Sunday, 26 February 2012

Mighbrow: Keepers

My Uncle Milke retired from the RAF in his early forties and trained to become a math teacher, he always loved to be by water and he ended up in Felixstowe where he developed a passion for sailing. He became a leading light at the local sailing club and introduced many a wayward youth to the pleasures of sea and sail. After reluctant retirement he entered his seventies in fine health. We stayed in touch and met up occasionally; no worries, Brian Mike Tehan ‘Biscuits’ would always be there. 
He was bulletproof.

The phone rang one evening in our Corsican dining room. 
It was my dad.
“Bad news, Trev.”
Mike had been diagnosed with cancer. It was well developed.
At first the treatments didn’t affect him much, but as the chemo became more invasive he chose to give up all therapy and opted for quality of life over discomfort, he couldn’t be bothered with medication, doctors and cold corridors. His faith was strong and he was happy to trust in ‘the man upstairs’. 
The specialists gave him two months. 
Eight weeks. 
A few months later it appeared that his charmed life would continue, he seemed impervious to pain.
“Doesn’t it hurt?” I asked him.
“Just the odd bit of tummy ache. Nothing much to moan about.”
I spoke to a doctor who said that without morphine ‘the pain should be excruciating’. Gradually the disease took its toll; Mike lost his appetite, couldn’t drink his beloved ‘Adnams’ Bitter and reluctantly turned to cheap red wine. “It all tastes the same to me now” he said on my final visit to his house. He had lost too much weight and sat like a bag of bones, beneath a blanket while I poured us a glass, wincing at the vinegar bouquet.
“Do you remember the first meal I ever cooked? It was a fish curry. How sophisticated was I?”
“Nope. Wrong. It was ‘Cod a la Romana’. The recipe’s right there”, Mike looked beyond me to his bookshelf and pointed to a row of tiny white books “go and find me the one with the fish recipes.”
As I reached for the book a flash of guilty memory struck me; forty years ago I had spilt sauce on an open page.
“It’s near the back”, said Mike “easy to find as the pages are stuck together. I suspect a nervous chef…”
Later we drove around Felixstowe in my convertible, roof down; Mike in an ancient anorak, hood up, wearing gardening gloves. He was always cold these days. We stopped at the sailing club for a swift half and were immediately surrounded by salty sea dogs and students. We returned home much later, a couple of pints over the limit. Mike made himself comfortable with The Telegraph crossword in front of his two bar electric fire, while I repaired to the kitchen.
I softened my onions with red peppers and garlic and then, substituting the ‘Baccala’ with plain cod fillets, gently stewed the fish in milk and chicken stock. It all seemed a little bland to me but I diligently followed a recipe which I had revealed with great care and a little steam from the kettle. I scattered the obligatory parsley and dished up with some wild rice, taking two trays into the living room. 
Mike had fallen asleep in his chair to the sound of a Beethoven sonata. 
I looked at his crossword, all done. 
I sat opposite Mike in the threadbare chair that I’d made mine all of those years ago and stuck a fork into my ‘Cod a la Romana’.
It was disgusting.
I ate both portions.

Two weeks later I got a call from my sister Katy.
She was in Felixstowe.
Mike had been taken into a hospice and was struggling.
“They say that he hasn’t got long. He keeps drifting in and out. The last time he was lucid he asked for you.”
I got there just in time to look him in the eye and whisper a promise or two.


A small white room
We wait like empty vessels
Breathing with you
Our spirits rise and fall in random rhythm
Breathing with you
The body of a bird
Hollow boned and glory bound

Yes I will carry
Yes I will keep

We all take a turn
In the seat by the bed
A somber charade
Of musical chairs
Each of us wondering
Will it be me?

Yes I will carry
Yes I will keep

Mumblings of honour
No privilege here
This is as ugly as truth
As intimate as a kiss
Hand in hand
Eye to eye
A glimmer of recognition
A glimpse of oblivion

Yes I will carry
Yes I will keep
Breathing for you
The body of a bird
Bound for the ground or glory

Yes I will carry
Yes I will keep
Yes I will carry
And yes I will keep

1 comment:

  1. Catching up with your posts...
    "crossword, all done"... my eyes are sweating.