Mary and Howard

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When I first took to country living – not the idyllic, glossy magazine lifestyle that implies but rather a sort of rough-hewn version carved out of the Lancashire rocks – we moved into a falling down Victorian Villa. Our metropolitan friends assumed we had entered into a collective madness: water poured down into the kitchen forming a small stream that never dried up and the front conservatory had more holes than windows (and there were a lot of windows!)  In fact, none of the windows opened anywhere in the house.  The balcony, built on the whim of Mr Waring (who we were trying to buy from and who was indeed very wearing) almost claimed our builder (it leaned sideways as he explored it, and he did a near perfect comedy fall gently settling on the ground like a giant leaf. ) Every single room was bruised by an unforgiving brown hue: dark brown doors, brown walls, brown skirting boards, brown architraves.  The stairs, and indeed most rooms, had extra carpets so that they were less stairs, more a ski-slope. The toilet was on a pedestal: meaning every visit was like a tiny performance, staged for an audience of trees (and, occasionally, unsuspecting workmen.)

But in the midst of this madness there was also magic.  At the top of the stairs, for example, a wardrobe like cupboard (also brown) stood.  It opened to a ladder which led into the loft and we, though neither Snotty or I spoke,  both made the decision to buy the house at that moment.  Climbing up the ladder and spying yet more carpets (along with the bumpiest floor known to mankind) sold the house to us.   Totally without thinking it through we made a cash offer over the phone  later in the pub as if we were in a very bad episode of a Channel 4 programme: the second time we’d done something that reckless.  We were entranced by its potential, by the 3/4 acre of overgrown untamed vegetation around it, and the unspoilt view of the Pennines.

In fact, it was really only semi-rural.  And although it looked perfectly lovely, it also sat in a very poor area of the country – rural poverty cheek by jowl with great riches.  A famous Man United player lived round the corner, for example.  But so too did families who had endured unemployment for three or four generations.   Our house sat on the very end of what we laughingly called shoe mile.  Rossendale was renowned for two things: mizzle and felting, the mizzle being the prerequisite of the latter. Through the Industrial Revolution, city folk moved to mills neither caring for or loving the country, and set up home.  That was how it worked.

Our house (Glenmallan) was originally  the Under Manager’s house at a long-closed down Foundry and though smaller than the Manager’s next door (Palm House, where Mary and Howard lived) it was in possession of a significantly better aspect.  Below sat three cottages converted from an old coach house.  Together, this was Foundry Vale and the day I moved in I halved the mean age of the residents.  If I’d have thought about it, I should have realised that this was a worry: old people get older.  Older people need care and help. Aside from Howard and Mary next door: the cottages were occupied left to right Mr and Mrs Speke, Tommy and Agnes and Joe and Betty.

My first introduction to Agnes and Mr Speke was a bit inauspicious.  A few weeks after our arrival Agnes shouted up to me, “Do you have a black and white cat?”  We did.  We had three.  Two of these, Jelly and JoeCat had belonged to our friend who had emigrated and they had struggled to integrate: particularly Jelly who had transitioned from female to male (a case of mistaken identity) and who would not, in spite of our best efforts, come in at night.

“I do,” I said.

“I think it’s not very well,” Agnes said, “Or maybe sleeping.”

I walked through Agnes’ house to reach her garden.  It smelt of cigarette smoke and fried onions.  There were catholic icons on the walls.  Agnes’ thin frame darted ahead. She looked desiccated.

“I don’t think he’s sleeping,” I said.

Mr Speke popped his head over the wall: a powerful chap, an ex-farmer with ruddy cheeks and the sort of Lancashire accent no longer heard, deep and musical. “That cat’s dead, that is,” he said.  Very soon afterwards, within months, Agnes herself would be dead.  I saw her one day cocooned in a blanket and on a stretcher chair, oxygen mask strapped to her face.  She was driven away in an ambulance and I never saw her again.

Mr Speke was right.  He also carried Jelly home and we buried him (possibly her?) under a slab of concrete topped with a stargazing hare.

