do you really know your father?
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Father, a reminiscence by John Atkins.


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small case crammed with documents: receipts, bank statements, certificates of varying kinds, all completely useless and out of date.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.

Yours Truly

I. Tay"

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 moved.

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 description.

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.


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