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.

No Country for Old Women

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Mrs Swift wasn’t.  In fact, she hardly moved at all.  Her main journey seemed to be from the kitchen to the living room and back again.  She must have gone upstairs, but I never witnessed this. There was probably a time, years before, when she left the house. But something had happened to stop her.  And, aside from one occasion, she lived her life within the confines of her house on St Matthews Street.

Mrs Swift was the standard issue older woman of my memory: sober dress, wrap-a-round pinny with her grey hair permed or demi-waved.  The only woman who deviated from this template was Purple-Haired Lady who lived alone on Chomley Street.  She had been a professional.  A ‘professional’ what I couldn’t say.  The vibrant mauve gave her a certain swagger which my sister and I admired.  The rest, all the old women of my childhood, looked exactly like Mrs Swift.  They were women born at the turn of the century or in the previous one and had survived the great depression only to hurtle into a war-time of austerity that clung to them like dust. They were resilient.

One such survivor was the old lady who lived directly opposite us.  She had lived in the street, it transpired, longer than anyone.  Each day, dressed in a flimsy mucus-coloured mac, and a green hat at a death-defying angle, she would leave her house to go to town.  Her shopping bag, brown and misshapen, hovered an inch above the ground.  She seemed tiny. I don’t know where she went on those trips, but I do remember her determined walk and wondered how a woman could be so bent and still manage to put one foot in front of the other. When she died, my mother and her friend Alice, laid her out.  It transpired she was 98, had lived without her husband for 48 years and always in the same house.  She had also once been 5’8″.  My mother told me this with a kind of wonder as though she’d witnessed a miracle after seeing her finally straightened.

My mother worked in the fish and chip shop on Airlie Street and this gave her a special status that was a combination of agony aunt and social worker.  Mr Swift, who seemed to me to be austere, went to buy his and Mrs Swift’s supper twice a week.  My mother asked the sort of questions that allowed people to talk, deftly providing a platform for sharing.  That was how she discovered Mrs Swift’s agoraphobia. After that, she always gave him extra chips.

“I don’t suppose he mentioned the affairs that drove her to it?” Alice, who also worked in the chippy, said.  My mother dismissed this as salacious gossip. Not Mr Swift, he seemed a proper gentleman.

On a Tuesday and a Thursday, like clockwork, Mr Swift came in.  He wore his overcoat and trilby hat whatever the weather. And then, suddenly, he stopped. First one week, then another.  When it got to four weeks, my mother took action.

Taking her courage in both hands, she went and knocked on the Swift’s front door.  It opened enough to reveal a sliver of Mrs Swift’s face.

“Is everything okay love?” My mother said.  “It’s just I’ve been serving your husband for years at the chippy and I’ve missed him.”

The door opened and having been quickly ushered inside the whole sorry story came out. Not the why of it, of course, but the how and what.

Mr Swift had had a colossal stroke.  The front room had been converted to a bedroom, and that was where Mr Swift was sleeping. Each day, Mrs Swift would wash and dress him, and get him to the toilet via a walking frame of sorts. He would spend the rest of the day in his chair in the middle room watching a silent television.  He could not speak but grunt, each one rumbling like an earthquake from him. His noises meant nothing to the untrained ear.

“Our Matthew has been here,” Mrs Swift said, “But he has an important job and can only come once a week. At best.”

“Who’s doing your shopping, love?” My mother asked which was how she came to volunteer.  Twice a week she would go around, tap out a special code of a knock before going in, gather the list and sort the Swifts out.  Mrs Swift would insist on paying a few pounds for this service and after repeated arguments my mother would accept the coins for the sake of peace.

Somewhere along the line, this job came to me.  This must have been in the holidays and at weekends (where the mysterious Matthew would fail to make an appearance), I would go round, rap the special tattoo, and enter the house.  At first, I was terrified of Mr Swift because he growled and if you were unlucky enough to encounter him standing, which was a feat of engineering that barely seemed possible, you worried for your life.  As time moved on I got used to him, but the fear never really left me. I didn’t have my mother’s qualms about accepting the payment.

