On the day, about seventy people turned up,  so many that Deborah let us use the bar and the restaurant and even organised a finger buffet at a very reasonable cost.  ‘Oh we’d do anything for Wally, and then she smiled, well, almost anything.’  

Wally had worn his best suit, a smart three piece Harris Tweed with Pavane of Paris on the label.  He sat at the table just inside the door alongside the still debonair Michael, who had flown Spits, and    greeted his guests as they arrived.  He was polite and charming as ever; he’d had years of experience, but with a slight mist of vacancy that the Prince of Wales tends to adopt, as if he knew he knew them but couldn’t quite place it.  But they knew the script and so did he.  One by one, they fed him the comic leads and right on cue, he never failed to come up with the expected response.  His eccentricity was so much more acceptable now that he was older.  He had grown into the part.  Peter, who had first announced himself to me as ‘Piss ‘ed Pete from Pitminster’, before taking a chip or two from dad’s plate, parked his tractor behind the hedge and came in with glasses askew and dressed in his trade-mark navy-blue boiler suit.  ‘You’re a star turn, Wally,’ he declared – a compliment dad acknowledged with courtly bow and wave.  

Wally was still an outrageous flirt, only now he could get away with it.  When the barmaid, buxom and pretty, asked him if he would like anything else, he had replied, eyes a twinkle ‘yes, darling, you on my knee.’ 

Two of his ‘old flames’ turned up.  Heather drove in from Langport.   She must have been in her eighties, but was still an attractive woman. She had been his secretary.  ‘And as for that Heather Ridgeway’, her name erupted frequently during the rows between mum and dad during our last year at Blagdon.  But she was engaged in secret trysts with Ron by that time.  Peggy was about the same age and now lived by herself in a cottage in Staplehay.  She winked broadly at me after he had given her that  particularly wet embrace her reserved for prize crumpet, ‘Your dad was always such a rascal.’

It must have been at least fifty years, since he had last seen Bryan.  His wicked eyes and waxed moustache gave him the air of an elderly  country squire; a latter day Sir Jasper.  They had worked together in the Northern Assurance Offices in the thirties.  He recalled them going to dances with some local floosies and dad stealing bottles of whisky, which he hid in the tails of his frock coat.   Dad stared at him, smiling, as if he were listening to a story on the radio.  But if Bryan was disappointed, he didn’t let on.       

But there were few that remembered dad before his accident, and none that he would remember. As his sister, Doreen put it, he went to war a laughing boy and came back a truculent middle-aged man.  The extensive damage to his frontal lobes, he had sustained when he was thrown from the cockpit of his Hurricane, had all but destroyed his personality along with a large tranche of memory.  To survive, he’s had to reinvent himself.  It was particularly hard on mum, they had had just a weekend of married life together before he had to join his squadron in the Orkneys, and then he’d crashed and he was never again the man she had married.  He’d had to reinvent himself.  After four years rehabilitation in my grandmothers pub, he was able to return to work but as a different person. 

Most of the guests only knew Wally in his reincarnation.  But they were all like extensions of the personality created for himself, bit players in the production called Wally, what he would like to be.  I suppose that also applied to me and Simon. We had in his eyes the social standing he aspired to, me the doctor, Simon the artist.   They were all characters,  larger than life, caricatures from an age that was fast disappearing.  Grizzly looked a bit like Eadward Muybridge in his full grey beard, but was a farm worker from Clayhidon who had drunk a bit too much cider.   Paddy trained race horses, kept a stable of women, and was always in a bit of bother with the authorities. He pulled me to one side and from beneath his coat showed me a photograph, no not of a lady, but of a slightly pot bellied horse and said furtively .  Champion steeplechaser, this Nick.  I just want one more person to put in ten grand and he’s yours.  I’ll do all the training of course.  Ginge had dressed himself up in a smart blue suit and a red tie around the collar of his check shirt, but his uncut red hair sprouted from his head like a carrot top. I don’t like to think of the times he had wheedled cash out of dad, but he still brought a beautifully Sunday roast up to the house every week. 

But it would be a mistake to regard all of dad’s friends were rogues and vagabonds.  Many, such as Jonathan the doctor, who lived in the Brigadier’s house, John the airline pilot, Graham and Joanie who used to run a retail outlet in Romford, and Richard the solicitor, added a certain air of respectability to the ménage.  Richard wore a smart white suit and looked happy and debonair and had a whispy blonde on his arm, whom he announced as my fiancée.  He was a different man since his tumour had been removed.  Robby was sitting with his daughter and Tigger the dog, he had bought to console him after his wife had run off with the secretary of the golf club. 

Two years older than Wally and so sharp and vivacious, Anne his sister, whom we as children always knew as Auntie Flossie, that is until she adopted her middle name as more becoming, flirted with Michael.  She helped dad cut the cake,  but couldn’t stop him spilling his wine over it and then smudging the imprinted photograph of  a smoulderingly handsome 16 year old Wallace, dressed in the puritan’s uniform of Queen Elizabeth’s College.  The school said he was good enough to get a scholarship to Oxford,  but he left school instead to join an insurance company.  ‘That way, I could meet a better class of crumpet than I ever could as a student.’  

It didn’t seem right for me to tell funny stories about Wally; too many conflicting memories, I guess.  And I wanted to remember my father, not as a figure of ridicule,  but as a survivor, a kind, generous and even curiously wise man, who inspired great affection in people and who I could respect.  So I  thanked everyone for their support they had given to dad over the years and then deferred to Paddy, who looked panic stricken and instead led a boisterous chorus of Happy Birthday and Three Cheers for Wally. 

There were tears in his eyes as we drove back through Blagdon, up the hill and round the hairpin bend.   He was quiet but as we drew up in the yard and the lights came on, he turned to me and Simon.

‘Nice crowd there tonight.’


‘Didn’t know any of them!


‘Nice place!.’