The longer you live in a place, the more you rub along with your neighbours. Over the years, relationships deepen.  The fact that you are significantly younger than your neighbours makes not a jot of difference when you are trying to find common ground. We enjoyed a Christmas drink with Joe and Betty, but it was Mary and Howard whose life began to intertwine with our own.

For a while, like our neighbours, we speculated about Howard and his issues.  He seemed a lovely chap, but distant and occasionally physically uncertain.  Gossip (mostly from Betty) suggested that he was a depressive, but given his failing vocal chords (he squeaked when he spoke) it seemed more complex than that.  And who were we to judge in any case?  As time moved on, he looked up less and shuffled more but we did not assume (as Betty did) that he had an alcohol problem, neither that he refused to work or that he’d always been a mummy’s boy. He was, largely speaking, self-contained.  He sometimes did engage.  Sometimes did not.  Mary, his mother, was also diffident, not given to self-aggrandisement or big displays.  Mary popped over occasionally, to chat about a bird she’d seen or some other piece of news about our cat Charlie who she fed milk to, but mostly they kept themselves to themselves and we were fine with that. Mary was religious, kind, a musical lover and passionate about animals (she was often distraught about animal cruelty).

Our journey to close was slow and then very fast. Things began to change when Mary could not make her legs work.  Well, that only tells some of the story.  We began to look out for Howard and Mary when her cleaner who – not be too unkind – was quite stupid, and her equally stupid partner said they were moving in.  Stupid, but still an eye for the main chance.  All the alarm bells that side of the Pennines started to ring out: Mary’s hip had seized up and she could not get up the stairs to bed.  Perhaps their motives were laudable but they also requested payment for everything: for shopping, for bringing the bed downstairs, for doing the garden… and so on.  And they’d taken a sudden interest in undertaking a lot of different chores around the place many of which didn’t need doing.

The trouble was, Mary was old by this time, and vulnerable and she was often persuaded that her back door did need painting or of some other spurious and entirely unnecessary job. Snotty – the other half – got wind of this, and knocked all that shenanigans on the head straight away.  It wasn’t that they were unkind: but they did see Mary and Howard as cash-cows, living in that grand old house as they did, always having cash around and about.

Soon, Snotty, being neighbourly, was bobbing in and out of Palm House on a daily basis, making sure that both were okay.  Taking in cakes, making a pot of tea, cooking up a storm: sharing our food.  Howard, it transpired had Huntingdon’s disease: a miserable, low-down, sneak of a condition that stole away another bit of his personality every single day; that robbed him of his abilities by degrees. It was the same miserable disease that had killed his father twenty years before, an unforgiving hereditary illness that wipes out whole families.

In the next few months before Mary had her hip operation, Howard changed on a daily basis and before long he was confined to bed, unable to move without assistance.  It was his blessing that he was zen-like in his deterioration; uncomplaining, benign, taking each new insult the disease lobbed at him with a resigned metaphorical shrug.  There was no raging into the night with Howard.

After that Snotty became the unofficial unpaid manager of both their care packages, looking out for them, making sure carers turned up, and did the best they could for them.  Snotty took action when carers stepped over the line (including instigating disciplinary proceedings against one who had taken to, oddly, lying beside Howard on his bed and stroking him.)  Every day, month after month, Snotty popped in once, twice, three times a day: often taking the last shift because some carer or other had not turned up and helping to put them both to bed.

Months before Howard died Snotty arranged for the owl man to bring his birds to his room: he had always loved birds of prey (and drag car racing, apparently!)  Howard was as animated that day as he’d been for years.  When he died, the owl man, in his own time, came again and let the birds fly across the willow coffin at the end of the service: quite the most moving thing I’ve ever seen.  Howard was buried on the side of hill near Settle in an environmentally sound place where buzzards fly freely…

Mary soldiered on for another two years.  She loved music – I lent her my digital radio so she could listen to classic FM.  But soon, her hearing began to fail.  And that was when the curtain began to slowly close on her soul.  She took ill on the second anniversary of Howard’s death, and died days later.  Mary was buried beside her son, exactly two years to the day of his burial.

Who by Fire?

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It was a Saturday, the sun was shining and in the days before hoodies we were outside of the Church Hall doing good deeds in full Guide Uniform.  I was the oldest and I was mostly playing the role of site supervisor, happily telling my patrol what rubbish went were. The only time I got involved was when I needed to use my not inconsiderable muscle.  The abandoned door, if I’d thought about it, which I didn’t, seemed to have been placed strategically.  The girls couldn’t lift it so I did.

It wasn’t the biggest mistake of my life, but it came quite close.  Underneath the door was a stash of whiskey, other booze, fags and chocolate.  I immediately knew I was in trouble.  It also explained something that had been nagging at the edge of my consciousness: Paul Hastie loitering around his garden.

There isn’t a reverse in life, but if there was, I’d have deployed it then. The upstairs window of the Hastie’s house swung open and Mr Hastie, Tommy, hung out of it. “Put that bastard door down,” he said.  I looked at him and did exactly that.  He was naked but for his underpants.

“You better not have smashed owt!” Charlie Hastie snarled, who’d appeared as if by magic, beside Paul.  Peter was there too, each boy an exact facsimile of the other, only in decreasing size.  They were like Russian dolls.

Charlie, the eldest after his sister Angelina, whispered that he’d kill us if we ‘grassed’.  I am, as I was then, one of life’s survivors.  I’d no more grass than undertake 4 flip turns in quick succession. Paul (the middle boy) offered that he’d be on every corner waiting for me.  Peter just grinned.

It was then that Mrs Hastie appeared, wearing only a bed sheet.  It occurred to me with the acute embarrassment of a 14 year old that they’d been in bed.  In the afternoon. With each other.

“I know your bleeding mother,” she said.  I wasn’t sure how to judge this comment, so continued to stand still, “she works at the chippy.”  This was true.  She did.

“Don’t you worry,” Charlie said, “I’ll keep her on track.” He would too – on the track that he wasn’t on,  I would make certain of that.  I was hyper-aware as it was, and this would only make matters worse.  I have never not seen anyone before they’ve seen me.  Never.  Charlie Hastie (and the other marauding families of my childhood) saw to that.

More shouting happened and then the other girls and myself skulked off…

I next saw Charlie Hastie a few weeks later when I inadvertently discovered his porn cache behind a grave in the actual church yard (when I was trying to snog a Boy Scout!) and that saw me being chased half way round west Hull (diverting back down Ena Street to avoid them and to get back to the Guides where I was supposed to be.) I’m not sure why he didn’t have it at home.  It’s not as though his parents were renowned for their strict moral code.

I didn’t see Charlie again for about a year, when he’d somehow grown a foot and acquired a very nice looking girlfriend.

The news of the arson attack filtered through slowly: this was before 24 hour rolling TV and social media.  I first got wind of it when I got home from school.  My mother had heard from someone who had heard  from someone.  By the time I was pushing newspapers through doors on my round, Charlie Hastie was already dead.

For the week or two that followed I pushed his face and that of his brothers (and their mother) through letter boxes.  I read the full story avidly as I walked my paper round.  First Charlie (15), then Paul (12) and then Peter (8).  Each of the boys suffered colossally extensive burns, 90% of their bodies were covered.  No one deserved this.  It didn’t matter that they terrified me – no one deserved this.  They were just kids.

Everyone had a theory about why it had happened, and quite a number of people had motives.  The Hasties had managed to piss off more than half of the neighbourhood.  These kids were feral before that phrase was coined: they roamed and marauded and were cock ‘o the estate – the police even found a note threatening to bomb the Hastie house, but that turned out to be an old lady who did what others thought of doing: sending an anonymous note to tell them what she’d thought.

But something had changed for Charlie in the run up to the arson attack that killed him.  He had met a girl and was trying to reform.  I’d seen it, fleetingly, myself at the bus stop and others had witnessed it too.  And he saved his mother: pushing her from the window as the house burned around them.

I have a vivid memory of the boys’ mother surrounded by people from their estate, pointing and yelling that one of them had done it.  It was raw, guttural and it silenced the gathered mass.

