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.