Monday, 20 August 2012
Dad in 1947, aged 16.
I think the main reason I got so rhapsodic over my brother's impassioned reaction to the demise of his cat was that, at the time, I'd been busying myself reading my dad's old diaries.
I'd found a pile of them at the back of a cupboard when I was emptying his house last year. The ones from the fifties and sixties were pocketbooks, too small for any properly interesting disclosures, but the ones for 1970, 1971 and 1973 were A4, one page per day - plenty of room for fascinating revelations from a time when I still thought the words "happy" and "families" went together.
I'd put the diaries to one side until I felt strong enough to delve. The trouble with Dad is that even now, with him ten months dead, the thought of him still makes my flesh crawl. If I give him any headspace at all, he gets in there and I end up feeling all wonky.
He was, it has to be said, a keenly unpleasant man. Self-centred, dull and eternally furious, my father had few redeeming features. He had to be right, whatever the cost. Anything he didn't understand, he ignored, which meant it stopped existing. He went through life apparently unaware other people had thoughts or feelings. Beyond maudlin self-pity or anger, he would not or could not express feelings of his own. He had four modes of communication: sulking, shouting, sneering, or pontificating.
"Sorry" wasn't a word he used. It is a struggle to remember him saying anything pleasant about anyone. Appreciation for things people did on his behalf? Nope - it was entirely his due. Laughter? Rare, and frequently cruel. Smiles that lit up his whole face? Jog on, dreamer. Once or twice, maybe, for special occasions, but more often than not a "smile" deserved those inverted commas - it was a facial contortion more resembling a snarl. There was no hesitation to rip into anyone who failed to meet his exacting standards, and yet on those multitudinous occasions he got it wrong, we all just had to button up.
Truly, at some point, this man had had a personality bypass.
The diaires, I hoped, might show a side of him that he'd kept hidden from the family - the human side, the caring husband and father, full of the love and humour he'd repressed in real life.
I rolled up my sleeves and waded in, looking for clues.
Here were three years' worth of diaries charting that time when his youngest child, the apple of his eye, was growing fast and off to school for the first time; his eldest daughter was blossoming into womanhood; his teenage son was becoming a man. His wife, recently recovered from postpartum psychosis, was putting in hard graft day in day out to make the house they'd just moved into a home.
Um, yeah. Imagine a man who does nothing, sees nothing, feels nothing, keeping an extensive journal of the minutiae of his daily activities, oblivious to all that stuff. It is three years' worth of drear, recorded with obsessive attention to detail, about all the wrong things. From a man who genuinely believed he was literary.
There are no highlights. Most of the time (as he saw it) nothing happened. If anything did happen, it was recorded in the same flat, emotionless tone as everything else.
The diaries are as soulless as the man.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
A few samples.
Topical issues warranting a rare expression of personal opinion:
... After my meal, we watched TV, a rather depressing programme about women's position in society. I thought it would be good, but it was full of cranks and frustrated women howling about equality, by which they mean dragging everyone down to their level. Who wants to have no more identity and individuality than cows? Thank God 'He and She' followed, to put things in perspective. Bed at 11.15pm.
... Sooty, the black cat, came in after a 2 day absence. He is not well, and I think his jaw is broken. He can't eat. We will just have to wait till tomorrow to find a vet. Went to bed at 12.10am.
... My mother phoned in the early evening to bid us all farewell. She leaves from Heathrow Airport tomorrow to start a new life in Australia. Got to bed 11.50pm.
History in the making:
I struggled with queries the rest of the morning, and went home for lunch in time to see Princess Anne and her husband leaving Westminster Abbey and returning to Buckingham Palace. It was a colourful spectacle, and Anne looked pretty, for once.
Real life drama:
... We saw an interesting road accident. A couple, old enough to know better, tried to cross the main crossroads against the lights. An oncoming car picked them up on its bonnet and tossed them onto their behinds like a couple of rag dolls.
... After serving my dinner, Kath took herself off to [Weasel]'s school, to attend a meeting discussing first communions, or some such nonsense.
... For the rest of the evening we watched TV, except when I phoned Kath at 9.10pm. Her mother died this afternoon at 2.34pm, and Kath seemed very sad. I went to bed at midnight.
And another ordinary day, just like any other:
...Up again at 5.45am, and got away with the normal routine. I caught my train comfortably and got to work at 8.30am. The weather was bright and clear, but, for the first time, there was a real wintry snap in the air.
I had a really good day's work. The mail was good quality, and we had no interruptions. I cleared 118 parcels. I left the office at 4.15pm, and got home at 6.10pm. I had to move two cars to get out of the car park.
Kath went for a driving lesson today at 4.30pm. She had not arrived home when I got there, and [eldest daughter] was looking after the dinner. Kath came home at 6.20pm. We had a visit from Barbara across the road to apologise for her son Matthew's having given [Weasel] a nasty bite on the cheek.
After dinner, I read [Weasel] a story, then went up to finish the ceiling tiles in [eldest daughter]'s bedroom. It was a fiddly job, and I took a couple of breaks, for tea & TV, but finished it off by 10pm. Kath had a go at the Fablon, but couldn't get much done. [Son]'s friends turned up again, with a tape recorder, which kept them amused all evening. I drove them home at 10pm. We got to bed at 11.25pm.
That last one there being my Mum's 50th birthday, incidentally.
(While I'm sure she would've said "no fuss", she probably didn't mean for you to take it quite so literally, Dad.)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Hang on a minute. "Sooty, the black cat"?
We only had two cats. Did he actually need to remind himself which one Sooty was?
Yes, he clearly did. This is why, when I saw my brother expressing normal human sentiment in a normal human way about a sad cat thing, I was greatly moved.
Moved, and very relieved whatever Dad had is not catching.