IT WAS 3.45 IN THE SMALL HOURS when a reminder of man’s mortality visited my bedside in the shape of a worried nurse squeezing my knee to rouse me in the half-lit hospital room.
“Arthur? Arthur? Are you feeling okay, Arthur?“
“David.” Why, I thought grimly, must they always call me by my NHS name? “It’s David,” I mumbled, eyes still firmly closed. “‘Arthur’ is my Sunday-best name. And, yes, I feel fine, I was sleeping.“
“Sorry, Arthur…er David… I was just checking. Your heart rate dropped to thirty-two just now.”
“Is there anything I can do about it?“ I asked, wondering at my own mild sarcasm when I should have been overwhelmed with gratitude that for the first time in many years anything had persuaded a woman other than my wife to creep into my bedroom in the wee small hours.
“No,” she replied, apologetically.
“Well I’ll just say goodnight then.” Grumpily, I turned my shoulder to settle down for what remained of the night. I didn’t sleep again until dawn was well up and the sun streaming into my hospital room. A couple of hours, then, to contemplate the way in which Death, and the fear of it, had parked itself on my lawn in the past two weeks and was now resolutely refusing to leave.
‘Our Kid’, my younger brother Richard, died last month on the longest day of this or any year, June 21st. He wasn’t alone: I and my wife Gemma – who worked wonderfully to make his last years as comfortable as he would permit – shared the last hours at his hospital bedside; two of our nieces, Helen and Beky, arrived at Wansbeck Hospital after a difficult rail dash from Warrington just minutes after his passing and were able to say their goodbyes.
And now, less than three weeks later, here I was in my own hospital bed awaiting the implant of a pacemaker to ‘rev up’ my heart when I should have been travelling south to Warrington to deliver a eulogy at my brother’s cremation service.
I guess I’m the lucky one: during a routine blood and blood pressure and heart rate check at my GP’s clinic the on-the-ball district nurse noted my seriously low heart rate, followed up with an electrocardiogram and warned me to stand by for a call from the doctor. Sure enough, an hour after I returned home I was packing a bag for the Borders General (“Just in case,” said my doctor). So here I now lie, awaiting a bed at the Edinburgh Royal where my heart starter will be implanted.
Naturally, my thoughts somewhat morbidly turn to my recently deceased brother and to the eulogy that will now be read on my behalf by my daughter, Tash. The Covid-distanced ‘family only’ service will be led by my niece Helen and feature readings of poems created by my daughter and my close family friend (and Voice of the North colleague) Bernard Trafford.
I never actually called Richard ‘Our Kid’; that was always his name for me and, snob that I am, I never liked it. The older boys where we grew up nicknamed him ‘Meno’ because when the three-year-old was asked what his name was he would proudly exclaim, “Me know!” So Meno it became.
His family nickname was Pog. Richard went through a phase of pogging, a Merseyside dialect word for petty theft. He was the infamous compulsive kleptomaniac of Long Lane Junior School, responsible for the disappearance of jotters and Biros and HB pencils from the stockroom. The ‘stash’ was found by our horrified mum, neatly stacked under his bed; our equally unhappy and formidably honest father, then only recently retired after ten years as an Admiralty policeman, commanded that Pog return the stolen stationery the way it had arrived: stealthily, jotter by jotter, six pencils and a box of Biros at a time until his bedroom was cleared and the school stationery cupboard was replenished.
That was the earliest manifestation of what, fifty years later, was formally diagnosed as Aspergers Syndrome, a form of autism. That and his compulsive fibbing. It wasn’t actual lying, not to Pog anyway, but a desire to tell you what he felt you wanted to hear. He wasn’t very good at it, though; his untruths were always patently transparent and as a kid invariably ended with him imploring our mother, “Don’t believe me, mum, I’m telling lies!”.
He was still doing it at the end of his life as Gemma discovered with her daily telephone interrogations.
“Taken your tablets today, Richard?” — Yes
“Have you cooked yourself a meal?” — Yes
“Are you showered and shaved?” — Yes
Only for him to admit as the result of a surprise visit by her an hour later that the answers to all of the above were really “NO”.
In fact Gemma stumbled on his Aspergers one time when she was driving him from Northumberland down the M6 to Warrington. She heard him mumble to himself, “Eight”, followed five or six minutes later by a whispered “Nine” and shortly after that “Ten”.
“Richard, what are you counting?” she asked.
It turned out to be Eddie Stobart lorries! Actually, Wetherspoons pubs held the same fascination for him, not so much in the architecture but in their frequency and the product they dispensed.
Richard’s childhood was a happy one, shared with me and our sisters Hilda and Janet. Happy apart from his compulsory schooling, that is. I was the snobby, grammar school Big Brother who was always shouting at Rich as I dragged him to his junior school school, from which he often escaped as soon as I dropped him at his classroom. Before I could get to mine he would be heading back home to hide in the wash house until hunger got the better of him.
