Anthony

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(I have broken a rule.  But I love this picture of Anthony, whenever I see it, it makes me smile.)

Some people you just love from the get go.  There’s something about how they occupy a place, how they’re alive with promise and fun or naughtiness; how when they smile the whole world smiles with them; how the world is better for having known them.   These people have a lightness of being, a warmth or charm that works its magic in your soul whenever you encounter them.   Anthony was like that.

I first met him in 1998 in the upstairs room of Romiley Forum, just outside of Stockport, Greater Manchester.  He arrived, flinging open the door so that it near flew off its hinges and stormed in.  “I’ve arrived,” he said, in case I’d missed his dramatic entrance.

He was an irresistible force of nature and he was there at the very beginning of the theatre company’s inception clearly demonstrating in his funny, perfect, comic-timed way why a theatre company for adults with a learning disability was totally necessary.

Anthony had a way of contributing that was impossible to ignore.  He’d perform his way across the room, settle himself in a chair central to the action, then be a presence in the room contributing off the cuff, nonchalant and occasionally pre-planned one-liners.  The man who supported him, also in this picture, was loud and funny too and so they teamed up as the most extraordinary double act keeping us all entertained.

We were quite nervous for our first production but Anthony just took it in his stride: he was born to be on the stage.  At the end of the performance (after we’d managed to stop him taking the applause) Anthony’s mum came to speak to me about her son’s stage debut.

“I’m not a little bit surprised he’s taken to it like a duck to water,” she said, “He has us in stitches at home.”

(At home was a lovely bedroom in his parents’ house where evening after evening – having enjoyed his tea with his folks –  he would settle down for bed with his videos, a hot chocolate and a kit kat chocolate bar.)

“Every night?” I asked a little incredulous.

“Yes.  Every night.  He likes routine.  Apart from when he’s entertaining – and then he just wants to make everyone laugh.”

And it was true.  He did.  Before the session started Anthony would arrive in Romiley Cafe for his breakfast along with another man, (who lived independently and who refused to speak above a whisper, perhaps not quite as well suited to drama) and their support worker.   Both men had Down’s syndrome but beyond that they were different as chalk and cheese.

“He’s quiet,” Anthony would say pointing at Kevin, the other man – who would shyly stare at his feet, “Like a mouse. Squeak.  Squeak. BUT he really LOVES toast!”

By the end of the year Kevin had moved onto working in a supermarket instead of treading the boards (he was brilliant at moving trolleys about.)

After the session Anthony would, along with other group members, stay for lunch.  The Learning Disabled community marches on its stomach.  A lovely lunch was just the ticket after acting all morning.

The company also contained Roger J-P who had an autism spectrum disorder and who would always say in answer to “where are you going?” “To Hyde.  For a cup of tea and a cake.”  And Mark, who was always ferociously angry because he couldn’t get a job at Man United.  And Saz who hated being called Sarah and who could on account of nothing in particular throw herself into a rage of epic proportions.  There was Trish, who had an acquired disability from a viral condition that she’d had aged 15 and Barry who really didn’t have a disability at all but did have a special need.  He’d lived with his mum and somehow had failed to grow up (I witnessed him crying and throwing a tantrum equivalent to a toddler).  He smoked and drank which always seemed oddly incongruous.

The saddest member of our happy troupe was Patrick who at 16 had been a naughty boy, wayward but not so very bad – just a bit angry – and then, 40 years later was let out of the institution he had been sent to (having been forgotten about) so that he didn’t really know quite what to do or who to be in the real world, being squared and shaped by the boundaries of the hospital environment.  This was the 90s but still, just then, in towns up and down the country those who had been bad but not bad enough were released into the community to receive a different kind of care and ill-prepared for it.  Having been abandoned yet safe, the world seemed to beat Patrick up once he was outside and all because no-one had really understood what was best for them.

The theatre group made a difference to them all.

Especially Anthony though.  He was loved.  His mum had centered her life on him.  She would get very frustrated with people ‘advocating’ for her son.  With visible outrage she told how the Dr had said, “And what do you think of that Anthony?”  And his mum answered, “You know he’s got a learning disability, don’t you?”  As if the doctor was a bit stupid.

I loved Anthony.  He always ended up front, adding jokes that had never been mentioned before on show dates and growing actual feet and inches when the laughter and the applause came.  And the curtain call, the adulation – we joked that we needed a hook to pull him off. Every week Anthony would also practice his bowing skills, “For the fans,” he’d say, “For the fans!”  And I know this intervention had given him the stage that he’d always wanted.

And he acquired a lot of admirers.  Everywhere he went Anthony gathered friends.  This was evident at his funeral which took place at one of the biggest churches in Stockport, full to the brim: a celebration of this most affable, loveliest of men’s life who had died – totally unexpectedly in his early 40s after having watched his video, drained his hot chocolate and smacked his lips around his favourite chocolate bar, a Kit-Kat.

