The 12 Blogs Of Christmas Part 9 – Death

 

In November 1997 my Nan was admitted into hospital again.I didn’t think it was anything terribly serious, but another case of water retention. Oedema, I believe it is called. A year or so before she had suffered with it, her hands and ankles swelling up like balloons. A doctor came out to see her, a lovely lady, who checked my Nan over and decided she needed another hospital stay. The odd thing was though, I clearly remember this doctor, having finished with my Nan, poking her head back into the living room and quietly motioning me to come and speak with her. I went into the kitchen and shut the door.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

I stared blankly. “Fine,” I said. And she seemed to scrutinise me with her eyes and then nodded and that was that. It was only many years later that I realise her question was loaded with so much thoughtfulness and meaning. She was asking if I was coping, being on my own, caring for my grandmother. I was never very good at expressing my real feelings, thinking that I had to be strong for the sake of Nan, so whenever anyone asked me this type of question I would always say I was fine. With hindsight, a period of respite for myself would have been a helpful thing during those seven years, but hey ho, life goes on.

My Nan was admitted into St Woolos hospital in Newport and so each day, I would leave the lovely two bedroom house we lived in at Hollybush, Cwmbran, and take the bus to Newport. I would pick up anything my Nan said she wanted – grapes, or liquorice (her favourite sweet), or some shortbread (her favourite biscuit) and walk the long steep hill, up past St Woolos church, and into the large, sprawling and often unusually quiet hospital. I would arrive early in the afternoon and sit with my Nan, who would never have the energy to say much. She would ask, in a slow, thoughtful way, about trivial housekeeping matters. She would have her tea at around 4:30pm and, it being hospital food, never ate much. Again, a warning sign and something I should have acted upon but I just thought everything would be fine, she would be home soon and our lives would carry on as normal.

During those times when her tea was served, I would stroll down to the hospital canteen and have a hot drink. Very occasionally I would buy a meal, but not often. I was in charge of my Nan’s benefits and would claim them dutifully each Monday, along with my carer’s allowance. I was good at buying gas and electric stamps (a now obsolete way of saving towards utility bills and a method I genuinely enjoyed. It was the collecting aspect of it I guess!) and making sure everything was paid that had to be paid. I would make sure I kept the weekly fare to the hospital. I think my Nan ‘gave’ me weekends off from visiting her. I know for sure that I didn’t visit on Sundays. I’d like to think I visited her on Saturdays too. As I sit here, twenty years on, I want to feel I showed her as much love and attention as possible.

As it grew closer to Christmas, I had no doubt she would be home. But the closer that important date came, the realisation began to dawn, for both of us, that it would not happen. Nan was quite philosophical about it. Her deeply wrinkled liver-spotted hand would hold mine and she would say “It’s only Christmas love, I’ll be back soon in the New Year.”

I can’t quite remember everything I did during that Christmas of 1997. Did I cook myself a small turkey and a Christmas dinner, just for myself? I do not know. I have a vague memory that my sister was able to persuade her partner at the time to drive us to see Nan on Christmas Day. I have a misty memory of a very quiet hospital ward with tinsel garlands hanging from the ceiling and my Nan in her bed, wishing us a merry Christmas in what seemed to be an increasingly frail voice.

I would return to an empty house, with just our cat, Suki, for company, and make a coffee and sit in my armchair that was next to my Nan’s. I may have placed a glass of port on her side of the small living room table, just for comfort. That’s what we would have been doing on that Christmas night if she had been home, sipping port and laughing together at this and that, as she had a wicked, dark and bizarre sense of humour like myself.

She passed away on February 2nd 1998. Although since then I have had many memorable and wonderful Christmases, I think for many of us it is the Christmases that we spend with family that are the ones are hearts are drawn back to and the ones we remember the most as the years pass by.

The picture below is from around 1990 I would guess, when my Nan was still relatively healthy and before I became her full time carer (though was living with her).

As my Bamp died in 1987, I have a strong feeling that this is the Christmas immediately before, 1986, when he cooked the largest turkey he had ever cooked before and after a long day of tending to it and basting it, uttered “Never again!” He was proud of it though and I think it was he who asked me to take this photo (on that years birthday present I had received from them – a Polaroid 600 Instant camera!)

The 12 Blogs Of Christmas Part 8 – Alcohol

It’s Monday 4th December 2017. I am tipsy. Or drunk. I am never sure of the sliding scale of insobriety. We were never taught that in school. We were never given a little cardboard scale with an arrow that could be adjusted between sober and blotto. That lesson was sorely lacking in the curriculum. So as I was saying, it’s Monday, blah blah blah and here I am, drunk on a good quality spiced rum and listening to a compilation of Christmas music. It’s the sort of compilation where Enya’s Silent Night follows Slade’s Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday. In other words, every three minutes the mood shifts and I don’t know whether to jump up and down in my luminescent pink 80s leggings or kneel and thank God for giving us The Krankies.

