Mary and Howard

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

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

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

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

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

“I do,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who by Fire?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grandpa

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

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

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

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

He never looked after us again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

June

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

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

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

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

a) cramping her style OR

b) giving her additional concern in a stressful situation.

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

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

And why not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Billy

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When I first arrived in Manchester, I lived in a shared house with two gay men.  One, the owner, Dennis, was a likeable oddball – with interesting habits.  His bedroom was stacked high with newspapers with a single pathway left clear for him to reach the bed.  I only knew this because I sneaked a look when he was out doing his regular late night shopping on a Thursday evening where he invariably bought expensive coffee (“Smell it,” he’d say, shoving it under my nose.  “It’s coffee,” I’d say, smiling. He did the same routine with fresh baked bread.  “It’s not ordinary bread, it’s a quality product.”  Over the week it would grow mouldy.)  I never socialised with Dennis – he kept very odd hours, and wasn’t a party animal.  He looked like a member of the Sylvanian Family. We rubbed along together and fell out only once when he disapproved of me putting one of his glass tumblers over a cockroach in the kitchen.  I thought this a reasonable response.

The other man was Little Chris – a lovely gay man who hailed from Brighton and struggled with his weight: ballooning and dieting by turns.  I have an abiding memory of Chris walking up and down the living room, with the phone extension trailing behind him, speaking.  Chris loved to talk.  He absolutely loved to talk.  He also loved comics and Dungeons and Dragons, things that still remain something of a mystery to me.  In a very short time, he had surrounded himself with a group of lovely friends.  Those I can remember were Alan, Norman, Big Chris and Billy. I never met Big Chris, but I did get to meet the rest on numerous memorable occasions.

The most memorable was in Dennis’ house (although Dennis was not present – he was the antithesis of Billy) playing Host House to Murder.  This was the first time I met Billy.  I’d heard about him, and his madness from Little Chris, and although this had gone some way to prepare me, the evening surpassed my expectations.

Host House to Murder is a box set game that is the basis for a murder mystery party, each person taking on a designated role and, we played that night.  The set up of the game is that everyone can be guilty through each of the rounds, and the participants’ role is to try to work out whodunnit it? by asking sharp, insightful, thoughtful questions.

Not Billy.

He arrived (along with Norman who had a rather lovely beard) dressed as a woman.  I forget which role specifically, and it hardly mattered.  Billy asked only one question all evening… Little Chris bravely battled to keep the game on track, reading out each of the clues, and instructions but Billy would not deviate from his interrogation technique.  Whoever it was, and whatever they had done, he only asked, “did they shag?” or as a variation, “did you shag?”

The evening descended into repeated hysteria, the anticipation of the question building in each round, against the delightful earnestness of Little Chris trying to keep the whole shebang on track.  The evening ended with a big reveal and I learnt plenty in the process: firstly that most gay men look better in frocks than I could ever hope to and that secondly, hanging out with these guys was definitely a way to blow away the blues of the working week.

As time passed I gathered more and more stories about Billy and the vividness of his life – the bobbing down to the communal bin in his stilettos, his very cool dancing, his collection of sex toys (that Little Chris was instructed to remove in the event of his death), his zest for life, his wit and general bonkersness…

But this was 1991 and the world was not a kind place for gay men. This was the year that  Freddie Mercury died (I remember driving to the centre of Buxton and reading every single news item I could find about his death). We volunteered to be part of something called the Village Charity, shocked that this disease could be taking young men from us, wanting to do our bit.

I don’t remember when we found out that Billy was HIV positive, but I know that it was something that he wasn’t going to let get in the way of his party lifestyle.  And he didn’t.

Big Chris apparently was HIV+ too, but he took the advice of health professionals and reigned himself in.

Not Billy.

By this time, Big Chris and Billy were no longer together, and Billy met Steve. It fell to Steve to look after him as his health deteriorated.

The last time I saw Billy alive was in the least glamorous place on earth. Sainsbury’s.  I attempted to keep my face still and not give away what I felt but Billy had shrunk – his face tight like leather across his bones, and I knew that he was not long for the world.  He was wearing his death mask.

