Don’t bother ringing me, because I won’t pick up the phone. My mother rings me once a week at a preordained time and I’ll answer then – and my sister rings sporadically but always gives me plenty of advance warning. Otherwise, when the phone rings, I assume it’s someone trying to sell me something I don’t want or ask me for money I don’t have. So – don’t bother.But I picked the phone up on Wednesday for the weekly chat with my mother. It usually plays out to the same formula – nothing good happens in my life so I ask her questions about hers then after half an hour we both say “love you” and that’s that.
Last week, she dropped into the conversation that it had been nine years since Tony died. Nine years. I was astonished. I looked back to the horror and anguish of his passing and I looked at where we all are now, and the time elapsed seemed more like five minutes than nine years.
Tony was my mum’s second husband, stepdad to me and my sister. Dear God did we hate his guts and lead him a merry dance when he first came onto the scene. We didn’t resent him occupying the space vacated by our lunatic father : Fred West could have filled that space and the family dynamics wouldn’t have been any more disharmonious. We just hated him because we were troubled teenagers and hating him was what we were supposed to do.
He was, in many ways, a howlingly stereotypical Yorkshire man, of a certain time and space. He said ‘coil’ when he meant coal, he called people ‘cock’ and meant it as an endearment rather than an insult.He was slow to anger, despite the best spiteful efforts of my sister and I. He was a miner from Wakefield, a hard working man who’d spent a large part of his life underground. He smoked Regal Kingsize and drank bitter and drove a Jag and years of being in close proximity to thundering machinery had rendered him a little more than half deaf – a fact my sister and I occasionally exploited for comic effect by swearing at him just below the threshold of his hearing. Hilarious.
He married my mum, so it started to look like he wasn’t going anywhere and the vitriol gradually ran dry and we began to appreciate all the ways our new stepfather wasn’t like our actual father. He made our mother happy, for one thing. He took her places and made her smile. He took me to my psychiatric outpatient appointments when I came out of hospital and tolerated me lolling around the house drunk or stoned for months without ever judging me as harshly as he probably should – at least not within my earshot, He taught me to drive, and his endless stoicism in the face of my gear grinding and over steering was a welcome contrast to my father’s method of teaching anything, which generally just meant shouting in a progressively louder and more hysterical fashion until you just pretended to understand. Tony drove up and down the country over the years, picking me and my dwindling possessions up from one calamity and driving me up and down the country to the next one – always placid, always practical.
When I moved to Dorset and everything went wrong, as it was always going to do, Tony drove my mum down from Yorkshire to bring me a few bits of furniture to help make my ;latest flat a bit more habitable. He spent some time with my son, who was little more than a baby, and his obvious love for him was both heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time.
And then he got lung cancer. I caught a train up to Yorkshire to go see him. He was going to die soon, but we didn’t talk about that, I know that he and my mum had talked about it, late at night, in tears, grieving for the life they couldn’t hold onto, grieving for the fact that there always comes a time when death can’t be negotiated with any further and that that’s a devastating obscenity to the human mind, which has spent a lifetime solving problems and lying to itself about those problems it can’t solve.
He was nauseous all the time. Occasionally he’d be hungry but after a mouthful or two of food he’d be retching into a cardboard kidney dish. He didn’t complain. We’d sit out in the back yard when it was warm enough and smoke and make small talk, He had always been a big bloke but the cancer had shrunk him – he didn’t even seem as tall as he had been; yellow and sunken, all skull and vomit and eyes that knew what was going on but couldn’t quite understand it.
On the day I left, I hugged his crumbling bones and told him I hoped that the next time I saw him that the doctors would have managed to make him a little more comfortable, and my mum stood behind him, her face twisted in silent, tear slicked agony. We knew we’d never all be together like this again.
He died the next week, terribly afraid. I went back up North for the funeral and was surprised to find I sat through the whole service convulsed with wordless grief, in floods of tears. I knew how fond I’d become of, but I hadn’t realised til then that I’d loved him. It was a gut wrenching thing to discover so late.