By Alan Russell
Sometimes I can work best late at night and sometimes I can work at my best early in the morning. This one day was one of those early morning days as I was up by five sorting out some paperwork for my father who had passed away just over a week earlier.
It may have been thoughts about Dad that did wake me up. They could have been to do with him and life in general or to do with all the paperwork needed to be done or a confluence of both that got me out of bed and sitting at my desk. What I could do was done by six thirty so I decided to go for a walk.
As I stepped outside the morning air was warm and pierced by the dawn chorus of sparrows, blackbirds and starlings welcoming the new day. Although this was in early February the birdsong made it sound like spring.
Out of the house and down the short hill to the bottom of the close we live in, Grenville Close.
Dad used to worry me when he drove down this hill in his hot hatch sports car which I now have. I was in his car once when we went down this hill and he freewheeled in neutral gear.
All the houses were in darkness. Cars parked on driveways silent standby in readiness to do the commuter run, school run, shopping run, unexpected trips to hospital or to just do nothing for the day. Today was rubbish collection day which explained why clear plastics for recycling rubbish and black plastic bags for other waste were piled outside each house. At the bottom of the hill there was a cardboard box in the middle of the road. It had been blown away from the bags by the warm breeze as if wanting to escape it’s fate being crushed in the back of the garbage truck. I returned it to where I presumed it had come from; outside the corner house with some rubbish bags.
After dealing with the box I headed towards the local shops walking into the chilly wind cutting along Chichester Road.
I thought of Dad again. He had only been dead for just over a week. He must be cold now. His hands were cold the last time I saw him just a few hours before he died. He was wearing an oxygen mask and had a tube to keep his airways open. His mouth was half open revealing his false teeth that made him look like he was snarling at me. Perhaps he was as his last words to me less than a week before were screamed down the phone from the residential home. “You have to get me out of here! I want to try to live independently…….whats her name can look after me…….just get me out of here!’ At which point he slammed the phone down on me. Or his facial muscles were beginning to contract into rictus?
Outside the convenience store in Butlers Lane the early morning shift of shelf stackers and cleaners congregated near the cash point machine in the half-light falling from a weak bulb in the ceiling above them. Their voices carried across the car park. Although I could hear voices I could not hear the words they were expressing. From the shadows I recognised a lady who has worked there for years. She is always friendly and welcoming when I have been into the shop early in the morning. The sound of her laughter flew through the dark air. There never seemed anything that would ever get her down. Her mission in life, while she is queen of the checkout, is to make everyone’s day start with a smile. That warmth and outpouring of happiness is usually a masque for a deep inner sadness.
On past more houses cloaked in darkness in Holm Close. Past the house where there used to be a couple of vintage Ford saloons from the 1980’s. A black Ford Granada and a Cortina. They were no longer there. Had the family sold up and moved away? Had someone in the house laid down the law and given the car collector an ultimatum along the lines of ‘They go or I go’. On past The houses in Croft Road whose lights were beginning to show through curtained windows.
At home Dad was always the first one up in the mornings. He would have his wash and shave, make a cup of tea for Mum, call us boys to get up and start preparing breakfast. On weekday mornings this always consisted of porridge followed by bacon and fried bread. Winter or summer it was always the same.
When we moved from Canada my parents packed a heavy cast iron frying pan which is what Dad used to fry the bacon and the bread. When the bacon and bread was cooked Dad would place it in the oven to keep it warm and in readiness for us to eat when we had got through the porridge.
Oh why is there no monument to porridge in our land?
If it is good enough to eat, it is good enough to stand.
Believe me, Dad’s porridge would stand as proud and as for long as the stones of Hadrian’s Wall given a chance. Always, always, always by the time we were ready for our bacon and fried bread which had been kept warm in the oven it had by now become dry and brittle. So much so that when our knives cut into it there would be shards of bacon and dried fried bed spraying across the table.
If any Dad’s in the homes I was passing were cooking breakfast for their families I hoped that they were not inflicting monumental helpings of porridge on them or bacon and fried bread ready to splinter across the table.
Further on as I turned left back on to the Gorley Road I saw a man walking his dog on the other side of the road. Was he walking the dog? Or, was the dog pulling him along by straining at the lead? Or, was the dog a reluctant walker and the man had to push it along using the lead? Not quite sure what was going on but I do know that neither of them reacted when I called out a cheerful ‘Good morning’. Perhaps the man was deaf or had headphones on? Perhaps the dog was deaf as well as I am certain it would not be wearing headphones.
On past the local surgery where I was diagnosed with pneumonia and rushed off to hospital about ten years ago. More recently I was diagnosed with gall bladder problems and that lead to an operation to remove it just before Christmas. Amongst all the ailments walking in there today how many would be terminal?
Poor Dad. He had to go into his local surgery by himself to be told that he had an inoperable form of brain cancer. I just couldn’t be with him as his surgery only gave him a few minutes warning that he would be told the results of the tests he had undergone. He called me in a highly distressed state to tell me his diagnosis. The soonest I could get to him was that very evening. By then he had become a lot calmer and outwardly accepting of his prognosis over the next two years.
A couple of cars went past me. The headlights shining into my eyes brought me back to my early morning walk.
Another left turn into Linford Road past The London Tavern. It is our local pub but it is one we rarely use. The last time I was in there was on New Years day in the evening and that was my first visit for at least six months. I went there with our neighbour. I saw him over Christmas and heard that he had split up from his long term partner just before Christmas. When he told me all this he was fairly cut up so although I had never had much to do with him I suggested we should go for a drink. He jumped at the chance.
The landlord greeted us as if we were long lost friends. We sat down with our beers and I heard the whole story of the relationship and the breakup. I can’t judge these situations as I rarely hear the other side of the story. I just listened. I heard anger, frustration, grief and a need to just tell someone about what had happened, what his hopes for the future were and how he wanted to provide a home and do his best for his daughter.
There were always lights on behind the bar of the London Tavern regardless of the time of day. Even at nearly seven in the morning. They shone through the plain windows advertising various beers.
Dad and I never made it there together for a drink. The last time he stayed with us he was too doddery to walk very far and he couldn’t drink anyway because of the medications he was on.
A few more paces and I turned left into Chichester Close. The house on the corner has an extended porch that is festooned with fairy lights twinkling through the ribbed glass of the windows. As it is February they would be fairy lights but in the run up to Christmas they would be called Christmas lights. On the verge was another collection of bags of rubbish waiting to be collected later that morning. I could have turned into Drake Close and taken the path between two houses back into Grenville Close but decided to walk on to the bottom of Grenville Close. There, halfway across the road again was the cardboard box I had removed from the road at the start of my walk. I picked it up and wedged in between a pile of rubbish bags and a fence.
Home was less than a hundred yards away. I strode up the hill towards a brightening sky. I felt refreshed, ready for breakfast but not one of porridge, bacon and fried bread. Mitzy, one of our cats, was waiting patiently in the front garden. We walked up the path together and our day began.