Darling daughter No.2, Katy, has recently obtained quite an obsession with death. I know all teenagers go through that stage, and I myself remember spending 6 months wearing black and listening to nothing but The Cure and Leonard Coen. So the only thing slightly alarming in all this is that she has only just turned a precocious 4.
Her pet gerbils, Itchy and Scratchy, died 6 months ago without any real comment or emotion from her. In fairness they were pretty boring, and she had all but forgotten about them, so I can understand any lack of reaction. We dug them a grave (they were being buried in my vegetable patch, great compost I’m told), made a cross, and held a small service. Then nothing, until last week, when she has now decided she wants to dig them up to see what they look like.
She has also caught the ‘God’ bug, what can I expect when we send her to a Catholic school, and is very interested in heaven and meeting the great man himself. Getting her to look left and right, when crossing the road has become an impossible task. We point out the reasons why we look, but her excited reply is “but if I die I get to see God!” A sentence that is somehow cute and upsetting in near equal measures. Not, of course, that she wishes death upon everyone as a great way of meeting God. Every night without fail, her farewell warning is always “make sure you don’t fall down the stairs and die.” It is, without doubt, that comment and my stunned reaction to it that caused me to fall down the stairs the first time I heard it.
This all kind of leads me to the events of last Friday, when I took a phone call from my sister, who told me that Uncle John had died. John was not one of those far-away Uncles (although he did live a 4 hour drive away), that you hardly ever gave much thought to. Since he and Joan, and my two cousins Jonathan and Neil, moved down to Devon when I was 7, we had all remained really close, and spent most childhood summers and Easters down there.
He was a kind, but hard man. Strict, but fair. A favourite game as a child would be to call him “our John Willie” (a childhood nickname he hated as much as his middle name), and then attempt to duck and run from the inevitable whack that was coming. I don’t know why we continued to play it, as even when one of us managed to get away unscathed, he never forgot. Many a dinner time started with a vengeful clip round the ear, just as you were taking the first mouthful. Followed by his chuckle, and that of everyone else, as he left you to rue the idea of ever saying it again.
It was to John whom my Dad turned when I was 24 and going off the rails. I had just given up on my job and career in Insurance, just got divorced, and was drinking and partying way too much. John and Joan ran a pub called The Exeter Inn, and after a long conversation between all the “grown ups”, I was packed off to learn the pub trade from top to bottom for the next 2 weeks.
Every day started at 8.30am when I had to clean the pub (including the toilets, gross), and then do all the bottling up. Cellar management was next, and being a big real ale pub, there were always barrels to be tapped. This process involved hitting a small wooden peg into the keg, and with any luck you would miss your thumb, or even worse, avoid making the keg sending a gusher of beer everywhere. Then a quick change, before getting behind the bar to work till 3pm, a quick break, and then back from 5pm to midnight. Every night we had the same routine, cash up the day’s tills, and float them for the next day. Then the three of us would sit down, for the next 2 hours, with a huge bag of peanuts and a vodka and slim-line tonic and discuss the day’s events and gossip. I ended up staying 2 months not 2 weeks in the end, and those moments at the end of each night, are still some of my fondest memories (and the reason I still snack at midnight).
I was in the kitchen washing up, when Lucy gave me the news. I hung up the phone, sank to floor and just started uncontrollably sobbing. This must have disturbed Katy’s Disney viewing, because she soon trotted out to give me a hug and ask why I was crying. She had obviously caught me off guard, as my reply lacked the normal parent sugar coating. I explained that my Uncle John had died, and I was really sad and upset, because that meant I would never see him again. I may have added that it was just not fair, but I can’t be sure.
There was a pause whilst she digested this information, and I just knew she was going to tell me that it would be OK as he was with God now. Instead of which, she replied, “Well, I can be your Uncle John, or we can build another one!), and with that she gave me a kiss and went back to Mickey Mouse.
I am no longer that worried about her obsession with death and heaven; instead I worry that she might turn into a 21st century Dr Frankenstein.
To quote John’s favourite song from his favourite band “Fat bottomed girls you make the rockin' world go round yeah”.
John Frederick Salt 8/12/48-13/2/09 RIP