Sue retired as a Phlebotomist on Friday 7th July. Three days after we had returned from a ten day holiday in Moraira Spain. A holiday that was booked a long time before her retirement and to help us get over our daughter Carly’s wedding in the May just gone. Shopping in the Duty Free at Alicante Airport something was clearly amiss as Sue tried hard to remember a perfume she wanted to buy. Prompted and cajoled, she just couldn’t recall what it was. She looked blank. She grew more and more exasperated and finally gave up. I dismissed this as ‘everything is catching up with her’, weariness, but all the same it was disconcerting. This just wasn’t like Sue.
Over the weekend, it got worse. Sue became quiet, couldn’t respond to simple questions, she looked drawn. Sue was always bubbly, always on the go, except when watching her favourite soaps on the TV. I was worried. That Saturday afternoon I called her over to me on the settee, sat her on my knee. I said to her; “Sue, I think we better see the doctor …”.
Normally she would have brushed this off; “Its’ nothing, only a headache..” or something along those lines.
She looked at me…. and said “I know..”
This freaked me out.
Result was a CT and an MRI scan and then both of us being called in to see the doctor at Studfall Surgery. The news was devastating. Two tumours on the brain and one on her lung.
“I’m so sorry…” We sat there speechless and in total shock.
Having to inform Carly in Widnes and Gareth in Sweden was a nightmare and something I somehow had dreaded I would have to do when Gareth moved over there to be with his girlfriend Jenny in 2002. A phone call with bad news… a dread that someday I would be the harbinger…
What followed was 18 months of hell as Sue went through three courses of draining chemotherapy, months of radiotherapy. The side effects were horrendous, traumatic and invasive. When Sue’s hair began to fall out is when it really sunk in. We were distraught and I felt totally helpless.
We were determined to fight and beat this dreadful disease as many finding themselves in this situation will tell you. What else do you do? Give in? Accept it? Or fight it.
Carly was a Radiotherapist at Christie’s Hospital in Manchester, one of the leading cancer hospitals in the world. We had hope. She immediately contacted, arranged and organised, with the help of her consultant, Dr Favour-Finn, to have her mum’s records and treatment transferred to Manchester.
As the months went by, all was going better than we had dared hope. Each time, following a course of treatment, the scans revealed the tumours to be shrinking, no sign of the disease spreading. Relief was palpable.
Then came the bombshell. It was June 2013.
Dr Favour-Finn looked strained, could hardly look us in the eye. We sat in this little room, Sue, myself and Carly, wondering what was forthcoming. First of all Dr Finn told us; “The tumours are continuing to shrink…..but…”, a pause… “I’m afraid the cancer has shown up on your pancreas”. Silence. It was Deja Vu. A re-run of the meeting in Studfall Surgery when Sue was given the diagnosis.
“How long have I got?” Sue somehow gathered the strength to ask. Stunned beyond belief, we looked silently at Dr Finn. “With treatment…months. Without…weeks’
How do you deal with news like this? The inevitability of the outcome coursing through our bodies like a lightning bolt.
We left the hospital in tears, holding onto each other as we made our way back to the car. Sue suddenly stopped, looked at Carly…her voice almost a whisper, shaking, she asked Carly.. “Who’s going to look after your dad..”
Some things will stay with you forever. That in her moment of overwhelming distress she should think of my well-being and future was too much. I broke down.
We had been together for not far shy of 50 years, since we first met on a blind date when we were 17. I couldn’t contemplate life without her.. but with two granddaughters Polly and Ruby to look after, both miraculously born midway through Sue’s treatment, which gave her the spirit to fight on, I had to.
Of course, I had to. Apart from my own grief I had to help both Carly and Gareth through this terrible ordeal.
Sue lived to see her grandchildren's first Christmas, that’s all she wanted she told me a month before as her body became more frail and racked with pain. She passed away peacefully, if there’s such a thing, with all her family, including sisters Barbara and Christine, at home on Saturday January 4th 2014.
Devon and Cornwall
May 7th Teignmouth..
“I wish I was coming with you” my old mucker John ‘Wilf' Wilson said as he dropped me off at Corby Station. In a way I wished he was too. We share a load of memories from as far back as the 1960s when we used to travel around the country following Liverpool F.C. and going to gigs. “Where's the rucksack?” Wilf asked, laughing. In 1971 we had headed off down south with just that, and a tent on our backs. We were hitch-hiking and bound for the Isle of Wight but ended up in Ramsgate! Not because we didn’t have a map, more because it was done on a whim. The abiding memory is of causing mayhem in shops nearby Ramsgate Station as we knocked boxes of sweets off shelves with protruding tent poles from our rucksacks and being told angrily to “Get out!”.
Here I was with a hold-all that weighed a ton! I was off for eight days to wander around Devon and Cornwall. Something I had been looking forward to since Sue had passed away.
There are no rules in coming to terms with and handling grief. At times it catches you unawares, anything can trigger a bout of depression. Loneliness, photographs, memories..You tell yourself, ‘life goes on’, ‘It’s what Sue would have wanted’. Indeed there were times during the latter stages of her life where we discussed just that, candid conversations at night in bed.
