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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unassuming

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“Many homicidal lunatics are very quiet, unassuming people.  Delightful fellows.” Agatha Christie

The one thing I can say about Graham, without fear of contradiction, was that he was not a homicidal lunatic. He was, however, very unassuming: a man who you would walk past in the street. He mostly wore greys and blacks, and his hair had thinned so that his bald patch was the lion’s share of his head.  Graham wore his hair slightly longer than you’d expect for a man in his sixties and he seemed unfinished, slightly grubby.   This is not to cast aspersions on his character – he was a nice, decent man.

We encountered Graham when we lived in Rossendale.  He drove his white Granada up the unmade road past our house twice a day, and parked it in front of some disused garages.  He’d leave the car there, and then head on foot to the patch of land he rented off the Hardman Trust to feed his animals.  We too rented land off the Trust, a slightly under the radar operation that owned most of this part of Rossendale, including – one assumes – Hardman Drive that ran at the end of the unmade road, curling up to a dead-end and a field full of sheep.  Old Mr Hardman was in effect one of the founding fathers of Waterfoot, one of a few Victorian gentlemen who made money from the felt mills on the valley floor. The Trust carved up the space into various chunks and asked for a small amount of rental once a year – many people lived out their dreams of being small-holders on Hardman land.

In fact, most people who came to live in Waterfoot had come originally to work the mills and at their height they’d sent the woollen material across the world.  I don’t know the full history of Hardman (although a W. Hardman seems to have been some sort of Historian), but stone was also quarried in those parts and there was business in the town for a man who could make the most of it.  Indeed, Graham had done just that – although on a much smaller scale.

Before we moved into Waterfoot Graham had owned and run the sweet shop.  Tucked in just beside the pub, he’d made a good living from selling sweets: generations of children and young people from the Grammar school had doubtless seen it as the place to be directly after school filling up on Riley’s Chocolate Toffee Rolls, Licorice Allsorts, Turkish Delights and supplies of penny sweets of all kinds: milk bottles, chocolate logs, mojos and more.

I never saw inside the shop because it closed just as I was finding my way about the place.  For a while, the shopfront was a bit desolate, and the odd business moved in and then out without ever really making a go of it.  Finally, it was re-shaped into an Estate Agents and we all just walked past it and straight into the Co-Op for supplies.

I should imagine the shop’s demise made Graham a little sad, but he never showed it.  Instead, he came, regular as clockwork to feed his chickens and his goats.  We’d wave and then the wave became a nod, and the nod a hello until we were on polite speaking terms.  It was Graham who let us know about where we could acquire rescue chickens, bringing us the first of them in a battered old box.

“They’re good layers,” he said.  And they were. Even though those rescue birds arrived without any feathers, and with their wing structure exposed, they never let us down.  They delivered an egg a day.  “It’s miserable where they’ve been, stuck in those laying sheds day after day, so it’s grand that you’re giving them a chance.”  Graham smiled, and with a wave was on his way.

It was difficult to age Graham – in part because he was a bit of an every man, and also because most Saturdays he would appear at his plot of land with a woman and two children in tow.  We thought at first that they were his grandchildren but as time span out we heard the odd, “Daddy.” We made the assumption that this was Graham’s wife – perhaps even a second wife.  She was a diffident woman, who generally kept her eyes down but her kids, their kids, were full of beans and Graham was delightful with them.  Some weekends, he just brought the kids and they had a whale of a time running around with the chickens and the goats.  Other times, Graham came alone and sat up in his shed whiling away the hours.

One day, when we walked the dog we noticed a police car parked where Graham’s car would normally have been.  I didn’t think anything of it – I’d seen them there before catching a sneaky fag, or having a brew.  In fact, that area also attracted a few ne’er do wells here and there some casting off rubbish from the back of rusting vans or young couples making out.

I’ve a feeling I was in the bathroom when the two women with adjacent plots came to tell us what had happened to Graham.   There was something strange about these practical women – Kay and Susan, Kay with string tying her coat together – marching towards our house with great purpose particularly as they were often at loggerheads and more than once we’d had to play peacemaker.