And it was not Billy.

He did not say outrageous things.  He did not raise a laugh with some piece of wit or wisdom.  He did not have anything much to say at all.  He spoke about his medication, the difficulties he faced with his frail body and how he couldn’t make it behave in a way he expected, in a way he wanted. Steve was shrill beside him: the kindest of men but not clever or funny or naughty, a caring, decent man. I said goodbye to Billy and I knew it would be the last time.  He had been reduced – and he was dying.

We got word that Billy had requested that we did not wear black for his funeral – so we dressed in bright colours to honour this final wish.  We were the only ones who did, most wore black.  Some of those men: Alan and Norman and Chris had been to funeral after funeral, losing friends on a monthly basis. There was a kind of strange resignation in the air: a sense of hideous inevitability. That was what Aids did to the gay community: it ripped out some of its finest souls, each one lost before their time.

And there was  a kind of tension in the air as he was laid to rest: something between the family and Steve, something between Steve and Billy’s former life.  Something not said. A hollow, empty space he’d left behind that no-one could fill.

Never Born

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Yes, characterised by death. That’s the truth.

Because who I should have been was never born: conceived in my mother’s mind, and carried for 9 months under the moniker Stephen Richard.  I’m quite pleased – it’s not as classy a name as the female one I ended up with (named for the house as it goes, because they didn’t have any ideas/imagination/inspiration – thankfully not Hazeldene or Aysgarth.)

She was so sure I was male.  So VERY sure even though the sex of a baby is determined at the very moment of conception so I was always a girl.  Always. But my mother told everyone she was having a boy, and every single person confirmed this endlessly because how she was carrying her baby it must have been of the male persuasion. She made so many plans, thought long and hard about how the bedrooms would be arranged, where he would go and what he would learn and she was wrong.  I have often thought – without the remotest sense of self-pity that being third was something like a blessing.  Neither first boy or first girl, and left to get on with it; the best of propositions.

I have never felt like a boy – whatever complex messages my mother’s conviction sent to that tiny frog-like specimen in her belly: I have never been confused about my gender. She, however, has worried about it often.  I remember the battle that I had to get Meccano for my birthday – and after I’d worn her down I was disappointed to find a plastic version when what I wanted was metal, the same as my brother.  She often said she thought that buying a single ‘boy’s toy’ had somehow had a very large impact on how I turned out. Gay.

Did I pick up some subliminal messages about power and ambition? Some secondhand benefits of being nearly a boy? Because as she would say, you could have been. Really easily. (But then, couldn’t we all have been?) I could have also been a fibroid: she had her periods for the first 4 months of the pregnancy and that’s what the doctors thought I might be.

I don’t know about that – but I do often wonder where Stephen Richard would have ended up compared to me.  What advantages would he have had against those I’ve managed to muster? What he have turned out somehow further down the line, being more successful, endowed somehow with male privilege?

Better looking?

Stephen Richard doesn’t exist.  He was just a name in the end: not the one who got away.

I am not who I have never been.

Falling

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Standing on the 20th floor of a block of flats in Hulme, I could see the broad sweep of Manchester. It was dark and the lights threw enticing patterns across the the city.  Momentarily, I was overcome by an urge to throw myself off.  I was experiencing what psychologists call ‘high-place’ phenomenon.  The building seemed  to sway, pulling me off the edge and I drew myself quickly back inside; that sense of not feeling safe – it’s instinct to pull away.  Otherwise, hundreds of people would throw themselves off buildings every day (now the image of falling bodies is etched into our collective consciousness after 9/11 but this happened pre-2001)  but I interpreted my  experience as a suicidal thought.  A micro end-it-all moment. Then, I imagined drifting gently to the ground, saw myself half flying then falling fast: fast, too fast.  So I drew myself further into the flat, back to its glow and comfort.  This wasn’t me: I’m not that sort, I’m the sort who wobbles but doesn’t fall down.

