Sunday, 19 June 2011
MEETING MY FATHER
When I was a little girl growing up I would put my head under the water to try and remember what my father was like, to try and capture any memory I could of him, but I couldn’t. No amount of peace in the water would bring him back. My Mother was twenty two years old when she had me, pretty, naive and talented. She was always hardworking. I was born in the Lebanon, my father was foreign correspondent for the Daily Mail, and had just won "journalist of the year". He was an adventurer. This was in the days when journalism was glamorous. He looked good, tall, slim and dark haired, wearing the best of Savile Row, which he rarely if ever paid for. My Mother told me he slept with guns under his pillow, and she was often asked by him to rifle through people’s suitcases, while he enticed the owners with drink downstairs. He had the air of James Bond. My Mother had been brought up in girls boarding schools, and in Wiltshire. in a wonderful dream like house, in a small village. My Grandmother was a pianist with enormous talent - she would practise most days - an incredible hostess with fabulous legs and a tireless wit. My Grandmother had power, real power. She owned more shoes than anyone I have ever met, and could whip up a souffle and an exotic dinner for eight in half an hour. My Grandfather was the film director Sidney Gilliat, witty, quiet and busy with words. I could always find him sitting underneath piles of paper. He had a love of Shakespeare, opera and writing. He liked silence, tomatoes and his dog Hiccup. My father however was brought up in a sad household, his mother had supposedly jumped out of a window when he was eight and he never saw her again - except once, at Paddington Station many years later. He had a brother and a sister and many nephews who he never made an effort to see. I think he went to Grammar school, but I was never told. My grandparents were horrified when my mother married him. Although the most interesting man she had ever met, they knew there would be trouble and eventually there was. He left The Mail under a cloud, when I am told he interviewed Pasternak and was given letters for his family by the great man himself. Instead my father put the letters in the Mail. My family banned him from the house. My mother was put in the cottage in Wiltshire with two children and left to bring us up. She was never resentful, never angry about him. My mother was a saint, who I would get cross with, because of her undisputed unused talent I always felt as if I was missing something, that something in my soul had gone. I felt dead from1963, yet I carried on living. I never understood why. I always looked for a man who could replace him. I loved my Uncle, I loved my Grandfather, but they didn't pick me up from school, and it wasn't their place to cuddle me in the way a father cuddles their daughter. When I was twelve I received a book he had written wrapped in brown paper. Heavy exciting I unwrapped it. A Bodyguard of Lies was in front of me literally. In it said ‘To my children, Amanda and Toby, from your father’. That's all. I would get presents occasionally, but then they would disappear. Later I was told he had put them on my Grandparent's account at Harrods. I wasn't angry with him, just with my mother. I regret this. He never telephoned me, I never saw his family. Nothing. I did not know where he was. At about eighteen I wrote to him telling him about myself through his publisher's Harpers and Row. I heard nothing. Four years later I was living in London when I received a call to meet him. I had to go that minute or I would miss him. So I took a taxi and rushed. On arriving I walked in, and there in the corner smoking was an old distinguished man I knew immediately was him. He had of course aged from the elegant man in a photograph I had with me, as I walked over, it was nerve wracking. What should I say?, what should I do?. I sat with him. I ate. It felt uncomfortable, I was past the age when I could sit on his knee and let questions pop out by mistake. The dinner finished quickly, and he actually paid for it. I tried to talk about my mother, I tried to talk about his books. He was on guard. I could not wait to leave. It left me with a sinking feeling. It certainly did not fill the gap in my heart that I looked for. I met him ten times more. He once offered to send me to the States, I agreed to go, but although he offered to pay, he left me with the bill. He had one last chance to make amends, at the end before he died, in an old peoples home in the Washington. He had Alzheimer’s and was singing Rule Britannia. Very happy, he said he had joined the band. He took my hand and as he did, I looked down and realised his hands and mine were the same. Only his hands have ever fitted mine.