Unassuming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

None.

But more sadness though.

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

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

She said nothing to no-one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blessings…

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“Learn to get in touch with the silence within yourself and know that everything in life has purpose. There are no mistakes, no coincidences, all events are blessings given to us to learn from.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Very early on in my tenure as a writer in residence at the Hospice, I was given a very difficult assignment.  In the morning meeting, held before the patients arrived, I was told that should Janine come that day, I would be asked to work with her.  In other words, I would be expected to spend a couple of hours with her, and listen, and keep her engaged and chat.  This was deemed good for her, and something that would help.

In truth, I felt that Janine was something of a hopeless case. She was an alcoholic and the Hospice was keen to find space for her for two reasons.  Firstly, they were short of people – either not enough people dying, or not enough people being referred to them and, secondly, they felt bad for her parents who were stalwart fundraisers.  They were at their wit’s end. Janine was not the lovely, sweet daughter they remembered: she was alien to them.   Another factor was that, although Janine’s death was not considered imminent, it was certainly always possible.  She had, for want of a better phrase, pickled her liver and in common with many alcoholics, her throat and digestive tract was riddled with peptic ulcers which could burst at any stage, and cause serious and potentially life-threatening disease and infection.

Like most alcoholics, Janine would scheme and lie, and say that no drink had got close to her that day and yet she would arrive at the Hospice and it was clear that she had had a drink already – you could smell it.   The nurses would ask her if she had taken a drink and steadfastly Janine would deny the consumption of any liquor and yet, the alcohol smell, and her slight slurring of her words would continue.  We knew that she carried bottles in her bag, and about her person, and once, in the toilet, we found a bottle of whiskey hidden inside the ceiling tiles.

It was difficult to spend time with Janine, she was often unfocused and didn’t maintain a linear narrative but as the minutes ticked over, she began to talk sporadically and tell me about her life – about her path to this place – despondent and desolate at 38.  Her story came in fits and starts over many weeks. I would look at her, as we sat together in the conservatory of the hospice, boiling hot because of the mid-day sun and wonder why she had let herself get into the state she had – bloated, and disconnected and thoroughly sad. She did not like the silence any more than I did: we talked of television, of yesterday’s supper, of a range of topics, and then slowly, slowly she started to peel back the layers.

It had begun some 20 years before.  At that time, she was a bright young thing: perriwinkle blue eyes alive and smile radiant enough to make men stop, sit-up and take notice.  She could have anyone, that’s what she said.  She knew what to wear, how to make-up her face and how to simper.  Even in the hospice you could see that she had been very beautiful – that rare combination of light blue eyes and dark hair, and occasionally, she would flash that beguiling smile that promised so much.  She would flirt with a coat stand.

At 18 she had taken a job with the West Yorkshire police, as an office worker and pretty quickly she had risen through the ranks so that she had become the secretary to a senior detective on the force.  At that time, he was a man under the most enormous of pressures – he was one of the officers involved in the inquiry for the Yorkshire Ripper, and whoever was committing this crime, this series of crimes, was making the police look very stupid. He took solace in the arms of his beautiful secretary.

I won’t judge him or her  – in the fraught day-to-day of a deeply affecting serial killing spree it was hardly surprising that he, and the men with him on the case, felt pressure that no man could bear.  He used his secretary, as many men have done before and Janine, young and impressionable, allowed herself to be his lover.  She never disclosed to me what was said in their intimate moments and I did not probe, but she often looked off into the middle distance and it was clear that he shared as much as he could when they were together, more than she should have known about the case, the very grim details. She carried his pain, she held the words of fear he dared not say to his wife, his concern that he would never help find the man killing women across the county.

Janine always knew the officer had a wife, and although she always carried a torch for something more, she knew that she was just a passing place, a stopping post on a much bigger journey.  She hoped for more, night after night, she fantasised about how it would be when all this was over. But in her heart, she knew it never would be. That when peace reigned in his soul again and when they’d caught the killer, and sent him down and thrown away the key, that her lover would leave her without a backward glance.

And just as she predicated, when it was all over, that was exactly what happened to Janine.  She was excess to requirements, no longer needed as a shoulder to cry on, the abandoned port in a storm.

