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.

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, Scrabble, Monopoly, Pictionary.  In its detail, and in spite of its unusual make-up, it was much 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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Or Are You Just Very Small?

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Before beginning this week’s blog I feel compelled to make mention of the Grenfell Tower Fire.  and the terrible tragedy that happened there; at least 30 dead and 70 missing  overall (including the 30).  If this blog is about anything – aside from loss of one kind or another – it is about the working class neighbourhood of my childhood and youth, it is about people living together, striving together and struggling together as well as laughing and learning and growing.  It’s about camaraderie and love.  I feel that I was lucky to grow-up in such a neighbourhood: it has shaped my sense of shared purpose and given me an understanding of endeavour, graft and belonging that not everyone gets to encounter.  It was not perfect and I spent a part of my life afraid of who I might run into around any given corner and another part worried about what my middle class friends who I went to school with might think of me, perhaps even something close to shame about not being quite like them. That’s what a dominant narrative does to people – it keeps them in their place, and it makes them feel bad for not being the same as those who have privilege, and then offering tempting sign-posts and pathways that not everyone can take. And calling people failures when they miss the chance – perhaps a single chance – on offer to them. I have been lucky. I was lucky that when I fell through a greenhouse and nearly died, the NHS patched me up, I was lucky because although we were poor we had enough food and a house that was warm, and that was our own. I was lucky I had somewhere decent to live. I was lucky that I was educated in the 70s and 80s before we imposed a curriculum that stopped people thinking for themselves and I was lucky to be able to go to university on a grant and fees paid (and just as lucky to receive bursaries for my MA and PhD).  I was lucky to get a good job, and have a career. No one gets to be that lucky now. Working class people have been marginalised and demonised – and options are increasingly limited even if they are educated, even if they have a job, even if they have a sense of place and community. But fundamentally people need to be safe in their homes because none of those other things can happen if they are not. David Lamy had it right in this video. People need somewhere decent to live – that’s the first and last of it.  People were crammed into that tower block – families of five and six sometimes, in two bedroom flats that were just 75.5 metres squared.  Families with young children and older people on the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th floors.  And higher still.  It beggars belief.  This was an accident waiting to happen and now that it has the only saving grace is that the community is angry and rising.  I hope they can translate that anger into real change so that this does not happen again.  So that political change will enable this working class community and others to expect a fair chance, and the power to effect positive outcomes in their own lives.

Or Are You Just Very Small?

Vera met her husband-to-be on a bus.  It was not the most romantic of venues and she was not the most romantic of people.  She thought she was on the shelf.  I asked her which shelf once, and she said, “The one at the back of the cupboard, where there’s all the stuff that you never really use.  Like tinned potatoes. And Spam.”

The reason she was on the bus was that she was a conductor.  They had to make a special cut of the uniform for her because she was short, very short (and not as slim as she might have been.)  It was grey and even with her child-bearing hips she looked dashing. And taller, elegant even. But she could climb up and down the stairs quicker than you could say Jack Robinson and never missed a fare.

“You’d always get folk trying it on, even in the good old days, but no-one passed me by.”  She would snap away the faces in her photographic mind and then whizz round each and everyone checking the fares. She enjoyed the power of her ticket machine.

Her husband was a bus driver and it was love at first sight.  Unfortunately, Alan was already married.  “He was unhappy, you see, Love.  He’d got married in the war, lots of people did and then lived to regret it.  Folk didn’t expect to live.  She was nice enough, but they weren’t well matched…but I’m bound to say that, aren’t I?”  Vera laughed.

Alan was more than 20 years her senior, almost in his 50s.  An old man really, by those standards, but she loved him anyway.  Right from the off – it was the way that he smiled.  Shyly.  He’d fought for his country – in the RAF – flying all sort of raids and was immediately a hero in her eyes.

They spent their dates dashing around on a motor-bike, Vera riding pillion.  “He used to go so fast, like a super-hero.  He was in my mind.  I could picture him in the bomber, flying low, battling…”

“Killing people, Vera?”  I smiled.

“Well, it’s alright for your generation,” she said, “Getting all moral about it.  You don’t know what it was like.  Hull was trashed.  Alan and his mates saved this city for such as thee and me.”

I shut up then.  Unlike most adults Vera had a habit of talking to you about everything and anything: she didn’t pull any punches.   We used to go together to the swimming pool to supervise the Cubs and Scouts who were doing swimming badges.  Not quite sure how I got dragged into that – must have been something to do with T, my brother, and my reputation for swimming with David Wilkie, I only did this once (on a sponsorship event) but you only needed to do something that often where I lived and then you were located there forever.  Mary Brearley, swimming sensation.  Not true.  I remember saying to Vera once, in the pool, “Are you kneeling, or are you just very small?” And she laughed a lot, and repeated it to anyone who’d listen.  “You’re funny, you,” Vera said. I wasn’t

I used to wait for T at the end of the Cub meetings where Celia Worley, the Akela*, seeing me, would make some disparaging comments about the Guides. I’d just smile. Mostly, I’d chat to Vera who was bringing her lad, Steven, to the Scouts.  The others used to tease him about the presence of his mam – but she liked to wrap him in cotton wool. And Steven didn’t mind.  He was a mummy’s boy.

“We never expected to have him.  But I was very careful until the divorce came through, and that took forever because she didn’t want to let Alan go, and you wouldn’t, would you?  I mean even now that he’s in his later 70s, he’s lovely isn’t he? So tall and handsome.”

It wasn’t a word I would use to describe him.  He just looked like an old man to me.  A bit like Michael Foot – the politician, thin as a pin and a shock of white hair.  I didn’t answer Vera, but she didn’t need me to, she’d just carried on.

“But eventually he came and we couldn’t love him more.” She smiled, and looked wistful.

They lived on the Boulevard and I used to be awestruck by the amount of Lego Steven had on the table in the front room.  I once asked what he was building and Vera just shrugged.

“That’s his dad’s department.  Sit in there for hours, they do, building away.  I don’t interfere – it’s important that he has time with his dad.”

There was a silence then, and I suspected that I was supposed to fill it but I didn’t know how to. I knew his dad was old. And that he might die soon. Steven was 13 going on 14 and people used to tease him for playing Lego with his dad.

“Alan won’t last forever, I know that.  I really do.  I knew that all along.  He wasn’t a mistake you know, even though I wasn’t a spring chicken by the time he came along – nearly 40.  But we love him.  Steven is the best thing that ever happened to us.” She paused, “We’ve talked about it.  He knows.  He knows his dad will die sooner rather than later.  And I know too.  It’s not like we’re prepared but it means that we take each day as it comes, and we love each other through every minute of it, because that’s all you can do.”

A few months later, when I walked past their house on my paper-round, the curtains were tightly shut in the middle of the day.  Upstairs and downstairs: shut against the world. I knew what this code meant.  Alan must have gone – he must have died over night.  I had sort of half been looking out for it. I felt for Vera who loved him very much and Steven too.

Then the news came through. At four in the afternoon, the day before, Steven had made his way home from school.  Normally, his mum would have been loitering somewhere close but she hadn’t come.  No worries, he’d just taken himself home.  He’d opened the front door, calling her, and then his dad, and still nothing had alarmed him.  Maybe across his mind, he’d thought about his dad and that maybe something had happened but surely his mum would have come to school and told him? But it was Tuesday and on a Tuesday his dad visited an old friend who was ill.  Maybe his mum had got caught up at the shops?  She liked to chat, that was true.  Many an hour he’d stood beside her as she’d told a tale or two.  So Steven walked in.  Through the hallway, into the kitchen and there, half into the pantry was his mum, on the floor: dead.  Of a brain hemorrhage.

He didn’t know what to do.  He rang an ambulance.  He was numb.

Then his dad had come home, and he’d taken over.

I often asked about them in my phone calls home from Universtiy: Steven and Alan.  Within a year or two, before his 16th birthday in any case, Steven’s dad had died too. And he went to live with his mum’s sister in North Hull.

 

*Akela – my aunt Joan – once said to my mum when she was talking about Akela, “That’s weird J, because the woman who runs the Scouts round here is called Akela too.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Orange mortar and Scapegoats

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When one of the Clarke girls started going out with Jonny Weetabix it caused a bit of a scandal.  This was a measure of how far we’d come – the chat was about Jonny’s suitability and not Liz Clarke’s heritage.  When pushed, I’d characterise Jonny as above Baby Harry (a terrifying 8 year old who threatened anyone he could with his Alsatian dog and ruled the whole of Coltman Street) on a par with Peter Frame (who got expelled from school at 8, 10, 12 and possibly other times) and a good bit below David Petty (who was largely harmless but did cause me actual bodily harm when the dart he was throwing into the air somehow landed in my forehead about an inch from my eye.  I pulled it out, ran in crying and then went swimming – worrying that the hole in my head would let the water in. It didn’t.)

The Weetabixes – not their real name, obviously – lived behind our house and my mother said we shouldn’t hang out with them because they didn’t get washed properly and they were people who lacked ambition.

“Ambition?” I’d asked but only because my mother’s reasoning often defied any logic and I was in the mood for entertainment.

“Yes,” she said, “They eat Weetabix for breakfast, dinner and sometimes tea.  They share 2 fish between 8 of them and they don’t believe in reading. And they go out in the rain without their anoraks.” My mother held great store about anoraks which is why she almost killed my sister when she accidentally (on purpose?) lost her brand spanking new anorak a few months before somewhere under the flyover.  My mother hit her with a milk bottle that time (she was washing them out before putting them on the step at the time) and rhythmically beat out the phrase, “How could you lose it?” over and over on her legs.  KM couldn’t say.  And, if my mother had bothered to ask me, I couldn’t either, even though I was probably walking behind my sister.  As penance, KM had to wear my mother’s anorak which buried her and made her look like something the cat dragged in.

“Perhaps they don’t own anoraks?” I said.

“That tells you everything you need to know,” my mother smirked.

That was conclusive then.

I’d been in Jonny Weetabix’s house – and I was amazed how little furniture they had and the fact they could draw on the walls.  I thought he was mostly a bit stupid, the kind of boy that got the blame for things even when he hadn’t done them and who didn’t care either way: it was attention, and attention, even as life’s perpetual scapegoat, was better than no attention at all.

“One final thing,” my mther began again, “they’re trash.  They threw a dozen old shoes into our yard, which their mother denied – where else could they have come from?  And they chucked over a rat.  A dead rat.  What kind of people do that?”

“I don’t know,” I said, and I didn’t.

“Trashy people,” she said, “The Frames might be stupid, but they’re not trashy.”

“Stupid?”

“Yes. I told her my maiden name was Davies-Smith, Jackie Frame said – “Oh, we might be related, I’m a Davies.”  I said, “It’s Davies hyphen Smith.” And she said, “What’s a fucking hyphen?”

“Right,” I said, not being overly certain about hyphens myself.

“What’s Jonny been up to? He putting his hand up for stuff he hasn’t done again?”

“He’s going out with one of the Clarke girls, Liz I think.”

“I’m surprised Ernie would let that happen.  He loves those kids and wants the best for them.”

“Maybe it’ll bring Jonny up?”

“Mary, you cannot polish rubbish, love. Not even with Mr Sheen. Not now, not ever.”

One of the things I loved about my mother was her use of the English language.   If you said, “This is hot,” in relation to food, she’d say, “You sit with your arse in the oven, and you’d be hot too.”  If you wished for something that your friends had, and you said, “I wish I had…” She’d say, “Wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which gets fullest first.”

What I didn’t wish was to go out with Jonny Weetabix.  He smelled and the Clarke girls had style. The Clarke girls were beautiful, quiet, determined and self-contained.  Liz and Jonny seemed a very odd combination.

Ernie himself was a nice enough bloke as far as I knew.  He had a certain Caribbean swagger.  My dad was not massively impressed when he painted the bricks of his house a glossy white, with the mortar in citrus orange.  He thought it was bringing the street down.  Dad’s snobbery had a context: he worked at a paint factory where high quality paint was cheaply available and where he was on top of what was in vogue and what was not: orange mortar would never pass muster, except perhaps in St.  Kitts. But why should Ernie care about this?  At least it was clean.  At least Ernie looked after his house, even if it was not to the specifications of my father’s standards.

“He’s bringing the street down!” dad’d say, with a moribund despair.  By that stage, what with one thing and another, he would have preferred living almost anywhere.  Even the moon.

Ernie Clarke worked in the Hull Fish Meal factory down at the docks and this much at least impressed my dad.  Day after day, Ernie would walk to the top of the street, catch a bus and head off to work where all manner of fish bits that people couldn’t eat would be processed into fertiliser, or feed for cattle.  I don’t know what Ernie did there, but he was a hard worker.   In March 1979 he got made redundant.  It was the last months of the winter of discontent which saw multiple strikes and numbers of people became unemployed for the first time in generations. Mrs Thatcher was just about to come to power.

By July, Ernie Clarke had found himself another job. But he never took it up.

We’d got wind of something on the Tyne Tees news.  In June, a woman’s torso and her head had been found in a massive tank on the banks of the River Tyne.  The torso was in a plastic bag and the men who found her – who were cleaning the tank inside – didn’t hang around long enough to find her head which had been severed and wrapped like a parcel in canvas.

A few weeks later a police car arrived at the Clarke house, and Ernie looking lost, was bundled inside.  In the Hull Daily it said a Hull man was helping the police with their inquiries: a euphemism for arrest it turned out. Ernie was remanded in custody.

…To be continued…

Custard, Part 2

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I’m not entirely sure where Custard got to that night, but she did not go home and she did not go to Dick the Dustman’s flat either.  In fact, she never went there again. By the morning, Janet was frantic with worry and having quizzed KM and myself about her daughter’s whereabouts, and visibly disappointed in our lack of knowledge, she left our kitchen a whirlwind of pain and grey to the gills. A big, fat penny had dropped.

A few hours later, apparently none the worse for wear, Custard rolled up neither smiling nor proud of her absence but steely and determined.

“Wish me luck,” she said as she went in.  She was still wearing her halter neck top and her hair shot off in all angles from where she’d slept.

At about lunch time Janet appeared in our kitchen again.  She didn’t have a bag of tins as usual and she wasn’t full of fun or stories.  She was gloomy, miserable and flatter than I remembered seeing her before; like she’d lost a fiver and found a penny. Or worse. My mother took one look at her, and then ushered KM and me from the room with a, “Don’t you two have something better to do?” which we didn’t although it would not have been a smart move to argue.

And so my sister and I stood in the living room bouncing from foot to foot, waiting for a sign that we could re-join the conversation: in the past Janet and my mother had competed to tell the funniest story, each rolling over the other in an elaborate game of Top Trumps.  Not now though – I instinctively knew those days were gone.

The sign to re-join the conversation never came.  Later my mother, a mass of contradictions herself, would say that she knew immediately what to do, and she did it, without a moment’s hesitation.

And the truth was, if not complicated, than somehow not straight-forward even though on paper it was exactly that.  We don’t live our lives on paper, neither by a manual where the right thing to do is followed by the next right thing and the next: rather we muddle through and drift and sometimes those drifts take us off course.  Janet had believed it was okay mostly because she’d turned a blind eye or never even looked.  She hadn’t thought it through.  She was short of cash and Dick the Dustman seemed like a good source of additional income.  And why shouldn’t he want to support Custard and why wouldn’t he want to pay for her to stay over in his flat, and Custard had seemed fine with the arrangement and she’d got extra pocket money and other stuff?  But it was wrong.  It was so, so wrong, she’d told my mother, so, so wrong.

It’s easy to reflect with modern sensibilities and assume there was never any kind of defence for what Janet had done, and yet as a young person I felt some sympathy for her because I liked her.  We all liked her.  Janet was unformed, child-like; she was impulsive, uproariously funny and because of all of that she didn’t  think about the consequences.  She hadn’t even considered Custard beyond a fleeting second.

The first I knew about the gravity of the situation was seeing my mother in the hallway, holding the telephone – the phone half the neighbourhood paid 10p to use.

“Is that the police?”  I heard her say and then she said, “My neighbour has just told me that she is selling her 14 year old daughter for sex, and erm, I thought you would want to know that…”

They did want to know that.

The cars started to arrive within the hour: first the police in marked and unmarked vehicles and then the social workers swishing about in Laura Ashley dresses and corduroy slacks.  Janet and Ossie were taken away in separate police cars, and then Custard’s two younger sisters were helped into an estate.  Finally, Custard, who was wearing a pink fluffy jumper by this point and her favourite pair of wedge shoes, climbed into a detective’s car.  Not one person smiled.

Janet did not return.  We heard later, when Ossie rolled back into the street that all of the girls had been taken into care.

My mother was in some kind of shock – after all, she had made the call that had precipitated the police and social work intervention – and so she gathered around her the neighbourhood women ‘to do something’.

These women were Jenky (Lena Jenky who lived next door the other way, and who always seemed to have smoked fish cooking on the hob), Alice (distinguished only by her Jersey accent and her preponderance for pronouncing burgundy by emphasising the ‘gun’ bit) and Thelma Boast (not my pretend Auntie) who lived five doors down and was considered a good egg.

My mother, and these women, were outraged.  First, by Janet and what she’d done, and then by the authorities that had whipped the girls into care and that had ripped the family apart.  So, they set about campaigning to get the girls back.  Apart from being completely inadequate in every regard, what had Ossie done?  For all that pile of nothing, he didn’t deserve this (or so my mother and those women said.)

They felt also that they had been deceived.  They had liked Janet, even though they hated what she’d done.  And they felt that they had let those children down.  Because they should have known – they should have listened to their instincts. They shouldn’t have looked the other way.

“She was just a bit simple,” my mother said, in a reductionist moment, “Can you understand that?  She didn’t think it through.”  We nodded.

A few days later we went to visit Custard in a children’s home in Hessle: one of four imposing buildings in a row.  “It’s not that bad,” Custard said, “Like being in a big family.” Her sisters were fostered.

“I didn’t sleep with him, you know,” she said, only once and we nodded not because we believed her but because we didn’t know what else to do.

Two further pieces of news came out after that.  Ossie, obsessed as he was with his submarine building and his bonfire, claimed to have no knowledge of what was going on – and the police believed him.  Janet exonerated him too.  She apparently said, “He was too stupid to know any better.”  Ossie literally thought nothing of Custard sleeping at Dick the Dustman’s.  Nothing. Now, he just wanted his kids back.  That’s what he said when anyone would listen, and, oddly, “She was still a virgin, you know.”

Which we thought she wasn’t because KM and I knew about the favours she’d given the speedway riders, and the encouragement she’d given us both (since she was the living, breathing expert on such matters) to roll around in the grass with some boys on the way back from swimming.  And beside, the truth came out in court.  Custard had had to endure a pretty undignified procedure at the police station…

So the informal coterie of neighbourhood women, led by my mother, started to campaign hard for the return of Ossie’s kids.  This was tied up with a concern that those outside of our street would somehow see us all as complicit if they didn’t take a stand, take a side.  So Ossie, who had always been seen as completely ridiculous and vainglorious in the street and beyond suddenly had the greater good on his side…

The younger two girls came home straight away, and later, after the trial Custard made an appearance.

“You back then, are you?”  I asked.

“Yeah,” she said.  And we never spoke of the matter again.

Soon after that she met a boy called Gordon (who wasn’t a moron, actually) and they are still married today.  And at some point in the last 30+ years Custard also won a substantial sum on the lottery, which I like to think is Karma balancing things out.

Dick the Dustman and Janet were both sent to prison.  When I tried to imagine what this was like I found myself picturing Janet slopping out with Myra Hindley, who was the only other woman I’d ever heard of being sent to prison at that time, but that was the extent of my imaginative power.

I saw Janet again, just once, when she was allowed a supervised visit with her children.  She mostly looked herself, and from across the street, tried to be all hail fellow well met.  But something had changed: she could never return and pick up the life she had once had.  She couldn’t joke around, take the mick out of Ossie and make people laugh.  It was as if she was shell-shocked.

A police car arrived early one morning at Custard’s house.  My mother went next door.  When she returned, her face was ashen.  We were just eating breakfast.

“Janet’s been found dead,” she said, flatly.

We all stopped eating and looked at her.  “She was found on the tip,” she said, “And she meant it to happen.  There was an empty bottle of pills in her hand, and she’d been drinking.”  We looked at each other, unsure what to do, our spoons hovering over our cornflakes, then my mother said, “She didn’t deserve that,” which was debatable, and added, “though I’m not sure what else could have happened.”

The first part of Custard is here!

 

 

 

 

 

Custard, Part 1

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“Don’t stick your head above the wall,” Custard said. “I’ve had enough.” She was wearing a pink halter neck top, a short mini-skirt and had tried to style her hair, with limited success.

“It’s a bit stinky down here.”  I was not impressed.  “I don’t think Mrs Key is quite as thorough in her cleaning as my mother.”  I paused and the wave of rotting rubbish wafted over us, “And your mam is definitely calling you.”

“I’m not here.  She’ll get fed up soon.  She never sticks at anything.” Custard said.

But Janet, Custard’s mother, didn’t stop calling and I wondered just how long I could endure the stink of the drains and the slightly sour smell of Custard’s unwashed body.  We were a bit too close for comfort.

We’d been sat down that alley for a good 30 minutes already.  I hoped, against hope, that Mrs Key didn’t pop out and give the game away, revealing us two fugitives in an act of solidarity with all mothers which seemed to be universal and unspoken, a pact apparently entered into as as soon as mothers gave birth to their off-spring. Equally, I hoped that Mrs Key didn’t let Buster, her cross-breed, out for his evening constitutional.  That might not end well either.

“Why don’t you just go home?” I asked Custard but I didn’t expect an answer.  She was quick to laugh and joke around, take the blame for stuff, be cheeky and say things to boys that I only imagined saying in my wildest dreams but she did not always talk straight.  And I knew that whatever her reasons, it was probably complicated.

Custard shrugged, “You have met my mam and dad, right?” She said this as if no further explanation was required – and I completely understood. I had met them.  I’d lived next door to them for the full 14 years of my life.  Janet and Horace were definitely off-beat.

Janet couldn’t really read and write although I’d been to bingo with her and she was something close to a genius at that: she’d had 8 cards to my one, and still managed to identify the called numbers on her own and my card before I did. She was a little wiry woman and a bit of a character.  Plus she never had quite enough money to make ends meet. Regularly, Janet would roll into our kitchen, hitch up her bright orange corduroys (bought cheap at Boyes) to reveal her fluorescent pink socks, and say, “They’re his, he’ll never know I’ve borrowed them!” She was referring to Ossie (her husband Horace) but how he’d miss them I couldn’t imagine.  With a bit of squint, it’d be possible for an astronaut to see them from space!

On those hard-up days Janet would be armed with a plastic bag full of tins of garden peas, peach slices, mulligatawny soup, custard, mixed veg and new potatoes taken from Ossie’s Armageddon stores: his over-stocked pantry.

“He’ll never notice,” she said, as she slammed maybe 30 tins down on the kitchen unit.  “He thinks the world is going to end – probably in 1984, if not before, so he buys more and more each week.  We’ll never eat it all.”

It was true that their walk-in larder was like a mini-supermarket, each shelf packed high with tins of every sort.  Often, Custard would be out in the street, tucking into a tin of cold custard.  This was one of the reasons she’d got her name.  The other one was not very kind and was down to the fact that she didn’t get washed as much as the rest of us, or change her underwear.  I didn’t care that she was a bit smelly most of the time: she was okay.  Her real name was Yvonne.

“So,” Janet was saying, “You can have this bag of tins, and I’ll bring the tenner back in a couple of days when I get paid.  This is like interest.  I’ve nowt to smoke and the Tally man is coming later on.” (By paid, Janet meant getting her benefits.)

My mam would always feel bad for her (apart from the times she ran upstairs and told us to say she was out) and hand over her hard earned cash.  When the money was due, I’d be sent over to Janet’s to fetch it, a journey that necessitated the negotiation of their 6 unneutered Ginger toms, one of which like to mark his territory just as you walked through their back gate.

It was never a simple task of the money being handed over.  I’d have to hang around in their grubby parlour taking in their ornaments and their curious rainbow chairs, while Janet scurried around looking for cash.  Ossie would either be in the next room along building his submarine: a 12 foot replica that was an impressive feat of engineering or he’d be out hunting treasures on the local tip, which he’d sell on.  Horace was on the dole long before it was commonplace.  He was a curious looking man, sort of half finished.  He wore jeans rolled up to reveal his lime-green (or pink) socks and a pair of beetle-crushers. This was partnered with a bright shirt, usually red or pink, opened to his navel, and a leather jacket.  He had had some kind of DA (duck’s arse) in the past but his hair was thinning so instead it straggled apologetically down his back. He was a man who was concerned with either survival or bonfire night – the first a daily grind of finding illegitimate ways of earning money, the latter a four month long trawl for wood so that his fire would outstrip all for miles around.  It always did.

So, I could completely understand why Custard didn’t want to go home on one level, because her folks were genuinely bonkers, but also I didn’t get it at all, because she could do what she wanted most of the time, and wasn’t confined by the litany of rules we had to live by.  I couldn’t quite figure out what she had had enough of.

As we sat in the alley, two teenage girls side by side: Dick the Dustman, a friend of Janet’s, cycled by.  Fortunately, he was looking where he was going so he didn’t see us, but I saw Custard pull herself into the shadows.

“Aren’t you hungry though?”  I asked.

“No,” she said, “Look, I’ll give you a Mars bar if you’ll just stay here for a bit longer.”

In truth, what I meant was that I was hungry and pretty soon, I’d have to get up and go because the consequences for not doing so would be too grave.

“I really just don’t want to go anymore.”

“Home?”

“No.”

“You mean to Dick’s?”  I asked not even remotely understanding the implication of this question beyond its face-value. I knew she stayed over there sometimes.  Everyone did.

“It’s boring,” she said, “And I don’t want to go anymore.”

“Okay.  Fair enough.  Can’t you just say no?”

“I am saying no.,” Custard was a bit cross.  She looked at me, “I’m saying it right now. I’ve just had enough.”

I looked at my newly acquired Snoopy watch – to that date, the best present I had ever had.

“Okay. I’m going to have to go in or I’ll be in bother,” I said.

“You haven’t seen me, okay?”

“You can’t stay down this alley forever Yvonne.”

“No but I can stay here until they get fed up…”

“Okay…” I said.

I rolled out of the alley, stood to my 5″8″ height and walked home, some thirty houses down the street.  Janet eyed me all the way.

“Have you see Yvonne?” she asked.

“Not lately,” I said, maintaining eye-contact.

“What were you doing down that alley?”

I looked at her square in the eye, and said, “Nowt!”

I walked on, saw into their parlour through their open front door.  And there was Dick the Dustman drumming his fingers on the arm of the rainbow chair, waiting for Custard.

But Custard never came.

(To be continued.)