Dad has moved into a care home. And so my brother and sister and I find ourselves standing in his empty flat, which already feels cold and deserted, faced with the task of clearing it out. In the hallway the smoke detector, impossible to silence, emits a shrill beep every ten seconds, as we set to work, going through boxes and drawers and cupboards, sorting his belongings into separate piles – Keep, Donate, Throw Away. To add to the fun, it is Remembrance Sunday.
Yet not all is gloom, and we find things that make us roll our eyes and laugh: an enormous box marked FRAGILE proves to be full of nothing but packing straw, and though we pick through it carefully, half expecting to find a tortoise at the bottom, it is empty and mysterious. Other finds make us catch our breath – a 60th wedding anniversary card to Dad from our late mother, and, in a small box, her engagement ring.
The photo albums are piled up on the top wardrobe shelf, and for an hour we are distracted, drawn into this concertinaed version of our family history suddenly laid out before us. The earliest pictures show our parents after the war but before the children. The wedding looks a bit demob-austere but later, on Bournemouth Beach, Mum is as slim and glamorous as Wallis Simpson, elegant in a summer dress, earrings and necklace, while Dad looks sporty in tennis whites.
Then come the Fifties, and my brother is a toddler posing with a telephone. Then my sister Debbie and I appear, two years apart in age, and often dressed identically. There we are, in our highly inflammable nylon dressing gowns, in our side-by-side beds. I can almost smell the Karvol on those rosebud-printed pillowcases. Yes, Rosebud. I know.
Everyone looks their best in the Sixties, but that decade of chic is followed by Seventies flounce – too much hair and trouser and collar, too many smocks and ponchos. And in the Eighties photos we all look older and frumpier than we do now – pie-crust collars, perms, pearls. Before you know it, our own kids appear, carbon copies of ourselves a few pages earlier.
Then, after the sweet diversion of all this reminiscing, we find a tiny suitcase tucked in the bottom of the wardrobe. I click it open, and take out a thickly stuffed envelope, musty and fragile. Inside is Dad’s RAF logbook, and the complete record of his entry into the air force and training. A passport-size photo shows him at the time, aged 18. My daughters are 18 now, and safely studying science and art. He was studying navigation and bombing.
I grew up knowing that Dad never fought in the war: it ended just in time. But looking at the date on these papers, 1944, I realise that of course he was training while the war was still in full flow, in the clear expectation that he would be fighting. And knowing what that meant, in terms of survival rates for young pilots and navigators.
He never showed any of this to us – indeed, never made much of having been in the air force, never understood those who wanted to keep remembering. I don’t think he was particularly proud of it. He’d simply had no choice. Had he been frightened? He never said. But still, he kept all these documents.
In the kitchen, we go through the cupboards, which tell a more recent history. The fridge speaks of neglect – sell-by dates ignored in a manner so cavalier as to be life-threatening. A freezer full of recently ordered ready-meals he hadn’t had time to eat. In a cupboard is the caster sugar, still kept in the same shaker we used as children to dust pancakes, and in the drawer, a tiny paring knife we all remembered using to cut apples. Fifty years ago.
It’s a sad thing to have to be doing but is made easier by doing it together. Afterwards, we all go to visit Dad. In the sitting room of the home is a large poppy display, and we ask him if there has been any kind of Remembrance Day commemoration that morning. He says not, but then again, he might just not remember. Or not want to.
This article appears in the 23 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile