I was too small to go, so I stayed at home drawing pictures while my Dad took my older sister along to see what it was all about. They came back, a few hours later, with a variety of badly made tartan ‘gonks’ and also a strange, brown cylinder that was completely unfamiliar to me.
‘This is for you, Son,’ said my Dad.
‘Wow,’ I said. All thoughts of gonks and other cuddly toys disappearing, as I took hold of this new treasure.
‘What is it?’ I asked.
My Dad paused as he looked down at me and the over-sized coconut I held in my hands. Then he smiled and answered.
‘It’s an elephant egg,’ he said ‘and,’ he added ‘if you look after it for a week, a baby elephant will hatch from it!’
By that point he was already filling my head with other stories; pointing out the giant television transmission station, view-able from his allotment garden and identifying it as Santa Claus’s holiday home, or drawing my attention to the giant cooling towers we passed on a bus trip into town and revealing that they were, in fact, factories where the world’s supply of clouds were manufactured.
Every night when I went to bed he would tell me stories about characters he had made up during the day, but which I assumed to be entirely real. These were not traditional fairy stories that he had read in a book but detailed, multi-part adventures that would continue over several nights and hooked me more than most television shows of the day did. When I got too old for bedtime stories he started giving me books to read instead and it was through him that I discovered Ray Bradbury, Stephen King and numerous other authors I admire and love.
He was, and is, a passionate conservationist and lover of wildlife and, as a child, he took me on countless walks through our local woods, pointing out the various things we passed on route. On numerous occasions I can remember him handing me a sweet as we sat hunched behind a tree, waiting to see if any badgers would pop their noses out from the sets he knew so well (and guarded fiercely against anyone he might encounter disturbing them). It’s from him that I inherited my own love of nature and interest in wildlife conservation.
As a boy, it seemed to me that he knew everything and, despite now being older than he was when I was born, I can appreciate that he frequently filled in the gaps with make-believe nonsense or things he felt were more entertaining than the truth. That was his job. He was my Dad and he was building a sense of imagination and wonder for the world within his children.
Let me tell you something else about him. He was and is a proud man. A former steelworker left redundant during Thatcher’s decimation of the North east of England throughout the eighties. He largely rejected bitterness (although he hated Thatcher to her death) and instead sunk the free time he had into giving his children the best role model they could have hoped for during those tough economic times.
When he did get back into work, he was forced to take employment for less than what now exists as the minimum wage and, in doing so, was required to work twelve hour shifts, seven days a week to make ends meet. In retrospect I can see what a terrible time this must have been for him, but he never cried about it, he did what needed to be done to support his family; the people he loved and cared about most in the world.
I can remember, just a few years ago, sitting with him, watching the late night news where the reporter was giving a eulogy about the former Newcastle United footballer Gary Speed, who had tragically committed suicide earlier in the week. It was an emotional report, one given extra gravitas for the attachment it carried to the team we both followed.
I could feel myself welling up as I watched the report, but I found myself fighting back tears. I didn't want to cry in front of him. I remember looking across at him to see if he had noticed and seeing him sitting there arms folded, his lower lip trembling, his own eyes full of tears…fighting exactly the same battle as me.
And this is why I won’t show him what I've written here.
Because that’s the relationship we have; We call each other on Skype and he asks me if I saw a particular goal in the football, which is his way of saying “I miss you, Son” and I reply and tell him about some silly thing that happened to me on my travels which is my way of saying “I miss you too, Dad.”
And the next time I’m back visiting we’ll probably sit on the sofa, laughing about something amusing some relative or neighbor did which is our way of saying “Hello, it’s good to see you again.” And he’ll eventually go and get some book or record that he dug up from a local charity shop and start telling me about it, which is his way of saying “I love you, Son” and I’ll listen to him talk about it, which is my way of saying “I love you too, Dad.”
And neither of us will say anything of the kind. And both of us will know, just the same.
So, Happy Fathers Day, Dad and thanks for the childhood that you gave me.
I think we both know that it was never about an elephant for either of us.