‘Who’s the boss in your house?’ asked James Blay, when we were playing football in his garden.
‘Mum,’ I said. This was a fact, like the sky being blue, the grass being green.
‘No, she’s not,’ he told me. ‘It’s your Dad. Because he’s a man.’
I looked at him, my brow all wrinkly. Then I laughed.
‘Nah,’ I said. ‘It’s definitely Mum.’
James knew Dad. He wasn’t like other people’s dads. Other people’s dads were sometimes scary. They could shout. They didn’t play for hours on Saturday mornings, turning the living room upside down while they made you fly on their feet. They didn’t make you cars from cardboard boxes. Or take all the cushions off the sofa and make a square egg you could hide inside, while they pretended to be a chicken sitting on top. Most other dads didn’t like watching ‘Dogtanian’ and ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ just as much as you did.
No, Dad was definitely not like other dads. For a start, he said ‘barth’ instead of ‘bath’. His job was an unpronounceable mystery. (Metallurgist, specialising in tungsten carbide. Yep.) He sang in the cathedral choir, and his music filled the house. Where other dads played the Beatles, the Dubliners, Bowie, Dad was always tuned to Radio 3.
From the Roberts radio in the kitchen poured old, twiddly music that came from another time. I’d feel lost in it, like I was wandering in a strange forest, getting the odd glimpse of home through the trees.
Today I’m being my father’s daughter, and I’m listening to exactly this music while I work. Everyone who knows me will be shocked I’ve turned my back on Radio 1. (This is because I still have the musical taste of a teenager from the Midlands.) My father’s music plays now, colouring the air like stained glass windows: complex and peculiar. I have stumbled over its beautiful corners, and I’ve felt like I’m little again, falling asleep to the weird warbles of opera coming from downstairs.
It occurs to me as I’m working, that so many of my story ideas are about daughters, fighting for their fathers. There’s Petrel, whose Dad is badly hurt, and whose only hope of recovery lies with her. There’s my current heroine, whose father is powerless to help her outwit her enemies. The first story I ever wanted to write was that of Ismene, the daughter of ancient Greek incest, and her struggle against her father’s fate. I’m drawn to daughters who battle, whose stories have slipped through the cracks.
‘The wonderful thing about having children,’ Dad told me once, as we sat side-by-side driving back from Scotland, ‘is that it teaches you so much.’
He is so right. One of the things it teaches you is just how much you learned from your own parents, your own early world.
I watch him play with my little girl, pretending to dance a tango together à la Strictly, or carrying her around the house in a plastic storage box. Building huge towers of megabloks and roaring with laughter at ‘Gigglebiz’. And I realise I’ve soaked up all my patience from him. All my flashes of silly fun are entirely his.
I don’t have a son, but if I did, this is what I’d want him to know: the noblest quality in a man is the depth of his kindness. A father’s gentleness shows his children how to be strong.
Us daughters, we’re tough, in any case. We’ll take up our arms and stand our ground. We’re fighting for us all. No matter what tomorrow throws at us, we’re ready.