Ten years ago I was living in Winchester, having moved back there from London as a temporary base to get my mind clear. It’s a great town. It feels like you’re living in Sunday-night-8pm-on-TV land. Beautiful water meadows nudging almost right up to the cathedral in the centre of town – you can walk from its door past old pubs full of lively chatter, top beer and applewood smoke, out into watermeadows, past the school cricket pitches and into open countryside with grass under your feet almost the whole way. It feels sort of suspended from the rest of the world, not quite real. It was perfect as a haven to regroup. I’d left the consultancy I was unhappily employed at and gone out on my own, loosely collaborating with a few others. It was going well and was without the tedium that comes with any institution. Just what I needed for now.

That late-spring was spent surveying the landscape of Suffolk, looking to corroborate, qualify or reject the desk work we’d already undertaken.

Another day in the lovely Suffolk sun, surveying some of the incredible coast around Orford, stunning seafood and other treats from the smokery very happily consumed. Friday always meant a run for the early train, heavy bag from a midweek away over your shoulder. A two-train trip into Liverpool St, followed by a bus to Waterloo, for the train out to Winchester. It was a beautiful afternoon – May in England, if the Gods get it right, is hard to beat. Hot but bearable, a little breeze, and everything green, not yet browning after too many days of summer. I love London, especially in sun, and a bus beats the tube anyday. It was perhaps 3.30 and it felt good to be heading home in time to have a proper evening.

I must phone dad, I thought. Only I hadnt thought it – I’d rationalised a weird feeling into that thought. I had a wave of something, of knowing something wasn’t as it had been before. An irrational, impossible realisation that something had changed. Not wanting to take myself as mad, I thought: ‘I must phone dad’.

I made the connection at Waterloo and got hungry on the train. Me and food are very close – keep us apart and crabbiness ensues. I was jittery, I needed food – I eat almost constantly – and a packet of ready-salteds and a couple of shortbreads just about took the edge off but the jitters were still there, very lightly not allowing me to ignore them.

I walked across town from the station, past Winchester Cathedral where I’d picked up my degree certificate 5 years previously, and I started to run. I pulled myself up short and walked again: run and you are admitting you believe this irrational feeling. But I wanted to run – by running and believing that feeling I felt I was somehow innoculating myself against it being real. Run and I was the idiot who ran home, phoned his dad and everything was fine.

I walked through the lanes and up to the house I shared just up near to where the water meadows began. The second half of that walk probably hadn’t altered much in the last 80 years, thanks largely to Winchester School who own most of that part of the city.

I got in: the guy I shared with was out. Just past 6 and I was starving. I phoned dad, something I never did before eating. He had the solutions for everything in my life, usually involving a move to some much more favourable country. After 20 years or so of having a generally hard time being father and son our relationship had shifted. I stopped being a teenager and had the luck to meet someone who understood our relationship rather more than I did. I felt like I’d started to understand why he was so (as I saw it) impossible and controlling and why I might be headed down that road if I wasn’t careful. It opened a door. I realised I was no longer the child, or at least only the child, and that with him getting older and the impact of being alone more apparent, I was, for want of a better phrase, more powerful, no longer needing to run from a huge sense of threat.

Bridges were built, we laughed a bit, we talked more. But it never made sense to call him on an empty stomach – I always had to let a few of the old annoyances go during any conversation and it was always much harder not to bite if I was hungry.

It was also his 65th birthday in 3 weeks and I still hadn’t hit on the present yet. He’d always wanted to be a pilot but colour-blindness had put an end to his dream, but a flying lesson over the coast where he lived was about as good as a present could get as far as he was concerned but I’d blown that one on his 60th. I had meant to wait to call until I’d decided on a present so that I could organise coming down to see him.

It was good being able to ring him – he’d only recently allowed me to get him a phone put in. We’d had one when I was a kid for a couple of months but money was tight and it went. When he’d gone home after his first heart attack 18 months earlier I’d managed to convince him to have one, but only by making out it was for my benefit – to stop me having to worry about him walking around the block to the payphone in all weathers.

I dialled the number, glad to be able to rid the weird feeling. No answer. Ok, he’ll be walking to the post box to send a few letters. I put the kettle on, sat down and rang again. I heard a strange noise: it was me, saying, aloud in an empty house “Pick up the phone dad”.

It rang. I said it again. I put the phone down, threw a tea bag in a cup, poured in the water and rang again. “Pick up the phone dad.” “Pick up the phone dad and don’t be dead.”

