Unassuming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

None.

But more sadness though.

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

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

She said nothing to no-one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Road Less Travelled…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We were always there for her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

The World Breaks Everyone…

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If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them.  The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.  But those that will not break it kills.  It kills the very good and the very gentle and very brave impartially.  If you are none of these you can be sure that it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” Ernest Hemmingway

(This week a friend of mine was buried. ‘Friend’, such a loose term to describe so many relationships.  This woman was somewhere between a friend and a colleague.  At funder’s meetings it was us against the big boys: us taking a mocking pop at their privilege, laughing quietly as they wondered how they’d manage without X thousands, when we only had X thousands to lose.  And then, the company she’d developed from nothing lost all of its funding – which she found inexplicable – and so, she retired, gracefully.  She was in her late 50s then.  Without warning she disappeared off her social media channels and, in the way of these things, we discovered she’d had a terrible illness followed by an accident where she pulled a tray of hot fat from the oven onto her legs.  So a mate and I made a version of the badger video – a joke we shared about not sleeping and a misheard line about badges – which featured us instead of those little black and white critters, as a get well soon (though it’s hard to imagine now how we thought this would help!) She made a full recovery, in spite of our video, and then she returned full-throttle in the real and virtual worlds directing her vitriol on those who deserved it – her last Facebook post hours before she died poked fun at Trump and May.  She was witty and funny and clever and I will miss her.  She was never broken by life but it killed her all the same.)

The World Breaks Everyone

Lily was slight and, for want of a better word, shriveled.  She was curled up in the chair nearest the bay window in the house she shared with her sister Nelly, but did not speak beyond a whispered hello and once, “don’t touch that child.”  After that, she barely acknowledged our presence at all, largely, I suspect, because she did not know we were there.  The crocheted blanket made of bright squares seemed to trap her in place; she was neatly tucked in, held down.  She looked beyond the room as if she was remembering a time before she was confined to it.

Nelly, on the other hand, was robust.  She was 5′ 7 or 8″ and broad shouldered.  She had an air of practicality and, whenever we arrived, she seemed to go into hyper-drive.  It was my father – even Lily perked up when she heard his voice. They both loved him.  This love extended to us although it was rare for us to go to their house.  This was something my father did, on a Sunday.  When we did go, the table would be laden with large scones, cream and jam or cakes and orange squash. It was a challenge to balance all of these things on a lap under the scrutiny of Nelly, but we’d manage it.  When our refreshments were through, we’d go out in their garden to play…in the corner there was an Anderson shelter which was cool inside and pitch dark.  It doubled as a den.

Nelly and Lily were my father’s aunts – somewhere there was an uncle, Mark, and another aunt too – who’d married a semi-professional rugby player – but those two did not hold a place in my father’s heart in the same way.  The sisters – referred to by society at that time as ‘spinsters’ –  lived down Lomond Road off Springbank West, a hop and a skip from where dad had grown up and as a child I could not imagine why they’d mattered so much to him.  But there was a deep bond between them all, a co-dependency.  Lily and Nelly, I assumed, were the women left uncoupled by the war, with partners lost or in for a quick dalliance and then gone for good back to wives elsewhere.  They seemed sad, lost. I didn’t know. Nelly always seemed to me to be formidable – scary even, whilst the unconnected and unresponsive Lily, benign. I was wrong.

One time my grandfather, Ernie, related to the sisters by marriage to Florence, my grandmother, told me the truth.  Lily was a demon.  She was utterly unforgiving and very popular with men. And she knew it, he said.  She would cast a spell and entice them in and then, when they were hooked, she’d let them go: she was a woman before her time.  After that, I looked at her disbelievingly – how could this tiny, shrunken creature be as he described?  It taught me important lessons: things are not always as they seem and that there is a back-story to everyone that you’ll never truly know.  She could be harsh, cruel.  “I never really liked her,” Ernie said, “and she didn’t like me.  She broke the world as if it was a wild horse, which is fine, but then there should always be room to be kind.  Not Lily.  She got her kick in first. Every time.”

I was shocked by what seemed to be anger.  It spoke of something else – something disapproving which was ironic given Ernie’s history as the playboy of the western world. And Nelly?

