Black Country Memoir: Letters to Myself, by Dan Causer

I sat in the hospital waiting room and stared up at the time, tapping my leg to the tick and tock rhythm. It was the beginning of life against the clock.

I thought how this building was both the start of life and also the place where you say goodbye… anxiety ate me up waiting for the news, and it did what it does best, planting the worst thoughts in my mind.
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I am on the way back from hospital with my mother. The rain tips and taps on the car gently, and with the radio playing low it coalesces into an atmosphere of melancholy.

The doctor has just informed us that my dad has cancer, and I’m looking for any form of comfort. We stay silent on the long drive home. At times, we glance at each other, a glance in which we feel comfort for a split second, knowing we still have each other.

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The bell rang for home time. School had become my escape route to some sort of freedom, a place where death wasn’t lingering. I used to love the walk home on my own.

Stowe pool was my favourite part. As a breeze blew in from the top of the water, the ducks would bob, the fisherman would cast, and the reflection of the cathedral would drift along the calm surface.

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It’s Sunday, rugby day for me. My father would never want me to stop, whether he was pitch side or not. I start to play for him, in his honour, his name and presence on the side line. Warm sunshine touches my skin gently and brings forth a grin. I inhale the fresh air. I inhale life.

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My father continued to deteriorate, quicker than expected. It started to make sense, all the deliveries of equipment you’d normally find in hospitals and care homes.

I remember the hospital bed that was wheeled around to the front door. It became the centre of attention in the living room, because of its sheer size as much as anything else. Along with that came wheelchairs, commodes, walking frames, and a hoist which dad would use to pull himself up.

Everything was white, the irony being that none of this symbolised my father’s situation; he was closer to hell than heaven.
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I am called out of class for my counselling session. I know I am supposed to appreciate the support from teachers and counsellors but deep down, I despise these sessions. They make me feel like I’m going insane.

The ‘Close your eyes and think of an air balloon,’ or the ‘Imagine you’re on a quiet beach on your own…’ I don’t want to think of these things. As soon as I open my eyes from these make-believe places, I am back to the real world. There is no escape from the reality at home.

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Another Sunday, another rugby day. We won, but for me, the jubilation only lasted so long because I returned home to an ambulance parked on the driveway. I even wondered for a second whether it was for Dad or not, but deep down I knew.

The walk around to my front door was the longest I had taken; with every step I feared the worst. As soon as I entered, I saw Dad lying in a crumpled mess with blood seeping from his mouth. My mother stood in distress,  watching as the paramedics did their work; my job was to console, be strong and keep her fighting.

He’d had a fit – the best news we’d heard since he was diagnosed as terminally ill. He was still alive.

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It is Christmas Day, 2009. I wake up early to assist my mother with the usual routine; ensuring he has the right pills and something to eat, comforting and talking to him because I never know when it will be the last time.

I lift the ominous atmosphere with music. The sound of The Pogues’ ‘Fairy-tale of New York’ drifts through our home and for once we feel like this terminal burden has been lifted. With the song playing, we stand either side of him and with a simultaneous struggle get him into his wheelchair, ready for the day. The tree is in the corner of the living room, next to his bed.

I wheel my Dad through to the kitchen where the ingredients to make mince pies are laid out. I watch him reach for the mincemeat and I know now he is happy. He loves cooking. I help my mother with the dinner preparations. The smells of turkey, clementines and an open bottle of sherry mingle with the sound of Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas’.
It feels normal again.
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I woke to the alarm of my father’s needs. It was a cold Saturday morning yet the sun shone on my face like a wandering angel ready to escort him away.

I lay for a while and reminisced. I remembered all the good times, the holidays, the fishing trips and the love my father gave to me when he was fit and healthy. I remembered the four o’clock starts in the height of the fishing season. With my fishing tackle in the car already, my clothes would be ready at the foot of my bed. A cup of tea would be waiting for me downstairs to get me warmed up and ready to go. I’d watch my father make a lunch box for each of us; ham sandwiches on the freshest white bread, a packet of cheese and onion crisps, a cherry bakewell.

