Dad as a teen

Dad, around 16, shortly before his voyage to Australia

Our cat turned 11 this year.  When me and my husband bought our first house, my clichéd idea that a cat would make the house a home would not shift.  I grew up in a cat household.  In the 13 years we spent in my family terrace, we went through roughly 900 cats, give or take. Most of them enjoyed bog-standard feline names: Jess, Jess II, Jess (the first Jess had lasted such a short spell, we felt we could safely recycle her name several times over- or was it a he?).  Anyway, shortly after another Jess went under a double-decker on the busy main road, we adopted Mottle and her son Timmy. Maybe my mum felt a radical change in name choice would bring better luck. We also took in a few strays, and had a brief spell with a kitten my sister bought with one of her YTS cheques, Bubbles.  Mottle was the stalwart, however, and despite sending my mother mad by sleeping on piles of important papers and pawing at the bedroom door, we loved her dearly.  She was without doubt, the most miserable cat I have ever met.  If the dog-lovers’ constant refrain is that cats give you nothing in return, then Mottle was the epitome of that. She didn’t cuddle up to you, she never sat on your knee; in fact, you were a guest in her home. Still, during my first visit home from uni I was devastated to learn that she had disappeared. ‘I did knock on the neighbours.  I suppose she has gone off to die somewhere, like cats do’. So bloody inconsiderate, just to piss off and die without leaving so much as a note; so Mottle.

I digress.  In 2006 we were in the throws of ripping out any remnants of the previous occupants’ love affair with MDF and dispelling reminders of their time in the house (I could not possibly reveal what we found at the back of that bedroom cupboard…). While I merrily spent hours dismantling the silver fitted bedroom cabinets, The Automatic’s Monster blaring from the radio, my then-boyfriend dutifully sawed his way through acres of materials destined for the tip in the garden below.  In the first few weeks of our occupancy, we made great plans for this modest pile, including in my head, a cat . He wasn’t so keen and took a bit of convincing.  Then a friend at work said she had heard of someone in Sheffield who was looking for a home for some kittens. She emailed photos of the litter. Well.  Whose heart doesn’t melt at the sight of fluffy kittens? Ok, he said, we could get a cat. On the condition that he could choose the name.

And so it was that Roy came to live with us. Some people name their children after their footballing heroes (I have taught both a Marcel and a Thierry), others name their pets. Yes, in August 2006 Roy Keane had been appointed the manager of my husband’s beloved Sunderland AFC, and though his tenure didn’t end so well for the club, his legacy still lives on in the shape of a lazy black cat. Pick the metaphor out of that one.

At this time I was in my mid-twenties and found myself wasting my arts degree working in an extremely comfortable, but underwhelming admin job at a local university. Though it didn’t pay the earth, it was a time of 110% mortgages and reasonably-priced petrol; in short we could pay the mortgage, drive the car to work every day and still have money to go for drinks in the evening. Such freedom! The role I had meant working in a very small team in a very small off-shoot of a breeze-block office that had once been a science lab. My colleagues were lovely, my job was brainless, and more often than not, we would spend more time talking about slebs than we did doing our job organising degree ceremonies.  My boss was a dyed-in-the-wool Leeds United fan and, well, I don’t know that much about footballing history, so I won’t embarrass myself by making a faux-pas here, but I do know that Roy Keane was/is not liked in West Yorkshire due to his footballing antics of yesteryear. So when I announced our kitten’s name in the office, it went down like a lead-balloon and I endured a barrage of abuse about the cat’s namesake.  To be honest I didn’t really know that much about Roy Keane, yet I found myself defending my cat’s honour, as well as my adopted football club’s choice of manager.  After all, at the time, Keane was having a positive effect on the club’s position in the Championship, and in the end got them promoted back to the Premiership.

Anyway, I once again digress.  My point is this: Roy Keane is, in some people’s opinion, a vindictive, arrogant man who ended the career of another player over a controversial heat-of-the-moment decision in a game of football. In others’, he is an incontrovertible legend of Man Utd’s glory days, captaining them to the ‘Treble’ (something I have been assured has nothing to do with measures of spirits, but instead with winning lots of football competitions all the same year). On the one hand he is a seemingly humorless curmudgeon, on the other, a father of five and lover of dogs.

Therefore?  In life nobody is simply one thing, and to attempt to boil anyone down to that is dangerously short-sighted.  And if we are all guilty of these simplistic, judgemental attitudes of the living, what of the dead?

I have grown up with only stories of my father.  He was an actor, he was a doting father, he was a crocheter. To find out anything outside of this narrative after 37 years is to reassess how I have developed as a person myself.  I heard a story recently about how John Hurt spent his whole life believing himself to be of Irish heritage and when it came to it, his Who do you think you are? revealed no trace whatsoever of celtic pedigree.  His reaction was a nonplussed: ‘You’re really as Irish as you feel.’

This journey so far into the nature of  my own father has turned up nothing sinister, but the small details that have revealed something of his personality fascinate me. In letters to me from a few of my mum’s brothers and sisters, I heard he was: ‘sensitive’, ‘defensive’, ‘gentle’, ‘hands-on’.  Most recently I applied for access to records from the Australian National Archives of dad’s stint as a radio operator in their Regular Army. In the smiling mugshot attached to his registration form, he looks astonishingly adolescent aged barely 17. Mainly, the 31-page document is a list of very dry factual dates, numbers and codes.  Every so often there appears an ‘AWOL’,  ‘Hosp’ or ‘Qual’, and occasionally a summative record of ratings for theory and practical ability with the comment: ‘Generally untidy.  Not doing as well as he should’. These things make me smile.  They are minor, they are based on opinion, but still they are tangible and real and reveal something of his early life that nobody I have come across so far can tell me anything about first hand.

Right at the end of all of these scanned papers, comes a document that is written on typewriter, dated February 1977.  It is a letter from my father addressed to the army records office enquiring as to the nature of his discharge.  Having left his position 3 & 1/2 years into 6 year contract, dad was concerned that he left his role with an honourable discharge. There aren’t many things that I have come across written in my father’s own words, so to read his polite brief words touched me. They help to build an impression of the man.

These are the nuggets that I am looking for on my journey. Now that I am somewhat footloose as regards employment, I am determined to speak to people who can give me another view of my dad.   I’d rather not follow John Hurt’s blithe response.

Don’t just tell me he was a good man- give me your impression of the man, warts and all. Who was my father to you?


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