Thank You, My Father

From the moment that I heard that you had gone, I kept talking to you... talking to you as if your were standing or sitting or walking next to me, like a small child telling her father about a day at school, a visit to the zoo or a hairy caterpillar found in the garden. I told you about the mountains, described the walnut trees and the shuttered houses; the people on the train and their sleepy, pretty, plain, cheerful and tired faces; the ticket machines that you have to use four times before they stamp your ticket in the proper place; the sun going down over the bare fields that in summer are filled with the smiling faces of sunflowers; talked to you about your grandchildren, and how your only grandson wanted to play cricket with you; about our made-in-France house, with the balcony facing the sun and the backdrop of rock and waterfall, now that you would no longer be coming to visit when the spring arrived. All the journey long from new-home to old-home, by car, train, boat, train, car... back to your home town, my home town, where now I was only a stranger among familiar faces.

When the phone rang, I'd been in bed with the New Man. He was hung-over, and when-hung-over all he wanted was to be in bed and to have company in bed, even if it was Saturday afternoon and even if the November sun was shining. So I was in bed... and then the telephone echoed in the empty hall. And I took the call sitting on the cold marble floor dressed only in a cotton bathrobe. And the house echoed empty with the news.

Only the night before, the New Man had loudly chastised me and my distant sisters for not demonstrating our love for you loudly enough. But only a few days before, I'd called you and talked a while - and I'd told you what a father you'd been to me... and only a moment before, my heart had sent out its regular, always-always beat of love to you...

And I phoned my youngest sister in Sydney a few afternoon minutes later, in the middle of her night. And I could not hold her in her tears, because she was half-a-world away. She had to find an airticket and a plane: and I found myself sitting on the floor of a high-speed bar on the train and paying off the guard, because it was a public holiday and there were no tickets available for trains, planes or the bus. And I talked to you... dragging the suitcase across and under Paris, I talked to you... smoking across the winter channel in a half-empty ferry, I talked to you... and I hoped you could still hear me.

I came to see you one last time. Your old friend, who had washed and dressed and prepared you for your final day's work, was standing outside the cold room with warm and naked tears running down his undertaker face.

You were marble; beautiful marble, your hands still scarred and chipped from the occasional misplaced chisel or mis-struck nail. Your hair was greyer than it had been at Christmas. We'd said goodbye then with waves and hugs and words and blue-eyed smiles. But this time, it was farewell with a kiss, a handful of summer-scented rose petals and a favourite tape-measure placed in your waiting hands. And then your friend closed the door between us.

There wasn't room in the little church for all your friends. They spilled out onto the small-town street, overflowing into the cold November air. But the air was full of singing; voices as loud and clear as yours, singing along to the Sunday radio. And I read a letter to you from the New Man, because he and the children couldn't be there; in front of everyone there, friends, family, colleagues and skittles- and-cricket players; before all those people and all that pain and sorrow and missing you; a letter to you and about you and for you; and I could only do it because you were my father, and if I couldn't do that for you with a few human and cheerful words, then what would I ever be able to do for anyone else ever again?

Back in my old, unheated, childhood bedroom in your home, I could still feel your presence. The floorboards you'd replaced after one of you big feet had gone straight through, the door which you must have rehung after we'd all left home, because it used to open the other way and now every time I or one of my sisters tried to open it in the dark, we automatically fumbled for a non-existent handle, trying to open it from the wrong side; the round window that you had always wanted to make and one day did; the hole that you'd drilled in the door of the airing cupboard, so that you could see the little red light and know if my mother had left the immersion heater on too long; the tumbledown shed where the seven elderly chickens used to roost; the garden path where you once found me happily trying to polish the concrete with your best expensive smoothing-plane; the old swing that you'd made for us when we'd all been quite small and where I once sat and cried all afternoon over my first lost-love; the earth that wouldn't grow anything well no matter how much compost you dug in; the now-weathered tiles that I'd helped to carry up-a-ladder-and-up- to-the-top when you spent several summer weeks putting a new roof over our heads; the smell of freshly cut wood and the sawdust still drifting about just outside the back door...

I still miss you. But every so often, you know, I can feel you here, just as you had planned. Sitting on a summer chair on the balcony or in the warm armchair in the kitchen, drinking a huge mug of hot, sweet, milky tea. Watching the children play. Whistling slightly out-of-tune as you climb the stairs. Still wearing your favourite work-jacket of worn, brown corduroy and the large grey jumper with the holes where you'd caught it on a splinter of wood. And always with a ready pencil tucked behind your ear...

Thank you for coming to visit. And for always being there. I love you.