M and I talked into the dead of night.  Laughed about the last time we’d met and I was waiting outside for my lift home and a woman had walked past with a machete swearing she’d kill the bastard if she found him.  That was Hulme.  Another incident, M said, just the day before: a young man chased by the police had run to the top of edge of one set of flats, and unwilling to hand himself in, had jumped to his death.  His mind wasn’t right, she said. He fell, and never got up again. (Years later I found out this was a boy I’d taught: one of those boys prematurely tall.  He was spoilt, ruined my mother would have said. Difficult to like. His parents, never somehow learning the lesson that less is more, bought him a sporty car – he crashed it and messed up his head.  Wasn’t himself: never really found his way home again.  Lived from hand to mouth until finding himself on that roof with, as he saw it, all his choices gone: the end of the line and his impulse to escape all that was left.  He’d always been the kind of boy who was never in the wrong and all he had was instinct.  There, afraid, tearful, gone.)

The flat smelt reassuringly sweet, incense burning in all rooms.  It was such a cool flat M kept – treasures from all manner of sources carefully and tastefully left about the place. There was a picture of her as a  child on the wall: wearing a pair of dungarees, super cute and other carefully thought through things.  Just things. She laughed madly about this and that.  We talked of partners, hopes, their pain, things we planned to do…the life we meant to lead. She marrying P – maybe – me trying to work my way through.

Our time together was girls’ nights: us two.  But we talked of him: his creativity, the danger of his brilliant mind, his kindness.  His desire to get it right.  His pain.  His perfection and his sadness at never quite managing it. She loved him. P defined her, she said, made her world real, whole.

I only met him once.

I don’t remember how I got the news.  In the world before proper mobile phone use, I don’t know by what means it came to me.  Did we speak on the phone?  Did she walk round?  Did someone else tell me?

The details have gone.

Those were the days when we still wanted to be a separate self – perhaps behaved like singles when we were out.  We drank too much, we smoked in days when smoking was still allowed.  We made each other laugh.

He filled his car with petrol, one afternoon a few days after M and my night out.  He drove at some pace. He drove from his flat in Manchester down the motorway, speeding all the way to his home village.  A journey of 7 hours took 4. Later, they could track his path on the overhead cameras on the motorway.  How he hadn’t crashed and taken someone with him, no-one knew.

She told me all this: wild-eyed – the wonder of it, and the pain like a tooth hole left in the mouth, impossible to leave alone.  Impossible not to worry at it with the tongue but causing instant pain.

He found a field near his parents’ house.  All planned.  He drove right into the heart of it not caring if he’d ever get his car out. He wouldn’t.

He attached a tube from the exhaust to the window and with what remained of the petrol, just enough, started the car engine and fell asleep never to wake again.  Nothing spontaneous about his death.  Nothing instinctive or what Freud called a death wish: all carefully planned.

“He was just a bit down,” she said with all her pain exposed. I saw her soul – her life in the raw. She kept going over all the ground.  Was there something she could do? Should have done? Could she have changed his mind?  Over and over she told her part – how she felt to blame.  Went through all the steps, over and over: sitting on the floor by my back door, smoking, in the pub – in the newly decorated rooms of her flat. All the stages.  If she’d have been in to answer the phone the day before.  If she’d said the right words. If she had not insisted on him going to the doctors…

“And now,” she said, “His parents won’t let me near.” Though they did eventually relent but the damage was done.  Pain on pain. Separated by space – of being close but not close enough.

She blamed the medication: before he’d taken it he was down and, she thought, it gave him just enough motivation to kill himself.

She was wrong.  He was already falling.  Falling.

He would have done it anyway.

His life had everything you might want.  The funniest girl on the block, talent, success.

But it wasn’t enough to save him.

And there were never enough times for me to say, ‘It wasn’t your fault M.  There was nothing you could do?’

In the years that followed she made massive life changes.   Found love.  Got pregnant.  Bought a house. Grew apart from me. Our friendship fell through.

