NB: THE FOLLOWING STORY IS NOT TRUE. IT’S JUST A STORY…
This is a story about a very friendly bus driver with a voice like Ken Dodd and a son that refused to love him for no other reason than that he (the son) was a short-sighted, self-centred, good-for-nothing swine.
It was a week before Christmas when my mother left home. I was ten years’ old. My dad was 43. I don’t know why she left. All I knew was, it wasn’t my fault, therefore it had to be his. So that was that. I turned my back on him.
Before that, I was a nice kid. I got on brilliantly with my dad. We used to play chess every day. We used to go outside and kick a ball around the park. I used to love to kick a ball around the park, it was the best thing, literally the best thing in my life. But when my mother left home, I took it out on my dad. I broke bad.
Not criminal or delinquent but loveless and moody. And no more games. I clammed up and withdrew. I cut myself off like a sabotaged parachute, and watched my dad hurtle to the cold earth, all alone. I was grieving, of course. I was in shock. I should really have been in therapy, but that was still decades away. Instead I became a selfish, inconsiderate, awful adolescent, who, as the years crept by like an endless deathless plague of wet afternoons, grew into a surly, spiky, ungrateful young man. Eventually Dad stopped even trying to make me like him again. He just used to look at me, with that sad, resigned smile. I’d roll my eyes and walk away.
Then, a couple of weeks after my sixteenth birthday, I left my dad in his little house in Digby and I moved south on a guilt trip that would last for 20 years.
On the morning of my departure, Dad came into my bedroom. He said, ‘Hello, Son.’ I flinched. I’d never liked him calling me that. Not since my mother left. ‘Can we have a little talk? Before you go.’ I sighed. He sat on my bed and asked me to do the same. Begrudgingly, I did so. ‘I just want to tell you that I’m sorry,’ he said.
‘What?’ I remember how my face snarled up at him like a lit match every time he spoke.
‘I’m sorry I wasn’t able to make you happy, Son,’ he said.
I set my jaw against him and watched his big face colour. He had dark heavy eyes that, when they weren’t avoiding mine, sparkled. This was the same face with which he’d greeted the people of Digby every morning before work, every evening after work, all day, every day for 40-odd years, but under the shadow of my gaze, it was transformed. I sucked all the joy out of it.
On the bus, everybody loved him. They really did. ‘He’s the only bus driver who makes you actually happy to be on a bus.’ I heard that a lot. It annoyed me. He never made me happy to be on a bus. He made my skin crawl. He never shut up.
He talked to everyone who got on. He knew everybody’s name. He asked them all how they were. He repeated the same embarrassing guff every day. The same jokes at the same stops, the same stupid remarks in the same cheery voice. He was like a bingo caller. He was always so chirpy. Like he didn’t have a care in the world, like nothing bad had ever happened to him, or to anyone else.
He even sang on the bus! In public! He serenaded the old ladies as they shuffled aboard.
His singing made me want to throttle him. Even so, I had to admit, he did have a good voice. He had a beautiful voice. He was a huge fan of Ken Dodd and did a very convincing impersonation. Tears was his favourite. The one that began: ‘Tears for souvenirs are all you left me. Memories of a love you never meant.’ And so on. He used to sing that all the time, but always, always with a smile on his face. It annoyed the hell out of me.
Also, he never had a bad word for anyone. Even the yobs who smoked upstairs and left their marks on the backs of the seats. ‘They’re good lads really,’ he’d say. ‘You’ve just got to try a bit harder with them.’ He’d certainly tried hard with me. But I continued to deny him.
‘I’m alright,’ I told him, shrugging off his concern.
‘I know, Son,’ he said. ‘I’m just – I’m sorry I could never be there for you.’ His voice was soft, with tiny rips in it. His eyes, blinking wet like frightened oysters, stared down at the blanket on my bed. There was a pause. ‘It wasn’t my fault, you know.’
Whoa there. What on earth was he playing at? We never talked about what he was about to talk about. Ever.
‘No, it’s alright,’ I said firmly, adding, ‘I’m going to get going now. I’ll give you a ring when I get sorted. OK?’
‘OK, Son,’ he said. I flinched.
He gave me a hug as I left. I brushed through it like a terrier, stiff and short.
‘Keep in touch, Owen,’ he said.
‘I will,’ I said.
Instead I spoke to him maybe 40 times in the next 20 years and I popped home once every four or five years to dispense a few terse pleasantries. Usually at Christmas.
Then, three years ago, thanks to the barbaric cruelty of four other careless little boys, I was given the chance to redeem myself.
On a miserable Saturday afternoon in November 2007, Dad was on the road back to Digby when something terrifically bad happened. A freak accident. No one blamed him. Not really. But he blamed himself. He tortured himself.
Maybe a couple of months before the accident, he had started to realise that he wasn’t as sharp as he used to be. He’d been forgetting people’s names. He’d been forgetting the words to songs. He knew his mind was getting sloppy and starting to wander, and that was the time – he knew – to stop, before something went wrong.
I got this from Marlene, one of Dad’s closest friends. He always had lots of friends and when he wasn’t at work, he’d be with them at the pub, bingo, library or bowling green. He never spent any time at home.
So he decided to keep going, for another six months. That would take him to 45 years. ‘He was scared though,’ said Marlene. ‘He was scared of having nothing to do with his life.’ Marlene made me want to cry. Whenever she wasn’t smiling, she had the most tragic expression I’d ever seen. ‘But at the same time,’ she continued, ‘he was terrified of doing something stupid and killing someone.’
He’d been driving an empty bus from Bloxholm to Digby. In a field to the left of the main road, four kids had been tormenting a horse. They had fireworks. They tossed a lit banger at the horse’s feet and it bolted. It made for the closed gate which led onto the main road and leapt over it, only just managing to stay upright as its trembling legs adjusted to the harder surface. At least I imagine its legs were trembling. I heard that it left an almighty trail of manure.
So the first thing Dad knew, there was a horse charging towards him with its eyes bulging and flashing like black psychotic lychees. Without thinking – that lack of thought the source of the blame that would later come and more or less destroy him – Dad braked and swerved. In avoiding the horse, he lost control of the bus, careering into the dry stone wall at the end of the same field where four teenage boys looked on – one can only hope – in horror.
After hitting the wall, the bus flipped onto its side and skidded fifty metres down the road to a halt. Dad messed his face up on one of the windows and was knocked unconscious. One of his thighs was cracked too, but otherwise he was OK.
To compound the good fortune – because it could have been a bloodbath – as well as no passengers, there were no pedestrians in the path of the incident, and no other moving vehicles were involved. It was a commuter road between two small towns on a Saturday afternoon. There was just one horse, one bus, seven parked cars… and one cyclist.
