When I was 11, my first job was a paper round at the local newsagents. I was given the Tudor Avenue round, a road lined with 1930s semis with mock Tudor frontages, which stretched out into the distance like a vast runaway. I got £10 a week for my efforts, which seemed like a small fortune at the time (and kept me in Spectrum computer games for a good 18 months or so).
I loved that job. I loved the peace and stillness of the mornings and the thrill of getting up when it was still dark, with the dawn slowly pushing through apertures in the ink-black sky. But the main thing I remember about this otherwise unremarkable period in my life is my dad, who got up with me at the crack of dawn every day to help me out while I found my feet (and to make sure I was safe).
Every morning, we would have a milky coffee together and watch Adam West “SOK!” “BLAP!” and “KAPOW!” his way through repeats of Batman on TV, followed by a comforting and vaguely arousing episode of Nanny and the Professor, which further fuelled my crush on Juliet Mills that had begun with Carry on Jack. It felt like we were the only two people in the world on those mornings. (Me and dad, that is, not Juliet.)
We were a well-oiled machine on that paper round; the south east’s premier newspaper delivery tandem. But after six months, when I knew the round inside out and had grown up a little bit, I started to feel that I could do it on my own. I agonised over how to end the arrangement with my dad and tell him, in the gentlest way possible, that he was no longer required. I didn’t want him to feel unwanted or that I was ungrateful because I cherished those mornings together. So much so that I’m writing about it 35 years later, with such vivid memories and emotions churning inside of me, I can practically smell the newspaper print on my fingers. But I was ready to go it alone.
I eventually bought him a box of chocolates and a card to say thank you, which signalled the end of our mornings together. As a father myself now, I find it impossible to remember that moment without viewing it through the prism of fatherhood. My dad probably thought nothing of it at the time. But if I’m ever in a similar situation with my sons in future, I will probably muster a half-smile, falsely reassure them that “it’s fine!”, then stumble off as my broken heart stutters almost to a stop.
But my dad was there for me in other ways, too. He attended every Sunday league football match I ever played in, ferrying me around Hertfordshire every weekend to cheer me on from the sidelines with a close-knit band of hardy parents. He was there on the sub-zero days when breathing in the icy air felt like inhaling a thousand blades, and tactical instructions tumbled through the air like pyroclastic clouds. He was there during the torrential downpours and on days when the wind chilled your bones, blowing right through you like an erratic phantom. Week in, week out, he was there.
Whenever I used to shout for dad to remove crane flies from my bedroom in summer, he would calmly scoop them off the wall and hold them gently in his hand – with their spindly, twitching legs jutting out from his gentle grasp – before suddenly turning and chasing me around the house. And when we would play-fight on the floor, he would somehow – and to this day, I still don’t know how he managed to do it – tie my legs in a knot, which would leave me thrashing around on the living room floor in a panic like a beached dolphin.
In the mid-1980s, my dad spent a few years working in the Fraud Squad in London. He drove a Ford Escort XR3i with an in-car phone that was roughly the size of a WW2-era military field telephone, and my sister and I thought he was basically one of Rockliffe’s Babies. The downside was that he had to work long hours. But when he did make it home at a reasonable time, I remember him presenting us with packs of Panini stickers for our Football 86 albums. Then later, when we’d stuck them in our albums and added any duplicates to our swapsies piles, he would suddenly produce a few more packs, telling us that that was definitely the last of them. He would then leave it even longer, allowing calm to return once again, before walking to the kitchen and dropping more packs of stickers onto our laps along the way. Of course, he would eventually run out of stickers – but he loved to prolong the excitement and anticipation. Where’s the fun in just one big reveal when you can have five!
I saw my dad a couple of weeks ago for the first time since Christmas. Despite being nearly 73 and having Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia (CLL), which causes fatigue and leaves him susceptible to bruises and lesions from minor knocks and scrapes, he was down on his knees playing with his grandchildren, who were happily beating him to within an inch of his life with some inflatable lightsabers. At one point, my three-year-old son balanced on my dad’s back like a circus acrobat standing on a horse before vaulting onto the sofa. My dad remained in position and allowed him to do it at least ten times after that, always in his element when at the epicentre of a load of excitable, crazed children giggling themselves silly.
Nearly seven years into fatherhood, I’m still making it all up as I go along. But if I can be as good as my dad, I think I might just be all right.
Not long after I posted this, I found out that my dad was experiencing some additional health issues. And not too long after that, he was hospitalised for nearly two weeks. He’s since had an operation for bladder cancer and completed a four-week course of radiotherapy for prostate cancer, where he rang the bell to a round of applause from other waiting patients. (My mum took to Facebook to announce that he was to undergo radiotherapy and somehow managed to overlay The Pointer Sisters’ I’m So Excited over the images of dad, which gave us a much-needed laugh at the time.) He’s on the mend now. I saw him last week and, even though still in recovery, he ran himself ragged kicking a football around with my son. “Just one more shot,” he kept saying, every time I told him to sit down.
The image for this blog post is a portrait of my dad, which my ridiculously talented sister @Tilskatoff painted for his 70th birthday a few years ago.