As children, many of us were taught the old adage that "sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me." But while broken bones heal, the damage done by hastily spoken words rarely does and the pain can be multiplied manyfold when words are left unsaid.
Around 1970, I remember going to Valentines Park in Ilford and hiring a rowing boat with my father. When we finished, the boy in charge of the boats (who was probably my age, 14 or so) somehow insulted us - I don't recall exactly what happened. A short argument ensued and when my dad threatened to turn it physical, the boy apologised. As an ex-commando, even at 50 he was still a force to be reckoned with. As we walked away, I remember dad saying to me: "I'd have let you sort him out if I'd have had any confidence in you." Those words have stayed with me throughout my life and are as painful today as they were 45 years ago. Did he mean them to be so hurtful? Probably not but at the time he was not in the best of personal places.
Through circumstances beyond his control my father spent 15 years as a tailor's presser for my grandfather, using a heavy iron day after day to press cloth. When by the early 1960s this had physically damaged him, he managed to get a job as an international telephone operator for the GPO, now BT. Still technically an 'alien', having retained his French nationality, he didn't receive a pension and wasn't allowed to be promoted to supervisor until after 1973 when the UK became part of the EU. He continued there until 1982 when a major heart attack curtailed his employment.
It is difficult to comprehend how frustrated my father must have been. Prior to the war he was a trainee accountant in Paris yet after the war he spent 35 years in London doing unskilled or, at best, semi-skilled work. It is difficult to share the reasons here but let's just say this was a choice he made for the sake of his new bride. It didn't take a lot for his frustrations to rise to the surface and to be translated into physical situations, something my brother and I knew only too well as children.
Some time back my relationship with my parents became difficult. I found it impossible to tell them I loved them. I tried once with my father but the words stuck in my throat. A few years ago dad said to me: "I never told my father I loved him until it was too late. Don't make the same mistake I did."
On the death of my parents earlier this year, I started to clear their house. One of the items I found was my father's chunky Omega Genève watch that mum had bought him in the 1970s. At the time she worked for Ernest Jones in Ilford and would have got a hefty discount - even so, it would still have been expensive. Perhaps it was a silver wedding anniversary present, I'm not really sure. Dad really loved this watch and wore it until about five years ago when it became too heavy for his weakened wrists.
The casing was worn and the gold-plated strap had been eaten away by sweat so I set about trying to get it repaired. My local jeweller informed me that straps could no longer be purchased for this model. I spent a couple of weeks searching online, missing out on a stainless steel replacement strap on ebay, and even registered for a dedicated watch auction at the end of July.
Last week I asked myself the question: why am I doing this? It's a heavy watch that I would never wear. In fact I haven't worn a watch for many years, relying on my phone for the time. Then came the stark realisation that repairing the watch wouldn't bring my father back. I wouldn't be able to ask him why he'd viewed me as such a disappointment as a child. I wouldn't be able to reassure him that I'd look after mum after he died. And it wouldn't give me the chance to tell him I loved him.
He knew the pain he'd gone through with his own father and wanted to save me the agonies of making the same mistake. To my cost I ignored him. His words may have hurt me as a child but my unsaid words have hurt me far more as an adult.