1. The Introduction
Well, this is a true story. It is a story of love and revelations. It is autobiographical but that does not mean all the details are exact, or indeed true. Look, it is my story, I want it very close to what happened, but I do not want to be constricted by the pressure of exactness. If you are not happy then write your own version.
It happened a long time ago, I was in my early twenties and susceptible to beer, wine and exaggeration. Some memories are vague. Luckily there are still people alive who I can talk to. They were there. Unfortunately, Tia Pepa (Aunt Pepa) is no longer alive. I feel she steals the show in my story. She is very much at the heart of everything. A mentor who focused light on the subject of my search.
This is a story of journey I made to find out about my family, trying to know my father. It involves some politics – it goes into the middle of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. It involves fairly young love, surely the most difficult, and the strain of trying to simply stay together.
Is it worth reading? Probably not. The love story is a bit convoluted and confused. The journey to find out about my family is better, but vaguely unbelievable. However, believe me it is true. Well as true as I can remember. It is written from the heart, so any inaccuracies are due to the heart being unreliable.
2. The Father
I guess the story starts when I am about seven years old. I know I have a dad, but I am not quite sure of his status. He is not around much.
One day I come home from school in my uniform, grey socks with a bit of yellow at the top. Everything seems quite normal until the moment my mother explained that she was leaving with Sue, my older sister. My older brother, Nigel, and I would not be leaving and would be fed by our father. This is unusual. More unusual is his silhouette appearing at the front door and my mother’s rapid departure out the back door. I am not sure, but there may have been a note on the refrigerator; “please look after the boys, I am leaving you”.
On reflection there is probably no note on the fridge; Mum is not much of a letter writer. It seems unfair, only to me, that my feckless, unreliable and often violent father did not know what was going on. My mum has run off and now he is the proud possessor of two boys aged 7 and 9. He still has the house, but I suspect he does not like this new arrangement.
The back door slams shut and within seconds my dad has closed the front door, wandered into the room and is standing and looking down at us. He senses something.
“Where is your mother?”
Knowing that at that moment she is running through the back garden, and also knowing that my father finding her would be violent, we stay silent.
I do have some memories of my dad. Not all of them are bad, but all of them are a bit fuzzy.
On the positives I remember going for dog walks with him and a large Alsatian. He lived above a betting shop, and the window of the betting shop had loads of dead flies squashed up against an enormous photo of racehorses jumping a fence. No idea whose dog it was. I know it was not my dad’s dog.
I remember going to a dirty public toilet and his careful placement of toilet paper all over the grimy seat so that my precious bottom did not have to touch the seat.
I remember him telling me that I should only wear a football boot on my left foot when training. I was naturally right footed. My other foot would on have a sock on it. This would help to develop my weaker foot. This seemed a bit unnecessary since I was probably only about 6 years old when he told me. The advice stayed with me through my life, although I am struggling to find ways to apply it.
There are sadder memories. I remember him collapsing at the market in Croydon, south London. I guess we were shopping. I think a paramedic appeared. I look at him as he lays on the pavement surrounded by shoppers. Anyway, it is a portent to my dad’s death fairly soon after. You have to change your lifestyle if you collapse in Croydon market; stop smoking and drinking spirits. I do not think he did stop.
I vaguely remember violent arguments between mum and dad. I know he was violent, and I know I grew up surrounded by a fear that mum and dad might have a physical fight. However, I cannot remember a fist, or a slap being thrown. I do remember shouting and some screaming. My mother was not a wall flower, she had spirit to fight dad’s spirits.
Life seemed a lot calmer when dad was away. When the front door was knocked my tension levels rose considerably. If his silhouette was showing through the front door glass I became agitated and my alert system reached it’s highest level.
Well life happened, and dad died. Life became a lot more relaxed. I was about 8 years old when he left. Mum announced dad’s death one day when I got back from school and I cried. I cried from sadness but also from relief. There would be no more fearful knocks on the front door.
I make a decision when mum tells me about dad’s death that I will no longer cry. I cannot explain this. No idea why, or for what reason. I go through my teenage years without crying. In fact, I do not think I cry until the day that my own son died when I am more than 50 years old.
My dad’s funeral comes quickly, and my brother and I are not invited. Apparently, he died from a fatal heart attack while in the bed with a younger woman on the south coast. My mum has a somewhat frosty attitude to his funeral, she is not going to sing the funerals songs with much sincerity.
No idea who goes. Mum never says anything. I like to imagine that it is full of important military/naval types. Previously I have seen an old photograph of my dad in naval uniform in a foreign looking place. My young mind thinks that he may have been an admiral. My mum goes to the funeral and her high heels got stuck in the church floor grating (or whatever the church calls it) as the mourners entered the chapel. She gets the giggles. And why not, it must be hilarious having to hobble with only one high heel along the aisle while all the naval commanders, commodores and admirals look on. In my eyes it is at the same level as the state funeral for Admiral Nelson, but with a bit more humour.
