Frank Cottrell-Boyce remembers his late father, with a reimagining of a piece originally read on our Good Life Experience stage in 2017.
Francis Boyce’s school report
My dad was — this is the first time I’ve written about him in the past tense.
He died last week and my Mum died two days later. Dad had been ill for a long time and mum was his main carer. We’d been expecting Dad to go for a long time but Mum’s death was a shock. We’d had plans. Lot of plans. But when it came down to it they literally couldn’t live without each other. She was in hospital when we broke the news of his death to her. Her face lit up. The task she’d set herself of caring for him was done. The load was lifted. She was demob giggly and cheeky for the rest of that day and deep in prayer all the next day before falling asleep and not waking up.
I want to write about them because they loved having a writer for a son. But I’m not ready. The memories of that week of dashing between mum’s hospital bed and dad’s bed at home are as intense and pure as childhood memories but already I’m having to process them into anecdotes — in order to tell friends and cousins about the fearless beauty of their passing. Telling the story feels like I’m stuffing a live fluttering bird.
But I wrote about dad for CBTR when he was first ill. So I’m going through that piece changing it from present to past, just like they changed themselves from present to past.
Dad was famously easy going. His default goodbye was “take it easy” — which he would say to my brother even if he was about to run his heart out in an athletics meeting, the entire point of which would be to take it anything but easy.
My Mum on the other hand was a spitfire. I can only remember one occasion when he stood up to her. I started sprouting facial hair quite early and was so mortified that I shaved it off with a BIC disposable that I’d secretly swiped from a big cousin. My Mum noticed the lack of fluff and the presence of blood and told me in no uncertain terms that I was far too young to shave.
My Dad said, “He’s also too young to have a beard.”
He’d reached into my childhood and pulled me over the chasm to puberty.
My Dad’s brothers were sailors. His father too. He fought in the battle of the Atlantic — the Cruel Sea. He was killed just after the war was over when his ship hit a forgotten mine in Cardigan Bay. So Dad — younger than his brothers by quite a margin — was brought up by his mother and then he married my Mum who was one of twelve children. Eleven of whom were girls. The youngest was a boy. Imagine that. Uncle Harry.
He was a tall good-looking man in a female world.
He is good looking. I once had the huge honour of hosting an event for Beryl Bainbridge. She whispered to me — “do you know that handsome man over there. I know him from somewhere but I’ve forgotten where. A bit embarrassing.”
Me “I don’t think you do know him.”
BB “I’m sure I do. I think we had an affair or something.”
BB. “What makes you so sure?”
Me. “He would’ve mentioned it. He’s my Dad.”
Charming, untroubled, gracious, always ready to talk about politics and football, no one ever asked me how my Dad was. It was always “how’s your lovely dad”.
Apart from the shaving there are two other real acts of courage for which I’ll always be grateful.
First … He bought a house. When I was small we — mum, dad my brother and I — lived with my Gran in a two bedroomed flat in Kirkdale. The four of us shared a room. The Blitz had left Liverpool with a major housing crisis. By the sixties, the problem was still so severe that a young family of four in one room was not considered a housing priority. Dad took a weekend job delivering — I think — census forms door to door. On these wanderings he came across a new-build private housing estate and made the decision to buy a house. None of his siblings and none of my mother’s siblings had ever done such a thing. Well into my teens it was still a subject of debate and discussion with my aunts and uncles.
The move to that house was one of the most magical nights of my life. We took a train from Liverpool on a journey that I now know lasts forty minutes but that evening felt TRANSIBERIAN — I swear it was dark when we arrived. We walked around this estate of newly finished houses. They looked like they were built of solid optimism. My brother and I had no idea what was happening. Mum knocked at a door and Dad answered. He took us upstairs and there was a bedroom with two single beds and a lamp on the floor between them — a lamp shaped like a mushroom — lit up from inside. When we woke up and looked out of the window there was a garden. It’s actually the size of a large window box. That morning it looked like the Serengetti. I whipped out my I-Spy book of birds and just watched, waiting for something to happen.
Do you remember the I-Spy books? Probably not. They were little paperbacks full of drawings of things to look out for. I-Spy History was full of Saxon chapels and stone circles for instance. You got points according to how rare and interesting things were. So in I-Spy People, it was five points for a bus conductor, twenty five points for a member of the Household Cavalry plus horse. It left you in absolutely no doubt that your World — the World you lived in — the world of bus conductors and bin men — was a low points World. They let you know that there was another World somewhere else that was crowded with Admirals of the Fleet (50 points) and orthodox rabbis (40 points). In the I-Spy book of birds, the entry-level birds were sparrows and starlings. Then it was up through the tits and warblers, birds of prey, Osprey at the top there, then rare Summer visitors — snowy owl, hoopoe — and then maybe the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove (150 points). I still have the feeling that the birds of Britain are existentially arranged in a kind of pyramid, whose peak is kissing heaven. Rare Summer visitors seem semi-celestial to me. I assume hoopoes are effulgent.
I assumed I’d see a hoopoe that morning.
Not one single bird.
I know this because I’ve still got my copy of that book and there is NOTHING down for that year. Because of course in building the houses, they had felled all the trees and drained the brooks. There was nothing for a sparrow to sit on or build a nest with.