Wellies sat ready to be worn on the outside doormat, smeared in mud from the fishing banks before. With a push and a struggle they’d finally be on, and off we’d go.   

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Another school day finishes and I arrive home. I often ask myself is it home? Is it where I feel safe? Is this my place of security and belonging? No, is the real answer. I know every time I arrive, this isn’t home, it is four walls keeping my father enclosed, lying in his hospital bed, deteriorating, weakening, dying.

There’s sellotape on the front door… it used to anchor birthday balloons during happier times. The smell of medication and inevitable death is now my welcome.

The sound of the television mingles with a stranger’s voice as I go in to find doctor this or nurse that. My mother is at my father’s side and I am too. The comfort and love we give during this terminal fight keeps us going.

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It was the morning of the 27th February 2010 when I woke to the sound of the death rattle. I lay there. I knew. My soul arose and drifted to my father’s side.

I went downstairs. I could smell the dance of death as I calmly walked to his bedside. An aura shadowed the atmosphere. I wished I could feel his hot breath against my cheek. The nurse informed me he had gone, and it was comforting, relieving and strangely calming. He was free of this cancerous curse. She insisted I wore the stethoscope and listened. Time froze as I hunted for any noise, anything to give me hope and give life back.

We left the house, fatherless and widowed. The same fresh air that embraced me on rugby day eased my grief as I felt my dad’s soul follow behind me. We decided to go to Fradley Junction. Just off the marina was a large fishing pool, our next fishing destination, but it wasn’t to be.

The weather was the same as the evening we found out he was terminally ill. A wet cacophony, drowned in seconds. Maybe pathetic fallacy is true.
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Biography

Dan Causer is in his final year at the University of Wolverhampton studying English Language and Creative Professional Writing. This is his first published piece, and he feels it is an honour for this particular work to be the first one to be read widely. Dan is developing an interest in life-writing and wants to continue exploring memoir as a genre.

Banner image: Stowe Pool, Paul Woolrich

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Black Country memoir: Hinterland, by Tim Franks

 

I was born in 1954 and grew up in the bandit country on the north-west frontier… of Wolverhampton. The Luftwaffe hadn’t taken the lead in town planning, not like in Coventry and Birmingham, so the council had to be held responsible for the devastation wrought.

In front of the town hall they replaced a market square, surrounded by ornate Victorian facades and walkways, with a Civic Centre whose design seemed to have been out-sourced from behind the Iron Curtain. A large hole sat in the heart of town for a few years and when the builders eventually filled it up with plate glass and concrete, the old arcades were gone. In London or Brighton they would have given them a heritage paint job and paid someone to stand at the entrance in a top hat and brocade trimmed uniform.

We lived further out; out in the building sites where everyone was being given the same buff-coloured council houses.

When we were kids we used to dig holes and light fires; in gardens, behind lock-up garages, in the nettle-pocked scrubland around the Methodist church hall. Hidden from the main road, at Dunstall behind the old cinema, was a derelict mansion. No one bothered with security fences, or signs of dire warning back then. Mainly, we just kept away from the holes in the floorboards when we sneaked in. The canal ran close-by and we’d wander along the towpath and slide on shoe-soles down the sandy slopes under the bridge, our voices echoing from the high, blue-brick arches. Mom had taught me to swim after a little girl from a couple streets away drowned, so I was okay to play down by the water. At Aldersley, near the first of the locks that step up to the town, the ground was honeycombed with tunnels where houses used to stand. We would hide and talk in terracotta cellars, scrambling through debris and sitting on the remnants of collapsed walls.

aldersley locks

Sometimes, we’d make arrows and tip them with wire that we flattened and sharpened between stones. Digging small holes and covering them with larger stones, we could stash our ammunition across potentially hostile territory, knowing, like squirrels searching for their hazelnuts in a hard winter, that memorising locations might be the difference between life and death.

Hallowe’en was swedes, not pumpkins; and life on the edge was knocking on doors and running off. Bonfire season brought potatoes stuffed into mattress springs and dropped into waning flames. Later, a stick hooked through a spring caught you a meal from the embers. Any potato with a thin layer of heat-softened flesh was a culinary triumph.

