My father was - probably is - what's affectionately known in the business as a 'character'. Bit of a lad. Liked a laugh. Always on the cusp of saying something completely inappropriate but then always managed to pull back from the brink by wrapping it in his unique accent and a naughty wink. Total misogynist, prone to somewhat old fashioned views generally, politically his right leg was slightly shorter than his left, tended to say rude stuff about people in front of them.
Loved by all.
He was the sort of person that people wanted to have around. Whatever his views, they were neutered by his genial personality, his wit and the fact that he had probably the best accent in the world ever; Italian, via a 25 year stint living in Libya, came over to the UK in the 60s not speaking a word of English. He learned the language from Scottish and Indian labourers. At some 90 kilos and 5' 4, he was a (not so) little ball of a man, which probably helped; even when he was occasionally miserable and aggressive, he was less a threat and more just Louie De Palma. I'm not kidding, people loved him.
And yes, I realise I’m speaking about him in the past tense. My parents, who were living in Spain at the time, split up just before I got married some 13 years ago (gulp, how long? you get less for murder, etc). We've all had plenty of time to get used to the idea, but my relationship with my father became more and more acrimonious in the years following the split until eventually, about two or three years ago, he simply left. No goodbyes, no forwarding address, no contact. Could be alive, could be dead, we don’t know. Gone, disappeared in a puff of disappointment.
If he'd had the courage simply to call it quits and move out immediately then chances are we would have all accepted this brave new world relatively painlessly. But that's not what happened. What at first was an attempt by him to make it less painful for my mother became this horrible long drawn out death throes that left everyone involved exhausted and bitter. He did eventually move out, but over the next few years he’d return to take up residence in an annex to my mother’s house, staking ever more trenchant claims on pensions, endowments, savings, the house. Then (mostly because the cause of the original break up was his new found desire for a younger model, less mileage, handles better in the wet) when my mother finally made it clear that the assets weren’t about to be split quite according to his plan, things started going missing; jewellery, cash, other valuables. One day they'd be there, next day they'd be gone, always after one of his visits. Then he disappeared for the first time. He was gone two years, during which we heard nothing at all, and then out of the blue I received a phone call: 'Hello boy,' it started, 'I in trouble.' He'd been in Brazil, borrowed some money to start up a restaurant, which then failed and he couldn't pay the money back and now he had to get out, quickly. But he couldn't leave without paying a fine for outstaying his visa. I nodded along, told him I thought it was all bollocks, and then sent him the money anyway.
That was the start of a pattern; nothing for a while, then a call with ever more outlandish problems, a request for money, threats, pleadings, cajoling, the handing over of cash, a further disappearance. If his stories are to be believed he's variously come close to death at the hands of the Brazilian underworld and the Spanish mafia, he's become involved with the Colombian import/export business, and he's an official persona non grata in Brazil after having seriously outstayed his visa not once but three times (and yet seems to have managed to get back in again, go figure). At one point he asked me for £10,000 to start a shoe making business. I laughed and it was never spoken of again.
The last time he made an appearance he ended up renting my in-laws' house - furnished - with the intention of running a restaurant, which he intended to set up with the assistance of some Colombian friends. He paid his initial deposit and the first month's rent, and then (really? No. Who'd have thunk it?) funds dried up. A year later he was gone, the house having been cleared out (literally stripped; even down to the boiler and the pipework) and the in-laws seriously pissed off. Then, two months later, after having received several visits from some Colombian gentlemen asking, politely, about his whereabouts, my mother returned to her home one day to find it trashed. Curiously, all that had been taken was the jewellery, which he had always insisted was his. No contact since.
If I'm honest I have to say I'm really not as bothered as I should be. I go a little quiet when I remember it's his birthday, but it's only once a year and it's a fleeting thing. We've had plenty of time to get used to it, I suppose; he didn’t just go from Wonderdad to Madman overnight. It bothers me is that my daughter hasn’t really had the chance to know her grandfather. She’s met him, but always under strained circumstances and about all she’ll say about him now is that she thinks he’s ‘a bit silly’ to have gone away. She doesn’t really know him, and who knows if she ever will.
What annoys me most of all, though, is that I can understand precisely what was going through his head when he decided that he wanted to go. It was part of his character to want something more than he had. He never was a mortgage, two cars, 9-5 sort of person, and yet that's what he'd become. What he'd been forced to become in order to fund an increasingly opulent lifestyle and a son who, in his eyes at least, he had to fund through university. I think he'd put up with a life he really didn't want for years, and when he no longer had to fund his son's education or upkeep, because son had grown up and had a family of his own now, the world suddenly opened up. Except of course, being the person he was he couldn't quite manage to extricate himself without causing pain, and angst, and much gnashing of teeth.
And so we come full circle. I look in the mirror and it's my father I see. I have his features, I have his mannerisms, I seem to be staring at the same bumps in the road. I'm not about to walk off into the sunset alone, but I'd say I share my father's view of the importance of not blithely bumbling through life with eyes half closed thinking 'this is it'. This isn't it. Perhaps this was his most important lesson to me. Perhaps I should be grateful.
Buon compleanno, papa. I hope you're happy.