I had left the Artistic Direction of the company to someone else by then, and I was glad – because it would never have been the same without him.

 

 

 

Florence

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My Nana – so called because she thought it was posh – looked exactly as I do now (although in deference to 2017, I have forgone the perm).  At my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary 6 years ago, my uncle Keith who I rarely see (his crooked teeth a perfect match for mine) said, “Bloody Hell – Florence lives and breathes!”

It is strange to look exactly like someone, especially when they’re dead and gone, and it’s strange never to have noticed this when she was alive (an act of will on my part). Other people always said it, but the similarity passed me by.  Am I just a facsimile? No teenager wants to know there’s nothing original about their face or shape – that they look exactly like another.

But as I was in my 40s at my parents’ 50th, and because Florence had left the planet years before, it felt, well, surreal to be reminded of this again.  (I know others have suffered too because of me – I was a very sensitive child and quick to tears, so when any younger cousin cried they’d have directed at them ‘Mary Bloody Brearley’ as if this was a bad thing.)  I smiled at my Uncle Keith and he smiled back.

“You gave me a fright!” he said.

“Happens to me every day when I catch a glimpse in the mirror!”  I smiled.

“You look exactly like the woman I remember as a young man.  Terrifying!”  Keith laughed, heartily, fully until he coughed, “Don’t go lining up the mirrors to spy on me,” he said.

One of Florence’s most famous wheezes: lining up the mirrors so she could be sure that her sons were not getting up to any hanky panky when they were entertaining young women in the parlour from her vantage point in the kitchen.  My turn to laugh, “I’ve better stuff to do Uncle Keith!”

In every picture – Florence is wearing an a-line skirt of one indistinguishable colour or another, cut off at the knee.   Her feet are always in flat, sensible shoes and Ernest, her somewhat shorter second husband stands beside her.  He always has a mischievous grin beneath his pencil thin spiv moustache.  She has laughing eyes and cheek bones like launch pads (where the biggest similarity with me lies) and yet she is somewhat serious, held in, held back.  I don’t know why.  My memory of her is that she was dignified, contained, inside: as if life had taken a few swipes and she’d survived.  She held secrets.

There are two incidents that sit in opposition to this buttoned down woman.  One when I was quite young, perhaps 4, was never repeated through Christmas after Christmas though she had the opportunity.  It was summer and we were visiting their tiny caravan in Hawes, Wensleydale (six vans in a field, no facilities, years before the whole world caught onto the benefits of being outside).  Florence got completely pissed on banana wine.  We were playing Monopoly as a family.  I was partnered with my mam and Nana was brazenly cheating – not for herself but for my older sore loser of a brother who she was partnered with.  I watched her slowly sneak money from the bank pile to his.  I looked around.  I was sure she’d done it but no-one else reacted, I began to doubt myself.  And then, she did it again.   I was up past my bedtime and certain I’d be sent packing so I widened my eyes at her, a little cheekily to say I know exactly what you’re up to.  And Nana winked!  I was so shocked I wanted to laugh instead I tried to focus on her daring do as she stole more and more for K.  He smiled too.

A few years later at our annual Christmas visit at their house (which was often a bit of an endurance) Nana appeared to have had a personality transplant.  Normally it was a five hour trial by silence where we did our best to be behaved.  Instead, Nana had prepared all sorts of games (perhaps she’d read about this in the Woman’s Weekly?) and all afternoon we played pass the balloon, between our knees and neck and various others that now escape me.  It was very tense, trying to enjoy without getting over-excited and wrecking the joint.  I’m not sure why we worried, it never happened again. The following year we returned to awkward questions and long silences.

I liked going to their house though.  It was an extraordinary contrast to the other side of the family (Nana married up – perhaps that’s were her inner struggle lay?) which was on a housing estate.  Here, out in a village you could see the cars flying down from Little Weighton, going a little too fast until you felt it might not end well, and brakes were applied just in time.  Lights danced on the ceiling of their living room and because it was always Christmas (we only visited once a year) it was dark.

Nana’s house had a distinct smell and I’ve never encountered it since.  I’ll know if I do: somewhere between fruit cake and salad on a plate and washing powder and plants and aftershave.

The last time I saw Nana was in the hospital.  I went along to visit and arrived a little too soon.  The door to her room was ajar and I saw Grandad, Ernie, helping her slowly to move.  It was the singularly most intimate thing I’d ever seen, these two people in their mid-80s, thrown together by the war years, close, tied by a history I didn’t know, him trying to make her comfortable: failing.  She’d had an operation on her stomach and was in severe pain which was plainly visible on her face.  They didn’t know I was looking.  But it gave her away.

