`I grew up without a dad. So will my sons'
Father's Day is, for many, a time to bond. For PETER THOMPSON it opens wounds he has spent years trying to heal
Sunday 20 June 1999
But when it came to leaving my wife I hesitated for a long time because of my two boys. I still did it, though. I suppose I have come to the conclusion that children need fathers but families don't. Or maybe even that boys need fathers, but then that's just my own perspective, being both a father and an ex-son, both dumper and dumped.
Every time I watch those family reunion shows on daytime TV it strikes me how much people need some security of identity, how much they miss people they've never even met. I don't like the idea of biological need because it undermines other things I want to believe in - the ability of individuals to shape their own destiny in a wider social context. But not liking an idea doesn't mean there's nothing in it.
It wasn't until I went to see my father 10 years after my parents split up that I realised we'd left him rather than vice versa. I had always been told, or maybe I just assumed, that he'd left us. Regardless, for all those years I'd felt as though I had been left. Still do, I suppose.
It was the first time I'd seen him in 10 years. He'd gone to live in Sweden, had a new family and, as is the way apparently with some Scandinavian Lutheran Protestants, the new grandparents of this new family had to be kept in the dark about his former life. I don't even think they were told he'd been married before but they certainly didn't know I existed. And there I was on the doorstep. Christmas 1978. My first leave from the Army since being posted to Germany. I was 18. He knew I was coming and I remember hitching into the town and deciding to walk to where he lived. It was nerves, I suppose. I mean, what do you say to your dad after 10 years in which the only communication you've had is a Swedish pen-knife he sent for my 13th birthday, with no letter or note, and which I lost the next day on a fishing trip?
I walked along Swedish streets in the dead of night and remembered what I could of him. There wasn't much. Farnborough Airshow where I sat on his shoulders and watched the planes roaring over and ate cold frankfurters from a tin and dripped the brine on his balding head. Running alongside him in the park one day and hearing loose change jangling in his pocket as he ran. I've always had coins in my pocket since then. I even get change from notes when I don't need it in case I run out. I remembered that he used to make sculptures for a hobby, heads of people kept under plastic sheets. We weren't allowed to touch but he would show us them sometimes. Brown clay laid on in little flakes and bumps. Sometimes the wire frame still showing.
The weird thing was finding so many familiar things in that strange house in that strange country. Not just him, of course, but the pictures, the books, the records, the white hi-fi - all the things they must have sat down and divided up along with us. He was still doing those clay sculptures and there were several under polythene in the room in which I slept. This time I lifted the plastic to get a look at the heads.
We tried to talk about things and in the background was the music I had forgotten and yet still knew. Vaughan Williams' London Symphony and the Beatles. ("The Long And Winding Road" was his favourite song and I have only just realised the "leads me to your door" significance while writing this.) We couldn't talk, of course. I was 18 and crap and he was the father of an 18-year-old and therefore even crapper. But he did put me up in his study and he did leave the drawer with the divorce papers open and I did read them and I got a better picture about it all. But it still didn't really make sense. Why did it matter who had slept with whom and all that stuff? All I remembered were those years when I wished he would come in his Superdad outfit and rescue me - from my mum's deadbeat boyfriends, the rubbish schools, the bullying.
But what really changed everything is what happened when the grandparents turned up on Christmas Day. We were standing at the door and they were coming up the path. Dad must have been terrified because just as they were there by the doormat he leant close to my ear and said, "You wouldn't mind pretending to be my second cousin for the duration, would you old man?" in that wizard-prangy Goons voice I remembered from before.
He had left it until the last second and when you think what he must have had to go through to say that, that's when I regret that it was really the only sentence that passed his lips in 30 years that was anything to do with him and me. Still, at least he did better than I did because the only response I could manage was "fine". Lads, eh?
So that's why I miss my dad. Because we got only as far as being second cousins. I went over last summer and saw where he was buried and felt nothing very much. I wasn't angry about it as such - that was what he had to do to get what he wanted. I have done the same, I suppose. I was prepared to tell my kids that they weren't enough to keep me any more, that I had found someone more important, ie me. I have learnt from my past. I see my boys two or three times a week at least. I would never leave our town while they're still there. We have got past the second cousin stage. But, then again, who knows what they will be writing about me in 30 years' time.
I try to talk to them about what has happened and try to reassure them all the time, but they don't seem to want to go into it in any detail. Perhaps the reason I feel such a need to go over and over it with them is that I never had the chance to with my father, and maybe the boys don't want to because they don't need to. I don't know. And to be honest, it is a relief that I can't get a word out of them about it. I understand Dad better now.
The second cousin thing has never left me - it has made me what I am. I suppose it is a straightforward case. Lie down on the couch please: rejection at ages eight and 18 leads to fear of rejection which in turn leads to desire to be loved and accepted by everybody which leads to emotional masochism tinged, at moments of extreme confusion and pressure, with self- destructive and uncharacteristic behaviour. That'll be pounds 250 please.
Fragile on the outside, squidgy in the middle. Sometimes, when I am being most like a puppy craving attention, when I hear my accent changing to fit in, I can still hear my dad whispering that request in my ear and I want to hold him hard and say "No, Dad, I'd rather not".
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