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It’s a Saturday morning in March 1976 and I’m in the school playground. I’m wearing shorts, grey socks, an Airtex shirt with short sleeves, and brown Clarks sandals. I am eight years old. My father is here too. He and I do this every Saturday morning, it’s a routine, but not like brushing your teeth or going to church. After breakfast on Saturday he gets a tennis ball, usually from the cupboard under the stairs, and we go and play catch. There is a garden at the back of our terraced house, but it isn’t big enough. Instead we cross the road to Robinsfield Infants school, and climb over the locked gates into the playground. My father is a civil servant, a thoroughly law-abiding man, but this trespassing doesn’t seem to bother him. In fact, he is positively gleeful as he hoists me anarchically over the railings before clambering over after me, his long legs swinging.
The terraced house was rented by my parents when they moved from Kenya in 1960. I never wondered why we rented it, we just did and that was that. I was certainly too young to appreciate the difference between paying rent and a mortgage, as far as I was concerned it was my house, and I lived there. When my grandmother came to stay she was always rude about it. She had never forgiven my father for bringing my mother to live in St John’s Wood, “it’s where people keep their mistresses.” To her it was either a “hot, little house”, or a “cold, little house”, depending on whether she was staying for the summer holidays or Christmas. She was wrong though. It was never a hot little house. Because it was rented, my father decreed there was no point installing central heating. Much better to buy electric bar fires, then we could take them with us when we left.
I was born in that house. Delivered in the very bedroom where I then slept until I was thirteen. There was one bathroom, a separate loo, my parents’ room, a sitting room, a kitchen and three small rooms at the very top of the house, one for each of my three sisters. It had been two rooms, but, around the time she went to the Isle of Wight to see Jimi Hendrix, my eldest sister decided that she needed her own space. She persuaded my parents to put a wall down the middle of the room she shared with my middle sister, thereby creating two smaller rooms, one for each of them. When I was thirteen and all three sisters had left home, my parents knocked the wall down again and I moved upstairs. It was much closer to the bathroom and there was a flat roof outside where I could go and secretly smoke. The roof leaked constantly, and every summer my father would have to put on gumboots and creosote it. It was where my mother died, in November, 1989. I was immobilised in bed, my leg in a plaster cast following a car crash in Chile. She was downstairs in my old bedroom, white and gaunt. She slipped away while my father and sisters took turns to sit next to her and hold her hand as she told them not to fuss, and worried about whether I was eating enough.
But that was much later. When we played catch I was eight, and drunk driving on the wrong side of the road was two thousand miles and twelve years away. I was no longer at Robinsfield Infants. I had left the previous year and gone to The Hall, a private school that was a bike ride distant. I was supposed to go there sooner, but I begged my parents to let me stay at Robinsfield as long as I could, and they indulgently agreed. With the hindsight that comes with having a child of my own, I rather suspect that a year’s fewer school fees may have been a factor in the decision. They were in debt all through my childhood, due no doubt to their insistence on sending all four of us to expensive London private schools, where we mixed with the idle rich. I tell my daughter there was a certain cachet to being the boy whose parents rented their house, who had an Osmiroid fountain pen as opposed to a Parker with its desirable arrow clip, and whose family car was a Renault 4 with the steering wheel on the wrong side because my mother had heard that it worked out cheaper to buy a car in France and drive it home. My daughter loves the story of my mother insisting that I go on a school skiing trip, then feeling so sick at the expense that she refused to spend money on proper ski clothes. Instead she simply waterproofed my jeans with some spray she got from Boots, dug out some old mittens she’d used thirty years previously, and put a new zip into a bright yellow jacket of my sister’s. Off I went to Austria, my sodden Converse sucking up the snow as I skidded along beside my moon-boot clad friends.