I knew then that I was saying goodbye and a week or so later she died.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wendy

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Wendy was loud.   She was one of those women who you heard before you saw, which was handy because it meant that you could disappear if you felt that way inclined, decide that you maybe couldn’t deal with her at that moment.  The other thing I remember about her was her habitual chewing of gum.  I try not to be a judgemental person (and I am conscious that Americans may generally take a different view) but it drove me mad.  Round and round the white stuff would go in her mouth, and every meeting was punctuated by its visibility, like slightly soiled pants in a washing machine.

She was extremely well-meaning though and I could forgive her this indiscretion.  She was good to me, set me off on an interesting path of working with Oldham’s youth.  I recall a girl’s group in Werneth that she instigated, a lovely bunch of Asian girls who created a piece of heartfelt theatre, and similarly a group of white girls who a book of poems.  They were a tough bunch, that lot and I remember their look of amazement when I captured their words and recited them back to them in some order of my choosing.

“Bloody Hell,” one said, “That’s fucking brilliant!”

The youth worker chimed in then to prevent any further swearing. “Amazing!”

“Did we really say all that?” another girl asked, to which the only answer was, “yes.  You did.”  (They taught me how to use the word ‘bob’ as an insult.  “It’s bob that”, they’d say using a bastardised version of the word bobbin, the bit that was left after the weaving had taken place in the mill. And they taught me this: “I’ll have twos on that” i.e. the second portion of a cigarette.  You could have threes, too.)

One session I found myself playing badminton with those girls, another time I sat around with them as they told me about their lives, sad lives full of difficult negotiations with boys, the first wave of girls who had to deal with the ready availability of porn which had begun to make life difficult for them.  It got worse for poor girls as time went on, trading sex for cigarettes and booze.  I was working with the kind of white girls who got entangled with young – and older – Asian men – who seemed to be kind (kind yet than the girls’ male white contemporaries) and yet in my short-lived project stints I could tell it wasn’t going to end well.

“Should you stop that?” I remember asking a youth worker when a vulnerable white girl got into the back seat of a taxi going who knew where at 10 o’clock at night.  “What am I supposed to do?” The youth worker asked, not unreasonably, “I can’t stop them.”  This was in the late 90s, early 2000s and I guess, although we sensed it wasn’t right, we didn’t fully understand the full horror of what might be happening.  And, all my projects were time-limited, I was parachuted in when cash was available here and there, giving young people, girls and boys, the chance to express themselves, over six, eight or ten weeks.   I always suspected that the action was just ‘off’, somewhere else and that the youth club was a warm place that held them for a short time.  Then – and it’s worse now – kids were third generation unemployed and we, Wendy and I, and other well-meaning professionals wanted to give them something else.

It was extraordinary to school such kids to a performance, or a publication, to watch a spark catch fire but I knew how vulnerable they were and how, when the funding runs out as it always does, there’s nothing.   At 14, 15, 16, they’d get pregnant or start to drink or take drugs or lose hope in some other way and then it was a much worn path to nowhere, possibly love – if they were lucky – possibly marriage, more likely benefits and the next 40 years making ends meet.  I once met a truly amazing woman on Fitton Hill, i forget her name, but we were the same age: 32.  She was already a grandmother.  But she was full of energy, dynamism, love.  Always skint, always struggling yet funny, angry, clever.  I loved working in those communities, and knowing this, Wendy took advantage of me: you go in, she’d say, do some poetry, write their life story with them.  So I did.

One time, Wendy and I prepared for the visit of Princess Anne, “Will you do a piece of theatre?”  She gave me the toughest of groups: mixed sex teenagers.  I’d have to coax them.  Some days only half the group turned up.  Other times I’d be lucky to get them all to stand up at the same time.  Rehearsals were hardcore!

“Right,” I said, “Princess Anne is coming an you are going to say what you need to say!”

They smiled, young people without teeth, or without hope, or both and then humoured me.  I very nearly lost my nerve.  I was full of angst for them: they didn’t give a shit.

I waited in the hall alongside Wendy.  It’s true what they say, the only smell the royals sniff is new paint.  I’d never seen the youth club look so spick and span, positively shiny.

“I’m not standing up,” I said, “When the princess comes in.  It goes against my socialist principles.”

“Me neither,” Wendy said.

Around us, the great and the good gathered: policemen with medals that weighed down the front of their uniforms down.  Mayors, other dignitaries.

Then, a small chap entered and announced, “Be upstanding for Her Royal Highness, the Princess Royal.”

And taken up by the pomp and ceremony, Wendy and I both dutifully stood, grinned shyly at each and shrugged.

And the kids did not let me down.  They delivered everyone of their lines.  They told Princess Anne and all the dignitaries in that room just how difficult their lives were, how hard it was to get a job, how shit it could be day after day with nowhere to go and nothing to do.  Next to me a TV journalist whose name escapes me said, “Yes” with a bit of fist bump and then Wendy smiled, gave me a hug, “You’re a marvel,” she said.

