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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.