We were all interviewed by the police in their door-to-door inquiries.  My mother called me in, and asked me to come through to the living room and to speak to the constable sitting uncomfortably on our couch.  I told them they’d chased me, and I had been terrorised by them with their Alsatian Dog (which also died in the fire.) I did also mention finding their contraband in the Church Hall wasteland.  I wasn’t telling the police anything they didn’t already know. Tommy Hastie, the father, was in prison at the time of the fire, serving a sentence for theft.   The police said thank you and left.  My tales was unremarkable.

I spoke to my Guide Captain about what happened and she said they deserved it.  If I had ever had a faith, it came to an end at that point.  How could a person of God think like that?  But she was not alone.  Everyone had an opinion and it was rarely a generous one.

The Sunday Times ran a story about a sophisticated plot of drugs’ lords fighting over territory who – by some tragic happenstance – had set fire to the wrong house.  As a neighbourhood we wanted this to be true, because the alternative was that it was one of our own.  Someone exactly like us.

Peter Dinsdale, Daft Peter, who had changed his name to Bruce Peter Lee, was arrested after what seemed weeks of investigation.  He confessed to the arson attack that killed the Hastie boys, as well as a number of others too.  By his own admission, he had killed 26 people in total (although, in the end,  Wesley Lodge, an old people’s home he claimed to have set alight and where 11 old men died, was removed from the charges on appeal  meaning he was convicted of killing 15 people.)

Was Daft Peter like us?  A bit.  He lived among us but was, like a lot of individuals with special needs, largely ignored.  He had a slightly disabled arm and walked with a limp.  He had a lower than average IQ.  He had, by his account, had some run-ins with Charlie, but as Charlie is not here to defend himself, it’s hard to ascertain what these were.  Daft Peter, by way of retribution in the early hours of that night, poured paraffin through their letter box, retreated to the flyover to watch the flames flick into the night.

He was reputed to have said, “I just like fire.”

Bruce Peter Lee, one of Britain’s most prolific killers, is still held at Her Majesty’s pleasure, and is likely to die at Rampton Secure Hospital.

Grandpa

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Contrary to my sister’s belief my grandfather did not deliberately die on her birthday.  I guess, if he’d have had a choice, he would’t have died at all – although, who would want to live forever? Well, perhaps we all would if we could sustain a semblance of youth, but then, by the time my grandpa died he was, largely speaking, past his best.

I have a number of memories of him – probably the earliest memory was him arriving to babysit the 3 of us (before my younger brother was born) because my mother had a shift at Smith and Nephews, working on the Nivea line. He arrived in his trilby hat (which I was given at his death and which lasted years, eventually found rotting in my cellar and thrown away in the great clear out of 2014 before moving lock, stock and barrel to the south west.)   He was also wearing his overcoat (in  my memory it was summer) and although not the tallest bloke he was nonetheless austere – it was hard to square this man with the coal man that my mother talked about or the boy soldier, who rose to non-commissioned officer rank captain.   When you’re a child, it is hard to reconcile that adults have any previous life at all.  And yet, his by all accounts had been eventful.

From his undistinguished birth: the bastard child of a scullery maid and a math’s professor though no on has ever found the proof of this through to his days as a lollipop man. He was called Andy by the world at large (although his name was Arthur) because he was handy with the ladies. He met my gran at 28 and she was was 18.   He was born within the sound of the Bow bells – so I’ve got some of that South East blood, that London stuff running through my veins two generations removed though I’m not convinced many of his genes made their way to me.  I’m of the other side I think, all angled cheekbones and word obsessed.

On the baby sitting night, we ran the poor bugger ragged.  My sister and I had  a wind-up record player and we played “Shoo fly don’t bother me” and “Skip to my lou my darling” on it, so often, that he was probably close to throttling us. Every time the refrain, Skip to my lou came on, that’s exactly what we did… skipped enthusiastically and with a degree of gusto belying the fact that we were way past our bedtime, crashing into each other in our eagerness to get to the toilet first.  He tried telling us it wasn’t that kind of loo but we ignored him getting giddier with each turn.

He never looked after us again.

We must have seen him a lot, because we went up to North Hull Estate where he lived behind the library every few weeks but I can’t really remember him playing much of a starring role: he’d be sitting watching TV or having a smoke or making tea.

