Roberta, the oldest of the three Railway Children, runs towards the bearded man getting off the train and into his arms. Surely no one can watch this scene, the only one everyone remembers from the 1970 film, without a twist to the heartstrings, a spasm of the tear ducts – whether due to empathy, or to embarrassment at seeing this fine actor, who is after all slightly too old for the part she is playing, utter these mawkish words. I stopped called my dad ‘daddy’ when I was six.
Earlier this month it was my father’s birthday. Born in 1927, Robert was the youngest son of Richard and Edith Landauer, assimilated Jews, a Munich art book publisher and the daughter of a Bavarian department store proprietor.
The Landauers were forced from their home and livelihood, arriving in London only a few weeks before Kristallnacht in 1938. Robert’s middle name was Felix – happy – and his childhood nickname was Floh – flea. He was always very fit, thrashing younger men at badminton. On the other hand, he infuriated his fellow Scrabble players by assisting them when it was their turn; his aim was to improve the total game score, instead of playing to win. Then when he was only fifty-two, he had a breakdown, unable to cope any more with the demands of his work, and he slowly declined in mental capacity and health until he died seven years later.
Several years after his death, our mother was sent the results of his brain autopsy. We didn’t know why it had taken so long, and had almost forgotten one was being done. By the time Robert died, his ugly first diagnosis of ‘premature senility’ – so distressing when applied to Felix ‘Floh’, our outgoing sociable dad – had given way to a more specific term, ‘Alzheimer’s’ disease’. This disorder was gaining greater awareness in the public mind around this time; November 1983 was declared the first National Alzheimer’s mouth. We knew only a little in those days: that aluminium was involved, so we threw away a lot of saucepans; and that it could be inherited, but this warning we ignored, having already started our own families.
The autopsy results were startling; Robert had not had Alzheimer’s. There were no signs of the typical cauliflower growths or lesions in his brain. So, we asked, what had caused the dementia? They could not tell us; it might have been a knock on the head (he had banged his head when he slipped whilst moving a stone sundial, we remembered), or it could have been caused by a virus… A virus? Surely that just causes colds, we thought. Then we remembered the bat.
When I was a teenager, our family lived in Guyana. Accompanied by several other families, we took a trip into the interior to see the Kaieteur Falls, the highest vertical waterfall in the world. We were given an army escort, partly because it was dangerous and partly as an exercise for the troops, and we travelled in a caravan of bone-shaking jeeps. For the final section of the journey, we were taken upriver by Amerindians in dugout canoes, looking around warily for anacondas, electric eels and piranha fish. We were told about a recent death in that area, when a man had stepped on an electric eel hidden in the water made murky by vegetation. At last we reached the top of the Falls, and we teenagers stepped tentatively into the Pepsicola-coloured waters. We stayed a safe distance away from the thundering edge. Even at an inch deep, we could feel the dangerous tug of the current.
The nearby rest-house had been double-booked by a party on its way down from the falls, so we camped overnight, we women in a stuffy tent (which as a teenager I bitterly resented) and the men on mattresses under a tarpaulin to keep the dew and tree-drips off them. Before we turned in, we sat entranced by the flickering sheet lightning, which momentarily erased all the constellations of the southern hemisphere, the Milky Way and the shooting stars.
It rained overnight, and the tarpaulin over the men’s hammocks filled up. It had been punctured in a few places in an effort to prevent it collapsing under the weight of water. Later that night Robert felt that his feet were wet, and assuming that some part of the awning had failed, but not too disastrously, went back to sleep. When daylight came, we were shocked to find that his sleeping bag was soaked in blood; a vampire bat had crept down his body to find his toe, and had bitten him, injecting him with its anticoagulant saliva to keep the blood flowing. It made a good story to dine out on, part of our family’s mad adventures. But perhaps that was when he was infected with a virus? My mother-in-law Nancy, a work colleague of Robert and friend of the family, told me long after he’d died that she thought he had showed signs of the developing dementia well before it caused his first collapse in 1979.
This February would have been my father’s ninety-sixth birthday. Nancy was ninety-six when she died. Until her last year, she had retained her sharp intellect and shy warmth. How wonderful would it have been if my father were still alive for this birthday? Perhaps very frail, perhaps just beginning to lose some acuity? If he had been with us through these decades, watched his grandchildren grow up, met his great-granddaughters? Celebrated all our triumphs and supported our trials? How wonderful that would have been.
Dad. My daddy.