Dad was born in May of 1935 in Billericay. For those who don’t know, that’s a town in the south of England in the county of Essex. As a boy, he lived in a small house on Tennyson Drive in Pitsea also in Essex. His brother and three sisters lived together in that house for a lot of years, and dad went to school at Pitsea Primary School and later Craylands Secondary School. He told me about his experiences of WWII many times, of sitting in the bomb shelter at the bottom of his garden listening to the German bombers heading toward the docks at Tilbury or the refineries along the Thames. He and his friends would often collect bits of shrapnel from the anti aircraft guns or the planes fighting overhead. He would grin and say his mum would shout at him to get inside while bits of shrapnel fell hitting the house roof like hail and him standing there watching the dog fighting hurricanes and spitfires.
After the war and when Dad grew into a young man, it was his turn for national service and off he went to boot camp on July 23rd 1955. In time he was assigned to be a driver in the Royal Army’s transport corp. where he drove 8 ton trucks and, he told me once, those whacking big flat rigs that carried tanks on the back. He served much of his time in the army stationed in Germany. On his discharge papers, my dad’s CO wrote the following:
“He is a man of quiet personality who has done well in the army. He is capable of sustained hard work under difficult conditions. He is a good driver of vehicles of up to 8 ton capacity and can carry out maintenance and servicing. He is thoroughly honest and trustworthy and should do very well in civil life.”
At the age of 22, and having left the army to work for British Bata as a pressman, he married my mum–Iris King in the registry office at Brentwood. They were very much in love, so much that they eloped and were married in secret. They had very little money, and the first five years of their marriage they spent saving for a down payment on a house. Just imagine a couple married for five years yet unable to live together! It would never happen today of course, but back then they had little choice but to continue living apart until they had enough to buy a house.
It was 1962, five years almost to the day of their marriage that dad was finally able to get a mortgage. He bought a bungalow in Corringham about 5 miles from his old home in Pitsea. It seems amazing, but he bought the two bedroom semi from his own sister, Josie, and her husband Richard Fuller. Josie and Rich moved just around the corner into a bigger detached bungalow. Josie told me how close my dad and she were as kids. She looked after him as a boy, and dad buying Josie’s house for his wife to live in with him seems fitting to me. He brought up his family in that house, and lived in it until the day he died. It was more than just a house. I was born in it, as was my brother in my mum and dad’s bed. No hospitals for us! But I am getting ahead of myself.
I was dad and mum’s first son, born in October of 1964 just two years after they had moved into their new home. They baptized me Mark Edward Cooper, though I don’t really use the Edward. I just use the middle initial on the cover of my books–I think it looks good In 1967 my brother was born, also in mum’s bed–why change what works eh? His name is Steven John Cooper, and he later became the successful businessman of our family. My dad and mum were so proud of him for making something of himself.
While we were growing up in that house in Corringham, dad worked hard at British Bata. He moved from being a pressman to being a chemical compound mixer making bulk plastics and rubber. It was heavy dirty work, and for years he worked nights and all the overtime he could to make ends meet. In his spare time, dad would often go sea fishing and take us all with him. Mum would make a picnic and watch dad teach us how to fish. It was around that time they became interested in tropical fish, and so bought a small tank to keep in the house. We already had a dog, but now we had more pets. It didn’t take long for dad’s fascination with the brightly coloured fish to blossom into something bigger.
One tank became two, two became dozens very quickly and it wasn’t long before they were breeding all sorts of exotic fish in the garage and taking them to shows. He won a ton of trophies for his fish, and even sold some to other would-be winners. I was about ten years old when he managed to obtain an electric eel. Dangerous as heck it was, it literally killed its prey by paralyzing other fish and then gulping them down. Dad was electrocuted by the eel more than once and had to use rubber gauntlets that reached all the way up to his shoulders for protection. Its tank was huge, easily ten or twelve feet long made of thick toughened glass. He had a devil of a job transporting that eel to fish shows in a big plastic bin, but he did it and won many awards for it. It was the only one in private ownership in England, though there was a smaller one in London Zoo I believe. Dad’s obsession with animals spread to wanting to keep Koi. He dug two ponds in the back garden, and bred some very nice Koi there. He never showed those fish, they were just there because he liked to watch them. Many years on those two ponds became one big pond, but he would still sit and watch them for hours. Some of those fish are huge monsters now, though they must be great great grand kids of those original Koi.
My brother and I grew into manhood, and Steven married Tammy. They had a huge church wedding and made me the best man, which I totally was not. I am awful at public speaking, but managed to force myself to say my teeny tiny speech without fainting. Dad and mum looked great together. All the men were in the full regalia–top hats and tails. The bride was stunning in her white dress, and they even had the pony and trap with driver decked to the nines. It was a fantastic occasion. I wonder now if my dad ever compared his simple elopement to his youngest son’s wedding. They couldn’t have been more different. Steven and Tammy bought a house not far away and two years later Tammy gave birth to a son, Harvey. Dad and mum were grandparents already! Two more years pass, and Steven’s second son is born and is named Harry.
Its 1996 now, and dark times befall. Mum is diagnosed with cancer and passes away at the very young age of 58. Dad is devastated by the loss. Tammy was very worried for him. He lost a lot of weight about then, and it seemed he would give up the will to live. Steven tried to help bringing around a puppy to gain dad’s attention. Along with the dog to care for, my brother gives dad a stern lecture about how he has to look after himself for mum’s sake. It seems to work and the dog, a Bishon Friz named Terry, distracts him a little and makes him go out for long walks.
On the first anniversary of mum’s death, dad writes her a letter and I quote it here:
“One year has passed since that sad day when God closed your eyes and took you away. No more suffering, no more pain, in God’s beautiful garden is where you remain. Dear Iris we will meet again some day at heaven’s open door then I can put my arms around you and love you just once more.”
Time passes as time must. Dad is made redundant after working for British Bata for over forty years. He decides to retire, and turns his hand to gardening and the fishing he still loves. Gradually his health forces him to give up fishing, and slowly even his garden is denied him. He finds it increasingly hard to walk and eventually is housebound. I live with him, and when not at work took care of him and his dog.
At age 76, my dad passes away peacefully in Basildon Hospital, not even four miles from the house he called home for most of his life. He was determined to live as he wanted to live in his own home, and he did it all his own way right up to the end. He was in hospital barely a few hours–just as he would have wished it. He died September 11th 2011 with his sisters and their husbands at his side. I was there with him, as was Steven and his wife.
He has gone to join the love of his life as he said he would in his letter to her. Ted and Iris, together now for always.