I didn’t answer the door, so never heard it first hand but apparently Graham had been found in his shed that morning having suffered a colossal heart attack.   A week later, we saw Kay, the scruffier of the two women, and she said, “They’re not sure how long he’d been there.  You know, because of his arrangements.”

“His arrangements?” I don’t know whether I asked the question or whether we asked it in unison.

“You know, having his wife and his lady friend…” she trailed off and I got the feeling we’d missed something significant about Graham.  We must have both looked aghast and clearly without the insider knowledge Kay was itching to tell us…

“Yeah – he lived with his wife, his grown up kids had flown the nest but he had this other family with a woman young enough to be his daughter, had them tucked away in a house on Edgeside.  You probably saw her here sometimes… with a couple of kids.  They were his.   He never hid it from anyone and somehow his wife managed to carry on up Newchurch by ignoring it.”

This was a lot of words for Kay.  She breathed deeply.  She was pin-thin and coughed the cough of a smoker.  You could tell there was something else she wanted to tell us…

We waited.  She looked around as if she was holding a state secret. She smiled.

“And the dirty old bugger had a stack of pornography up there in his shed.  Thought there was going to be something amazing in that locked box!”

We smiled.  Unassuming Graham – gosh, how many more revelations?

None.

But more sadness though.

My partner and Kay went to the funeral.  Up front sat Graham’s family that we’d never met or seen listening to a eulogy that did not mention the woman he also shared his life with or their children.

And then, at the back of the church, that woman shyly entered and sat quietly in a pew, leaving before the coffin made its final journey.

She said nothing to no-one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blessings…

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“Learn to get in touch with the silence within yourself and know that everything in life has purpose. There are no mistakes, no coincidences, all events are blessings given to us to learn from.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Very early on in my tenure as a writer in residence at the Hospice, I was given a very difficult assignment.  In the morning meeting, held before the patients arrived, I was told that should Janine come that day, I would be asked to work with her.  In other words, I would be expected to spend a couple of hours with her, and listen, and keep her engaged and chat.  This was deemed good for her, and something that would help.

In truth, I felt that Janine was something of a hopeless case. She was an alcoholic and the Hospice was keen to find space for her for two reasons.  Firstly, they were short of people – either not enough people dying, or not enough people being referred to them and, secondly, they felt bad for her parents who were stalwart fundraisers.  They were at their wit’s end. Janine was not the lovely, sweet daughter they remembered: she was alien to them.   Another factor was that, although Janine’s death was not considered imminent, it was certainly always possible.  She had, for want of a better phrase, pickled her liver and in common with many alcoholics, her throat and digestive tract was riddled with peptic ulcers which could burst at any stage, and cause serious and potentially life-threatening disease and infection.

Like most alcoholics, Janine would scheme and lie, and say that no drink had got close to her that day and yet she would arrive at the Hospice and it was clear that she had had a drink already – you could smell it.   The nurses would ask her if she had taken a drink and steadfastly Janine would deny the consumption of any liquor and yet, the alcohol smell, and her slight slurring of her words would continue.  We knew that she carried bottles in her bag, and about her person, and once, in the toilet, we found a bottle of whiskey hidden inside the ceiling tiles.

It was difficult to spend time with Janine, she was often unfocused and didn’t maintain a linear narrative but as the minutes ticked over, she began to talk sporadically and tell me about her life – about her path to this place – despondent and desolate at 38.  Her story came in fits and starts over many weeks. I would look at her, as we sat together in the conservatory of the hospice, boiling hot because of the mid-day sun and wonder why she had let herself get into the state she had – bloated, and disconnected and thoroughly sad. She did not like the silence any more than I did: we talked of television, of yesterday’s supper, of a range of topics, and then slowly, slowly she started to peel back the layers.

It had begun some 20 years before.  At that time, she was a bright young thing: perriwinkle blue eyes alive and smile radiant enough to make men stop, sit-up and take notice.  She could have anyone, that’s what she said.  She knew what to wear, how to make-up her face and how to simper.  Even in the hospice you could see that she had been very beautiful – that rare combination of light blue eyes and dark hair, and occasionally, she would flash that beguiling smile that promised so much.  She would flirt with a coat stand.