There was something about Wendy that set her apart from others.  It was about passion, about difference, about being driven: we shared that.

She was also massively allergic to nuts: something that she managed.  One time, I remember her banishing someone from the room who was eating peanuts, “Sorry love,” she’d shouted, “I can feel my eyes swelling.”

Wendy was dynamic, committed, full of anger about the way young people were being abandoned.  She wanted to make a difference and to take them with her.  One time, she got the chance to take a group of kids on an international exchange in Eastern Europe.  She jumped at the chance.

On the plane, on the way back, she got all her party settled then, like them, began to eat the plane food.

She knew immediately that she’d made a mistake.  Her throat constricted and the world changed.  Somewhere over Lithuania – a country that had just got itself on the map again – Wendy died.  No amount of medical intervention helped, and without her epi pen, which was inexplicably in the hold, she had no chance at all.  Aged just 38 – all that potential , gone.  I wept bucketfuls of tears for Wendy and the kids who wouldn’t get the chances she’d have created for them.  And I wept for the young people on that exchange who’d seen her in all her glory and watched her felled in seconds by eating something wrong.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elvis (and all that jazz)

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And the motherload of research shows that when people are amazing (or even good) in one area, this tends to transmit to perceptions in other areas (the “halo effect”). Nathan Heflick, Psychology Today, accessed, 20th August, 2017.

When I was 11, I wrote in my diary on the 16th August 1977 that Elvis had died.  It was the only thing I wrote in my diary for the whole of that year such was the impact that his death had: a factoid I felt I would need to remember, because Elvis was only 42 and he was special and talented.   And everyone was shocked.  You could go nowhere without someone talking about this man who had made an impact and who had died too young.  My next door neighbour, Horace, even sang a song in the street in his honour.  It was ‘In the Ghetto’ and Horace was off  key.

In truth, I don’t think Elvis was a celebrity that I had a particular interest in and certainly no crush (I saved that for Captain James T. Kirk, Manolito Montoya and David Starsky) but the waves of pain that rolled around the world reverberated in King’s Bench Street.  My street. How could this happen?  What had we contributed to his death?  Where we somehow responsible?  What was this collective grief we all seemed to feel?

Elvis was too young when he died.  He was under enormous pressure and had entered into a kind of pact with the devil.  It is rare for celebrities to reach such momentous heights and impossible for them to sustain.  They get thrown into a place where they exist for their fans in a way that is inhuman and totally unreasonable.  They seem to be infused with mythic status: as though they are not like us mere mortals imbued as they are with an almighty gift that we can barely comprehend. It is nonsense of course – talented or not, they are only human with the same frailties that we all have.

With the benefit of history, I can see how such fame goes in waves – how the exposure Elvis had meant that his real, his ordinary life was limited.  He couldn’t nip to the shop in his shorts and buy something without being mobbed.  He lost all sense of freedom. It’s tragic.

In my adult years I bought an album of Elvis’ that records him on stage.  There is an interaction on it he has with his fans where it is clear that they want more from him than he has to give.  There is sadness in it.  But the fans, all women in this recording, have gone beyond the para-social interaction that we often have with celebrities (and people of our crushes, generally) – “a one-sided, intense relationship we have with” famous people sometimes (Abby Norman on The Mary Sue blog.) On the On Stage album, Elvis draws reference to hotel keys he has received and asks who they belong to.  I imagine that kind of adoration wears thin, eventually if you’re essentially a decent, ordinary person with an extraordinary talent.

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It was not far off Christmas when John Lennon was shot dead in the street outside his apartment. It was the 8th December 1980 and he was 40.  He was killed by a man (Mark Chapman) who wanted to be famous and who had, earlier in the day, asked for Lennon’s autograph.  He shot him at point blank range: firing five shots and hitting with four.  Lennon stood no chance at all.

The pain felt by those who knew him must have been unbelievable, and for the world this pain went on and on.  There was a vigil of 100k just yards away from where Lennon was shot days later, and on the day following the shooting many Liverpudlians gathered in Mathew Street, by the Cavern Club were Beatlemania had begun.  I am not old enough to have been a Beatles fan, but his death also meant the death of any kind of reunion, too.

I often wonder what John Lennon would have produced next had he lived.  He was a man of multiple talents and the world was robbed of the maturing of his gifts, all that he might have produced as time went on.

There is a void that occurs – even more so then when there wasn’t 24 hour news or the internet.  I remember waiting for the updates, and scouring every newspaper on my paper round to understand what had happened, to understand why it had happened and to understand what would happen next.  Because you feel an ownership of the talent of such iconic people, you imagine that there will, somehow, be a satisfactory end but there isn’t because they have gone, and even their specialness cannot make them super-human and survive what we ourselves couldn’t survive.  And that is like a double-grief – they are like us and unlike us, after all.

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Another death I remember as equally shocking was that of Freddie Mercury.  I remember hearing about this and driving to the shops on my lunch break to buy a newspaper, to confirm the truth of it. He was not Elvis, of course, but he was another man who was mega talented and another man who was much too young at the time of his death.

Elvis and Mercury seem to me to be miles away in terms of their personalities and what they stood for, but that they both succumbed to excess seems to be undisputed.  Mercury was a man who had no capability of holding back: that’s what the records show.  But not only was he mega-talented, the day before his death it had been announced that he was HIV positive and had AIDS.  It is probably hard for those not around at this time to understand the significance of this announcement and the bravery it must have taken to make it.  Mercury was openly hounded in the British press to ‘admit’ this diagnosis and it still seems to me to be shameful that a man can’t keep his final illness to himself.    In spite of the announcement, it still felt wretchedly unfair that his talent should be extinguished at 45.

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Finally, I’d like to talk about Princess Diana.  I was away in a caravan on my own in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales when she died.  I had had the radio on and then, switched it off to work on a play that I was commissioned to write.  When I switched the radio back on, the programme that should have been playing wasn’t.  Instead, there was strange funereal music.  I thought at first the Queen Mum had died: without putting too fine a point on it, that was overdue. It was 31st August, 1997 – twenty years ago.

I waited, trying to concentrate on what I should have been doing but I kept getting caught up in the music and distracted.  And then the announcement came: Diana was dead. Of all the deaths I have spoken of here, this was the most extraordinary in terms of the outpouring of grief by a population of people.  It was very unBritish the way we behaved – not all of us, of course, but significant numbers. 32.1 million people were said to have watched her funeral – many more than half of the total population of the country.

I have never fully understood the complexity of our response to Diana, or the shift in the behaviour of many: hundreds wept openly.  I am sure millions share the memories of the banks of flowers, of the Queen humbly accepting (though not stating) she had misjudged the mood of the people, the journey of the Princess’ coffin with the flowers thrown onto the bonnet of the hearse, the young princes walking behind the gun carriage that carried their mother.  These images are well known to us all: imprinted on our collective memory.

It was something about her popularity, something about the shoddy way she seemed to have been treated (we Brits like an underdog, and we especially like an underdog who takes on the establishment, up to a point), something about the courage she had shown in touching AIDs victims, in looking after the homeless and the dying and so on seemed real to us, when perhaps other royals seemed distant and unmoved by most things.  I am not immortalising her.  I am sure she was as damaged and neurotic as the rest of us, and yet, there was something about her desire to be Princess of hearts that had a sincerity to it that touched people.  That still touches people. She was a champion of the down trodden.

Of course, she was also fabulously wealthy and privileged.  She was and remains one of the most popular and iconic celebrities of the 20th century, and I am uncertain whether any sudden death will ever reverberate in the way hers did to the British people again in anything like the same way.

 

 

 

Helga

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No farewell words were spoken, no time to say goodbye. You were gone before we knew it, and only God knows why.”  Unknown Author

I’ve puzzled over remembering her name, which is nothing short of shameful.  I know why though, she was difficult.  She was difficult in a very difficult class.  It was a wonder to me that so many slightly unhinged children had ended up in one place.  I taught them originally for English and then, the following year, for Drama.  This class bore evidence to the fact that testing is madness and tells us nothing (because all the power rests with the question maker) because in that class I ended up with 25 kids with special needs and 5 who were not, in one room.  (Interestingly, I made friends with one of them 20 years later on Facebook.  Biggest.  Mistake.  Of. My. Life.  Where once he’d been an annoying marginally cute peck of a child, he had turned into an obnoxious beer swilling misogynistic homophobe.  Unfriend.  Block.)

In that class there were 8 children on the lowest ability table all very pleasant but none of them able to read and write (they were 11).  Not one.  And this was in the day before teaching assistants so somehow I had to manage them, and the 5 bright kids, along with a very curious bag of behavioural problems.   I’d set up a task and then some minutes later, I’d emerge from the special needs table with none of them further on.  The names have escaped me but not the pain of having to get some words out of them.

Later, when they had grown a year, they became totally unmanageable.  People talked about some of those boys in the staffroom with hushed tones.  There was one boy in particular (I will not name him) who made most staff wish they’d chosen street cleaning as a profession (although I think he would have still sought them out and he’d have still made their life hell.)

I once looked on the internet (Friends Reunited – remember that?) only to discover that someone had actually married him and he seemed normal. The thing about most classes, even if they possess a couple of choice individuals they mostly rubbed along together, and they sort of gelled eventually.  This class – who I’ll call Class H for the want of not wanting to call them anything else – seemed, on the whole, to hate each other.

