'My Dad died when I was nine and my mother never spoke of him again'
Published 10/01/2013 | 06:00
It was 1958, in London. I was nine. One Sunday morning in November I got up at around 6.30 to have a pee.
At that time of the morning there was usually silence in the house. But I could hear talking, some sort of noise from my parents' room, next to my own.
I didn't think much of it. I went back to bed and began to read my book – Peter Pan. It would be hours before the household woke up, especially on a Sunday.
The next thing I knew, my mother came into the bedroom. She was still in her nightdress and dressing-gown, which was unusual in itself. She sat down on the bed and said: "I don't know how to tell you this, but Daddy died this morning." She can't have been in the room for more than a couple of minutes.
Obviously, she was in shock herself. And I had no idea what she was talking about. He was 41. I didn't know he was even ill.
From that day to this, my mother, now dead, never talked about my father to me. On the day he died, when he was supposed to be reading the lesson in church, my siblings and I were packed off to have a walk in Richmond Park. When we came home we were given lunch, told to do our homework; just a normal Sunday.
I didn't see my father's body, I wasn't told about the funeral, I wasn't asked if I wanted to go. Apparently, I was considered too young. I didn't dare ask, because nobody talked about what had happened, about Daddy. Not the day he died, not ever, not even with my siblings. Daddy was there one day, gone the next. End of.
My father's body must have still been upstairs, because in the afternoon I remember looking out of my bedroom window with my sister, watching as they took him away in a black wooden box. I began to cry.
I suppose I must have finally realised what was happening. And my sister told me to stop. We never cried in our family, it wasn't done. The habit of repression was huge.
I went to school on the Monday after he died and stood up and read the poem I'd learnt the day before. The teachers didn't say anything, nor did my school friends. Did they know? I never asked them, I didn't know how to talk about it. But I remember looking at the girls' faces as I read and thinking: "I'm different from all of you now." I grew up.
It was as if my father's shadow hung over the family, but he himself had barely existed. I know Mum loved him very deeply, and she never remarried, but it was as if I hadn't had a father at all.
Where he, or at least his memory, should have been was just a void. Any information I gleaned about him as a person, his death from a heart attack, his previous heart disease, I got from my aunt when I was an adult.
About 20 years later I had therapy, and the main issue was my father.
"Where is he buried?" the therapist asked. And I realised that I didn't even know what had happened to his body. I had to ask my elder sister to discover he'd been cremated and his ashes scattered in a north London crematorium garden. No plaque, no memorial, nothing.
This sort of emotional repression seems almost unbelievable now. It's definitely a thing of the past, thank goodness. Because it has profound effects on a child's psyche not to be able to mourn a parent.
My life went on after my father died in exactly the same way as it had before, except without him. I never really cried for him until decades later. But I would find myself crying more than was appropriate for other people who died. People I hardly knew.
I remember crying for hours as a teenager when Jim Reeves, an American country singer, died in a plane crash at the same age as my father. I didn't even like his music much.
I don't blame my mother at all, she did her best. But I made a vow that my children would not be brought up like this. It's not easy, though, to shake off that instinct to keep your feelings bottled up.
I don't know how successful I've been with my own children, but I tried. And now things have gone the other way in the world.
Everyone splurges the most intimate emotions all over the papers and media, telling stuff that perhaps would be better kept private. But I still think it's preferable to that old, stiff-upper-lip mentality.