At 18 she had taken a job with the West Yorkshire police, as an office worker and pretty quickly she had risen through the ranks so that she had become the secretary to a senior detective on the force.  At that time, he was a man under the most enormous of pressures – he was one of the officers involved in the inquiry for the Yorkshire Ripper, and whoever was committing this crime, this series of crimes, was making the police look very stupid. He took solace in the arms of his beautiful secretary.

I won’t judge him or her  – in the fraught day-to-day of a deeply affecting serial killing spree it was hardly surprising that he, and the men with him on the case, felt pressure that no man could bear.  He used his secretary, as many men have done before and Janine, young and impressionable, allowed herself to be his lover.  She never disclosed to me what was said in their intimate moments and I did not probe, but she often looked off into the middle distance and it was clear that he shared as much as he could when they were together, more than she should have known about the case, the very grim details. She carried his pain, she held the words of fear he dared not say to his wife, his concern that he would never help find the man killing women across the county.

Janine always knew the officer had a wife, and although she always carried a torch for something more, she knew that she was just a passing place, a stopping post on a much bigger journey.  She hoped for more, night after night, she fantasised about how it would be when all this was over. But in her heart, she knew it never would be. That when peace reigned in his soul again and when they’d caught the killer, and sent him down and thrown away the key, that her lover would leave her without a backward glance.

And just as she predicated, when it was all over, that was exactly what happened to Janine.  She was excess to requirements, no longer needed as a shoulder to cry on, the abandoned port in a storm.

In those long summer days when Janine spoke to me, she never once called him anything other than a gentleman; she never once suggested he was a bad person for using her as he did. She had wanted more but she was smart enough to realise it was never going to happen.   All of this she told me in a fleeting rush of alcohol-induced eloquence, and then, when those moments had passed she did not speak at all.  She did not mention the cavernous pain within her, but smiled and filled the air with the mundane.

One day, when we were locked in that hot, hot space she told me what she really hoped for her life.  She had a high-pitched, whiskey and cigarette ruined voice, and she spoke without fear, “what I always wanted was children, something solid that would hold me to the earth.  I loved him you know, Mary, I loved him.  And even though I knew his wife had his heart I still believed that I held him close,  somewhere special.  I really did.  I gave him everything, everything I had. And then, when they found Peter Sutcliffe, with his hammers and his knives, I knew that it was over and that those passionate, beautiful nights were gone. And that I was another one, another victim.”

Janine did not speak much of this again, and I was not equipped to help her move it on.  Her hopes and dreams of being the partner of this man died right then – and all she had given him counted for nothing when the charge sheet was written, and the cell door closed.

Was she angry at being left behind? “No,” she said, inhaling on her cigarette, “I was blessed.  But imagine being blessed by other women’s suffering.  Imagine being blessed by the worst possible crimes being committed, it’s tainted and yet – those were the best moments of my life, and I’ll never get that passion or that kind of love again.”

She never spoke of it, but I imagined Janine much reduced, back with her parents.  I imagined her back in her childhood bedroom, a single bed with a pink, candlewick bedspread, I imagined the hours between two and four – when she had known passion driven by pain, and fear and despair and hanging on for dear life as if you’d never breathe again, and I understood – profoundly, completely – why she drank  – because she’d lived her life in techni-colour, and at speed and now she was in slow-motion monochrome, and that intensity with a man who needed her was gone and she’d never re-calibrate to the ordinariness of the everyday again; like flying high on the trapeze and then being asked to get the same kick from a suburban garden swing. In the silence, her loss was profound.

I don’t know what happened to Janine in the end, but my fear for her is that she died without realising that even though she’d loved and lost, she never learned what her life was trying to teach her.

 

 

 

 

Out of the Depths…

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“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss and have found their way out of those depths.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was in many ways the founder of the Hospice movement.  She was the drive behind this movement because she believed that euthanasia stopped people from completing their unfinished business.  She believed that we should heal those who were dying, support them to have a good death and enable their families to grieve properly.  It was revolutionary, and it was necessary.

When I was a jobbing writer, I secured a position at a Hospice – 2 days a week for 6 months and then 1 day a week for another 6 months.  It was an extraordinary time, and for a while I knew a lot of people who were near death.   Well, nearer death than me as it turned out – though of course we can never be certain about that.

