Dad’s Birthday 7th August 2008
And in the end.
Midday in early April 2008 finds me looking for a nursing home for my dad. I arrive unannounced at a double-entranced white villa in a beautiful part of Torquay. I later discover this palatial building has historical connections to Lillie Langtry. I meet the matron and four hours later I leave. Within a week my dad is living there, waking with a view across the bay.
Prior to this, Dad had been living alone for nearly eighteen months and not coping too well. My stepmother, Paula, had already gone into a nursing home. Dad told me Paula had burned out two clutches on the Ford Focus that he himself was to roll over a year later on his birthday. I thought Paula was different, there was young girl jollity about her, like a Tennessee Williams Southern Belle. I sent a spray of flowers to her from John Lewis for Christmas. I enclosed a card and told her I loved her and that she had been like a mother to me. I thanked her for her kindness as she had always bought me warm clothes as birthday and Christmas presents. Paula never received the spray or the card as she was admitted to a nursing home a week before Christmas. Dad thought she would come home but she never did, and their little nest fell apart from December 2006 onwards.
Their home was always welcoming, bright and spotless. Paula always took great pride in the little touches, like the small bouquet of silk flowers in a fluted wall vase above the telephone table. I remember the glass curio cabinet filled with small treasures and keepsakes from foreign holidays, the extending table and chairs with padded lime-green ribbed seats, the comfortable three-piece floral suite corralling a long glass coffee table. On the coffee table, alongside a cut-glass bowl filled with liquorice allsorts, was a wooden cigar box carved with a boxing glove and my dad’s name. On the walls were his prints and pictures and photos of Paula’s nieces.
I would occasionally stay in the snug spare room with mirror-fronted wardrobes, filled with boxing memorabilia. I’d read myself to sleep, usually with books by old boxers, self-published, signed by the authors with a dedication to my dad. I remember I would often take Paula and Dad a cup of tea in the morning, placing the cups on their matching bedside cabinets. The Jarman and Platt bedroom suite was cream with gold trimmings; the wardrobe had little porcelain panels painted with flowers.
After Paula died I’d go and visit Dad, clean up and cook a meal, but everything was falling apart. Here was a man not used to looking after himself, drinking too much and smoking too many cigars. A chip-pan fire, a bad leg getting worse, spillages, domestic appliances breaking down; Dad broke down and went into hospital. Time had taken its toll. I would tell Dad that Mick Jagger was still performing and there was only fourteen years between them. Dad would reply that Mick Jagger hadn’t had his life. I learnt the differences between residential and nursing care, and the funding implications. My perception of time changed. It wasn’t the filmic flipping calendars with numbers and dates blowing away to oscillating strings. I made time brutal; violent in its intent. This was not the fault of time, of course it was I who had taken time for granted. One day Dad said to me: “I dreamt I could run again, fast and easy. Then I woke up and felt my stiff, useless knee.” He looked at me wide-eyed and resigned, then he smiled and said, “I like the flying dreams. At least when I wake up I know where I stand.”
I would take Dad out in my old black diesel Saab. He would be hoisted from his wheelchair on to the covered front seat and we would motor up to an exclusive area with stunning views of the South Devon coastline, where, as Dad would always remind me, Max Bygraves had lived. Looking out over the bay, huge oil tankers were playing for time, waiting for prices to go up or weather to calm down. I would always make Dad a bottle of brandy and water, a plastic one with a pop-up stopper. Sometimes he couldn’t get a tight grip so I’d give the bottle a good squeeze, which he appreciated. We had stopped using glasses as he kept dropping them and my car was beginning to smell like a pub. I especially remember blustery winter days when we would sit listening to a Roy Orbison and Cat Power CD compilation. Dad particularly liked the track ‘Lived in Bars’ by Cat Power. I noticed on the cover of her CD ‘The Greatest’, a pair of gold boxing gloves hangs from a gold chain. Dad would lift his right hand, cigar between his fingers, and like Johnny Shannon in the Nic Roeg film Performance, he’d say “I like that son, turn it up.” It wasn’t so much the words of the song, it was the sentiment we both shared.
