I woke up this morning thinking about Erik. Like he was in my head, words wanting to spill out. My second father, the man who adopted me, the man who taught me so much, loved me so much. A crazy mad, ridiculously over-the-top ball of contradictions of a man.
Life took away my birth father when I was ten, leaving me a broken child, knocking the stuffing out of me. Then, as if it felt a bit guilty, it gave me Erik in recompense. He met my mother at a party held by parents of my best friend, Clare. Mum fell in love, head over heels, with this wild pirate of a man who drank too much, drove too fast, partied like there was no tomorrow.
It was a strange time. My brother and sister were/are ten and twelve years older than me and had left home. Erik had been through a nasty divorce and didn’t get to see his three daughters too much, which splintered his heart. I was missing a father; he was missing daughters but that equation ain’t ever easy and places can’t be taken; you can’t just plug a person into a gap, no matter how gaping the wound. I was in the deep dark place and he didn’t barge in, didn’t push it. He gave me time. And it took time. I felt a pressure, even though it never came from him. ‘Be kind,’ my mother would say. ‘He’s lost his daughters.’ His ex-wife had emigrated to Australia, taking the girls. He would never see them again. ‘But I can’t be his daughters,’ I’d say sadly. I wasn’t even sure I could be one daughter, let alone three rolled into one.
But slowly I grew to love him, to trust him. Allowed love to creep back into a heart that had closed off from fear of loss. And he widened my eyes and my guts as well as my heart. For Erik was a reckless man and I was a careful child. He’d had a business and already lost the lot when we met him. But he just shrugged and, when I first knew him, he was working as a boiler mechanic for a guy he’d trained, driving a white van.
‘Let’s get lost!’ he’d say and I’d instruct him… ‘turn left, turn right, go straight on’ until I had no idea where we were. ‘Oh look,’ he’d say. ‘There’s a Chinese restaurant over there. ‘Have you eaten Chinese food?’ And I’d say, ‘No’ and he’d say, ‘Right, let’s go. I’ll teach you how to use chopsticks.’ He’d been in the merchant navy, sailed all over the world, had all kinds of adventures, done all kinds of crazy things. He loved the sea with a passion; had worked as a diving engineer before his lung collapsed, dragging him reluctantly back to land. He loved; he hated. There was no mid-way ground with Erik.
‘C’mon,’ he said one day. ‘I’ll teach you to drive.’ And we went to an abandoned airfield and he put me behind the wheel of this stupid big powerful car (an Audi maybe) and just said. ‘Go for it.’ My mother was horrified and got me proper driving lessons (with a revolting man who had a permanent bit of spittle on the edge of his mouth like a postule). But it was Erik who really taught me to drive – fast, accurately, decisively. By the time I was eighteen I’d driven pretty well every car going. Cos he loved cars. One day he threw me a keyring and said, ‘Move that round the back, will ya?’ And, by heck, it was an Aston, DB6, bright red. He’d got it from ‘some guy’. There was always ‘some guy’ and they were usually well dodgy, apart from the Ghurkhas who came, quiet intense men with sad eyes. Though, who knows, maybe they were dodgy too.
He started another business and it took off cos Erik was a born salesman. He could charm the pants off anyone if he wanted. People loved him but they also envied him his easy charm, his extravagance, his passion. He made enemies as well as friends. But, for a short few years in my teens, we lived a pretty good life. From having nothing as a child (people think that if you grow up in suburbia and speak with a South-Eastern (RP) accent, you’re posh which always cracks me up; my mother had malnutrition, for pity’s sake) we were suddenly relatively affluent. I had stuff cos Erik loved buying me stuff. He bought me gold mainly (such a pirate!) saying. ‘Look, love. If it all goes tits up, you can always sell it.’ He had a mate who was a jeweller and he designed things and had them made up – an ankh, a pendant with my initial, a cross with diamonds).
It did go tits up, of course, and he lost his second business. Went to prison actually – for non payment of VAT. Hated himself so deeply. Wouldn’t let us visit. When he came out I met him at the tube station at Pentonville Road and he looked like a dead man. He just got in the car and he said, ‘Drive, love. Don’t talk to me, not yet.’ And we got to my flat and he went in the shower and stayed there for about an hour.
My mother sold everything. Cleared the lot. The beautiful house with the garden she adored; the jewellery; the antiques; the smart cars. Never looked back, not once. They moved into a rented flat by a railway station and, by heck, he started again. From nothing. Built up another business. Bought another house. Bought more stupid crazy cars.
I think he gave me a basic security. The knowledge that you can lose everything and it won’t be the end of the world; you can start again. That things are just things. They’re nice, for sure, but they’re not essential. I don’t have the ankh, the cross, the initial (oh the irony – they were all nicked when Mum was selling the house) but I have the memory of them and that’s enough. He lost that third business as well, of course. Took his eye off the ball (again). And lost the lot (again). I remember my mother fighting like fury but it was a lost cause. Once again we sold everything – but it wasn’t enough. He didn’t give up. ‘I’ll be a consultant,’ he said and started looking at brochures for big houses. My mother rolled her eyes.
His spirit never broke but his heart did. Spectacularly one day, watching the news. He had a massive heart attack and died instantly, collapsed over the phone so my poor mother had to try to shift him off it so she could dial 999. You had to laugh. He weighed a ton; she was like a feather. She said she got so cross she hit him.
I was in London that night, staying with my friend Liz. When the phone rang at midnight, we frowned. When I saw her eyes flitting over to me, I knew something terrible had happened. I couldn’t get back; there were no trains running. I kept it together until she had gone to bed and I lay on her sofa, heaving sobs, the ache in my heart so intense I wondered if I, too, would die. ‘Don’t cry, little lady. Don’t you cry.’ I heard his voice in my head as clear as if he were sitting next to me.
‘We’ll sprinkle his ashes in the garden,’ my mother said, decisively. ‘He loved this house.’ There was a touch of bitterness in her voice by then as she reckoned his passion for the house had been a contributing factor in the downfall of business #3.
‘But it’s been sold,’ I said. ‘You won’t be able to visit him.’ She shrugged. ‘It’s what he would have wanted.’
‘But the people who’re buying it are weird; they’ve given you such a tough time.’
‘Exactly!’ she laughed. ‘Maybe he’ll haunt them.’
So we stood in the garden with the urn. Reverently reached in and took out a handful. Sprinkled it on the roses, telling a memory. And so we went, around the garden, for what seemed like eternity. Remembering, remembering.
‘By heck, there’s a lot of him,’ said Mum. ‘I kept telling him he should lose weight.’
And we started to laugh. And laugh and laugh.
‘Oh for pity’s sake,’ she said. ‘Just tip him out and be done with it. He wouldn’t be doing with all this.’
‘You’re right,’ I said and up-ended the urn.
‘Let’s have a drink,’ she said. ‘In fact, let’s get rotten drunk.’
‘He’d have liked that,’ I said.
So we did.
Alas, no photographs. I don't have a scanner. One day I will get one and put up some pics. But really - he was a Viking. That's all you need to know - you can picture the rest.