My father in law’s pen

CW: bereavement and griefhammers. Are you reading this post, Beloved? I told you already it’s a sad post. I do not think you wanna.

When I started dating my Beloved back in 2010 and we notified our respective parents of our new relationship they responded as follows:


My dad: Huh. Has he got any money?

His dad: yes she’s very nice. Don’t get her pregnant.

I must admit I don’t know his mum’s response. What we can take away from this is that nobody seemed to have much faith in our ability to avoid a state of non-stop rocking gamete party time. Eight years in we’re so far so good on that front.

So anyway. The man who would become my father in law was a particularly interesting person. He’d been already in his mid-50s when Beloved showed up on the scene, so he was almost 80 by the time his treasured son went and married me. Beloved was always aware that his dad wouldn’t last forever, but said FIL didn’t seem to realise it himself. He was as sharp as a badly trained treble and had a level of energy which was just the right side of frightening.

He was incredibly kind. Both of Beloved’s parents showed a level of unconditional love, generosity and support for their son (and, from the instant I showed up, me) that I found deeply unsettling and unfamiliar. I fought the guilt and waited for the other side to show. It didn’t. When we had to move house five times in two years (that’s renting in the London commuter zone for you) FIL took furniture apart and put it back together with more cheer than anyone should have when faced with a gradually disentegrating Ikea wardrobe. When my in laws bought a new home that was more disability-friendly for MIL to live in, they gave us the change from their move so we could also buy a place and not have to move any more.

FIL wasn’t perfect, of course. He could be a little old fashioned and I did sometimes have to bite my tongue when he said stuff like “I don’t mind these people being homosexuals but I really don’t see why they have to TELL people about it!”

He had a particular habit which grated on every one of my nerves. He’d encourage me to read in his house because he knew what a bookworm I am. So I would, and then, just as I was getting engrossed –

“What make is your washing machine?”

What make? I don’t know. It was there when we moved in. I don’t really care as long as it works. But I think about it, remember and tell him. He nods sagely. I return to my book. The plot is really picking up now. This is incredible! I don’t know how they’re going to –

“You’ve got a decent pension through your job, haven’t you? Is it a local authority one?”

Every time the question would be relatively straightforward but I would nonetheless have to think quite hard to answer it, as the paragraphs I’d just read would slide out of my brain to make room.

When I married Beloved I took his surname. This runs a little counter to my fierce feminist leanings on the surface of it. For me there is joy in taking the name of this family whom I chose and who chose me. I don’t want to go too much into other family relationships here but let’s just say it’s a little more complicated with the family I was born into. The other reason is that I hated my unmarried name with a vengeance the whole three decades I was stuck with it. YES. EVEN AS A DAMN NEWBORN.

FIL was very matter of fact about his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer. It shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise – he was 81 and had been smoking like a chimney ever since the 1950s. He’d had tuberculosis as a young man and lived in a sanitarium for two years, during which time doctors encouraged him to take up smoking to help his lungs. No I don’t know either. His lungs were always his biggest vulnerability.

He had his chemo and radiotherapy. The tumour shrank down. He slowed down only a little and made lots of terrible tasteless hilarious pun-riddled jokes about his impending death. And then he put his arms around me and said “look after my son.” I promised I would.

Probably a big chunk of this fortitude was simple bloody mindedness and duty to MIL, for whom he was the sole carer. But it almost seemed like nothing was really wrong.

Then he became very sick very fast, a few months later. It was as though his body suddenly remembered that it was old and that cancer is actually quite a big deal after all. He died after only a couple of weeks of being bedridden, and when breathing became very difficult the hospice carers visited him at home and started the high doses of morphine that kept him comfortable. As deaths from cancer go it was a relatively good one. But losing him left a huge gap.

Before FIL received the diagnosis Beloved and I had booked a cruise in Alaska – a place I’d dreamed of visiting my whole life. When he got the diagnosis we talked about cancelling it. FIL was adamant that we absolutely must go to Alaska whatever happened. He got more and more insistent about this as his illness progressed and it looked like he might well die while we were away. In the end his death came about ten days before we left. So an incredible holiday in one of the most beautiful places on earth felt a little bit bizarre. South West Alaska is stunning. Almost every view was so beautiful it made me want to cry. It gave us a little time to rest and reflect before trying to face the full force of what had hit us.

Fuckin Alaska, man. Just look at this place.

