Tuesday, 14 April 2009

I Miss My Dad

It was a Sunday evening in April 2000, our three week old son was fitfully asleep in his mother's arms and Polly and I were watching the final episode of the first series of Monarch of the Glen, one of those interchangeable 'drama by numbers' that populate the Sunday night television schedule. Archie had declared his love for some pretty Scottish lass and Hector, played by the always good value for money Richard Briars, was causing comedic curmudgeonly confusion as the show built to the series finale cliffhanger. The phone rang, it was my mum, who in a sad, composed voice, told me my father had just died. On the television, in Glenbogle, Scotland, there was a fireworks party.

I haven't written an awful lot about my father in this blog, not for any nefarious reason, and not because it hurts to remember him. The pain and shock of those first few days and weeks have long since past to be replaced by a poignant background gentle sadness that ebbs and flows, waxes and wanes, but only reaches high tides on the occasion of significant anniversaries, such as Christmas and birthdays and as now, the ninth anniversary of his death. Most of the time he hovers happily in the background of my conciousness, a benign and gentle spirit. His death was sudden and relatively unexpected. Only a week or so previously he had come to visit us to see his new grandson, Matthew. But the Muscular Dystrophy he was afflicted with had deteriorated to the extent that each day had become a wearying trial and, when I spoke to him, as I often did, I could sense a depression circling, like a carrion bird, high above him. “Don't ever get old, son,” he said. “Don't ever get get old.” He was sixty-five. He died of heart failure. His name was Roger Harry Deal.

I didn't get to know Roger myself until 1961 where upon we immediately adopted the relationship we would maintain for the rest of his life. I was his son and he was my dad. He never became my best friend, my mate, or my buddy. He was always my dad. From the first day of my life to the last day of his I could not have wished for a better father. I am sure that my brothers and sister feel similarly. He always tried to be fair and ensure that each of us got similar chances and opportunities throughout our childhood. He never resorted to favouritism however much we tried to explain why the other three did not deserve equal treatment. He was remarkably patient with us. On more than one occasion he was summoned from an important meeting to answer the telephone from one of us requesting his permission to substitute the tin of baked beans Mum had left out for our lunch with a tin of the more exciting Alphabetti Spaghetti. Another favourite telephone call he loved to recount was the one that started "don't worry dad, the Fire Brigade has gone now…"

Anyone who only knew him in the last few years of his life might have been unaware of the many things he was justifiably proud of doing in times past. Born in 1934 he grew up in Wallington, south of London, with his sister Judith and his parents Lois and Gordon. Much of his childhood was spent living through the last world war. He particularly enjoyed collecting scrap metal for the war effort and often reminded us that he'd had to sleep in a shelter down the garden.

As a young man Dad cycled all over Europe. I once found a photo of him standing stark naked about to dive into an alpine lake. When I questioned him about it he came over all wistful and said, "Son, there's nothing like swimming nude in glacial cold waters." And this from a man who moaned if you left the front door open for a second longer than necessary.

In his teens Roger was a Queen's Scout and he maintained an affection for the Scouting movement into adulthood. For many years he ran the 21st Wansdyke cub pack in the local primary school hall. My brother Mark reminded me of Bum football, a game Dad invented. It was just like proper football except that you had to slide around on your bottom, which reduced the chances of injury and exhausted 30 to 40 energetic small boys into the bargain. It was a matter of no small amount of pride to me that I achieved whole armfuls of merit badges. The uncharitable amongst my wolf cub friends put this down to being Akela's son. Dad's innate fairness would never have let that influence him. The truth was simple. I was just a little boy who wanted to please his father.

Another of Dad's claim to local fame over the same period was at the Wansdyke Primary School Bonfire night celebrations. My father would stroll out across the playing field, his distinctive gait easily recognised, and the crowd would hush as he lit the rockets and then cheer as they whooshed into the sky, signifying the start of the display. He was the Rocket Man. Dad loved being centre of attention but was not so keen when irate gardeners held him responsible for aiming his gunpowder propelled missiles so that they'd land on local residents greenhouses, smashing countless panes of glass.

If you had only known Dad when he was confined to a wheelchair you may have been surprised to learn that he used to ride a motorbike. As children we would take it in turns to dash to the red letter box around the corner and wait to be given a ride back home on the little Honda 50. The bike eventually went after he was knocked off it one to many times. Indeed, one of my earliest memories of him is him lying on the settee with his leg in white plaster after he came off worst in a collision with a Danish bacon lorry.

All of Rogers working life was spent in the service of the law. He worked for a variety of solicitors such as Shepherd Norcott & Co, Mead King & Co and Wansboroughs before finding a long-term home in the legal department of Avon County Council. One part of his work involved doing conveyancing work for the police. This involved going out in to the countryside and looking at radio masts. I asked him whether he could tell anything by just looking at a 200 foot high metal tower. He confessed that he couldn't but that he always went on the trips because he enjoyed the ride in a police car.

Dad worked at Avon for twenty years and became a well known and easily identified figure regularly seen coasting along corridors of county power in his electric wheelchair. In 1994 his service was recognised when he was invited to Buckingham Palace for one of the Queen's Garden Parties. Although it has to be said that when it came to an option between sitting in the baking sun on the off chance of meeting Her Majesty and going and getting a cup of tea the choice was not a difficult one.