“The sweetest woman in the world.  Always so giving and gentle,” Ernie said, “But the love of her life was taken from her grasp.  Too nice. Too, too nice.”  He lit a cigar and inhaled deeply and said nothing else. He’d tantalisingly left a door onto the past ajar, but nothing more…

And then I knew.  Lily.  Ernie never said and I didn’t ask. But I knew it was Lily.  It was what Lily would had done, this taking from her softer sister. And I imagined how she’d be with this dalliance, a plaything cast aside after she’d finished and lives broken with all trust gone. And Nelly was to never love again. Was she broken? In any case, Nelly picked up the pieces, practical, kind and decent and made the best of things. I often imagined what the conversations were like between them over all those years that they lived together in that tiny house or if they ever spoke of it again, but it was beyond my experience.

As they set towards middle-age, and Lily’s power waned, my father became a bigger and bigger part of their lives. He’d pop round, make himself useful, build shelves and mend things, generally looking out for them.  In return they fed him and loved him unconditionally.  Who wouldn’t thrive in that situation, and who wouldn’t return time and time again?  It was an escape for him – an escape from the step-father who was in his way and who he, naturally, hated for a time.

Then Lily died and no one really spoke much of her again.

Nelly soldiered on.  And dad, loyal to the very end, would go round taking one or two of us with him.  He’d sort her garden, fix her door, work out why a cupboard was sticking or decorate her living room. She’d smile and laugh and chat about the week that had gone.

And then, before too long, Nelly died too.  Dad packed up her house and the linen that they’d used became our linen, towels and sheets and so on.  Until very recently we still used Auntie Nelly’s stuff.   Her financial legacy got me through the first year at university – mostly I purchased LPs with it (I was not sure she would have approved.) But it was always Auntie Nelly’s this or that and never both: as though Lily came and left a trace, yes, a shrunken memory, but because she was neither very good nor very gentle nor brave her life was, mostly, erased whilst Nelly’s lived on.

 

 

 

Ripple Effect

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“For each life stolen, more than a dozen people need immediate and ongoing support…Homicide’s tentacles stretch into every area of its victims’ lives and beyond into the wider community.”
News.com.au, accessed 2nd July, 2017

My father is a great believer in patronising local businesses.  This means that when you want a service it should still be there – at least that was his theory.  For many years, in fact through most of my childhood, my dad cycled to work – I once calculated the sum for how many times he cycled past (almost 50,000) Sculcoate’s Lane corner – the street the factory he worked in was situated.  There in the morning, and back home for dinner then a return trip, followed by the hard cycle back home again after the grind of the day.  He rode a yellow racing bike with a fixed wheel: once I tried to master this in the back alley of our house and still have the scars.  Another time, he cycled all the way to work with our cat in his saddle bag.  Now, at 81, he proves the medics right: exercise helps – he has smoked and drunk, but he is still as fit as a fiddle.

When I was 14, dad learned to drive.  His first car was a red Cortina Estate, the car of a family man.  It was a beast of a car and could accommodate all four of his children and enough luggage to take us on holiday to Scarborough.  (Facts: my brother T was sick and my mother – annoyingly – requisitioned my Hallmark paper bag with Snoopy on to catch it, and, after throwing it from the car window,  the bag split so T’s spew splattered across the whole of the back window the rest of the journey and – to add insult to injury – my sister KM (aged 15 and a half), desperate to go to the toilet, lost control of her bladder whilst dad was looking for somewhere straight-forward to park.  My mother bought her a pair of hideous trousers from Boyes’ in Scarborough to replace the wet ones that had a military style stripe down each leg which KM hated but had to wear regularly for the next two years as a badge of her disgrace.)

The red Cortina was already an old car so to counter this my dad found a good reasonable garage that would service and fix it without fleecing him.  He immediately liked Belcher’s – they were friendly, reliable and local.  Cliff Belcher was a good and decent man.  From that point on, my dad took all his cars there: his ex-salesman’s Talbot (“A bloody big mistake” was his verdict), his various Rovers, and his Astra (“Seats are thin!”) until such times as he no longer could.