At 6am one morning there was a loud knock on our front door.  It was already a bright sunny day, and my father grumbled his way downstairs.  There was a dark, shadowy figure that could be made out through the frosted glass and the banging was getting increasingly urgent.  It was Mrs Swift.

She was dressed for winter.  Black coat, black hat, black – probably Sunday – dress.

“Do you want to come in love?” my mother was saying.

Mrs Swift was clear that she did not – and looking behind her with every other word – she somehow communicated to my mother that her husband had died over night and she needed the ambulance.  She was saturated with sweat and shaking.

She left then, and I watched her walk down the deserted street in ill-fitting court shoes as though a whole army of not very nice men were chasing her.

In truth, Mrs Swift was lighter and more at ease with the world with her husband gone, as if a weight had been lifted.  She would hint at what this was but never say much of anything at all, and I didn’t have the imagination or the experience to analyse what had caused her deep anxiety, what had made her lock herself away.   She would laugh and joke when I brought her three bottles of stout from the beer-off, and sometimes ask me if I fancied a sip.  The other thing she did was offer me one of her butter-mint bonbons which she bought every week (after that, I stopped pinching one from the bag on the way home from Pawson’s.)

We would enjoy an exchange about her shopping list.  I’d query what some of her writing said, and Mrs Swift would take out her large box of glasses and try one on for size until she happened upon a pair that meant she could see.   One time I asked her where they all came from and she said, mysteriously, “the dead.”

I only occasionally resented having to do the old girl’s shopping and I did it every week until I left for university. I never met her son Matthew but she was very proud of him, his achievements, and those of her two grandchildren who smiled out of posed photographs on the piano.

One day, Clive, the milkman, who still pushed a trolley around the streets to make his delivery, noticed Mrs Swift hadn’t taken her milk in. He knocked, the special knock, but the door was bolted on the inside.  He knelt and looked through the letter box and could see her at the top of the stairs.  He hefted the door with his shoulder until it gave way.

Mrs Swift had died the night before, of natural causes, wearing someone else’s glasses.

84 Stitches

FullSizeRenderThree days before the summer holiday when I was  nearly 9 years old I fell through a greenhouse and sliced my leg in two. A half moon red-faced chunk of a smile stared back at me when I looked down and some of my leg seemed to be missing. Quite a large bit of it, as it happens. I knew I was in trouble. Not just with Mr Cundill for messing up his greenhouse, and not just my mother – who would be furious with the state of my shorts – but really, really in trouble. Not being able to walk trouble. And if I couldn’t walk that meant I couldn’t run. Not running was trouble.

Tracey Cundill was mouthing words at me but I wasn’t catching them. I turned my head to the side and really stared. Was Tracey actually even speaking to me? Tracey pointed to me then the greenhouse and then my leg and then she screamed.

“I’m sorry about the greenhouse,” I said.

There was glass everywhere.  Really, a whole window of glass.  It was a mess and when I looked I noticed that there were spots of my blood all over Mr Cundill’s tomatoes.

They probably wouldn’t be able to eat them.

“I’m sorry about the tomatoes,” I said.

Tracey went through the same pointing and screaming routine at least twice more and then she left. It wasn’t like her to be so incoherent: she was one of the cleverest girls in my class.  It was, however, typical of Tracey to run away and just as typical that she was going to tell my mother that it wasn’t her fault that I’d come a cropper in her yard.  Neither Michaela nor Dawn, my other friends, would have done that to me. They’d have stuck with me through thick and thin, they’d have let me tell my mother my own story. They’d have at least tried to help me get home. Tracey always had an eye for the main chance.  She was a survivor.

I shifted my weight on to my good leg and then started to work out how I could drag the gaping one across Tracey’s yard, over the road and into my own yard. Once I got going it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. Slow, but also not as sore as I thought a gaping hole should be. It didn’t hurt that much at all. Not that I could look at it any more – because the last time I did I saw yellowy cream bits in there and that scared me.

When I was halfway across the road I could hear Tracey shouting; “Mrs B, Mary has broken her leg!”