In those long summer days when Janine spoke to me, she never once called him anything other than a gentleman; she never once suggested he was a bad person for using her as he did. She had wanted more but she was smart enough to realise it was never going to happen.   All of this she told me in a fleeting rush of alcohol-induced eloquence, and then, when those moments had passed she did not speak at all.  She did not mention the cavernous pain within her, but smiled and filled the air with the mundane.

One day, when we were locked in that hot, hot space she told me what she really hoped for her life.  She had a high-pitched, whiskey and cigarette ruined voice, and she spoke without fear, “what I always wanted was children, something solid that would hold me to the earth.  I loved him you know, Mary, I loved him.  And even though I knew his wife had his heart I still believed that I held him close,  somewhere special.  I really did.  I gave him everything, everything I had. And then, when they found Peter Sutcliffe, with his hammers and his knives, I knew that it was over and that those passionate, beautiful nights were gone. And that I was another one, another victim.”

Janine did not speak much of this again, and I was not equipped to help her move it on.  Her hopes and dreams of being the partner of this man died right then – and all she had given him counted for nothing when the charge sheet was written, and the cell door closed.

Was she angry at being left behind? “No,” she said, inhaling on her cigarette, “I was blessed.  But imagine being blessed by other women’s suffering.  Imagine being blessed by the worst possible crimes being committed, it’s tainted and yet – those were the best moments of my life, and I’ll never get that passion or that kind of love again.”

She never spoke of it, but I imagined Janine much reduced, back with her parents.  I imagined her back in her childhood bedroom, a single bed with a pink, candlewick bedspread, I imagined the hours between two and four – when she had known passion driven by pain, and fear and despair and hanging on for dear life as if you’d never breathe again, and I understood – profoundly, completely – why she drank  – because she’d lived her life in techni-colour, and at speed and now she was in slow-motion monochrome, and that intensity with a man who needed her was gone and she’d never re-calibrate to the ordinariness of the everyday again; like flying high on the trapeze and then being asked to get the same kick from a suburban garden swing. In the silence, her loss was profound.

I don’t know what happened to Janine in the end, but my fear for her is that she died without realising that even though she’d loved and lost, she never learned what her life was trying to teach her.

 

 

 

 

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, Scabble, Monoplogy, Pictionary like any other family.   A daily round of up for school, breakfast, home, supper, TV, bath and bed.  Weekends of long dog walks and swimming and excursions and down time.  The women, determined to make it work held house meetings to establish guidelines that took the pressure off, that helped the whole tick along.  Like any family, it didn’t always run smoothly: but it was well-meaning and there was a lot of love. That got everyone through – just about – unscathed.  And Jane was a very good breadwinner: she was a woman who could make things happen.  She could convince a funder to back her, she could generate work wherever she went.  Jane had the capacity to give people what they needed, say all the right things – she was very, very clever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We were always there for her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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’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 for that person 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, siblings, 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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Orange mortar and Scapegoats, part 2

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I never saw Ernie Clarke (you can read the first part here) again, apart from on television and that was on the occasion of his trial where the TV camera followed him from a white van.  He had a blanket over his head.  The torso and the head were recovered in the dregs of the giant oil vat at Velva Liquids Ltd which had preserved both, more or less: not sufficiently to provide a picture of the young woman who had died, but enough to enable them to calculate her age, her height and the cause of death – a blunt instrument to the head.  There were two other facts to distinguish the girl (aged between 16 and 20, and in all probability nearer the lower end of that scale) – she had had her appendix out and had once fractured her collar bone.

All sorts of tidbits were given on the news and we all took a sudden interest – hanging around for the 9 o’clock rather than scurrying off to bed.  It seemed surreal that the man who had, up to a few months before, lived opposite us could have done such a thing when he seemed so ordinary and dull.

“I don’t think Ernie did it!” Mrs Petty said, leaning on her yard brush – something she often did though rarely did she bother to sweep in anger.  It was like a stage prop, something to give her purpose from A to B that explained her reason for being in the tableaux of three women outside our front.  She loved a gossip.

“Me either,” my mam said washing the sills down like a whirling dervish, “And his kids are gorgeous too.”

Val Petty lit a cigarette, sucked the nicotine into the very pits of her lungs.  “He once winked at me,” she said, a moment of genuine excitement in her perimenopausal life.

“He never winked at me,” Jacky Frame sounded a bit disappointed.  She was small but perfectly formed as though she’d gone in the quick wash the right size, and come out shrunken, “I thought he was a bit shifty,” she said.

