Travelling to work on Christmas day afternoon was interesting. I expected the roads to be quiet, after all, Christmas day is not usually a day for travelling, especially when we are in the middle of a pandemic. The lockdown then was a bit of an odd situation, especially where I work because my workplace is right where three different counties meet, Cheshire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside and all three were in different states, or tiers of the lockdown. Now that we are all locked down the situation has at least been clarified.
Oh well, it was certainly quiet enough and I was able to sit back and listen to my music as I drove into work. As I came through junction 28 on the M6 motorway two people were on a bridge wearing Father Christmas hats. They looked to be a middle aged couple but as I passed under them they waved and sadly I wasn’t quick enough to wave back. To surprise myself, the previous day I had slapped five new CDs into my CD changer randomly without trying to read the labels, so as I drove into work on Christmas Day, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself listening to the themes from the various Rocky movies complete with the odd quote from Sylvester Stallone, things like ‘Yo Adrian’ and so on.
As a blogger I read quite a lot of my fellow bloggers posts, some even inspire my own posts, but a blog I read a while ago was about millennials and 10 things they are not doing. Millennials, I assume, are those people born in the 21st century and one of the 10 things they are not doing is apparently learning to drive cars. Not all of them of course but 20% less than usual. I can understand that in the big cities where there are good transport links but even so, as a youngster I longed to have my own car. When we moved to a new estate in Handforth, transport links there were dreadful but not only that I wanted a car for the freedom to travel when and where I wanted and also, I liked cars and I liked driving, even though it took three attempts to pass my test. These days, cars are clogging up the roads of the world and the day must surely be coming when everyone will not be able to own a car simply because of the sheer numbers of vehicles out there already.
My Dad wasn’t a driver. He went everywhere on his old push bike but never showed any interest in having a car.
Every week day he rose early to get ready for work. He had porridge for breakfast, mounted his battered old bike and taking his shoulder bag with his box of sandwiches my mother had made for him and his brew can, he left for the ride to work. He did that every day of his working life and, come rain, snow or sunshine, he rode his bike to work. In the mid seventies we moved to the Manchester overspill estate in Handforth that I mentioned above and the result was a much longer journey for him.
He was a fit man, much fitter than me but sadly he and I wasted such a lot of time when we were younger, not getting on together. One day something quite shocking happened to me. It seemed like the end of the world at the time. Anyway, I knew I would have to tell Mum and Dad. I couldn’t face Mum, so I told Dad. Instead of getting the negative response I expected, my Dad was full of support and from that day on our friendship never looked back.
When he died, those wasted years always seemed to haunt me, but then, we were people from such different generations. Young people and their parents are so much closer these days in terms of cultural identity but for me and my Dad things were not like that. He came from a background where he was given an apple and an orange for Christmas whereas my brother and I, who received a sack full of presents on Christmas Day, were part of a new youth culture involving music, television and film that he struggled to understand.
Dad had served in the South Staffordshire regiment of the army and I remember once my brother did some research and found the regiment had been merged with the North Staffordshire regiment in 1959 and later with other regiments to become the Mercian regiment. He told me that when he had called the regiment to enquire what kind of records were kept, they had asked him various questions. When my brother replied that Dad had done his national service as a lowly private they said rather coldly that records of enlisted men were not kept.
The record keepers of the regiment may not have cared about my Dad but he certainly cared about his regiment. He was very proud of his army service. He served in Northern Ireland, Germany and Hong Kong, and told me many stories about his army life. In fact some time ago when I posted a picture of him on Facebook showing him at work for the council highways department, one of his old work mates replied mentioning the stories he used to tell his workmates about his army sergeant major.
One of my Dad’s early jobs was as a milkman but not for him the electric milk van. No, he had a horse drawn milk trolley and he told me with pride how, as he ran up and down through the gates of the various houses dropping off milk on doorsteps, he didn’t have to run back and move his trolley up. No, just a whistle was all it took, and his horse would trot quietly forward to my Dad and he would replace the empties and take out fresh bottles for the next house. My Dad was pretty attached to that horse. It was stabled not far away in Northenden. Once his father, my grandfather, a WW1 Veteran of the Royal Horse Artillery, came to see the horse. He checked the horse’s teeth, apparently a good indicator of equine health and pronounced himself satisfied.
This week I was trying to sort some of my Mum’s things out and I came across my Dad’s diary for the year 2000, the year he died. It was a sad read.
