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My father, the stranger: Joe Cushnan on his absent dad

Published 19/06/2015

Joe Cushnan was just six when his dad walked out of their Belfast home. Picture posed
Joe Cushnan was just six when his dad walked out of their Belfast home. Picture posed
Joe Cushnan
Lost lives: Joe Cushnan aged five with his dad
High flier: Joe Cushnan in Belfast in 1974

Joe Cushnan was just six when his dad walked out of their Belfast home. The family heard nothing more of him until 22 years later when news arrived that he had died in London ... and they began to sift through an intriguing series of clues about the new life he had made for himself.

Well, my Daddy left home when I was three and he didn't leave much for my Ma and me ...". So sang Johnny Cash at the beginning of his hit, A Boy Named Sue. It's a great Shel Silverstein comedy song that starts with hatred and ends with a father/son reconciliation. 

In my guitar-twanging youth, I have performed the song at parties and those opening words have always resonated a little with my own experience. My father left home when I was six and left my mother in a bit of a fix (songwriting is a doddle!).

It was 1960 and he just walked out of our Belfast home, leaving his wife and seven young kids. He never came back. He died in 1982 at 58, leaving, as well as a few odds and ends, a 22-year gap in his story.

There is a large part of me that couldn't care less, yet there is also a writer's - rather than a son's - urge to investigate the mystery of the missing years and to assemble the smattering of clues in my possession to understand this man's life after he boarded the trolley bus with his old brown suitcase and went on his way to England and a new life.

Every year, Father's Day rolls around and I am reminded by two fine gentlemen that the "like father, like son" notion does not apply to my immediate family. I hug my boys and they hug me. We are very close.

I think back to my six-year-old self and I cannot recall a single hug from my father. I was a kid and it was a long time ago and I might be wrong. I must have come within hugging or kissing distance of him because I associate him with a particular smell. He used a pungent shaving soap from the days when men would lather it on with a tufted shaving brush. It was a horrible smell, not helped by the alcohol on his breath and the stench of cigarettes on his clothes.

Along with my brother, I attended his funeral. He started out in Belfast and finished his days in Clapham, south-west London. We were given a blue folder of stuff and a glimpse of his last address, a bedsit barely furnished, dimly lit and, well, just pitiful.

The blue folder contains the clues I mentioned, scraps of information about him, a few pointers to where he went and what he did in the 22 years from leaving home to his death. Let me share some of the folder's contents to illustrate leads that I could follow up.

At random, there is a note from the Department of Health and Social Security, July 12, 1982, requesting information to avoid delays in payments of benefits. The form has not been filled in. My father died on July 8, 1982. There is a card from the McManuses, Judy and Vin: "The holy sacrifice of the Mass will be offered for the repose of the soul of John Cushion by the Redemptorist Fathers, St Mary's, Clapham." His surname was Cushnan, but he was past caring. A receipt from Ashton Funeral Services, Clapham, July 23, 1982, confirms payment of £610.34, received "with thanks", and an agenda outlines funeral arrangements: 11am service at cemetery chapel, 11.30am burial at Lambeth, cars 2 x 12 mourners total.

There are some "With Deepest Sympathy" flower cards from the management of the Nestle company, from the Royal Naval Association, Battersea, from managers and fellow workers at The Express Lift Co. Ltd and from barroom buddies at the Rose & Crown pub. His friends share their regrets - Alf, Jim, Doug, George, another Alf, Dennis, Helen, and Denize (with a zed).

There is a Barclay's Bank deposit book, a Barclay's Bank cheque book, Lavender Hill branch, both unused, as well as a posthumous pay slip, September 3, 1982, gross pay £113.40, net pay £79.50, and an accompanying letter from the lift company, forwarding the net cash to me and from me, ultimately, home to my mother, his first money to her in 22 years.

There is an airmail letter from his pals, Liz and Gerry from Co Wicklow. They talk of Christmas, send good wishes to friends at the Rose & Crown, complain of scarce jobs in Ireland, tight money and offer a Bonnie and Clyde gag about robbing a bank. Liz says that top of her Santa list is Frank Sinatra with a red bow under his chin, but what she'd really like is a house in Co Down. She promises, if she wins the sweepstakes, that she'll be back over to Clapham to buy everyone a drink.

In another letter from the same couple, Liz breaks the news that her mother has died, in spite of prayers and hopes for a miracle. She died quickly in her sleep and "thank God, she did not suffer too much pain". Liz and Gerry sent best wishes to my father, to George, Alfie, Eddie, Big John, to the rest of the lads and, last but not least, Big Jim, "the boss".

The letter goes on: "I hope you are looking after yourself and eating all you can. When we get back in the New Year, we want to see an improved Kelly." Kelly? He changed his name!

John Cushnan left his wife and seven kids and became John Kelly. The letter finishes with talk of travels to Galway, Cork, Killarney, Limerick, Listowel, Ballybunion, Waterford and Wexford, and job hunting in Wicklow, ending with more best wishes and "Lots of love, hoping to see everyone soon".

I know none of these people, these people from his new world, these people from his other life, these people who knew him as John Kelly.

In a knackered brown leather wallet, there is a photograph of a man by an olive tree, not my father. I assume it is a friend of his. The photo is stuck to a plastic window. There are eight other photographs and only one features my father: three women, all smoking, sitting in what looks like a horse-drawn carriage; a man swimming in the sea; two women posing at the front door of a house; a man (the swimmer) having a drink on a holiday hotel balcony; a bride, a groom and four others standing by a church door; the swimmer, two elderly women and my father posing outside in the sun; a passport-size photograph of a young boy; a passport-size photograph of a woman in her forties (I estimate).

There is a scrap of paper: "John, I owe you 14 shillings. Hugh Hamilton". There are membership cards for the Royal British Legion, Clapham Rise branch, in the name of J. Kelly: 1974 (green), 1975 (brown), 1976 (pink), 1977 (green), annual fee for each year, 55p for associate members, paid-up receipts included.

And then there is my father's death certificate - date and place of death: July 8, 1982, National Hospital, Camden. Name and surname: John Cushnan. Date and place of birth: February 11, 1924, Belfast, Northern Ireland. Occupation and usual address: Cloth Cutter, Orlando Road, Clapham Old Town. Cause of death: Intracranial tumour. My father was 58 when he died. I am 61 as I write this. My blue folder is over 30 years old and I am sure a lot of my father's old mates and colleagues are dead and gone. But the urge to investigate the missing years persists, not out of anger or bitterness or a desire to rake over the past. In emotional terms, my father means nothing to me. But the mystery of the missing years intrigues me. Questions form a long queue.

A Boy Named Sue ends with a father and son getting back together, but that can never happen in my case.

I have often imagined the conversation we might have had if he had lived. I have written a play exploring the meeting of a 60-year old son and his 89-year old father after a long time apart. It is pure fantasy, though borne out of real life.

When I think of my father, on Father's Day and on other days, I always think of my mother too. Johnny Cash wrote a great song called I Still Miss Someone.

When Mother's Day comes around, that's a completely different bowl of emotions, and much sweeter memories.

Belfast Telegraph

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