“No you didn’t Jacky,” it was my mam who was now washing the step with an inappropriate ferociousness, “You said he had a look of Sidney Poitier…”

“He did,” Val drew in another lungful of smoke, a habit that would see her dead within 4 years, “He really did.  Gorgeous.”

There was more talk and then, the women turned to exclude me.  I knew their mouths would be shaping out the words – fierce ones like ‘rape’ and ‘sexual assault’ and ‘battery.’

Val drew away first,  “He didn’t seem the type to me – he’d only have to ask!” My mother looked a bit shocked and continued her frenzied cleaning of the front.

“Well,” she said, “We’ll see.”

A few nights later on the news we were given more info about the girl in the tank.  They’d found out who she was and when she went missing.  The biggest clue had been her teeth – the forensic dentist was able to identify she was from South Shields because of the level of fluoride and then, an unusual number of cusps on her teeth had led to an identification.  She was Eileen McDougall.

Eileen was a 17 year old girl who went missing in January 1970, nine years before, and as bad luck would have it, from Ernie’s point of view she had been found where he had worked.

To hear Peter Frame talk it was an open and shut case: because of course he, a young boy along with Dave Petty only marginally older, knew all along that there was something of the night about Ernie and they’d never trusted him.

“Don’t be so ridiculous, the pair of you,” I’d said but no one was listening.  Rumour abounded.  His three kids kept a low profile – going to school, coming home, not playing out on the street, not joining in with a knock-a-bout, not being one of us so that somehow this added to the possibility that all this was true about Ernie.  And we couldn’t rib them without breaking them in two, a tell-tale sign of guilt by association.

“He had an eye for the ladies,” Dave Petty said, “especially younger ones.”

“You’re making it up!”  I was outraged.

“My dad heard from someone in the pub, who heard it from a friend of his: there was a young lass on Bransholme, and one up in Hessle…”

“So that must be true! Honestly!”

“Are you calling me a liar?”  Dave seemed hurt.

“Yes,”  I said, “Yes, I suppose I am.” And walked off before they could call me anything…

But the truth was Ernie was in deep: not only had he worked at the place Eileen had been found but her sister had babysat his three children.  And because Ernie was a man of his time, and in the spirit of some kind of misguided camaraderie, he’d sought to impress the police with his sexual conquests suggesting he’d slept with Eileen’s sister and her friend too.

I could picture the scene: 1979 police station, a black guy trying to impress the while police officers, trying to sound like his misguided idea of what a real man would do. The big I am.  The man women couldn’t resist.  That was Ernie.  He had not a single problem with admitting sexual encounters (of which there were many, he said) or with making up a few because he thought it enhanced his reputation.  That was what male bravado looked like (that’s what it still looks like in some quarters!)  But he didn’t think it through. Ernie committed a suicidal error because he also admitted he knew Eileen and had had contact with her and that, wedded to the fact that he knew the Velva site like the back of his hand, meant his guilt was confirmed in the eyes of the police.

There was more to come – as we discovered on the news.  The reporter stood outside the courtroom telling us that a colleague also remembered Ernie digging a hole, and then filling it with a liquid that solidified as if he was hiding something. When the police excavated the site and found some items of what might have been clothes (although later proved to be cleaning rags) the situation got graver still.

All in all, it was a very bad situation for Ernie Clarke. Not only had he dug his own grave, he’d helped to fill it with handfuls of soil.  He was found guilty of murder in 1980 and sentenced to life in prison.

But the story didn’t end there. Ernie always maintained his innocence, even when an acceptance of his guilt would have been more likely to reduce his sentence.  He never deviated.  And the Clarke kids couldn’t stay off the street forever so they came out fighting, defending their father and saying it was none of it true.  Later, Liz would take every opportunity she could to say that her dad hadn’t done it…

In 1984 we were all very excited when the TV programme Rough Justice conducted a re-investigation of the evidence.  They believed that Ernie was innocent.  They wanted to know where Eileen was hanging out, who else might have known her, what other potential mistakes may have been made.  In the end, their evidence was compelling (see here for a discussion on it…)

And the programme believed Ernie innocent.  But he was never released from prison – not until the end of his sentence in 1994 by which time, we’d gone from the street and had lost track of all the people we’d lived with. By which time, Ernie had aged and was old for his 64 years. Innocent or not he’d paid a price…

Hard to say where the truth lay.  A girl of 17 could fall out of the world without much notice, be brutally murdered and lie in the vast bottom of a tank for 9 years – whether Ernie killed her or not – that’s the real tragedy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

No Country for Old Women

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Mrs Swift wasn’t.  In fact, she hardly moved at all.  Her main journey seemed to be from the kitchen to the living room and back again.  She must have gone upstairs, but I never witnessed this. There was probably a time, years before, when she left the house. But something had happened to stop her.  And, aside from one occasion, she lived her life within the confines of her house on St Matthews Street.

