It wasn’t just the nature of Graham’s death which stunned us all; it was the fact that he had disappeared for good, without warning, that changed our world forever. That, and the effect it had upon his family and, from our point of view, his brother, Colin, in particular.
Graham was a familiar part of my life, the young lad who was always eating his breakfast as we returned each morning from our paper rounds on the estate. He was the same age as my sister but already showing signs of the dry and abrasive wit which his brother so famously employed in his savage attacks upon privilege and pretension. Another working-class hero in the making.
It was my dad who brought home the news in the evening. Graham had been killed in a shotgun accident in his friend’s bedroom. This was different to Aberfan. I could still picture Graham’s face exactly, the cut of his hair, his smooth skin, the shy smile, and I could still hear his breaking voice. But already he had been reduced to a memory, instantly extinguished, no longer living.
Staring at the carpet, holding on to the back of one of the dining room chairs, I tried to make sense of the random cruelty of it all. But it was impossible to understand. The longer I stared at the carpet, and the harder I grasped the chair, the more unreal and insubstantial everything became. Nothing was fixed; everything was floating. And then a vision of the bedroom broke through and I immediately thought of Colin and his family. Where were they now? And how much pain could they bear? How could you eat, talk or sleep when something like this had happened? At school and Youth Club, we all tried to imagine what it was like in Colin’s household. It was hard to get any further than the most obvious comment.
‘I feel sorry for his mum.’
Ultimately, all we could do was reflect upon the loss as if it had been our own.
‘I know what yer saying. I mean, I might not like my sister but...yer know...if she ever died...It dunt bear thinking about. I reckon the ol’ gal ‘ould go as well.’
And then someone would mention sedatives.
‘They’ll have sedated his mum, that’s for sure.’
‘I suppose yer right.’
‘Yeh, but yer can’t be on sedatives for the rest of yer life.’
‘That’s true. The grieving’ll have to start sooner or later.’
Knowing little of grief, we imagined that there was a set period in which it would occur and run its course.
I still didn’t know what I was going to say to Colin when I finally summoned up the courage to go round to his house. I decided to wait until after the funeral, just before he came back to school. Leave the family to its private grief, that’s how I justified it. But I knew I was being a coward.
Even when I had got as far as their back doorstep, it was only the crunch of the window cleaner on next door’s gravel which made me tap on the cracked, frosted glass.
‘Can’t yer make ‘em ‘ear, mate? I know they’re in.’
‘I think someone’s just coming. Yes, it’s okay, I can hear them now.’
When the door finally opened, it was Colin who stood before me. I proffered an awkward smile.
‘Come in, mate. Thanks for coming round.’
Still uncomfortably mute, I followed Colin into the kitchen. On the formica-topped table, a small glass ashtray and a crushed No 10 packet had been abandoned on a double page spread of the Daily Mirror. A flat cloud of smoke hung just below the ceiling.
‘Checking out the footy. Doing a bit of catching up.’
‘Not had much of a chance recently.’
‘No...I wanted to say how...yer know...I...er...’
‘You don’t have to, mate. I know what yer trying to say.’
‘How’s yer mum?’
He rubbed at the corner of his mouth before picking up the cigarette packet and ashtray.
‘I’ll just do a bit of tidying up then yer can come upstairs. I’m sorting through one or two of Graham’s things.’
Hearing the name came as an embarrassing surprise. I hadn’t been expecting it.
‘Me mum’s supposed to be having a kip. The curtains are drawn in there so just keep quiet when you come through.’
Old Beano and Dandy annuals were scattered on the top of the bunk bed in Colin’s room, along with some chipped Dinky cars and exercise books which curled at the corners.
‘Yer can help me with this last lot. I’ve boxed up the rest. My mum’s gonna sort through the clothes when she’s up to it.’
He leaned against the window sill.
‘Anyway, it’s good to see yer, mate. What’s been happening at school. Heh, I don’t suppose yerv got any fags on yer?’
‘Here, help yerself.’
We started to pack the last of Graham’s belongings into some thin plastic bags.
‘Not a lot really. Oh, Freddy’s fallen in love again. Second time this month. And just you wait ‘til yer see her. This one’s a right mare. Eh, and you’ll never guess what Tank did in Chunky’s lesson.’
And on and on...I chattered hysterically like an old windbag, pumping out nervous energy, incapable of holding it in any longer. After half an hour, I began to develop a headache. Dry mouthed and exhausted, I decided it was time to go.
When we got to the bottom of the stairs, I could hear voices in the living room. Colin’s mum was sitting up in an armchair, holding onto a cup and saucer which rested on her lap. Next to he, perched on one of the dining table chairs, was an older, grey-haired woman in tortoise-shell rimmed glasses. She looked up and smiled at us.
‘I’ve just made a brew for yer mam, Colin. There’s one in the pot, or I can make a fresh one, if yer like.’
‘I’m all right, Hilda. I’m just seeing Keith out, then I’ve got the hedge to cut at the front.’
Colin’s mum slowly held out her hand to me.
‘Nice to see you, Keith.’
Her voice was distant and distracted.
‘How’s your mum and dad?’
‘They’re fine...They send their love.
I had only managed to grab hold of one of her fingers but squeezed it, nevertheless, in an attempt to convey support and sympathy. The smile she returned seemed out of place in such drained and haunted features. And, instead of disappearing, it stayed there, fixing her face into an ancient comic mask as her eyelids gradually began to sink.
Prising the cup and saucer from Colin’s mum’s lap, Hilda indicated that we should leave.
‘I’ll stay with her. You get on, ducky.’
She was mouthing her words as we tip-toed into the kitchen.
Five minutes later, I was on my way home, having left Colin standing on one of the kitchen chairs as he clipped away at the top of the privet hedge. I wanted to ride my bike as fast as I could, take in great gulps of air, and feel the cold wind whip across my face. As I free-wheeled into Kings Way at the corner of the White House hospital, I straightened my back and steered with my fingertips. Looking into the cloudless sky and listening to the late afternoon blackbirds, I thought of my family and felt the luckiest person in the world.
‘He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again.’
In Memoriam: Tennyson
To be continued