It’s the way your life goes. You suddenly become aware of young work colleagues talking about weddings they’ve been at, and you realise that you’ve not been to a wedding for years. Then it strikes you that, to a certain extent, they’ve been replaced on your calendar by funerals. In the past couple of years I’ve lost pals of my own age and younger, as well as extended family members who’ve been thankfully a lot closer to their allotted three score years and ten.
You can’t help but reflect, though, and I find myself in that mode as I react to the news that Bill, father of Steve, my best mate, has died at the age of 85. Having had a debilitating stroke some time ago, he hadn’t been in the best of health, but, entirely in character, that hadn’t stopped him from living life fully – a birthday trip to Dublin, a Dubliners concert, and a trip last year to Skye, being just part of his continuing energetic lifestyle.
Though I haven’t seen him for years, he was an important part of my childhood, as your schoolfriends’ parents often tend to be, and he left a mark on my adolescence for which I’ve always been grateful. I’ve always held him and his wife in great and genuine affection.
So now, as I look back over forty years or more, I remember him with great pleasure and admiration, and I wonder, as I increasingly do, at the part our childhood plays in our future.
Bill owned a timber firm and specialized in bringing clients together – from Ireland and Scandinavia mostly. It was a role that involved travelling and entertaining almost equally, and perfectly suited his outgoing personality.
It’s hard to stifle a smile when people talk these days about the revolutionary sixties. Yes, we all went round to Steve’s house to listen to weird music in his front room with the lights turned off, but we were also careful to take off our shoes at the door and to say please and thank you to his mum when refreshments arrived. We were grammar school boys, with all that the privilege entailed, but grounded by the fact that, as a direct grant grammar, entrance was not by resources to pay, but by academic ability. So, whilst Bill was a company director, my other closest pal’s dad was a lift operator in the Liver Building on Liverpool’s Pier Head. I don’t think people’s status or position ever entered into our heads – and why would it when dockers’ kids sat next to those of civil servants or doctors. It was a strange benefit of an otherwise elitist system.
So, we enjoyed going to Steve’s because his house was comfortable, his folks seemed to be immune to the volume of our music, and because we felt welcome there.
Bill, of course, was often absent, but my major memories are of him arriving home late in the evening, stoically coping with the fact that he’d come home tired – off a ferry from Dublin or a flight from Stockholm, perhaps, to find his home full of (almost always exclusively) male teenagers, listening to loud music which must have been hard to fathom to this Sinatra and traditional Irish folk fan.
A widow’s only child, I know I must have relished the family feel of Steve’s home, and, in Bill, at least in part, found a kind of father substitute. If I’m honest, when I was younger I was a little intimidated by him. As you’d expect, having lost my dad at five, I’d identified a fair few male role models on my way through childhood: uncles, a couple of teachers, the groundsman at my local cricket club – but what they all had in common, in a kind of tribute to the memories I had of my dad’s nature, was that they were gentle, quiet characters, softly spoken and calm in approach. Bill was, by contrast, a ‘man’s man’, comfortable in company and quite outspoken. Though that was not how he came across to us, I must have sensed it in him, but I loved the way he was with us – there’s maybe few greater gifts a parent can give his child than the complete acceptance of his friends, and soon, when I heard the door open late in the evening, I would look forward to the banter and the wry put downs he would exchange with us.
Some of my happiest childhood memories are of the times we all spent at Steve’s, and often Bill was part of them. He seldom came home empty handed: one night flopping down at the kitchen table with a fish supper and a whisky, only to be surrounded by teenagers like gannets, filching chips and fish from the paper in front of him, and accepting it without so much as a raised eyebrow. Another time, suspecting a full house, I guess, he arrived with punnets of strawberries from God knows where, and told us all to get stuck in, fetching cream from the fridge to garnish the feast. In business, and socially, Bill achieved a lot in his life, but I’m sure he would have been amazed to know how long those acts of kindness have resonated, and what joy is brought by their recollection.
It was in his nature that things would happen to him, and perforce would become well developed anecdotes – it’s a quality inherited by his son, who, maybe, was encouraged towards his journalistic success by the stories he heard as he grew. My favourite involved Bill returning from a meeting in the west of Ireland, needing to get the last ferry out of Dublin, and driving at speed on roads far inferior to today’s Irish mortorways. Somewhere around Port Laoise, some fifty miles from Dublin, he became aware of the flashing blue lights of a Garda Squad car. In a typical Bill gambit, he reckoned he could outrun them, and put his foot down, knowing if he stopped he would have little chance of catching the boat. Somewhere round about Clondalkin, he became bogged down in outer city traffic, and they caught up with him. Fearing the worse, he got out of the car, only to discover that he had driven off from Limerick with his briefcase on the roof, it had fallen off, and the Guards had been trying to catch him to return it. Once they understood his situation, they switched the lights back on and gave him an escort to the North Wall where he was able to catch the ferry. Naturally, as teenagers, we lapped up these tales and they added to Bill’s appeal.
Bill was very much a man of his time and place, the product of his upbringing. He didn’t come from a privileged background, he worked hard for virtually all his life, and, in part, his enjoyment of the good things in life was a testament to his appreciation of how lucky he was to have them. Like all men who are ‘clubbable’, I suspect there were times when he wasn’t easy to live with, or when he exasperated those who loved him. I’m aware too that my experience of him was limited and that my view of him is very much from afar. Nevertheless, he, unwittingly perhaps, played an important part in my childhood, and I do mourn his passing, and, of course, I grieve for his family and in particular my mate.
Ironically, for a man who was so outgoing, his last few years were blighted by a difficulty in communication, the result of a stroke, and in some ways perhaps his passing could be seen as a kind of release. For all that, he remained, I’m informed, very much Bill to the end, with the plasma screen tuned resolutely to the sports channels, and medical advice on diet and alcohol consumption given scant regard.
As I get older, strangely, I miss my own father more and more; the pleasure of time spent with my own son illuminating increasingly what I missed out on through my dad’s early death. So, it’s always been a great joy over the past few years, to get surprise texts from Steve, along the lines of: “4am – in Dublin for Dad’s birthday, having to go to bed, he’s still going strong” or “At a Dubliners Concert with dad – he’s chuffed to bits” or “On Skye with dad for a break; he’s doing serious damage to a bottle of malt”. There was a wee bit of envy, of course, but mostly the happiness of knowing Bill was still Bill and father and son were going about the important business of storing up memories.
Kindness comes wrapped in many covers, and I received it in buckets from Bill and his wife Joyce. Often, when I think of ‘family’, I think of those nights in Steve’s kitchen, with the dog tired man surrendering his supper.
I hope he’s in Heaven, and, if he is, I’m sure he’s brought a whole load of stories, a bottle of malt – and a punnet of strawberries.