Tuesday, September 7, 2010

About John

For some reason I felt like writing about John. Maybe it's because it was Tony's 50th birthday on Sunday. Who'd have thought that Tony would be the first of us to get to 50? Well, all of us, Tony being the eldest. But if I survive the next four years and one day, I'll be the second. Which for the fourth son is pretty good going. Just not so good for the second and third.

John was the second son. He would have been 49 on 25 September, if he hadn't died in December 2008. He knew it was coming: he'd had Multiple Sclerosis for a couple of decades. It's hard to say exactly how long he'd had it, but I found out early in 1990. Dad had had an inkling a year or so before. After John had left the army and his strange, brief marriage had broken up, he lived with Mum and Dad in Basingstoke for a while. He found he couldn't keep up with Dad on the way down to the pub, which was a worry but not a big one. We only realised the significance later.

John and Mel at Tony & Dee's wedding, 1988
In 1990, when he was living in South Norwood, he told me that he was worried about his health. His ex-girlfriend Mel had just moved out – coincidentally she was my ex-girlfriend too, since she'd given me my first kiss in about 1980 – and he was explaining why he couldn't be my best man at my forthcoming wedding (her brother, Guy, did the job in the end). He looked me in the eye and, with genuine fear in his voice, said, "Pat, I can't feel my legs!"

Tony's wife Dee, Tony, Thérèse and
John in South Norwood, 1991
In the two decades that followed, that was the only time he ever showed any concern about his progressive disability or the inevitable end. In 1991, when my wife Thérèse and I moved into our first house, he helped us move in. By the time we moved out in 1996, he was in a wheelchair. While he could, he completely rebuilt his flat. As his condition worsened and his legs stopped working, my Dad helped him make the flat wheelchair-friendly. He lived alone, independently, and I eventually stopped asking about his illness. To him, it was no more interesting than the fact that I wear size 9 shoes. It was just a boring fact about his body.

While he could walk, he would come round to our flat in Penge. I always knew when it was him. Some people give two knocks; some three; while other do the full rat-a-tat-tat (I'm a two-knock man myself). John just knocked once. I always went to the door because John and Thérèse never got on, ever since that party in Croydon when he and I had first met her and they'd had a big argument. When she and I got together a few months later, he bluntly said, "Can't stand your woman, Pat." When she and I finally split on New Year's Eve 2006, he said, "Told you so." He was the most honest, and therefore possibly the rudest, man I have ever known.

He was a tearaway as a boy; a tendency that showed up early when his mother came into the bedroom and found him not in his cot but on top of a wardrobe. She never worked out how he got there. His stock-in-trade was the bomb, which he set off with great delight and profusion. Purley Cricket Club was so relieved when he joined the army (the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, 2 Battalion, where he earned the nickname 'Fingers', not because of any predilection towards theft but because of a childhood accident that meant he could only count to 9½). Once he built a mortar, using our brother Mark's pet rats as ammunition. The neighbours hated us, except for Tony and Mary Tucker, who'd known us for long enough and were lovely people who saw the best in us. I still feel guilty about not returning their copy of Simon & Garfunkel's 'Sounds Of Silence'. It's on my shelf downstairs even now. He was thrown out of three schools, arrested at least once and did his best to ensure that Crystal Palace could hold its head up in the league table of 1970s hooliganism.

In a sense, his illness made him as a man. I mentioned his fear as he realised that something inside him was going badly wrong, and I'm still baffled as to how he managed to cope. I watched him, week after week, year after year, getting steadily worse. He taught himself maths, physics and computers. He bought books on speed-reading, knowing he only had limited time. He learned how to play the stock market, first on-line and then by phone when a mouse became too hard to operate. When oil hit $120 a barrel in early 2008, he bet on it going higher and made £10,000 when it hit $140: very near the peak of $147. Quite impressive for a phone trader who could barely make himself understood to those in the room with him.
John in December 2007,
still smiling

I still have his fingerless gloves, which he wore when his hands started to fail. I watched him as MS tore his body away from him piece by piece, nerve by nerve. First his legs, then his hands, his voice; even his eyes. Every time I went to visit him he was worse than when I last saw him. Every time I said goodbye, I knew I would never see him so well again. When he went into hospital for the last time, I didn't find out for a week. I promised to see him on the Saturday, but he died on Friday night. After 20 years of knowing what the end would be, I still couldn't stop him dying alone. He's not there to accuse me, but he's not here to forgive me either.

He outlived his mother by six months. She'd already lost one son (Mark, in a motorbike accident, in 1984). When Tony and our Dad met on the Monday to make arrangements, we had to divvy up his records and CDs, which he'd left to me but which I wanted to share with Tony. Tony insisted on playing one that he was to keep, a Tom Petty album. For the next week, the lyrics kept running round my head as I thought of John listening to it on the bed that he only left to go into hospital: "I'm learning to fly / But I ain't got wings…"

I thought that it would be easier to bear, knowing it was coming, whereas Mark's death was as sudden horror that had to be swallowed whole in one painful gulp. It wasn't. Knowing it was coming was more like investing in grief, which then pays out with interest. I miss them both, and the best way to describe the emotion now isn't grief but resentment. They should still be here and I'm angry that they're not.

There were two close friends who helped me through it, and I'm eternally grateful to both of them, even if they don't understand exactly what they did. They were there, and they cared, and that was enough.

So why do I put this down in a blog – all this that seems so intensely personal? Because he was a real person, and I know he only lives now in the memories of those of us who knew him. Because when we die, he dies, finally and completely. When we are gone, there will be no-one left to know he ever existed. But he existed as much as you or me, and I want to leave something of him; as much as my inadequate prose can muster.

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