On a damp April Saturday morning Brian and I stood on the doorstep of my parents’ small bungalow, waiting for a minute or so. I had pressed the doorbell and I knew that they were both in, but nothing immediately happened. As I wondered whether to ring it again, I perhaps heard a slight noise, a slow tread on the carpet. The inner door of the porch opened and then the outer door, and my dad stood in front of me, with a weak but broad welcoming smile. “I’d normally have done it”, my mum said before anyone else could say anything, “but he insisted he was going to”.
Mum had already told me that he had shown some improvement. The antibiotics had dealt with the chest infection and he’d lost the pallor that he’d previously had. The growth was still sapping all dad’s energy, however, and as he slumped back in his chair I could see that the exertion of the 15 foot short walk had taken a lot of strength out of him. I asked him how he was. “Oh, not so bad”, he said, as usual.
Michael Frederick Meeks was born in St Bees in Cumbria on 25 October 1940, the youngest of four children. The only people I can ever remember calling dad “Michael” were his mother, his two sisters and my other grandma. In the case of his mum, this was “our Michael”, often with an inward drawing of breath, because he was always one for rascality. Grandma was a stern northern woman of the type affectionately mocked by Les Dawson but she had a soft spot for the baby of the family, who I think got away with blue murder at times.
To everyone else in the family he was Mick. Outside the family, he was Mike — something that began when he started a job where there was already a Mick, so he changed his nickname to avoid confusion. (This led to other confusions later on, as you can imagine.)
Dad was born, he always claimed, with platinum blond hair. By the time he was two, this had been replaced with the jet black hair that he bore for most of his life. Mum had always doubted the truth of this family tale — dad loved tall tales — but when I was born, my first hair was also platinum blond and in due course my hair too darkened down.
Growing up in rural Cumbria, dad’s childhood doesn’t sound as if it was much affected by the war or rationing. He certainly managed to get into plenty of mischief. Some of it I have no doubt grew in the telling — did he really dislodge the keystone of a bridge as a kid messing around with carbide? did he really give laxative chocolate in large quantities to a disliked cousin? — but everyone who knew him then agreed that he was a handful. “Oh that boy”, my grandma was supposed to have sighed at too-regular intervals.
Like many young boys with a talent for trouble, dad wasn’t that interested in school. He was a bright lad though and everyone was surprised that he failed his eleven plus, following which he went to technical college, which he enjoyed.
My granddad had been a schoolteacher at St Bees School. He was offered a job in the midlands so the family moved to a house in Erdington when dad was 13. Dad was offered the chance to switch to a grammar school but opted to stick with technical college. This was a mistake. Technical colleges in Birmingham were of far lower quality than the one that dad had been to in rural Cumbria. He lost interest and left school at 15 without a qualification.
This was the mid-1950s though, a time of full employment, so it was easy for a young bright lad to find a job, even with no qualifications. He walked into an apprenticeship as a printer and knuckled down to work. He turned out to be brilliant at it. He had a natural eye for matching colour and finished his apprenticeship top of his intake.
Looking at the old man who shuffled to the front door, it’s hard to imagine him as a young and handsome man. But he was, and far better looking than I ever was. He was fit as well, playing rugby for Moseley. It was one of his favourite jokes at my expense: “This is my son. Not as good looking as me of course”. He’d always laugh cheerfully at his own joke. I doubt he ever stopped to think about it, but it was, I’m afraid, true.
You can see his good looks in my parents’ wedding photo: a shock of black hair, a wolfish smile with a crooked eye tooth, and the dark skin and full nose characteristic of the whole male line of Meekses. One theory goes that Meeks is an Anglicisation of Marx and we have a distant Jewish ancestor. It’s unproven but plausible, judging by the looks of us men.
I suspect dad enjoyed life in the big city as a young man, though I don’t think he was ever as laddish as he would have liked us to believe. For a start, grandma wouldn’t ever have stood for it. Even for a favoured son, there were sharp limits to her indulgence.
He met mum in 1960 at a dance. Mum was in her A level year. I guess it was serious from the start, because mum was offered a place at Leeds University but chose not to take it so she could be close to dad. I don’t think mum has ever regretted that choice, but when the time came, all three of us children were given a heavy push to get ourselves to college.
Anyway, mum took dad to meet my other grandma and grandpa. Dad was baffled by the seating arrangements at mealtimes, which inexplicably changed with each meal in a way instinctively understood by mum, my aunt and my grandparents. Mum has never been able to explain it clearly. In turn, grandma and grandpa were baffled by dad’s accent, still broad Cumbrian at this point: grandma thought he was speaking Polish.