Neville Jessop had been riding back to Digby on the pavement. Dad hadn’t seen him. All he saw was the horse.
The horse was unhurt.
Neville was not so lucky.
When I got the telephone call from the hospital, everything I was or had ever been instantly disappeared and was replaced with something else more or less entirely. That probably sounds ridiculous. I don’t know.
My first thought was that Dad was dead and with that thought came an instantaneous onslaught of guilt. Then when I found out that he was merely injured, I gulped at the air like a drowning man dragged onto a raft.
This sounds bad, I know, but the fact is, news of my father’s accident came at just the right time for me. I’d been looking for a way out. Twenty years in London had seen me aim for a career in local politics, miss quite outrageously and end up a partner at a digital agency in King’s Cross, where I earned a lot of money but was far from happy. Also, a week before the phone call, I’d ended another in a sad conga-line of long-term but ever-doomed relationships. After three years, I broke it off. I have no idea why. Barbara had no idea why. ‘You took my dreams from me,’ she said. I said I was sorry.
My therapist suggested that I might have issues with desertion. I said, ‘Do you think? What do I pay you? £75 an hour? Do you think that’s enough? I don’t think that’s enough. That’s nowhere near enough.’ I went on like that for a while. I can be quite annoying. But I was mostly joking.
In truth I think everyone should be in therapy. When I was in my twenties – for reasons that my therapy is yet to properly uncover – I convinced myself that I wanted to become Prime Minister. If I had become Prime Minister, that’s something I would have insisted on: free therapy for all. It would have spelled the end of my political career of course. They would have thought I was mad.
Barbara thought I was mad. And when I quit my job and moved back home, everyone at the agency – although they pretended they thought I was making the right decision – they thought I was mad too.
But it made sense to me. And I wasn’t just running away. I was also running home.
What convinced me it was right, however – what really hammered it home – was the timing. It was just before Dad’s birthday. It was the perfect time to start afresh.
At that point I hadn’t actually been in the same room as him for more than five years, and to see him after so long, all frail and shaken in a large hospital bed, it was quite a shock. Marlene said I should have seen him just a few days ago. She said he’d aged at least ten years since the accident. Still, even there on that hospital ward, with his right leg in traction and his face all puffed-up, scratched and heart-breaking, he was definitely pleased to see me. And for my own part, I was overjoyed to be home.
‘Hello, Dad,’ I said.
‘Hello, Son,’ he replied. ‘Thanks for coming.’
So I moved back into my old room, which was pretty much just as I’d left it, and I set about caring for my dad. He was 73 years old. He was an old man. And he was very, very upset about Neville Jessop, who’d been told he might not ever walk again.
‘It wasn’t your fault, Dad.’
I told him that over and over and over again, and almost every time he nodded and pretended to agree.
After dinner on his first day home out of hospital, I gave him a present. He opened it, smiling, excited. He tore off the loose wrapping paper and held the wooden box in his hands. It was the size and shape of a shoe box, but heavier. He gave it a little shake and looked up at me expectantly. ‘Is it spanners?’ he asked.
I smiled and shook my head.
He located the clasp and opened the box. At first he wasn’t sure what he was looking at. Then it dawned on him. He gasped. He looked up at me like a boy on his birthday looking up at his father. ‘Thanks, Son,’ he said.
I went to my bedroom and fetched the new board that accompanied the box of chess pieces and we played chess for a couple of months solid. It was perfect. We got to know each other again and with all of my heart I tried to make up for lost time.
I also introduced him to the internet. He’d never really seen it before. I told him that the internet was basically all of human existence in a tiny little box and I asked him what he wanted to see. He didn’t know. I asked him what he was interested in. He thought for a while. I asked him what he used to like when he was young and eventually he came up with Harold Lloyd. He used to love Harold Lloyd. So we watched Harold Lloyd clips on YouTube.
‘Hmm,’ he said after a while. ‘He’s not as funny as I remember him.’
As for the internet, Dad was impressed, but not particularly overwhelmed, and I was slightly disappointed in his lack of enthusiasm. But I kept a lid on it.
Then I bought some Laurel and Hardy and Marx Brothers DVDs and we watched them together in his room. He would fall asleep a lot, and I would feel sad, but still, it was the closest we’d been since I was a little boy.
When he was finally well enough to get out and about, the first thing Dad wanted to do was visit the Jessop boy. He just wanted to take him something, he said, to say sorry to his face and see how he was doing. I wasn’t sure it was such a good idea but Dad couldn’t understand why it wouldn’t be. ‘I’ve known his family all their lives,’ he kept saying. ‘They’ll be expecting me.’
It was three months after the accident and Neville was still quite depressed. He’d been advised not to get his hopes up about ever walking again. Instead, he was adjusting to life in a wheelchair, but he was bitter. He felt that his life was over. He was fourteen years old. His relationship with his girlfriend had just ended. I wasn’t surprised. I could just hear the arguments:
‘I don’t want your sympathy!’
‘You can’t tell the difference between sympathy and love!’
‘If you don’t want to be here, just go!’
‘If you don’t want me here, just say so! Don’t try and pin this on me!’
There was nothing wrong with my legs but I’d been having those arguments all my life.
When Dad went round to see him, Neville wasn’t nice. Dad took him a Gameboy. Or somesuch. Neville took it from him without thanks and said: ‘Seriously? This is supposed to make up for my legs, is it?’
‘I told him it wouldn’t be forever,’ Dad told me. ‘I told him it was important to keep positive, but….’ His eyes darkened. ‘He just swore at me.’
I was furious. I felt like going round to the Jessops and dragging the little swine out of his chair. But I kept a lid on it. Kids could be cruel, I knew that. And my dad had inadvertently crippled him, so I suppose his anger was understandable.
As Dad was leaving, Neville’s parents thanked him for coming and they said they were sorry. ‘He’s just not ready,’ they said.
By the time Dad got home that day, his skin had turned grey, and from that moment onwards, he seemed to begin to disappear into himself. He wouldn’t play chess anymore. Any headway I was making with the internet fell apart. He just lost all enthusiasm for life. It was painful and frustrating and dreadful.
In the coming weeks, his friends tried hard to bring him back. They’d visit in twos or threes and they’d visit by themselves. His bus driver mates tried to get him down the Terminus pub, where everyone was waiting to welcome him back. His bingo mates tried to get him down the bingo. One day the whole bowls team came round. He told them all he would get round to it when he was feeling better.
I got to know his friends quite well around this time. None of them had ever seen him like that. They said they’d never seen him so… sad.