The last time I saw her, she was three cars away.  I took massive risks to reach her.  Over took.  Ran a light.  Beeped.  Followed her into the hospital car park where she was attending ante-natal clinic for her second child. We hugged. Said hello. Said goodbye. That sense of feeling close, and far away: near the edge and the temptation to jump rolled over me. That sense of not feeling safe – we pulled away.  Smiled. Waved.

All our chances gone, I never saw her again.

 

 

 

War Effort

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So cast your mind back.  It’s Hull, sometime in 1940s war time Britain.   Much of the city was tormented by bombs.  More than 1,000 hours were spent under alert during raids across the war period with at least 1,200 people killed. So it was normal for the air raid sirens to swear into the night, and families to pour into shelters and hope, against hope, that all would still be standing when they flicked into day time hours.  The air was thick with smoke from the falling masonry and debris.

Out of this, emerged a man I never met but who has cast a regular shadow over who I am and what I’ve become.  My paternal grandfather.  I have never even seen a picture of him, although I imagine him like my father: tall and willowy with film-star, slicked back hair dark but not black. A sort of Lincolnshire Rhett Butler.  A man with swagger and swash-buckling style (although the reality might have been somewhat different.) I am shaped by his absence because when folk die young they leave a kind of residue, a sort of promise of what they might have done: instead of fading away, or being subject to a shocking reduction as age weighs down even the most brilliant of souls. It seems you become what you’re not anymore unless you’re lucky and you’ve money and even then, even then, you cannot defeat aging’s relentless march – you cannot persuade fragility to bi-pass.   If you die young, you die with what you could have become still open to speculation, as though life continues in some alternative universe.

My grandfather Arthur then, a yellow belly*, was a man destined not to go to the war – something he struggled to live with.  I imagine him taking unnecessary risks: staying above ground longer than he should have done, skipping between strikes his face lit up by the bomber’s lights, or buying that extra pale ale in the pub.  He wanted, I suppose to be like most men of that generation, to ‘fight for his country.’ (Even in my generation when the Falklands war began, all the boys in the sixth form common room at Sydney Smith High School said they’d go to war in a heart beat.  Every single boy.  And all the girls were shocked, looked at them aghast saying, “What for?  You’d fight in a completely pointless war for Thatcher?” A row of ardent female pacifist against a battalion of Adidas Samba trainered boys with arms folded petulantly as if we’d somehow questioned the size of their manhood. Who were these boys we’d thought we knew?  Who were they?)

So Arthur was no different. He wore a different uniform, one of overalls: marginally above the reserves but only just,  and nowhere near the heights of the soldier.  He was ashamed at having to stay behind in a reserved occupation, he did not want to be rigging ships. It didn’t seem like much when he’d wanted to fight like all his mates.

Fast-forward 90 plus years and I’m sitting in my neighbour’s house and he’s telling me how he’s built six boats in his time, one taking six whole years, 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for six years to build and rig: an echo of my grandfather Arthur, a man  who influenced the main things (over-working, for example, over-working until it killed him, so they said) and I’m drinking my fifth pint of home brew worrying that I might regret it in the morning.

When I was 10 I realised what the lack of a father had done to my dad (he was 6 when Arthur died).  My mother had threatened us with dad on his return from work: my sister had been caught shop-lifting and my mother was smart enough to know that if she had been up to no good, the chances were I had too. So began one of the longest days of my life – off school ill with a mother refusing to speak to me for company except to warn me at hourly intervals of the pain that my father would inflict with his belt, on his return.  My sister arrived home at 4, all her cockiness gone (my mother had rung her at school knowing as a prefect my sister would answer the phone, and told her much the same as she’d told me: his belt would mark us for life and we would never be sticky-fingered again.)

My sister and I re-distributed food on our plates at tea time then went up to the bedroom to await our fate.  When dad came home, he came upstairs.  Then, the three of us entered into a kind of secret pact.  He tried, he really did, to raise his belt, his hand, his temper but he really couldn’t so without any words spoken we, all three of us crying, pretended that he had done the deed.  Somehow, in losing his father young, he didn’t know how to be that kind of dad and he became the kind who made it up as he went along. And the brutal but perfectly normal kind of working class man of that time who beat his kids for bad stuff didn’t exist inside my dad, who’d been brought up (and spoiled) by women.