My job was to work with patients in day care.  I mostly worked Tuesday and Thursday (although not always) and so I began to build relationships with a lot of people who were either in remission or who were well enough to still be at home but who came to day care to receive treatment, socialise or get out from under the feet of their loved ones.

There were many people over the course of the year that I got to know very well – initially there was some suspicion about who I was as I wandered round with my notebook as well as what I was trying to do but as time went on people spoke to me, told me their stories. Together we wrote poems and books, embroidered words into banners or other things made with love.

A number of people stick out in my memory – slivers of lives I got close enough to touch.

One man, I’ll call him Clive, sat alone by a window and always seemed sad. I chatted to him. In his younger days he’d been a grave digger, and he told of the process of burying a man. It was as if his insider knowledge weighed him down. Clive told me he’d never really had much but when he found he was going to die he gave it all away. I told him that was an amazing thing to do, “I won’t need it where I’m going,” he said. Weeks later he discovered he wasn’t dying at all but Clive was resigned nonetheless and never regretted the loss of all the things that would have made his life easier – like his TV, his record collection and his books.

Patients sat around in armchairs – some making rugs, some doing art, some staring into space. Others chatted to other patients as if they were old friends. The rules of friendship are changed in day care and the connections were often deep and heartfelt.

Volunteers supported the process every day: all vetted to make sure they weren’t morbid or moribund or nefarious in their need to be close to the dying.

Another patient, Claire, was younger than me although we’d had very different lives. She had four kids and was the youngest of five herself. Her cancer had started on her leg as a lump then grew like a banana from her thigh. “Have you ever noticed,” she said, “How they always describe lumps via fruit?” She laughed and then added, “It’ll be the size of a melon, or an orange, or a grape.” I smiled, nodded, “They use sports equipment too…”

“Ah yes, the size of football, a golf ball, a cricket ball. Although that wasn’t the case with my leg. It just grew like an inner-tube, a spur. I knew right away I was doomed.” And she was – all the time she had left she gave to her children, making memory boxes until she died – weakened by the drugs and treatment – of pneumonia, a common cause for those in end of life care.

Another person who sticks out in my mind was John – who looked so well. “People say that! I must have looked shocking before.” John was a lovely man, the sort you’d want as a father or a grandfather. But he was bitter, angry. “I’m the fourth person I know who worked for the Electricity board who have a cancer – is that coincidence? We used to shimmy up those poles, and without any protective clothing at all, get to work. Know the worse thing Mary? They can’t say what my primary cancer is. Know what the problem with that is Mary? I’ll tell you: they can only treat symptoms and not the source. So I’m dying but I can’t say what of, because they don’t know. I’m a man of mystery!”

The other reason John was bitter was that his grandchild was also dying. “I can’t even say take me, Mary, because they already are doing. But I’d give anything to save him.”

Another time he said,  “Mary the problem with children dying of a brain tumour  is that apart from that, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with him. He’s as fit as a fiddle. Apart from that, there’s nothing wrong and he’ll live for a long time.”

He did. John outlived his grandchild, and his pain was so deep and profound and palpable he’d no longer speak to me at all as though my writing it down would make it real. More real. But John stayed ramrod straight and dignified in his stoic acceptance of the terrible fate of his family. He would sit in the mini-chapel, not because he believed but because he was left in peace.

Overall, I was sometime chronicler, some part therapist or listener and some part a weaver of tales.

Even the volunteers spoke to me. “I wanted to be a help.” Dorothy confided one day, “When my boy Alex died I felt I needed to put something back. And I know how profoundly painful grief is and how it never passes completely.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”  I did not invite any kind of confession but she was quick to share. Her son, a bright able strapping young man went to bed one day and never woke up, dying of an undiagnosed heart condition: sudden adult death syndrome.

“I can’t tell you how I missed him Mary – for a long time we kept the rental on his flat and I’d go in and just feel him. I’d stand in the wardrobe and smell his smell and for those moments it was as if this terrible nightmare had never happened. And then the smell began to fade, and I realised that although it never passes – grief changes. In my dreams Alex lives a parallel life, marries, has children, gets to middle-age. I know he doesn’t but it’s a blessed comfort, and it means that I can live with the space where Alex should be, but isn’t. And coming here I know I can enrich these people’s lives and my own too. It’s more than I expected to feel and I’m grateful for that.”

