Saturday, 31 March 2012

Hopeland (Notes from Corsica) 19. A Pocketful of Stars

* You might recognise parts of this; I recently edited some of it as an intro to a Mighbrow post; '1969'.

"The Past: Our cradle, not our prison; there is danger as well as appeal in its glamour. The past is for inspiration, not imitation, for continuation, not repetition."
Israel Zangwill 

When I was a kid the arrival of Uncle Mike was always a time of great excitement; he was a maverick presence in a fairly regimented household, more like a boisterous older brother than the uncle that he wasn’t. Mike was a great friend of my parents; a navigator on the same squadron as my Dad; a confirmed bachelor always on the lookout for a free meal, even my mum’s cooking couldn’t deter him.
My parents Betty and Terry were difficult together in those days. They had met whilst my father was on RAF training in Canada, Dad had proposed and whisked mum back to London where they began their married life in a small room at my grandparent’s house. Betty was nineteen and soon pregnant with my sister Kerry. In a claustrophobic environment the luster of London soon palled; she missed her parents and the frivolities of a Canadian teenage life and soon became homesick. Deprived of the possibilities of a presumed life in Winnipeg she came to blame Dad for everything that she wouldn’t become. Terry did his best but was tied to his career. He’d come from humble roots; a Battersea boy, the son of a bus driver, he had to scrap for his education, eventually winning a scholarship to the prestigious Emanuel school before gaining entry into Cambridge University. After graduating he joined the Air Force to do his National service. As a junior officer he loved the easy camaraderie of the officers’ mess and the obvious career path offered by the hierarchy of that protected environment. He was fiercely competitive, driven, I’m sure, by a chip on his shoulder, his eyes fixed of the next run of the ladder; rank was everything, his family would benefit eventually. I see all of this now and love him all the more for his vulnerabilities, but at the time saw him as mostly absent. Terry had lost his front teeth as a child and his parents couldn’t afford the luxury of trivial dentistry. I think that shaped him as much as anything. Sure, he’d throw his head back and guffaw but dad didn’t smile easily. Mike on the other hand was full of easy mischief. He had none of the weighty family responsibilities that burdened my parents. He was the instigator of cushion fights and the master of Chinese burns. I adopted his nonchalance. In those quirky early teenage years my mother would often round on me and say “that’s your uncle Mike talking” and I’d think ‘please God, yes.”

Mike’s family house was in Cleveleys, just down the coast from Blackpool and sometimes, as a treat, we’d be invited there at the weekends. It was a parent free zone, just us kids and, on occasion, just me. I loved those times the most. I was allowed to do all of the things I couldn’t do at home: make tea, chop wood, stay up late. There I was introduced to classical music and the joys of cooking, two things that still give me pleasure everyday. We’d blast out Mahler and chop onions. If this was the adult life it wasn’t daunting; it was fun. I remember Mike taking me to the Tower Circus where I got to shake hands with Charlie Caroli, the world’s most famous clown. We went to the Opera House Theatre in the Winter Gardens to see the singer Josef Locke whose voice was so loud that he needed no microphone, pretty impressive, even for a ten year old. On the same bill was Jimmy Clitheroe, the ‘Clitheroe Kid’. I laughed so hard that I thought I would choke. Under lustrous skies we rode a rusty tram, wolfing fish and chips from newspaper with our fingers and explored the Golden Mile where I shot the heart out of the Ace and won Mike his money back. Later we climbed and counted every step of the Tower to see the illuminations in their full gaudy glory.
When I was at boarding school Mike would arrive unannounced in his light blue Volvo and whisk me off to the cinema or for a mid afternoon feast at the local Chinese restaurant. There is a love that isn’t duty and, outside of family, Mike was the first person that I knew I loved.
He retired from the RAF in his early forties and trained to become a math teacher, he always loved to be by water and ended up in Felixstowe where he developed a passion for sailing, becoming a leading light at the local sailing club and introducing 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 I visited 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 and doctors. 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 both 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 spotty 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 poached the fish in milk and chicken stock. It all seemed a little bland to me but I diligently followed a recipe that 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 sounds of a Beethoven sonata, a smile on his face. 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.


  1. Can I mooch the Zangwill quote? I know it's all been said before, but I love the simplicity of this one. That last line with the ..."ion's" is priceless.
    I always wondered about the Canadian connection... your Mum's stay in Winnipeg. Was she there long? "Winterpeg" and frivolity... that's contradictory!
    Portage and Main St. at -50' below. Yikes!

  2. My grandparents emigrated from Preston Lancs to Winnipeg after the war; mum must have been 8 or 9; 19 when she was swept up and off by Terry...
    Mooch away with the quote Tim; it's as much yours as mine...