A man cannot take responsibility for his son; not all apples fall close to the tree.  This was the case with Craig Belcher.  Something of a dreamer Craig took his time to settle down and Cliff Belcher and his wife sighed with relief when he finally got a job.  It wasn’t what they had hoped for him but at least he’d got off his backside and done something.  This represented progress. Cliff had hoped that Craig would take over the garage but the lad had no aptitude for it and no interest. But at least Craig was still involved in cars: he had become a petrol station attendant. Cliff would laugh with his customers about kids and how tricky it could be to understand them, “It’s a bloody bugger isn’t Trev?” he’d say, and my dad would nod because in spite of all of his efforts to raise his kids as hard working decent folk one of them, as the century was about to turn, was on the dole and then another had more children than he could count on the fingers of one hand.

On the 5th March 1998 a young woman, Kirsty Carver, who worked for the police, had been hanging out with a couple of her friends, filling time until her ex-boyfriend came off his police officer shift at 4am.  The night before he had told her that he did not think there was a future to their relationship.  Kirsty wanted to talk to him about this again.

Kirsty left one of her friend’s houses after 2am and drove to the outskirts of Hull where she filled up on petrol.  Craig Belcher was the attendant on duty.

No one knows exactly what happened after that, although during the trial an assumption was made that Craig accosted Kirsty after she rebuffed his advances.   He then attacked her, striking her at least 3 times with a hammer he found in the storeroom of the service station.

After her murder, the police assumed, Craig put Kirsty’s body into the boot of his car and, making up an elaborate and unlikely plot, he tried to involve a couple of his friends in the disposing of her body.  He told them that he’d been offered £200 to dispose of her after he’d witnessed her murder (along with the murder of a man) at the hands of a drugs’ courier who he was working for.  Both friends that Craig approached made up excuses pretty quickly to not get involved.

There was a great deal of concern for Kirsty when her car was found down a lane a few miles from the garage, and  later her parents made an emotional appeal for someone to tell them about her whereabouts.  But by then Kirsty was already dead.

The police were tireless in their search of Kirsty and they eventually found her body in a shallow grave at an isolated spot at Spurn Point where the River Humber meets the North sea.

The net began to tighten around Belcher, the evidence of his clumsy efforts to clean left in the storeroom where he had killed Kirsty and his DNA in her car.  But still he did not admit or explain her death.  At his trial the jury took five hours to find him guilty and he was sentenced to life imprisonment.  The judge said, “You are an intelligent and cunning man.  You are a convincing liar as well as a very dangerous one.” The gallery cheered when he was taken down though Kirsty’s family were left utterly devastated. They never fully recovered.

Not long after Craig Belcher was sent down, Cliff Belcher quietly closed his garage, and, along with his wife, they withdrew from life, taking themselves off to a place where no one knew who they were so that they could escape the scrutiny of – some well-meaning – people.  They had only raised their son in the way others had.  They could not explain how he had become this.  He had the advantage of being an only child, he’d never been denied anything.  They could not understand or excuse it.

The ripples of a murder extend further still.  Close family are left bereft and desolate knowing that all their hopes and dreams, their ambitions and plans were snuffed out in a single second.  And those that remain, the parents of the victim (and the murderer’s too) have to pick up the pieces when none of it makes sense, or fit together any more, where nothing can ever be the same again.

And the community: friends, lovers, extended family, neighbours, work colleagues, associates and customers are left wondering how the wound can heal, and yet, for them finally, it does, just about, they talk it over, shrug, somehow they carry on – accept that they can never change it, that they can’t go back and offer a bed, or not break-up or call a stop to strangeness.

But the families always have the shape of that person missing in their lives.  Always.

 

 

 

 

Lifetime Guarantee

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“I’m taking these shoes back,” Uncle Trevor looked disapprovingly where the sole flopped loose like a hungry mouth.

“How long have you had them?” my sister  KM was the first one who dared to ask.  I knew she was playing a well-defined role in the scene.

“20 years!” he said.

“That is quite a long time, Uncle Trev.”

“It’s not a lifetime, Mary.”

My sister and I stared at him.

“They came with a lifetime guarantee, and as far as I know, I’m not dead yet.”

This was true.  He was standing in our kitchen, his long-shaped DA looking somewhat the worse for wear and in need of a cut.  He was wearing a green jumper with a hole in the elbow, and a checked shirt, matched with his old, seen-better-days sports jacket. I’d seen him in this get-up for each of his last 12 visits, which was pretty much as long as I could remember.  We all laughed though.  This was Uncle Trev, a contradiction – the most generous of men, but also, personally, the tightest.  Every time  he came to our house, perhaps twice a year, he gave us each a tenner (“Well, I never see you do I?”) which seemed a fortune.  He also came burdened with sweets, chocolates, ice-cream and pop.

There’s little wonder that we loved him – the second he arrived we were so loaded with sugar we were giddy and giggly AND we were rich.  He was funny too, regaling us with one story after the other.

His wife, Elsie, chose a mini (Uncle Trev didn’t drive, “What’s the point, if someone else does?”) and it was always a source of entertainment watching him fold himself (all 6’4″ of him) into the front passenger seat.

“Elsie’s idea of a joke,” he said, “Buying the smallest car on the market.”  Elsie would just shrug, then go heavy footed on the accelerator so that he’d flop forwards and backwards like a giant rag-doll.

My mother absolutely adored her older brother, another reason why we enjoyed his visits so much.  He was the only surviving boy in the family and he held a sort of trophy position – plus he was very bright and like my mother, had passed his scholarship at the high school stage (not that either of them were able to take up their places.) He rogued his way through school, charming all he came across and then, bored, left at 14.

My mother used to tell stories about their childhood – he was child number one, she was number three but their intelligence made them firm friends (the sister between, Aunt Joan, was not quite their intellectual equal, and so was skipped over for fun and games.) My favourite story was this one: “Joyce,” he’d said, “Ask that big girl which two houses she lives in” which, being younger and slightly in awe of her good-looking big brother, she did.  The ‘big girl’ in question, unsurprisingly not overly impressed with this, chased and caught my mother and by way of punishment tied her to a lamppost with her plaits.  This just made Uncle Trev laugh. He did like to push his luck – even when he had full knowledge of the situation. For example, his mother – my grandmother – was prone to violence, but that didn’t stop him locking her in the outside lav for a bit of entertainment.  That’s what comes of being clever and having no proper outlet. You could hear the names and swearing she called him when she was trapped inside half-way across West Hull. One time she was so exacerbated by his mischief making she walked him to the police station and asked them to take him off her hands.

Like all men of his generation, he served his National Service and, posted in the Midlands, he met Elsie and settled there.  This broke the hearts of his sisters (including the two youngest June and Janice). Elsie was short (one time she was annoying him he – allegedly – hung her on the back of the kitchen door and it was only when she stopped yelling at him that he let her down) but they loved each other… She was a Shropshire lass through and through and wouldn’t move back to Hull with him so he stayed in a small place just outside of Shrewsbury called High Ercal.  She worked in a local greenhouse picking salad stuff, and because she was so often in the heat she had the shrivelled look of an old plum.  It made her look older than her years.  She really had had too much sun. It seemed to work for them.

They both smoked like chimneys and I remember her Dunhill next to his baccy tin, and each conversation punctuated by plumes of smoke as they out exhaled each other.

I didn’t know what he did for a living until much later when he started to talk about those he worked with on the roads and I came to understand that he was responsible for a team of Irish blokes who built the lion’s share of the M6 – probably not entirely following modern understandings of health and safety practice either. And I sort of inferred that in spite of his tendency to wear (and better wear) the same clothes year after year that this work period had been very lucrative and he had money behind him.

Elsie died young – it turned out she had a congenital heart condition and when she was 52, she just didn’t wake up.

Uncle Trev carried on living in the same house, returning to Hull for visits as he had always done, but on the train, whilst Bessie, the famous Mini, went to rust in the drive. Every week he would ring each of his sisters and entertain them on the phone.  The rest of his retirement he spent watching TV or in the pub.

Hard to say why he had such an aversion to spending money – perhaps one kind of reaction to the grinding poverty of his childhood where he kept it by ‘just in case.’

Something changed.  He still rang but instead of the witty, happy go-lucky bloke he became a bit morose and down.  He’d had a cancer scare, and recovered, but he just couldn’t lift himself and he was, he said, lonely.   And he wasn’t, for some reason, sleeping well. This was an aspect of the man who no one really knew.  He complained of headaches that came every day and that only shifted when he went to bed.

Days after his 76th birthday, no-one in Hull could raise him.  Calls came in but there was no response.  Eventually, the police were called and they got into his house with the help of one of his neighbours.   He was in the living room.

There was nothing suspicious about his death insomuch as no other hand had been involved but he did die in circumstances that were entirely avoidable.  He had been poisoned by carbon monoxide. On the day of his death he had not been able to sleep so he’d got up, made a cup of tea, and then, with the doors shut to the kitchen and the hall, had drifted off as the poison finally overtook him.  He spilled the tea on the floor.

The issue was a fire that hadn’t been fixed – an issue with the manifold.  I don’t know if it was maintained regularly and I don’t know if the failure was in its age, or in shoddy workmanship.  I do know this though: Uncle Trev had carefully calculated how much each of his family members should receive from his substantial legacy: his sisters, his child, his grandchildren and each of his nieces and nephews.

Addendum

Uncle Trev’s death not only caused me distress but also a good amount of personal regret – my partner’s sister lived in Shrewsbury but as my knowledge of Shropshire was shaky at best I had no idea that I had passed the turning for High Ercal dozens of times without ever realising just how close he was, or how, for the want of an hour here and there, I could have dropped in for a cup of tea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Little Lost Boy

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The funniest thing Uncle Gordon ever did was put a large bouquet: triangular in shape and a foot and a half long, in the top pocket of his dress suit at my cousin’s wedding.  He didn’t make a speech but a statement.  He said, there is madness here.

I’d already noticed it.  It was hard not to.  He had a shock of dark, curly hair and a shy smile that gave a strong hint of the little boy he’d been.  He often looked awkward.  My mother implied that perhaps everything was not all there. I could testify to this: when you arrived at he and Aunt Joan’s house he’d scurry into the kitchen and make tea all round and often there would be a cry of, “Gordon,” from my aunt to propel him onto some other task: vegetable peeling, washing, windows, pots, toilet cleaning, drain clearing and so forth all of which he undertook without ever complaining.

Aunt Joan was busy knitting. Sometimes she had a dozen or more balls of wool in cups as she clacked away stopping only for a cigarette.  I worried about her inventions – it was me and my sister that would have to wear them to school.  It took a long time to recover from the-school-jumper-that-wasn’t, for example.  Bottle green in the body and sleeves, all very regular, Aunt Joan had made a creative decision to knit the cuffs and waist band in a green many shades lighter.  Inexplicably, she’d also made both 10″ long – as a shy, retiring sort it wasn’t the statement I was after making.  It said, ‘Pick on me!  Firstly, I have zero control over my wardrobe and secondly, relatives with no taste.’  Doubtless, any expression of the humiliation I felt about this and any other such lovingly made hideousnesses would have seen me hit from the back to the front door for my ungratefulness, so I kept my counsel.

But I digress. A man of very few words, Gordon used to communicate by tickling you behind the ear.  I never got used to this even though – to give him credit – he did it consistently for a full 20 years.  I’d like to say I’m making this up, but I’m not.  He also liked to tickle behind the knees which (try it) often makes you collapse in a heap which he seemed to think was hilarious.  It was marginally amusing when he targeted someone other than you but it wore thin.

But the truth was it was hard to stay cross with Uncle Gordon, the mildest of mild men.  He would nod and shake his head as if he was actually participating in the ongoing adult conversation in their front room, without ever speaking.  It was claustrophobic in there with the heating ramped up to full blast – on account of Aunt Joan’s cold blood (“I’m very nearly a lizard,” she once said).   Relief came from this oppression regularly as she dropped another malapropism or similar sending us all (except Gordon) into paroxysm of laughter, “Have I said something wrong again?” she’d say as we wiped the tears away.  She was never wounded.  The Dooley Brothers became the Gooley Brothers, HMV – MFI, tendons in a boy’s finger were described as girders, the Newel post – which Gordon sawed off along with the stair spindles one rainy Sunday afternoon because Joan fancied going ‘open plan’ – became the Neutral post (a bit like a miniature Switzerland, I’d imagine). And very posh cooking was referred to as Gordon Blue.  He’d just smile at her – a shy, loving smile. He was a simple sort, kind and decent.

When I was 15 years old, I began cycling with the CTC and met a man, Trevor, who worked at Jackson’s the Bakers alongside Gordon.  I hated Trevor, who was cruel and borderline pyscopathic (he once attacked me at a youth hostel in the Lake District, though I’d been well taught by my mother and I managed to lift a knee to the delicate bits which seemed to do the trick.  I wasn’t that kind of girl.  And besides, he was married.  To a woman who was on the trip with us and in the next room.  And 35.  Later, still in pursuit of me, though I felt I’d made myself clear, for my sixteenth birthday he sent me 6 pairs of very lacy knickers – so I re-addressed the label of this gift to his wife and mentioned she might like to have a quick word with him.  They neither spoke to me again, and my cycling career was over.)

Before the knickers’ incident, Trevor, laughing, told me a story about one particular shift he shared with Gordon.  He said they’d de-bagged Gordon and then filled his white work pants and white work wellies with flour so that when he re-dressed he left a trickle of white wherever he went, like a factory-based Hansel and Gretel.  Gordon could have traced his journey back as he zig-zagged his way to the end of the shift.  But instead, he just smiled, benignly.  He was not a fighter, nor one of those men who felt the need for retaliation or power displays.  He knew his place in the male hierarchy: the bottom.

When babies die, they always say, “She was too beautiful to live,” which can’t be true, though apparently that was the case with Lorraine, Gordon and Joan’s second child, who lived to 9 months and then did not wake up one morning.  I tried to imagine what difference this had made to them but could not guess at either Gordon or Joan, who seemed lighter than my folks, and who floated along like flotsam on the high tide. For years on their bubblegum pink living room wall (“What were they thinking with that colour?” my mother asked) it said, “Gene Pitney” and I could never work that out either.  Was that their favourite song, “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart”?  Who could say?  (And besides, they’d spelt both Gene and Pitney wrong so I was never certain that that was what it actually read: though I hoped it was.)  Nothing they ever said, or did hinted at any sadness or passion.

My dad said, “Gordon’s brighter than he looks,” and then added, “But not much,” and I understood this.  I also knew that he was kind in the very core of his soul and as strange as the ear and knee thing was he was not a ‘mind-your-back-sis’ weird like Uncle Knobhead* (of which more, another time.)

Gordon had had plenty to contend with: later on when all three children, their girls H, D and M were strong and thriving, Aunt Joan got pregnant again.  But this baby was a stillborn boy: Michael – made yet more hideous by two things.  Firstly, Aunt Joan had to go through the pregnancy and secondly, on either side of this awful event both her sisters gave birth to boys, my brother T and my cousin J.  Michael became a tree in their front garden and you would often find Gordon sitting on the step staring at it.  I wondered at this thoughts but no word came from him.

One time,  I arrived at their home on North Hull Estate and he was sitting on the front.  It was a bright sunshiny day and for a change, he wasn’t running around after Aunt Joan.  He was finishing his crossword.  (“Must have been the quick one,” my dad quipped, “Was it in the Sun?”)  I sat beside him.  He rolled himself, then me, a cigarette and we smoked contemplatively together.  From the house, came the Squeeze tune, “Cool for Cats” which he sang, softly emphasising the words:

“I fancy this, I fancy that,  I want to be so flash, I give a little muscle and I spend a little cash, but all I get is bitter and a nasty little rash.  And by the time I’m sober, I’ve forgotten what I’ve had, And everybody tells me that it’s cool to be a cat, Cool for cats….”

And I helped him with the last few clues, which surprised us both.

Not long after that I got the news that he had a brain tumour and his death was imminent, which seemed unkind.  But, much as he lived, he left the world with a resigned, amiable, Buddha-like calm.

*Blatantly nicked from Peter Kay!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.