And Arthur – for years I just knew that he died in the war.  I imagined torpedoes, or bombs, heroism, laying his life down for another man.  Instead, somehow or other, it emerged he’d died of untreated stomach ulcers, popped and bleeding: the pain of his non-combat role made manifest.  And that legacy breathes fire into us all too: the tension held in the stomach, the never stopping, the driving onwards when the sensible option is to stop, take a breather and survive.  Not Arthur and not his antecedents.

My replacement grandfather, Ernie came much later when my dad was in his teens.  Ernie was something of a catch it seems.  Or so my Guide Captain told me, when he’d rocked up at my Queen’s Guide celebrations in his late 70s and she’d taken me to one side and said, “Do you know that man?” her eyes strangely wide with something close to wonder. “I know him,” I said, “He’s my granddad.”

And then, in a sort of girlish breath (she was almost 60) she said, “He used to chase all the girls over the beds” which sounded more suggestive than it was, but still bad enough – Ernie had spent his working life as floor manager at Hammond’s departmental store.  “No-one would get in a lift with him,” she said, darkly and then laughed – the kind of laugh I knew meant it was only half true and though Ernie was a Lothario, he was fun if you wanted flirtation (odd he ended up with my grandmother, who was oddly buttoned down.)

The old bugger always had a twinkle in his eye, and mischief on his mind. “Aye,” he said, one time when I asked him about Arthur, “That fella was a pirate on the wild seas.  That’s where you get your name from.”

And every single part of me wanted to believe it was true.

*a yellow-belly is someone from Lincolnshire

Adam

img_3070I am not taken to crying at Facebook as a general rule, but for the second time in a week I find myself weeping at a post.  What’s the chances?

Quite high, as it turns out.

When I was 22, I began my very short teaching career.  For reasons I can’t remember now, except for some vague notion of being close to London, and as far away from my family as possible (the next step in my reinvention process, I suppose: I AM BRAVE I AM STRONG I AM NOT WHO YOU THINK I AM) I had taken a job in Basildon, Essex.  I am not one for saying disparaging things about this or other new towns but they are pretty soulless sorts of places.  I loved the people but the truth is if you’ve seen one roundabout, you’ve seen them all – and I pretty much did see them all.

The school I worked in is no longer there – Barstaple School, and when I arrived, so too did 26 other new staff.  That’s a turnover in a secondary school that tells you everything you need to know about it – it had its rum folk and not everyone could hack it.  One older teacher, on day one, regaled us with tales of how she’d gained respect by beating children up.  This was meant to impress us – it did not – but it is also true that within weeks as a new teacher you are driven to the extremes of your tolerance and to thoughts of violence that shock you.

There was a generous gesture on the part of my Head of Department (I taught English: badly as it happens – I still shiver when I remember the apostrophe lesson I taught!) that I did not need to take a year 11 class.  Excellent idea, except this meant that I was free when everyone else was delivering their year 11 class, meaning that whenever a teacher was absent during those sessions, I covered them.  It was a baptism of fire.  I felt that if I managed to herd them into the same room, and mostly stopped them shoving implements into one another’s orifices, I was doing well.  If I could corral a handful to their desks, all the better.  If someone actually wrote something, this was akin to a miracle.

Besides, what I lost in Year 11s, I gained in Year 10s – particularly last two periods on a Friday.  Goodness, whose idea was that?  As I walked to the classroom, I would hear them swopping football chants: Millwall! Millwall! Tottenham! Chelsea! Chelsea!  My heart sank as I walked to the room: and I spent much of my time trying to ensure that a) they didn’t kill each other and b) I didn’t kill them.