Right, let’s get to the nuts and bolts of this blog. Alcohol. Growing up in the late 70s, my father, who called himself a Muslim but wasn’t, strictly observed a select few of the tenets of this faith that he arbitrarily believed in. One of the tenets he randomly observed without ever explaining, was abstaining from alcohol. Beating my mother and sexually abusing my sister was fine, but alcohol? No way. If the prophet Mohammed caught him drinking alcohol, all hell would break loose. He couldn’t even do it when Mohammed wasn’t looking, because Mohammed would know. This aspect of Mohammed was kind of cool when I was a kid, but I still preferred to read Whizzer & Chips and play Top Trumps. I did sometimes wonder if there could ever be a ‘God & Prophets’ themed Top Trumps set as it would be interesting to see if Jesus or Mohammed would win in the ‘omnipotence rating’ category.

So he never drank alcohol. I think he was so vigilant regarding not letting it into the house, he didn’t even allow luxury mince pies laced with alcohol to enter our home, or even chocolate liqueurs, which oh my god I loved. Because you see, visiting my white and Welsh grandparents every weekend, they would often let me eat both chocolate liqueurs AND bacon. I loved them for this. Being 8 or 9 years old and biting on a chocolate liqueur, enjoying the crisp crunchiness of the inner sugar coating that formed the container for the alcoholic liqueur, and then feeling the warmth of the liqueur wash around my mouth, was an important part of my pre-teen years, as was the eating of a bacon sandwich straight afterwards.Which reminds me – bacon flavoured alcohol. That’s a gap in the market I hope to exploit one day.

But thankfully my parents divorced in 1981 and so from that point on alcohol was on the menu. My mother, whom upon reflection and with the benefit of hindsight, probably had mild ‘learning difficulties’ which were either a product of or exacerbated by her severe epilepsy, took to alcohol like a leper to a skin graft. She ended up becoming a party-giving, alcohol-loving promiscuous reflection of her former self. My sister was a mirror of her, having numerous boyfriends of which my mother would suggest should live with us. Many of my sister’s boyfriends drank too and I remember one morning, having got dressed for school with my mother remaining in bed as usual, sleeping off last night’s antics, I opened the fridge and saw a four pack of Carling. I was about 11 years old and had decided last week that I was going to ignore the usual career paths and become an amateur anarchist instead. In the spirit of amateur anarchy, I tore one of the cans from the flimsy plastic holder and walked to school. I met my friend Wayne Weston on the top floor of Middle School and we stood outside our form class where I proudly retrieved the can from my bag and we drank half each. I’d like to say that the half can of 4% alcohol had a hilarious and memorable effect on my 11-year-old brain, causing much merriment and hi-jinks for the rest of the day. It didn’t. I think I burped twice and then sat through double Maths in my usual disinterested way, occasionally snorting up sachets of pepper stolen from the canteen through my empty Bic pen.

My next significant memory of alcohol happened when I was about fifteen or sixteen. A gang of us – myself, Gareth Davies, Marcus Stoole, Wayne Weston and Roger Boeing, went to the Rose & Crown in Old Cwmbran. I think I drank about ten cider’s, each with a squirt of blackcurrant to ‘take the edge off’. I am not sure what edge this was referring to and it didn’t seem to matter in the end. I was absolutely drunk and I remember being supported between two of my friends during the long walk home.

But really, this is a Christmas blog and is supposed to have a Christmas theme, so I shall dispense with these early and slightly chaotic memories and jump to my early 20s when I was living with my Nan, as it is the memories of drinking alcohol with her that prompted me to write this blog in the first place.

My Nan loved port. It’s fortified wine. Now, being a gamer from an early age and playing games such as Civilisation, ‘fortified’ to me means reinforcing a structure with a battalion of archers, a catapult and maybe a legion of artillerymen. Port had none of this and just came in a bottle marked Taylor’s or Cockburn’s. Incidentally, Cockburn’s is nothing to do with a slightly singed penis. It’s pronounced ‘koburns’ in the trade, which is a shame really as they are missing out on several witty marketing campaigns.

But I digress. My dear beloved Nan loved her port, and in the early 90s I have strong memories of us sitting there, drinking port from these very delicate but elegant small port glasses, so-called as they were actually intended for port, and laughing at this and that together. I used to have camcorder footage of us doing that very thing, drinking port in front of our six foot artificial Christmas tree sometime in the early 90s, but that footage disappeared when my hard drive fucked up ten years ago.