Drama with them was a kind of weekly battle.  They couldn’t sit still in the normal course of things, so imagine the total chaos that ensued when  all the desks were removed.  I recall – at my wit’s end of being unable to command them in anyway at all – putting each of them on a chair, one in front of the other across the length of the hall in a desperate attempt to gain some control.  It worked, but only for so long: minutes from memory.   I also remember using every single teacher phrase on them, “It’s your own time you’re wasting”, “I don’t have anything else to do,” and “Every single minute you waste will be added at the end.”  This class made me realise that detention meant only one thing – a punishment for yourself.

So, at Christmas I was surprised by the visitation of Kate, Helga and another child who I hadn’t even noticed was in the room.   Because the battle lines were so firmly drawn, it was impossible to see the good stuff.  Kate pushed out her hand, “Here’s a Christmas card,” she said, and then, Helga giggled, high-pitched and inexplicably needy, did the same.

“Thank you girls,” I said, insanely grateful that not all 30 hated me.

The others in the class would victimise these three scraps of children, often throwing out insults beneath their breath.  So, I’d go to battle on their behalf, even though all three girls: Kate, Helga and the other one had the capacity to drive me wild.  Helga just couldn’t sit still and she whined.  She always wanted attention (because she needed it, I expect.)  I was always keeping groups of boys back for saying stuff about Helga, unpleasant stuff I don’t wish to repeat because she was 12 and not any of the things they spoke of or suggested about her (although now that I have been on the planet 30 years more I think Helga was a victim of some serious kind of abuse, and I know that I’d be trying to get to the bottom of whatever was going on for her in a safeguarding sense.)

One Monday, Helga didn’t come into school.  It was no bad thing from my point of view.  One less of those mad kids and I might even manage to get them into a circle!  No such bloody luck but at least it was one complication that I didn’t need, one angle of bonkersness removed that meant I might survive until lunch time with all my limbs in tact.

I wasn’t with them when they got the news that Helga had been killed in a car crash, but I heard the stories of their reactions in the staffroom.

For a month or two, all the class’s fight had gone.  The boys fell silent: no smart remarks came through.  The  girls got on with their work except Kate and her single remaining friend who cried genuine painful, heart-rending tears.

The rest were sort of bewildered because they’d no affection for Helga at all.  Daily, they’d called her names, made her short life more unpleasant than it needed to be, and – in that moment that she died – they’d lost all hope of redemption.  As a collective they struggled to say, honestly, how much they’d missed her, if only as the butt of all their jokes and they hung their heads in shame – all the spirit went from them.   They cried because of what they’d done, the pain they’d meted out to her and not what had happened.

Those children were wounded, damaged by a tricky life’s lesson: you can’t like everyone and sometimes, you get no chance to take back some of the things you’ve said and done.  I played my Drama lesson’s with a straight bat, giving them a chance to work through their feelings.

They mostly recovered.  And I was pleased to not have to teach them at the end of the year.

 

 

 

 

 

Jenky

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“The way to get on in the world is to be neither more nor less wise, neither better nor worse than your neighbours.”   William Hazlitt

 

Although she was extremely small, Jenky was formidable.  She stood well under five feet tall, but her personality rose mightily.  She was our next door neighbour and as well as being my God mother (I recall no special favour around this fact – I don’t think she really liked me all that much.) She also led my mother astray and into debt.

Magdalena Jenkinson, to give her full name, was a big fan of hire purchase.  My mother was young when she moved next door to Jenky and was easily taken off the solvent path.

Turner’s was a shop of many parts and folk were invited in to find the items that would give them the household accessories of their dreams.  It was a trendsetter.  Turner’s was also, incidentally, the source of a well-known British band’s name.  TURNER’S it said in bold red letters, and just beneath ‘everything but the girl.’  Why?  Because it assumed that men did the earning and the shopping and women stayed at home.  Here, at this shop, a man could buy everything except the girl.

It’s a wonder to me how my father didn’t notice the various bit of furniture that began to appear in the house: the sleek sideboard, the state of the art wardrobe, but he didn’t.  Neither, for several months, did he notice the Tally man who – wearing the giant boot of a man who had one leg shorter than the other – appeared at the back door for the repayment of monies owed.  There was not much left from the house-keeping at the end of the week – as my mother’s repayments mounted up. Jenky’s solution was to get another loan. And so it went.

I didn’t really have much idea about the rows between my parents, certainly when I was very young, but I heard this legendary ONE: where my dad found out about the debt Jenky had encourage my mam in.  When my mother said she’d only done what everyone else had done, what Jenky had suggested, he, my father, said this oft repeated and immortal line, “If Jenky was to shit in the middle of the road, why would you have to do the same?”

She would not, my mother said.

Not now.  Not ever.