But over time, I grew to love that group.  They brought me cream eggs that had fallen off the back of a lorry, other offers of knock-off goods, homework in tattered books and tales of all sorts.  They made me laugh, particularly when a couple of them hid in the store cupboard to ‘surprise’ me as a joke until I started ranting about how they would amount to nothing as a group and then they were too afraid to jump out!  I knew there was something afoot when the rest of the class listened earnestly.  They never did that. I laughed heartily until tears rolled down my face when they finally sheepishly appeared…

At the back of the class sat the two Claires.  One Claire was a big built girl who was a wonderful character often telling me how best to control the group and offering me very sound advice on how to deal with the psychopathic boy in the corner (the only funny thing he ever did was hang a chair from the ceiling struts.  “You’ve a poltergeist, Miss,” he said, as the chair hung there, he was dead eyed and smirk-free.)  The other Claire was a bit colourless, and before the year was out, got pregnant.  At 14.

Relatively early in my tenure, my sister gave birth to a little boy: Adam, three months prematurely.  I told character Claire this, and in addition to her teaching tips, she would also ask on a daily basis how he was.  “Not great,” I’d say, “I’ve bought him a ted with the words ‘tough ted’ on its vest.”

“He’ll be alright, Miss,” she said, “They can work miracles now.”

Adam had been born with fluid retained all along his stomach like a giant bubble.  At half term, I travelled to Hull to see him.  He was hooked up to beeping machines and in a room with the a strange blue hue.  This was 28 years ago.

Each week, Claire would ask me about his progress, never forgetting one day to the next, and 3 months later, I was pleased to tell her that he was going home by then effectively full term with the fluid all gone.  My sister was full of hope and excitement. It was all she wanted.

And then it went wrong.  One day, on January 10th, he stopped breathing whilst she was feeding him.  The ambulance arrived but Adam died in her arms on the way to the hospital. My sister received no help with this, no support, no suggestion of someone to talk to, or someone to help, or a pathway through.  She went home to organise his funeral.  It took three men to hold her up that day.

Of course, Claire asked me how Adam was and I told her, upset I suppose though I don’t remember now.  What I do remember is her somehow conveying this message to everyone else in the room, and that impossible group of bonkers kids all behaved impeccably for two hours whilst we were trapped in that room together.  I loved them for that, and continued to care desperately about their prospects for the rest of the time I held that bit of their future in my hands.

So, from day to day of course, I hardly think about Adam though: it’s a fact, something that happened that explains everything and nothing which I find myself sharing sometimes.  Every single day my sister thinks of him.  She had 8 children since then, but always there is that place within her that belongs to Adam and Adam alone.  I cannot imagine this pain and I don’t want to.  I don’t even remember the key dates: when he was born, when he died; these are engraved on the inside of her eyes.

Today, then, I went briefly onto Facebook and this is what I saw.  My sister’s status:

I give you this one thought to keep –
I am with you still – I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush,
I am the sweet uplifting rush,
of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not think of me as gone –
I am with you still in each new dawn.
28 long years my darling boy.

It turns out that it didn’t work going so far away.  I am not brave.  I am not strong.

Not today anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

Memories

I’ve got something of a checkered history with death: lying in bed counting out my heart beats and wondering how many more will come my way. It’s a lifetime obsession – the single source of my insomnia, something I’ve suffered with, on and off, since I was nine years old. Because of near misses, mainly.

I am thinking in this way because of the sudden death of DN (a man whose African name was the first I managed to pronounce properly.) I found out he’d died on Facebook. Please God that my passing is not announced in this way, with ‘friends’ (including me in this case) writing RIP as if the world itself would end without its intervention. I’m in Cornwall when I discover DN’s death, and then another cliche pops from my (admittedly quite drunk by this stage) mouth, “I’m blessed, I say…” Blessed in what way, I want to ask myself? But I’m too far gone to manage it.

In the voracious way of social media death, you read everything. Or at least I would have if I hadn’t been in Cornwall, a place where smart phones aren’t so clever after all. What I did read was this ‘DN 1966-2017 (with a broken heart…) – I read this by chance. By sheer fluke of being somewhere with wifi. By chance. Like death. The post had 170 likes by this stage, so I am late to it.  Many of my ‘friends’ have got there before me: loving, sad face, like. It’s true: our grief is heartfelt, sad-faced. DN was a very, very good man.

