About a pound of wholemeal bread (stale will do)
Pint of milk
8oz brown sugar
8oz mixed raisins, sultanas, currants
2tsp spice (cinnamon, coriander, cumin – or the commercial ready-mixed spice)
A little nutmeg
Break up the bread and let it soak in the milk in a large bowl while you sort out the music to play while cooking. I recommend “Making History” by Linton Kwesi Johnson, followed by “Blue” by Joni Mitchell. Heat oven to 180C (gas mark 4). Add the raisins etc and mix everything together vigorously with the butter, and the sugar and spice.
Beat the eggs and mix in well. Put the whole lot into one or more greased shallow ovenproof dishes. Bake for around 45 minutes or until set.
One of my favourite movies is “Field of Dreams”, starring Kevin Costner. It is a shamelessly sentimental story of a young man called Ray who owns a farm in Iowa, under the big deep sky of the American Midwest. He hears a ghostly voice in his cornfield, telling him to build a baseball pitch on his land. “Build it and he will come,” the voice says.
Risking bankruptcy, Ray ploughs up his corn and builds the baseball field, an immaculate diamond of green under a flawless powder blue sky, sunk into the surrounding expanse of amber corn. He even builds floodlights. One night a man in baseball uniform appears out of the corn and plays ball with the farmer. After that, night after night, other players appear and play baseball as the farmer and his family watch. These are, we understand, the ghosts of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, and his fellow Chicago White Sox, who were banned for life in what was probably America’s biggest sporting scandal, accused of taking bribes to throw the 1919 World Series.
There are some important emotional undercurrents in the movie. As Ray heads off on a quest east – spurred on by further interventions from his cornfield voices – you see that the movie is something of an elegy for the bruised ideals of the sixties generation. For people who once thought a song or a book or the right emotion could change the world, but who now were grown up and ground down by responsibility and work and money worries. Innocence lost.
But it turns out that what the film is really about is Ray’s pain from his unsatisfactory relationship with his father. A generation clash cut bitterly short when the father died before the son had a chance to apologise for harsh things said during an argument. We pick up small pieces of his regret through stray comments about his dad. As a man himself now, struggling with the burdens of work and family, he sees more clearly the way things must have looked to his dad years before. His father played baseball, although never in the big leagues.
In the end we are not surprised to find Ray alone with the catcher on his twilit baseball diamond. The young catcher packs up his stuff, removing his facemask and Ray realises it is a young version of his father. Playing catch with the ghost of his father under a glorious pink Iowa sky, he eases the pain that has troubled him all his adult life.
We watched this movie a while ago. I had seen it before, but something in it got under my defences in a way that hadn‘t happened before. As the credits ran up the screen I sat very quietly. Something felt deeply, terribly wrong, but I didn’t know what. I couldn’t speak. My eyes felt hard and tight. My throat was dry. I blinked repeatedly.
Laura noticed. “What’s wrong?”
I opened my mouth to speak. As I did so, I genuinely did not know what I was feeling.
“I miss my dad.”
I didn’t know I was going to say those words until I heard myself speak them, when my eyes flooded suddenly with tears. “I really miss my dad.” The words came out of my mouth like they were suddenly unplugged, loosening a great gush of emotion banked up behind them. I cried for ten minutes, unable to stop.
My father died when I was twelve. By the time I was in my mid-twenties I had lived more of my life without a father than with one. Yet you never fully recover from the loss of people you love, you just learn to get along. The wound closes over but there is a scar. A slushy Hollywood movie could without warning leave me shaking with the force of a grief that I carried quietly within me for thirty years.
I remember very clearly the first time I realised there was something wrong with my dad. Funnily enough, it wasn’t any of the hundreds of times I saw him in our kitchen doing his morning injection. He’d take what seemed to me an impressively large glass syringe and stick the needle into a bottle of insulin through the rubber seal. After filling the syringe, he’d put a foot up on a chair and grab a handful of his thin thigh, squeezing it up into a pale and grainy lump. Then he’d slide the needle into his flesh and empty the syringe. Nothing to it. Happened every day. Didn’t all dads do that?
No, the time it struck me that something was wrong was on holiday when I was about eight or nine. We were holidaying with two other families in the south west of England. We set off very early, still dark on a summer Saturday morning, and reached Somerset much too early to check in to the holiday camp. We stopped in a seaside town for breakfast. Six adults and six children piled into a café on the seafront. I have three distinct memories of this occasion.
First, my dad started clowning around, acting loud and boisterous. He ate his own breakfast and then turned round to the table where the kids were sitting and took some of our food from our plates. He started making a strange noise, shaking his head and blowing through his lips, like he was imitating a horse. He nodded his head forward and slapped the back of his neck with his hand. At first we all thought this was a tremendous joke. But it went on too long and got too weird. I got frightened.