Beloved was hit hard by grief which was inevitable. He and his dad were extremely close, and his dad was an absolute hero to him. That’s Beloved’s story though. Mine is that I wasn’t quite sure what to do with my own grief. After all the only person I really knew who also knew FIL was in a worse grief swamp than I was. For me the way to process it is to look after his son and try to behave in a way that he’d be proud of. Except that I do swear way more than he’d like, and I do see the point of us lovely queers “telling everyone about it.” Sorry.

In his working life FIL was a senior figure on the civilian side of Sussex Police. He held the purse strings which effectively meant that if something really bad happened he had to be on the scene to allocate resources. He saw a lot of awful things, from the immediate aftermath of the Brighton bombing, to the worst kinds of traffic carnage. He once said to me:

Him: Once I’m in bed I have to get straight to sleep or I start seeing the mutilated bodies again.

Me: Mutilated bodies?

Him: Yes I’ve seen a lot of them. It never really leaves you.

Me: That sounds like PTSD. Should you maybe see someone about that?

But he never did. Although he did get an MBE by way of thanks for dealing with all of this. So… yay?

What does this have to do with pens, Cantatrice? I’m getting to it! Sheesh. I got my pen brain on a few months after FIL’s death and when MIL found a fountain pen / ballpoint set of his she passed them on to me. I’ll now proceed like the ballpoint doesn’t exist because obviously.

The Rialto is printed with the Sussex Police emblem. So it was a gift of some sort from his employers – probably a retirement gift. Actually I don’t think anyone has ever bought a Rialto for themselves. They were clearly marketed at “hey, do you love your colleague and want to treat them? But not enough to spend any real money on them? You can’t go wrong with this pen set! It contains both a fountain pen and a ballpoint, so your colleague is covered whether they’re a right-thinking person or Sick And Wrong!” It’s probably the Parker IM set filling that niche now.

The Parker Rialto started life in 1987 as the Parker 88, presumably because Parker wanted to make your brain hurt. Fun (probably) fact: a few years later Parker became aware THAT 88 was being used as a SEKRIT COD WERD!!!! By neo-Nazi assholes. 8th letter of the alphabet – figure it out. It seems unlikely that this would be sufficient to make Parker THE OFFICIAL PEN MANUFACTURER OF FASCISM! but they were apparently uncomfortable enough to change the name to Rialto. Nobody seems to be 100% certain that this story is true but I have chosen to believe it, because in the current climate it’s nice to think of people quickly acting to distance themselves from Nazis. What an age we live in.

The pen is… OK. It’s a fancied up Vector. Same design but a bit more robust and expensive-looking. It actually looks like it might not crack all along the barrel if you look at it a bit funny. The 88 came in some cool colour combinations. The Rialto does not. It’s small: thinner than Pelly the Nelikan, about the same length and only a little heavier. It has a slidey cap and straight silhouette, other than the weird little bit on the end which looks like it should be a piston turn but isn’t. It has a gold plated steel nib which I always think is kinda cheating and trying to get the perceived quality of gold without paying for it. Write with this nib and you’ll know it’s steel. It’s not fooling me. The nib which I think only came in one size reliably turns out a line that’s about a European F or Japanese M. The nib is teeny tiny: smaller than on Skippy the Minigraph. The whole thing is… Adequate.

There’s a silly but pervasive myth that you can’t ever lend someone your fountain pen because it moulds itself to your writing style and will mould to theirs and be RUINED FOREVER. Let us perhaps not slut shame pens. At any gathering of pen nerds there’s a veritable orgy of pen swapping through the afternoon and everyone goes away satisfied. Many of my pens have a notch count of… Well it seems impolite to ask, but Flappy the Waterman 52 is nearly a hundred years old so I assume she’s seen some action. If this happened in five minutes, surely you could mould it back in another five? This kind of moulding only occurs if you use the same pen, every day, for years on end.

This Rialto was used every day for years on end and it wants me to know I’m not its real dad. It expects a certain angle and a certain pressure. It wants to be held a particular way. I’ve never encountered this before and it’s weird to feel that particular influence of a dead loved one. Weird and very touching. Something about FIL is there still. Even if it’s just an OPINION on HOW TO DO THIS THING which actually suits him pretty well. So this makes this mediocre scribbler rather special. It would have been nice if his colleagues had had the budget for a Waterman Carene or something but you know… Public sector.

Beloved says his dad would be delighted that I’ve got into pens and cherish this one. I hope so.

And now The Kinks.

I’m not crying I just have cat hair in my eye
I own nothing without cat hair on it.

4 thoughts on “My father in law’s pen

  1. Can’t tell you how much I love absolutely everything about this post. Your FIL sounds like a GEM and you flourish his pen with love and pride ❤


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