“Try not to overdo the exercise,” I tell my dad. “I’M FINE,” he replies, loudly. “I’VE ALREADY BEEN FOR A SEVEN MILE RUN, SWAM FORTY LENGTHS AND CHOPPED A BIG LOAD OF WOOD THIS MORNING.” I live over a hundred miles from my parents, and I haven’t seen them since two months ago, when my dad first reignited his exercise regime, but I already feel tired merely from hearing about it. Could he not just do the same things in moderation? I ask him.
I know from historical evidence that this is a bit like trying to persuade a lion to ignore a gazelle carcass and eat some tapas with a fork, but it has become my job to worry. It’s not so much a case of “the child is the father to the man” as “out of necessity, the child has to be the father to the man when that man is 62 and climbs ladders with electric hedgeclippers whilst wearing only his boxer shorts”.
He has been having violently energetic sporting dreams again. This is a customary byproduct of the punishing regimes of physical exercise he plunges into every couple of years or so. “LAST NIGHT’S ONE WAS ABOUT A WINNING HEADER IN A FOOTBALL MATCH,” he told me. “I WOKE UP ON THE FLOOR. I HIT THE BEDSIDE TABLE ON THE WAY DOWN. MY BUM WAS BLEEDING QUITE A LOT. I EMAILED THE BBC WEATHER TEAM TO SAY THEY’RE RUBBISH AND COULDN’T FORECAST THE DAYS OF THE WEEK. THEY HAVEN’T GOT BACK TO ME.”
A few years ago, my dad successfully completed the London Marathon in a superhero suit (pictured above), seventeen months shy of his sixtieth birthday. During his warm-up for this, his nocturnal adventures included another top flight football clash, which left him with a deep cut on his forehead (same bedside table) and a rugby match which climaxed with him drop-kicking my mum across the bed. After a slightly sedentary period, he’s started exercising a lot again of late: running several miles a day and getting up at 6am to swim competitively against his friend Malcolm.
As my dad reports incidents from his recent athletic life to me, he will switch subjects mid-flow, without pausing for breath. He might come back to the original subject, but you never know for sure, or at what point. “I LET THE POSTWOMAN FEEL MY STOMACH TODAY,” he told me on the phone yesterday. “SHE SAID IT WAS REALLY FLAT. I’VE POTTED YOU SOME JACK’O’ LANTERNS USING MY SPECIAL NEW COMPOST. I RUN AROUND THE VILLAGE CRICKET PITCH BECAUSE THEN YOUR MUM KNOWS THERE’S ROOM FOR AN AIR AMBULANCE IF I HAVE A HEART ATTACK.”
He is the worst kind of wing man to have as a storyteller, constantly charging in and riding roughshod over the crescendo of my mum’s gently told anecdotes. “Mick,” she’ll say. “Who’s telling this story?” But it has little effect. We’ve now almost cured him of his habit of quietly picking up their second telephone and adding his bellowing input to our conversations at comically inopportune moments, but a chat with him in the flesh can leave you feeling spent and dizzy.
My parents come from families of vastly contrasting volumes: one deafeningly excitable, one deferentially quiet. Whereas my late nan - my mum’s mum - tended to pick up the phone in the manner of a woman who’d been hiding from an angry dragon for her entire life and was worried it might have finally tracked her down using the Mansfield And District Phonebook, my dad’s parents would often bellow for several minutes into answer phones before realising they weren’t speaking to a real human, so accustomed were they to their voices drowning out those of others. My grandma and granddad are gone now, and my dad doesn’t have a similarly loud spouse, or siblings, so he makes up for it by adding two or three extra raucous conversations to every room he’s in.
“THAT WAS THE OTHER THING ABOUT MICK GALLAGHER FROM MY GANG IN STAPLEFORD IN THE EARLY SIXTIES,” my dad - who, though still some way from his dotage, has definitely reached his anecdotage - will explain. “HE LATER WENT OUT WITH THREE WOMEN AND LIVED WITH THEM ALL AT THE SAME TIME. LOOK AT THE SIZE OF THAT BUZZARD! I DON’T LIKE THAT BLOKE OFF GRAND DESIGNS. HE OWNS TOO MANY JACKETS.”
Being at the wheel of the car will not stem the flow. "IMAGINE WHAT IT WOULD HAVE BEEN LIKE TO LIVE ON THAT FARM IN THE SEVENTEEN HUNDREDS,” he’ll say, slowing down his VW Golf on an A road in Nottinghamshire. “FOOKIN' BRILLIANT! I USED TO MAKE GREAT DENS AS A KID. SEE THAT SPEED CAMERA? IT'S FAKE. ”
Of course, with all this exercising, the adrenaline is pumping all the harder, and his storytelling even more enthusiastic and freeform. My mum claims my dad “doesn’t have an off switch” but I’m not sure that’s strictly true. He can fall asleep instantly in pretty much any environment, on any vaguely horizontal surface. When he’s off, he’s completely off. It’s just that when he’s on, he’s also completely on. He’s like a TV in that sense: an old one, without the standby function (unless you count “standby” as clandestinely listening to a telephone conversation and waiting for a moment to interject with the instruction “WATCH OUT FOR FOOKWITS AND NUTTERS”).
My mum and I tell him to calm down, but if we’re really honest with ourselves, as light, troubled sleepers who also don’t happen to be mentally capable of offering a cutting critique of the TV presenting foibles of Alan Titchmarsh, telling a story about 1960s Berlin and pointing out rare birds all in the space of one breath, we’re kind of envious.
I’m going to see him in a couple of weeks. “DO YOU WANT TO WATCH ME RUN ROUND THE CRICKET PITCH?” he’s asked me. I’ve got out of this in the past, so I’ve told him that I will. He was very supportive to me at golf tournaments and football matches when I was a kid, and I always knew there’d be a time and a place when I’d have to give that support back. I suppose I just never suspected that that time would be 2012, and that place would be a well-manicured field in North Nottinghamshire.
Read more stories about Tom's dad in his latest book, Talk To The Tail (Simon And Schuster, £8.99) or at a discount from the Saga Bookshop.
Read about Tom Cox's childhood holidays with his Loud Dad in the August issue of Saga Magazine. To subscribe, click here.