I have been thinking of dead bodies. There is something strange about this given lots of big – and good – things are going on at work, but the optician says that I might have high blood pressure. I swim miles, walk often, eat well, am not overweight and have never had high blood pressure in my life. It might be just that I have wiggly eye veins, apparently. Some people do. But I am willing to concede that work has been stressful, unrelenting and I have had one too many pints of Ale lately. I am British – Ale drinking is part of my heritage and culture that stems from not having clean water in days gone by but perhaps I’ll drink fewer pints? I checked on drinkaware and it would seem that in fact I am not drinking over the recommended number of units in the week most weeks but still: perhaps I need to change my behaviour now that I am the wrong side – the right side in my view – of 50. So I will concede that I have had to take a look at my own mortality. The fact is we don’t have a dead body now, but we will have one soon. We may never see one, or we may see many according to our work, religious beliefs or opportunity/misfortune Either way: we will be one as sure as eggs is eggs.
When I was working in Buxton in the early 90s a couple of things happened that really made me wonder if the world was out to get me. This neurosis did not last long but it did remind me how life can conspire with you or against you. I’d been promised a rise in salary on the basis of demonstrating that I could do the job. I did the job well but the man who made this promise had to retire because his wife died suddenly and the devastation meant he could no longer work.
I was considering this, and what I should do about it, whilst finally passing my driving test on the 7th attempt: I am resilient, I am a Weeble: I wobble BUT I do not fall down. A colleague lent me her car to get to one of the other sites that we worked on. Her dog, a border collie, was in the back. I went to a meeting, and when I came back to the car it was on fire. Flames engulfed it on all sides. I ran towards it and the crowds that had gathered pulled me back. The dog would already be dead they said. I would be too if I went too close. By this stage the flames kicked our ten feet or more. Was it my fault? Apparently not: it was a fault in the wiring of this vehicle and oftentimes this happened. Ironically the car was a Fuego. I came to work the next day and faced my colleague. She was incredibly forgiving and did not blame me. I blamed myself though but carried on never taking any time off or given myself time to think or reflect.
A week later a group of children that I was working with were playing in a wooded area just near the school and found a dead body. He had been a local homeless guy but for some inexplicable reason he had chosen to take his trousers off before lying down in a copse in winter and so these kids not only saw a dead body but a semi-naked dead body of a late middle aged man. They were interviewed by the police and though somewhat shocked and shaken up, they were, like me, not permanently damaged by their experience.
How had the universe delivered these three punches in a matter of weeks? Because the universe does this every week this kind of thing: cars catch fire, accidents happen, wives and husbands die and homeless people do not survive the streets and very occasionally you stand in the middle of that maelstrom and for a second or perhaps longer you think, “This is my fault. This is happening because of me!” because it seems to be about you until you realise that you are nowhere near that powerful or important and that life just is and just goes on. A year later I left and the position I vacated was advertised two grades higher. I took some pleasure in that but not much.
We got the call to go to JayJay’s house. We arrived and she had just died. According to her wishes she was lying on her back on the floor of her bedroom in her small flat and her friends were gathered to say goodbye. She was dressed in red, and she looked as though she was asleep. I was there fraudulently with my partner but I too was invited in. We sat around and spoke of her, and then retreated into silence. JayJay had died of cancer and although she seemed old to me at the time, she was a similar age to the one I am now. The room was in semi-darkness and not able to stare at her body for long (not knowing her really and yet been part of this intimate group did not sit easy with me), I looked around her room. She was a very neat person and her jumpers and clothes were all ordered by colour and neatly folded: bold colours predominantly primary in nature.
The gathered friends were a collection of dynamic folk, radicals who meant to change the world: individuals who used Ecover before it was fashionable to do so, people who wanted equality for all groups and who were willing to take to the streets to get it, activist of different kinds. I am not a flag-waver. I felt like I was there on false pretences. I was just a young kid who wanted to change the world person by person. Nonetheless, I felt privileged to spend time with JayJay minutes after she’d left this mortal plane.
I was working on a housing estate at the top of Ripponden Road in Oldham. The wind whipped round and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they shoved people up there so that they could be out of sight and out of mind. It was several degrees colder than the centre of town and it was unforgiving when it rained or blew as it seemed to most days. It was bleak. I forget the project: I believe it was a summer scheme of some description but I’d managed with the key workers to gather a bundle of relatively young lads who we considered the right age and cohort to benefit from the work that we were doing.
So, we worked super hard to really capture their imagination in a drama project. Foolishly I said to these kids what would motivate them? A cup, they said. Where in God’s name was I going to get a cup from in Oldham on a Thursday with the showback of their work a few days away? I was just puzzling over this as I was getting in the car when a couple of the bigger lads came up to me.
“Eh are you really getting us a cup?” one asked.
“I am,” I said.
“What kind of cup is it?”
There was a pause.
“You’ll have to wait and see,” I said.
We were standing companionably together in the car park with houses looming over us. The younger of the two boys looked up at them.
“Did’y hear about what happened in there?” he said.
“A friend of ours broke in: probably for some fags or something. Can you see how the bathroom window is broke? He did that.”
I nodded and that was enough of a sign for him to continue.
“He climbed in through the window and instead falling into the bath he found he was standing on an old duvet.”
He’d got me now, and he knew it.
“He thought, that’s weird. Because it wasn’t like the duvet was just on it’s own. It was darkish in the bathroom but he realised that the duvet was solid. So he pulled it up. Under that was an eiderdown. He thought, you know, maybe there’s some treasure in here, something worth hiding. So he pulled up the eiderdown and then there were some old towels so he pulled them up too. Under that was a sheet.”
I raised my eyebrows partly in anticipation… “And….”
He kept quiet. Looked up. “There was a mummified woman.”
“No way!” I said
“Yes way, miss!” He laughed. “He hadn’t killed her or anything but the fella who lived there was a bit of piss-head so when his missus died he just shoved her in the bath and covered her over and then he just sort of forgot about her. Can you believe it?”
“What that he forgot about her?”
“Well all of it really, miss… it’s all a tale innit? No one’s talking about anything else round here at the minute.”
I looked up. And I knew because of the kind of lad he was that he wasn’t pulling my leg. I wondered what it was like to grow up in a place where people forget about the dead wife they’ve stored in a bath.
“Bet your mate got out of there pretty quick,” I said.
“Practically shat himself,” he said, matter of factly.
The next day, he and his mates did their performance and – having wracked my brain – I awarded the story-telling young man a Nike Cap (it was the best I could manage at short notice – not a cup but a cap!) He loved it! Never took it off his head. I’d see him round town wearing it.
A few years later I went up past that housing estate and they’d knocked it down and sold the land to a developer who built private and expensive properties that he advertised as having ‘views of hills and moorsides.’ And people bought them too. But when I drove past, all I thought about was that dead woman in the bath, and the lad with the Nike cap who told me the tale.
Never fear I’ll get my blood tested this week.