We don’t do illness

Duplicate from ‘Collections’

We never had an illness in our family. People died. Until older brother that is. If you looked out of Uncle Bill’s back window you could see the railway to Manchester and a quarry. You could see lots more. They lived on cliff edge, but I remember the trains best. The house smelled of pipe-smoke. One person could just about turn round in the kitchen. We used to walk out past the quarry after tea with cousin Jeffrey. Dad said Uncle Bill came into a lot of money when an undertaker uncle of his from Oldham died. Didn’t seem to have changed him much. He wore a trilby though and had a pipe-smoker’s bottom lip. Uncle Bill and auntie May were not my real auntie and uncle. Dad and uncle Bill were pals from the war in India. Dad said they would have been the next lot into the proper fighting. As it was he killed a snake. Bill died suddenly, a heart attack, when I was working at St Luke’s. In fact he was admitted there and they called out the crash team. An oxymoron, crash team and St Luke’s. Auntie May carried on. She had a fracture neck of femur and I helped out on the orthopaedic ward. She went into a home and was well into her 90s when she died. We saw very little of her and almost nothing of Jeffrey. He is still going as far as we know.

Uncle George and auntie Gladys lived with Grannie Walker. And there was Gordon. I never could work out who was related to who but these were particularly hard. Gordon had some connection with Leicester and he had a brother who was a merchant seaman. Uncle George’s mother lived in Wakefield. She was called Fortis or that’s what it sounded like and he was called Major. He was cook in the war, not an officer and never cooked anything at home. He could smoke cigarettes though. Forty Senior Service a day. And he had fads. Tropical fish was the best one.  After Grannie Walker died they moved to Moorlands Road at Mount. He bought a massive water tank with all the extras. Weeds, gravel, stones and the bubbly thing in the corner. I went with him once to buy the fish just up from the ‘Slubbers’. We brought them home in a thermos. The fish kept dying. He had a pond with goldfish in the front garden. They kept dying too. He didn’t do it on purpose. He’d be reported to the RSPCA today.

Auntie Gladys had Whitehead’s camera shop. Dad said she sent uncle George on a course to learn photography. He was so airy-fairy he’d never’ave done it on his own. Anyway he had the developing and printing side of the business way up in an attic in the top floor of the market. They did well enough to give us a few extras that mum and dad couldn’t afford and keep his fads and his cigarettes going. I worked there for one or two summer holidays, putting prints on the dryer and doing a bit of printing with Gordon. George looked odd. Bits seemed to stick out. Dad said he’d had his bottom shot off in the war and needed a leather strap to hold him together. I never believed that one. But he did wear something hard under his shirt and jacket. He walked stiffly. One Christmas he could hardly breathe, and just sat in the armchair looking miserable and well, ill, and smoking. Auntie Gladys said he wouldn’t have the doctor. I’d’ve been in bed at least. He started with a pipe after that and put on a lot of weight.

Granny Walker died when I was six or seven, 1954 or so. She was not my favourite, but dad was upset. Mum said so. I knew she was ill and one Sunday dad was called urgently to the hospital. Someone must have come to the door because we didn’t have a phone. He left straightaway. I reckoned she’d died. I had to remember to use my bus ticket to go to town the following Tuesday rather than come home after school. Of course I forgot and blubbered at the bus-stop until some grown-up forked out the penny-halfpenny fare. I managed to get to the pub opposite the Parish church in time. The funeral tea was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and granny had left me a rubber. Not bad. Apparently when dad got to the hospital there was just an empty bed. He never cried or anything.

Uncle Ray died a year or so before Granny Addy, 1969 or so. Mum said she only met some people at weddings and funerals. She always had to be nice to everybody, but she probably never saw them again. Ray was large and red-faced. I got his overcoat so I know how big he was. I got some of his shirts as well. The sleeves were all too short.  Auntie Mary had done something to them. She’d been a seamstress. Ray must have been an odd shape too. His red face came from the desert. During the war he’d served with the ‘desert rats’. He went to Huddersfield Town’s football matches every week.  He and Mary tripped off to the cricket a lot in summer. They went on a bus with a shopping bag full of food. He drank Long Life beer out of a can and there was always pop in the pantry. Auntie Mary was good at meringues. She held her right arm awkwardly, like it was too heavy. I realised later she had the ‘Porter’s Tip’ palsy, a legacy of stretching the shoulder during childbirth. A nerve stops working with all the muscles it supplies. The final posture was ‘I’ll be leaving you now.’ They had a massive cupboard with a sliding glass front. There was everything in there. Snowstorms and spoons, little Blackpool Towers. Next to the fire was the place where Ray kept his policies. Mary said he was forever dusting them. It was meant to be funny.

I kept spraining my ankle at school. Mostly playing basketball. I knew the accident department at the infirmary well. Portland Street, smells that made you feel slightly sick, waits in corridors and black doctors. Mary and Ray arrived at the same time as me once. He’d fallen over on the main street in town. There’d been a freak snowshower. Casualty was buzzing, much better than normal. He’d a sling on his right arm and I’d an elastic bandage on my leg.

I was at Alder Hay in Liverpool when he died. He was the first of the aunts and uncles to go. He just fell asleep on the trolley bus, but he went a funny colour too so auntie Mary said. The ambulance was quick. The driver must have had a walkie-talkie. Anyway big brother and I made the trip back together. Colin is Ray’s son.

George died when I was in Cardiff, about 1973. I went home on the train. Change at Stockport and Staleybridge. Big brother and me had a pint before the cremation and we walked in Greenhead Park. The funeral tea was at the same place as we’d set off from. A full package. Auntie Gladys asked what it must’ve been like, for him, when he died. It was sudden and catastrophic, on a trolley, in casualty, in the new infirmary at Lindley.

Auntie Gladys and auntie Mary then made up a bit of a pairing after that. Dad fetched them both for Saturday tea regularly and took them home. Mary walked out with a gentleman friend, until he died. Anyway they all died, as they do, mum and dad too. Suddenly or from something you couldn’t do anything about. Strange really, doctors and hospitals weren’t much use.