And yet, she’d sneaked a look at a different kind of life of having the latest thing, which came crashing to an end in that moment.   And not just for my mother, but for us all.  We entered then a period of austerity as the debt was, bit by bit, paid back.  Dad withdrew all the savings he had managed to muster and taking on extra work paid off the debt.  To his credit, he never mentioned it again and to hers, my mother became a paragon of virtue taking up budgeting as though it was going out of fashion.

Things picked up as he worked harder and harder, and with the additional work in the evening he drove things on: Jenky was jealous, getting more debt to keep up. The only thing my siblings and I have in common is that we’re all solvent and we’re all driven, the two things we learned on our father’s lap.  The phrase about what our neighbours would do to compete was often trotted out: ‘if you had a shit in the middle of the road…”  Occasionally, we would chime in with it together…but my mother had dug a hole and he had got her out of it.

Jenky was not ostentatious with the things she bought though they often squeezed the percentage of her available cash, and like our other next door neighbour she would pop around to lend a tenner or a fiver until the end of the week.  My mother should have added some interest: she would have made a killing.

Jenky’s husband Tom was a trawler man so for months at a time he would be away from the family home and so, this formidable little woman, would man her household with her loving but sometimes wayward bunch.  When her kids were twice her size she’d slap them to within an inch of their lives if they stepped out of line.  (I’m not advocating this as a child rearing method!) And then Tommy would come home and he would drink his body weight in beer and, a happy drunk, would entertain us all with his dance moves and his terrible jokes.  Tommy and Jenky would shout at each other but they loved each other – it was a warmth that entertained us all.   I remember him sleeping on his sofa in the midday sun with the curtains half closed and being sort of shocked by this – but then, he’d had months of long days and no sleep, and soon enough, he’d be back on that ship on the edge of the arctic circle with the bitter cold, the biting winds and 14 hour-long days.  And we would enjoy fish from the ship: cod and haddock from the deep seas.

Jenky’s house always had this strange aroma of smoked fish.  We’d knock on the back door and let ourselves in on an errand from our mother and there it would be the enamel pie dish on the hob bubbling away, fish in tomato sauce.  I often wondered who she was cooking it for and whether Tom was there or not, this concoction would be on the go.

The oldest two children were off on their way before I really noticed, one getting married, the other becoming a butcher.  But I was very familiar with the remaining three and Jenky, we were in and out of each other’s lives. Laurina, a young woman and the eldest left, a few years older than me, would come to the front, and say to me as I was busy playing some kind fantastic game, “Will you go to the shop for me?”  I knew that she would give me 2p for my efforts and for a time this was a good deal.  This led to 5p and occasionally 10p from her or Jenky who’d ask me too.  One summer, I was probably 14 or 15, Laurina – not yet 20 – asked me if I’d go and buy her some fags from Pawson’s.  I remember the deafening silence when I said, “Laurina, is there something wrong with your legs?” She never asked me to shop for her again.

I was my own worst enemy.

Jenky and my mother would gossip about all those on the street.  They were the arbiters of what was decent and what was not, and they would speak to each other every day.  If there was a scandal, they would be at the heart of talking about it and if there was a disaster they would be in the middle of sorting it out.  They would have an opinion about everyone and everything and they were not afraid to share it. Then it all came to an abrupt end when my parents moved away three weeks after my 18th birthday. (Oddly my parents moved the week I went to university – the first person in my family to do so – to a more upmarket area.  Fortunately, they did tell me where they were going!)  And I left all my childhood street, all my security, behind me.

I forget which event it was (probably my father’s secret 60th birthday party, the one where my younger brother had said in his card, “Enjoy your secret party”) and I encountered Jenky in the ladies’ toilet.  I remember saying, “Jenky!”  with genuine affection and she told me off for being cheeky.  Smaller, older, but still formidable.

As she got older, Jenky shrank and she didn’t have much height to give.  She and Tommy moved into a little mews property, newly built, on Coltman Street.  He faded away with dementia and she looked after him even though her physical capacity was much limited.

I went to Jenky’s funeral and met again her five kids who were all late middle-aged.  They waved.  And I smiled.  We were world’s away and I wanted to pay my respects. I did not enjoy the words spoken at the funeral as they were by a man who had never met Magdalena Jenkinson.  But I enjoyed knowing that she was just as feisty at 80 odd as at any other stage.

 

 

 

 

Traces

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“Before it’s your favourite place, it’s a place you’ve never been.”

I am lucky to live in Cornwall, England and the photograph above is the place I love more than any other.  The thing I particularly love about this place is that it is off the beaten track – others know about it, but it is not a place that fills to the brim even in the height of summer.  The first time I went, I was with my partner and nephews and, fully clothed (it was freezing), the boys rolled down the dunes and into the river that meets the sea, surfing the sand like board masters.  We came time and again that holiday (we were northern then) and parked high above the cliffs and meandered down to this special place. We’ve been often since – and always, rain or shine, it is a beautiful place. It holds its secrets – that aquamarine sea, its promise always there and sometimes tantalisingly so.  I’m not fooled by it.  I read it.