Of course, the departure of my dad does bring a gap into my life. Not that he has been with me very much; there is no sense that I miss the ‘hours’ that we spend together, clearly I have hardly been in his company. The ‘gap’ is the gap of not having a dad when all my classmates have a mum and a dad (it is the 1970s!). It is embarrassing to be the only boy with one parent. I never talk about this with my school friends, and I worried about inviting them to my house to play because I simply feel a bit ashamed of not having a dad.
This embarrassment continues when I reach secondary school. I have ‘passed’ the lovely 11+ exam and find myself in a boys only selective grammar school. We are the ‘cream’ of all the primary schools in our part of south London apparently. We are regularly reminded of how we are much more academic than a comprehensive school.
Sometime during the first week my form master, Mr Mitchell, takes me outside the classroom for a personal chat. He tells me that he knows I only have one parent and that I should come to him if I find school difficult. I say nothing, and my cheeks go redder than the reactor core of Chernobyl. I am embarrassed, he is embarrassed, conversation over.
A couple of years later the dad of Philip, my best friend at the school, dies suddenly from a heart attack. I am so relieved. I now have someone in my team.
This sense of missing someone, a gap in my life, makes me a somewhat restless spirit. When there is a hole you tend to flow into it – as Buddha might possibly have said. Instability, uncertainty and adventure do not particularly worry me.
All the unspoken family fear goes away with the death of my father. My mum, sister, brother and I are a team, a tight unit. They have seen much more shit than me, nevertheless I have seen enough to appreciate and breathe the air of relief. Things are on the way up now.
3. The Mother
Mum was the youngest of five children. She was very much a girl of Kent. Full of stories of all the beautiful villages and towns in the county. She grew up rapidly during World War 2. Living near to the Biggen Hill aerodrome meant she was never far away from the planes fighting the Battle of Britain in the skies above. More interestingly (for her) she was never far away from the dashingly handsome pilots from all around the world that found themselves living in her town. Aged 15 she was seen walking arm in arm along Westerham High Street with a gallant French pilot. Arm in arm until her older sister, Nicky, spotted her and ripped them apart.
The war had a dark side for her. She had to deal with news that her older brother, Francis, was blown up while trying to defuse a bomb in the southwest of England. My middle name is his.
At the end of the war mum traveled around central Europe in a large army truck. I saw photos and wondered how could this happen? She talked about the poverty in all of the eastern European countries now under Russian control. She was thrown out of a bar when she turned a portrait of Stalin so that it faced the wall. She also talked about knives, and how she had been taught to throw them properly in post-war Hungary. Something about a circus performer and something about holding the tip of the knife very gently.
As I grew up I remember several of mum’s house parties being seriously disrupted by her attempts to relive her Hungarian post war knife throwing past. As a teenager my mum was regarded with a mixture of fear and awe by my school friends. They had seen, or heard about, the knife throwing performances. Several of my friends had narrow escapes.
Emerging from the war as an 18-year-old, she had already seen a lot of life. Not quite sure why she eventually went into the world of modeling and deportment. She enrolled at the Lucy Clayton finishing school in central London. She always seemed a bit short to be a model in my eyes. The school still exists. Now it is a more of a business college and it plays down it’s modeling and charm school beginnings.
My mum was charismatic but certainly never charming. She must have spectacularly failed the charm modules at the school. Mum believed that to be charming was being weak and too scared to give your opinion.
She told me that she did learn at the school how to get into and out of a car without exposing her knickers to staring men. A skill worth all the tuition fees!
World War 2 in Kent surrounded by pilots from around the world and then post-war central Europe was my Mum’s finishing school. All that the Lucy Clayton college could do was add a little bit of polish to a tough diamond.
Well as you can see my mum was a force of nature. She liked to drink red wine, argue politically, play cards badly and have a party.
As a young girl the vicar would come round to play the piano and help her read and write (she was possibly dyslexic). Today he would not come through the door unless we had seen his DBS check and good references.
So, you have mum, a beautiful Kentish maiden who has met a lot of Europe due to the war. She struggles to read and write and tries modeling. She soon becomes married to my dad, the sailor returning from war somewhat damaged physical and mentally due to the effect of U-Boat torpedoes and being fished out of the North Sea in winter. Unfortunately, he is violent and, mercifully, short lived (not from my point of view). She finds herself a single mother in the 1960’s with 3 children.
I have managed to miss quite a big chunk of her life during the 1950’s. However, this is my story and I don’t get going until my birth in 1962.
The sixties and seventies were tough. Mum gave up modeling (advisable) and started a cleaning company. This always struck me as strange since she was not the tidiest person. I remember my friends often saying to me, on visiting my mum’s house, “does she really run a cleaning company?”
The house may have been messy, but it was always full of life. Sunday seemed to be the busiest day. This was not ideal for me as a grammar school boy. Sunday was full of homework and resultant stress. Yet Sunday was a big lunch followed by cards. Always with guests and always with copious amounts of wine – remember “Blue Nun?”
