raised to be a posh twit by a mother whose background and his birth cast her in the shadows, forever to be an outcast even in the most middle class of society, throwing it off to use his education and his voice to stand up for people in all sorts of ways, teaching himself computering in his late 50s, responding to several threats and attempts to shut him up, some of them permanently with humour, making a mockery of their anger and fear, he remains for me a shining example of what you can accomplish if you truly do not give a flying duck about anyone’s opinion of you.
My mother said of Dad, some years after he died, when I was teasing her that it was time to find a toyboy, that he was like a saint – “impossible to live with and just as impossible to replace”.
I rather suspect she was right.
Here’s to you Dad! I bloody hope they have Laphroaig wherever you are now xxx