Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Sadness and humour...

Humour can often raise its happy head in even the saddest of occasions.

Like for instance when your Great-Aunt dies.

Before we start you need to understand something about my father - he was the archetypal Yorkshireman.

I'm not saying he was tight with his money but one of the notes in his wallet had the serial number 00000000001 on it, and it wasn't just money, he was of the generation that had been raised in the 1920's and 30's when families didn't throw things away and used and ate everything that they were offered, then on through the war years and the late forties and early fifties when "make do and mend" became not just a motto but a way of life.

When we were kids in the 1960's it was a criminal offence to leave anything on your plate at mealtimes in our house, you HAD to eat everything that our mother put out on the table, no ifs no buts, if you didn't then punishment was yours for the taking, no ifs no buts, and I'm not ashamed of him to say that when I was around five years old I once had a plate of dinner poured all over my head by my father becase I refused to eat it - it was the principal of waste put to practical use.

So you now have the idea that he was not a man to waste or squander anything of any value, or indeed anything at all, value or not - when he died Ned and I seriously considered the offer by Leeds City Council for us to pay £250 for a plaque fastening to a tree at the crematorium with a dedication to him - we were going to have his favourite phrase engraved on said plaque, "how much was this then" it would have read, the greatest irony being that it would have been his money that paid for it.

But enough of my father, this post is subtitled "The Day my Lovely Auntie Beattie Died", so here goes...

1985, the year that I'd left my new wife at our house in Newcastle to move back to Leeds and see if I'd get used to this "working for your father" job that he'd offered me, so I lived back at my parents house for a while until I decided that I could just about put up with working for the old bugger and Suzanne and I bought a house in Leeds.

It was a fine early summer evening, Ned was on one of his walks around the world and was somewhere in Australia, the Woolworths atlas that my mother had bought to trace his footsteps opened on the coffee table as my father and I burped and farted at the end of another monster plate of food prepared by my mother, we'd just clicked our fingers to command her to clear the plates away when the telephone rang.

Its was old Mrs Williams, Beatties next door neighbour, reporting that she had not seen her all day, nor the day before, and did we know if there was anything wrong with her.

My mother slowly put the phone down and reported to my father what had been said, he decided that he and I should drive down to Beatties house to see what the problem was, my mother could stay home for she had the dishes to do you see, no point in spoiling her routine was there ?

I drove the two of us down there and we parked up in front of the house and knocked on the door, with no response I looked in through the front window.

At an angle to the front door I could see her laying on the floor, we shouted through the letter box and tried that old trick that you see on all the police shows on TV, the one where they put their shoulder to the door and it flies open - in real life I can confirm that all it does is hurt your shoulder.

The police station was just up the road so I jumped in the car and drove there, at the desk a young woman PC took my details and then listened to my story, obviously a trainee she had to go and fetch an old sergeant to decide on what action to take, he asked my auntie Beatties address, I gave him the street name but couldn't for the life of me remember whether it was 174 or 184, one of my other aunties lived at a house on a different street at either 184 or 174 and Beattie lived at the other number - my mind went blank.

"Its one of those" I blurted out, "we'll be stood outside anyway"

By the time I got back to the house there was already a very young looking police constable standing with my dad outside the house, peering in the front window, I was impressed for I'd driven as fast as I could to get back but this copper had made it before me - as it happens he'd just been walking down the road minding his own business while I was at the police station and my dad had grabbed him off the street - we soon found out that he was actually a probationary copper on his first day in the job.

He disappeared around the back of the house and we shortly heard a crash and a splintering of wood as an old and seemingly very secure and heavy wooden back door flew across the kitchen accompanied by our young policeman friend - he had had training you see, you don't use your shoulder, you use your boot.

He entered the living room and opened the front door to us then crouched down to take a pulse from my prone great-aunt, there was none, she'd been dead for at least 24 hours, died on her way to the front door, died with her coat half on and her shopping bag in one hand, door keys in the other - all of that we could all see very clearly as she lay face down on the floor in front of us and in some strange way that made me very happy.