He did feature occasionally.  When I was about 7, my sister, my cousin Michelle and me went with him to Blackpool.  This was no small undertaking and I know that it involved staying over at my grandparents’ house (the only time we strayed upstairs in my memory) and getting up in the small hours to catch the train to travel the breadth of the country.  And the purpose of this trip?  To experience the tram and the light’s switch on.

I remember nothing about the tram.  I do remember the illuminations and I remember it was cold.  (I also recall going back to Blackpool twenty-five years later and wondering what he would have made of the roller-skating transvestite in a bikini handing out leaflets for a nightclub and the free range, marauding hen parties full of women with learner signs and pink feather boas, but he was long dead by then.)

Other abiding memories of him were his cockney accent, his rough hewn tattoos, his overloud telly and the sweet, sweet tea that seemed to be on tap, brought across the room by his shaking hand… There was something  tense and mesmerising about that shaking hand and something reassuring about his smile as the cup sploshed to a standstill in front of you.  He was often smoking simultaneously – a dangerous combination and you watched the ash carefully as it dangled from the tab end.  Sometimes, he hooked the fag into his mouth.  Other times, fag in hand, he began to cough and as  his breath rattled round his riven lungs, you held your own, certain that like a pin ball it would somehow work its way lose again and the coughing would stop.

I remember lots of other things about his front room: the never ending mirrors that returned your reflection from one to the other ad infinitum.  His large brown chair.  His ash tray full to the top with Park Drive tabs, his collection of Guiness Books of Records and Benny Hill running around like a maniac on the telly and all conversations conducted over the melee. “How’s school?” he’d asked “It’s alright,” you’d answer even if it was the shittest place on earth.  He wanted all his grandkids to do well…though he did not live to see me awarded my first degree (the first ever in the family) and he was a long time dead by the time I’d received numbers two and three.

Nothing much else was said until the women folk had left (dad stayed behind for in-depth conversations) for Aunty Joan’s which also involved the carrying of a giant box of cakes and buns around by Grandma, who was paid to bake them and I spent all the time thinking which I’d choose when we’d arrived and its delights were opened up.  Maid of honour was my favourite.  The exquisite nature of the almond paste, jam and almonds – Grandpa was a lucky man if he got to choose a different cake each day. I’ll never taste its like again.

Granddad’s final days were discussed openly.  His wish, for instance, to die at home was well known and yet somehow, the ambulance was called…

“All his organs were failing him,” my mother said, and so he didn’t get his final wish.

When the end was near, my mother repeated a homily of his.  “Life,” he’d said, “was like a bucket of water.  Remove a cup, and that’s the difference you’ve made. The water looks the same.”  I always found this sad because although he didn’t hang around for long in my life (I was 12), there’s a vividness to the memories: the Izal medicated, the carbolic soap in jars to be re-pressed, the lollipop stick in the coal house, the smile.  The hopes that somehow failed: his made-up double-barrel name.

My grandfather died – in hospital – on the 18th April 1978 of multiple organ failure, and my sister had a dismal day on her 14th birthday.

 

 

 

June

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I was stuck on the top of a seesaw.  It was yellow and red and a woman with a learning disability, some 15 stone at a rough estimate was at the other end of it.  The seesaw was not see-sawing.  I was 9.  I was also trying to explain – with an increasing sense of alarm why her stepping off the seesaw would be a really bad idea.  I was envisaging myself catapulted halfway across Hull.  I tried shouting, “No!” and that provided a temporary stay of execution.  My hand signals after that were somewhat inadequate.  The lady sitting on the other end smiled benignly.  “Please,” I said, “Get off gently.”  She didn’t speak, and began stepping off again. Only No! did the job.  So, I shouted again.

My hero, as it turned out, was a 50 year old man with Down’s Syndrome.  At least, he looked 50. Rushing towards us, he seemed to have devised a way of communicating with the lady.  Then, putting his not inconsiderable weight to the matter, he balanced the seesaw between us.  My feet dangled tantalisingly close to the ground.  He leant my way.  Smiled.  My feet touched.  Now my new friends were in danger of coming a cropper but as I made to get off, he shifted his weight as a counterbalance.