“Where is she love?” I heard my mam say.

“She’s walking across the road!”

And then I heard my mam laugh, a big belly laugh that echoed all round the street. At least she was in a good mood I thought. At least she wouldn’t actually kill me.

My mother stopped laughing as soon as she saw it. Her face crumpled like a dishcloth. She swore quite a bit too. I knew it was best to wait until she was through with all that before I spoke… Then the questions came thick and fast. There were lots of questions about what I’d done to myself and what I was playing at that I couldn’t answer. The blood had started to pool around my ankle and my sock which had been pristine white, was now red. My mother disappeared and I heard a call to the emergency services. She didn’t scream, which was a bonus.

“Why are you  standing out there for?” my mam said.

“I’m not messing up your floor, mam.” I felt brave, superhuman.

“I don’t care about the floor,” she said.

She did care about the floor though; and the towel, that we threw between us for a while.

“Use the towel love, to stem the flow.”

“No.” I said.  This was the most defiant I had ever been.

We were still passing the towel between us when the ambulance men arrived.

“Blimey – got a bit of a scratch have you darling?”

“Always been the master of understatement Dave,” his mate said in the direction of my mother.

Dave started to bandage my leg.  It felt tight.

“You’d better get your stuff love… and some night clothes for Flossie Teacake here.”

“I’m called Mary,” I said.

When we got into the street a crowd had gathered around the blue flashing lights of the ambulance. There was a traffic jam of people. Me – in a wheelchair now – waved to everyone. It was like being a celebrity and I knew as we drew away I would be the talk of the neighbourhood. Everyone would know the story by the end of the day and those who didn’t would make up the details. By the end of the week no doubt I would have had my leg amputated three times and re-attached – or I’d have had a leg transplant and would have one leg permanently longer than the other.

There was some kerfuffle when we finally arrived in A and E.  Firstly, I’d had sweets which meant that I couldn’t be put to sleep.  Secondly, and inexplicably, I told my mother that I wanted my dad.  I knew this had wounded her, but I had no idea just how deeply this had hit her until years and years later, when she confessed it to me when she thought that she might die of cancer.  She didn’t, and I spent the 30 years following that feeling like an utter moron for saying such a thing.  I was 8.  I was weak. And I was a daddy’s girl.

The details were bad but I had been lucky. The doctors said I’d missed the main artery by two millimetres. I didn’t really know what a main artery was but I could tell by the way the doctor looked at me a bit ashen and downbeat that it was a good thing I’d missed it. I stared back and forth between my mam and dad, who looked as though they hadn’t slept for a week and they smiled weakly. I was alive.  I’d never noticed my mam’s grey hair until then or the lines on my dad’s face particularly around his eyes.

At about midnight, I was deemed fit enough to go down to theatre.  My mother and my father had gone home, and I recall the tribe of doctors and nurses who steered the trolley I was on down the corridor.  The taste of the rubber from the mask is a distinct but thankfully distant memory: I was told to count myself to sleep. When I awoke, I’d had 84 stitches.  61 inside and 23 outside.  If this doesn’t seem that many think of the average 8 year old’s leg. I was very lucky.

The next day my brother and sister had arrived.

“You’re alive then,” my brother, K said, “I had to clean up the blood with Laurie next door. It was everywhere.”

My sister, KM brought me a comic. And didn’t say very much.

“There was flesh and stuff. Up the walls. Everywhere. Wouldn’t go down the drain. Everywhere. You know you’ve had a blood transfusion – that means you’ve got someone else’s blood in you. It could be an evil murderer. Or a Zombie.” K was excited.

“You’re only jealous,” I looked at KM. “Are you okay?”

“I should have been looking after you,” she said. “I’m supposed to keep my eye on you.”

“It could be a vampire’s. Or a werewolf’s. You’ll probably howl at the moon from now on whenever it’s full. It could be a crazed lunatic’s or a Druid or something.”

“It’s probably just the butcher’s,” I said.