Dorothy was so dignified and so alive. And practical – an extra pair of uncomplaining hands. She was one of the beautiful people who had suffered, and struggled but she had survived. She had found a path from deep, unremitting pain and was living again.

A Better Tomorrow?

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“Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” Malcolm X

To have a better tomorrow, we must educate our children.   It’s all too easy to leave it to chance so that children work it out for themselves without guidance.  Without guidance we run the risk of things getting worse, not better. Children don’t have to work it out for themselves.

-o0o-

The thing I remember most about David Senior was his shoes – his shoes were ripped apart by his feet.  They were cheap shoes, I expect, and David’s family was doubtless much like the rest of us: stony broke so that once the shoes were torn, there’d be no money for new ones until the following September, at the start of the school year.  For the whole year then, David had the indignity of walking about with his feet exposed to all the elements.  There might, conceivably, have been another pair if his feet had grown length-wise or a pair of plimsolls but beyond that he would have no choice but to wear what had been bought for him.

Not that David Senior could walk very well, he was too large.  I now know that he had Prader-Willi syndrome – a rare genetic condition with a range of problems including the constant desire to eat.  David’s sister often spat out at us, “he doesn’t eat any more than the rest of us”  when people were taunting him but everyone in the entire world knew it was untrue. David did eat more than the rest of us.  He was always eating. He never stopped.  And that was because he was constantly starving.  I now understand that a child with Prader-Willi can eat three to six times more than children of a similar age and still be hungry but we just thought he was overweight and indulged.

Considering how big David was, people didn’t pick on him too much even though our neighbourhood was  a hunting ground for bullies and hard-cases roaming around looking for trouble.  I think it was because David was a bit sad, and not clever enough to fight back and it was obvious that something wasn’t quite right.  If it’s a dog eat dog world perhaps you do kick those who are already down just to big yourself up a bit, and we were all guilty of that, I’m sure. David would blink through his thick rimmed glasses and then finish off eating whatever he had on the go.  It was as if he hadn’t noticed what people said, or didn’t care.  Taunts were not his priority – food was.

No one was surprised when he died young.  It was a wonder that he lasted as long as he did.

-o0o-

We didn’t really take any prisoners as children though, setting out our stall by getting our kick in first.   That’s what it was like with flame-haired Audrey who lived on Queensgate Street.  In fairness to us she was always trying to lord it over us because she had the trace of a Scottish accent and was a foot taller.  She was one of those girls who grew to their full size at 11 (with bosom) and then all of us spent the next five years catching up with.

Audrey made a rookie error.  She told us one of her inner most secrets.

Unlike the rest of us, she had actually been to a funeral.  It was her granddad’s.  And because she was an only child she went because there was no one to look after her.  As her grandfather was carried from the church in his coffin, they had sung Amazing Grace.  Audrey told us that every time she heard this, she found herself crying.

In our defence, KM (my sister) and myself were probably pretty needy sorts, the sorts who liked to have some kind of minor victories in what were often challenging days. Our mother could be difficult, and occasionally very difficult.

SO, whenever Flame-haired Audrey made an appearance, we would start to hum building to a crescendo as she got closer and closer. Sometimes we’d even sing,

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,

That saved a wretch like me

I once was lost, but now I’m found

Twas blind, but now I see…

The same thing happened every single time.  Audrey cried (even now I’m not convinced they were real tears, just a part of the exchange we’d created between us) and then she ran away.  This went on for months until she moved and our fun (and hers) was over. We would not have a laugh and Audrey would not get to cry again for us. We’d all liked the drama of exchange…

I do feel bad every time that I hear that song though and think of Audrey and her grandpa…

-o0o-

The school assembly was hushed.  It was normally very raucous.  When we sang Glory, Glory Hallelujah, for example, I can recall the waves of ‘the teacher hit me with the ruler’ emanating from the back rows as the headteacher smiled benignly on.  I was in my first year in junior school then and we all knew, even the youngest of us, that no one could put us all in detention if we sang the wrong words.  There was something joyous about the hymn singing.

