There are many people whose names begin with “D” whom I know far better than I know David Cooper, but I have decided to leave the living alone. David Cooper is a mystery man. He is unknown. I apparently met him once at the age of three and have no recall of that encounter, apart from eating boiled eggs in a strange kitchen. I was celebrating my tenth birthday when the news came from Port Elizabeth that David Cooper had died and I felt, oddly, given that he was my grandfather, nothing.
I have studied my mother’s wedding photos, trying to imagine who he was and what he was thinking, giving away a daughter he had last seen five years before. Apparently, he dutifully paid for the wedding, appeared to be proud of her, talked pleasantly to the in-laws, looked dapper, and danced so wonderfully with my grandmother that she began to entertain hopes.
David Cooper was a charmer. Appearances were important to him. He was always nattily dressed, and had beautifully tailored clothes. Though untrained, he was a talented pianist and could play any tune. He sang well, loved amateur dramatics and was an accomplished painter. His talents he apparently inherited from his mother who, according to family legend, once sang in the Royal Albert Hall. He loved a party and a drink, and told a good story. David followed his brother and sister to South Africa from London when he was in his twenties, all running from a cold, possibly cruel, father. When he breezed into Kingwilliamstown, handsome, accomplished, funny and charming, Elsie Hinds fell for him. They shared a love of painting and the arts, and for her, he represented a way out – from a dominating, stifling mother and her somewhat dull small-town life.
War came shortly afterwards. David enlisted and Elsie camp-followed while he was training in Pretoria. She had her first child, a son, and then he went off to become one of South Africa’s Desert Rats. During the war, their daughter was born, and afterwards they settled in Johannesburg where David looked for work. He was not happy – the charming, gregarious man she had married was gone. Everyone said the war had changed him.
He decided to sell everything and move to Scotland, where his beloved younger brother Anthony lived. The family docked on one of the Union Castle liners at Port Elizabeth and spent three weeks on the boat. They were met at Southampton by David’s father, meeting his son’s family for the first time. He had a white Father Christmas beard and, in my mother’s words, “the coldest blue eyes I’d ever seen”. After a couple of months in Devon, the family joined Anthony and his wife Ursula in Scotland, but the time there was unsuccessful and the brothers fell out, over money or an inheritance. After a year’s experiment, David once again packed up his family, bought boat tickets and they headed back for South Africa, sad and disillusioned. It was the end of the marriage.
After the divorce, my mother and her brother saw David Cooper every couple of years. He diligently sent Elsie a monthly allowance, one that was not enough for the family to live on, but he never forgot Christmas or birthdays. My mother says he sent wonderful presents, always of the best quality. “If he sent a writing-set, it was leather; if he sent a train-set, the trains would actually work.”
In his fifties, David Cooper developed cataracts. He was working in shipping insurance, and he had married his secretary, who also functioned as his guide. They were sitting on a bench on the Robberg in Plettenburg Bay, when he slid off and died. He was sixty-four. The last time he had seen my mother was seven years before. She, like me, felt almost nothing when she received the news of his death.
This is what I know about my grandfather. There is a blankness in his story, an emptiness at the heart of it, a big zero. I think the reason is that he was hiding from himself. What if he had left London as a young man because of a secret? What if he was running? He found himself in South Africa, met the lovely Elsie and married her as an attempt to escape from that secret self. War came and he was able to run from his marriage, to a world of soldiers, and camaraderie and suffering. On his return, he found himself part of a family that he couldn’t love. He ran, again, to Scotland and when that didn’t work, ran back to South Africa, where the marriage was over.
I have heard the rumours about David Cooper. One cousin, who was spiteful and untrustworthy, told me rather gleefully over her third glass of wine. When I asked her sister, she said, “I’m afraid that she was right.” I took the information and buried it, just as David Cooper tried to bury his true self, because I didn’t want to hurt my mother by asking. Then yesterday, when talking to my mother about her father she confirmed that she knew the rumours. Out of respect for her, I am not going to say what his secret was, but you can probably piece it together.
So there are secrets and lies, as in every family. How sad for David Cooper that he could never be his true self, how sad for my grandmother that to him she never came first; how sad for my mother and her brother that their charming father remained forever distant. My mother told me a story yesterday. She said, “My parents were going out for the evening and came to say goodnight to us. I was in my cot and my brother was in his little bed. My mother came into the room and talked to us a little, then hugged us and kissed us goodnight. My father stood in the doorway, and all I could see was his shadow. I realise now that that was what he always was to me: a shadow.”