Shortly afterwards my parents and I went to the Sicilian resort of Taromina for a New Year Holiday. Holidays with my father were generally good fun. At the height of his business we had taken a series of expensive package tours. One trip sticks in my mind. The flights were chartered and left at odd hours of the day and night. Dad was working up to the last minute and had not had time to change. He was still literally and metaphorically covered in bread flour. We arrived late for check-in and were last to board, making ourselves unpopular with the other passengers. An old man kept asking for heating to be turned up until the plane was boiling. Finally this old man took his coat off and there was load applause from across the aircraft. Mum hushing Dad up from cheering as well. We called the man shop steward. For the rest of the flight he complained about everything. Transfer from the airport to hotels was by coach. We began to drop people off at various little hotels. People starting playing a game of guessing whose hotel it was next. We passed through large palatial gates and along a winding drive way. Both Mum and Dad were asleep. The shop steward began to ready himself. We turned a corner and the most beautiful hotel, literally a palace with uniformed porters, the works. The guide called the name of the hotel and no one moved. Shop steward had started to get up but now sat down. Dad stirred. “What, yes this is us”. The dishevelled Brivati disembarked to open mouths, leaving a trail of flour behind us.
By the time of this New Year trip to Sicily our means were considerably reduced. But it was still a lovely hotel. It was also a relaxed trip until something strange began to happen at meal times. Dad was always a fast eater. Now he was gulping down his food, then leaving the table and returning red faced and watery eyed from the bathroom. It soon became clear that he was not keeping his food down. After they returned home he continued to lose weight quickly. In July I had my viva for my PhD. After lunch with my supervisor and the examiners I took a train to Southampton. Dad had been admitted to hospital there for some check-ups. He was down from 18 to about 10 stone. The viva had gone better than I could have hoped, in fact we took the doctorate from the meeting room and deposited it straight in the library without a correction. I was on a high but obviously worried about Dad. I told him my news about the viva. He was visibly moved, proud and pleased. He told me his news: terminal cancer.
In September I had my graduation. Taking immense trouble Mum brought Dad up for the event. He was now close to being a skeleton, maybe 8 stone. Dressed in a dark suit with a fedora hat, he was exaggeratedly old. Dad loved fun fairs and always wanted to go. He liked the old boys, the characters of the fair. His old age was compressed into a single year because of cancer. He had looked forward to being an old man, an old character and he tried in those few months to distil his old age into the way he walked, talked and dressed. Nothing would have given him more pleasure than to have been an old man who helped the bake house out of a crisis – pulling them out of the shit. He never had the chance.
My grandfather’s skin was rough and deeply lined. Tears would roll down from his eyes sometimes and his skin was so tough that he would not notice them. His mouth seemed set into his face as though he had had injections of botox. In contrast Dad, despite the many burns on his arms had soft skin, a clear complexion and smooth cheeks. On the day Dad died it took me a while to get home from London. It was evening when I arrived and my brother drove me over to see the body at the undertakers. They had just closed and the cleaner did not want to let me in. Finally, after a certain amount of shouting, the boss came down and opened up the room where Dad was laying. But it was not Dad. His cheeks had been made hard by the embalming; his hands had become puffed up. His emaciated body was rigid in his death suit. He seemed shorter, more concentrated and his skin was like steel. He had become his father.