Artillery Row

You Know, Thingamabob

A lockdown memoir: Surprising conversations with my father

Growing up, I played a lot of tennis, and on weeknights my father would come to collect me from the club in his company saloon. He’d arrive wearing a pinstripe suit and charcoal Mackintosh, then stand silent and alone in the shadows, watching me through the chain-link fencing. He didn’t smoke, or wear a fedora, but he should have, as it would have completed the romantic picture of him I wasted long hours cultivating in my head.

After my lessons, he liked to chat with Claudio, my handsome coach. This made me nervous, as dad was forever mixing up Claudio with Roberto, Claudio’s equally handsome brother, who also coached me tennis. “Do you know who this boy reminds me of?” he said one evening, making it sound like I belonged to someone else.

Claudio shook his head. We’d fought a close set and his olive skin was dotted with beads of sweat. “No, David,” he said, zipping up his brightly-patterned tracksuit. “Who’s that?”

My heart sank. I knew where this was going, and I’d been there too many times before. Dad’s grip slowly tightened on my already sore shoulder.

Ten seconds ticked by. Fifteen. Twenty. I could hardly watch as Claudio struggled to hold his smile, his perfect white teeth gleaming under the floodlights. When dad turned towards me, the look on his face was grimly familiar. “You know who I mean,” he said, prodding me in the ribs with an accusatory finger. “Come on, quit fooling around, will you?”

I’d learned in geography class that over five billion people lived on Planet Earth. But I was tired and hungry, so I selected the two most likely candidates. “Stefan Edberg?” I said. “John McEnroe?”

“No, no,” Dad said, stamping his foot on the asphalt as he pinched the skin between his eyebrows. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m talking about that girl. You know, whatshername. Thingamabob.”

Girl? I hid my disappointment and asked to be given a hint—height, weight, hair colour—but dad was now shaking me like a rag doll. “You know what she looks like!” he shouted. “She’s your sister!”

It was one of those mortifying moments you just know you’ll never forget even as they are happening. As quietly as I could, I reminded my father of his daughter’s name, and he snapped his fingers, crowing, “That’s her! That’s the one!”

‘Why was I blessed with a brain that forgets so quickly?’ My father asked me recently

Dad is ninety-one years old now, and forgetful as ever. For as long as I’ve known him, he’s claimed to be senile, which is no truer today than it ever was. His brain lets him down is all, the same way his unschooled charm forever rescues his foot from his mouth. He’s older, certainly, but not half as old as he should be. A marvel, others call him. Not me. When I first introduced him to my girlfriend, we sat around the dinner table in my childhood home, discussing The Sound of Music, one of Catherine’s favourite films. Mum had made a pork roast, and as she spooned a hill of boiled cabbage from the serving dish, Catherine offered a persuasive defence of Captain von Trapp’s approach to parenting. “It can’t be easy to raise seven children,” she said, her back straight as a rod against the dining chair. “In the circumstances, maybe the whistle was understandable.”

My father, whose own approach to parenting has always been laissez-faire at best, reached across the table to squeeze Catherine’s hand. “Quite right, Chloe,” he said. “Lucky for me, I have only the two children to contend with.” He winked at her, pronging another roast potato. Catherine’s hands fell into her lap and she stared wide-eyed at me over the centrepiece. I glanced sideways towards my mother, who rolled her eyes, sipping claret. There followed some unsubtle clearing of throats, after which we all sat in silence, waiting for the penny to drop. Some minutes later, dad’s face popped up from his gravy-soaked plate. “Oh, hang on,” he said, stabbing the air with his knife. “I have six children, don’t I?”

It’s not only his offspring that escape his memory. There was the time in a French restaurant when he reminisced about driving through Belgium with my mother. They were on a romantic getaway and had stopped for the night at a picturesque guesthouse with a smoking chimney and a four-poster bed. “Straight out of a Grimms’ fairy tale, it was,” dad said. “Run by a plump little hausfrau in traditional dress who spoke no English but brought us breakfast in bed and would thump the ceiling with her broomstick when we made too much noise.” As he painted the evocative scene, my mother sat seething. “Where was that, Gill?” dad asked her. “Do you recall the name of the village? It had a narrow stone bridge over a stream and we almost got the soft-top stuck, remember?” Mum laid her palm flat on the linen tablecloth, her fingers spread apart. “That wasn’t with me,” she said through gritted teeth.