Eventually Marlene lost her patience. ‘But there’s nothing wrong with you, Tom!’ That’s my dad. Tom. Tom Tandy. ‘You’re just wallowing now,’ she said. ‘Please,’ she said.
Sometimes I used to eavesdrop through the cheap plaster walls. Sometimes I’d stand outside the bedroom door. One time I heard her calling him darling.
She said, ‘Tom. My darling, darling man, where have you gone?’
My dad, as far as I could hear, said nothing.
Dad deteriorated rapidly. I don’t know why. Nobody knows.
First, he refused to leave the house. I offered to take him anywhere he wanted to go. Anywhere in the whole world.
‘I’m alright here,’ he said.
‘Please let me help you,’ I said.
‘I’m fine,’ he said, almost irritable.
I apologised. And I started to wonder what life would be like if he didn’t get better.
When the Jessop family moved out of Digby a month, maybe six weeks later, the parents dropped by to say goodbye. ‘It’s for the facilities, really,’ they explained. They’d found a house which was fully wheelchair accessible. Neville would be happier there. Dad didn’t say much. ‘Tell him….’ he said. But he couldn’t even finish his sentence.
After Neville moved away, Dad’s demeanour took another downward, darkward lurch. He stopped reading. He stopped making conversation. He even stopped smiling. That was the worst thing. He was depressed, I was sure of it. I got a doctor in, and a psychologist out. ‘He’s depressed,’ said the psychologist.
‘So what can we do?’ I asked.
She shook her head and offered me a grim smile.
Dad wouldn’t take the pills.
‘I’m not depressed,’ he said. ‘I’m just old. This is what happens. Life’s just not much fun anymore.’
‘But they might make you feel better,’ I pleaded.
‘Maybe I don’t want to feel better,’ he replied.
‘Then what do you want?’ I cried.
‘I want my life back,’ he said. ‘I want to drive my bus again. That’s what I want. That’s who I am, Son.’
I sighed, shook my head, and offered my dad a grim smile.
Then, soon after that came the sleeping. One day it seemed like he just refused to stay awake till it was almost time to go to bed again. Then he did it again, and again, and before long he rarely got out of bed at all. That lasted a full six weeks.
Then, one morning, he started singing again. The song was Happiness by Ken Dodd and he was singing it with extraordinary zeal. This should have been great news. But it wasn’t. It was 4am. And it was the beginning of the end.
At first, when Dad started to imagine that he was driving his bus again, I thought he was joking. Maybe at first he was.
I’d pull his chair a little closer to the kitchen table and he’d say, ‘Hold tight now!’ Or my mobile phone would ring, and he’d say, ‘Conductor on board. Quick as you like – room for a little ‘un!’ I’d laugh and he’d smile back at me like he was just having fun, and after his non-smiling marathons, any kind of fun – even disconcerting and ever so slightly weird fun – was enormously welcome.
Then it became more frequent and he seemed to start to take it more seriously. ‘Next stop Sherwood Gardens! Never mind the shopping, take the weight off your feet for ten minutes. You deserve it.’
I remember once saying something like, ‘Come on, Dad. Please tell me your mind’s not going? Eh? Not now? Not on top of everything else.’
He didn’t laugh. ‘You shouldn’t talk to me like that,’ he snapped.
I was shocked. ‘OK,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry. I was just having a bit of a joke.’
‘You’ve always been a nasty piece of work,’ he said. ‘Bad egg!’ he hissed.
I caught my breath, quietly.
He never had a bad word for anyone, my dad. That was the first time – aside from people on the news, I swear that was the first time I’d ever heard him speak ill of anyone.
For a moment I was frozen. Emotion formed a tight, suffocating scrummage in my chest and because I didn’t want him to see what I had to do, I went straight upstairs, found a quite corner of my childhood bedroom and sobbed and wept and berated myself for never, ever being enough.
Within the space of eight months, Dad had become two very distinct people – there was the occasionally irascible bus driver you could never predict: maybe he’d greet you with a song and a smile and a comment that made very little sense to you; or maybe he’d give you a list of reasons you would never be allowed on his bus. Then there was Dad – my dad – looking sad and battered and scared, like he’d just come out from under a spell or a hypnotic trance and was terrified of what he’d been made to do while he was under. As time wore on, I saw Dad less and less.
‘Not you again,’ he said one morning with a smile. ‘How many times, eh? If you’re under 15, I’m the King of Persia. You’re old enough to be my son.’
‘I am your son, Dad.’
‘What?’ He glared at me.
‘Do you want a cup of tea?’
‘My son was taken when he was 10 years old,’ he said. ‘Him and his mother. In broad daylight.’
I looked into his damp, baggy, horrified eyes.
‘Who took them?’ I asked.
He shook his head slowly. ‘Cup of tea would be nice,’ he said.
‘Who took your family away?’ I persisted, softly.
Suddenly agitated, he rummaged in the pockets of his dressing gown and took out some of the uncompleted crosswords he’d taken to tearing out of newspapers. He handed them to me, as if the truth were in there, somewhere.
I took them from him. ‘Dad,’ I said. ‘Who took your family away?’
He scowled quickly. ‘No one comes round any more,’ he said. ‘It must be me,’ he said. ‘I’m just a hindrance. Just an annoying old man.’
‘No!’ I cried. ‘Dad, you’re not! Don’t say that! You’re great!’
‘You said I was annoying.’ There were tears in his eyes.
Mine too, but I laughed because it was funny at the same time. ‘I know I said that, but that’s just when you’re, you know, not yourself. Sometimes it just gets a bit….’
‘I’m never not myself, Son,’ he said simply, utterly lucidly. ‘This is who I am now. Warts an’ all.’ He paused. ‘It’s not much fun, is it?’
I smothered a sigh and poured another cup of tea. ‘Nonsense,’ I said. ‘I’m having the time of my life.’
Dad smiled. ‘Me too,’ he said.
Later that day, and I’ve no idea how he managed it, but Dad managed to step in his own excrement and trail it all around the house.
That, I have to admit, wasn’t much fun.
But even then, even when he’d disappear back into the Eighties and I had to spend two hours on my hands and knees wiping up after him, I was never really alone, for I always had the internet to keep me sane.
One of the things that got me through the hardest parts of Dad’s decline was Twitter.
I’d used Twitter in London, but basically just for work, and I’d never really got into it. It did nothing for business, and at the time I could see no other benefit. Then when I settled back up here and started again, Twitter was an entirely new ball game.
This time around, I made friends. I got to know people, people who lived all over the place and did all kinds of different things. Also – importantly – the vast majority of these same people were – or certainly seemed to be – funny, friendly and genuinely lovely. So sometimes, when my dad wouldn’t stop singing in the middle of the night, or whenever I really felt the need to talk to someone who remembered exactly who I was… I turned to them. And from the very beginning, tweeting about my dad’s exponential dementia made it much easier to cope with. Consequently, Twitter became massively important to me.