Mrs Swift was the standard issue older woman of my memory: sober dress, wrap-a-round pinny with her grey hair permed or demi-waved.  The only woman who deviated from this template was Purple-Haired Lady who lived alone on Chomley Street.  She had been a professional.  A ‘professional’ what I couldn’t say.  The vibrant mauve gave her a certain swagger which my sister and I admired.  The rest, all the old women of my childhood, looked exactly like Mrs Swift.  They were women born at the turn of the century or in the previous one and had survived the great depression only to hurtle into a war-time of austerity that clung to them like dust. They were resilient.

One such survivor was the old lady who lived directly opposite us.  She had lived in the street, it transpired, longer than anyone.  Each day, dressed in a flimsy mucus-coloured mac, and a green hat at a death-defying angle, she would leave her house to go to town.  Her shopping bag, brown and misshapen, hovered an inch above the ground.  She seemed tiny. I don’t know where she went on those trips, but I do remember her determined walk and wondered how a woman could be so bent and still manage to put one foot in front of the other. When she died, my mother and her friend Alice, laid her out.  It transpired she was 98, had lived without her husband for 48 years and always in the same house.  She had also once been 5’8″.  My mother told me this with a kind of wonder as though she’d witnessed a miracle after seeing her finally straightened.

My mother worked in the fish and chip shop on Airlie Street and this gave her a special status that was a combination of agony aunt and social worker.  Mr Swift, who seemed to me to be austere, went to buy his and Mrs Swift’s supper twice a week.  My mother asked the sort of questions that allowed people to talk, deftly providing a platform for sharing.  That was how she discovered Mrs Swift’s agoraphobia. After that, she always gave him extra chips.

“I don’t suppose he mentioned the affairs that drove her to it?” Alice, who also worked in the chippy, said.  My mother dismissed this as salacious gossip. Not Mr Swift, he seemed a proper gentleman.

On a Tuesday and a Thursday, like clockwork, Mr Swift came in.  He wore his overcoat and trilby hat whatever the weather. And then, suddenly, he stopped. First one week, then another.  When it got to four weeks, my mother took action.

Taking her courage in both hands, she went and knocked on the Swift’s front door.  It opened enough to reveal a sliver of Mrs Swift’s face.

“Is everything okay love?” My mother said.  “It’s just I’ve been serving your husband for years at the chippy and I’ve missed him.”

The door opened and having been quickly ushered inside the whole sorry story came out. Not the why of it, of course, but the how and what.

Mr Swift had had a colossal stroke.  The front room had been converted to a bedroom, and that was where Mr Swift was sleeping. Each day, Mrs Swift would wash and dress him, and get him to the toilet via a walking frame of sorts. He would spend the rest of the day in his chair in the middle room watching a silent television.  He could not speak but grunt, each one rumbling like an earthquake from him. His noises meant nothing to the untrained ear.

“Our Matthew has been here,” Mrs Swift said, “But he has an important job and can only come once a week. At best.”

“Who’s doing your shopping, love?” My mother asked which was how she came to volunteer.  Twice a week she would go around, tap out a special code of a knock before going in, gather the list and sort the Swifts out.  Mrs Swift would insist on paying a few pounds for this service and after repeated arguments my mother would accept the coins for the sake of peace.

Somewhere along the line, this job came to me.  This must have been in the holidays and at weekends (where the mysterious Matthew would fail to make an appearance), I would go round, rap the special tattoo, and enter the house.  At first, I was terrified of Mr Swift because he growled and if you were unlucky enough to encounter him standing, which was a feat of engineering that barely seemed possible, you worried for your life.  As time moved on I got used to him, but the fear never really left me. I didn’t have my mother’s qualms about accepting the payment.

