In an hour’s time, I will be setting off on an annual ritual. August 15, every year, I visit Dukinfield Crematorium and stand before Plot C to commune with my Dad, who died on this date in 1970, when I was fourteen.
It’s forty-three years now. As the time grows longer, I sometimes realise the strangeness of time: I remember the year that I suddenly realised that he had now been dead for twice as long as I’d known him when he was alive: simple arithmetic and fractal emotions. This year crosses another cusp: he’s now been gone for longer than he lived.
He died early in the morning on a sun-drenched Saturday, in hospital, at 7.55 am, with my mother and his elder brother at his bedside, after almost two years of pain, during which he spent more time in hospital than with us, of bronchial cancer: he was a smoker. That his condition was terminal, and known to be such from the first diagnosis, was a secret shared between Mam and my uncle alone, and only revealed to Gran and Grandad, his parents, about six weeks before his death. That news and that burden was only revealed to me and my younger sister after that last day.
Some memories never leave. I heard the front door open and shut, just after 11.00am. I was doing something, what it was I can’t recall, and by the time I bundled down the stairs, asking how Dad was, Mam had gone through into the breakfast room with Granny and Grandad, and shut the door behind her, and Uncle Arthur was alone in the Hall, hanging up his jacket. He said nothing in response to my question, just waited for me to finish rushing down the stairs, before putting his arm round my shoulders and leading me into the lounge to tell me that Dad was out of all the pain now. He didn’t need to speak at all: from the moment he didn’t answer, I knew all I needed to know.
To all intents and purposes, in terms of an influence in and on my life, I lost my Dad just after my thirteenth birthday, when the increasing pains in his shoulder were first investigated. It’s the biggest single thing to affect my life and it’s taken a lifetime to understand just how far-reaching its effects have been.
I go each year to the Crematorium, as I always have done (the years of 1978 and 1979, when I was living in Nottingham excepted). It’s become a ritual, ever since I got my first car, in 1981, and did not need to rely on a lift. I go alone, my mind open and empty, stand in front of Plot C, where his ashes were sprinkled, as have those of all the rest of my family since: grandmother, grandfather, uncle, mother, and I in my turn.
And I start to talk to him. To talk about what has happened to me in the year since I last stood there, about how I feel, about missing him, whatever comes into my mind to say to him, in lieu of all the conversations I never got to have with him as an adult. It’s the closest I can ever get to that.
What I will say today, I won’t know until I am there. Down the years, I have become expert at clearing my mind, on the drive there, on the bus, keeping myself from whatever I have to say until that moment we are alone and our minds can come into the closest proximity there can be.
I talk out loud, speaking to him as if he were there before me, as if we could just sit down, over a drink, maybe over a pool table (he was a snooker enthusiast, had his own cue: I am sure we would have bonded over pool, even as I’m sure he would have looked at it as a lesser game) and just enjoy being father and son together. Sometimes that isn’t possible: there are people around that corner, too close for the privacy I need, and I cannot be as open as I want: even then, I still vocalise what it comes to me to say, under my breath so that only I (and he) can hear, so that they don’t think me too much of a nutter!
He died in high summer, sunshine and blue clouds, the eve of the Football season. At his funeral, five days later, the heavens opened as indeed I would demand they did.You’d think I could expect sunshine and high summer this time of year, but that dichotomy at the heart of the English weather, the Manchester weather, still applies. Three years ago, before I’d worked out a direct bus, I spent half the day getting there and back under a baking sun, whilst the year after it sluiced down, so heavily that I was literally soaked to the skin, and extremely uncomfortable until I got home and changed, before I had even got halfway from the bus stop to the Crem gates.
Today looks dry, cloudy. But the rain comes and goes as it pleases and it could be pouring down again before I even get near the Crem. It would be nice to have sun: the Crem is built high on a hill, overlooking Ashton-under-Lyne, where Dad worked all his life, a draughtsman at a long forgotten company called Industrial Models Ltd. The Crem looks across the basin of the River Tame, towards the foothills leading up to the Pennines, through the Saddleworth Valley. ‘I shall lift up mine eyes to the hills’ says the words Mam, chose, for the Book of Remembrance: a Biblical reference for a former Church sidesman (and in all these long years since he died, I have still never learned what that meant), and a physical one. It’s not the Lakes, the love of which he passed on to me, but he looks towards the hills forever.
The weather doesn’t matter. The ritual is what counts, and the words that will come into my head this time. I never got the chance to relate to my Dad as an adult, never got to find out if he approved of who I was and what I became, whether he was proud of his son. That’s a mystery that will never be solved, and it is easy to feel, inside, that that would be withdrawn. Love is one thing, respect another.
And no-one is left now who knew him, who can talk to me about him, who can relate him to me as a man, an adult, a thinking, feeling person, and not just Dad. All his generation are gone. My sister, from whom I am estranged, was only just turned seven. I have only one older relative now, my cousin John who has lived in Canada for over thirty years. The last time we met, at his father’s funeral, two years ago, John almost reduced me to floods of tears, by talking about my Dad, and how he’d respected him, how every time he’d met Dad, he’d thought him the most intelligent person in the room.
The only things I know that I have inherited from my Dad are our shared love of the Lakes, of fellwalking and the high, lonely places, and his dry, ironic sense of humour. I have inherited nothing of his practicality: he was good with his hands, forever fixing up the house, making things that were good and true and lasted.
I’m told he had a quick temper (I remember one instance of that, applied to me) but that he came back to normal fast. He could take or leave football: snooker,and motorcycle scrambling, which used to be a television staple in the late Fifties/early Sixties, were his favourites. I know too little else, and given the way my life and what I have made it disappoints me, I cannot but feel that I would have disappointed him.
By a coincidence, today is also another anniversary, though not one I usually remember, that I remembered only yesterday, recalled to mind by a piece about the A level results being due out today. Forty years ago, on this date, that was me. Mam had decided to take us to Southport for the day, though the trip had to be postponed to visiting the Crem first, and then my School for the results.
This was another hot, sunny day, and as she pulled up to park in front of the school, I was out of my seat almost before the wheels had stopped spinning, and walking back to the Secretary’s office: I wanted to see these results myself, without an audience. I had an audience though, a half dozen of my classmates, sprawled on the grass, chatting. As I stalked forward, they turned to look at me and, in unison, shook their heads and clicked their tongues in a ‘tt-tt’.
I should have known then that I was alright, and I was better than alright, with three A’s and a D (in Maths, which I’d wanted to drop anyway, having peaked at O level). A relieving prelude to a day in the sun. Coincidentally, I went to Southport only last Thursday.
So now to Dukinfield, to talk to my father.