I was able to vent when I needed to…
I was able to confess…
…and receive absolution…
But most of all, I was just able to share:
And this – this was a dark moment…
But Twitter came through, always.
Twitter provided distraction, distance and immeasurable, indispensable comfort. It was like therapy. It was therapy. It is therapy. It reminded me that kindness and empathy are instinctive human traits, and in my lowest moments, it made me realise that I wasn’t alone.
Also, Dad’s Alzheimer’s got me an awful lot of followers.
One night in August at 4.30am, I found myself getting impatient with Dad. He was running a bath again. It was becoming a habit. So I got him back into bed and settled him down but I’d been tetchy and short with him. I’d shouted a little, and every time I shouted, my self-loathing took another hit. There was no excuse for it.
I’d made it up to him though and I’d kissed him on the forehead and come back to my room. Then I tweeted the following in quick succession:
A couple of minutes later, I received a private message from a woman called Delia.
Finding reasons to love Twitter wasn’t difficult. One of the best things about it was the fact that the communities and social circles within Twitter were not restricted by geography. This meant that even at five in the morning, the chances were that someone in the States or Canada or wherever might drop in and say hi. A million times better than that, however, was the fact that Delia Garrison lived a little over an hour away on the edge of Nottingham. And thanks to Twitter – and my dad, bless his golden heart – Delia was suddenly feeding me imaginary soup.
Over the next seven days we tweeted one another constantly, and when we weren’t tweeting one another, we were emailing or chatting online. Then we moved to actual telephone conversation and that’s when I knew, when I heard her voice for the first time, that I could definitely love her. Or rather that I wanted to. I really really wanted to. I was excited. I told Marlene about her.
Marlene still came round every few days to sit with Dad. She liked to sit with him and listen to him witter away, even when he thought she was from the bus depot or the council, as he sometimes did.
I’d always suspected that Marlene and my dad had a bit of a thing at some stage. The attention she gave him when he first started to wander convinced me I was right. One night she said to me, as she was leaving, ‘I love your father very much, you know.’
‘I know,’ I said. ‘I can see it.’
She nodded and smiled. ‘Good,’ she said. ‘Because it’s true what they say, you know. That really is the only thing that matters. That thing we call love.’
So Marlene stayed with Dad when I went to Nottingham to visit Delia for the first time. I was nervous. But it didn’t last. Delia was fantastic. She had eyes that gathered up all the light in the room and flung it right back in your face, and a tiny dazzling smile like a bag of happy pills that snapped open and peppered the room with joy whenever she laughed.
Online Delia was the perfect fantasy. She was everything I wanted in female human. The odds against the reality living up to that fantasy were infinitesimal. I lucked out. Or in. Whichever is the good one. In the flesh, Delia was initially slightly more timid than she was on the internet, but only for a while. When I kissed her after an hour, she kissed me back. We kissed a lot that night and drank a lot of wine. We laughed a lot too. Oh, and I wept. I really tried to stop myself. I mean, I know it’s not exactly the done thing on a first date but I liked her a lot, so I told her all my stories and I started talking about my dad and before I knew it, I was a mess.
When I apologised, she shushed me and kissed away my tears.
‘I’m different now,’ I said.
‘You’re all new to me anyway,’ she said. ‘And I like you.’
At the end of the night, I got the last train home and we kissed goodbye at the station, both of us knowing for an immovable fact that that was the best first date that anyone had ever had.
A week later I met Duncan, her ten-year-old son. She’d already told me that he’d had problems at school and that every once in a while, some ‘expert’ or other would suggest that Duncan might have some or other form of autism. ‘I’m convinced it’s all so much crapola,’ she said. ‘In this case at least. He’s just an individual. So what if his fantasy-reality boundaries are a bit fuzzy. So sue me.’
When I met him, I quickly discovered that Duncan, like Delia, was bright, sharp and brilliant, like broken windows in a burning building at the absolute height of summer. He had a floppy blonde fringe and eyes that were perpetually narrowed but smiling. Half an hour into our first meeting, probably because he didn’t have one of his own, he asked me about my dad. I told him that my dad wasn’t very well.
‘He can’t remember things any more,’ I explained. ‘He gets confused. Things that happened a long time ago and things that are happening now get mixed up in his head. So sometimes he sits in the front room of our house and he thinks that he’s still driving a bus. He used to be a bus driver.’
Duncan’s eyelids popped apart to reveal two large dark green ponds, just like his mother’s, which immediately snaffled up all the light in the room. ‘No way!’ he cried.
‘Way,’ I replied.
‘Buses are sick,’ said Duncan.
When I spoke to Delia the next day, she said she’d like to come to Digby and meet my dad. She said she’d like to bring Duncan too.
I wasn’t sure. ‘He can be quite bad-tempered these days,’ I said. ‘What if he doesn’t let Duncan on the bus? He might get upset.’
Delia spilled her happy pills right into the phone. ‘Won’t happen,’ she said. ‘Come on, you’ve met Dunk. Your dad’ll fall in love with him, I guarantee it.’
She was right, of course. The moment Dad laid eyes on Duncan, it was like he’d been given a new lease of life. ‘Morning, Pybus!’ he declared. ‘Climb aboard.’
Duncan giggled into his hands and sat on the settee behind the wooden chair that doubled as Dad’s driving seat. Dad sat as he almost always did now, with his two fists held out in front of him, his forearms resting on his big beachball belly. He looked like he was preparing to play one-potato two-potato. Whatever that’s called. But he wasn’t. Rather, as his bus pulled away from the kerb in his mind, his fists slipped into a decent, believable driving rhythm and he shouted back to Pybus and asked him about his day. ‘How’s your better half?’ he asked.
‘Not very well,’ said Duncan, instantly adopting an upper-class English accent and sucking on an imaginary pipe. ‘A little under the weather actually.’ He laughed and Dad carried on the conversation as if it were real. Maybe it was real.
I realised afterwards that in all the time since Dad had brought his bus into the living room, no one had ever played along quite as wholeheartedly as Duncan did.
Dunk and Dad were made for each other.
‘He’s a natural-born improviser,’ said Delia. ‘If your dad wants to talk nonsense, he’ll match him every step of the way.’
After a few minutes, Delia and I went through to the kitchen to prepare some snacks. We talked for a while about Dad and about Duncan, and then Delia began to get a little frisky. Just as our kissing began to get a little breathless, there was a soft tap on the window behind the kitchen sink. I looked over and there was Dad, peering in through the dirty glass, grinning like a naughty boy.