The diary starts out on the third of January and continues with a daily entry for many months. There is nothing exciting to read. Dad records the weather and where he went on his daily walk. He talks about trips to the shops and days when he and Mum went to get their pensions. He walked every day with his dog.
He once owned a pedigree dog. It was a dachshund he bought from someone. The dog came with a long certificate listing his various forebears, but he was the nastiest bad-tempered dog I have ever met. When I visited he would be reluctant to get off the chair, so I could sit down. I sometimes had to use a water spray on him to get him to shift. If Dad was there though, it only took a word from him and Ben would obey, give me a mean look and saunter over to his master where he would glare at me for the rest of my visit.
He died not long after Dad adopted my late gran’s dog Mickey. Mickey was a wonderful dog although he had his own little quirks. He would always chase after a thrown ball but would never give it back. He would take it and bury it and long after he too departed, Dad would find balls buried in the back garden. The dog he had in later years was Bouncer. Bouncer was a rescue dog whose previous owners tired of him because of his supposedly constant jumping up and down. If he did do that, my Dad, an ardent dog lover soon cured him or trained him not to jump up and in his diary Dad records all the many walks the two went on.
As the diary comes to April the daily entries become briefer, sometimes just one sentence about the weather. Dad’s handwriting seems to become a little less firm. It is still the same hand, sloping gently to the right but it somehow seems perceptibly weaker. On July 17th there is an entry in my Mum’s hand. She always wrote in capitals for some reason. FOUND RALPH IN BATHROOM ON FLOOR she says. He went to the doctor and they found nothing. Another entry on July 20th, again in Mum’s hand, FOUND RALPH ON FLOOR IN KITCHEN. He was taken to hospital and on the 26th July a brain scan found that he had a tumour on his brain.
I remember meeting the doctors at the time. Mum and I sat down in their office. My brother must have been there also. The doctor said to me, ‘great news’.
Great news? What was it.
‘You’re all OK. You, your brother and mother, you are all OK. A brain tumour is not something that you’re all going to get.’ I felt for a moment we had slipped into some alternate reality. We are all OK? What about Dad?
There was a problem with Dad they admitted. He needed an operation to remove the tumour. Great, we said, go ahead.
Looking back, I wonder whether doctors are trained to try and give some good news before they give some bad or maybe they want to try and break things gently.
That reminds me of the joke where the guy goes abroad and asks his brother to mind his cat. He gets back and asks the brother ‘how’s the cat?’ the brother replies, ‘The cat’s dead’. ‘What!’ says the guy. He is heartbroken. ‘That was the cruellest thing I ever heard. You know how much I loved that cat, why couldn’t you have broken it to me gently. When I called you should have said something like, well she’s OK but she is up on the roof. And then when I called the next time, tell me, bad news, she fell off the roof and she’s at the vets. And then the next time break the news that she passed away. At least I would have been a little prepared for the bad news.’
‘Yes, you are right. I am sorry for being so heartless.’
The guy accepted the brother’s apology for being so uncaring, and then said, ‘Oh, by the way, how’s Mother?’
The guy thought for a moment then said, ‘Well, she’s OK, but she’s on the roof . . ‘
I’ve flipped the mood a little there, as if there is going to be a happy ending. Sadly, there wasn’t. Dad had the operation and improved a little. He came home for some days then they moved him to a nursing home. Mum visited him frequently. I came usually after my early shift or on my days off. I remember being with him once and talking about death. He must have known the end was coming and I think I asked him to try and be prepared. He answered that he thought about death sometimes and it was ‘frightening’. That was the last time I ever saw him.
In the diary Dad’s last ever entry was on June 2nd. It says he took Bouncer for a walk and went to visit my brother who lived not far away. Underneath my Mum has arrowed across to May 31st, so it looks like Dad wrote his entry on the wrong date. His eyesight was failing, He was due to have an eye operation for cataracts but the operation was cancelled because of his tumour.
On the 15th November Mum wrote that he slept all day. On the 22nd she spent the whole day with him from 11am to 11pm. He slept a lot of the time. On the 23rd November Mum had written RALPH PASSED AWAY AT 2AM.
That of course was over twenty years ago. He was born, he lived and then he was gone, just like the wind.
I’ve mentioned the wind for a particular reason. He had a notebook in which he jotted down all sorts of items he found in newspapers and books. If he ever came across a word he didn’t know he looked up the meaning and jotted it down. He was someone who left school at 14 with a poor education but that didn’t stop him wanting to learn. One item caught my eye.
I don’t suppose it was something he actually composed but then, who knows:
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I
but when the leaves are trembling
The wind is passing by.