My Dad died 20 years ago this week, on 14 October 1991, of a rare kidney cancer which can’t be diagnosed until it’s too late. He was 58. I was already considering writing something about him because of his anniversary, but it was the death last week of Steve Jobs, founder of Apple at the age of 56 that made me decide to do it. My Dad wasn’t rich or famous and nothing he did changed the world. He wouldn’t mind me saying he was a very ordinary man, although in many ways he wasn’t at all.
Dad was born in rural Wiltshire in 1933. Like anyone not good at ‘book learning’, he did poorly at school. In country areas the dunce’s cap was still in use back then. When it came to work, he didn’t have a lot of options. By the time my sister and I were born (our brother is much older), he was a self-employed HGV driver with a single truck that he kept on a strip of common land behind our garden. It was a very hard way to earn a living but he didn’t complain, that’s just how things were. He often went to bed early because of having to get up at 4am for a job. He was gone for days at a time and phoned home every evening to talk to us. We missed him terribly but it’s only as a parent that I’ve realised how lonely and tough it must have been for him being away from his family so much.
When we were little, my sister and I used to get very excited when we heard the clank of the heavy metal rings on the container of his truck when it turned the corner, telling us he was home. Occasionally, he let us clamber up into the cab and sit in the driver’s seat, legs dangling, hands on the huge steering wheel, enjoying the view from high up. (I wish I’d inherited his driving skills!) Dad mostly worked out of the ports at Southampton, some 30 miles from where we lived, and the more distant Sheerness at the mouth of the Thames east of London, transporting fruit that had arrived on ships from Central America all over the UK. Decades before the government started telling us all to eat our 5 a Day, there was never a shortage of lovely fruit in our house (maybe that’s why we all turned out so tall). We knew to be careful putting our hands in the crates as deadly tarantulas could be lurking inside.
What Dad lacked in qualifications he more than made up for in other ways: he was a genuine people person who could get on with anybody, and he was insanely practical and good at making and mending things. As my Mum was a French teacher, we used to go to France every summer of my childhood, which was very exotic in the 70s. Those trips were undoubtedly the best times we spent as a family. After years of getting rained on in our ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ style tent, Dad bought an old Ford Transit van and single-handedly transformed it into the most amazing campervan. He converted the engine from petrol to diesel because it was much cheaper. He fitted windows, a kitchen, a proper shower room, bunk beds for me and my sister. Not many dads can do that. To us it was like The Ritz on wheels. It was truly something to behold – to be honest, it was pretty odd-looking. When we turned up at a campsite in France or Italy, men of all nationalities would gather round wanting to have a look at it. And Dad, despite knowing only a few words of French, would crack open a few bottles of Kronenbourg, pass them around and somehow manage to spend ages demonstrating his pride and joy amid much laughter and animated gesticulating.
Dad wasn’t a religious man but he was a good Samaritan. He would pick up hitch-hikers in his truck and sometimes do a detour if he wasn’t going where they needed to be. If he came across someone really down on their luck, he’d feed them or even bring them home to us before sending them on their way. He was very public-spirited, and served on the Parish Council of the village where I grew up, a thankless task if ever there was one. As a teenager, I kept him company as he spent a whole day renovating and painting an old-fashioned kids’ roundabout on the recreation ground. We were both so delighted at how shiny and beautiful it looked. And when, just a few days later, it was vandalised and ruined, most likely by kids I knew, I was really mortified and upset for him. It still pains me now to think of it.
As a father, he was happy for us just to be ourselves. He was always saying (despite much evidence to the contrary) what good kids we were. He took pleasure in our achievements but we knew he loved us without condition. When my sister and I started going to discos in the local town, he stayed up late (even if he did have to get up in the middle of the night) to make sure we made it home safely, worrying about us being driven by boys who’d only just got their licence. ‘Call me if they’ve been drinking and I’ll come and get you,’ he said.
I had not long left college when he died. It makes me very sad when I think what a fantastic grandfather he would have been to my two boys and my two nieces and how much he would have enjoyed helping us renovate the delapidated house my husband and I bought when we got married three years later. He loved life and didn’t want it to end so soon. When some months after his diagnosis, he was told he had around two months to live, he insisted the doctors had said ‘two years’ because it was just so impossible to take in. (In the event, he held on for six months.)
Having to look mortality in the face when you are only just embarking on your adult life is strange. Sadly, my husband’s father also died in his 50s. It marked us both losing them so young, and yet good did come of it. It made us realise what matters, and how important it is not to keep putting off the things you want to do. It’s only because I’ve finally written the novel I’ve always wanted to write that I’m telling his story now, though nothing can convey how much I’ve missed him.
There was a very respectable attendance at Dad’s funeral but the church wasn’t packed as I was expecting. I realise now that many of the people whose lives he touched probably never even knew his name (his name was Bob), though I bet even after all this time a few of them still remember the bloke with the funny campervan, or the stranger who stopped to help them change a wheel by the side of the road in the pouring rain.