A conversation between colleagues overheard: a team-mate has bought tickets for the musical Hamilton, for his girlfriend’ birthday, but it’s a secret he has to keep whilst she is badgering him to go, or it won’t be the surprise he intends. This has brought back a bittersweet memory of my Dad’s last Xmas, in 1969.
He’d been in and out of hospital for over a year by then, though only my mother and her elder brother knew at that point that his cancer was terminal. Dad had been the one to urge our Lake District holidays towards the fells, and who had gently managed my initial reluctance to a burgeoning enthusiasm.
During his illness, we hadn’t been able to add to the three fells we had already climbed. There were no holidays, no Lake District, not even a Bonfire Night and Fireworks that year, just some sparklers for my sister and I, properly wrapped up, to have outside the French window at the back, because the noise who have disturbed Dad.
Wainwright had completed his Pictorial Guides, and gone on to the Howgill Fells, which didn’t attract us. He’d produced The Pennine Way Companion, which did nothing for us. But he’d begun a series of Sketchbooks, intended to run to five, showcasing his beautiful and wonderfully representative pen-and-ink drawings. It would be available for December.
In my mind, it was the perfect Xmas present for Dad. He loved the Wainwrights as much as I was starting to do and I desperately wanted to give him this book for Xmas. I suggested it to Mam, but she was curiously unencouraging and vague. I brought it up a couple more times, unable to understand why this idea didn’t seem to be favoured. It was perfect, absolutely so, and I couldn’t understand why we were missing the opportunity to give him something so suited.
What ended up being my present to him, I can’t remember.
On Xmas day, at Granny and Grandad’s, the family together as we always celebrated Xmas day, I found out why they wouldn’t let me give my Dad that book as a present. I opened a hard, rectangular parcel, and found it to be Wainwright’s First Lakeland Sketchbook. I couldn’t give it Dad, because Dad and Mam were giving it me.
I’d forgotten that detail but it all comes back to me now, and whilst it was a lovely book, and I have it still, and after Dad died, I collected the other four as they appeared, the gift fell a little flat that year. I was just turned fourteen, and I wanted that book for my Dad. He could and did read it, and enjoy it as much as me, but I wanted it for him. There was never another Xmas, and though there was one more birthday, in January 1970, his 41st, I have the same no idea of what I bought him as a present.
Now I’m sitting here, remembering this, and there’s a tiny lick of pain behind the memories, because I don’t have the memory I should have had, of my Dad’s look of pleasure at a gift given by his son that was so perfectly what he would have wanted.
Most memories associated with Dad come with their measure of pain because the loss is uncontrollable. At least I have recovered one more moment to add to that inadequate store of memories that are all I can hold to.