Honor Thy Father

The Reverend Theodore Makepeace first got wind of his father’s alleged misdemeanours at the Ivydene Home for the Elderly when he received a letter from the local branch of the Social Services. The letter, signed by the Head of Elderly Services, invited him to a meeting to discuss complaints from female residents and staff  ‘relating to your father’s behaviour at Ivydene over recent weeks’.
On the hour-long railway journey to Bluntwell-on-Sea, the quiet East Anglian location of Ivydene, Theodore had time to reflect, with some unease, on his father’s sexual history. Maurice Makepeace was about to celebrate his 85th birthday. He had always pronounced his first name in the French style when introducing himself to women. His role model was Maurice Chevalier, and Theodore remembered how, as a child, he used to cringe when his father was in the bathroom booming out Chevalier’s song ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls’. Maurice had outlived three wives, the first of whom was French, and sired six children with them, the last one when he was 75. Theodore recalled that his father, a former leading actor noted for his rumbustious rendering of  Shakespeare’s Falstaff, had also enjoyed a number of mistresses off stage, and that his provincial tours had produced pregnancies all over the country.  In theatre green rooms everywhere he had been known as ‘The Goat’.
Life with his father had never been dull. Throughout his childhood Theodore had spent his holidays accompanying the Great Actor on his provincial tours and helping him to learn his words for the next play.  “Theo, dear boy,” he would say, “Would you read Mistress Quickly in this next scene?” Together they shared a love of words and meanings, and would gaily enact Shakespearean dialogues for their own amusement, a habit they had continued whenever they met.
Theodore himself had not followed in his father’s footsteps. After a lacklustre career in insurance from which he had been made redundant some years ago, he felt called to enter the church, a change of career to which his father gave his somewhat amused support. Theodore was a childless widower, his wife having died in a road accident soon after their marriage. Re-marriage had never appealed to him, despite the opportunities that had come his way. He now lived alone in a gloomy Victorian manse next door to the United Reform church of which he was the Minister.
The only traits Theodore had inherited from his father were a sense of humour and the desire to move an audience, which showed itself in the flamboyant delivery of some of his sermons. From his French mother he had inherited a patient and altruistic disposition. As well as administering to his flock he was founder and trustee of a local charity for elderly people with dementia.
As the eldest son of the Makepeace family, and nearing retirement age, Theo, as he preferred to be called, had, with the consent of his brothers and sisters made himself responsible for his father’s welfare. He couldn’t help loving the old man, despite what he saw as the latter’s libidinous habits. When Maurice had a stroke a year ago, impairing his speech and destroying the use of an arm and a leg, he clearly needed to go into care. Theo had discovered that his father had very little capital apart from his small flat, which had to be sold to finance his move to the Council home at Ivydene. The old man had not been displeased to find that he was the only man in the home.
At County Hall, a brutal concrete and smoked glass edifice built in the 1980s, Theo was directed to the Social Services department, where he sat in reception reading the lengthy Mission Statement which used words like ‘robust’ and ‘outcomes’. He was met by a pinstriped secretary who escorted him to a partitioned meeting room where he was greeted by the person who had written to him, a rather bony fifty-something woman called Nancy Flitwick. She wore an identity tag on a ribbon round her neck and spoke very precisely as though addressing someone who did not speak her language. After issuing a brisk order for coffee, she reached for a buff folder and took out some papers.
“Your father seems to be something of a Casanova,” she said, looking up at Theo with a thin smile.
“You say in your letter that you have received a complaint,” he said, not smiling.
“More than one, I fear.  Your father has upset a number of the residents and some of the female staff.”
“I thought they were glad to have a man in the home.”
“They were at first, but of late he has taken to groping the ladies.”
“That depends what you mean by groping.”
“Wandering hands, Mr Makepeace.
“Or in my father’s case, hand,” corrected Theo.
