All I knew of the young man who would one day become my father was what I saw of him on a dog-eared rectangle of photographic paper and the thin morsels of information that were fed to me by my mother. He was in an army uniform, awaiting his demob after serving his compulsory two years of National Service. It was a bright, cold, wintry afternoon. He was sitting on the sea wall in Blackpool with his arm around the shoulders of a young woman who would one day become my mother. They were both smiling, carefree and joyous smiles of reckless abandon, as an unseen and unknown person clicked the button that, in a fraction of a second, opened and closed the camera’s shutter, capturing for all eternity that one cherished moment of love. It was December 1953. They were both twenty-three years old. What you can’t see in the photograph is me. I was a small insignificant dot in my mother’s womb, but I was alive and over the following nine months I would grow and the man in the army uniform would do the ‘honourable’ thing and marry the young woman. They would become my parents.
Those two years, 1953 and 1954, were to herald great changes for Britain in the twilight of its Empire. An old king died and a radiant, beautiful new queen was crowned. Everest was finally conquered by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Watson and Crick unravelled the double helix of DNA. Ian Fleming published Casino Royale, unleashing secret agent James Bond 007 into the world. Blackpool FC, with the great Stanley Matthews and Stan Mortenson, beat Bolton Wanderers 4-3 to win the FA Cup Final. Roger Bannister became the fastest man on earth by breaking the four-minute mile. Dylan Thomas died in St Vincent’s Hospital in New York and two months later his masterpiece Under Milk Wood was broadcast for the first time on the BBC Third Programme with Richard Burton as First Voice. Rationing came to an end. And I gasped my first breath as all 6lb 4oz of me tumbled into this bright new Elizabethan age where anything was possible.
The marriage didn’t last long – barely eighteen months – and my father became just an image on a black-and-white photograph. He was a mystery. But his image exerted a power over me that I could not explain. My mother only spoke of him whenever I questioned her about what he was like. At first her reaction to my enquiries was guarded, but over time my questions were met with annoyance and suspicion and her answers became increasingly vague and nebulous. But, on that bright, cold December afternoon in 1953, all was well with the world and love was, as they sometimes say, all around.
I often wonder if my father was smiling because of the love he felt for the young woman sat beside him or because he was just happy to be leaving the army. I couldn’t say for sure, but I could see that my mother changed when she looked at that photograph. The dog-eared edges of its rectangular frame and the look in her eyes betrayed her carefully hidden feelings. There was a sadness there, a faraway look that only the forlorn eyes of a wounded lover can convey. Maybe, I thought, he had been the one, the love of her life that she let slip through her buttery fingers, and with the passing of years she was desperately trying to erase him from her memory, to remove the sting of pain that only lost love can deliver.
My mother remarried three times, each time unsuccessfully, until she found a kind of peace living on her own in Plymouth. She lied about her age constantly, passing herself off as younger than she was, until she reached a point in her life where she was happy to admit how old she actually was. At the age of eighty-one she had lived longer than any member of her family before her, something which she immensely proud of. Material things meant nothing to her and she happily gave away all my treasured comics to a jumble sale when I left home to join the Royal Air Force (a collection that is now worth hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds). She walked away from all her marriages clean, taking nothing with her except her children – me, my brother, David, and my sister, Anne. She was an intelligent, well-read woman with a sharp, often sarcastic sense of humour. She was stubborn and determined and she didn’t suffer fools. She told people exactly what she thought of them. She was small of frame but a giant fireball of rage when angered. We fell out frequently and sometimes didn’t speak to each other for great lengths of time.
At the age of seventy-nine she upped sticks and moved to Bradford to live with my sister and her husband, Gary, who cared for her and showed her love and understanding in her final years as dementia began to tighten its grip on her once sharp and active mind.
On Wednesday 28 December 2016 she had a massive heart attack. Gary contacted me and said that if I wanted to say goodbye to her then I should get to Bradford Royal Infirmary as soon as possible. The nurses told Anne and Gary that she was in terminal decline. They didn’t expect her to be still alive when I reached Bradford that evening. Whenever I phoned my mother I always asked her how she was. Her reply was always, “Still alive.” Although she was not conscious when I reached the Infirmary, she was still alive, she could hear us. The nurses hadn’t counted on her stubbornness and her unwillingness to let her life slip away that easily. Her breathing was laboured but she was still fighting when I had to leave at 10am the following morning.
Anne and Gary gave me a few moments with her. I kissed her on the cheek and whispered, “Goodbye, mum. I love you. Say hello to Grandma and Granddad for me.” I couldn’t know for sure if she heard me or even knew who I was but I like to think that she did hear my words. And I knew at that moment that, despite our differences and our petty squabbles and our long periods of silence, I, like all boys, loved my mother.
I shook hands with Gary and thanked him. I held my sister and kissed her. Then I left. Anne had told me earlier that morning that I should go, that there was nothing more I could do and I felt relieved. I wanted to say goodbye to my mother but I didn’t want to watch her die. I wanted to remember her as she was in that dog-eared photograph from long ago – young and in love and full of life.
For my mum 22 May 1930 – 30 December 2016