Then in the Spring something amazing happened. Squadrons of house martins came scything down every avenue. Under the eaves of every house they built their strange, hive-like nests of mud. Mud. Of course. The estate was still under construction. There was mud everywhere. And no competition for the insects from any other species. The estate was designed as much for house-martins as it was for humans. It was thrilling to watch them, curvetting in and out of the lampposts, to wake to the sound of their chicks squawking for food outside the bedroom window, to watch them gather on the phone wires that Autumn, getting ready to head South. They connected us to the White Nile where they spent the Winter
They only gained me five points by the way.
You might be wondering why this was an act of courage exactly. Dad grew up in a parish off Scotland Road, which was then one of the most densely populated addresses in Europe. It’s impossible to explain how literally parochial this place was. Like the house martins, it was connected to the rest of the world — the men went to sea. In my child’s memory every balcony seemed to have a monkey or a parrot bought back by a sailor from S. China seas or ValpaRISEo.
But only the men ever left. My Dad moved us from there to a place that is eleven miles away. It might as well have BEEN Siberia. He was never that comfortable there. Like the housemartins, we gathered and flew back to Scottie every weekend. On the bus. Whenever I think of the journeys that refugees make now I always reflect on how disconnected dad felt by those eleven, comfortable, safe, CHOSEN miles.
Everyone on that estate was the same age. It was full of kids. It was like Centre Parcs. Or like a space station. Everyone knew each other. Everyone waved as they passed the massive, massively indiscreet front window.
They were young together
And now they are old together.
Dad took dying easy. He eased himself into dementia. When Mum was taken into hospital for a heart by-pass five years ago, he crashed and caught the infection that left him bed-ridden bewildered and in the High Dependency Unit.
This was where I saw his third and greatest act of courage.
The HDU of a hospital is a bewildering place. The curtains are drawn around your bed but you can hear people arguing on Jeremy Kyle on the next bed’s TV. And people who should be ON Jeremy Kyle arguing around the bed opposite. Dad tried to join in all these conversations.
He tried desperately to make sense of what was happening to him.
At first — given that he was wearing hypoallergenic orange pyjamas and people were hauling him around the place — he believed he had been kidnapped. When I tried to talk him round he would accuse me of being in on the plot and howled about me betraying him.
I’d never seen him like this before.
Has to be said he never lost his lovely manners with the strangers. It was Christmas. The hospital was short staffed. The woman who brought the food would simply slap it down onto his tray and walk on. He’d always shout after her “Thank you very much. That looks delicious” and then — like some bedridden Fezziwig — gesture around the ward and ask if anyone would care to join him for lunch. Lovely dad.
Over the next few days I watched him trying to piece together what was going on from clues — the food, the noise — and the view from the window.
He was working exactly the way I work when I’m writing a book.
Here are some images and some thoughts — what narrative would join them together? How about this one …
And when it doesn’t work, drop it and start again.
I’d never appreciated that he could be creative in that way before.
And his courage was … that he would abandon any narrative that made him miserable and reach instead for one that would seem familiar and leave him feeling in control.
He decided in the end that he was on a local history course. One of the teachers was his father — who showed him a lot of favouritism which put him at a massive advantage over all he other students — who, inexplicably, were mostly Canadians. Lessons took place behind the high altar at St. Sylvesters “I find it eerie but the Canadians don’t seem to mind.” The Canadians turned out to be his nurses by the way. “They don’t like my methodology but I just get on with it.” So he’d reconfigured himself as their leader. Someone who was being kind by lying there letting them attend to him.
When he came out of hospital he was bed ridden and took it easy though a five year fade. Just now I feel triumphant that between us we managed to care for him at home. It was a ride. He saw things — a lake, a railway line. It took me a while but I figured out that he was seeing metaphors. If he says the tide is coming in, he’s anxious. If he asks if we can pause and appreciate the beauty of the sunset on the lake which now reaches to the front door, then that means he’s feeling content.
His brain was constantly recycling memories and I’m swamped by the sense that nothing is ever lost. We should busy ourselves with filling our memory banks with good things because that is where we will live in the end.
He almost never knew where he was. The litany of places he thinks he is amuses me — yes his childhood home but also — bizarrely — the city of Lille, where he went for one weekend. Often he’s in Trieste, where he served in the army. Huyton station. Don’t know why. He was in a meeting a lot.
One thing I did was look at the list of concerts that he bought tickets for and make a playlist so that on that date, he heard the music he would have heard had he been able to go. He never once — not once — has got the name of a piece of music wrong. Two bars in and it’s “Delius” or “Vaughan Williams”. And for the duration of the piece we were both inhabiting the same space.
That was the trick. Finding something that puts me in the same place as him.
And I found it.
Apart from the music. Shaving.
When he was in hospital he got a bit shaggy but it never seemed like my responsibility. Then I saw a nurse slashing at him with a cheap razor and told my Mum. She came in and ground his face with an electric razor while tutting at him.
So I took to giving him a luxury wet shave. With Occitane shaving cream and Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow playing. I would make it last for as long as I could. I put moisturiser on his face afterwards. For ten minutes he knows exactly where he is — on a kind of spa break in heaven. And I repaid that little glimpse of courage that made me know that for all his shortcomings — and we all have shortcomings — he was basically on my side.
In all his mental wandering he’s never really bumped into anything that he feels bad about. He’s led a blameless life. His face is as smooth as a baby’s when that shave is finished and I find myself thinking — we must become as little children. And how hard it is to do that.
That’s the courage I learnt from my Dad.
The courage to be happy.