I kept saying it, thinking it would be funny when he picked it up and caught some part of the line. Hoping that by saying it it made the reality of it less possible. I would tell him the ridiculous story of having that feeling when crossing London on the bus.

No answer. I put the phone down, took the tea bag out, poured in a little milk, sat down and decided to ring my mum. If anything had happened she’d know, even though they’d not been together for 23 years. They lived in the same town, having not shared a word since the divorce.

Engaged. I rang again, engaged, I rang him again, no answer. I put the phone down and lifted it to ring my mum: the beeps of a message received on my phone. That’ll be my mum, telling me my dad’s dead I thought.

It was my mum, trying to do an ‘everything’s ok’ voice: Hi love, can you give me a call as soon as you get back in”.

The week or so between a death and the funeral is a very particular time. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more alive – at least in the sense that for that time, for once, life had no fluff, it was tight and essential. At the same time everything was unreal; in it’s truest sense, unusual.

I organised everything. I rang the few friends and relatives one by one from his phone, sitting on the third stair up, where he was found sitting. I went through his things, finding photos of a childhood growing up in Sri Lanka and from the holiday he’d taken there with the money he’d had when he retired. The darts, in the knackered blue plastic case that he (and only he) could sink barrel deep into the board. The jacket that he kept money in when I was a kid, the jacket I’d pinched the odd note out of, that made me, alone in that house, fluorescent with guilt as I took it off the hanger for the last time. The Airfix Spitfire he’d made with a little help from a nine year old me. Pinned to the curtain of the landing window, a circular card badge with ‘AR’ in faded felt-tip pen, for Advanced Reader, given at my primary school 23 years before.

I took his coat off the peg and inside I found a packet of cigarettes. Even with his fear of hospitals he hadn’t been able to stop smoking for long after his first heart attack, but he kept it secret. I was furious with him but wanted to hug him for his weakness.

I boxed a few things up and walked out of the door of the house where I’d spent all but the first 2 weeks of the first 16 years of my life.

The funeral was hilarious. Despite dragging me and my sister to sunday school and the occasional Catholic mass he’d decided to be buried in the church with the nicest view. I stood at the front, one arm around my sister and one around his sister. My sister had chosen the song, All Things Bright and Beautiful. Like all right-mind children, I liked little better than a hymn we could improve with altered words – “When an old man came in sight, playing with his too-ooo-el” etc – and this one had always had the back row howling with it’s reference to ‘the purple headed mountain’. I started giggling. Luckily we were at the front, and my sister and are shorter than me and were looking downwards. They and the mourners behind took my shaking shoulders as finally having given over to the grief. My attempts to quell the laughing had set up the weird sort of standing wave that only comes with laughing in forbidden circumstances – all is fine, until you allow your mind to vaguely revisit the moment, and your under again. I regained control, focusing on a knot in the wood on the back edge of the empty pew in front.

The vicar spoke. My dad had always wanted to go back to Sri Lanka to live. Sun, peace, and ‘just look at how many rupees to the pound’ – the mere fact that there might be 393 ruppes to the pound implied to him riches beyond his wildest dreams, regardless of the fact that it might cost 393 rupees to buy something that cost a pound here in England. The vicar got caught between saying my father ‘yearned’ or ‘hankered’ to go back and said ‘he yankered to go back to Sri Lanka’. That standing wave started oscillating again only worse than before. I looked properly upset from behind for sure. He finished and the organ started, I gathered myself together. In the leave-the-church music, a single bum note rang out, Les Dawson style – one of the things most guaranteed to leave him with tears rolling down his face. And I remembered him laughing as we left the church.

I’ve told hardly anyone about that weird feeling ten years ago today. I’m not sure why I’ve kept it almost to myself. It sounds so implausible, but that’s not why – I couldn’t give a toss if anyone I might tell believes it or not – but perhaps it sounds like I’m trying to claim some specialness, or something of that day for myself, when frankly my dad owns it.

Ten years has flown, and life is almost entirely different, at least in its ingredients. For all the missing him and still reaching for the phone to call him when the cricket’s gone well, nothing has had a more positive effect on me than him dying. Everything before then had felt vaguely undoable, put-rightable. That day I realised, truly, for the first time, that there is only so much time, that it is all temporary. I had never even grown a lettuce when he died, now I kill olives for a pastime. I think that’s a good thing. And tomorrow I’ll get back to writing about it.

  • I'm a grown man and grown men aren't supposed to cry so it must be a speck of dust in my eye.