My father is warming up by giving me a few easy catches. The ball is marked with an O in felt tip so that we will know it is ours at the end of a game of tennis. I catch it easily, but this is just the beginning. He starts to get more vigorous, gradually throwing it higher, and my heart starts to beat just a bit faster. The catches are getting harder to judge, the arc of the throw is more random, and the ball jars a little more when I catch it. But most of the time it’s still quite easy, a simple matter of watching it climb, right to the very top of its arc, at which point it stops, and everything stops with it. My legs are poised, my hands are holstered, and I watch, totally focused. Everything is still, the whole universe is vested in that stationary ball, high above us.
I came across a poem a few years ago: between the desire and the spasm, between the potency and the existence, between the essence and the descent, falls the shadow; and reading it took me right back to that hinge-like moment, when a tennis ball hung, frozen in mid-air.
It starts to come down, and I’m off. I’m moving towards it, heart rate is up, hands are out in front and I’m watching as it drops, assessing, gauging, estimating where it’s going to land. Sometimes I have to go quite far, the parabola is wide, it feels like I won’t get under it, like there isn’t enough time. So I run, I stretch out my arms, and I hear him cheer as I clutch the ball, squeeze it tight with relief, and then turn, holding it up triumphantly. He’s right over on the other side of the playground. I’ve come a long way, and I jog back, so that my return throw will reach him without bouncing.
That’s when he changes it, the next throw is straight at me, hard and fast. There’s no time to think, it’s all reaction, a slip catch. “Capital!” he shouts as I catch it, and this time I’m closer, so the return throw is easy.
Some years ago, my father had to spend a couple of weeks in a rest home while we installed a stair lift in his new house, and my daughter went to see him. She told me she found him sitting in an armchair, turning his signet ring on his finger, his long legs stretched out in front of him while he watched a football match playing on television in the background. “Why are they allowed to shout at the referee? I’d have been sent off if I’d done that.” She said they discussed football at some length, apparently my father was typically animated, and quite knowledgeable. It was strange to hear him referred to at a remove, talking about something I didn’t know, in a context I couldn’t place. It threw me. Her description of long legs and fiddling with his ring chimed absolutely with the man I knew, but the football discussion was jarring. It was a conversation he and I never had. He and my daughter had covered new ground, he had parcelled out an unknown bit of himself to her, and now my own picture was somehow less complete. After he died, when my sisters and I were cleaning out his house, we found an old bag of golf clubs, not particularly well worn, but certainly used. None of us had any memory of him ever playing golf, although he would often quote me lines about Niblicks and Spoons from PG Wodehouse’s golfing stories.
“Botcher!” he shouts when I fumble a high one and have to scuttle off to retrieve it as it bounces away. Sheepishly I throw it back to him and he catches it one-handed, effortlessly. He is probably wearing his weekend uniform of brown corduroy ‘bags’, a striped John Lewis cotton shirt and brown leather hush puppies. Clothes were unimportant, he took less than no interest in what he wore, and accordingly he worked hard to ensure their selection took as little time and effort as possible. Watching him get dressed gave me the same feeling that I now get from watching a piece of machinery smoothly perform a very repetitive and formulaic task. A robot spray-painting a car on a production line, or bottles on a conveyor belt being labelled and boxed. Every weekday morning my father would get up, stand at the sink and ‘scrape’, using a badger hair shaving brush and a Bic razor. Then he would cross to the wardrobe, take off his pyjamas and put on a pair of capacious white pants. Next was the sock drawer, and two of the twenty or so identical, curmuddled, black, cotton socks. ‘curmuddling’ was an invention of my mother’s. You put your hand inside the sock, grasp the heel and pull it out through the mouth of the sock. This turns the sock inside out and creates a sort of slipper. To put the sock on you simply insert your foot inside the slipper until your toes touch the end, and then pull the outside of the slipper up and over your ankle. Occasionally I still curmuddle, but only the longest, most stubborn socks.