I moved to Argentina a few years ago and one big drawback is that I am reduced to witnessing dad’s memory lapses on video calls. “Why was I blessed with a brain that forgets so quickly?” he asked me recently, slapping his forehead to emphasise the point. It struck me as an incongruous thing to say. We’d just been discussing Cuddy Redfern and Ralph Sharp, names that rolled off his tongue with an ease those of his own family never have.

During lockdown, for the first time in my life, I am talking to my father about his

“This was the summer of 1940,” he said. “I was collecting birds’ eggs at the time, which I’d pierce at each end, then blow out, assuming the egg was young enough. I hadn’t got a pheasant’s egg, you see, which were brown and mottled. Then one day Cuddy Redfern and Ralph Sharp caught me stealing one out of a nest. This wasn’t ideal, as Cuddy and Ralph were tough boys, plus much bigger than me. They meted out their punishment, pulling my pants down before tossing me into a bed of nettles. As I walked home, gingerly, I thought about what I was doing; about the rights and wrongs of it, and all that sort of thing. I read Arthur Ransome’s Coot Club, which became my philosophical bedrock, and in a dramatic volte-face, I formed the Bird Protection Society with my friend, David Storer. My mother sewed us a pennant, which we raised on the mast of our dinghy, sailing patrols up and down the River Trent. Anyone we caught stealing eggs would be subjected to a short trial, a luxury I was never afforded, then bunged bare-bottomed into stinging nettles.”

Thanks to Covid-19, this is what we do now. Lockdown has afforded us an opportunity, and for the first time in my life, I am talking to my father about his. Age has softened him, and he’s been retired so long that zero traces remain of the oppressive professional life that so cruelly sapped his soul. It’s a cliché, but a man who forgets his daughter’s name, how many children he’s fathered, and which woman he drove through Belgium, has crystal clear recollection of fleeting encounters and complex topographies from eighty-five years ago. All his stories are set in a primitive, sunlit world, in the long-drawn-out days before bullying was cyber and nature only experienced in Quantum Dot Ultra HD.

“We had a large dining room,” he tells me, “with a long dining table at which the whole family could sit and argue. The arguments were always about sport, and always ended violently. Plates flew back and forth like frisbees. On one occasion—it must have been 1934—your Uncle Ron was so angry he rushed the length of the table to throw a punch. On his way, he managed to knock over my high-chair, and I tipped backwards into a roaring fire. There was a great deal of consternation. My mother shied her peaches and cream at my father. Dad ducked, and they smashed into the wall behind him. I recall that the argument was about Speedway and whether the toe or the heel on a rider’s trailing leg should drag in the shale. As mum launched herself headfirst over the table, I watched the peaches and cream trickle in slow motion down the wallpaper.”

Over the years, I’ve grown accustomed to finishing my father’s sentences for him. But memories now spill so feverishly from his malfunctioning mind I’m developing bursitis just trying to keep up. Mrs McFarland’s pointy shoe piercing his backside when he sang “Shenandoah” off-key. Mr. Cotham’s plaster cast clouting his haemorrhaging earhole. Miss Wilson, “a delicious young creature,” shrieking as two classmates stood on their desks and exposed themselves. Those same classmates skipping bare-bottomed around the stage of the school hall as the headmaster hunted them down, whooshing his cane. Midsummer afternoons spent hurling bricks at rival schoolboy gangs. The first time he kissed a girl—at twilight on a bitterly cold evening, huddled together in the recreation grounds. Calling at her home to request a second date. Being informed by her grief-stricken parents that she’d died shortly after he kissed her.

“In 1948, I was in Aden, lurking in this bazaar,” he says, apropos of nothing, “when suddenly I felt a malodorous presence on my shoulder. Well, I wasn’t about to stand for having my pocket picked, so I turned towards the thieving blighter, ready to fight, only to find myself face-to-face with this bloody great camel, who bit me.”

Before I can respond, he’s moved on to the Port of Singapore, where he was “struck by a coup de foudre upon meeting the most beautiful girl I had ever seen.” I’m hugely intrigued, and encourage him to describe her, which he does, in exotic detail. Then his expression turns sour, and in a low voice he says, “It turned out to be a fella.”

At sixteen years-old, he took his first ever ride in a motor car. I’m amazed and wonder how that felt. “It was extremely exciting,” he recalls fondly. “I was sat in the passenger seat, and I badly needed to pee. But I didn’t dare say anything, so I wet myself.”