Not this day though – the room was completely sombre.  Row upon row of children with their heads bowed as the headteacher told us all about the Gaul.   It was 1974 and it had sunk with all 36 hands lost.  On every row a child was related to one of the dead. I remember one boy – as we bowed our heads to pray – refusing to do so and the tears streaming down his face.  He was in my sister’s class.

The weather had been particularly bad as the Gaul made its way across the seas but the crew had sent word that they had battened down the hatches to ride out the storm.  The trawler sank suddenly with no chance to send out an emergency signal, and no chance to attempt a rescue.  Suddenly, then. Many thought it suspicious.  The Hull Daily Mail ran the headline, “Another Marie Celeste?”

There has, in more recent years, been talk of submarines and spy missions, and the trawler taking an under water hit so that it suffered a catastrophic hole in it bow,  that meant it sank like a stone.  Many in Hull believed that this was very possible – a recognition that all trawlers sailing from the city at that time had a dual role as intelligence gatherers.  This has never been confirmed, but the rumour persists.  Some blamed the Russians, others said that trawlers were used as cover for our own submarines operating covert missions, the trawler providing a visible presence on sonar.   There has never been any official word on what happened to those men – only that they were lost.  Gone.

And in the end it did not matter to that boy in the assembly that day, now a fully grown man, I suppose.  Because his father had died, and he would never come back.  His tears continued as we sang,

“Eternal father strong to save,

Whose arm doth bind the restless wave,

Who biddst the mighty ocean deep

Its own appointed limits keep,

Oh hear us when we cry to Thee,

for those in peril on the sea.”

A hymn that speaks of Hull And I watched that boy fold in on himself whilst those around us left the assembly and just carried on.

-o0o-

Incidentally, and in an aside, yesterday was the 43rd anniversary of this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Road Less Travelled…

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There is more than one way to die – more than one way to erase yourself from the picture. A physical body operates on an animal level and, whoever you are, it must be fed and watered, rested, kept warm and housed.  These are the very basics – as Maslow identified. But the mental side of a human being is a more complex country and although psychologists have made strides in understanding why people behave in the ways they do, not everything is explainable.

We should have seen the signs because they were certainly there, but in truth it was beyond our experience of the world.

Four women and three children lived together in a fine old Victorian House in Manchester.  A family: a rag bag and complex family, but a family nonetheless.  One woman, Jane, who was the birth mother of the children had – just about – held it together before Miriam moved in.  For Miriam it was an instinct thing – she saw the children and knew that she would need to be part of their lives.  She was also Jane’s best friend, and by her own admission, Jane was struggling to manage: manage the children, their personalities, their needs, her needs and the interpersonal mash-up of all their lives together.

Even early on Miriam noticed a peculiar habit Jane had – whatever Miriam said, when she shared her thoughts about the world, or love, or conflict, or whatever, Jane had a tendency to agree.  It was an odd thing but nothing to worry about.  Jane would always say, “I think that too.”

They made it work – sharing the load of the children’s lives – women came and went but Miriam and Jane stayed as the tight-knit core.  I moved in when the youngest child was 11 and the other two 14 and 16.  The house ticked over like any family home with domestic duties and work, TV and late night jaunts to the airport for fancy puddings in a restaurant, the children playing games in their own unique style: canasta, Scabble, Monoplogy, Pictionary like any other family.   A daily round of up for school, breakfast, home, supper, TV, bath and bed.  Weekends of long dog walks and swimming and excursions and down time.  The women, determined to make it work held house meetings to establish guidelines that took the pressure off, that helped the whole tick along.  Like any family, it didn’t always run smoothly: but it was well-meaning and there was a lot of love. That got everyone through – just about – unscathed.  And Jane was a very good breadwinner: she was a woman who could make things happen.  She could convince a funder to back her, she could generate work wherever she went.  Jane had the capacity to give people what they needed, say all the right things – she was very, very clever.

At 11, each child was given the opportunity to go away to school – although the world has changed now, at that time as ‘birth-right’ Quakers they were able to go to a Quaker boarding schools on assisted places.  All three children, for very different reasons leapt at the chance… the boy because it would give him a place to be himself away from the unresolved challenges he faced with his sister and a house full of women.  The second, a girl, because it met every single expectation that she’d imagined by reading The Chalet School books.  When the third child went – she was happy to follow in the footsteps of her sister.

