The Abiding Memory

05 February, 2023

The Abiding Memory

In this extract from Song For My Father, Ian Clayton shares the abiding memory of his eccentric father from his childhood.

I have an abiding image of my dad. I am nine. We are sitting on a bench at Wakefield Kirkgate railway station. My mother walked out of our house the day before. My dad has decided to look for her and bring her home. His exact words to me before we came to this station were, ‘We’re going to form a posse, lad, lasso your mam and bring her back.’ We sit side by side, not looking at one another. We munch on corned beef sandwiches wrapped in tin foil. My dad has cut his finger opening the tin and he has a piece of rag wrapped round it fastened on with Sellotape. A porter trudges past with a sack barrow full of suitcases, all bearing neatly-written address labels. People get off trains and get on them. My dad stares into space and then looks up at the sky. I sense this and follow his gaze. High up, a little aeroplane moves across the blue leaving a vapour trail that is sharp at first and then thickens until it starts to disappear. I watch the aeroplane until it goes out of my frame of vision. My dad starts to sing a Box Tops song. ‘Give me a ticket for an aeroplane; I ain’t got time to catch the fast train.’ His singing is a peculiar mixture of West Riding Yorkshire and what he thinks is an American accent. I look at my dad, he doesn’t look back, just carries on singing and humming when he can’t remember the words.

‘Are you singing because you are sad?’

He says nothing and still doesn’t turn to look at me.

‘Are you happy then?’

He carries on singing and humming and looking up at the sky.

Another little aeroplane comes into view.

I want to ask my dad all sorts of questions, but I know I won’t get an answer. I crumble up the crust of my sandwich and throw pieces of it to some pigeons that have flown down from under the canopy that is over the platform. And that’s where this image fades. Over many years I have tried and better tried to recall, but I can’t remember what happens next.

My mother used to keep photographs in a shoebox in the cupboard in our sideboard. One day she pulled out every photograph that had my dad on it and started to cut round him with a pair of small scissors. She didn’t stop to look at the shape she had cut out, just threw it straight onto the fire. We have photographs that were once family groups that show three boys with identical fringes, a mother looking over us and a hole where our dad used to be. We have seaside donkeys missing a rider and a wedding photograph that shows a young woman outside St. Thomas’ Church with part of her arm missing and a hole to one side of her. All that’s left is a piece of my dad’s lapel and half a carnation. My dad went missing a long time before he started disappearing.


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What happens when you only know your dad when you’re a young boy and then, one day, when you are middle-aged, he phones to say he’d like to see you again before he dies? In the space of one year, Ian Clayton makes a voyage around China, America and his father to ponder the familiar questions: Is blood thicker than water? Does it matter who teaches us so l..

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