When my mother died I received a small case crammed with
documents: receipts, bank statements, certificates of varying kinds, all
completely useless and out of date. And also some letters. The Letter was a
famous family possession. It was not often mentioned but everyone knew that it
had existed. No-one, so far as we knew, had ever seen it, apart, of course,
from my mother. No-one could be sure it still existed. I was the kind of
missive that is frequently destroyed.
But this one wasn't and I found it in the case. It was written
on a piece of stout quarto paper and it had been folded three times into a very
narrow rectangle. It was dated simply "Bristol Sept 29/09". The writing was
handwritten and bold, in black ink. This is what it said;
"Dear Madam Is it possible you are in ignorance of the
character and financial position of Mr Frank Atkins if so I would advise you to
make enquiries into same.
Just like that. No punctuation marks. The word "financial"
underlined but whether by sender or recipient unknown. The name Frank Atkins
looked as it if had been squeezed into a space previously left blank. The
signature also looked as if it could have been a late addition and was not
completely recognisable, It could have been "Fay".
When I was very young our family was prosperous. At least, I
have been told so although my memories of that period are few. I had one
distinct memory of my father. He was drunk.
I did not realise this at the time and in any case could not
have understood the term.
Dressed in a warm coat and a scarf, I was just about to leave
the house with my mother when the door opened and my father stumbled in. He
went half way up the stairs, his face drawn and contorted, and he exclaimed,
"For God's sake, get me an aspirin!" "Certainly not!", my mother replied, "you
can get it yourself", and she strode out of the house, dragging me with her. I
was distressed. I found it hard to forgive her for her cruelty.
Although this is the only memory I have of him from that period
there is one other which I suppose might be called contingent. I did not see
him but I saw the half burnt armchair when I went downstairs one morning. I
asked my mother what had happened and she mumbled something about a cigarette,
but later she was far more forthcoming. "He did it to get the insurance", she
said, and for many years I wondered what an Insurance looked like and what it
had to do with a burnt chair.
Mother took me and my little sister to a village in Norfolk.
Very occasionally my father came to see us, and sometimes he would bring my
elder brother. Of course, living near a Broad he had to have a boat. It was a
sailing dinghy and it was called the Raleigh. I remember it clearly. It never
My father, my brother and I used to sit quietly on the wooden
thwarts and wait for something to happen. It never did.
It must have been five or six years later when suddenly and
unexpectedly he arrived. Mother was out. I was alone with my younger sister. He
cunningly produced sweets. I thought this was jolly nice but my sister would
not stop screaming. This occasion, the last on which he and my mother met until
just before he died, nearly ended in tragedy. I was awakened in the morning by
screams. I ran into the next room and found my mother lying half out of bed and
my father's hands gripping her throat.
"What was that all about ?" I asked her later.
"I tore his pyjamas", she said. "If you hadn't come he would
have killed me."
During this period my brother had been staying with father in
London - that is, when he wasn't at school. Father apparently had positive
views on education: he admired the public school system but was a strong
supporter of free education. My brother went to seventeen schools altogether.
He would attend each for one term and then be compelled to leave. Father
objected to paying fees.
As a result my brother felt there were gaps in his education.
"Hey", he once said to me, "what are vulgar fractions?"
Meanwhile I was with mother, attending the same school for the
whole of my secondary life. I read in a boys' magazine how to make dry
batteries. It sounded a good scheme, especially as it was recommended by a
clergyman, but it required a small capital to buy the necessary materials. When
my mother refused to advance the capital I complained that she was damaging my
spirit of enterprise. "Enterprise!" she snarled, "that's what your father was
always on about."
Things got worse for my brother. "I was a kid of fourteen", he
said, "when two men wearing raincoats and trilbies came along and said,
"Where's your father, son?" I never got to the bottom of this, it was always
hushed up. It used to be admitted that he did a "stretch", but I never knew for
how long or what for. But forgery was hinted at. When I did meet him again he
told me that Harry had been unlucky.
I was 23 and my brother 29 when he said to me, "I've found the
old man. He's in an office at Liverpool Street".
I decided to call on him.
The secretary looked suspiciously at me and asked my name.