Those billowing, rain-lashed days reminded me of the weather in south Wales and walking in the Black Mountains with an artist called Roger Cecil. Roger was over ten years younger than my dad but I remember his resilience and determination, and I wanted some of it for Dad. I wanted him to walk again. But that was never going to happen. Dad’s cigar would go out and he’d ask me to light it. I’d take the sodden cigar from him and feel like a bad son and a selfish bastard for resenting his spittle. I always checked his stoma bag before we went out and made sure his nails were kept clean and cut. You can’t get sentimental over nursing home care; I kept my eye on the ball. I could never have imagined that these things would happen. But life goes on until one day it calls time. I knew that Dad wasn’t going to resist going ‘gently into that good night’ this time. He wasn’t raging against anything any more. I could sense his tiredness and that’s why we would sit quietly together, letting nothing stressful into our orbit. I assured him he had nothing to worry about, that everything was ok and all was well.
I had been at my dad’s bedside with his sister Edna, my auntie, for over four days. She had flown into Heathrow on one of the last planes from the States before the volcanic ash hit. Time took on a routine, rotational pace; resting, reading, handholding, brow-wiping, lip moistening, looking at photograph albums. Edna and I would exchanges stories and there were revelations for both of us. We both realised it was just a matter of time. There was not going to be any miraculous recovery, this was the end. I fetched fragrant candles, flowers and odour neutralizers to mask the smell of death in the room.
My dad passed away at 4.45 a.m. on Wednesday 21st April 2010. I showered and changed my clothes, putting on a pair of his casual trousers that had his room number written with indelible ink on an inside pocket. Edna and I talked, cried and laughed; then it was time for her to go. Dust cloud restrictions were lifted and she flew out on one of the first planes to the States the following day. It was a beautiful sunny morning as he was shushed away from the bright white Victorian villa. In a long black car, he passed through silent streets with occasional palm trees, to the undertaker’s premises that had been his local newsagents years before. I remember my mum had always bought the Daily Mirror there and I would get my NME. Later on, I went to the undertaker’s to sort out arrangements. On the way, I met Paul the Continental Hairdresser who was out getting his newspaper. I told him Dad had passed away that morning and he let out a string of expletives, running his hand through his magnificent bouffant grey hair.
Weeks later I was reading an article about an artist who had created a piece of work using clips from films that, either in the script or the image, referred to a specific time. This twenty-four hour film in real time is potentially endless. The artist had mentioned that the lead-up to midnight was intense, whereas the hardest time to cinematically fix was 5 a.m. I thought about all the unconventional hours I had spent in my dad’s company.
In the early 1970s when Dad worked at The Carlton, I would help the chef in the kitchen, making up prawn cocktails and Melba toast. The chef and I would watch the cabaret from behind the glass-fronted cooler counter fridge. A resident band provided the backing music for various singers and entertainers, including a belly dancer and numerous comedians. I remember a couple called Steve and Bonnie who played guitar and sang. Steve had long blonde hair and Bonnie was black with a superb Afro. The Carlton Club hours were 8 p.m. till 2 a.m. Some nights, after closing time, I would go with Dad to eat late meals at Greek restaurants or to parties on the beach or in rented bungalows in Paignton. Bow ties skew-whiff, fighting poses with pals, banter such as “Careful, I’m delicate.” Driving home along the seafront, a beautiful railway poster morning, the sun hot on the vinyl seats of the column change Ford Corsair, the ‘Walrus of Love’: Barrence Eugene Carter, playing on the eight-track. Years later, on Sunday mornings, still half-cut from the night before, we would park up, waiting for the 12 o’clock pub opening, listening to Derek and Clive, the irrational alcoholic laughter, tears running down our faces, father and son in a scene a southern Shane Meadows has yet to capture. Over the limit, over-emotional, yet knowing that time was significant.
When the time came, I dipped my finger into the powder that was once Dad and scattered his ashes at a spot where we had always parked and looked out over the bay, listening to music. Barry White to Chan Marshall. The endearments, the threats, the empty promises and well-intentioned grandiosity are now just words on a page. I have thought about my dad a great deal since he passed away in April 2010. Sometimes these thoughts are sentimental, but sometimes I selfishly search for clues as to my character. I wonder how well I knew my dad. I believe the last three years of his life were the years when we were closest. I took a renewed interest in his glory days and shared his memories. I wanted to understand him more and make sense of the past and celebrate it in my future. I know he had regrets about my mother, Greta; he told me this. He often asked me if he had been a good father. I always said yes.