Without warning, the skylarks, willow-warblers and chiffchaffs that filled his childhood are brought to life in extravagant, unsolicited impressions. Likewise, the drunk face of his beer-loving mongrel, Mick the Miller, whenever Mick staggered home after a three-day bender at the pub—complete with idiotic grin, tongue sticking out, and crossed eyes.

As long as I’ve known my father, he’s claimed to be senile, which is no truer today than it ever was

There’s precious little order to our conversations, and as a result, my notes are scattered and chaotic. One minute, dad is flawlessly reciting scandalous lyrics from hit songs of the late 1920s. The next, he’s back in the paddy field near a walled village called Fan Ling where he witnessed a woman give birth, only to leave her new-born child in the grass, and immediately go back to work, wielding a hoe. This transports us to rural Sussex, circa 1936, and rumours of a woman in an uncle’s village who’d born a baby with a fox’s head. Which segues into his teenage passion for James Joyce, and how his literary predilection very nearly got him killed by a former Black and Tan soldier who despised the Irish. Seeing Don Bradman score a century is afforded no more weight than the time his father shot a farmer he thought was a rabbit.

Our sessions are mostly held on Wednesdays, when mum has her virtual choir practice in another room, but dad has taken to calling me whenever he thinks of things I might want to write down. It’s not always plain sailing, as his nose frequently starts bleeding, and too often he’s nursing nasty injuries. When we first started, his right eye was purple, swollen like a plum. Currently, it’s his left arm. He holds it up for me to see. There’s significant bruising, and he looks like one of those nonagenarian burglary victims whose battered portraits shock you in the tabloids. When I ask what happened, he says, “There was an ironing board that I didn’t know was there.”

He also struggles with the technical challenge of using his phone. Whenever he presses something he shouldn’t, accidentally pausing the video or muting me, my mother is hollered to the rescue. She blows into the room like a madwoman, frenziedly jabbing at the screen as she abandons Bach mid-phrase to shout, “You’re the ineptest old fool I’ve ever come across!”

Nature, too, takes its toll. Lately, our sessions have been interrupted by a spate of ant attacks. An anecdote about his mother smashing a brass fire fender over his father’s skull is cut short when he spanks the coffee table with a large, raspberry-coloured fly swat. Scoring a direct hit, he springs upwards like a frog, crying, “I got one! I got one!” It takes a minute or two to get him focused again.

He always calls me from his too-soft sofa, hunched over with his full head of boyish hair beneath an original watercolour of the Prospect of Whitby, as seen from the Thames. I sometimes stare at the painting, instead of him, just to take any pressure off. Once, as he drifted into meditation about sprinting to bomb shelters through shrapnel that fell like rain, I Google-searched “Prospect of Whitby”. “The pub has a pewter-top bar, and is decorated with many nautical objects,” I read. “In former times it was a meeting place for sailors, smugglers, cut-throats and footpads.”

I looked up “footpads” as dad started imitating the sound of a Heinkel He 111 engine. (They were thieves who couldn’t afford horses.) A Dornier Do 17, the sound of which dad insisted on contrasting with the Heinkel, involved doing something marsupial-like with his cheeks. Then the noises stopped, replaced by intricate descriptions of the schematics of World War II aircraft that led him to full-time employment at age fourteen. The names, hobbies, job titles, musical tastes, facial whiskers, political affiliations and assorted fashions of everyone in that early-1940s draughtsman’s office were regurgitated in forensic detail, as were countless tools of the trade. “Good, good,” I wanted to say, typing away into my laptop. “Now, how many grandchildren do you have? And in which decade was I born?” But he was on another roll, so I let him do the talking.

It’s hard to know which of his sepia-tinted stories are good, and which of them I just think are good because I’m blinkered by my unbearable love for him

We both know why we’re doing this, and why we’re doing it now, but we never mention the peculiar shadow hanging over our conversations. The virus. His age. The future. The possibility that we may never see each other again. It all stays unspoken, and instead he talks me through a dreamlike childhood spent wandering riverbanks lonely as a cloud, exploring the fragrant wreckages of fallen bombers, and falling miserably in love with an endless string of transient, pig-tailed girls. The same man who refers to my sister as “whatshername,” sounds like A.E. Housman when speaking of his own land of lost content. His eyes shimmer behind his wire-frame spectacles and he gazes out of a window I can’t see, remembering pastoral idylls, foxglove woodlands and shattered hearts. Then he’ll come to, shaking away the memories to tell me stories from the country of his heart that sound lifted from Richmal Crompton.