Second, a little later, we were in the street. The other adults must have realised something was wrong. Some of them surrounded my dad in the street. He was shouting, and batting away the hands of those trying to calm him down. The two other mums ushered the children away from the fuss, towards the seafront. At one point I looked back and saw my dad suddenly lurch backwards, away from the people arguing with him. He stumbled and lost his balance. In slow motion, I saw him step back into the road, into the passing traffic. Then, like magic, he was grabbed by a stranger walking past. The man pulled him back onto the pavement, stood him upright, and passed on his way. I said a silent prayer to whoever it was for saving my dad’s life.
That wasn’t my only prayer. My third memory is of standing at the seawall. The men were still endeavouring to bring my dad under control fifty yards away behind us. I was crying and unable to look back. I leaned over the rough stone of the wall and stared down at the waves foaming onto rocks below me. I was convinced my father had suddenly gone insane. In a matter of minutes a hole had opened up in the certainties that until then had underpinned my young life. My dad had passed beyond my reach and seemed transformed into something wild and strange. I prayed that God would bring him back to me.
It worked. He recovered. He had suffered a severe hypoglycaemic attack. What diabetics call a “hypo”. They are caused by excess of insulin, either through overdose, or insufficient intake of carbohydrate. I have on my bookshelf a book on diabetes. It says that among other things the symptoms of a hypo include hunger, sweating, mental confusion, slurred speech, change in behaviour and bad temper. No mention of stealing children’s bacon or lurching backwards in front of passing cars, but otherwise pretty close to my dad that morning. Someone with diabetes, in this state, needs to eat something sweet quickly. Maybe my mother got some sugar down my dad. Maybe the food he’d had in the café began to kick in. Either way, he returned to normal.
I realise now that the fact that this first (as I remember it) hypo was such a surprise, was itself a bad sign. If my father had had his diabetes well-controlled, his blood sugar would have been at a sufficiently low level that the occasional mild hypo would be a frequent and unremarkable event. But I don’t remember anything like that happening before. This suggests to me that his blood sugar levels were generally high. High enough, as it turned out, to cause long-term damage to his health.
In the years to come – the few that remained before he died – the whole family learned what to do with a hypo. He had them more and more often, especially in his last two years, when he was out of work, losing his sight and thoroughly depressed. One time my mother was out on a Saturday evening, working her extra job in a local pub to earn some extra cash. Dad started acting strangely, becoming very emotional and crying.
It’s always very frightening to a child if a parent gets upset. It isn’t right; they’re the ones who are meant to comfort you when you cry. It felt to me like a large hole had opened up beneath our home and if we weren’t careful we could fall down it and never come back. He ended up lying on the kitchen floor, sobbing and calling for my sister. We rang my mother – ourselves in tears – and she gave us instructions over the phone to feed him spoons of sugar. She soon returned to find my father tired but coherent again, with two very tired and frightened children hiding in their rooms.
Laura’s father died when she was nearly forty. I asked her once which of us got the better deal. Most of my life, the fact of my dad’s death has not bothered me; it was so long ago, I was so young, so much has happened since. The pain is so faint.
Despite the fact of her grief being so raw and so recent Laura had no hesitation in saying that she was luckier than I was. She had so much more of life with her father. Her pain was greater because she had so much to miss. So much to grieve for. But she also had so much more love, so much more of the thoughtless, unconditional love a father has for his child.
It isn’t much of an insight really, but nonetheless true; to truly have love, you have to risk the deepest pain. Grief is the price we pay for love. All you can do is hope that the love is worth the pain that may come after. I fear it is the only afterlife any of us can hope for, to be remembered with love by others who live on. My father burned brightly for me but for much too short a time. When I die, I desperately want to leave those I have loved more of me than I recall of my father.
What do I have left of him?
When he was out of work, I would sit and listen to the radio with him when I got home from school. Just the two of us.
One Christmas I opened one of my presents in the early hours. It was a junior carpentry set. I used the saw on the edge of the cardboard box it came in, bringing my dad running into my room in his Y-fronts, furious because he thought I was sawing the legs off the bed.
He was once a lorry driver. Sometimes I went with him on trips, sitting up front in the cab. Sometimes he’d go on overnight trips and would often bring back something unusual. Once he brought home a wounded bat which he found on the road, to try to nurse it back to health.
Another time he brought home a rabbit, killed by his wheels. My sister and I were horrified that he could cook and eat it. Yet another time he bought some live eels from someone down the pub. He kept them in the bath.
We never had much money but he once bought me a really expensive toy robot in a toyshop before Christmas, because he could see how much I wanted it.
He loved children and would sit on our front step and talk to the kids down our street.
He also loved fishing, and I always regret that I lacked the patience to sit with him by the riverbank on those misty mornings, instead of getting bored and scaring away all the fish.
He always cooked our turkey at Christmas.
And bread pudding.
My dad made bread pudding and gave it to his son.
And so do I.