She may have devised curmuddling, but I suspect he named it. He had learned Swahili when he was doing national service in Kenya, spoke a few words of German, had picked up some Arabic from his elder brother, and taught himself Danish when he was asked to give a speech at our Au Pair’s wedding. Everyone there spoke English but he was adamant he was going to make the speech in Danish. He was gleeful when the audience laughed at his jokes, then rueful when it was pointed out to him that because no foreigner ever bothers to learn Danish, the guests were laughing because they’d never heard it spoken badly. This collection of languages meant his everyday vocabulary was eclectic and could be rather exclusive. My friends never quite got used to him ‘harroushing’ them, or saying ‘the herraus has sounded’, when he wanted them to go home. Things were ‘himmelsche’ when he liked them, and a ‘corveille’, when he didn’t. If I was being lazy he would urge me to use more ‘ngufu’, and at night he would retire to his ‘kitanda, or bed’. I don’t know why ‘Kitanda’ was always translated, but it always was. Mealtimes would be announced by a happy shout of ‘khana Lao!’ echoing through the house, followed by a mournful ’no bangers, darling?’ when my mother dared to cook anything other than sausages.
“And now, the Tiger!” he winds up his arm and dispatches the ball, high above the playground. The Tiger is the one I’ve been waiting for. There is only ever one per session, and it is the hardest one of all. I don’t know why it is called a tiger, perhaps because they’re the most glamorous of big cats, or maybe because this is a game of catch, and tigers need to be caught. It is bittersweet though, it’s the one you want, and also the one you dread. It’s literally the throw to end all throws, which means that nothing can follow it. It is always the last catch of the day. Once you’ve had the Tiger, the game is up.
After the curmuddled socks came the shirt. Striped polycotton. Pulled from a row of ten or so, all on hangers. Next, one of five identical black suits, one for every day of the week. It was another of my mother’s ideas, her logic being that five suits worn one day at a time would wear out less quickly than the same one worn every day. It was the perfect system for him, he didn’t have to waste any time thinking about which suit to wear, and the irksome job of getting dressed was simplified further, and completed sooner. He liked the system with the suits so much that he suggested doing the same thing with his ties, but she drew the line there, and insisted that he have a small range to choose from, and that he wear a different one each day. He went along with it, selecting a tie at random, but I suspect he simply took whichever one was closest, just as I suspect she shuffled them around and never said. I very much doubt if he could ever have told you, with any certainty, what tie he’d worn the day before. His outward appearance was simply of no interest to him. So it was puzzling that when he developed a brown melanoma on his cheek, the result of growing up in Egypt in the days before sun cream, he was adamant that he should have an operation to remove it. It was close to his eye, and quite apart from the risk he’d lose his sight, there was the physical stress of an operation which required a general anaesthetic, and was in no way necessary. “Kidney failure will kill you long before the cancer does,” said his renal surgeon cheerfully. But my father was adamant. The melanoma was unsightly, he didn’t like it, and he wanted it removed.
He finally gave up the house when my mother died and he moved to a smaller one in Cambridge. I was at university by that point, and although there was a room that was technically mine, I never lived there. It wasn’t home. He took much of the furniture with him, chests, chairs, pictures and tables. These were things I had lived with for twenty years, they were old friends, places I’d hidden adolescent contraband, keepers of secrets. But here they were in a new home, and they were somehow out of place, awkward, as if they didn’t quite fit. By that stage he was feeling the cold more, and the bar fires were abandoned, replaced by central heating that was always roaring.
The ball is still rising, it is impossibly high, and because it’s the Tiger I am even tense as it goes up. I strain to keep it in focus, jog backwards and sideways as I try to work out where it’s going to come down. It’s so high I can’t actually tell when it stops and starts to fall, so I am braced from the moment it leaves his hand. Then, out of the blue, it is clearly dropping, and dropping fast. Suddenly there is no time at all and I have to run to get underneath it, frantically scampering as I squint upwards.