“Oh yes, of course. Well, you know what I mean. No one will sit next to him now, and no one will go alone in the garden where they’re afraid he will ambush them. He also writes odd notes to the residents and female members of staff, asking them to have sex with him.”
“Well, if this is true,” said Theo, “it may be the result of his stroke.”
“How do you mean?”
“He can’t speak all the words he wants to say so he has to resort to other ways of communicating his affections.”
“I hear what you say Mr Makepeace, but things have become serious. We have had to hire someone to follow your father around to prevent him from molesting people.”
“That seems a bit excessive. Look, I will go and see him and find out what’s going on.”
“We would all be glad if you would. I am sure we do not want to move him out from Ivydene.” Mrs Flitwick stood up and went to the window. She turned to face Theo, her features now dark against the daylight behind her. “There is a related issue,” she said, pulling the two sides of her cardigan together across her chest. “Your father has requested our help in hiring a prostitute.”
When Theo arrived at Bluntwell on the single track railway line that had somehow escaped Dr Beeching’s attentions in the sixties, he set off, as was his habit when visiting Ivydene, to walk there along the sandy beach. He chuckled to himself at the thought of the bureaucracy of local government trying to respond to his father’s mischievous request. The idea that his father’s request might be serious never entered his mind.  According to Mrs Flitwick it had, however, been passed up the social services’ chain of command and discussed at the highest level. In the end the council, despite its mission to work to improve the quality of life of elderly people in its care, decided to refuse Maurice’s request. It deemed that the satisfaction of sexual needs should be seen as a form of therapy. Therapy was Health. The case should therefore be referred to the NHS.

“Adam, dear boy, what news from the …er..”
“Rialto, Dad. And my name is Theo. How are you?”
“‘I have more flesh than other men and therefore more frailty’.”
Theo took his cue: “‘Ah rogue, i’faith I love thee, thou art as valorous as Hector of Troy, worth five of Agamemnon.’” He sat down opposite his father and said: “You look as though you’ve been out in the sun.”
“Yes. I have a son called Theo. A golden boy”
“That’s me, Dad. Look – I’ve brought you a present.”

Theo watched his father unwrap the new shirt he had bought for him. He found it mildly ironic that he was continuing to be his father’s prompter. Communication was still a problem, at times vexatious, at times hilarious. The old man had been steadily regaining his powers of speech since the stroke, but he still had difficulties finding his words, and those he did find were frequently malapropisms. By some neurological quirk, he was more fluent as Falstaff than he was as himself . Theo wondered how the speech therapist treating his father was reacting to his Falstaffian outbursts.
There was a knock at the door of Maurice’s room and a pretty dark- haired girl entered with a tray of tea. “‘My doe with the black scut’,” he whispered  theatrically as she left the room.
“‘Let the sky rain potatoes, let it thunder to the tune of Greensleeves,’” responded Theo in kind.
There was a pause as they both drank their tea. Theo decided the time had come for the talk. “They say you’ve been upsetting the ladies here, Dad. Is it true?”
“‘A foutra for the world and wordlings base!’” said his father.
“Now come on, Dad. Stop being Falstaff for a bit. This is serious. Is it true that you’ve asked the social services to help you hire a prostitute?”
His father suddenly burst into tears. Theo reached out and held his hand.
“Take it easy now, Dad.”
“They dejected my bequest,” mumbled his father, crestfallen.
“They rejected your request,” corrected Theo. “Were you really serious?”
“Oh yes. It’s my birthweek next day, and I want to cerebrate with a shady lady.”
“Well it’s no surprise they turned you down. Is that why you’ve been harassing the women here?”
“I’m making a road test against the perusal of my human rights.”
On his return journey Theo debated the issues raised by his visit to Ivydene. His father had made an unusual, immoral but legal request for his 85th birthday. If it was not met he would go on being a nuisance at the home and would have to move out. This could plunge him into a depression from which he might very likely die.