When they were still courting, mum and dad went to a fortune teller on holiday. She told them that they’d have three children and they’d never be rich but they’d never want. Funny how these things pan out.
On 30 March 1963, mum and dad married at Tamworth Congregationalist Church, mum’s home church (it was a foul day’s weather). At that time there were financial advantages to marrying before the end of the tax year. The reception was in the church hall. The honeymoon was three nights in Lytham St Anne’s.
Then mum and dad immediately moved away to make a fresh start to married life, driving from Tamworth to rural Norfolk in a bubble car. Dad had got a job in Norwich with Jarrold’s the printers, which is when Mick became Mike at work.
Mum and dad did what everyone sums up as settling down. They had three children, a girl, a boy (me!) and another girl. They became stalwarts of what became the Norwich URC. They weren’t rich on the wages of a skilled manual worker but we children never noticed if they ever wanted.
I guess this is where I come in. What do I remember of dad when I was young? He was a entertainer: he’d tell great stories, sing (in falsetto, terribly — I can hear his village hall show rendition of Three Little Maids in my head right now), tell dad jokes before the idea of dad jokes had been invented, go for walks, play games and tease us. His entire life he had an infectious silly sense of humour, a seemingly-inexhaustible source of jokes.
He’d make the faces as well. One of his favourite jokes was:
“Mary had a little lamb
She also had a bear
I’ve often seen her little lamb
I’ve never seen her bear”
This is, of course, the funniest joke in existence when you are five, but it’s even funnier when your dad’s eyes are popping out of his head in shock on the word “never”.
He knew he’d not got much formal education and he’d made up for that by extensively educating himself informally. He was endlessly curious about countless different subjects. I can remember standing with him in the grounds of the UEA, squinting to see Comet Kohoutek (it didn’t live up to its billing as the comet of the century). Apparently I was sat in front of the television to watch the moon landing in 1969, so that I could say that I did. I don’t remember that, of course: I was just over 18 months old.
Those years in Norfolk must have ground down his accent because that thick dialect that my grandma thought sounded Polish had softened to a pleasant general northernness by the time I first remember it. He still had flat As and a willingness to use dialect words for effect. Thanks to him, I can count to twenty like a Cumbrian shepherd.
I must have disappointed dad, a sporty practical man, in so many ways. I’m very clumsy and always was. I was the last child in my class to learn how to tie my shoelaces. I learned how to ride a bike without stabilisers after my younger sister, who was nearly three years younger than me. He tried to show me how to fly kites, but I couldn’t get it. He tried me with fishing, but I wasn’t interested. Dad had such hopes for me turning out to be a sportsman like he was, but I turned out to have no hand-eye co-ordination. Looking back, this was not one of the things we argued about. He swallowed his disappointment well.
Mum and dad were convinced from an early age that I was really bright. Certainly they convinced me. As far back as I remember, I remember thinking that I was a very clever lad. They expected me to use it, of course. We were all taught just how important education was.
Despite his lack of formal education, dad was always confident about voicing his opinion and taught us to as well. Perhaps because of his lack of formal education, he looked at the world from first principles. I hope I have learned that from him.
In 1974, dad changed jobs, getting a management position for the first time with the Colchester firm of Spottiswoode & Ballantyne. Dad had to live in digs for a year as mum and dad had a nightmare move, caught up in a chain. As a child you don’t notice, but mum and dad must have found it really hard spending a year of just seeing each other at weekends. Neither of them ever said a word about it to us though.
Eventually in 1975 we moved to Bures, a small village on the Suffolk-Essex border. The carrot for us kids moving was a colour TV. Mum and dad bought the house off Jim Smith, the football manager (who had just left Colchester United for bigger things). The back garden was all lawn, apparently for kicking a football about. Dad went to dig it to plant borders and broke his spade, the clay was so thick and heavy.
We lived on the Essex side but the village primary school was on the Suffolk side, so owing to an administrative quirk we all went to school in Suffolk. We were all old enough so mum went back to work, this time as a lab assistant in the upper school in nearby Great Cornard.
We stayed in Bures for three years. I remember this as a happy time with long hot summers. We might have stayed there longer, had it not been for me.