Tracey and Dawn visited that evening. Their parents were very good – and Mr Cundill didn’t shout at me for messing up his greenhouse. He said that he’d given my mother some beetroot and would be taking the rest of the greenhouse down. “I didn’t know it was dangerous,” he said apologetically as he and Dawn’s mam retreated to the waiting room to give the us girls ‘space.’

“It’s only dangerous if you’re standing on it.” I said.

“He’s really upset.” Tracey looked around. “It smells a bit funny in here.”

“Probably thought he was going to be sued.” Dawn said. Tracey frowned as if to say he didn’t but didn’t speak.

“Can I see your scar?” Dawn was not backwards in coming forwards.

“It’s wrapped up. I haven’t seen it meself yet.”

“Me mam said you’d had 84 stitches. She said that’s more than you cast on for a jumper!”

“Where’s Michaela?”

I noticed a slight waver in Tracey’s stare. I looked at her, but she did not waver again.

“She’s not very well.” Dawn said. “Got a headache.”

“Is she going to come up to see me?”

They didn’t answer and talked about school instead – about the excitement of the last day of the year coming up, that I would miss.

A succession of people did come up to the hospital to see me – Uncle John and Aunt Vi brought me ten bars of chocolate which my mam said I would have to share with K and KM (which wasn’t fair), my teacher – Mrs Sweeney – gave me a jigsaw. Aunt Vic sent me a bundle of colouring stuff bought cheap off the market (“Probably fall to bits in a matter of seconds,” my mam said, curtly). Mrs Binchy from next door bought me some fruit, and my mam didn’t say I would need to share that! Loads of people came, but Michaela never did.

There was a very good reason for this, of course…

(To be continued…)

 

Shadows

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Still reeling from a drama I didn’t fully understand which featured my normally (at least outside the house) mild-mannered mother yelling uncontrollably at the head teacher about the shame caused by the label pinned to my jumper on my first day at school: ‘has fits’, I made my way innocently to the toilets.

Neither did I fully understand the nuance of what my mother had been yelling but I’d picked up something about public humiliation, something about discretion being the better part of valour (or Valerie – which my father always said), and something about how my mother assumed that the other children could actually read, this being a school where education occasionally happened?

“It’s probably already too late!  You’ve probably made a laughing stock of my child.” I’d looked at my mother in awe: I didn’t remember her standing up for me in quite this fashion before although I was concerned that she was making the kind of first impression that wouldn’t serve me well in the long-term.

I was thinking this as I entered the toilets.  This was 1970, and Constable Street Primary School was an old Victorian building with a few utilitarian 1960s additions.  The main feature of the playground was the wall wrapped around the infant building. Babbapapa and Babbamama had been painted on one wall in garish pinks and black.  Also, the entrance to the toilets was outside: built in stone, it curved round, and, from memory, a single light served half a dozen stalls. It was cold.  And it was not a place for the faint hearted: the shadows danced along the walls.

I have an older brother and an older sister so I did possess a general awareness of threat: when you’re the youngest (as I was then) you tend to keep your eyes peeled, have a sense of something imminent that follows you around, a menance,  and you tend to be on the lookout for the demands coming down the line to you (I had, cleverly, adopted two tactics to avoid doing things: pretend I couldn’t do it OR cry and run away.  I had major successes with both approaches.)

It was dark in the toilets and I knew, immediately, that I was in trouble.  Three girls appeared.  One was a girl called Wiggy: I didn’t know that then, I just knew she was wearing a blue knitted bonnet that was really too small for her head which from the angle I was looking at her, made it seem unnaturally shrunken.   There was not a trace of hair on her head. She was also very tall. The other two were Hilton girls: one of them, Kim, was stocky – and I knew instinctively, as birds know the moments before the sun rises, that she was to be feared, that she was to be avoided. Like the plague.

“Now then,” Kim said.  I think the older girl was probably her sister.  She was taller, but otherwise indistinguishable.  The only thing I knew about the Hilton clan was that there had been 24 of them – 24 children in one family.  I’d given this a passing thought: we struggled to get into the bathroom in a morning, so how they managed it was anyone’s guess.