Keeping warm was a preoccupation not understood by those who have lived all their lives with central heating. Waking on winter mornings, your bedroom sat in the bitter beauty of a translucent light filtered through ice ferns frozen across the inside of single-glazed windows. Most days the collision of glass and outside air spawned puddles of condensation that poured over the edge of sills and streamed across lino tiles. Beyond the narrow bubble of the single coal fire’s heat, bedsheets held the cold with a cloying dampness rooms with radiators will never know.  The first sound I heard each morning came from my parents’ room; the scrape of a match, followed by a rasping cough as my dad sucked in the first tobacco-tinged air of the day. The last breath of the previous night had been drawn from a nub-end that he balanced on a bedside ashtray. Woodbine, Senior Service, Park Drive, the nicotine-packed decongestants of a pre-cancerous age.  Adverts proclaimed the benefits of paraffin heaters as cheap and moveable sources of warmth, not mentioning the invisible smells. For us this was a brief folly soon thrown on the scrap man’s lorry after our own canary-in the-coalmine moment, courtesy of an asphyxiated budgie, stiff in the bottom of his cage.

Then, when I was nine, we moved to a new flat rising grey above a sea of beige bricks. Now we had it all; an all-electric, underfloor heated, high-rise flat – and the bronchitis that had been my constant winter companion seemed not to have a head for heights.

After the last children’s programme had ended at ten to six, I would read and look out of my window. Being on the sixth floor gave me a sense of perspective. My first real, chosen-by-me book was The Tale of Troy, then Jennings and Derbyshire, The Silver Sword and Sherlock Holmes, Mary Renault and The Iliad… I didn’t know which ones were supposed to be clever, I just liked the fighting and the secret worlds of children. On Sundays, sitting in the club while my dad played snooker, a man from the local shop would come into the bar selling newspapers from a bag. I’d buy the Valiant, and read about Captain Hurricane ripping open Tiger Tanks with his bare hands and the occasional grenade.

If the child is father to the man, then maybe that’s why I ended up writing a school history book on Ancient Greece. I didn’t want to. They made me do it. I was on a course for teachers and the tutor said ‘You will write some passages for the children to read.’ It was a day out of work, so I wrote. I wrote about Victorian England and houses that reflected the income of their occupants. The lady tutor said, ‘These are very well-written.’ And that felt good, so I wrote some more without being told to. Our flat, and my nan’s on the floor below, was full of books. But you took books off shelves, it wasn’t my place to write them…

I’ve still got copies of those early works the tutor liked so much. I’d used personification and anthropomorphism, though I didn’t know that I had: I didn’t know what they were. Homer and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle must have smuggled them in when I wasn’t looking.

 

Biography

Tim Franks is 63 and lives in Wolverhampton. He began writing in his twenties and was subsequently contracted by OUP to write history books and aspects of the Oxford Reading Tree: the bestselling school reading scheme at the time. Tim has had a short story read on Radio 4 and his fiction has been widely published.  He is currently concluding the initial draft of his second political crime thriller.

Tim is the latest writer to feature in our memoir series. He is taking part in the Mantle Lane Press Spring Showcase at Birmingham Literature Festival, on from 27 – 29 April. View the full festival programme here.

Your photos wanted!

Living Memory is a Heritage Lottery Fund project exploring photography and life stories from across the Black Country. 

The project will be appearing at two local events coming soon:

Lion Farm Action Centre: 25th Year Anniversary, 12 May: See some of the stories and photographs from Living Memory. Volunteers will there be collecting stories and professionally copying photographs, slides and negatives – please come and get involved!  11am until 3pm, Lion Farm Action Centre, Shelsley Avenue B69 1BG.

Haden Hill House Museum –  Exhibition, Talks, Workshops and Collecting Sessions, 18 June – 1 July: The first temporary exhibition of the Living Memory project  showing new work made by pupils at St Michael’s School, Rowley Regis, Walk Works CIC, and a selection of photographs and stories submitted to the project.

To share your stories and photos, visit Living Memory.

 

Banner image: Jonathan Billinger