Theo had no doubt that the NHS would reject the ‘therapy’ application referred to it by the social services. So the question for him was whether he could bring himself to solicit immoral services for his father. He was aware that the role was demeaning for him and exploitative of women, and of course found this hard to reconcile with his Christian conscience. He had his own position in the Church to consider, which would be untenable if word got out that he was seeking a prostitute. He was reluctant to bother God with a prayer for guidance. So, after further reflection on the risks, he decided that his father’s wishes were paramount. “Honour thy father,” he said to himself.
Theo had just one week to meet his father’s wish. At home he pondered the  practical problems he would have to overcome. It was unlikely that prostitution existed in Bluntwell-On-Sea. Theo himself had never used the services of a prostitute and had little idea of how a suitable one could be contacted, let alone how she could then be persuaded to spend the night with a very old man.  .
Just when he had started to wonder if he should go to London and collect some of the cards that regularly festoon the phone booths round Kings Cross, Theo remembered that he had recently seen a television programme in which one of the speakers was from the National Union of Sex Workers. He dialled Directory Enquiries where an impassive female with an Indian accent supplied the number. He rang it.
“Union of Sex Workers,” answered a brisk female voice.
“Oh hello, may I speak to your Information Officer?”
“Sorry, we don’t have one. Can I help?”
“I’m ringing on behalf of my father. I’m looking for someone who would…er.. be willing to offer her services to him.”
“We are a trade union, not an employment agency.”
“I know, but can you recommend someone I could contact?”
“Hang on a minute.” Theo heard her shout for someone called Gina. After some muffled discussion a new voice came on the phone.
“’Ello, what’s this all about then?”
Theo tried as best he could to explain.
“What’s your name?”
“Sorry, I can’t say.”
“Typical. Your old man – ‘ow old is ‘e?
“Eighty five.”
“You’re joking. Won’t ‘e pop ‘is clogs on the job?
“I think he’ll pop his clogs if the job doesn’t happen.”
“So this is a sort of emergency, right?”
“It’ll cost you. We ain’t the NHS. Our members charge premium rates for this sort of thing.”
“Fair enough.”
“‘Old on. I’ll just get me little address book.”
She came back and gave him two contacts.
“Tell ‘em you spoke to Gina. Alright mate? Aren’t you’re a good boy for your old Dad!”
On the Sunday after this conversation Theo took as the text for his sermon John 8 verses 3 to 11 about Christ and the woman taken in adultery. When he came to the words “Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone” he looked into the faces of his congregation and paused as if waiting for someone to let fly at him. When no such response was forthcoming he felt his qualms about what he was doing for his father somewhat soothed.
On Monday morning, with four days to go to the Great Birthday Treat, Theo called the two numbers that Gina had given him. He had decided that if they were willing to proceed he should meet each of them separately at a public place they would suggest. The prospect made him uneasy. He was unsure how he would decide which of the two would be best for his father, but he had some idea of the latter’s taste in women from his memories of their theatre tours together.
The first candidate was called Svetlana, who met him in a suburban coffee bar. She was dropped off by a young man in a black leather coat and dark glasses who parked the car outside and then got out and leaned against the car door smoking. Seeing the red umbrella Theo had said he would have with him, she headed to his table. “Mister Roberts?” she asked in a husky voice. He nodded, feeling as false as his name. “I am Svetlana.” She was a tall peroxide blonde, rather plain, her heavy features thickened with makeup. He guessed she was in her late thirties. She was wearing boots, a short denim skirt and a crop top which revealed a tanned midriff with a silver stud in the navel. She had the longest fingernails he had even seen, as red as blood. She was from Ukraine and spoke English with a strong Russian accent. “I luff old men,” she told Theo. “I make your father ver’ happy. I charge hundred fifty pound one hour straight sex.” She nodded to the smoker outside the window:  “Plus expenses.”
Dolly was quite different. She had arranged to meet Theo for lunch in a greasy roadside café where everything was with chips. She was late, and he was beginning to think that she was not going to show up. There was a roar outside and he saw someone arrive on a monster motorbike, a highly chromed Harley Davidson. A stocky figure wearing the full rig of helmet, black leather and steel capped boots entered the café. The apparition removed the helmet, revealing a mass of red hair tied up in a topknot. She was a plump and rosy woman in her late forties who seemed to bulge out of her squeaky leather gear in a way that resembled a figure in a Beryl Cook painting.
“’Ello, dear,” she greeted him, recognising him from the red umbrella. “I’m Dolly. Sorry I’m a bit late. I ‘ad to do some shopping for me old Mum. She’s got bad arthritis. ‘Elp me off with this blinkin’ jacket, there’s a good boy. Don’t worry about the trousers. Coo, ain’t it chilly out there? Order me some fish and chips and mushy peas, there’s a love.  Must go to the Ladies.  Back in a jiff.” Taken aback by this onrush of speech, Theo felt as though he was not meeting a prostitute but an eccentric and garrulous aunt.
“‘Ow’s your old Dad then?” said Dolly with a smile when she came back to the table. “Sounds like ‘e’s a bit of a goer.” Her perfume reached Theo through the smell of cooking oil. He did his best to tell her about his father. “Cor, I never done an old folks ‘ome before,” she said as the fish and chips were served. “Still, I might give it a go. But before we get down to business, like, could I meet your old man first to see if we’d get on? If we do, we could make a date. I don’t like to rush jobs at my age. I could pretend to be an old girlfriend making a visit, OK?  Pass the ketchup, dear.”
Theo was impressed by Dolly’s grasp of practicalities, and so sure his father would take to her that he decided she was the one. He phoned the old man:
“Hello Dad. I’ve found a lady for you.”
“Theo, my boy, you speak of Africa and golden joys,”
“Name’s Dolly.”
“Not Doll Tearsheet!”
“No. She wants to meet you first.”
“Bring her to me and I will take her to sweet sheds of flowers.”
“You might not like her and she might not like you.”
“Eh? I’m not planning to get harried you know”
“Married. I know. But there’s no need to rush.  I’ll bring her to see you tomorrow. We can pretend she’s an old friend. If you both get on you can make a date on your birthday.”
“Theo, be wareful. You know I……
“That’s alright Dad. See you tomorrow.”
Theo and Dolly arrived at Ivydene when most of the residents were taking their afternoon nap.   Dolly, now wearing a bosomy floral dress and red high heels, waited in the lobby as Theo went to fetch the old man. They came down in the lift, and when the doors opened Dolly crouched down and kissed Maurice on both cheeks, displaying as she did so a generous cleavage right under his nose. Then she propelled the wheelchair out into the sunshine, singing “Oh I do like to be beside the seaside” as she went.
This first encounter passed off as well as Theo had hoped.
“She reminds me of  Marie Floyd”, his father said as Theo took him back to his room.
“Marie Lloyd, yes I suppose she has got a touch of the old Cockney music halls about her,” said Theo. “So you’d like to go ahead with this crazy idea?”
“Can’t wait. My flood is up,” said Maurice, looking bright-eyed and rather flushed.
“Don’t get too excited. You’ll have to wait till tomorrow.”
“I like your Dad,” Dolly told him as he saw her to the hotel where they were staying overnight. “Quite the gent, really. ’E kept on singing ‘Sank ‘eaven for lill girls’ like he was that French bloke Maurice summink.” She stretched and yawned, then looked Theo in the eye. “What we doin’ tonight, then, Theo?”
Theo had not bargained to keep Dolly company that evening but could find no excuse not to. She said she didn’t like hotels and hotel food, so they went out to eat in a cheap pizza place on the sea front run by a pale and melancholic Pole who was waiter and cook combined. Over the meal, Theo invited Dolly to talk about herself.