He was in the back garden. Duncan had him out kicking a ball. I hadn’t been able to get him in the garden in at least six weeks and it had taken Duncan all of 20 minutes. And he was laughing! He was still calling Duncan Pybus for reasons unknown, but he was laughing like a man on Delia’s happy pills.
I was overjoyed. Even while part of me actually had the temerity to be jealous of Duncan, I was still definitely overjoyed. Duncan brought my Dad back to life. And just the fact that such a thing could happen at all had given me an idea.
I’d been back almost exactly a year by this stage and Dad’s birthday was coming up again. The year before, I moved in with him and he promptly lost his mind. This year Duncan had inspired me. I had to play along. Play was key. So I asked Twitter…
I got a couple of responses suggesting I try eBay or track down some big bus manufacturer, a few just using the tweet as a springboard for a general catch-up, and that was pretty much it. I made a vow to talk to one of Dad’s old mates in the morning and I tried to get some sleep.
Next morning I found this:
Followed 40 minutes later by this…
Chris Bland was an artist who just happened to have purchased a broken-down double decker bus on eBay in order to rip out the chairs for an installation. The rest of the bus was still intact.
‘You can have the driver’s seat as well if you like,’ he told me when we first spoke on the phone. I was very excited. ‘Maybe I could get a mate of mine who’s good with metal to fix up a working model of the cab. What do you reckon?’
I could barely speak. ‘That would be amazing,’ I said. ‘I’ll pay him for his time of course, and you too, obviously.’
‘Wouldn’t dream of it, mate,’ he said. ‘Any mate of Semolina Elvis is a mate of mine.’
Of course I was hardly a mate of Semolina Elvis at all. I’d swapped a dozen or so puns and pleasantries with her on Twitter, that was all. Sometimes, however, that was all it took.
People who use and enjoy Twitter are often heard to say, ‘Twitter is amazing’ or ‘This is why I love Twitter’, but it’s worth remembering that Twitter is only as special as the people that use it. It’s just a tool that puts people in touch – they do the rest all by themselves. Every now and then, you’ll read a tweet that says ‘It’s amazing how quickly you find yourself really caring for someone you’ve never even met.’ But I don’t think it’s amazing. I think it’s human nature. Sometimes I think that Twitter is speeding up our evolution. In the same way that YouTube comments are slowing it down.
I spoke to Marlene and told her what I was planning to do. She was as excited as I was and said she’d look after Dad if I had to go to London to pick up the seat.
Chris said he’d give me a ring when it was ready for collection.
A week later and Dad’s birthday was just five days away. I was getting antsy about things falling through with the steering wheel and seat. I was about to drop Chris a tweet, just to see how things were progressing, when I saw that there was something already waiting for me…
Plus there was a tweet from a guy called Gus.
Followed ten minutes later by another:
I held my breath for what felt like an age, then I proceeded to laugh, long, hard and slightly insane, like the drain of a very flamboyant theatre.
I was worried that Gus maybe had no idea how bad my dad’s condition was and that his plan would fall through once he realised. I needn’t have worried. It wasn’t to be.
I tweeted back immediately that it was the thought that counts, and it was true. It was a wonderful thought. My disappointment was short-lived also, because 20 minutes later, I received another message from Chris.
Turned out that Chris’s friend – the one who was good with metal – owned a workshop in London where he made sculptures and ornaments and tables and chairs and fountains, which he then transported all over the world. As luck would have it, a delivery was heading to Lincoln and he was more than happy to have the driver stop off at my place on the way.
I was so touched. I found his number on his website and rang him up immediately to thank him. He laughed. He said, ‘Don’t even mention it, mate. It’s completely my pleasure.’ His name was Ted Wise and he said he knew exactly what I was going through – he’d cared for his dad through Alzheimer’s too. There was one thing Ted said which stuck in my head like an earworm. He said, ‘Sometimes I used to think “What’s the point in taking him out for the day when half an hour later he won’t know anything about it?” but then you remember the look on his face when he’s feeding the ducks or whatever it is. It’s that smile. It’s the best thing. It’s like a gift from the universe.’
‘I know,’ I said.
‘I hope it brings you both pleasure,’ he said.
‘Thank you,’ I said.
The only downside to this new arrangement was that Dad’s present was now due to arrive three days before his actual birthday. I’d be too excited to try and keep it hidden, I knew that much. It would just have to be an early present. Unless…
The next morning after breakfast, I took a deep, deep breath and said, ‘Do you know what day it is today?’ This is always quite a fun question to ask someone with Alzheimer’s. As it happens, he got it right. ‘It’s Monday,’ he said, almost irritated that his time was being wasted on such fripperies.
‘What would you say if I told you it was your birthday today? I said.
The trepidation, incidentally, was not because I was lying to an old man about his birthday, but rather because I was afraid of what Dad’s birthday might still mean to him. Dad’s birthday was on December 18. A week before Christmas. It was the same day my mother walked out and not something that either of us had chosen to celebrate since that day, the day of his 43rd.
Instead, for the six years we were together after my mother’s departure, it was ignored. We’d just concentrate on muddling through Christmas instead, with me liberally spreading joylessness through every one.
The previous year was the first of Dad’s birthdays we’d spent together since I was 16. I’d only been back a week, but I was determined we’d celebrate it. I bought him a lot of stuff that his friends told me he liked and we all descended on him at the hospital. We got everyone else on the ward involved, handing out champagne to those who could take it. He seemed to have a good time. We didn’t mention the terrible events of 1978. Not until much later that night.
Another year on and I really wasn’t sure what his reaction might be to the news it was his birthday again. I didn’t want to bring back bad memories, and I knew, even in his condition, it was possible.
He looked up at me, calm, then his face brightened. ‘Oh, that’s brilliant, Son! Happy birthday!’
‘Happy birthday to you!’ I cried, hugging him happily and dancing him, as best I could, across the living room floor.
‘Will Owen come?’
My face fell just a little. I couldn’t help it.
‘I’m Owen, Dad,’ I said. ‘I think you mean Pybus, who I know as Duncan. And yes, Duncan and Delia are coming too, along with your present. And you are going to love your present. Are you excited? Are you?’
Of course he was, intermittently, whenever I reminded him, but he was nowhere near as excited as I was.
Duncan and Delia came round at midday and we all had lunch together. Delivery was due at 2. I was waiting for something to go wrong. Something was just bound to go wrong.
Nothing went wrong.
The gift arrived at ten past two. Two drivers opened up the delivery truck and brought Dad’s gift down on the forklift thing at the back.
Dad was behind Duncan, next to Delia on the pavement. I was there too, my mouth wide open.