Mum and dad had high hopes for me and put me in the entrance exam for Ipswich School a year early. It was made clear to me that I’d only go if I won a scholarship, so I was put in for the entrance exam a year early to give myself two chances of getting one. In the end I only needed one shot and I was accepted a year early.
There was a school bus to Ipswich School from Hadleigh but the trip including the car journey to Hadleigh took about an hour and a half each way. That wasn’t going to work in the long term and my parents soon moved to Hadleigh for entirely practical reasons: it was the centre point between Ipswich, Colchester and Great Cornard. We moved in the week before Christmas.
I don’t think any of us would have guessed beforehand that they would live out their days in Hadleigh, spending more than half their lives in a place chosen purely for logistical convenience. As it happens, Hadleigh is one of England’s hidden gems. Tourists pour through Lavenham and Kersey, missing the charming market town a few miles away. Once settled, my parents never really thought of shifting again.
Mum and dad were not rich. We hadn’t gone on a summer holiday until I was seven — a caravan for a week in Hemsby, near Great Yarmouth — and mum didn’t leave the country even once until after I had started work (by that stage I had travelled round the world). Even with me having won a scholarship, it’s clear to me looking back that the fees were a real struggle for them. I was by some way the poorest in my year, a mark of humiliation for me at the time.
Neither of them has ever to this day mentioned that struggle, even in passing. They wanted to see me do my best and that meant giving me the best possible education that they could get for me. The cost, I guess, was something that just had to be found.
Dad was restless at work. The money started coming in but he wasn’t happy there. He applied for new jobs and was offered posts in both Singapore and Nigeria. Mum vetoed both.
In the end, dad set up his own printing press with a friend from church. They bought a former garage that once upon a time had been a Salvation Army place of worship, bought a Heidelberg and called the business Citadel Press. With commendable ecumenical spirit, dad used the image of the town’s Church of England deanery tower as the logo. But dad had never been one to worry about denominational demarcation lines.
The business got off to a bad start: the church friend was supposed to get the business in but he fell ill and couldn’t work. After some months when it was touch and go whether it would survive, dad took over the whole business.
It turned out that being a really good printer was enough to get the work in. After that shaky start, Citadel Press did just fine for many years. Mum did the books from the start — I had the job of checking her calculations — and in due course she gave up her job as lab technician to become dad’s receptionist cum manager. She was very good at it. Certainly no one else would have had a hope of managing dad.
I think dad would say those were his happiest years. Mum and dad loved Hadleigh, a quiet prosperous market town, and dad was his own boss, priding himself on his work, putting in stupidly long hours and loving the freedom. He wasn’t really cut out to be a businessman though. Mum used to be driven mad when he would do more work for people who hadn’t yet paid for several previous jobs. He saw it as a point of honour. Mum was usually proved right.
She also climbed the walls because he would always help every one of Hadleigh’s waifs and strays, finding them jobs to do (many of which didn’t need doing) so they could earn a bit of money. He didn’t really talk about it, he just did it. He saw it as a civic duty.
I got to see the work at first hand. I had no eye for colour (belying one of the stereotypes about gay men) but I could operate a paginator and stapler, and spent many hours in my teens doing that slave labour that only happens in family businesses. Actually, I enjoyed it. Dad and I used to go on delivery runs together, so I could keep him company. Neither of us did bonding — I’m a bit too self-contained for that — but we enjoyed each other’s company.
Dad made it his business to know everyone in town. Oh, that got on my nerves. If he walked down the high street you could guarantee he would stop for a conversation at least three times. He’d come home in the evening and tell you the news about Jim. “Who’s Jim?” I’d say. “You know Jim”, he’d reply in a shocked tone. “He’s Doreen’s brother-in-law.” I’d look blank. “You know, Diane’s cousin.” Still nothing. “Well anyway…” Dad was far better at networking than I’ve ever been.
I went to uni in 1985. I didn’t get into Cambridge and like many others fetched up in Durham instead. I was very disappointed but mum and dad gave no hint that they were, if they were.
Dad, a 20-a-day man from his teens, regularly tried to stop smoking and eventually failed every time. On one occasion in the mid-80s when he gave up mum decided that he wasn’t smoking in the house again and in defiance of all the evidence — the lighters, the empty boxes, the whiff of tobacco — she insisted that he wasn’t smoking any more. So dad went for what felt like 20 walks round the block a day.
I went to law school, spent a few months travelling the world and then started work in the City. Mum and dad were just getting on, running their business, making a steady income even while other printers were struggling because dad was so good at his job that he was used by fine artists, not needing (then) to worry about the advent of computer printing.