The youngest of his three spirited siblings was already ten years old when dad was born in a bedroom somewhere off the Walworth Road, London. “I was a mistake,” is how he puts it, matter-of-factly. “That was never hidden from me. I suppose Mum must have been in her forties when I came along.”

“You suppose?”

“Well, she must have been,” he says. “I never met my grandparents. I don’t know why. They must have been dead.”

“I never met grandparents, either,” I tell him. “But at least I knew it was because they were dead.”

“Being a mistake never bothered me,” he continues, not hearing me. “I was just glad to be alive. And I think it accounts for my great blessing—which is that my parents never took any interest in me. They left me wholly alone to do my own thing, which was heaven.”

On our calls, I never show any emotion other than amusement, just as in my whole life I’ve never once told him how I feel. We’re just not that kind of family, is the uninspired excuse I allow myself. I can’t be sure if dad knows, or if I’ll ever tell him. I’ve simply no clue how such a thing might work. Our sessions have likely reached their mid-point now, and reviewing my notes, I sense that the man standing silent and alone in the shadows of the tennis court, watching me through the chain-link fencing, is inching forward into the floodlights, where I can see him.

It’s hard to know which of his sepia-tinted stories are good, and which of them I just think are good because I’m blinkered by my unbearable love for him. I’m afraid to organise them into time periods or subject headings, as cold classification might erase the quixotic portrait I painted in my youthful head. Part of me likes not really knowing him; likes his forgetful faux pas as much as his vividly told stories. Knowledge, especially ordered knowledge, comes at a price. There’s a loss of innocence—or ignorance, maybe—and once that happens, our memories are reshaped forever.

“What are you planning to do with all this?” he asked me recently. I shrugged and said, “I’m not sure.” Which I’m really not. Usually, I’m looking for an angle, an excuse to write about whatever it is I’m doing. But this time, with the odd, inadequate exception, the value surely lies in the process. I’m spending time with him, albeit from seven thousand miles away, via WhatsApp. Plus, I’m lengthening the odds that someday soon I’ll become one of those self-deluding narcissists who says, “You know, I dearly wish I’d asked him about that when he was alive—but for some reason, I never got around to it. Always too busy, I guess.”

We are all interested in the dead. Of course we are—it requires nothing from us. It’s the living we’ve got no time for.

Dad speaks so animatedly about people and places that I forget virtually everyone he’s ever known is long gone; that he’s talking about ghosts

So, I lean back in my chair and listen carefully as he tells me a story from his army days in late-1940s Hong Kong. “I was a technical assistant,” he begins, “and it was my job to go way up ahead of the guns and set up the theodolite. The info you drew and sent back to the guns allowed them to drop the shells in the right places. This was before the Reds arrived, and we were on a scheme up country in the New Territories, where we laid the wheels of the big guns down on circular firing platforms under the carriages. Captain Webb said, ‘Hilton, do you see that hill? That’s your observation post. I want you up there and I want you to phone back your readings.’ So, I had the telephone on my back, the theodolite slung around my neck, alongside my Sten gun, and the heavy wooden tripod in my hands. I set off for the hill. Now, between me and the hill was a wood, and as I climbed up through the wood, I came across a small dwelling with several makeshift Chinese huts. There was no sign of life, but directly in my path was a large square, its edges lined with bricks, sort of like a pond. Only, for whatever reason, this pond had been concreted over with a large grey slab. Well, naturally, I assumed it was solid—why wouldn’t I?—and by this time, I was quite tired, so rather than go around it, I elected to go across it. Somewhat regrettably, it turned out this large grey slab was a shitpit, consisting not of concrete, but of rice-faeces floating on top of urine. I stretched out my right foot—and immediately realised I’d made a huge mistake. The weight of my body, burdened with the telephone, the theodolite, the submachine gun and the heavy wooden tripod, was toppling inexorably forward. And so, in I went, up to my neck, not letting go of the equipment. I stood there for a good while, unsure what to do, determined not to open my mouth. Eventually, I somehow managed to get my elbows behind me onto the ledge and heave myself back into a sitting position. The smell was… well, it was just appalling. Like nothing I’d ever known. I heard noises, but when I looked around, I saw no one. I have a suspicion that the Chinese were in their huts killing themselves with laughter. They must have been waiting for this exact scenario for years. I wasn’t sure of the protocol for such a contingency, so after a prolonged period of reflection, I turned around and went back. I emerged out of the wood into the clearing, but my battery couldn’t tell I was wearing jungle greens. I’d turned to grey. They all stared at me. Captain Webb stared at me. Finally, he realised who I was, saying, “Jesus Christ, Hilton! Where have you been?” I told him, and everybody started laughing. “Hilton, over there is a mountain stream,” Captain Webb said, holding his nose and pointing. “Go and lie in it.” Which I did, dutifully. But I couldn’t get rid of the smell, so they sent me back to the barracks, over twenty miles away. Some poor soldier had to drive me back, steering the Jeep one-handed. Years later, on the day that I was demobilised, I had a pair of socks in my kit bag that still smelled of that shitpit. Anyway, I didn’t get the Victoria Cross for that.”