We all watched as Dad’s gift was transported to the living room. None of us had ever seen anything like it.
In order to make the bus driver experience as realistic as possible, Ted had taken the seat, the steering wheel, the gearbox, the dashboard, the rear-view mirror and the clutch, brake and accelerator from Chris’s unwanted bus. Then he’d built a fully functional wheelchair around them, so that Dad could be pushed around while he was driving. Then – the pièce de résistance – he’d put in a motor, so that if he wanted, Dad could actually drive the thing. All I had to do was pull a lever to activate the steering wheel and he’d be away. The motor would manage no more than four miles an hour apparently, which was just about perfect.
I gave the delivery guys £20 each for their trouble and made them take a hundred to give to Ted. I told them to tell him that if he really didn’t want it, he should give it to the Alzheimer’s Society. ‘If he remembers,’ I added, with a tiny forced laugh.
Back in the living room, Dad was trying out the buschair. He was sat in the seat with one hand on the wheel and one resting on the gear stick to his left. Delia and Duncan were marvelling at it too. It was a work of art. Duncan found a button that rang the bell and Dad shouted ‘All aboard!’ And there was much hilarity.
‘Oh, I should have got you a hat,’ I suddenly realised.
Dad looked up at me. ‘Where’s my cap?’ he said.
‘I don’t know, Dad. Do you still have it?’
Slowly, carefully, Dad disengaged from the buschair and made his way upstairs to his bedroom. He returned maybe a minute later and climbed back into the buschair wearing his old bus driver’s cap.
Duncan was in hysterics.
I was amazed. ‘Where did you get that? How the hell did you remember where it was?’
‘I put it there,’ said Dad, before bursting into quite a vigorous rendition of Where Did You Get That Hat?
After all the horrible non-birthdays Dad had had over the years, this was by far the best birthday ever – bar the next one, which took place three days later.
‘Do you know what day it is today?’ I asked him.
‘It’s Monday,’ he said, that same slight disdain at the simplicity of the question. It was Thursday.
‘It’s your birthday!’ I cried.
He looked at me for a while, his face lopsided. ‘Again?’ he said.
I nodded athletically.
‘That’s brilliant,’ he said. ‘Is Owen coming?’
I decided that from now on, every day might as well be his birthday.
We wheeled Dad out to the car in his buschair and then drove him out of town in the car.
‘Are we going home now?’ he asked.
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Kind of.’
GusHoneyBus had put the word out on Twitter and within 24 hours, a friend of a friend of a friend who worked at RAF Digby was sitting in a meeting asking if they could grant use of the disused airfield outside of Lincoln for much-loved local ex-bus driver Tom Tandy to drive a double decker bus around for an hour or so on his birthday. He would of course be fully supervised and his insurance would be covered by the East Midlands Coach Company. RAF Digby said no. At first. But then. what with it being Christmas and all, they said yes.
I watched Dad’s expression change as we approached the airfield. He clocked the bus – a mustard-coloured double-decker exactly like the ones he used to drive himself.
Gus was standing by the front door, his arms folded, a grin round his face like a slipped halo.
I undid Dad’s seatbelt and he got out of the car. He was like Charlie, the first time he set foot in the Chocolate Factory. He moved toward the bus like the first man ever to approach a friendly horse, a sliver of fear mixed in with the respect and awe.
‘Is it mine?’ he said eventually.
‘Not for keeps,’ I said. ‘But would you like to drive it?’
Dad climbed into the driver’s seat and Duncan, Delia and I climbed aboard. ‘How much to the other side of the airport?’ asked Duncan.
Dad looked at him for a second before smiling and waving him onboard. ‘You cheeky bugger,’ he said. ‘Do I look like the conductor? On you get!’
We all climbed on and thanked him. Gus got on last and Dad closed the doors. Gus gave me a wink. ‘Go on,’ he said. ‘He’ll be alright. I’m watching him.’ With that he turned back to Dad and leant over the fare tray as Dad closed the doors and yelled, ‘Hold tight!’
I joined Dunk and Deal upstairs. I was anxious. Over the past year, at one stage or another, Dad had forgotten to do just about everything – shave, tie his shoelaces, clean his teeth, eat, drink, dress, walk – sometimes it comes back, sometimes it doesn’t. Quite suddenly, it hit me that the chances of him remembering how to drive a bus were slim, but by the time I’d got upstairs the engine was already turning.
Turns out it was like riding a bike.
With Gus keeping an eye and guiding him from one airstrip to the next, we spent a perfectly pleasant 20 minutes or so trundling back and forth in the middle of nowhere. Then we headed for a vast old hangar, one of only two buildings for what was quite possibly miles in every direction.
Slowly we turned off the airstrip and onto a driveway which led to the large opened door of the hangar. I assumed we were dropping the bus off there, but then I remembered that Gus had driven the bus here.
I caught sight of the guy with the camera at exactly the same time I heard the sound of 50 voices yelling ‘Surprise!’
Gus had been talking to a few of the old timers at the bus depot – he called them ‘lifers’. They all knew Tom Tandy, and they all missed him, and they were all more than happy to come and wish him happy birthday in a disused air hangar a week before Christmas. So they got organised and all came out in the bus together. A huge banqueting table full of glorious homemade food and booze lay waiting in the shadows. The lady who was supervising from RAF Digby found the lights. Somebody turned on a CD player they’d brought with them and Ken Dodd’s voice boomed into the hangar. ‘Happiness!’ he sang, ‘Happiness! The greatest gift that I posses.’
How much Dad understood of what was going on I’ll never know, but he never stopped smiling that day and whether he recognised them from his past or not, he was absolutely overjoyed to see everyone that turned up.
That night when I put him to bed again, he still looked happy.
‘Happy birthday, Dad,’ I said. I felt good. I finally felt a long way away from the past. ‘I’m sorry I left you,’ I told him.
‘You came back,’ he said. And his smile was a gift from the universe.
‘I love you, Dad,’ I said.
Still he smiled. ‘I love you too, Son,’ he said.
‘Sleep well,’ I said. ‘Sing your heart out.’
At that he looked slightly confused, as if the idea of him singing at night was quite the silliest he’d heard for some time. But maybe it wasn’t that. ‘I want to get better,’ he said, and he looked at me, seeming more acutely himself than I’d seen him since I was ten years old. I clenched my teeth to stop my eyes. ‘I know I’m not….’ He faltered. ‘Not right in the head,’ he said, ‘but I’ll never forget today.’
I smiled with all of my heart and tears washed over my face as I grabbed hold and held on.
‘Hello!’ he said.
I pulled myself together, kissed his forehead and said goodnight.