My sisters both met men. My elder sister got married. Then I met a man. My parents were smart people and I didn’t want to insult their intelligence. So I went home one weekend and on the Sunday morning told them. It turned out that neither of them had the first inkling. Mum was devastated: for six months when we spoke on the phone we didn’t talk about much more than the weather. That Sunday morning, dad said: “I don’t agree with it at all but you’re still my son”.
(Mum came round. I found out when I split up with him a couple of years later. When I phoned up to break the news, mum said “well I’m very sorry to hear that, we liked David and we thought he kept your feet on the ground, are you absolutely sure you’ve made the right decision?” I was halfway between delighted that mum was now accepting of me and infuriated that she’d waited until the one moment when I was looking for her support to find an imaginative way of not giving it. Mums, eh? She then became a consistent advocate for gay rights in her church.)
It’s funny, isn’t it? All the time, you’re living your life, other people are living theirs. The handsome dark man with a shock of black hair with a ready silly wit that I remember from my childhood had by degrees seen his hair thin and slowly turn white, go deaf from the machinery noise and become troubled with a bad back from the heavy lifting of untold reams of paper. How did that happen?
Dad was by nature affable with a keen sense of humour. As he got older his favourite word was “comical”, using it to describe many things that I could see no amusement in at all. His sense of fun was always much broader than mine.
He always loved sly pranks. As a child I can remember him having a habit of driving over cats’ eyes, the juddering winding up mum, who has been a terrible passenger all her life, always hissing and pressing imaginary brakes. In later years, on the rare occasions mum and dad flew, mum would have to frisk him to make sure he wasn’t going to get into trouble at security. He always set off the metal detector anyway. One time, it was with a pen knife. He always had a sheepish silly grin, which only annoyed mum more.
By the turn of the millennium, computer printing had progressed to the point where even specialist small printers like dad were struggling. An industry that could traced its roots back to Gutenberg was quietly dying. Mum and dad struggled on to 2005 when we had to wind things up. The business had no sale value and the Heidelberg went to a museum. The premises got sold for conversion into houses. After just shy of 50 years as a printer, dad retired.
Three weeks later he deretired. He was bored at home, so he took a job as a delivery driver for a local plumbing firm on a zero hours contract. It suited him brilliantly. He loved driving and he could go all over the place meeting people and chatting with them, his favourite activities. He threw himself into the job, earning the nickname “the wrinkly ninja”. He piled on the pounds for a while, until mum found out he was having pies as well as the three square meals she was cooking him, and put him on a diet.
Mum and dad both volunteered for a local hospice charity shop. Dad did driving for them between depots and shops. He was regularly paired with prisoners from the local open prison at the end of long sentences preparing for release. The idea was, I think, they’d be the muscle for any heavy lifting and in return they’d get the benefit of socialising with non-criminals. It wasn’t in dad’s nature to judge these men, whatever their crimes. He had a lifetime sincere belief in the essential goodness of people and looked for it in anyone.
Mum and dad had been rattling around by themselves in a five bedroom house since we three children had flown the coop in the early 90s. I was the bad cop, constantly nagging them to move to a smaller house while they still could. They weren’t interested though they admitted I was right. Eventually, providentially, a church friend moved into a retirement home and in June 2016 they bought her bungalow (extended in line with plans drawn up by my partner Brian). They loved the house from the moment they moved in.
The building work took nearly a year. They got a great job done. All those people dad had been gassing with for years gave him great work at very decent prices. Sometimes being liked has some unexpected rewards.
Mum and dad only had six months or so to enjoy the bungalow peacefully together. In the summer, dad developed a bad knee. Then in November dad tripped and broke his hip. He made a good recovery from that but then developed a lump in the small of his back that grew with grim speed. The diagnosis came: incurable lung cancer. They tried radiotherapy but it didn’t work.
In the end, what can you say? On the Friday the doctor had bluntly told mum and dad that he might have as little as a week and that if his son was planning on going on holiday the next day he might think carefully about rearranging things. So on the second Saturday in July, the day before he died, I came up by myself to see him. He was having a good day: lying in bed helped him conserve his energy. I joked with him how inconvenient he was being and he enjoyed that. On the way up I’d promised myself I was going to tell him, so I said, not really holding it together: “You’re a brilliant dad.” He took my hand, smiled and said: “Thanks. And for a son”, he paused, obviously rethinking his words, “you’re not so bad”.