When you travel to a new city you can imagine what it must be like, even if you have never been there. You can conjure up London, New York or Paris by their names alone, picturing your destination whilst on your way there. This journey is in reverse, my father is the stop I missed, he is the station I dreamt of when I was sleeping.
We all have a store of scenarios of how it might have been. I have imagined a loving father and having total trust in him. I have imagined my father throwing me into the air and catching me. I have imagined my father sniffing me the way I have seen all parents do, putting their faces close into the centre of a bare-bellied baby and blowing raspberries. I am sure my father did this to me: threw me high in the air, made me fly and blew onto my belly. And just like all our fathers must have – your father, our father, my father – he held me and I was safe in his arms. With his mouth pressed against the crown of my head he inhaled as he soothed and patted my back. He saw himself in me, I’m sure, in my features. I was his echo and he must have said what all fathers have always said, that looking into my face was like looking in the mirror.
I can picture the familiar shape of my father in the early morning. Then I can imagine my chubby infant self, dribbling, standing up in a cot in a messy bedroom. There’s a gas fire, the bars are glowing orange, and I smell toast. I have torn off my nappy from the night before and thrown it out of the cot. I am naked and laughing, funny Daddy, I clap, although when I clap I let go of the side of the cot and fall. I am only just learning to stand, so I must be seven or eight months old. I haul myself back up by the cot bars and he says something like that’s my girl. He would, wouldn’t he? I think he’d say something like that’s my good girl.
It is dawn, early in the morning and he is melancholy, probably hungover. It’s the grey morning after a gig and he didn’t get paid or he subbed all the fee already. The money is always spent before he sees it. He has post-gig blues, unshaven and his mouth tastes of stale fags and beer. He looks down at me and wonders how on earth he is going to cope. He licks the cigarette paper and puts the rolled up fag in his mouth, lights a match and inhales smoke.
I can now recognise sounds and shapes, objects and people. Shoe. Dog. Milk. Mummy. Daddy. I must know that word and try to use it. This is one time when I get to say ‘Daddy’ to my real dad. If I am eight months old then it is winter. Cancel the summer sunshine I had previously imagined, making an arc of light across the smoky, shabby room. If I am eight months old, let’s say, then it is cold and about to snow outside on the cobbled street in Ramsgate, on the pink house, on the row of pretty fishermen’s cottages in February 1973.
Or maybe we are visiting Springfield Road, maybe we are not in Ramsgate but we are in Hastings. Now I do know what the view looks like from that window, I have touched the old wallpaper in the room we would have slept in. I know the red brick and slate rooftops of the houses opposite and the grey sea on the distant horizon. Snow is falling diagonally and disappearing as it touches the wet ground.
That moment then, he loves me, doesn’t he? Dare I write that? Yes, I dare and I know it. If there is one thing I know, it is that in this snapshot, this imagined scene, he loves me. He scoops me into his arms and takes me to the window to show me the snow. Let’s say he did, for now it makes no difference. I am in his arms and I can see the snow outside, feathers falling from above. I can also see our reflection in the glass, my dad is holding me in his arms, us together, father and daughter. The hairs on his arms and the warmth of his chest against my soft, naked baby form. I nuzzle into his neck, his unshaven bristles and sideburns. We are framed by the window pane and faintly etched into the glass. The snowflakes are tapping the windows, erratic as shoals of fast white fish in light and water, changing directions in swirling gusts of salty wind.
Dad. Your cheek is pressed against me, you sniff my hair and kiss my head. ‘Daddy’ you say slowly. You put my hand on your mouth and I feel the sound, the resonance of the word vibrating through my fingers. ‘Dad’ You are holding me and moving from foot to foot, slowly rocking us as we look out at the grey-mauve of first light, the sky is the colour of pale wisteria, swollen, mottled and trembling as the young seagulls’ crying throat.
This is what we all owe ourselves: the shape of a memory of a moment of love and intimacy. A flash of how it might have been, how they told you it was. Once upon a time, when you were too small to remember, there was tenderness and you were cherished. Imagine your own father. Your real dad brushed your hair away from your forehead with gentle fingertips, he gave you the sweetest light kisses and watched over you when you were in your cot. That is all always yours, forever. This life, it is a long journey and this is the station you passed when you were sleeping but will always dream about
My father was born in Kent on April 24th 1941. According to my mother, he was a clever and gifted boy with a propensity towards chubbiness. Mum said he was nicknamed Porky at school and this made him self-conscious about his pot belly. He was very smart, and he shot through school and was awarded a scholarship to grammar school. He lived on Springfield Road from the age of about ten.