At 6am one morning there was a loud knock on our front door.  It was already a bright sunny day, and my father grumbled his way downstairs.  There was a dark, shadowy figure that could be made out through the frosted glass and the banging was getting increasingly urgent.  It was Mrs Swift.

She was dressed for winter.  Black coat, black hat, black – probably Sunday – dress.

“Do you want to come in love?” my mother was saying.

Mrs Swift was clear that she did not – and looking behind her with every other word – she somehow communicated to my mother that her husband had died over night and she needed the ambulance.  She was saturated with sweat and shaking.

She left then, and I watched her walk down the deserted street in ill-fitting court shoes as though a whole army of not very nice men were chasing her.

In truth, Mrs Swift was lighter and more at ease with the world with her husband gone, as if a weight had been lifted.  She would hint at what this was but never say much of anything at all, and I didn’t have the imagination or the experience to analyse what had caused her deep anxiety, what had made her lock herself away.   She would laugh and joke when I brought her three bottles of stout from the beer-off, and sometimes ask me if I fancied a sip.  The other thing she did was offer me one of her butter-mint bonbons which she bought every week (after that, I stopped pinching one from the bag on the way home from Pawson’s.)

We would enjoy an exchange about her shopping list.  I’d query what some of her writing said, and Mrs Swift would take out her large box of glasses and try one on for size until she happened upon a pair that meant she could see.   One time I asked her where they all came from and she said, mysteriously, “the dead.”

I only occasionally resented having to do the old girl’s shopping and I did it every week until I left for university. I never met her son Matthew but she was very proud of him, his achievements, and those of her two grandchildren who smiled out of posed photographs on the piano.

One day, Clive, the milkman, who still pushed a trolley around the streets to make his delivery, noticed Mrs Swift hadn’t taken her milk in. He knocked, the special knock, but the door was bolted on the inside.  He knelt and looked through the letter box and could see her at the top of the stairs.  He hefted the door with his shoulder until it gave way.

Mrs Swift had died the night before, of natural causes, wearing someone else’s glasses.

Putty

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My mother was not cast in stone but something malleable and occasionally combustible. Some days she was the life and soul of the party, others the spectre at the feast.  She was benign one day, and a raging storm the next.  She once, in anger, hit my sister with a cucumber (the nearest thing to hand), and then hit her again because it broke. That was my mother in a nutshell.

I’d lie in bed in the morning listening for the signs of her mood for the day: the way she moved about the kitchen, the crash and bang of the utensils and the speed of her step as the breakfast cereal made its way to the table, the tone she used to rouse us, the swearing if inanimate objects refused to bend to her will. It sometimes helped, but often she could turn on a sixpence: a shrug of a shoulder from one of us, a misdirected sigh and wham, we were on a different track.  She was unpredictable.

One summer holiday day, my brother K, my sister KM and me were arranged in a police style line-up in the kitchen. The baby, T, was still in his pram – I honestly believe he’d have joined us if he had mastered standing.

“Who did it?” she asked.

We looked from one to the other – there was a dangerous silence.  No one wanted to say anything.  She walked in front of us, staring closely at each of us in turn as though she would need to identify us at a later stage. We were clearly guilty criminals.

“I know it was one of you,” she said.

We none of us spoke.  It was potentially fatal to jump before being pushed.  And besides, the exact nature of the accusation had not been revealed. I tried to look innocent.  I was innocent.

“That mark in the putty,” she began her walk in front of us again: up and down.

In turn, we each denied it.  At first, I didn’t even know what putty was.  And it didn’t seem a good time to ask.

“In the greenhouse window pane. The new one. A fingerprint.” My mother looked down the line-up. I looked at KM.  She looked steadfastly forwards. K seemed more nonchalant.

“It wasn’t me,” he said.

“Or me!” KM half shouted.

“Well?”  My mother said, leaning over towards me.  She should have been in the Gestapo.

“I didn’t do it.”  I hadn’t either.

“I suppose it was Mr Bloody Nobody, was it?”  There was not a hint of humour in her tone.

“I’ve had enough of you all,” she said with controlled contempt.  “I’m leaving.  And I’m not coming back.”  She paused.  “Tell them to look for me in St Andrew’s dock.”

Deliberately, she grabbed the baby’s pram and left the house.

I was seven I suppose, KM eight and K, ten.

