Wendy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me neither,” Wendy said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elvis (and all that jazz)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Helga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Traces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Out of the Depths…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Better Tomorrow?

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

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

-o0o-

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

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

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

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

-o0o-

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

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

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

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

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

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,

That saved a wretch like me

I once was lost, but now I’m found

Twas blind, but now I see…

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

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

-o0o-

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

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

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

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

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

“Eternal father strong to save,

Whose arm doth bind the restless wave,

Who biddst the mighty ocean deep

Its own appointed limits keep,

Oh hear us when we cry to Thee,

for those in peril on the sea.”

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

-o0o-

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Big Impossible

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Michaela Tobin was my best friend.  She sat beside me at school and a week or so before I fell through the greenhouse, she disappeared.  She never came to see me.

It would be a lie to say she didn’t come to the hospital.  She was right there all the time.  Not that anyone ever told me. Even when I was in the very next ward, and a bit sad about her absence, no one thought to mention it.  No one thought to say anything at all.

That was the way it was in the 70s. 

For years, I fantasised that I could shift across time and space and change that outcome, that I could see her and tell her everything I needed to, but it’s the big impossible: you are either in the moment or you are nowhere at all. You exist neither in the past nor the future. But still I imagined I could go back and change it: not the falling through a greenhouse bit, I never sought that but over and over again I imagined ways to connect with Michaela, to speak to her, to say all that I’d meant to.

The fantasy often went like this: somehow I’d get wind of her illness or her dying.  Someone let it slip. And I’d make the trip to see her: alone or with Dawn, my other friend.  Somehow I’d be magicked to Michaela’s side.  It was improbable, a falsehood, but over and over I worked the story so that sometimes I even believed it was true.

Here it is:

The air was crowded with noise, pipping, buzzing and electronic sounds, and it was white, pure, pure white – a bit how I imagined heaven. I checked I was still breathing. Down the corridor there were a number of doors leading to rooms, some open to reveal patients attached by wires to machines, not moving. No flowers, no animated conversations just people looking sad at other people in beds. All patients looked the same: nearly dead or so fast asleep an earthquake wouldn’t shift them.   There were machines with accordion like actions, others with screens with information that must mean something to someone. I felt my breathing adjust to the rhythm of the place.

“Can I help you?” A tall, thin nurse looked down on us. She looked like she’d inhaled sherbet.

To be fair we must have looked a sight – two girls, one on crutches, and the other in big framed glassed wearing a ruck sack that she could have been folded into.

It was a good question though. Could she help us? Would she help us?

“You might be able to.” I said.

Was that cheeky? Dawn grinned.

The nurse crossed her arms. They were like snakes as they curled one over the other against her non-existent belly. She had fine white skin, a lot of freckles and ginger hair. “Well?” she said, finally.

“We’ve come to see our friend, Miss.” I said.

“Have you now? And who is your friend exactly?”

I wondered if there were so many children tied up to machines in this place that the nurse couldn’t guess who we belonged to.   How sad, I thought. How very, very sad. I looked round again. We were quite far onto the ward but wherever Michaela was she wasn’t visible. She’d been in my head so powerfully, but now I couldn’t hear her.

“That would be Michaela is it?” The nurse said. Green eyes – staring into us as though the neat sides of our real lives weren’t there. There would be no secrets in my life from now on, I thought, no secrets at all. Ever. I would always tell the truth, even if it wasn’t the smartest move.

“Yes,” Dawn said, “And Mary’s walked all the way on crutches and her leg hurts. And we’ve no sandwiches left. But we’ve got chocolate.”

“Are you hands sore, Mary?” The nurse asked.

“They’re okay.”

It’s not about me, I thought.

It was just Dawn and me in the corridor, just us and the nurse. I looked up and straight into those green eyes. Feel bad for me, I thought. I could have died. I could have been in these rooms. It could have been me you were looking after. I could have been Michaela. But for those two millimetres…that meant I avoided the main artery.

“Michaela can’t do visitors really.”

“We only want to see her, that’s all. We know she can’t talk.”

Should I cry? That sort of thing usually worked with grown ups.

The nurse looked behind us – did they have security? Was she about to call them?

“Are you sure that her mam said you could come?”

We did not speak.

“Because so far only her family have been and then really only her mam and dad.”

“I never asked,” I said.

“The thing is,” Dawn was saying, “We’re already in a lot of trouble and it would be a shame if we were grounded for the rest of our lives and we didn’t even see her.”

“Thank you,” the nurse said, “Thank you for telling the truth.”

“We’re her school friends. Mary sat next to her because they’re both clever but not quite as clever as Tracey though and I’m not that clever at all.”

“We are as clever as Tracey – just not suck ups like her. And you are clever Dawn Geraldine Matthews.”

“Not as clever as you.”

The door opened behind them.

“What in God’s name are you two doing here?”

The girls turned slowly as if to face a firing squad.

“We came to see Michaela.” Just the truth.  From now on, only that.

I thought for a minute that Mrs Tobin would cry. She looked so tied.

“She’s…not here.”

“I’ve been thinking about her all the time – because she didn’t come when I hurt my leg and then no one would say anything. And if I’d known she was here, I could have popped in. I had loads of spare time on the ward. I just had some rubbish colouring in and a jigsaw puzzle that didn’t fit on my table.”

“Say anything?” Mrs Tobin frowned. She was so beautiful – lovely black hair cascading down her back, her skin so pale it was almost see-through, light blue eyes.

“No one would talk about her.” I said then ran out of words.

“How did you know?” Mrs Tobin trailed off. She looked at the nurse, smiled weakly – then she stepped properly into the corridor. She knelt in front of me.

“How is your leg?” She asked.

“Getting better now.”

“I hear you were lucky.”

I didn’t feel it.

Mrs Tobin looked down. She shrugged, then with another smile she said,

“Michaela isn’t the same. She’s heavily sedated – she’s sleeping really. She might be able to hear us but we don’t know.”

“Sleeping all the time?”

“Yes…she’s…she’s…she’s got something called a brain tumour which means that something’s gone wrong in her head, and that it’s growing inside her and she’s not really with us now.”

“Where is she then?” It was Dawn.

“It’s a good question…I hope she’s making a path to another life.”

I looked at Mrs Tobin, “You mean she’s going to die?”

“Yes love, she is.”

I fought back the tears then, “When?”

“I don’t know love. All her body is still quite well.”

It was quiet now, apart from the beep and swoosh of machines – all four of us a tableaux of concentration.

“Please can we see her?” I asked. “There’s stuff we need to tell her.”

Mrs Tobin looked to the ceiling.

“Okay then,” she said.

Mrs Tobin swept past the nurse – and we followed on.

The room was clinical although she’d tried to make it look more like Michaela’s bedroom, with limited success. I recognised a teddy, and some other things: knick-knacks.

Michaela was totally still – is that what sedated meant? There were tubes going every which way, and the gentle pulse of the machines: it was a complex mix of things, none of which I understood. I imagined that Mrs Tobin would hear the noises forever, late at night when the world slept her mind would be invaded by a buzz and a pop and a whoosh.

I looked directly at Michaela.

Dawn stood beside me, all her challenge and bravery had stalled – she looked at her shoes, which were scuffed along the toes. She stayed beside the door, as I moved into the room, afraid to come closer in case she broke anything. She carried on wearing her rucksack.

“Will she wake up?” I asked Mrs Tobin.

“No love.” She looked away and I was sorry I’d asked a stupid question.

“Do they switch the lights off at night, Mrs Tobin?” I said aloud.

“No love. There isn’t really a night here. There’s just one time. All time. Just time, ticking through.” She paused.

“You can hold her hand love – she seems to like that. Perhaps you could tell her about school?”

“We’re not at school yet. There’s another week or so to go.”

Up close, Michaela seemed a bit fatter in the face than she had done – how was that? But her body was tiny, like a little bird curled up in its nest.

I picked up her hand and not knowing what to do, stroked it slowly. There was no sign that Michaela noticed, but I carried on.

I’m going to get in such mighty trouble for you, I thought and who knew that that was even possible? Michaela, the best-behaved girl ever, causing all this fuss.

“I’ve been talking to you – in my head. I’ve been hearing you, listening to you, waiting for you and now I don’t know what to say. Can you hear me? Can you?”

I closed my eyes. The skin of my friend’s hand was cool, but not cold. I remembered when we started school – reception class, waiting for dinners that we’d both  hated, hand in hand.

There were so many words.

“Mary and Dawn have come to see you,” Mrs Tobin said.

I took a deep breath and dived in.

“I’ve missed you mate,” I said, “although we haven’t done much because of my leg. I fell through a greenhouse. And Mrs Sweeney came to see me – after school – and she was wearing a lime green polo neck, you wouldn’t have liked it. Everyone’s been very nice though – even though I’ve been rubbish to them – even K. We had a whole conversation once. He does say I’ve got men’s blood though, because of the blood transfusion and that one day I’ll turn into a werewolf or something. But that’s his weird way of showing he loves me – at least I think that’s what that is. KM’s just been moody but that’s her age, me mam says.”

I stopped. Mrs Tobin smiled. So I started again.

“I’ve had to do all this physiotherapy with a woman called Julie and I think she quite likes causing pain. She says, “No pain, no going on the rowing machine.” I’m not that bothered by the machines but I do want to walk again. I have to go every other Wednesday now. I’m going to be the only girl who wears trousers in school – and that’s good innit? I’ll be able to climb.”

Mrs Tobin was wide-eyed.

“Well, maybe not climb – that might not be the best idea – right not….” I dried up then.

“It’s fine to say whatever you want Mary. I say all sorts. I tell her what we have for tea, stuff off the telly… all sorts. Mr Tobin thinks I’m mad. Yesterday I even told her the contents of my shopping list.”

So I started again, talking ten to the dozen about nothing very much – I talked until my mouth ran dry.

“She’s probably saying ‘for God’s sake Mary shut up!’ in her head! Won’t she think it’s a bit boring? ”

“Who knows love? I don’t know if she can hear – but if she can, hearing friendly voices has got to be better than this.” She gestured to the room.

The beeps kept coming whether we spoke a lot or a little, the machines kept working.

“How long will she be here, Mrs Tobin?”

“They can’t say. May be a day. May be a week. May be a month.”

“A month?”   It was the first thing Dawn had said. “You have to come every day?”

“I don’t have to love.”

“I don’t like it much,” Dawn said.

“Neither do I!”

“Sorry.” Dawn opened the door and stepped outside. There was a silence then.

“Should I say goodbye?”

“You could. Or you could do what the French do… They say au revoir. It means until we see each other again, goodbye for now.”

“I’ll say that then. Can I come another time and see her?”

“I don’t know love, may be. But if you say au revoir then it’s always possible, in this life or another one.”

“Do you believe in another one?”

“Sometimes.” Mrs Tobin said.

I moved closer to Michaela again. I looked at my friend but it was not my friend really. She was bloated in the head, like her skin was stretched, and she couldn’t smile. Her eyes were shut, she was still.

She wasn’t dead but I knew then that the essence of Michaela had already gone.