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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Big Impossible

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

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

That was the way it was in the 70s. 

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

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

Here it is:

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

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

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

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

“You might be able to.” I said.

Was that cheeky? Dawn grinned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They’re okay.”

It’s not about me, I thought.

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

“Michaela can’t do visitors really.”

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

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

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

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

We did not speak.

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

“I never asked,” I said.

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

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

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

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

“Not as clever as you.”

The door opened behind them.

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

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

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

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

“She’s…not here.”

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

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

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

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

“How is your leg?” She asked.

“Getting better now.”

“I hear you were lucky.”

I didn’t feel it.

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

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

“Sleeping all the time?”

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

“Where is she then?” It was Dawn.

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

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

“Yes love, she is.”

I fought back the tears then, “When?”

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

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

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

Mrs Tobin looked to the ceiling.

“Okay then,” she said.

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

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

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

I looked directly at Michaela.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were so many words.

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

I took a deep breath and dived in.

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

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

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

Mrs Tobin was wide-eyed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t have to love.”

“I don’t like it much,” Dawn said.

“Neither do I!”

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

“Should I say goodbye?”

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

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

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

“Do you believe in another one?”

“Sometimes.” Mrs Tobin said.

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

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

Falling

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

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

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

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

I only met him once.

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

The details have gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was wrong.  He was already falling.  Falling.

He would have done it anyway.

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

But it wasn’t enough to save him.

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

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

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

All our chances gone, I never saw her again.