As a young man my father went travelling around Europe. He visited Spain and Italy, he studied music in Vienna and then came back to England to study at the new music college in Leeds. During this time he met my mother Lorna. He played sessions for the BBC then he graduated to playing session work for The London Philharmonic. He also sessioned for Miles Davis and on The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club album. The summer when I was born my father was working with the great jazz singer Salena Jones - my namesake. My parents toured with the likes of television game show host Larry Grayson and The Ska-ta-lites until my father took that job playing in the jazz band on the QE2. By the late 1970’s he was resident at the London Palladium and then…
I combined my mother’s accounts of my father with the odd snippets I gleaned from Grandpa George and the anecdotes that came out during rare visits from his old jazz pals in my teens.
I heard that my father was a brilliant musician, that he could play almost anything you put in front of him – the piano, the trumpet, the clarinet, the trombone. He was a drinker and a great laugh down the pub. My mother tells me that as a young man the local police in Hastings knew him by sight and often found him after closing time, singing in the street and along Hastings seafront, and would bring him home to Springfield Road. She said he hated to wear a suit - when he did it looked like it had been thrown at him and just missed. He was a writer of poetry, a lover of jazz, a wearer of cravats and neckerchiefs. He was a bohemian and a libertine. The life and soul of the party, he had time for a drink with everyone and Mum told me this was his downfall. He gave it all away, he left nothing for himself. He gave himself such a hard time that the people who loved him had to work hard too. He never went straight home, he never did anything the straight or easy way, yes, he gave himself a hard time and he’d drink until drunk after every single gig.
As I grew-up when I played the fool or read my stories or poetry aloud, my mother’s face would light up and she’d tell me I was being like my father. That was how I was rewarded and how I grew up to know this much and this little. My mother tells me that we would have had great debates, we’d have had each other running in circles of word play. I revelled in the notion that my father was a showman, that he was infectiously funny, mischievous and that we would have made each other laugh. In moments of bravado I reckon that I could have drank him under the table and beat him at pontoon too. But all I could ever do was digest these statements and deduce truths from the materials of my own DNA. Nature or nurture – could I really be a copy of a man I never truly knew?
Often I didn’t want to believe my mother’s portraits of my father, based as they were on her memories of being in love with the smell of the man and his laughter, and the details always changed with her mood and the weather of her own remembering. Her ex-husband Paul Godden was not the dad-man-hero I invented. The father I knew was in my bones and blood, I felt I knew him in the reflection behind my eyes in the mirror. My creation of him was all my own.
When your father is absent you collect all they have said and all they have told you, you look at photographs and letters and stir theses ingredients together and bake your own dad. It doesn’t matter now if he had faults and flaws. When you haven’t known your father he can be anyone you like and anything you choose to believe. So I made my father out of jigsaw pieces of other extraordinary men. I believed he was gentle and quirky like the American author and poet Richard Brautigan. I imagined he could be a merry rogue like Oliver Reed in The Three Musketeers. He had the flair, I thought, of a young and distinctly English Dirk Bogarde. Something of the poetic heart and wanderlust of author Laurie Lee. He was rock and roll with the hedonistic jazz persona of a haplessly destructive and depressive Chet Baker. My version of my father was anything but ordinary.
When I was at Springfield Road I was closest to his life there as a boy and young man. The fact that he had lived there in that very house were all I had. I knew he was confirmed and that he sang in the choir at Christchurch. I knew that he read and wrote music and poetry. I imagined he probably composed those songs and poems whilst walking on Hastings pebbled beaches and later as a teenager I tried to re-create or emulate this.
My father and I shared a perpetual sensation of seeking, the unbearable state of looking. His children inherited a longing, the space of waiting to be found, to be rescued. It’s not that we are not loving, living in the present with our loved ones, but when you have an absent parent or parents, there is an itch and yearning to have more. It’s as though we are looking over your shoulder when we say hello. We are gazing across the water at the receding horizon, with a glimmering hope to find lost blood, to catch a familiar eye across a strange, loud and crowded world.