After retirement he took up voluntary work at Bridge Farm Infant and Junior School where he listened to children practice their reading. One can only imagine the impression he made on the Offsted School inspectors if they ever heard him threaten to flay some little child alive or have them keel hauled if they didn't sit quietly. The children found this hysterical because by this stage dad was so disabled they had to hold up their own books and turn the pages for him. They appear to have loved him. Dad was also a governor of the infant school.

Throughout our childhood family holidays seemed to involve driving vast distances to various windswept parts of the country. Not for the Deals were cushy beach holidays and warm sunshine. Armed only with a Thermosflask and a Tupperware container we'd set out visit various exposed lengths of Hadrian's wall. And let me reassure you, this was in an era long before softy visitor centres had been built. Even today I can't look at an expanse of moor land with out mentally inserting windscreen wipers and a tax disc in the corner.

All this, of course, changed the moment my brothers, sister and I left home. Suddenly Mum was able to persuade Dad to jet off around the world with her. Together they visited Australia, Thailand and much of America and Europe. In 1990 Simon, Helena and I went with them to California. It was a fabulous holiday but I missed the Tupperware.

On one occasion Dad was in Turkey with Mum and his sister Judith. My mother and Judith had gone in to a mosque that was inaccessible to Dad because of the steps. Dad told me that he'd settled down in his wheelchair along side the mosque and dozed off in the shade. He awoke with a start to find local people dropping money into his sun hat. "No, no," he cried. "I'm not begging. I don't need your money, I'm English! English!"

Dad was never more English than when he was abroad. Helena tells of a time she and Mum were in Madrid with him. One evening they dined early in a sea food restaurant which was virtually empty when they entered. A huge platter of shelled and betentacled creatures was placed before them which Dad enthusiastically crunched his way through. (Helena maintains that one of the delicacies was little turtle's feet.) Dad's bonhomie so won over the staff that they plied him with generous glasses of free liqueurs. When the time came to exit the by now crowded restaurant Dad was weaved through the tables in his wheelchair proclaiming that Gibraltar was British and that he was a Cointreau lout.

It was amazing that Dad would eat exotic fare whilst abroad. At home he was deeply suspicious of all food he considered 'ethnic'. This, it should emphasised, had nothing whatsoever to do with race or creed but whether a meal contained the hated lentils. We would frequently phone home to be told in a morose voice that "your mother's cooking me something 'ethnic' for tea." We had visions of Mum serving Dad cus-cus with peppers and a mung bean salad. Usually it turned out to be spaghetti bolognaise.

Dad was something of a Luddite when it came to technology. He never learned to set the video and there are dozens of tapes with a half hour programme two thirds of the way through because he and Mum were going out for the evening. Helena and Andrew offered to buy him the equipment needed to go on line digitally via the television. They asked him if he'd prefer e-mails and the information super highway or an Easter egg. An Easter egg Dad replied. His pleasures were simple. Single malt whiskies and Brookside on the telly.

But his greatest pleasure was his family. We're proud to say that he was proud of us. He loved the fact that we loved him. He took pride in our achievements and would tell anyone who would listen what we all were up to. We take some comfort in that the last few months of his life gave him many things to delight over. Simon and Jaspreet regularly visited him with his grandsons Oliver and Oscar. He was proud at the fact that Mark is researching a doctorate in Disability Issues (which he subsequently gained). Helena and Andrew had just returned from living abroad and so he once again got to meet the then baby Alexander. His last Christmas was made especially exciting by the controversy and success of a song I had helped write going to number one in the charts. It was the first time he'd watched Top Of The Pops in decades. He was even happier when Polly and I had our baby Matthew Tudor and shared more than anyone our relief that Matthew had not inherited the Muscular Dystrophy that has affected our family in so many ways over the years. It will be one of the great sadnesses of our futures that our children will grow up not knowing their Grandfather. But they will of course hear all the stories. I also find it sad that he died before two of his grandchildren, Theo and Sam, were born.

I once asked what was the best thing he'd ever done. He replied "I married your Mother." Roger was married to our mother, Dilys, for nearly 40 years. I cannot adequately tell you how much he loved her. Oh, he would moan and grumble that she was studying for her degree or at the Disabled Living Centre or in London on the Arthritis Care Help Line or off saving the world. But hardly a phone call went by with out him extolling her virtues in some way or telling us how wonderful she was. I don't wish to give the impression that theirs was some kind of Mills and Boon romance. Hardly. Theirs was a marriage forged in the cut and thrust of family life. They both worked, had four children at the local comprehensive school, and half the family was increasingly disabled, but, thanks to our mother and father, we never once experienced instability or insecurity. I know that I speak for my brothers and sister when I say that if our children grow up loving us half as much as we loved Mum and Dad then we will have been good parents.

Nine years on I still hardly go a day without some passing thought of him. Things happen that I would have enjoyed sharing with him, or would have sought his advice over. He, more than anyone, could have related to recent changes in my condition.

Many different people will remember my father in many ways. He was a quiet man with a huge personality and a sandpaper dry wit. I don't suppose there's ever a really good time to die. But we, his family, take a little comfort in that there were no family schisms left unhealed. Dad knew we were proud of him and I know he was proud of us. I suppose that is at least one definition of a successful and happy relationship.

Roger Harry Deal, 1934 -2000.