As I made my way to bed that night I imagined my dad dying, in his sleep, on his birthday, a week before Christmas, on the same day his wife walked out of his life. I admired the shape of it and the weight of the poignancy of what would be his final words to me, but in reality it was no more likely to happen that night than every other night I’d imagined him dying, which was every single night since I’d heard about his accident.
So I was honestly quite surprised – shocked even – when it did.
The year before, when I first came back, his hospital birthday, when everybody had gone home, I stayed late. The curtains were pulled around his bed and the duty nurse had given me a couple of extra hours with him, as it was his birthday. ‘Go on then, duck,’ she said. ‘Keep your voices down though.’ It seemed like the perfect opportunity. It was the 30th anniversary of my mother walking out.
‘You know we never talked about….’ I never knew how to refer to her out loud. ‘Mum’ seemed far too affectionate, but in the end I used it anyway, because it really wasn’t important. ‘I want to,’ I said. ‘If you can, or if you want to. I’d like to know why she left.’
The truth was, I felt like I needed to know. I felt like it had ruined my life, inasmuch as it had turned me into a cold, hard lizard-like creature – something I don’t think I ever would have been had she stayed. But what do I know? I might have been even worse if she’d stayed; I might have found something else for which to blame myself; it might have been hardwired into my bones or what-have-you. I still wanted to know.
Dad took a breath like he was about to blow out 12,000 candles. ‘What took you so long, Son?’ he said.
I looked down at the blanket on his bed and whispered that I was sorry. He put a warm hand over my clasped fingers. ‘No,’ he soothed. ‘Don’t be sorry, Son.’ Then he told me what he knew about why his wife, my mother, left home.
‘I haven’t got the foggiest idea,’ he said.
I laughed. ‘Seriously?’
He was shaking his head sadly. ‘We were going through a bad patch, certainly we were, but we’d have got over it in time. And she loved you. Son, listen to me. Look at me.’
I looked and he fixed me like he was about to fight me. He gave me every bit of the intensity that he had inside him and he said, ‘I know you must have doubted it, Son, you’re only human after all but I swear to you with all of my heart, your mother loved you deeply.’
I wanted to believe it, but…. ‘Then why did she leave, Dad?’
‘I don’t think she was well, Son. I really don’t think she was well. You know. Up here.’ He tapped a temple. ‘She used to say that I was weak. That was her main complaint about me. That I’d never amount to anything more than a bus driver – because I was weak. But in the end I think she was a bit weak herself. She was a good woman, Son. She really was. But she wasn’t right. Up here.’
And that was that.
Then my dad and I looked at one another and, keeping our voices down, we laughed.
Chapter Nine and a Half
Dad kept his promise. He didn’t forget his birthday. He didn’t give himself time. Instead he rode out the lucidity to the very end.
He’d alluded to suicide on a few occasions over the past year, and every time he did so, it tore up my heart like a pack of wolves with a bacon sandwich. The very thought of it caused me physical pain. But I always knew, if he did it, if he managed to put an end to the pain and humiliation that his condition brought him, then I would support him.
The fact that he did it a week before Christmas, after such a wonderful, breathtaking day, made me love him – well, it made me love him to death.
He took pills. An old box of co-proxamol, the withdrawn suicide painkiller. How long or how often it had been on his mind, I had no idea. All I knew was that when I found him in the morning, he still had that smile from the day before, that gift from the universe, spread like fresh snowfall all over his face.
Chapter Ten and a Half
The night Dad died I had a dream that he was sitting at the foot my bed, watching me and smiling. He was young again. Young like he was when Mum was around, when he was happy. Or rather, when I was happy. ‘Do me a favour, Son,’ he said. ‘Bury me on Christmas Day, will you?’ I wasn’t surprised – in the dream – that he was talking about being dead. I understood that part instinctively, but the Christmas Day bit didn’t make sense. ‘Are you sure?’ I asked. ‘People might be busy.’
He smiled and nodded. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Bury me on Christmas Day,’ he repeated. ‘Like Jesus.’
I was about to correct him when I noticed, all of a sudden, that he was perfectly naked and sporting a tremendous erection.
I woke up. It was December 19th. I went through to check on him. His eyes were open and that small smile still perched on his face, just sat there like a dozing partridge. I closed his eyes and kissed his forehead. He was already cold.
‘I have good news,’ I told my wonderful friends on Twitter, ‘and I have bad news.’ They wanted to hear the bad news first. Of course they did. Only a masochist would want the bad news to be the last thing they heard.
I didn’t have to dig the hole myself, thank God. I’m a big man, but I am horribly out of shape. Digging a deep old hole in the frozen earth might just have finished me off. Thankfully, the hole was dug by professionals, on the night before Christmas. And as it transpired, I received absolutely no opposition to the suggestion that Dad be buried on Christmas Day, from any quarter.
And so, almost as if it were ushered along by the hands of angels, it came to pass.
On Christmas morning around a hundred people turned up at my house to say goodbye to my father as he lay in state in his front room.
I had seriously considered having him propped up behind the steering wheel of his buschair for this part, less like a dead man and more like the focal point in a dusty diorama in a regional transport museum.
But the funeral directors were not keen, not least because of the problems caused by rigor mortis, so we went the traditional route.
Mourners filed through the living room from 10am till around 1, maybe a hundred, a hundred and fifty, and most of them spoke to Dad like he was still alive, which felt right to me, and all of them said, in some way or other, how much they had loved him and how poorer the world was going to be without him.
It was a surreal morning. Friends and neighbours I didn’t even know we had popped up like meerkats with food and condolences. There were people I recognised from before I went away, from over 20 years ago. Dad’s old mates, my own friends from school – people I hadn’t seen since I was 16 and surly. I could see it in their eyes as they approached me – I could see them wondering momentarily how I was going to be. Was I still that cold kid that wouldn’t let his daddy love him? Or had I grown up? I saw their eyes soften as my sad smile reached out to them with sorrow and love.
I’ve never cried more than I cried that Christmas morning, meeting all the people whose lives Dad had touched. It kept occurring to me that I was dreaming, that my subconscious was cooking up its own version of the final scene ofIt’s a Wonderful Life. This was exacerbated considerably by the fact that every time one of the mourners walked past Dad’s body, Duncan rang the bell of Dad’s buschair, in which he sat proudly, behind Dad’s coffin in his cute little suit, overlooking the proceedings a tad more cheerfully than some might consider appropriate.
‘Every time the bus bell rings,’ I whispered, unable to resist, ‘another angel gets its wings.’
It was a bit silly of me really, as Duncan immediately went into ‘Get me! I’m giving out wings!’ mode, and Delia had to give him a stern face to make him stop. It was funny though. Dad would have loved it.