I am an enthusiastic sea swimmer and on calm days there is nowhere on earth like this cove but if you dip your head under the water you can see the wreckage of a ship – a cargo ship – which left a mass of stuff on  the beach for locals to sweep up and store for future exhibitions.  And there it remains as a reminder of the danger that lies on the coast of this part of Cornwall: jagged rocks, hard on the surface of the hull (and on your feet if you’re unlucky enough to kick them).  There are secrets on the seabed.  If you’re lucky, occasionally, a seal bobs along beside you. The seal knows more than we do and only appears when the waves lap gently on the shore.

The cove is protected when the sun shines, but when the wind whips up, the waves get ever bigger.  I have seen people ignore this, allowing their children to wade into the water with a recklessness that beggars belief. I have watched this, and given warning but people don’t believe that the sea can be unforgiving or that it can turn on a sixpence and head back in with an alarming speed.   With hideous regularity people get cut off and need to be rescued.  In an average year, approximately 7,000 sea rescues take place.  Each year about 70 people die off the British coast.

The beach is never exactly the same – storms and spring tides arrive and throw the sand in different formations.  That’s the wonder of this cove.  It never looks the same way twice.  There are no life guards here, and if you go into the water you do so in the knowledge that if you get into trouble you may not come out alive.  That’s a fact. With the shift in sands, other people’s stories (and their detritus) come and go.  There is  rope here, shoes, inevitably plastic and once I found a knife so sharp it could cut a man’s throat.  I wondered about that, about that lost knife and who had brought it here, and for what purpose.  Other people’s footsteps are sometimes in the sand, often it is clear of human marks.  And still it makes my heart race when I get close – my place.  A place I’ve been on my own, or with numbers.  These words I found here: memories, written in the sand.

In 2004, a boy was swept out to sea at this cove in front of his mother.  She dived in along with her friend to try and save him and although the lifeboat pulled him from the sea with some of his breath still in him, he later died in Treliske Hospital, Truro.

Everywhere there are traces of lives lost, even in the places you love the best.

Flowers on a roadside are a frequent occurrence especially here on the lanes in Cornwall where people travel too fast and where fun things to do for young people are far away and must be driven to, meaning occasionally they come back worse for wear and late at night taking a corner too fast…

When I was at school, a group of boys in the year below me went to Greece.  It was not an uncommon thing to do, and was fast becoming a rite of passage for 16/17 year olds ready to experience their first taste of freedom.  Doubtless they drank too much, doubtless they were lairy and full of laughter, taking more risks than necessary.  But that wasn’t why Neil Turgoose died.  In the small hours of the night, he sleep-walked off a balcony onto a concrete poolside below, in his somnabulant state taking a non-existent route to a non-existent toilet.  I have often thought of the journey of his mother to retrieve his body and bring him home, and of the holiday makers who followed weeks and months later, unknowing, enjoying the very same villa to relax and make a life-time of memories.

I suppose that where there is life, there is death too: in our homes and our streets, in fields and in ditches and every other space between. One time, perhaps 20 years ago, I took a group of writers on a tour of some Manchester University labs.  It was a three part tour and the second part was to a small concern: the Unit of Art in Medicine, where three or four individuals were tasked with, at that time, pioneering work in forensic reconstruction.  Professor Richard Neave ran the lab, and he was developing work that would enable police officers who had uncovered remains to see again who they might have found and what had happened to them. It was the most extraordinary place, and the professor explained to us how he built on a copy of the skull the muscles and sinews and flesh and skin until a person emerged back into the world.  Now this can be done on the computer, but then it was an art.  We all stood in a tiny room whilst he talked us through the process.  He kept looking at me, and I found this a little disconcerting – but then, I have an interesting face.  Few people have cheekbones like mine and I think the professor was looking at my bone construction! He talked of missing people, of a young woman whose remains had been found in a house in London when a bunch of builders were renovating a property, and who had been identified as a 15 year old runaway.  Professor Neave’s reconstruction had led directly to finding the girl’s killers.

“Each year about 250,000 people disappear,” he said, “That’s about one person every two minutes, you know.”

I and the writers looked at him.  I said, half flippantly, “They can’t all be in London, can they?”

He did not crack a smile.  “No,” he said, “No.  Of course, many return home but quite a lot will be under people’s floorboards… About 16-20,000 are missing for a year or more and there’s about a 1000 unidentified bodies in the system at anyone time…so….”  He shrugged…

And I have often thought about those souls, where they are and what they know.  And the traces they’ve left – neither dead or alive but somehow lost.  People have a perfect right to go missing if they want to, a perfect right to tell no-one where they are going and never come back but what if they are one of the 1000 in a pauper’s grave or a mortuary never to be identified.  What of those?