You see a few years before my grandma, her sister-in-law had had a major stroke that left her totally paralysed and left to waste away in hospital for nearly a year before I suspect some kindly doctor decided that enough was enough for the poor old lass one night - that is not a very nice way to die, not for you or your relatives, whereas my great-aunt Beattie seemed to have just had the lights switched out - one minute you're putting your coat on and getting your door keys out to go shopping and the next second you're dead - I want to go that way when its my turn.

There was nothing to do so we just stood there while the young PC tried to remember what it was you do when you discover a dead person, eventually he switched on his radio and in a very quiet voice asked for his sergeant and with his back turned so that he thought we couldn't hear he asked "can you come down here sarge ?"

The same old sergeant that I'd met at the police station turned up with the other young WPC that had been looking after the desk and my great-aunts living room became an impromptu classroom to two Constables on "what to do when you've kicked the door in and found a dead person"

At some point they asked my dad and I to wait in the kitchen, and so we stood in the small scullery for a while with the WPC until the sergeant came in and declared that she was dead, you could tell that nothing escaped this sergeant, he was on the ball alright.

He mentioned an undertaker, did we know one, have any preference, my dad mentioned that my mother had discussed such a matter with her aunt some time before and told me to ring her to ask, it was around about now that we realised that our mother was at home on her own waiting anxiously for us to get news back to her about her aunt.

I don't know why my dad wouldn't speak to my mum at the most sensitive of times but I decided on the direct approach, I rang her...

"Hello mum..." I said, "...she's dead"

I heard a sharp intake of breath from the three policemen gathered in the room behind me, I don't think this method was in their manual of "How to break the news to relatives", it was around then that I noticed that in the cramped front room my auntie Beattie was taking up most of the floor space and to get to the phone I'd had to stand astride her body, I was stood here now, looking down at her, with the phone to my ear ... "No we're definitely sure" I assured my weeping mother on the other end of the phone and just before she burst into hysterical sobs ..."by the way, do you know which undertaker she wanted ?"

The local undertaker was called and again we went to wait in the kitchen while he spoke to the policemen and did whatever it is they do to dead clients, me, my dad and the young policewoman stood in the tiny but neatly kept scullery.

"How was your mother" my dad asked
"Crying" I said
He gave me one of his looks that meant "bloody hell, we're better off staying here then" and then he actually said those very words, the policewoman looked a little shocked but said nothing.

"She kept a clean house didn't she ?" my fathers eyes wandered over the cupboards, the hanging pots and pans and the kitchen sink, "she's even done the washing up look"

Then he started to open all of the cupboards in the kitchen, looking for what I don't know, I think it may have been a touch of shock or uncomfortable-ness at not being in control of a situation, it was certainly strange behaviour and the policewoman watched him carefully as he opened the fridge which contained a small chunk of butter and a chicken breast on a plate which he removed and placed on the worktop.

He stared at the chicken breast for a while, we all silently stared at the chicken breast for a while wondering what the hell he was doing until he spoke again.

"Seems a shame to waste it" he said, "Do you want to take it home love" he asked of the policewoman.

Her mouth actually dropped open in a cartoon stylee, and after a short while to repeat to herself what she thought she had just heard she confirmed that no thank you, she had just eaten that evening.

"Not to worry love" my dad replied, "I'll have it tomorrow then"

And he did.

He searched the kitchen cupboards again until he found some tin foil to wrap the chicken breast in, then he put it in his pocket to take home, waste not want not you see, no point in letting good food go to waste, theres a war on, and all that jazz...


Anonymous said...

Sniff Sniff... Brilliant!

Anonymous said...

Suss that room for me!!

Grannymar said...

Thats the way to go!

Another good story.

But Why? said...

It's incredible how practical some people become at such times.

I loved your thoughts on the plaque for your dad...

Jeff said...

Seems odd to say considering this is about the loss of a loved one, but what a great story. Well written and extremely captivating. Well done Gary.