My Dad died in the second year of the twenty-first century, but in many ways he was a man of a much older generation. He lived to see computers, mobile phones and digital TV, yet his first job was driving a horse and cart. He was already forty four when I was born. They’d tried for some time to have me and in the end, weren’t able to have more children, so I was an only child to parents who were, then, significantly older than the norm.
To me, Dad was always handsome. Tall, thin, with very dark hair and pale blue eyes, as a young man in black and white photos, he is dramatically featured and almost foreign-looking. He wore his hair brylcreamed back in the old-fashioned way until the end of his life. In later years, he grew grey and craggy, hands calloused and nicotine stained, face crinkled and worn. In all my years with him, Dad never dressed casually. For most of the year, his long-limbed frame was clad in shirt and tie, a dark suit, a dark raincoat and black, polished brogues. We would joke that we knew when summer had arrived, as he replaced the dark suit with brown trousers, a light coloured jacket and cord shoes. This, or a cardigan instead of a jacket, was as casual as Dad got.
I would have liked to inherit Dad’s tall, slender frame. Instead, I got his temperament. Ask my partner what is most frustrating about me and she’ll likely say the fact that I never share what is going on in my head. Dad was the same. Quiet, calm, never giving much away. I’ve always struggled to write about him and I think it’s in part because in many ways, he’s still a mystery to me. Ask me about his history and there are only fragments. Ask me about his family and there is even less.
My mother was the dominant one in our household. If there was a battle to be had, Mam would fight it. A punishment to be given and she would deliver it. An opinion to be expressed and it was hers. She sometimes used the classic threat of ‘wait until your Dad gets home’, yet I don’t remember Dad ever raising his voice, let alone his hand. He didn’t fear or shrink from confrontation and he wasn’t hen-pecked, he just didn’t seem to worry about the things she did.
And there was always a sense that Dad’s family was different. For years, Mam’s side was connected – Sundays at my grandmother’s house and regular contact. We rarely had the same interaction with Dad’s side and there was the suggestion they often fell out with one other. Although now Mam has gone, her side of the family has drifted further apart, I still know more about them and have more contact with them than Dad’s.
Riches weren’t important to Dad. He was a time-served, skilled plasterer, but though he could have earned more elsewhere, he stayed loyal to the small family business that was his first employer until he was finally made redundant many years later. I remember him waiting to be picked up from work, dressed in plaster-crusted overalls, perched on a newspaper so he wouldn’t dirty the furniture. I remember Mam becoming indignant that he would always do work for family and friends, asking no more than a couple of packs of cigarettes for his efforts. I was so proud that he was so good at what he did that I never wanted him to be anything more.
Dad was a man of habits. For years, his only outing was to the club on a Friday. He would enjoy a shandy and play dominoes, always coming home at eleven, sometimes with fish and chips for our supper. And yet there was always the suggestion that this very traditional, proper man had something of a past. My favourite story was when he’d been for a night on the town across the river and resorted to stealing a rowing boat to get home again.
My relationship with Dad was uncomplicated (unlike the one with my mother). I loved him without reservation, without criticism, without thought. I never told him and he never told me. If I could have one more moment with Dad, I would wrap my arms tightly around him and tell him how much I loved him and how happy I was that he was mine.
Dad died when I was thirty, on the first day of December. He wasn’t able to witness many of the events of my life. But I’ll always believe that on the day we moved into the first house we bought, he came by for a visit. I stood in the living room with a friend and was thinking what a shame it was Dad couldn’t see it. All of a sudden, a large, black butterfly flew in through the window, fluttered casually between my friend and I, and in a perfect loop, soared out of the front door. It was such a strange, magical moment that the two of us stared at each other in mute surprise. Immediately, I thought of Dad and I’ll always think that black butterfly was him, popping in to let me know he was there.