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6 April 2017

Tracey Thorn: How my parents met

They’d been introduced as pen pals through an uncle – my mum and her friend had written to this lonely young man, who was training in Jordan, and had each sent a photo. 

By Tracey Thorn

Just before Christmas I booked this short holiday in Tenerife with my sister and her husband, our only worry being whether or not Dad would be OK while we were away. Then, just a few weeks ago, and not entirely unexpectedly, he died. And now, with the shock and the funeral safely out of the way, we’ve come on holiday anyway, and it is infused not with worry, but with a strange mix of relief and regret, not least because the last time we were here, Dad was with us, too.

It was about five years ago. He was in good form, having rallied better than any of us expected after Mum’s death, and he had rented a mobility scooter, on which he’d bomb up and down the prom, stopping at cafés along the way to have a Spanish brandy. He enjoyed doing nothing much at all on holiday; eating, drinking, “watching the world go by”, as he used to say. Like in most seaside places, there’s lots of world-going-by to watch here.

The narrow, flat stretch between the barren hills and the sea, into which the hotels and apartments are crammed, has nothing picturesque or classy about it, but a resolute cheerfulness pervades – the simple enjoyment of the sun, of daytime booze, of no work to go to. The holidaymakers are either professional sunbathers with skin like a tan leather sofa, or those whose legs have never seen the light of day and are, as my youngest used to say, “as white as a sheep”.

There are lots of walkers, like me and my sister, and lots of users of mobility scooters and wheelchairs who have found, like Dad, that the flat surface is ideal, and they’re interspersed with local hippies – a bunch of dreadlocked white boys with acoustic guitars, one singing a supper-club version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, another sprawled in a shopping trolley with his fully plastered broken leg resting on the handles.

It’s touristy, and the sandwich boards outside the cafés advertise paella, fajitas and mojitos, and “lasagne of the house”, but then you round a headland and hit upon a stretch of black, rocky beach and a sea full of surfers, and the scent of salty air replaces the smell of salty chips. I remember that when we were here with Dad he decided he wanted to buy a pair of shoes, the same as the ones he was wearing, which he’d bought here a few years before. And so we set off into the streets back from the beach, the only thing approaching an “old town”, and searched for the exact lightweight, beige or grey leather shoes he liked to wear. Which apparently could only be found in Tenerife.

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This single-mindedness was pretty typical. The other memory that now comes to me is that during that same trip I had a full-scale, teenage, blazing row with him one night over after-dinner drinks, which resulted in me storming up to my bedroom, shouting “Good NIGHT” over my shoulder as I went. I was almost 50 years old at the time yet he could still make me feel 16 and infuriate me like no one else.

But on the front page of his funeral order of service we had printed a photo of him in his RAF uniform, aged 19, the way he looked the day my mum met him. They’d been introduced as pen pals through an uncle – my mum and her friend had written to this lonely young man, who was training in Jordan, and had each sent a photo. He chose Mum, and kept that very photo in his wallet for the rest of his life. They had exchanged letters and, when he was back in the UK, arranged to meet. He arrived in his RAF blues, gliding up the escalator at Holborn Tube, where she was waiting at the top. And I think of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death. David Niven in that uniform, and the staircase to heaven. Wartime romance. Does anything tug at the heart more strongly?

Back at home after the funeral, I put that photo of him up on Twitter. It’s the most popular thing I’ve ever tweeted, getting over a thousand likes. He’d have been proud.

Well, he’d have said, “What the hell’s Twitter?” and rolled his eyes, and we’d have had a row about it. But still.

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This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue