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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Pretend Cousin

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We were walking to my Aunt Joan’s house on a boiling hot day, each step an effort on an epic journey.  It was a long way, and my mother had a habit of saying, “Just around the jolly ‘orner” to entice us to run eagerly to the next corner, even though the next corner took us only fractionally closer.  It was on journeys of this type that I realised that my mother largely spoke in riddles or in found tales that rolled around each other concluding in one sad ending or another.  The abiding thing about my mother and her stories was that they required absolutely no audience at all. She would tell the tale whether we listened or not, to the bitter, bitter end.

My leg hurt but I wasn’t about to let on about this.  We’d left King’s Bench Street, our street, in good time and I was not going to be held responsible for holding the party back.  Already we had reached the hospital and on crossing the railway bridge on Argyle Street we headed past Diane Mulvana’s house (who my sister and I pretended to be cousins with even though she was very small and we were giants in comparison ). She was not out to wave to.

We had adopted this habit of pretend family from my mother.  She gave apparently random strangers ‘relative’ tags.  These included people she’d been at school with or who she had worked with or from streets she’d lived in. My mother swept up waifs and strays as though she didn’t have enough to do.  Auntie Barbara was one such pretend aunt.  She had no brothers and sisters and came to ours at Christmas.  She also snogged my dad down the ten-foot when he walked her home after the festivities had finished.  KM and I were sent to accompany them and  as spies but we never told.  She eventually married Ian (a pretend uncle I would rarely meet) and her daughter Victoria became our pretend cousin (and she was also one of the two children I abandoned along with my sister in this sorry tale.) Victoria and I had a ferocious argument about butter beans once.  She said they were made of potato which I knew was just plain stupid.

There was also Auntie Mavis who  lived in the States, another of my mother’s former colleagues.  She married a chap called Larry and had a child called Bubbles.  They once came to visit and I was intrigued and horrified in equal measure that her other boy, Adam, who was at least five, ate with his hands.  They were my distant pretend cousins who I liked to mention when I needed to be exotic.

Auntie Thelma held nothing of the same cache and was ordinary: much like my actual aunties.  Like my mother, Thelma had just had a baby, Donna and she and her brother Nigel and my pretend uncle Derek, lived just off Hessle Road. She and my mother had grown up on the same road.  Derek and Thelma were semi-permanent fixtures at family dos, until I began to think they were actual family – at least I did until Thelma was apparently caught with her hand in the till at the Beer-off* where she worked.  She denied this and as she wasn’t poor, I tended to think it might not be true.  I was sorry she was sacked because she’d offered me a veneer of protection from Gerard, the people who ran the Beer-off’s son, whose hands were covered in warts and who chased me around the school playground to infect me until I shouted that I would make sure Auntie Thelma knew…which held him off long enough for me to get away. For my mother this episode of being light fingered coloured her view of Thelma, although to this day, they speak week after week on the phone.

I walked behind my mam onto Prince’s Ave (which was commonly called Prinny Ave).  She pushed the pram with T in ahead of her.  We turned into Newland Ave, then Cranbrook Ave.  Sometimes we walked via Chanterlands Ave (more often known as Chants Ave).  Hull is the only place I know where every street name is shortened.  I’ve never heard anyone give these streets the more formal moniker of avenue.   Cranbrook Ave is the longest residential street in Hull and my legs could tell.  At that time, it was also largely dominated by university houses, door after door painted the same blue green colour.  They were interminably boring.

“Why don’t we count,” my mother said.

“Why don’t you shut up,” I thought.

“Great idea” my sister said and so we did, counting each door with all the joy of a funeral party.

My brother T a few months old, was oblivious to the ‘fun’ we were having and my older brother, K, seemed to have managed to avoid coming on this tortuous trip.  Had he feigned death?

I’d read you could fry eggs on the pavement on days as hot as this but when I suggested this to my mother she wasn’t having any of it. “If you think I’m wasting eggs on a whim, Mary, you’re sadly mistaken,” she said, firmly.  And the subject was closed.

By the time we got to Greenwood Ave we were in spitting distance of Auntie Joan’s – my mother’s actual sister, and not a made up one.  I tried to get to the bottom of this.

“Why do we have so many pretend Aunties.”

“Auntie Joan is my real sister,” my mother said.

“But why do we need more: like Auntie Barbara, Auntie Thelma and that?”

“It’s a nice thing to do isn’t it?”

“I suppose.”

“You’d rather have more than less of almost anything though?”  My mother’s reasoning defied logic: I wouldn’t want more boils or warts or farts.  We did get some advantages, it was true, like Christmas presents (Auntie B) and special treats (Auntie T) although given her later brush with being a tea-leaf maybe the origin of these was questionable. KM, my sister, lived the principle of more is more: she had always bought a quarter of sweets to my Mars bar, a box of Bics to my fountain pen and so forth.  Even in Aunties I had a sneaking suspicion, largely speaking, quality was better than quantity.  Not my mother though.

“Auntie Barbara is funny, isn’t she?”

“I don’t know?”  She didn’t seem all that funny to me, she just laughed hysterically at absolutely everything anyone ever said.

“And your Auntie Thelma she’s always bringing you broken biscuits, isn’t she?” I had a lingering question over Thelma and her motives. I just felt it.  At weddings, the unsayable would go unsaid: she was there for what she could get, food, company, comfort.

“Why are you asking about this for?” which was the cue from my mother for me to shut up. We sweated our way on.

When we arrived at Aunt Joan’s and after Uncle Gordon had done his weird playing with our knees and ears tickling thing (I knew this was strange that day when I was 6 years old.  By the time I got to 15 it made my skin crawl.)  He giggled.

“Gordon,” Joan said, and he smiled, “Have you made a cup of tea yet?  And got these kids an ice-pop?”

Gordon was a gopher and a bit simple.  His time was not his own.  “It’s too hot for tea,” my mam said.

“Let’s go to the drain.” Aunt Joan was decisive and having barely rested we were setting off again.

The Castle Hill drain was a few streets away as the crow flies, and crossing a field we made it to an open ditch of water that stretched to the River Humber in one direction and beyond Beverley in the other.  It was one of a number of open drains around Hull that captured the run off from the flat plains of the Wolds.  It was steep sided and slightly scary because if you fell in, you would not necessarily get out in a hurry although it had not rained for a while, and it was much less deep than usual.  Still, it made us feel cool just looking at it and gave us a dream of what sitting by the sea would be like if we could have afforded it.

I was not myself that day: that’s all I can say.  I was neither fully with it or firing on all cylinders and as we played KM, our cousins Michelle and Debbie, and me up and down the drain’s sides, I knew I would end up in the water.  And I did.

My stay in it was very brief: my mother, my super hero, sprung into action, grabbing my hand as I found myself being swept along by the stream of the water.  She pulled me out in one clean jab before the fear of being swept out to sea took me.

Everything was wet, all my clothes, every stitch.  Everything.  The indignity.  So, KM reluctantly gave me her dress which my mother and aunt fashioned into shorts (more akin to a nappy, in truth) kept in place by a belt and some safety pins.  My mother removed my vest.  (“Don’t want you catching your death”) and I spent the rest of the afternoon in abject misery.  My cousin Michelle, seeing me sad, gave me her cardigan to wear.  And that’s the difference between real cousins and pretend ones: you’re invited in and with the real ones you shared clothes, hopes, ambitions, and fantasies about the Osmonds.  But the pretend ones, you never really knew because you hardly ever saw them, or never saw them enough.

One time, I went round to Auntie Thelma’s house, maybe to collect money for the didalum** or something, maybe to take a gift.  Their house was red, I remember that much, and it had a big garden.  The back was not just grass, but had a den and toys left outside, something I was not allowed to do.  I was unutterably jealous of the freedom they seemed to enjoy.  I don’t remember meeting Donna, or her brother Nigel but I must have done.

Fast forward to February 2002. I phoned my mother.  Halfway through, her usual monologue she began what had become an all too familiar routine, “Do you remember…” she said. And I knew what was coming…

Over the years this happened a lot, adult people from the street I grew up in, unhealthy, on poor diet, smokers, fighters and drinkers would die with alarming regularity or else distant relatives I didn’t care about…  And she would get some kind of weird pleasure from the process, “You remember so and so,” she’d say, “His son used to go to Trinity School and he lived on the corner of Batchelor Street and Queen’s gate, next door but two to the Johnson’s.”  I rarely knew who she was talking about, but always answered “Yes?” “Well,” she’d say, “S/he is dead.” And I mourned silently for someone I didn’t remember or hardly knew.

Not this day though.

“It’s your cousin Donna,” she said.

I wracked my brain.  Saw in my mind’s eye, the red-fronted house and remembered the toys, a child’s toys in the garden: left by my pretend cousin Donna.

“What has happened?”

My mother was crying, real, heartfelt tears.

“Auntie Thelma’s in bits.”  My mother said.

My pretend Auntie Thelma who rocked up at weddings, christenings and funerals who was sacked from the Beer-off for stealing, something she swore she never did.

“She’s been found dead.”

My mind was not computing.

“In the Castle Hill Drain.  Naked.  Face down.  Murdered.”

I felt a pang of guilt at not knowing my pretend cousin Donna better and now her life was snuffed out at 30.  They did not know who’d done it though her husband was suspected.  No proof was forthcoming. My mother told the tale to the bitter, bitter end. Every detail but I’d stopped listening. She went to the funeral and cried for a girl I could not bring to mind.

A few months later they found Donna’s husband dead by his own hand and the case was closed.

*Beer-off – Off licence

**didalum – a Christmas money saving scheme