This is for my Dad, who died suddenly earlier this year and whose 70th birthday we commemorated last Wednesday. K
In My Father’s Garden
I can still hear you,
digging away in the garden –
the hiss of the spade
as it slid into the soil,
and the silent strain
as the sod was hefted to one side,
or turned over and chopped up.
The bedroom window open
onto a summer of thirty year’s ago
when the heatwave would last for weeks –
tarmac soft underfoot,
the reek of creosote on endless fences.
The ice cream van’s crackly jingle
always on the air –
tempting us, tormenting us
until you buckled and treated us
to a block and some wafers.
Or there would lemon and barley water,
Corona bottles to collect
some coppers from.
You would sit,
T-shirt sleeves rolled up, or just in your shorts,
tatty sun hat on, battered boots off,
slowly basting on an orange plastic chair
in your sun trap by the old coal bunker.
Day off. You could hear the collective sigh of relief across the estate.
The hard-earned siesta accompanied by
the Roberts radio playing the chart countdown,
or there might be a match on the telly –
the never-ending roaring of soccer fans
like an angry sea crashing against a shore,
exhausting its strength.
The smell of Sunday dinner would
waft up, Mum always busy in the kitchen,
making her mountain ranges of Yorkshire Puddings,
meteor strikes of roast potatoes,
oil spills of gravy, rockeries of cakes.
Conjuring something out of nothing
to placate rumbling bellies.
You would fill the room
when you entered it.
A big man with a slow walk –
a John Wayne swagger –
folk would move out of the way
if they saw you shambling up the street,
broad shoulders filling the pavement.
You looked like you meant business
and it normally involved a pint or two,
a jar of smooth down the Horse,
or sinking one down the Loco.
At odd hours you would bring back
space capsules of curry,
still steaming on landing in their tin cartons,
a gladiatorial buckler of Italian bread,
a big slab of fruit ‘n’ nut,
and fall asleep in front of the big game.
You’d wake up if we turned it over,
say: ‘I was watching that.’
Your massive presence
filled the house,
a snoring giant,
hoarding of random junk,
shed full of shopping trolleys,
garden stacked with breeze-blocks,
railway sleepers, railtrack fencing,
buckets and bins, tyres and tools,
ladders and lethal looking implements,
as though planning an invasion,
or stocking up in case of one.
Someone forgot to tell you that war’s over.
with steady determination –
pacing yourself like a man
used to a day’s graft,
as you were –
you would shift tonnes.
Digging your trench and bank
vegetable patches, commando rose garden,
as though digging in for a scrap
still a signalman in the National Service,
cap rolled under shoulder strap,
short back and sides,
puttees around spit-and-polished boots.
You would build bean-poles out of scaffolding
until the garden resembled a wartime beach,
skeins of wire fencing, panels, planks –
a personal compound,
recreating the Civilian Internment Camp on Stanley Peninsular
you’d endured between the ages of three and six,
between your mother and hardship.
But you weren’t a mummy’s boy.
Life had toughened you up too much.
An alpha male,
always surrounded by your doting dog-pack,
drooling shadows you’d indulge with titbits,
perhaps remembering how, in the camps, you’d have to eat
stray ones to survive, the mangiest of mongrels,
back in those lean days under the Rising Sun.
Your step-brother, Joseph Read, got bayoneted
running for grub outside the compound –
for two eggs he nearly got beaten to death,
until his mother took the blows instead.
but the wound got him in the end,
aged twenty six.
Your dad, Arthur Edward, lost his leg
because of the diseases which riddled the Jap camps,
the poor sanitation, the starvation diet.
And you nearly lost yours –
pincered by a rogue forklift, plagued by infection.
Terrified of doctors – of losing your leg –
you wanted to die with your boots on.
Perhaps you knew that house-call would be fatal.
When the doctor came, it was too little, too late.
Yet you laughed at the Reaper enough times –
a young man swimming Hong Kong Harbour,
with the shark-bites on his back to prove it
(showing us the mottled scars on your shoulders),
a middle-aged man, parachuting for fun,
until you broke an ankle.
‘Only the best, forget the rest,’
‘End of story,’
‘I won’t be here forever’,
you had your favourite sayings,
your favourite yarns, related in hysterics.
You would be deliberately dumb,
wilfully miss the point of
what we were trying to say or ask –
but you were good at making your own.
Yet you weren’t demanding.
A postcard, the odd phonecall,
Independent, standing tall –
asking nothing of nobody.
Charles Bronson’s brother,
you could lay out a man
with a single punch.
Once thumped your sergeant
for some dark remark.
Your silk-thread began in Hong Kong,
ended up in Cotton.
Marooned on a Thirties’ housing estate,
carrying his whole past locked up inside of you.
Occasionally, you’d let a memory out,
but mostly tease us about
‘coming over on the banana boat’.
Yet at His Majesty’s Pleasure
you sailed the Southern Hemisphere
in not so slow boats,
moving between Naval Bases as a boy –
Manila, Singapore, KL, Auckland, Sydney, Suez –
finally making landfall on British Soil aged sixteen,
in a two-up, two-down on Delapre Street.
Emilia Ku, your Cantonese mum from Lima,
bringing a touch of the exotic
to the black-and-white movie of Fifties’ England,
with her furs and foreign tongues and
the first curry in Northampton.
Your first job was as a projectionist in the Tivoli,
beam illuminating the blue collar fug
of usherettes and cigarettes.
Then you started work at Howards –
a job you’d hold down for a quarter of a century,
becoming the captain of your gang.
But back then you were a dapper young Oriental Elvis,
with slicked DA and smart duds when
you met your future wife at the Salon,
Christmas Eve, 1960.
Married sweet sixteen Christine
three years later and, in ’65, ’67, ‘69
three children came along – two sons and a daughter –
chips off the old block. And grandchildren,
too, to carry on your name.
Dad. How we miss you.
You was always there for us
if not always all there –
away in some boozy cloud of
rugby, pet theories and randomness.
You never told us what to do,
or how to do it.
We had to figure it all out for ourselves.
Cut us plenty of slack,
for you wanted plenty yourself,
to go on your ‘walkabouts’,
up to Scotland or down to Malta.
You didn’t try to impress anyone,
neither leader or follower –
you ploughed your own furrow.
Stranded on the far side of the world,
no parents, grandparents or siblings left.
Drinking mates aplenty, when you wanted them –
but often you would stand alone,
adrift in a different sea.
In the Sixties,
you would’ve got on the boat to Australia for a tenner,
but Mum stood her ground,
and so you spent your days off
digging your way back to home.
For seven decades you walked this Earth
and now you are free of its gravity.
Ashes scattered over the Abbey
– where you loved to walk the dogs in the snow –
a frost in summer
on the blades of green.
Your mighty spirit finally
Husband, father, friend –
you’ll always live in our hearts.
In memory of Gerald George Manwaring, 1938-2008
on the occasion of his 70th birthday memorial celebration
23rd July 2008