Generally, mum argued politics and was less bothered about the cards. Her business partner, Frank Stracey, was rough around the edges. He was south London working class and very Irish boozy. I was called “the professor” when I would excuse myself from the drunken card games so I could go to my bedroom to finish my Latin homework – not another fucking Caesar’s Gallic war. The bastard seemed to spend his whole life at war.
This was my life for a while. Mum running a successful small cleaning business, lots of people coming to the house, boozy Sundays and me stressing my way through grammar school.
One Sunday is different. After food we get into games of rummy and pontoon (blackjack). I do not remember there being many people around. I am 15 and happily having a glass of the usual German Liebfraumilch. Today life good; all my homeworks – Latin, Physics, English, French and Maths – are finished. Mum is happy, both my brother and sister seem happy. Both dogs and the cat seem happy.
Somehow the conversation mentions dad. This is unusual, he is persona non-talked about. Perhaps mum has drunk too much Blue Nun and decided that she needs to confess like the lady on the bottle. Anyway, she decides it was time for a revelation.
“His first wife couldn’t understand him, she wanted to be a nun,” she says.
Very confused, through my German white wine enthused mind, I blurt, “first wife, what do you mean?”
“O your father was married before me.”
Long silence while I digest this new information. My dad has been married before? There is a bit of time before I ask my next question. In that time I imagine and almost see his first wife – she lives in Croydon and has blonde hair. She is called Sharon and works at a department store; probably Debenhams. She likes cats.
“Who was dad married to?”
“He married in Chile to a woman called Gloria”.
I pause again. This is strange information. Eventually I begin to fire out questions. My head is spinning. I soon notice that mum has few answers.
“I’m sorry dear I really do not know much about his life in Chile.”
Frustrated, I find my atlas on the bookshelf and look for Chile. What a strange country. So thin and long. Eight times longer than England. And who the hell is Gloria? For a south London boy the news is exciting. This information is irritable glue. It sticks with me and makes me scratch myself.
And who the hell was my dad? What was he doing in Chile after World War 2? The day passes by and mum does not have any further information to reveal. She does not really know much about my father’s previous life. It was something that was not talked about in polite Kent society. I have no one to talk to about this and the information is now stuck in my 15-year-old mind. I start to get books about Chile from the library. When I say ‘books’ that is clearly an exaggeration. The shelves were not overflowing. I read an anthology of poetry by Chilean legend Pablo Neruda and a thick guide book, “South America on a Shoestring” . This book has a small section on Chile and talks about the recent political unrest. Something about a coup de etat and a military dictator. Aside from that I find many lovely photos of llamas climbing up the Chilean Andes.
I dream of Chile but I have to store any hopes of going to the country. It is only 5 years later when I am a student that I can return to this subject.
4. The Student
It is the 1980’s and students get a full grant! My rent is covered, my tuition fees covered, and I even have money to buy books for my studies. My main focus is towards using the grant to finance trips to the pub. In these days you can take your cheque book to the pub and write a cheque every time you buy a round. Paper money! Cheques are the currency of social life. If you still have cheques, you have a wonderful social life. As soon as all the cheques are gone you have a difficult discussion with the nice local bank manager. This is key, know your local bank manager by name, convince him that you are a talented student with an exciting future and then ask for a new cheque book.
The 1980s is all about Margaret Thatcher apparently. She is prime minister for the whole decade. I am aware of her existence. Amongst my student friends her name comes up. My dislike of her politics is not shown in marches or protests. I show my dislike by ignoring her. I blank her for 10 years.
I am studying at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brooke University). I know people who chase American nuclear weapons – the Greenham Common team. Yet politics and protest are not part of my life. I am just grateful to have made it to student life.
Not only do I miss the protests against Thatcher, I also miss the explosion of punk music. I remember at school being told by a classmate, Brian Charles, that he had just seen a new band “The Sex Pistols” at The Greyhound in Croydon. I look confused and ask if he has done the Latin homework – a translation of Ovid’s uninteresting poetry. Every week he asks me if I want to go along to see The Damned, The Stranglers, Souxsie and the Banshees, or even Billy Idol. I never go, my nose is so far up Caesar’s arse and his ‘Gallic Wars’ as he took over France. Latin overpowers punk music in my life. Not that I like Latin, it was simply that my fear of the Latin teacher, Mr Scotcher, is stronger than my desire to follow punk bands.
I find myself in Oxford. Admittedly at Oxford Lite (Oxford Brookes) but I am, nevertheless, immersed in the life of the city. A friend from school is at Christchurch College. I often join him for dinner at the halls. He lends me full sub-fusc on occasions. Rather than chasing U.S. nuclear missiles or going to punk gigs, I am happily wearing Oxford gowns at posh dinners.
I can see how ridiculous the dinners, the speeches and the buildings are. While I love the history and the theatre of everything; I hate the privilege. I despise the boys who are there because of their family.