“One of you two better own up when she gets back,” K said.

“I’m not owning up.  I didn’t do it.” KM spat back.

“I’ll make you.”

“You and whose army?”

“Stop it,” I said, before they started.  They were always trying to beat seven shades of shit out of each other.

“Mary, you admit it.  She’s always easy on you.”  KM looked at me, half pleading.

“It wasn’t me.” I said.

We stood there for another ten minutes.  I think we expected her to pop up and say, ‘gotcha!’ but she didn’t.

“She’ll be back,” K tried to sound confident. I wanted to know where St Andrew’s Dock was.

“She’ll definitely be back.”

But she wasn’t.  It was early morning when she left.  Dinner time came and went, and there was still no sign of her.  We walked around the house like ghosts. We didn’t play.  We didn’t speak. We didn’t watch television.  It was a beautiful sunny day but we didn’t leave the house. It felt cold. Every now and then K would say, “She’ll be on her way home now” each time less certain than he’d been before.

At teatime, KM ferreted about the cupboards and found some tins of soup.  Standing on a stool, she heated them up then poured them into bowls.  She carefully wiped up the drips, even rinsing off the dishcloth as she’d seen our mother do. The three of us ate in silence.

Dad was working late but I was beginning to wonder how we would explain what we hadn’t done to make our mother leave and not come back.  I felt hollow, empty.  I wanted to say it was me who’d done the putty, even though I couldn’t reach it.  I wanted to take the blame for everything, to make it all alright. I started to imagine the words I would say.  I suppose the other two were making up their story too, but I didn’t ask.  Waves of worry washed over me.  My stomach hurt.  It would be bedtime soon. I didn’t want to go to bed without my mother home. Where was St Andrew’s dock?  Should we ring the police?

And then the door opened, and she came in.  My mother pulled the pram, a great big Silver-cross thing up over the step, parked it in its usual place beside the table. Then, she carried on as if nothing had happened.

I suppose the demands of motherhood just got the better of her sometimes.  And that St Andrew’s Dock day was one of those days.

Fast forward 10 years and I am standing in a phone box in Sheffield, a week or so into my first term at university feeling wretched and alone.  I am the first person in my family to go to university and the burden is too great.  I hate it.  I hate it and I want to come home.  I am out of place, skewed. I want to work in a factory, marry a man, have babies and not be clever. There is no-one like me here, no-one like us apart from the halls of residence porter and the woman who cleans my room.  I have made friends with both: she gives me the only cerise pink duvet available and, when I’m feeling down, he teases me about Hull, about how it smells like fish.

I am phoning my parents. The week before I’d told them I want to leave and over egg and bacon in a greasy spoon my father weeps, big, wracking, silent tears dripping down his cheeks.  My mother says I can leave if I want to.  What am I to do?  It’s the first time I have ever seen dad cry. So I get back on the train and resolve never to mention how hard it is again.

The phone rings out.  And then again.  Five or six times that evening I stand in line.  Five or six times the phone rings out.  Where are they? They are always in.  My parents don’t go anywhere. I feel alone.  Empty.  Hollow. It’s like the putty incident all over again. I don’t sleep.  I rock around my room, walking its tight dimensions like a prison cell.

The next morning my dad answers.  He should be at work.

“Where’s me mam?” I ask.

“She’s in the hospital.”

“Do I need to come home?”

“No!” he says.

He’s so firm that I take him at his word.

“How are you?”

I offer some platitudes.

“Are you sure she’ll be okay?” I ask.

Yes he says, she’ll be home next week.

So the following week I ring, and there my mother is bright and breezy but I know she’s holding back, holding in.  Week after week, we speak but say nothing.

Finally, I arrive home for Christmas and it is then I find out she has cancer.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I hold in my rage, my anger at not knowing about her pain, and at my exclusion.

“We didn’t want you to worry,” she says, “You’ve got enough on your plate.”

I can only return silence.  I want to say, ‘Please don’t do that again. Please tell me everything.’ But I can’t. I walk around like a ghost, too afraid to ask about her prognosis then finally pluck up the courage.

“I’m great,” she says, lying.  She has had a lump remove and the treatment is aggressive leaving her hair thin and her face grey.

“They’ve told me I’ll get better.”

And because there is nothing else I can do, I believe her. And we carry on as if nothing has happened.