When we were finished he would clap his hands and blow on them, rubbing them together vigorously, as if he were trying to start a fire. Then those strong, bony fingers would grasp me under the arms and swing me effortlessly over the gate. Towards the end of his life his hands seemed to shrink into themselves, the veins standing up like ropes under the baggy skin. He couldn’t really speak, his eyes were closed, but his grip was rictus tight, his hand locked around mine as it lay on his blanket, loath to let go, seeking support rather than giving it.
I knew not to give him the ball as we went home, but carry it, like a trophy, before returning it to the darkness of the cupboard under the stairs, safely back on top of his wooden tennis racquet. His lay on top of my mother’s, also a Dunlop Maxply Fort, similarly stored in a wooden frame with metal butterfly clips in the four corners. He explained to me that the frames were to stop the racquets warping, and it was important that I not fiddle with them.
He and my mother played tennis quite a lot. Most weekends in the summer they put on their whites, loaded the necessary paraphernalia into the car and then drove to ‘Paddington Rec’, the sports ground where there were a couple of football pitches, a running track and six tennis courts. They would meet up with friends, also in whites, and play a few sets of tennis before tucking into sandwiches and thermoses of tea. I either watched the game, was ball-boy, or more usually read whichever Asterix book I had brought with me. There was never any question that I might play, or indeed that the weekend activity might be tailored so that I would enjoy it more. I simply did what my parents were doing and that was that. A friend of mine talks ruefully about the endless playdates she organises for her children, comparing them with the hours she and her sister spent sitting in a car outside a pub while her parents were inside having a drink. They would come out occasionally and give her a coke and a packet of crisps.
Because my mother died when I quite young, certainly young enough that I was still far more interested in myself than her, my memories of her are vague at best. Before my sisters left home we would quite often have what were called ‘raree shows’. My father would set up a large projection screen and then produce see-through canisters containing wheels of film which he would slot onto a metal spigot at the back of the projector. Then he would find the end of the film, like Sellotape, and painstakingly thread the first few inches around a second, lower spigot. When he was ready he would shout “lights!” and I would scurry to turn off the switch, and then rush back so the film could start. All six of us would sit and watch jerky films of ourselves; playing in the back garden, hanging out with my cousins and my father’s adored older brother, or on holiday in Wales or Scotland. You never knew which film it was going to be, so there was a delicious moment of anticipation as it started. Sometimes I could think ‘yes, I’m in this one!’ but more often than not one of my sisters would crow that this one was from before I was born, and my attention would wander. Some were even from the days before my parents had any children at all. In one my mother is skiing, her ski gear is old fashioned, but she is elegant and chic as she schusses to a halt, her gloved hand raising a pole self-consciously as she salutes my filming father. How well I know those mittens. She is in all the films, and that is now how I picture her; two-dimensional and Jerky, laughing at the camera, her movements speeded up as she teaches a child to walk, or standing; waving and grinning in a blue swimsuit. The films show me what she looked like, but they are not memories. Or at least not mine.
My father isn’t really in the films, the perennial problem of being the camera man. But even if he were, I suspect it would be no different. I wouldn’t remember him either. Or not like that anyway. My memories of my father are not from cine-films, they are not flickering or grainy, they are real, substantial, solid. When I remember my father, and most things remind me of him in some way, he is languid, he is physical and he has presence. He got old before he died, and I watched him do it.
The Tiger is coming. My daughter is underneath it, watching it fall as she squints into the thin September sun, her toes flexing in the cool grass. We are at a house in the Oxfordshire countryside, I am using a tennis racquet to hit high balls for my nephews and daughter to catch. I call out a name as every ball goes up, so everyone gets a turn. But there is only one Tiger, and it is for my daughter. She knows the rules, she understands that this is the catch that matters. What she doesn’t know, as she sticks her tongue out between her teeth, her neck craning, the tendons taut in her skinny arms, is what it means to me. How much I want her to succeed. How I am willing that ball into her hands. That doesn’t occur to her. But it will. One day.