"Curtis", I said. She looked even more suspicious. On her return she said Mr
Atkins was unable to see me. I insisted, saying it was a matter of great
urgency. Finally I broke through and entered the inner sanctum where I saw (or
my memory tells me I saw) a very small man sitting at an enormous desk. He
looked grim and asked me what I wanted.
"Don't you know me ?" I asked. "I'm your son, Jack".
He beamed. He was delighted to see me. "My boy !"
Then he frowned. "Why did you use that name. Curtis ? "I owe
some money to a fellow named Curtis."
War had just broken out and I was feeling ideological and moral.
"I don't think you ought to run a bucket shop", I said. There had been no
discussion about his business. If it was his, it must be a bucket shop. He
seemed to accept this. He explained that it was a patriotic bucket shop because
nearly all his investors were foreigners. We chatted for a while, in the course
of which he told me he thought we, meaning the human race as a whole, would all
end up as monkeys. I wasn't very clear about the significance of this but he
seemed to think it was a profound anthropological Insight.
Now I'd got him I was determined to hold on to him. I asked him
to let me have £3 a week. He agreed so readily I thought I should have
asked for more. I didn't realise at the time that £3, which seemed so
much to me, was just a few evening drinks for him. He asked about mother, I
told him she would like a divorce, and again he looked happy. Things were
coming out better than he expected. But then his face clouded over and he
rapped out, "But no alimony!"
I had never been so prosperous but of course it didn't last
long. The money was usually late in arriving. I used to meet him now and again,
usually feeling hungry, but he would never treat me to a meal. He seemed to
regard food as a luxury and one that
any self-respecting male could do without. Whisky, on the other
hand, was one of life's necessities. He told me he had a job for me. He had
just started a Football and Greyhound Racing Pools company, restricted to
London and the South. A Channel Islander was manager and I was the rest of the
staff, including Assistant Manager. We sent coupons to every pub and barber's
shop listed in the London telephone directory. Day after day we stuck stamps on
envelopes. Eventually we had sixteen replies. We paid ten shillings to a local
pensioner whose job it was to vow that he had won a dividend if we were ever
challenged. But it was fate that challenged us, for we were soon out of
business. It must have been too expensive in stamps.
One evening I joined him in a pub that was practically empty. He
was waiting for me and had a good view of me as I came in. "For God's sake get
yourself a decent suit", he said. I went to "his" tailor in the City and for
the first time in my life was measured and fitted out. It was useless trying to
explain to him that you needed money to buy decent suits. I once asked him if
he was pleased that I had obtained a university degree. "Yes", he said, "but I
wish it could have been Oxford or Cambridge."
I managed Bristol on a grant.
He lived in style at Westcliff, travelling in to the City by
taxi. I went there a few times, and met his mistress and two half brothers.
Like my mother, they had red hair. His mistress hadn't. He produced one of his
theories. "There is a theory", he said, "that once you've known a woman you
carry something away from her". In his case it was clearly hair colour. I think
it was something of a fetish with him. He was vastly amused by a girl he used
to meet in Brussels. She was fair on top and dark below. "I call her Black and
White", he chuckled, thus combining two of his major interests in the one
He was a member of the Essex County Cricket Club. He used to go
to a match sometimes but never watched it. It would have interfered with his
drinking. He also had a greyhound which never won a race. Pontoon schools
lasted well into the night. On one occasion he lost heavily and decided to go
to bed. His mistress came to me and said he wished to see me. When I approached
the bed he stuck one leg out and said, "Look, a withered leg!" I had never
heard of this before.
Perhaps it explained a lot. We chatted a bit and I think that
was the time he told me he hoped the boys (my half brothers) would get good
jobs in the colonies.
And then, quite suddenly, it all collapsed. I telephoned the
office. The line was dead. I went there, but it was locked up. No notice, just
a blank. So ended my weekly £3 wage. There was just one rather odd
sequel. Someone informed my mother that he was working at Stormont. To my
surprise she went to see him. A tiny residue of the early love she must once
have felt sparked and drove her to Belfast. He looked shrunken and penitent,
she said. A little later he died.
So long, dad. It was odd, not knowing you.