The night before I am due to go with Dad for his appointment with the oncologist, I am staying with him and Mum in my childhood home. We have spent the evening looking through the Lasting Power of Attorney for Mum, and Dad has shown me where his Will is. It has been horrible. Mum has been extremely panicky and difficult to calm. I have struggled not to cry. Dad has struggled not to lose his temper.
And now I cannot sleep. Usually when I can’t sleep, I read. But I don’t want to read the book I have brought with me. I need something more comforting.
I go out on to the landing where there is a small pine bookcase, rammed with children’s books which have survived – just about – three generations of grievous assaults by sticky fingers, biros, felt tips and even (the shame!) scissors. I run my fingers along the broken spines of the Beatrix Potters. I find the copy of The Hobbit, read so many times that the pages fall out when I turn them. I pull out the Mr Buffins and I leaf through the Orlandos. I remember the times Dad would come home from a long, hot, sweaty commute and sit on the end of my bed, putting on voices; becoming Gollum, Jeremy Fisher, Tabitha Twitchit and the rest.
On the bottom shelf, stuffed in between an illustrated children’s Bible and an atlas, I find a large slim picture book with cardboard covers entitled Martin: the Kingfisher. I don’t remember seeing it before. It is a natural history book by a French writer, Père Castor.
Martin is Dad’s name. His only Christian name. It is also the old name for a kingfisher: St Martin’s bird. It is still known by this name in French, Italian and Spanish. Dad has always had a thing about kingfishers. But then he has always had a thing about the river. Born and raised in Maidenhead, he was perfectly placed to run down to the Thames to look for wildlife, go dipping for small creatures, or – his favourite occupation of all – indulge in some ‘messing about in boats’.
Later in life Dad became a proficient oarsman, rowing for his school and college. When his back started to give him trouble in his forties he swapped his blades for a paddle and took up kayaking. He loved nothing more than ‘going for a paddle’ on the Medway and would take me and my sister out at weekends.
‘There!’ he would shout, as we coasted on the current, letting the river take us round a bend.
‘A kingfisher – you missed it, again!’
We always missed it.
I leaf through the book. It tells the story of the little kingfisher, Martin, who defends his territory on the river with pride. One day Martin meets Martine and they mate for life, as kingfishers do. I read that Martine ‘fidgets about, never very far away from him’ and ‘talks to Martin in a very determined way, without ever stopping to close her beak’. I smile as I think that Dad has chosen just such a mate for himself. I read on: the two birds ‘never leave one another. Never.’
I close the book with tears rolling down my face: the story seems so apt, so revealing of dad’s nature. I don’t know it then, but this book will become even more significant to me as the weeks and months go by. I never spotted a single kingfisher on any of the occasions I was on the water with Dad, but I am to discover that the kingfisher will appear again and again in the weeks and months that follow – he will be in photos, in conversations, even on objects we find when we come to clear the house. And, of course, he will be down by the river, which in itself will become a special place. He will become a talisman for me and my sister. A way for us to hold on to our dear dad, Martin. Martin the kingfisher.