She liked her Stilton too of course, a classic accompaniment to port. Oh and Advocaat! Yes, that traditional Dutch beverage made from eggs, sugar and brandy and looks like custard and has the same consistency. Both my Nan and Bamp loved that. I do remember trying it in my late teens, when living with my Nan and Bamp, but never really took to it. I wonder if it still has a reputation as a pensioner’s drink? I’ve actually just read the Wikipedia entry on it that states in Holland and Belgium it’s traditionally served on waffles. I have no idea what my grandparents would have thought of that idea.

I started writing this blog about two hours ago and since then have got distracted by television and consumed a lot more spiced rum. So apologies if the rest of this is not as meanderingly concise and witty as the previous sections were.

Well, that’s it really. I could turn this into some deep, thoughtful dissertation about the effects of alcohol on society and how it will be used by the New World Order to control the populace, but I can’t be bothered.

Have a good Christmas everyone!

Next in this series is going to be my long overdue review of The Amazing Mr Blunden, which I think is the quintessential Christmas film, even though Christmas itself is barely referred to.

 

 

The 12 Blogs of Christmas Part 7 – My Nan

I became the full time carer of my grandmother at around the age of 22, in 1993. Her husband, my Bamp, had passed away in 1987 and so it was just us two living together from then on. By 1993 she was becoming increasingly frail and after several assessments by the Social Services, she was awarded disability allowance and I became her official carer, netting me a £10 a week carers allowance payment in addition to my dole money. Our Christmases together, particularly in the immediate years following my Bamps death, were frugal. Not because of lack of money but simply, in a strange way, neither of us really knew what to do. It was our first Christmas together, just her and I, and we opted for a Bernard Mathews turkey joint – a lump of turkey moulded into a cylindrical shape and surrounded by an artificial layer of fat. Here’s a blurry fuzzy picture of one that I found on the internet.

You wouldn’t really want to see a hi-res pic of one, trust me.

In 1988, the first Christmas without my Bamp, my Nan still took on all the cooking duties. It wouldn’t be for another two or three years until she became too frail to do that anymore, so she cooked that turkey breast for the both of us, along with some roast potatoes (each potato dutifully sprinkled with a pinch of salt, as was her way), sprouts, stuffing and gravy. A jar of beetroot was on the little living room table and that’s how we ate our Christmas dinner together, the plates balancing on our laps, in front of a television that had a scraggy artificial Christmas tree on the top of it that was barely two feet tall. Feeling that we were missing out on something music wise, I spent a portion of my hard-earned YTS money on some Christmas music as all we had were vinyl records belonging to my Bamp, such as the Jim Reeves Christmas album and…well, that.

So I spent around £8 of my £27 ( that I earned from sitting in an office at Gwent Aluminium on Avondale Road and not answering the phone as I didn’t know anything about aluminium and had a fear of phones) on The Christmas Tape, a compilation by the same people who produced the NOW series of compilation albums that are still going to this day.

This lasted us for a few years, until around 1993 or so when a change, instigated by myself, happened. To this day, I don’t know why the change happened or the nature of the instigation. I suddenly thought to myself ‘We could get a nice big six foot artificial tree and try listening to other types of Christmas music instead of Stop The Fucking Cavalry year after year’. So in 1993 I bought this. The picture below is recent, from a few days ago, as I managed to track down a copy of this twenty-four-year-old compilation on Ebay. The third track on Disc 1, Jolly Old St Nicholas by Ray Conniff, remained a favourite of hers for many years to come. Well, I say many, but she died in 1998, but in 1993 I just believed she would live for a long time and not pass away just five years later. I can still see her now, sat in her chair with her favourite red tartan blanket pulled up over her chest, moving her shoulders in a silly and fun way as she sang “Jolly old saint nicholas, lean your ear this way! Don’t you tell a single soul, what I’m going to say!”

My sister and her current partner (they changed a lot) would often visit. I can’t quite remember if they used to visit on Christmas Day itself. I don’t think they did as Nan and I preferred it quiet and the hustle and bustle of cooking for others would have been an exacting task. These days if ever I have the opportunity, I would gladly cook for others on that special day, but back then my Nan and I were kindred spirits in the sense we liked little bother or interruptions. We would drink a glass of sherry in the afternoon, eat our dinner, watch Morecambe & Wise in the evening and then I would give her a little kiss on the cheek and go to bed. I would stay awake until I heard the grinding motors of the stair lift clunk it’s way upstairs, hearing her step off it and into her room, and then I knew I could rest easily and go to sleep.

It’s funny, as here I am, on the afternoon of Saturday 2nd December 2017, writing about Christmases of 25 years or so ago when I feel that I should be focusing more on the present. And I am grateful for the present and the friends in my life, but the past will always remain a blue note inside me.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” – F Scott Fitzgerald ‘The Great Gatsby’.