Something happened to Jane when the last of her children went to boarding school.  Freed from their immediate daily needs, she began to focus in on herself.  She began to try to understand herself, peeling away layer after layer in the hope of gaining insight into why she struggled – she expressed the view that she could not be herself because she did not know who she was.  Jane was relentless in her pursuit of this self.  She went to endless therapeutic sessions, digging ever deeper into a bottomless place.  But still she remained a kind of psychic chameleon – able to be whatever anyone needed from her. It wasn’t until we compared notes that we realised that the Jane we got personally was not exactly the same Jane as the others – that the Jane we each got was our own version.  But we also knew that this was true for everyone: I knew we played a certain role with different people, sometimes nuanced, but often a version of our inner truth.  But with Jane it was different. She was a woman who had a honing device on what you needed as person and she gave you that, focused on you and not herself.  Only much later did we ask the questions, “Who is Jane then?  Which is the real one?”

Some days Jane was in a bad way.  She told of walking around with a razor blade in her shoe, ‘just in case’?  Just in case of what we asked?  “Just in case I need to escape,” she’d say, “slice out the real me through my veins.”  Other times, Jane stayed in her room for hours, sneaking out in the dark to put up signs.  One day, on the wall she’d drawn a picture of a woman with an umbrella announcing that her skin was thin and we’d need protection from her.

We held crisis meetings – asking Jane to come along.  Sometimes she did, sometimes she didn’t.  We spoke to doctors, and professionals where we could – particularly Miriam who drove hard towards resolving the situation because she loved her friend, we all did.  We didn’t know what to do for Jane, and we didn’t know what to do for us. Miriam tried to bring it to a head – none of us could go on like this, least of all Jane.  I remember a difficult incident where Miriam asked Jane to disagree with her, just once.  It got louder and more strained.  Jane could not.  She couldn’t.

Finally after weeks of seeking help a doctor came to the house.  He sat with the four of us (Miriam, myself, Jane and the fourth woman, N.)  He was very sympathetic to the situation we were in.  He said that Jane was in permanent flashback and we were all players in her drama.  That we were not who we were, we were who she needed us to be.  Jane sat in the room and nodded all the way through agreeing.  As she would. We would all need to be patient, to hold  it all together for Jane and perhaps, he said, and in return she might think about not doing any more therapy for a while?

The house was as quiet as a tomb once he’d gone.  We felt listened to – heard.  We felt like someone outside of the house had seen the strange slightly surreal world we were living in.  There was no point scoring, and we were not congratulatory.  We all wanted the best for Jane.  And we wanted the best for us, and the children. The way things stood, this was not a house they could return to in the summer.

The next day, the doctor rang.  In a full about turn, he said we were not supporting Jane enough.  That she was struggling, and we were not there for her.

We were always there for her.

Her therapist had rung the doctor.  Who knew what the therapist and the patient shared?  But both had lost sight of the bigger picture. Jane had become unhinged.

The day after that, early in the morning – Jane was outside packing her belongings into the car.

Miriam threw open the window, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” she yelled, furious.  It was clear what Jane was doing.  She was leaving.  She was leaving and she wasn’t coming back.  As she reversed from the drive, I cried.  Not for the loss of Jane but for the anger, the disappointment, the ruined friendship, the breaking up of our home, the frustration at the time we’d put in, the disloyalty and the irrationality.  We loved her.  We’d loved her for years and years and years but she did not see us or feel it.  Jane’s only route for survival was to run from us and to the self she had become that did not include us.

Some time later – and I am missing out many months of to-ing and fro-ing and negotiations about visiting children and looking after the house, many months of painful meetings and exchanges, many months of trauma, and pain for us all, many months of challenge – we received a letter.  It told us how Jane was gone, that she had splintered, and that what remained was a tribe of other personalities one of whom, a dominant one, was able to speak for them all.  Jane explained the purpose of each of the tribe, their roles.  She told us what she would like now to be called.

The Jane we’d known was gone.  She was gone physically but also she had erased that self from the earth. We saw the physical person occasionally after that, but hardly at all.  Then she disappeared.

We were not to be part of Jane’s future nor she of ours.

We are still a family – the girls and us, 20 years on.