I’ve always wondered if his inability to remember simpler things, like his daughter’s name, is pure idiocy, or if it’s something else, something deliberate. I suffer from the same affliction—which doesn’t help answer my question. I’ve never fallen in a shitpit, but I know that remembrance is overwhelming, and memories infused with a singular sadness. They are memories, after all. Nothing greater, and relivable only in our inadequate, time-travelling minds. Dad speaks so animatedly about people and places that I forget virtually everyone he’s ever known is long gone; that he’s talking about ghosts.

“Your mother will be in shortly,” he said to me on our last call, his eyes dancing worriedly over his shoulder. “I suggest we terminate discussing the period between the army and my meeting her. I daren’t risk her walking in on it.”

This made me laugh, but I knew he meant it. He’d begun the call by saying, “I’ve been agonising. I don’t want you to feel burdened with information that I won’t want your mother ever to hear. But I do want to tell you things as they really were. Do with the information as you will. But if your view of me…” His voice trailed off.

I told him not to worry, that my opinion of him couldn’t get any lower. A joke, of course, that required a follow up. “There’s nothing I need to know,” I reassured him. “That’s not the point in all this. Whatever you want to tell me, tell me. Whatever you don’t, don’t. I don’t care either way.”

He nodded and said that there were things he wanted to tell me; things he wanted me, and only me, to know. And he went ahead and got some of those things off his chest. Things that didn’t shock me. Things that only made him more sympathetic in my eyes. Innocent, even. “I’ve never told anyone this but you,” he said. “You’re the first to know it.” And I felt my heart seize.

One of the ways he and my mother have been coping with lockdown is to read bedtime stories via Zoom to my sister’s children. When I ask dad about this, he refers, as always, to his beautiful, doting granddaughter, “Ariadne”. He means Arianna, my niece, but when I correct him, as my family has been doing for the past six years, he waves a defiant hand and says, “Well, Ariadne is an opera by Richard Strauss, so I don’t know why I’m supposed to remember the other name.”

Not lost on my sister and her husband is the barefaced implication that a Strauss opera is more memorable, and ultimately more important, than his own granddaughter. As for my hilarious three-year-old nephew, Gabriel, I’m not sure dad has ever known his name. Instead, he says, “You know, Harpo Marx,” because we all agree Gabriel is the reincarnation of dad’s favourite Marx Brother, whose name he of course has no trouble remembering.

“I’m afraid that when your sister telephones your mother,” he says to me, “and they tittle-tattle about all these things, like the kids and everything, I just don’t want to know.” As I’m noting this down, hoping my sister—”Thingamabob”—will find it as charming as I do, he refers to my mother by his ex-wife’s name, something he’s been doing ever since I first learned that mum had a name of her own. Then, without hesitation, he reels off the registration plate of an Austin A35 he fleetingly owned seventy years ago. I call attention to these discrepancies and all he says is, “Well, you must understand, I loved that car.”

We end up talking about the news, even though neither of us wants to. “Who’s that boy?” he asks me. “You know, the one who’s going to be King of England?” When I tell him, he frowns, saying, “Who?” I spell William’s name out, abbreviating it to “W-i-l-l-s”, but he’s not listening. I smile contentedly as he shifts forward on the sofa. “Now,” he says, leaning towards the camera, “did I ever tell you about the time I witnessed a deranged bell-ringer try to murder a churchwarden with a crucifix?”

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