MAYBE - Steve Tomkins

MAYBE - Steve Tomkins

This year we buried my dad. The sun shone, friends gathered and the strains of Blue is the Colour, the 1978 hit by Chelsea Football Club, filled the church. As he had requested, I led a prayer, read from the Bible, joined those sharing thoughts and Spotified Blue is the Colour. It was, I think, everything he wanted. What a difference six years can make.

My dad died aged 78, after a short illness, neither a sudden loss nor a drawn-out ordeal. He was physically marked by his illness, but not in pain or mental decline. There was time for my family to visit together, and for me to come back alone for a last conversation. There was one last thing I had to tell him, which I rehearsed throughout the two-hour journey, even though it was only one sentence, then somehow I failed to get it out. Now I’ll just have to hope he knew.

Either way, he was cheerful and ready. And then he was gone. It’s my ambition to follow in those footsteps, in good time.

My earliest memory is of my parents shouting, my mum holding me in her arms as my dad went out the front door. I have no idea if that ever happened or if I concocted the scene as an emblem for my life.

Their marriage didn’t last, and as a child I didn’t see as much of my dad as I would have liked. Saturday was his day to take me out, which might involve a trip to the Happy Eater or the cinema, or waiting outside a pub, or hanging around in his office playing with a calculator, or it might involve nothing because he didn’t turn up.

God told my mum that her husband would return. They had both been devout Christians, meeting at Bible college, smuggling the Scriptures into eastern Europe together. But they clashed, he fell into a cliché with his secretary, quit church, and left his family. One day, my mum was praying when she had an overwhelming experience of God speaking to her, saying that my dad would regain his faith and come back to us. It was unmistakeable. If anything was true, this was.

My mum compounded God’s mistake by telling me. What a relief. What a comfort. You can put up with anything when it’s only temporary. I never admitted to my friends that my dad had left. Single-parent families were rare, and seemed shocking, in 1970s Surrey, and I was the only person I knew in this situation. (I guess we all kept quiet.) When my best friend Matthew said his mum had told him that my parents were separated, I denied it to his face. My dad was just away a lot with work, I said. How could they understand that he wasn’t really gone?

Once I stayed the night at my dad’s house and we feasted on sausage sandwiches. Then he showed me my room for the night. It was a little girls’ room. Two beds. I realised there was something happening here that I was never going to be a part of. He had a family and I wasn’t in it. I didn’t tell my mum because I didn’t want to shatter her illusion.

In my teens and 20s, my dad and I didn’t argue – we didn’t communicate well enough – but neither were we at peace. I was bitter and sullen, felt disrespected, felt he had messed up my life and had no right to his opinions on it. What he felt about me I had no idea and less interest. His passions were business and sport, mine were poetry and music, we had no point of contact at all.

My mum had a conscious policy to not turn me against my dad, but she didn’t have it in her. We both knew that we were a loving godly family, and he had turned his back on all that. He had money, we had principles. I was painfully quiet, which was clearly to do with my dad. I didn’t have a girlfriend and couldn’t imagine ever asking anyone out because I was terrified of being rejected. It was obvious where that came from. When I got arrested for shoplifting, my mum explained to the police about the upsetting situation with my dad.

One night I was hit by a car. I was paid some compensation. My dad said I could spend the money on something, or he could invest it for me and I could watch it grow. Investments were his business after all. I gave him the money. Whenever I asked him how the investment was doing he said nothing. I stopped asking. 

I worked in his office for a stretch. It was a dull job in an industry devoted, as I saw it, to making rich people richer. I found it deathly.  He treated his staff well, it seemed, but on the phone he could tear other people’s employees apart. He was furious with people begging on the street, outraged with people who got in his way. He must have been properly angry about something, but I have no idea what. When I became interested in researching my family tree, I asked him about his parents’ families. “We’re not great communicators in our family,” was his only answer. It sounded like a creed and the end of that conversation forever. 

He never once so much as raised his voice at me, though my mum and I argued all the time. He did once tell me he would kneecap me if I got a motorbike – which I had never wanted to do for a moment – but we both knew he was just talking like an idiot.

