It is half-term and The Boss has taken The Girl on a road-trip. It is their first trip away together without me. They are visiting Nanna and Grand-dad in Yorkshire; a four hour journey interrupted by a pit-stop at Tamworth services for lunch. The Girl phones and tells me that she ate sausage, chips and beans and her mother had an omelette. Thelma and Louise they aren’t!
The Girl, my daughter, who is ten years old and happens to have Down Syndrome, has been on sleepovers with friends for years and has had many overnight trips away with groups such as the Brownies. Two years ago she came with me on a camping trip to Caerfai Bay, near St. David’s, in Pembrokeshire. Somehow though, it’s taken this long for mother and daughter to cement their bond, leaving me in charge of selling our house whilst they are doing a Kerouac in the moors and dales of The Boss’s native county. Nanna has lined-up all her friends to come over and meet the Girl. The Boss’s brother, Hacker-King, is travelling over from Galway, to make it a real family reunion.
Back in the ‘Diff, I lie in the bath, as hot as a sauna, listening to Desert Island Disks on BBC Radio 4. Kirsty Young is coaxing from the Scottish poet, Jackie Kay, beautiful prose, full of insight. Young asks “You wrote ‘we write to understand the things that are missing in our lives’. You’ve got a son. You’ve got at least three jobs. You’ve got a long-term partner. What is still missing?”, which draws the following response: “That is such a brilliant question. I do have so much and I do feel loved, and I think that love is the thing that defines us more than anything else. Love is what gives us our identity, love is what makes us strong. I think we are also shadowed in our life by our losses. We all have lost people in different ways, and so I think that kind of strange loss becomes actually a presence. Absence becomes a presence in our life and I think often writers write to try to grapple with the presence that absence makes.”1
Her words startle me. I grab the towel and dry my hands, reaching for the pad and pen that are invariably close by for moments such as these. I jot the words down as best as I can remember them. (Later, I will visit the website and transcribe them faithfully.) “We’ll have lost people in different ways, and so I think that kind of strange loss becomes actually a presence. Absence becomes a presence in our life and I think often writers write to try to grapple with the presence that absence makes.”
My mind follows my wife and daughter to Yorkshire. Their family reunion will never quite be complete. Twenty-two years ago, aged twenty-eight, my wife’s sister died of Hodgkin’s Disease. Katherine’s very absence will bring her to their hearth. They will smile and say what a wonderful aunt she’d have made The Girl, a girl who will return home in three days time having glimpsed shadows of her aunt seen through a glass darkly. She will sense a mystery of life – that death does not wipe life’s tablet clean; that loving memory and family stories link her to a past and to people, unseen and hitherto unknown, who are part of her story too
My kind and lovely older cousin, Jan, instant-messages me from her home in France. We natter back and forth, our fingers typing questions and answers. Routine stuff but nice too – part of the glue that binds friends and families together. I tell her that I still remember her dazzling long, blonde hair and thinking as a boy that she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen.
Her reply stops me short, I have to remember to breathe. “I was so thrilled that you were in our lives… for many years it was all a bit of a mystery about your Dad but glad it was sorted out… not meeting you and your Mum and Dad until Cardiff… I had not met your Dad until I was about ten or eleven… yes, it was a funny time, but so glad the family got over it and reunited”. Then she continued, “your dad was SO Nanna’s favourite!… drove the girls [his five sisters] mad… he could do no wrong… he had blond cute curls and was as naughty as naughty… but got away with it all”.
Had dad’s banishment really gone on so long? He had married aged nineteen back in 1947, to an older woman and they had one child, my half-brother, Ian. The marriage broke down irretrievably within a few short years. Dad only spoke about this to me once. When I left my first wife and was full of shame and failure he told me of his being the butt of others’ anger. This was back when divorce was a social issue, hard to obtain, overlaid with moral strictures. “Son, I hope you’ll be spared the stuff I had thrown at me but prepare yourself nonetheless. Women looked at me as if I had a disease that their husbands might catch. The husbands, a fair few of them, looked at me with anger because I got out when none of them had the guts to.” Nanna disowned him, her favourite of seven children.
Years passed and dad and mam met. They couldn’t get married because dad’s first wife, Beryl, wouldn’t grant permission for a divorce. Tellingly, she still turned up at Evans family gatherings and photographs. My dad was in none of those pictures. He and mam decided to try for a child, me. I was conceived in January 1958. Having suffered so much opprobrium they were prepared to go the whole hog and have a child out of wedlock. I know not how or why but Beryl granted dad a divorce. He and mam married that summer and I was born in October.
Nanna’s punishment of dad continued until I was about five years old (if cousin Jan is correct about the age she first met dad). And now, bar one aunt in far-flung Canada, they are all gone. There is no-one left to ask. A couple of my older cousins remember some of this but not in detail for they were kids too. I don’t know very much of dad’s story at all. I never knew Ian, nor met him. When dad died I thought for a while that I would like to reach out and find my half-brother. But my sisters pointed out that had dad wanted us to know more of his story he would surely have told us. To which I replied that had we but been interested enough to ask he would surely have told us. But that’s where things were left.
The anniversary of the Aberfan disaster fell two days before my girls travelled to Yorkshire. I had just turned eight and remember my parents being stunned into silence. Dad drove up to offer help. Many hundreds more had the same idea. They were all turned away some distance from the village by the police. There was room for only so many people at the scene. The Boss and I watched a re-run of the BBC1 news at nine minutes past seven that bleak evening2. Richard Baker introduces an unnamed reporter from the scene, who starts: “I honestly don’t know how to begin…” and concludes that neither did he know how to end his piece to camera. It closes with him looking down into the valley, speechless. Fifty years on a friend found the following words which he posted on social media along with a picture of his kids: “These are my children. They are my world. They went to school this morning and came home safety this evening. I cannot imagine the grief in Aberfan half a century ago. Count your blessings”.
Whether our imaginings are of how good an aunt a departed sister would have made; or of understanding our own family stories; or grieving for a lost generation from a town so near us yet so far away, their absence becomes a presence now, and will remain, as long as there are people here to remember.