September

Thirty years ago my stepfather died very suddenly. He was sixty one. 14 years later my mother followed him. In this photo they are in front of Sheffield City Hall just after my graduation in 1976. He is forty five. My mother is 47. He is the slimmest he’s ever been.

That day was one of the strangest in my life. My mother and real father were still quite estranged, although they had come to my twenty first birthday and had even taken me by car together to Salamanca for my year abroad. But my father could not yet reconcile himself to the fact that my mother had remarried and so as soon as the graduation ceremony was over, he disappeared. He went back to London instead of going out to dinner with us and my then boyfriend, John Newsome.

It was strange because he didn’t say anything to anyone.

But I digress. I was going to write a bit more about Zbyszek, or Zbigniew Włodzimierz Józef Seydlitz, 13 March 1931 to 1st September 1992, as this is the time of year I always think of him. He died of a heart attack as he was enormously obese. It wasn’t unexpected, but still a great shock. Always a worry at the back of my mind, as he adored our children, and spent a lot of time with them. Collecting them from school, feeding them and entertaining them until I could pick them up.

Before my first child was born Zbyszek always delighted in saying how he hated babies – feeding tubes with a lack of responsibility at the other end, best served on a platter- but the minute Kasia was born he became her biggest fan. It was remarkable.

He had never known me as a baby of course; he came into my life when I was about seven, and I didn’t like him. I was on very formal terms with him for years. He was Pan Zbyszek to me and that was that. I had very little to do with him on the weekends I spent with my mother, although he can’t be faulted for making an effort. In time I came to appreciate him because he told me stories. He taught me funny poems. ( I wish I could remember them now) He helped me with my homework. He took me to school in the mornings. (One day he left me about a hundred yards away from the school gate. He often did that to give me a sense of independence. This time it was not so clever. The school was closed. I was too scared to go anywhere by myself. I had never crossed a road by myself and the Fulham road crossing is still vast and scary. Somehow I got onto a zebra crossing to the garage near the school. Crying I described my predicament to someone there. They called the police, who eventually prised out of me where my mother worked and took me to her. She was so embarrassed!) but all’s well that ends well.

He cooked for me. He taught me a lot about the pleasure of eating and cooking. And we went shopping together, which I loved. Our favourite supermarkets were in the Kings Road in Chelsea. They were quite a new concept in the sixties and quite exciting. So was the Kings Road itself.

So gradually he won my friendship. Many years later he explained that he never tried to be a substitute father to me – more of an older brother in temperament. So he would tease me quite a bit, but affectionately, which I enjoyed. He never interfered in any way but as I became a grumpy teenager he was able to calm my mother down when she worried about me.

He introduced me too, to music. When he married my mother he brought with him as his dowry, as he joked, his prized LPs. About twenty of them. Some classical music. Some musicals. Some comedy. I listened to these records endlessly on our gramophone during the long summer holidays. The opening bats of Scheherazade or Firebird bring back so many memories. Alan Sherman, Peter Sellers, and Tom Lehrer are engraved on my brain. The Mikado – with libretto – and My Fair Lady we’re on an almost constant loop. Not to mention the songs of Peter Leshchenko in Russian and Jadwiga Czerwinska in Polish .

Zbyszek also loved singing. He had a lovely deep warm voice but he smoked too much and eventually damaged his vocal chords. He was indeed a man of excess as he himself acknowledged. Drinking, eating and smoking (one in his mouth, one in his hand and one in the ashtray) eventually did for him. But his biggest excess in a way was his love for my mother. Not always requited, I’m afraid.

So when I was older, as a student, I was the one who went on holiday with him. We went to Florence for the most amazing fortnight, where his erudition and enthusiasm was a real education for me. Unfortunately the first thing he did was to buy my mother a present. On the Bridge. A beautiful and fantastically expensive cameo brooch. We then had very little live on for the rest of the fortnight.

Funnily enough he hadn’t learnt from the previous year when we had ten days in Spain. That time he’d bought her a lovely Lapis lazuli ring. Then he had to cable her for money – no credit cards then!

Anyway, she came first. Then I. And then finally my children.

And that was great. It took a while for my father to be reconciled enough for everyone to come to Sunday lunch together but they did. That made me very happy. Now none of them is with us any longer, but the memories are good.

Well, this was a bit of a ramble, I’m afraid. But I’m not sorry. He needs to be remembered!

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