Later, I begin to calculate when I met him.  25 years before when I went to Commonword and Cultureword’s dodgy Newton Street Offices, grey and unkempt, like something out of a 30s detective novel.  We were not ‘good’ friends, in fact beyond Facebook we were not friends at all these days, but I’d met him at Commonword and he’d always been lovely, supportive, strong. My memory says he did finance, but it may be making this up.  I was , briefly, in effect his boss, because I was, briefly, on the board of Commonword.  I went to a number of groups, running the gamut of women in various states of disrepair.  Things those women wrote made me realise how minimal the collateral damage I’d suffered was up to that point in life though I had not got away Scot free.  I was just chipped like the bonnet of a car that spends too long on the motorway, but they had bumpers falling off, dents in doors, rust under the surface, a blue boot where a red one should have been, bits missing.  I discovered something else there too: I was funny.  Until I read that first poem at women’s write, I had no idea at all.  It was meant to be serious, describing my mother’s sunburnt skin like a thick, pork sausage but I liked how other people’s laughing made me feel.

DN was, as I say, a very good man.  Kind, decent, hard-working, a man of principle, a Green party activist (and a future mayoral candidate of Greater Manchester.) And he was dead at 50.  I’m not ashamed to say I shed a tear, and raised a glass.  And I meant it too.  I felt like another light had gone out, another great soul with much left to accomplish, gone. Too young.  Too, too young.

And it left me counting out heartbeats again as if I could calculate just how many beats remained and work out what I could accomplish in the time left.  In the time left.  Imagine knowing the day of departure in advance and being able to do nothing about it? The dreadful inevitability of it. It would focus the mind, or send you mad or maybe both.

My mother used to say of me, “You’ll be late for your own funeral, you will,” which wasn’t true – but handy if you had been given a departure date.  I’d be early, I expect, looking at my watch and pacing the carpet thinking where the bloody hell is everyone?  Before realising, in a nightmare scenario, that no bugger was left!  It was like that for my step-Grandfather Ernie – 93. Just two neighbours, and family sitting shoulder to shoulder in a freezing cold church, and Aunt J from the other side who never knowingly missed a free sandwich. Everyone else was dead.

So, you look around at your friends – real and virtual and you try to work out who’ll be next, who’s got the death mask on, who’s unlucky, who’s got the tinge of grey around the eyes, who’s ready for the chop?  And you can’t decide.  And then, inevitably, I drift back to DN and wonder how someone so vital, so real, so committed could have come and gone.

It’s not like he’s the first of my friends to go before their time, either.  There was CM too who died pushing his child up a hill in a pram, died before he’d hit the ground – the day before Prince William married Kate what’s her name, a public holiday and then, such an outpouring of pain for such a brilliant man who meant to change the world, and would have done it given a bit more chance.  That word again.  54 he was, 54.  Nothing in today’s money.

The church was rammed for his funeral because we were all still alive and the eulogy so profoundly sad that the only way to survive it was to put on a brave face and not move it either left or right.

Two things I recall, a slightly over-smiley colleague of his who made me feel uneasy, who I was later persuaded to employ (against my better judgement, wisely as it turns out – never trust someone who smiles so fully when all about are numb with so much pain they can barely raise an eyebrow) and his young partner, smoking outside the wake, strangely located and dislocated at the same time.

And the recollections that haunt you: further fragments.  Him, laughing heartily at the card attached to our door, “Do not meddle in the affairs of cats, for they are subtle and will piss on your computer.” (Elmo Gethin), and then later, kneeling in the back conservatory, worried about the rescue chickens who looked oven-ready.

I often think of him and his decency and ambition and his belief in a better future: his passion and advocacy.  Instead, like DN, it ended all too soon, and his plans atrophied then died with him. “He wanted to be your close friend,” his partner later told me – but what’s the good of that information after the event?

Because death always rings with things you could or should have said, or might or should have done or moments when the path could have taken a different route.  It was ever thus: hence my chequered history.  My complex chequered history with the great leveller and the measuring out of heart beats.