It’s mid-October and the media is full of the death of actress and author Lynda Bellingham, who passed away on Sunday 19th.
It’s mid-October and my mind is filled with my father, Wilf Edwards, his birthday being on the 17th (he would have been 96) and the fact that I’ve been typing up his childhood memoir and posting it on here, piece by piece (I’ve still got a bit to go):
Like Lynda, Dad died from bowel cancer, so I’m getting the triple whammy of memories this year. I was ten years old when Dad died, and he was a too-young fifty-eight. My family did their best to shield me from the awfulness of it all – I’d visited him in hospital a few times, where I’d felt scared of the smells and the echoing corridors where my dad was placed, among people who looked much thinner, older and more ill than him. Each time, he’d be sitting up on his bed smiling, dressed in the jumper I’d ‘given’ him for his birthday (or Father’s Day, I can’t remember) bought by my mum. I know that the rest of the time he was hooked up to wires and drips – he’d sent me some letters on yellow paper from there, telling me he ‘looked like the man from Mars’.
On the night he died, I’d been staying with my very good, and oldest friend Coreen, down the road from our house. My family had visited Dad in the hospital but they must have known the end was near and kept me away. “He’s gone to the angels,” they said when I returned home and hugged my mum.
And nothing was the same again.
For months afterwards, and probably years, I fantasised about seeing him across the street, walking back into my life, like it was all a dream. I kept spotting him among the crowds, and it would turn out to just be another silver-haired man in square glasses, wearing an overcoat. It’s funny how our brains become adept at spotting shapes our loved ones made in the world, like seeing faces in inanimate objects. It took my brain a long time to stop seeing, and looking for him, everywhere.
I love to remember my dad in those early years and somehow Christmas gets tied up in it all. He arranged the most magical things: he let me help him switch on the town lights one year (he was a Councillor, in charge of Holywell Christmas illuminations). He once dressed as Father Christmas on the Rotary Club ‘float’ that drove slowly around our streets, throwing sweets out of the back for the kids (I think it was about that time that my mum gently explained that although Father Christmas wasn’t physically real, his spirit entered the house every year – how very Roman Catholic of her). Dad also threw a cracking Boxing Day party for family and friends every year – the house fizzed with excitement, shining ’70s gaudy baubles, Mantovani carols on the record player and happy voices.
My dad had been a very sociable person – always organising get-togethers at our house, wearing his ‘Head Barman’ chain and tending to his G-Plan drinks cabinet. I used to be given the job of handing out snacks at these events, wondering why all the adults were slightly out of control.
After Dad died, it was like the needle scratched across the record at the party and it all stopped.
Now, typing up his childhood memoir, I am finding a new dad. The one who was a head boy and a talented pianist, whose mother took in neighbours’ washing to buy him a piano to practice on. The one who left school at 14 and became a Post Office messenger boy, but ended up, after serving in Egypt in the Second World War, being a Postmaster, Chief Clerk, then Investigation Officer in Kenya and Tanzania, taking his young family out there in 1953 to start a new life. The one who led the orchestra at the Kenya Operatic Society when my mum sang in Lilac Time in front of Showboat’s Paul Robeson, the musical based on Schubert’s life. The one who came home to run a local newsagent and stationers, and founded the local Chamber of Commerce in 1972.
So much happened before I was born in 1967 that I longed to be part of the history. I even ended up inventing a childhood in Africa just to be part of the story, telling primary school friends that I had befriended a lion. They didn’t believe me for long.
Now I think I AM part of the history – my dad clearly didn’t sit around waiting for things to happen to him and struck out into the world to make his mark in it. He was part of a small posse of Holywell people who went out to Kenya when it was a British colony and he returned a bit of a celebrity, appearing in the papers surrounded by all manner of African things he’d brought back. I still have some of them – a carved wooden chest and standard lamp are in my flat, along with a pair of Maasai spears. They look slightly incongruous with my modern stuff, but I love them. They remind me not only of him and Mum, but of how far I’ve struck out – not only making a life for myself in London after 21 years in Wales, but now striking out on my own in it.
I was able to visit Kenya for the first time a few years ago, and walked a little in the footsteps of my mum and dad there. I visited Malindi, where they holidayed, I saw the school in Mombasa where my mum taught (it’s still there) and heard their words in the few bits of Swahili I could understand in the locals. I even managed to have a tiny conversation with a Giriami fisherman who was trying to sell me an octopus from his boat in Watamu. The words I’d heard my parents and siblings utter growing up came back so easily: “Jambo! Habari yako!” (Hello! How are you?) The fisherman grinned one of those Kenyan grins at me. I’ll never forget it. So this is what it must have been like for them, I thought.
Lynda Bellingham didn’t get to have that final Christmas with her loved ones, but I bet she had some wonderful ones that her family will all remember in the years to come, and think about how lucky they were to have those precious times with her. I’ll be holidaying next to the Red Sea over Christmas and New Year, on my own and happy about it, thinking about my dad’s connection with Egypt during the War and how it’s funny that I’m headed there, perhaps where he trod when on army leave, and first experienced the ‘Africa Love’ that I’ve inherited.
I’ve enjoyed getting to know Wilf Edwards again and I’m even more proud to be his daughter, knowing about his humble Welsh beginnings and how he became a bit of a pioneering spirit in his own way.
Because he could.
Robert Webb on losing a parent: