The day after Dad died, Oscar and I met up at the small terraced house that had been our childhood home and busied ourselves with the many tasks that fall to the recently bereaved. Tedious tasks for the most part, but they needed to be done. Anyway, they served to distract us.
Oscar opted for making a start on clearing out several decades’ worth of clothes and shoes upstairs and left me to sort through Dad’s papers. I sat myself at the desk in the tiny box-room that Dad liked to call his study and wondered where to start. Smart of Oscar, I thought, to pick a job where he could just switch off and not need to think at all.
A list was what I needed. People to inform, and to invite to the funeral. I opened the top drawer of the desk, found a notepad and started writing. Family, friends, work-mates…I could think of quite a few names right off the top of my head but I’d need their addresses or phone numbers. Dad was always meticulous in keeping things organised, he must have an address book around here someplace. I pulled open another drawer and there it was, faded blue cover, the edges of the pages well thumbed. I recognised Dad’s neat handwriting and muttered a word of thanks when I saw that he had been diligent in keeping it up to date, amending entries as and when people moved house.
Upstairs, I could hear my brother opening and closing cupboards and drawers, emptying out Dad’s clothes. He’d better not be making a mess up there. Dad had been very particular about keeping the place tidy since Mum died. Not that it mattered now, of course. But still. And I hoped he’d remembered what the undertaker had said, about putting aside one of Dad’s suits, to dress him in. I shook off the image that conjured and quickly turned back to Dad’s address book and the task in hand.
Having found the contact details for the names already on my list, I went back through page by page, looking for people I’d overlooked. That’s when I found the card. Tucked between the pages under ‘C to D’. I recognised it straight away, of course. One of my old business cards. I turned it over in my hand. “Charles Frame, Associate Legal Advisor”. My first proper job after graduating. The italic black typeface, the company name in embossed gold…it all looked rather dated now. I was surprised that Dad had kept it. The details were many years and several career moves out of date, so it was hardly of any practical use.
But then, that was the last business card I ever gave him. It had been received so badly, after all. As I studied the card, I pictured myself all those years ago, proudly, handing it to my father. Him seated at this very desk, Mum and I standing in the doorway, both of us impatiently awaiting his reaction.
Dad studied the card, frowning slightly. I wondered how long it could take him to read a dozen words but eventually he spoke.
‘They’ve put Charles Frame,’ he said.
Not exactly the response I had hoped for. Something with the word ‘congratulations’ in it would have been nice.
‘They must have assumed that ‘Charlie’ was a nickname, I suppose,’ Dad continued. ‘That’s a shame. You’ll have to get them to reprint those.’
He held the card out for me to take back. I ignored it and put my hands in my pockets.
‘It’s not a mistake, Dad,’ I said. ‘I asked them to put Charles. The way I see it, if someone can call themselves Charlie when their given name is Charles, then why not the other way round?’
I didn’t say why I’d started to call myself Charles. To my mind, ‘Charlie’ wasn’t a name befitting my new status. My imagined status, at least. A corporate lawyer… a man who was going up in the world. But I didn’t need to say it. Dad had worked that bit out for himself.
‘I see,’ said Dad, quietly. He laid the card carefully down on the desk and pushed it slowly away with the tips of his fingers. ‘So, the name we chose for you isn’t good enough now?’
He didn’t wait for a reply, but stood up and pushed past us, out of the room. I heard the back door go, and guessed he was heading for the sanctuary of his shed at the bottom of the garden.
Mum sighed and put a comforting hand on my shoulder. ‘You should have kept that to yourself, Charlie,’ she said. ‘You know how funny he is about the names.’
I knew, all right. How many times had Oscar and I heard the tale of how our names had been chosen? A tale that began before we were even born, on the day our parents met. Dad telling the story in his romantic, happy-ever-after way. Mum chipping in with sceptical, but affectionate, comments. Or her version. Warm but less sentimental, and Dad unable to stop himself adding corrections and elaborations. Either way, I knew it all by heart.
Mum and Dad had met in August 1945 at a street party in the East End of London. The war was over and the whole country was celebrating. Mum told us how Dad was a very handsome young man in his army uniform, but remarkably reserved for a soldier. The serious type, she decided. He’d introduced himself as Victor and said that he was a radio operator, waiting to be demobbed. Mum said that she was a nurse and was working at the local hospital, in Bethnal Green.
It was when she said that her name was Juliet that he had become really excited. He’d declared that there was something auspicious about their meeting on that particular day. She’d learned to be wary of ardent soldiers, and she suspected he was just another army boy trying it on. But as he went on to explain what he meant, she realised that he was completely serious.
He described the special alphabet that radio operators used to spell out words when speaking over the air. They would say ‘Alpha’ for A, ‘Bravo’ for B, and so on, all the way up to ‘Zulu’ for Z. It was to make sure that messages were not misheard.
She’d known that. And yes, of course, she knew that they used the word ‘Juliet’ for J. But she’d forgotten, or perhaps never known, that the word used for V was ‘Victor’. And that was the crucial point, the excitable young soldier had said. Victor meeting Juliet on, of all days, VJ Day. It must have been “written in the stars”, he’d said.
‘It was written in the stars. It was our day,’ Dad would say to us boys. ‘We were destined to meet then. And we’ve had good luck and happiness ever since.’
Mum would gently deny, ‘falling for that flimflam’. Weren’t there other men’s names in that list? One name in particular seemed a far better match for a girl called Juliet. Whenever she said this, Dad would wink at us boys and say, ‘Oh yeah – good luck finding someone called Romeo round these parts.’
Maybe Mum wasn’t entirely convinced about the significance of the date, but the starry-eyed soldier won her heart anyway. They got engaged. Dad was demobbed and found a job. They got married. Neither Oscar nor I paid much attention to those parts of the story, I’m afraid. I vaguely recall some mention of ration books, of hand-me-down clothes, and the hardest winter in 50 years, but we weren’t really interested. We just wanted them to get to the part about how we got our names.
They made us believe our names were special somehow. Predetermined. Not like other kids, with names inherited from grandparents or picked from a list. Except, they did pick our names from a list. That same phonetic alphabet that had been so significant when they had first met.
Unquestionably, this decision severely restricted their options. There are only a few names for boys in that alphabet, after all. Especially if you exclude Romeo – which it’s pretty clear Dad would have done. But the limited choice was never mentioned as being an issue. Not by Mum. And certainly not by Dad.
Within a year of being married, Mum gave birth to a boy, and they called him Oscar. An unusual choice of name for an English boy in those days, but Mum always said she thought it sounded distinguished.
Just under two years later, I came along and they named me Charlie. Nothing distinguished about that, it seemed to me. And I was the last because, as Dad liked to joke, they were waiting for Mike but he never showed up.
Two boys. No girls. I once asked my parents what name they would have chosen if they’d had a daughter. Mum laughed, but Dad winced, each of them recalling some incident from when she was expecting one of us. She had told him that she was considering India or Sierra for a girl. Or even Echo, which she discovered was the name of a Greek nymph. She was bluffing, of course. Working class English girls weren’t given names like that in those days.
As a young child, I thought the whole story of our names was great fun and I liked to hear it told and retold. Other kids grew up with friezes of the regular alphabet on their nursery walls, all of them pretty much identical. A for Apple. B for Ball. The inevitable Z for Zebra. But not us. On the wall of our shared bedroom, Oscar and I had a poster of the radiotelephony alphabet, with our names highlighted in bright colours.
We loved it. Oscar cut out a magazine picture of the gold Academy Award and pasted it under the letter ‘O’. I stuck a silhouette of Chaplin, with bowler hat and wonky cane, under the letter ‘C’. We’d proudly show the poster to our school friends and recount the story.
But when adolescence kicked in, I decided the whole thing was stupid and unspeakably embarrassing. Like pretty much everything else about my parents. What kind of a name was Charlie, anyway? Oscar shared his name with sophisticated people…musicians and artists. He even decided to become an architect because there was a famous one called Oscar. But Charlie? Comedians. Footballers. Me and a bunch of other clowns.
What the hell had Dad been thinking with his crazy idea about the phonetic alphabet? Mum had gone along with it, but it was Dad who was the superstitious one. I could imagine him pleading with her not to choose other names, not to break the spell, and Mum agreeing, just to keep him happy.
As soon as I left home, I dropped Charlie and became Charles. At work, and to my new friends, that is. I couldn’t completely shake Charlie off, though. Every time I had to fill in one official form or another, I found myself having to explain the discrepancy with my birth certificate and resenting it all over again.
After the incident with the business card, Dad and I never discussed the matter again. I kept him up to date with my job moves, of course. I let him know how to contact me at work. But I kept my new cards in my wallet.
I heard Oscar come down the stairs and I slipped the card back in the address book. From the kitchen, came the noise of the kettle being filled and the rattling of cups. Oscar had obviously decided it was time for a break. I went and joined him. He was opening cupboards and peering in jars as I walked in.
‘How’s it going, Charlie?’ said Oscar, looking up. ‘Fancy a cup of coffee?’ He opened the fridge. ‘There’s no milk though.’
‘Thanks, yeah. Black is fine,’ I said. I squeezed past him and sat at the small table by the kitchen window. ‘I haven’t got very far to be honest,’ I said. ‘My mind kept wandering.’
‘I know, me too,’ said Oscar. He spooned some coffee messily into two mugs and leant back on the kitchen cabinet with his arms crossed across his chest. The electric kettle was heating up, slowly and noisily. ‘Tell you what, Charlie. When you’re ready, we’ll split the list and I’ll do some of the phoning around. All right?’
I agreed and thanked him. Oscar started opening cupboards again in a fruitless search for something to eat with the coffee. Meanwhile, I sorted through an untidy pile of mail, leaflets and papers that we had found in the hallway on our arrival and dumped on the kitchen table. I threw the local paper into the bin but immediately had second thoughts and retrieved it. I turned to the announcement pages near the back.
‘I was thinking,’ I said, ‘if I call the paper today, we could get an announcement about Dad in the ‘Bereavements’ section this week. What do you think?’
‘Good idea,’ said Oscar, placing a mug of coffee in front of me. ‘Look at some of the ones in the paper and get an idea of what to put. Nothing soppy though, eh? Keep it fairly formal. Maybe mention Mum’s name and ours so that people can, you know, join up the dots about who’s who in the family. “Devoted husband to Juliet” and so forth.’
Oscar sat down opposite me. He placed a small wooden box on the table between us.
‘I found this in Dad’s bedroom,’ he said. ‘I think it must have been Mum’s, judging by what’s in it.’
It looked like it had once been a cigar box, and had a simple pattern carved on its lid and corner decorations made of brass.
I put the newspaper to one side, pulled the box towards me, and opened the lid. Inside were a handful of items, no more. Nothing of any monetary value, but precious to Mum, it was clear. Mum’s thin gold wedding ring. A couple of other rings with modest semi-precious stones. A round, silver and blue nurse’s badge with the words “Bethnal Green Hospital” around its edge. Two small black and white photographs of Oscar and me as new born babies, names and dates written on the back.
Underneath the other things lay a slightly creased, postcard-sized photograph. I pulled it out. It was of a young man in an army uniform. Very young, but still recognisably Dad. He was posing awkwardly outside what appeared to be a barracks hut and smiling shyly at the camera. I couldn’t remember having seen this photograph before. I turned it over and on the reverse was written, “India Lima Yankee!” in big letters. The meaning wasn’t immediately obvious to me and Oscar helped me out.
‘I-L-Y’ he said.
I looked blankly at him and he rolled his eyes.
‘I. Love. You. I can only assume that Mum understood it better than you did or we wouldn’t be here now.’
I started to say something in response but my throat tightened and my eyes filled with tears. I slid the photo across the table to Oscar and wiped my cheek with the back of my hand. I took a deep breath and composed myself.
‘Sorry, Oscar. Don’t know where that came from.’
‘No need to apologise,’ said Oscar. ‘I had a little moment myself earlier, up in Dad’s room. It was the suit that did it for me.’
He studied the photo of Dad, and the words on the back, and smiled. ‘Big softie, wasn’t he?’ he said. He returned the items carefully to Mum’s box and closed the lid.
We sat without speaking, sipped our drinks, and gazed at the back garden through the window. The fridge, which had been buzzing noisily, gave a violent rattle and then stopped, deepening the silence. I drained my coffee and stood up.
‘Better get back to it, eh?’ I said. ‘I’ll call the Gazette and see about this bereavement notice.’
Back in Dad’s study, I sat with my notepad and pen, drafted something that seemed appropriate, and then telephoned the newspaper office. I dictated the few lines that I had composed to a sympathetic sounding woman. She read it slowly back to me and then took my credit card details as payment.
‘Can I just check something?’ she said, hesitantly. ‘You said the name on your credit card is ‘Charles Frame’. Should we put “Charles” in the announcement? Where it says “Loving father to Oscar and Charlie”, I mean. Or shall we keep it as “Charlie”? Only, I’d hate for us to get it wrong.’
‘No,’ I said, quietly. ‘Put Charlie, please. I want it to say Charlie’.
First published in Scribble short story magazine, Autumn 2015. Awarded second prize