I saved the tiny tearaway’s life once when I pulled him out of a flooded brook but that only made up for the time I accidentally threw him in when his wellingtons came off while I was giving him a helicopter spin on the bank. Besides, he paid me back 40 or so years later by donating his stem cells when my leukaemia saw me drinking in the Last Chance Saloon, and in doing so provided me the extra years of life I’m still enjoying.
Even to that there was a wrinkle, of course: ten years after getting that gift of continued life my leukaemia returned. At the same time Pog coincidentally developed exactly the same blood cancer. Probable explanation: the cells he had shared with me had evidently turned cancerous in both of our bodies at the same time. Talk about out of the frying pan!
I can’t end without relating a story, the irony of which Rich would have loved but which the po-faced among you will certainly deem ‘inappropriate’. It concerns his underpants.
A month before his death Gemma decided Richard needed new knickers so we ordered nine pairs – yes, NINE! – from M&S online. Two weeks later they had still not arrived and as he was going into care I complained to M&S, they apologised and promised to re-send our order, presuming the original parcel was lost.
You might guess what happened: BOTH sets arrived after Richard’s death, proving that you can actually die waiting for an M&S delivery. Anyway, as we were the same large size I now have 18 pairs of new ppants in my drawers. And, as I always say, ‘ They’ll see me out!”
Thanks, Our Kid.
Dear David, please get well soon. I miss your pithy articles.
Maybe now you are home again in Gemma’s care.
Very best wishes
X Jean and Bernie x
Sorry to hear about Richard, we often talked at the bus stop.
Hope things improve health wise for you very soon and keep writing – always makes me chuckle!
So sorry to hear about your brother Dave and also about you. Hope your recovery is going well I’m sure with Gemma looking after you you’ll be back to your old self soon. Take care lots of love Jean & Barry xx
Banksy, sorry to hear about your bruv. Remember the good times, if you can.
And you’ve been having a dodgy old time of it yerself.
Hope the heart gadget is going ok.
And have you thought of getting a zimmer?
My dodgy shoulder (result of two falls in a week and tackling a 40kg bag of sheep feed) is
unlikely to get any better it seems. . Like yours, a frozen shoulder ..
Dear David, Your tribute chimed with me not least because my twin sister, Bernadette, died three years ago, when I was still calling her “our kid”. She never called me anything but Paul or, before that, Brendan. The reason for the name change was that some of the rougher kids at school realised they could push me well off balance by calling me “Brenda.”
Bernadette and Brendan were our second names but were used by the family because the alliteration suited a pair of twins. Just like you being called Arthur in hospital, the NHS staff would read the notes for Mary Bernadette and say “”Hello, Mary.” Hey ho.
My grandchildren still live in Hexham with their father after their mum, my daughter Anna, died of cancer. That was eight years ago when they were aged six and eight. When everything opens up we plan to drive north and see them all. Perhaps we could have a beer – at your nearest Wetherspoons or wherever.
I won’t bore you with the details but I too am on heart watch after an ECG. But I will risk telling you about visiting a consultant at my local NHS hospital. He said “Now Mr. Morgan, do you know why I have called you in today.” I told him I was not sure because I was under three different NHS consultants at three different hospitals for three different reasons. One consultant is for the bowel cancer that is now in remission; the second is keeping watch after the removal of a metastasis that travelled to the lung and which also seems to have been successfully removed; and the third consultant is keeping an eye on a benign tumour on my pancreas which was found during the first cancer scare. He said: “Well the reason I want to see you is to tell you that I have referred you to a fourth consultant because a routine scan has shown something on your pancreas that we would like to know more about!
Incidentally, our old friend Mike Snaith, who has also been through cancer surgery, is still working as chief features sub at the Daily Express at the ripe old age of 77. Truly one of the great survivors.
Please accept my condolences and my admiration for your writing such a moving yet cheerful tribute at such a sad time.
Dear Dave, It’s January 2012, the Mornington Peninsular in Oz, and a locally unknown but revered international journalist has just taken a tumble, fully-clothed and wielding a walking stick, into the surf, and is being revived by the local surf guards!! “ Are you ok sir”? “
‘He only does this to get attention” snaps Gemma!
Just a few moments I recall from a memorable weekend of sexagenarian celebrations! Sue’s and my condolences on your brother Richards passing, a sad time but thanks so much for sharing those wonderful memories We can picture you in the Edinburgh Royal, tapping out some of your best work on the IPad, backlit by the lamps of your Florence Nightingale supporters, as your wonderful NHS rebuilds you and sends you back to the front line of journalistic endeavour. Mate , every day and every memory is precious and we have lots of you and Gemma over many decades, and many more great ones to come! So fire up that pacemaker, your adoring public needs you!!!