I saw Neville Jessop as soon his head appeared over the queue at the living room door but I didn’t recognise him immediately. He looked much older than he had only eight or nine months ago. Because he was on crutches, the crowd parted and urged him to the front of the loose-shuffling queue.
His parents, not sure whether to follow him to the coffin or take their place in the queue with everybody else, dithered in the middle till I welcomed them over and thanked them for coming.
Neville gave me a clumsy hug and started to tell me how sorry he was for how he was the last time he’d seen Dad. ‘No!’ I cried. ‘Dad understood,’ I said. ‘Don’t feel bad. Really. You mustn’t. And congratulations! You’re up!’
Neville looked at me and held my gaze. Slowly his features tensed and curled as he tried to stop himself but eventually he gave way to tears. I put my arms around him and we wept together over dad’s dead body.
At 1pm, with Duncan leading the way and me head pallbearer, we carried Dad out into the street and I swear, it was like the death of Gandhi.
What it was – and I can think of no better way of putting it – it was a funeral flashmob.
As far as I could see in either direction, the streets were awash with people. At least a third of the people I could see were wearing uniforms. For a second I thought that none of this was anything to do with my dad. I thought the men in uniform were policemen or ambulancemen and that there must’ve been some horrible, sickening Christmas Day accident. But of course they were bus drivers. Not only from the East Midlands Coach Company but from rival bus companies too.
What’s more – and this really freaked me out – there were camera crews. Two of them that I could see, from regional TV, pointing their lenses at the spectacle of Dad’s final day on earth. Christmas Day! It was Christmas Day! Why on earth were they not at home? It didn’t make any sense to me. I was gobsmacked. I was flabbergasted. I was dumbfounded. I wanted to ask someone, ‘What’s going on? Are you here for my dad? Who are you?’ but I couldn’t ask anyone anything because I had a coffin on my left shoulder. So instead I kept walking, in step with the other pallbearers as the crowds parted before us like a sea of extras in a Biblical epic, and we began to walk the half-mile or so to the church and the cemetery where dad would be laid to rest.
My dad had a funny relationship with God, but I know that he definitely had one, and more importantly, he loved a good do in ornate surroundings, so there was never any doubt that we’d say goodbye to him in church. I took an executive decision and told the camera crews to stay outside. The priest approved my decision with a nod. I felt slightly uncomfortable, but I ignored it and nodded back. It was Christmas Day.
Thankfully, in church, there wasn’t much talk about God. I had taken another executive decision and kept the priest’s bit to an absolute minimum, thus giving as much as time as possible to hearing the people who knew my dad telling their stories and celebrating his life.
I had no idea he was such a ladies’ man. I had no idea who he was at all. I know I made it up a little at the end, but still, I’d wasted an awful lot of time.
Oh, and the reason so many people came – because not all of them knew my dad – was down to this tweet that Delia sent a couple of days before Christmas:
I’d not had much time for Twitter since Dad died. I’d popped in and out when I could but there was so much to do, it wasn’t easy to keep up. Consequently I’d missed the Christmas snowball effect.
Delia’s invitation to my dad’s funeral received around 150 retweets before it was picked up by a handful of celebrity tweeters. The morning after she posted it, people were discussing Tom Tandy’s funeral on Radio 2. Not only was it a heart-warming festive story about the emerging influence of the Twitter community, but it also sparked debate about ‘doing Christmas differently’.
From there the tweet must have been seen by hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of people. Amazingly, a fairly large number of these people decided that rather than do what they did every year at Christmas – sleep, open presents, look at presents, discard presents, drink, eat, drink, watch Queen, row, sleep, eat, drink, eat, row, drink – they’d mix things up and as well as doing pretty much all of those things, they’d also set aside a couple of hours to attend the funeral of a complete stranger.
#XmasDayFuneral was trending for three days solid.
Most of the those that came, I imagine, were relatively local, but I know that some had travelled long distances. Chris Bland and Ted Wise, for example, came up from London. And I loved them for it.
On Saturday, December 27th, Dad’s Christmas Day funeral was on the front page of the East Midlands Gazette. There were photographs. There was a quote from me saying, ‘He was a wonderful human being. I wish I’d known him better, I really do. And just look at all these people! He was loved. He was really loved.’ I think the reporter may have had Hollywood in his sights when he made that quote up, but as far as the sentiment was concerned, I had no complaints.
I sent the following tweet on Boxing Day afternoon…
Three months later, I gave up Dad’s house and moved in with Delia and Duncan in Nottingham. Going on two years after that and everything is still fantastic. We’re still together for one thing, and I’ve got a very good feeling about the future.
And that’s that.
Apart from one other thing, a little story about something that happened last Christmas which you probably won’t believe. I wouldn’t believe it myself to be honest, but I was there, and – more importantly – I wasn’t alone.
We’d been back to Digby to see Marlene and a few other of Dad’s old mates. Deal, Dunk and I took them out to dinner where we all caught up and told a few stories about Dad. The evening had been arranged when I moved away the previous spring. We said we’d all come back a week before Christmas and celebrate Dad’s birthday together. And it was a lovely night, all sweet and sad and poignant. The drive back to Nottingham after dinner was sweet too, but quiet and contemplative. It started to snow. Flurries. I like flurries.
The next morning, Duncan came down to the kitchen smiling all over his face and doing a terrible job of hiding it. Delia was in the shower.
‘What’s up, Dunk?’ I asked.
He grinned and hid his face, blushing and beaming, looking at me through his laughing letterbox eyes. ‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘I just heard you last night, that’s all.’
Instinctively, I was slightly embarrassed. I smiled. ‘What did you hear?’ I asked.
Dunk laughed again and slapped at the kitchen table. ‘You know what I heard,’ he cried. ‘You! Singing your heart out!’
I looked at him. My mouth fell open a little. ‘You heard that?’
‘Ye-ah!’ he cried. ‘Of course I heard it. It woke me up!’
‘Was it….’ Softly I began to sing the words of the song – the song that I’d heard Dad singing in the middle of the night, the song I’d presumed was entirely in my head.
‘Happiness… happiness… the greatest gift that I possess….’
‘Du-uuh,’ said Duncan.
At the time, I’d try to wake Delia but she was enjoying being asleep terrifically much.
I gave her a gentle shake. ‘Delia, it’s Dad!’ I whispered. ‘Can you hear him?’
‘Mmmm,’ she muttered. ‘Say hello from me. Tell him you love him.’ Then she snuggled further into the duvet and was gone.
I listened to the rest of the song as it drifted through the house and in and out of earshot.
I told him I loved him. I wished him a happy birthday.