All it was, I suppose, was a lot of moments like this: on my first day in the office he told me to come to his room at five and he drove me home. The second day I came, and asked if he was going to drive me home. “I’ve got a business to run,” he cried. There was something here that I was never going to be a part of.

Once when I was being particularly uncommunicative, he complained about me having "nothing to say to your old man”. How dare he claim I had an obligation to him in return for his fathering? I had the perfect comeback. 

I said nothing.

After working for a year, I unexpectedly got a place in college. My dreams sparked back into life, but my dad was adamantly opposed. I would not shine, he told me. Why should he care, I thought. Did he nurture a secret hope that I would work my way up the ladder in this business I showed no interest in and take over the family firm? I was thrilled that for once in my life there was something he wanted from me, which I had the power to withhold.

In my later 20s, I was ready to walk away forever, but my partner wouldn’t stand for it. “He’s your dad,” she’d say. I said: "You have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.” She said: “No, but he’s still your dad.”

She said, “Your mum and dad are a terrible match, they could never have stayed together.” As blasphemies do, it made some terrible, secret sense. 

We got married, our four parents sitting either side of us at the reception. I made a speech, telling a story about my mum and me. I made no mention of my dad at all. That, after all, was the true story of my life.

We bought our first flat. We got together enough money to pay the deposit, and my dad doubled it. I didn’t know how to feel about that. I knew what to feel, but not how to feel it. 

We met for the occasional lunch. For both of us, purgatorial.

Late one night he phoned me. His eldest daughter was in hospital with a medical emergency. “You know what to do,” he pleaded. I hadn’t a clue. “Pray!” he cried. I said a prayer. She pulled through, for now.

Another night he phoned to say his wife had left him and their three teenage children. I expressed sympathy. His voice cracked as he said, “The children just really miss their mum.” What do you say to that?

Slowly, he mellowed. When my partner and I had children, it turned out that my dad was much more ready to be a grandparent than he had been to be a parent. As a three-generation family we spent whole days together that we wouldn’t have known how to spend as two. I heard fifth-hand that he was proud I completed a Ph.D. and wrote books, but I wasn’t sure whether to believe that. He seemed, perhaps, ready to start becoming friends. I wasn’t sure how to believe that.

A separate story unfolded in my life – one for another day. I was sad and angry. We pulled through, and time passed but the anger didn’t. I saw a counsellor. I told her about my life and she asked about my dad.

Eventually, with strenuous encouragement, I had drink with my dad, and managed to say, “Listen, I was angry with you for a long time, but I’m not any more.” I was only halfway through when he jumped in: “You had every right.” I had imagined this opening the floodgates, but it was all we said on the matter. Still, we had communicated. When he left, he held out his hand as usual, but instead, for the first time I could remember, I hugged him.

That was six years ago. Then I became the editor of a magazine, and he subscribed. We started to meet regularly for lunch, and I told him about the business. When I had gigs or took church services, he travelled to be there. We met for drinks in the evening and he told me about his family history. We told each other about ourselves. We chatted. We always hugged. I noticed that we had become friends.

He found it increasingly difficult to get around. He had some tests, said the results were fine, he had really dodged a bullet, and by the way, when the time finally did come would I please be in charge of the funeral. He wanted four hymns: Abide with Me, Jerusalem, Lord of the Dance, and To God be the Glory. I smiled. Abide with Me is played at the FA cup final, English soccer’s biggest annual fixture; Jerusalem is played at the cricket; and Lord of the Dance is sung with different words on the Chelsea terraces. But why To God be the Glory? Dad said, “It’s the one that says, ‘The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives’.”

Six years of friendship may not sound like a lot, but it was enough. And it was a gift. It made all the difference in the world, and though he has gone our friendship continues. At the funeral my younger brother and sisters and I comforted each other, and exchanged stories, and are still in contact. It seems more things can be mended than we know.  

What I meant to tell him, that last night before he died, was that it was one of the greatest joys of my life that we had become friends. Maybe he already knew.

Steve Tomkins is the editor of Reform, a magazine published by the United Reformed Church in London. He has written a number of books on Christian history.

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