Theo felt a sense of awe as Dolly’s gave him her life history. She was revealing sides of life that he had never encountered or imagined. He found himself liking her more and more – her self-mockery, her candour and her bright auntie-ness. She touched his arm every time she wanted to emphasize a point or have a laugh. She concluded by saying that she had divorced her husband about ten years ago and had no children.
“So that’s me,” she said. “Now what about you?”
When Theo told her his job she almost choked on her pizza.
Next morning Theo phoned his father:
“Happy birthday Dad!”
“You’re eighty five today.”
“Good dog! So I am.”
“Your birthday present will arrive this afternoon at 2.30.”
“Are you ready for it – I mean her?
“‘I am old, I am old!’”
“‘But she will love thee better than a scurvy young boy’.”
“‘Saturn and Venus this year in conjunction’”
“‘Why thou globe of sinful continents, what a life dost thou lead!’ I’ve given her a bottle of champagne to bring with her.”
“Thank you, my boy.”
“Good luck.”
Theo’s hope that the day would go as planned was upset by the well-meaning intervention of the NHS. Dolly had arrived at Ivydene in time to see a dazed Maurice being loaded into an ambulance in his wheelchair. Dolly, thinking that he had fallen ill, insisted on accompanying Maurice in the ambulance as ‘a close family friend’. Maurice told Dolly that he had no idea why he was being taken to hospital. When they arrived at the hospital Dolly was asked to wait in reception while Maurice, having been given a brief check up by a young Indian doctor, was wheeled by a leering porter to a private room off the geriatric ward where who should be waiting for him but the formidable Svetlana. “Happy birthday Mister Maurice,” she said.  Evidently the NHS had decided to provide him with the therapeutic birthday present he had originally requested from the Social Services. Moreover, in the best tradition of the NHS, the service would be free at the point of delivery.
Summoned to the hospital by an urgent phone call from Dolly, Theo arrived there to find his father in the hospital’s WRVS café playing Falstaff to a puzzled Svetlana.  Dolly, having been enlightened by a friendly nurse, told a bewildered Theo what had happened. Svetlana came over and whispered in Theo’s ear. “Sex no good. Sorry.”
Back at Ivydene an exhausted Maurice was put to bed while Theo and Dolly sat drinking tea in the visitors’ room.
“Your poor old Dad,” said Dolly. “Some birthday!”
“Some birthday indeed,” echoed Theo.
“Sex on the NHS, eh!” giggled Dolly.
“Trouble is he didn’t get any,” said Theo, spluttering into his hand.
“No wonder,” added Dolly. “Who’d feel sexy in a gerry ward?”
“True,” said Theo. “Svetlana’s not his type anyway.”
“Theo, we can still give ‘im an ‘appy birthday.” And she told him her idea.
After leaving Maurice to rest for a few hours, Theo went to his room and found him  looking pale but refreshed, with a glass of whisky in his hand.
“Dolly’s waiting for you downstairs, Dad.”
“Ah, Doll Tearsheet. She’d better be good after that hospital conkerbine”
“She will be. I promise. ‘Patch up thy old body for heaven!’”
“Aye, lad. ‘Honour pricks me on’. Take me to her.”
Dolly was waiting for them, clad from the neck down in her biking gear.
“Fancy a free ride, dear?” she said to Maurice, kissing him. “It’s your present from me.”
They dressed the amused old man in leather gear and  helmet, and escorted him out to Dolly’s Harley Davidson. Theo helped him on to the pillion seat, and made him cling with his good arm to Dolly, who, helmet-less, was revving up the engine.  Maurice flipped back his visor. “’Is’t not passing brave to be a king,” he declared to Theo above the roar, “and ride in triumph through Persepolis?’”
Theo watched as they bowled along the promenade and down a slipway onto the beach. The tide was low and the evening sun was inking-in the shadows over a vast expanse of firm golden sand. Dolly accelerated, her red hair streaming back over Maurice, and they tore along the strand, scattering the gulls and sending up rainbows of spray as they sped through the shallows of the outgoing tide.