“Fuck me!” he said with absolute clarity.  I looked up.  It had been easy to assume that these adult people were very large children, surrounded as we were by primary coloured equipment, but he had made a lie of that. He smiled again as I stepped off fully and then helped soften his friend’s fall. “You should have gone on the swings Maggie,” he said.

It had been a very confusing day.  Firstly, my mam was unusually tense as we took three buses to get to Tilworth Grange.  (In Hull, two buses is considered a very long way!) I wasn’t sure why her mood was so tense, but as this was a journey that she normally took on her own, I could only assume that my presence (I had been to the hospital for an appointment prior to this expedition) was either

a) cramping her style OR

b) giving her additional concern in a stressful situation.

It became quickly apparent when we entered the building where her concerns lay.  As we walked down the corridor,she swiftly manoeuvred me out of the way of a bloke in the corner who appeared to be vibrating.

At that point, and unlike her, she made a classic parent error, commanding that I didn’t look.  I was really uncertain of what was happening, but now I realise that the dark haired guy was wanking to his heart’s content.

And why not?

It was dull at Tilworth Grange.  If playground stuff was not your thing, there was precious little else to do.  A man needed to find his own stimulation.

The second thing was meeting Aunty June.  She was leaning up in bed and her head was truly enormous.  I really had seen nothing like her before: she was something of a miracle. Her large head was the result of hydrocephalus before draining the water was feasible.  Oddly, she looked like my mother only tiny (her spindly arms stuck out of her cardigan) and her forehead was excessively large.

“Your Aunty June can read,” My mother said.

This was patently untrue given that the Beano annual (my Beano annual) that she was reading was upside down.  This flight of fancy was very out of character for my mother.

“But…” I began, only to receive one of those if looks could kill looks.  My mother’s shit eye surpasses all known human communications.  I was silenced.

It was then I’d spied the slide outdoors and seeing my keenness to be elsewhere, I was ushered outside.  I’d been lonely until my seesaw companion had arrived.  And then, distressed.

Tilworth Grange was full of people who had learning disabilities in an age when such people were housed away from the family home.  This wasn’t entirely true because Billy who also had Down’s lived down our street, but I think that was because his mother bucked the trend: she was young, and Billy was her first born.  Later, as a teen when I did my paper round and delivered my final Hull Daily Mail in St Pancras Crescent, Coltman Street there was a guy who liked to hang around the landing without his pants on.  Billy later died tragically on a mini-bus on the way back from a trip for the want of a seat belt, and his family have spent years campaigning to make seat belts compulsory law.

The thing about Tilworth Grange though was it was full of people who were either abandoned or too disabled to be cared for at home.

“You know that the Beatles raised money for your Aunty June’s pram, don’t you?”  My mother told me.  Of course I knew this, it was one of those family stories that got re-told ad nauseum – they had a concert, and the proceeds went towards June’s pram and a number of other things. I was fascinated by the pram because she couldn’t stand/sit up properly and in other visits June was pushed outside in it. It was the 70s and the 70s were not like the 80s, 90s, or 00s.  People weren’t hidden but the understanding about capacity and capability was quite different.  It was somewhere were people were housed – not provided with activities or occupation.

Aunty June was very disabled but her sisters: my mother, Janice and Joan, and at that stage my grandmother too – were inordinately caring and loving towards her visiting on a weekly basis, taking a pretty arduous journey in my mother’s case.  My grandfather never went: it broke his heart that his little girl was afflicted, never somehow forgiving himself that she wasn’t perfect.

Retrospectively, it’s clear it was an inadequate place in many ways.  Adult people should not have been playing on equipment designed for children, or wanking in corridors for the want of something better to do.

The standards of cleanliness and food hygiene left much to be desired too.  In 1976, after a spate of food poisoning, June died.  At her funeral, she was given a commemorative urn with a legend written on it expressing Tilworth Grange’s sorrow at her loss, which, when the next person died (a week later) was moved on.  A dozen people died in quick succession and I imagine that urn’s criss-cross journey across the cemetery.

In those days, people were not litigious and there was no comeuppance for this sorry state of affairs.  In truth, I don’t even remember my mother’s grief.  I don’t know what that says about me, or if, in fact, she didn’t have any.