My father was born on December 3rd, 1910, that will be 100 years ago tomorrow. He died in 1996.
On this occasion it would be easy for me to write paragraph after paragraph of negativity about father, but the truth is that this man influenced and shaped my life more than any other.
So instead here is a true incident that happened when I was sixteen years old. This could be the opening chapter of my biography if I ever choose to write it.
I was confused. How was a somewhat immature sixteen year old boy supposed to react? My mother had just told me that my father had been severely burned in a work related accident? And my first thought was, I hope the bastard dies.
I had just ridden my bicycle the five miles home from work the way I always did, as fast as possible; a heart pounding, lung bursting flat out sprint. I put my bike away in the in the garden shed, and walked indoors. I was sweating, pumped up with adrenaline, breathing heavily though not out of breath.
Once inside it was immediately clear something was wrong; my mother was still wearing her hat and coat, for one thing.
“David, your father’s been burned at the iron foundry.”
“How?” I asked.
“First thing this morning, he and another man opened the door to the blast furnace, there was an explosion, and all the hot coals came out and completely buried both of them. Other workers pulled them out right away, but they were both burned from head to toe.”
I stood there trying to evaluate the situation; could my father possibly die? The thought had never occurred to me before that moment; my father was this awful entity that was always there. I avoided him as much as I could, but I had to contact him at some point, and it was never good. Now I’m hearing that he has been severely burned. People die from that, don’t they? I was contemplating life without my father being there; I could hardly keep from cracking a smile, what confused me was my mother’s demeanor as she explained what had happened. She was frantic, beside herself with worry.
For the last seven years, since my father came home from the war, whenever I was alone with my mother she would unload on me all her frustrations concerning my father. She would go into detail about the physical abuse, along with the verbal and emotional abuse she endured. This had always fueled my hatred towards my father even more, and I always assumed she hated the man as much as I did, after all I suffered the same abuse, and I could relate what it was like. Now I saw a different side; the obvious concern, and for the first time the realization, My God, she really loves him.
“He’s at the Luton and Dunstable Hospital,” She told me. “I’ve been there all day. Someone from the foundry came and told me this morning, and gave me a ride there. I just got off the bus not five minutes ago; if you hurry you can catch the same bus when it goes back into Luton.”
“But I don’t want to see him, what can I do?”
“David, you must go and see him, he’s your father, he’ll think you don’t care.”
I wanted to say, That’s right I don’t care, but didn’t. “But I was going to get at least forty miles in on my bike tonight.” I said in a somewhat whining tone.
“How can you think about riding your bike when your father is lying there in so much pain? Anyway, you have to go, he asked me to buy cigarettes, you have to take them to him.”
On the table was a paper bag with several packets of cigarettes inside.
“Alright, but I won’t catch the bus, I’ll ride my bike. I’ll actually get there quicker than riding two different buses. But I need to eat first.”
“I’ll make you a sandwich.” My mother said as I went to get out of my work clothes, wash, and change.
Whenever I rode my bike I carried a small canvas bag, called a “Musette.” In it I carried tools, spare batteries for my lights, and my wallet, sometimes food if I was going on a long ride; tonight it would also carry cigarettes.
Riding towards the hospital, not at my usual fast past, but rather slow; I was deep in thought. Not really wanting to do this, and not knowing what to expect when I got there. I left my bike by some railings near the front entrance to the hospital, and made my way up the steps and though the double glass doors. Inside at the reception desk I told them who I was, and asked where I would find my father. I was directed to a ward on the second floor.
I was wearing a regular pair of trousers, and several layers of assorted old shirts and sweaters, topped off with a heavy sweater that my mother had knitted in my cycling club colors. I was rather proud of this “Badge” of a cyclist, along with my white socks and cycling shoes. I wore spring steel trouser clips to keep the bottoms from fouling the bike chain. I left these in place, a further symbol, along with the rest of my “kit,” that I was a real cyclist and had a real racing bike outside; not just some bloke who had arrived on some old sit-up-and-beg roadster bike. The metal cleats on the bottom of my cycling shoes made a clip-clop sound on the stone floors as I walked along the corridor towards the ward.
Inside the long narrow hospital ward with beds on either side, I looked for my father. Suddenly, I heard his voice call my name. From that moment it became a surreal experience as I walked towards this unrecognizable figure, with my father’s recognizable voice coming from it. Dressed in a loose fitting hospital gown, a blackened and red raw lump of meat sat where a head should be. As I came closer I next recognized my father’s eyes. Every trace of hair was gone; from the head, eyebrows, even the eyelashes were missing.
“Did you bring cigarettes?” I opened my musette bag and handed him the paper bag. He immediately opened a packet and lit one up. Now the vision before me was even more bizarre, as a white cigarette by stark contrast, stuck out from this blackened piece of meat that was now my father's face. His right forearm and hand had miraculously been spared from the fire, but the rest of his body was terribly burned.
One thing was certain, he was not going to die, and for whatever reason I was now okay with that. As much as I hated him, I had never wished him dead. It was only when the probability had presented itself; I had contemplated what it would be like if he were no longer there.
This was now an awkward situation however; he and I never sat and held a conversation; now I didn’t know how to react. He just chit-chatted about this and that, and one thing became clear to me. He must have been in terrible pain, but he would never show it. To do so, in his eyes, would be to show weakness and he would never do that; least of all to me.
A nurse came to the bed side to check on my father. “This is my imbecile son.” He said, waving his good arm towards me. It was the way he always introduced me to strangers. The young nurse smiled awkwardly in my direction