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Felix Elkin: On tidiness

Snippets and crumbs

For as long as I can remember, my father, Nick, was intensely (OCD) ordered. He used to, for example, keep his socks in colour order, rolled and folded in some bizarre (bunny in the hole) method that I have never grasped and never will. His desk was always immaculate with pencils in tins that had been kept sharpened and lined up since 1958.

In diametric opposition to this, I am –  by nature –  quite chaotic. Things like sock organisation, arranging newspapers and other throwaway things neatly are, to me, bordering on the pointless. I was that child who would be given something nice and mechanical by my grandparents or kindly great uncles and aunts, be it a torch or a model electric train, and I would take it apart to see how it worked, fairly often breaking it in the process.

My grandmother (Nick’s mum) would say kindly: “That boy has an engineer’s brain”. Typically Nick would call me a “bloody nuisance”. Today my younger daughter displays similar characteristics and I sometimes  check myself saying “I’m turning into my dad”.

Roll the clock forward a few decades and Nick now has this dreadful debilitating condition that has (far too quickly and very cruelly) robbed him of his life, lifestyle and dignity. He spends his days now in a joyless, almost locked-in state of angst and inability.

So what, if anything, remains? What is the last thing to go? A week or so ago, Susan and Nick came to visit us one Saturday in our suitably chaotic touring caravan. I produced some dinner and we manhandled him into the caravan to sit at the table. Whilst he was there, my wife and I couldn’t help noticing him carefully, obsessively picking up the discarded crumbs from the table. He didn’t know he was doing it.  To him it was automatic, perhaps the last instinct left?

It took me back to being seven and being told off for leaving snippets on the floor. “Snippets” was a catch-all term my dad used for general detritus that wasn’t ordered or didn’t have a place. Nick was, and still is, the only person I know who would use the Latinword “decorum” meaning peace and quiet when his children were affecting his ordered world.

As I grew up and reached adulthood, I think Nick and I gradually learnt to embrace each other’s differences. A bit of geographical distance  helped too.

Now that he is undisputedly nearing the end stage of the condition, the shadow who inhabits the man who was Nick my father, has only snippets and crumbs left of his former self and personality. It’s an odd but very fitting analogy.

Photograph: Felix’s “chaotic” younger daughter (aka as GD4 in Susan’s blogs) in his “chaotic” caravan.

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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