“Now then,” Kim said again.  “You’ve got fits?”  This was phrased as a question but I sensed that she was not expecting an answer.  I thought about crying.  I thought about running away. I thought about how this might be my only way out of the situation.  I looked from one girl to the other to try and see what the right answer might be.  Kim smiled: if I’d had teeth like hers, bright white, I’d have smiled all day.  Kim Hilton did not smile all day, her default position was simmering rage.

“Have one then,” she said.  Kim was not making a joke. Kim did not make jokes.

The thing about having fits, from what I can remember, is you have no idea what happens or what it looks like because you’re busy having a fit not observing it from a distance for a later date when someone commands you do it on demand.

So, I lay down on the cold concrete, and started to shake.  Vigorously.

At that point, my sister came in. My sister who did often hate me hanging around all the time and who generally got fed up of me said, “What’s going on?”

“She’s having a fit,” Kim Hilton said, matter of factly.

“I think that’s enough now.” My sister said.

Miraculously I made a full recovery. My performance had been enough to satisfy them for the moment.  “Alright” Kim said, and walked away. Wiggy and the other Hilton girl followed. Kim would hover at the edge of my playtime daily, waiting for me to go into the toilets.  I did not make the same mistake twice.

I often saw Kim Hilton out and about around Chomley Street and down the Boulevard where her family lived.  She and Wiggy were often companions, and, when I did see them, I did invariably find something really interesting to look at in the opposite direction.  Lots of members of the family had a reputation for hitting first and then – if the mood took them – considering later.

My next serious encounter with Kim was not one of my finest moments.  A couple of years later, when I was about 7, my sister and I were looking after two smaller children.  Kim, for no better reason than she fancied a bit of sport, swaggered towards us.  Words passed between my sister and Kim, and possibly me, that quickly escalated into World War 3.  I did what any self-respecting survivor would do: I ran away.  Yes, I left my sister with two small children and ran.  This is not something I’m especially proud of, and I accept I did not cover myself in glory but it taught me an important lesson… flight is a legitimate tactic even if it appears selfish, even if your sister reminds you of it for the next 150 years.

One  time, one of the Hilton children was knocked over in the street, a pure accident – cars were infrequent at that time, and there was much less need for speed.  The child had simply stepped into the road.  This was not how the Hiltons saw it. They were totally committed to each other, a tight-knit clan who were fiercely loyal, and would do anything if that commitment was questioned or challenged, who would do anything if something (or someone) came between them.   Clearly, I did not match that level of loyalty. I was too frightened for that.  Too cowardly. After the ambulance had taken the child to the hospital, the family turned on the car driver, 20 of them rocking his vehicle from side to side, as the guilty man, Mr  Fairhead, sat inside it, terrified for his life.  This level of threat cloaked them like an aura, like a veil – they had an undercurrent of hostility that rested among them like legionella, invisible but lethal.

That anger never left Kim Hilton.  Years later, I saw her rugby tackled by a police officer after she had allegedly stolen a few packets of biscuits from the shopping centre on Bransholme housing estate.  The police roughed her up unnecessarily, and in my student inspired hopes for a better world, I was outraged by the brutality that she was subject to. She swore black was blue as a knee in her back held her flat to the floor.

Brutality was a world Kim understood.  She was often angry and provocative. And that, in part, contributed to her death. On that particular day, Kim and her then girlfriend began drinking strong lager at lunch time.  The drunker they got, the more Kim’s partner convinced herself that Kim was having an affair. The argument raged on and off all day, with Kim being punched, and then, later each viciously shouting at the other in the street, before going their separate ways.

At midnight, or thereabouts, the partner, Andrea, returned with an iron bar as a weapon and managed to get herself into Kim’s flat.  All those years of fight, had stood the test of time, and Kim was never going to do the coward’s thing, and run away.  Instead, she fronted up and disarmed Andrea, taking the weapon she’d brought to smack her, and placing it out of harm’s way.  But the fight did not end there. Neighbours shouted for the women to shut up…and then silence came – still in a rage, Andrea grabbed a knife and stabbed Kim Hilton through the heart.  She died straight away, her rage fading away with her shadow.

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.