    All joking apart – beautiful.


  • After a very long, very wakeful night with baby, things felt overwhelming and un-doable..and then i read this – and, (although I am blubbing now, and will probably be a mess for at least half an hour more) – I'll get myself together and have some fun…because you're right, I haven't got forever.
    Thanks for sharing your dad with us
    now stop making me cry

  • Beautiful.

    Your words put me on that path in Winchester, on your father's stair, in that church…

    Life is short, but thankfully long enough to share stories like this.

    Will somebody pass the tissues, please?

  • My boyfriend who passed away,its his birthday tomorrow.Pain has gone,though I do still remember when I look towards the sun.

    Life is short,and I have learnt to enjoy my life,still get knockdown,but his death has made it easier for me to get back up again,because frankly nothing life throws at you is worse than losing someone.

    I am killing off pear trees if it helps.

  • I can think of nothing to say that wouldn't sound trite or clichéd. Thank you for sharing this and considered yourself well and truly hugged!

  • I was going to say, dont worry about writing about the olives, but that sounds like I'm being rude, which I dont mean (honest). What I do mean is, I think we all love this blog because of your ability to write so beautifully about anything you want to, plant-based or otherwise, so please carry on wittering on about whatever takes your fancy, and dont worry about us.
    Strangely this didnt make me cry at all (and it normally doesnt take much to set me off), I think because you seem so reconciled and philosophical about it all. Lovely, lovely post.

  • Beautifully written, and I can empathise totally, my iGit lost his Dad virtually 10 years ago to the day too, it was why this weekend at Langton was so important – just touching home.

    My own experience is somewhat different – having been faced with my own mortality 18 months ago – its made me impatient, and a little more selfish, but I am doing things that had only ever been dreams – it is strange how we learn these lessons.


  • Shivers down my spine – perfectly told, not a wrong word or an unnecessary one. Soothed by such exquisite photographs from the intensity of remembering similar experiences. And a jolt that showed me how much I'm drifting right now.

    Thank you, blog is an ugly word for such a profound communication

  • Everyone here is much more thoughtful than me – i've just been unavoidably giggling at your description of trying not to laugh and also 'yankering' which is just peeeeach

    It was my dad's 65th birthday last week and it's a good kick up the bum to give him a ring and appreciate him while he's still here

    lots of love xx

  • I always felt a little ashamed of the inappropriate giggling fit I spread to others in the car on the way to my Dad's funeral. Now I can look back and smile and know I'm not alone in this.

    A very beautiful post.

  • Not being a great reader I almost passed on this post this morning when I saw how long it was. I've just read it for the second time and therefore concur with James. Wonderful stuff.

  • Yummersetter said it brilliantly – perfectly told, not a wrong word or an unnecessary one.
    I also sang All Things Bright and Beautiful at my mother's funeral four years ago – within the following year I'd changed my life and now garden for a living. She'd be pleased I know.

  • Having lost my sister last year when she was only 37, my perception of life has completely changed. Life is too short, it isnt a rehersal and we should grad it by the scruff of the neck.

  • A brilliant post, and a lovely reminder to us all to enjoy our Dads' while we can.

    The 'bum' note at the funeral would have done it for me too, laughter in those circumstances is the best way forward, it was as though your Dad was there with you all, saying 'see I did it my way'.

    Lovely, lovely post.

    (By the way what is that plant in the very first photo? I've just copmposted lots of them ,thinking they were weeds.) Ooops!

    Sue xx

  • Reached inside and touched a memory for which I give you thanks in abundance.
    My friend's grandad died. The whole family descended upon his cottage in Ireland. There wasn't room to lie the coffin down so the coffin, and grandad, where propped up in the corner.
    The music started and grandad danced to the Irish jigs. The grandkids had a hoot after tying string to his arms and scaring the bejeesus out of everyone there. He'd have laughed his socks off though, just like your Dawson-loving dad.
    If nobody laughs at my funeral I'll be bloody gutted. Laughter through grief is good medicine.

  • Ha ha – so good to know it's not just me with the inappropriate laughing. Thanks for all the lovely comments

  • 'For all the missing him and still reaching for the phone to call him when the cricket's gone well, nothing has had a more positive effect on me than him dying. Everything before then had felt vaguely undoable, put-rightable. That day I realised, truly, for the first time, that there is only so much time, that it is all temporary.'

    Perfect. Goddamnthishayfeveralltohell. *wipes eyes*

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