Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Finger of Fate

My heart goes out to those who loved the victims of flight AF 447. The passing of someone close is always painful; but sudden and unexplained death hits you with a blow so severe, the scars can last for years. Nothing demonstrates the fragility and transience of life more than the unexpected severance of the link between two close human beings. It’s so unfair: why now, and why us?

I was 20 when I received a note from the university porter asking me to call home. It was 9pm, just a few days before Christmas. My mother was calm on the phone. “I have some bad news. Your father…”, then the voice breaking into anguished fragments: “Bertie’s dead: Oh Tom, please come home.”

It was already snowing as I crank-started my 1955 Ford Popular. Only two of its three gears worked: it popped out of third when it went over a bump, giving the car a top speed of 28 miles per hour. There was no heater and just a single vacuum powered windscreen wiper that had wheezed its final wipe months before. The two little eyeball headlights mounted over the front wheels glowed in proportion to the speed of the car, and so made no impression on the freezing fog that enveloped us as we struggled over the moors. With one frozen hand stuck through the window to wipe ice from the windscreen, the other holding the gearstick in place, I gripped the steering wheel between my knees. It took five hours to make the 90 miles to Tynemouth.

I arrived at 3am. It was home, but somehow unfamiliar: my mother white with fatigue and tears, the door to the family bedroom firmly closed. I can still recall the next few days as images from a half-remembered film: my half-brother, 17 years my senior, arriving from London absolutely distraught; Mum bravely cooking Christmas lunch for us all as if nothing had happened – we ate, but tasted nothing; the black suits at the funeral, with me shaking hands and thanking but unable to cry, even when the earth began to cover the brass label on the coffin lid. The shock of sudden separation was such that I couldn’t mourn my father’s passing until 12 years later when I returned to North Shields cemetery and without a guide walked through the sea of thousands of similar headstones directly to his name. And there I finally dissolved with heaving sobs.

In contrast to Dad’s departure, Mum has been confidently predicting her own imminent demise for the last 20 years. Her first scheduled death was on February 16th 1995. We rang her the following morning to ask her how it went. She brushed it off as a miscalculation by a gypsy. Since then I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to go over to her house to be cheerfully shown where her will is kept, just in case. One year my children and I, together with my son’s embarrassed new girlfriend, were taken to Hampstead Heath, where Mum first courted my father, to help her choose the specific oak sapling under which her ashes were to be scattered. My youngest daughter looked up at her with a confused face. "Granny, how will your big body get under that little tree?"

12 years later Mum, at 88, is looking fitter and happier than ever. A gifted portrait painter, with a brain sharper than Jeremy Paxman’s, she undoubtedly will outlive all her subjects, and probably me too.

Mum, the great survivor, has often witnessed the arbitrary finger of Fate. Many of her friends perished in the London Blitz and elsewhere during the War. Watching the D-Day commemoration, I thought of the thousands selected to lose their lives, and of those who survived to tell their heroic tale. Gratitude for life is a hard thing to express. But living every day as if it’s your last is probably one way to say thank you.


Expat mum said...

Wow - your experience is like mine. Age 20, at university. Walking in through the door (no cell phones in them days) to be met by serious looking flat mates. I thought they had perhaps had an argument.
I had to get the train from Bristol to London, where my aunt and uncle picked me up and drove the long drive up north. Very shocking and my heart goes out to anyone who loses someone in a tragedy such as the air disaster.
Your mother sounds a hoot though!

Tom Gutteridge said...

That's a great coincidence. I should write more about Mum, by the way. A one-off, and great life experiences. When she read this piece, she rang me and said "thanks for the 'Brain like Paxman' reference, but only you and I know what you really mean. You weren't saying I was clever."
"Argumentative? Stubborn? Relentless?"