I decided that I had to get away. Away from the house, anywhere, where nobody would know me. I didn’t want to talk to anybody, didn’t want to see anybody. To disappear. And then an idea entered my head. To re-trace our footsteps over the last fifty odd years and visit places from our past and also to where I had never been before.
Sue was never one to partake in such adventures, she loved her holidays abroad but asking her if she fancied a day out to the coast or a weekend away didn’t really interest her.
Thus I was heading south to Devon and Cornwall where we had enjoyed holidays in Newquay, Bude, Torbay.
I had spent some time since Sue’s passing with Carly in Widnes and Gareth in Sweden, where the legendary Swedish actress Great Garbo rests in peace, in a cemetery not far from where Gareth lives in Stockholm.
I understood what Garbo meant …“I want to be alone..”
The hour long train journey to London gave plenty of time for reflection. Making my way from St. Pancras to Paddington for the Teignmouth train via the Underground however, brought me back to the present.
“Single please” I requested at the ticket office.
“That'll be £4.70p”
Seemed a bit steep for a ride that passed through only five stations I thought. For some reason I still imagined the Underground was a cheap way to travel. After all, didn’t we used to hop on and off these trains for a couple of bob in the 60s when we regularly came down to watch Liverpool games?
I know time has moved on, inflation, wages etc have increased too, but £4.70p?
“Do you have concessions for senior citizens?” I asked hopefully.
“Not for single tickets sir”
I shrugged my shoulders, smiled, conceded; ‘Typical. If anyone can rip you off in this country they will.’
On reaching Paddington and with an hour to spare I went for a drink at the lavishly named Cafe Rafitta on the concourse.
“Hot chocolate please”
‘At least everyone is polite but they always are when they are knifing you in the back at the same time’ I mused. I was slipping into my cynical mood. Sipping the chocolate, which was lovely, I had to admit, I was thinking; 'the Cafe Rafitta? What's that all about? Though I guess it sounds better than a greasy spoon eatery called Joe’s Caff or something’.
The Cafe Rafitta was apparently of Portuguese origin, which explained the price of a simple egg custard on display, £1.89. 'Stick Portuguese in front of an Egg Custard and hey presto, you have something exotic' I pondered. 'You can pick up a pack of two in Asda for 50p! Outrageous!’
Moaning to myself passed the time and I eventually boarded the train for Bristol where I was to change for Teignmouth. I had been looking forward to this but was disappointed not only to find the train crammed, but the journey boring, the view of the countryside boring. One thing that amused me though was the TV screen on the back of the seats, like they have on aircraft and I thought to myself; 'Blimey the Great Western Railway is slowly creeping into the 21st century.' There didn't appear to be much to watch, switching the stations as you do but one item did catch my attention. 'We are travelling at an altitude of 243 feet'. Now that did tickle me. If there’s a more piece of useless information going I don’t know what it is!
Changing at Bristol Parkway I was surprised to discover I would be joining the Manchester to Paignton Cross Country Special. I was even more surprised to discover when it rolled in that it only had four coaches with everyone again packed in like the proverbial sardines. God almighty, wouldn't you think that for a journey this long they would have a full compliment of coaches? Making matters worse was that I ended up being hemmed in around a table by laptop maniacs. All with the obligatory set of earphones to emit the impression they were high profile and typing something really essential; an occasional break to sip a bottle of pure Mountain Spring Water; a nibble from a Marks and Spencer Cheese sandwich and then it was off again.
They were doing my head in. Bloody posers!
Then, out of the blue, the ringtone on my mobile went off. Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues blasted out and stopped them in their tracks. It was a call from my mate Danny Coyle. I swear the lap-toppers all paused and looked at me with disdain while I answered Dan the Man. 'Yes' I thought, 'I can be a poser too!'
So far this trip into deepest Devon had been one of disappointment. I had imagined there would be scenes of great beauty, but it was rather bland. Daydreaming about this brought the TV show Fawlty Towers to mind. This is where the show was based, Devon. I gazed out at the passing landscape. Basil Fawlty's diatribe to a deaf old woman complaining about her bedroom view brought a grin to my face. I didn't exactly expect to see the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or herds of Wildebeest galloping by either but it did occur to me. The countryside is really rather dull.
Finally I arrived in Teignmouth at 7pm, it was drizzling, the sky was grey, nobody around at the station. As I took the scene in it suddenly occurred to me; ‘Where the hell is the Bay Hotel where I'm staying?’ I wasn’t even sure what the address was! I decided, easiest way was to get a taxi, simple. But no, there wasn't a taxi to be seen! I began to walk in the direction of the Town Centre. My eyes peeled for a cab coming round a bend. Not one came. A sign pointed to the seafront. I carried on. There was nobody around and thoughts were circling in my head; ‘Christ this place looks lively!’ A young girl appeared out of nowhere, heading my way, oblivious to everything with her headset on.
“Excuse me”, I stopped her, “Any idea where the Bay Hotel is?” She took her headphones off and I repeated my question.
“No” she said, and put her headphones back on. Ah well! I carried on walking and then much to my surprise and relief, there was the Bay Hotel, right in front of me. A four storey pink building which didn’t particularly look that inviting and I recalled at that moment that I had been forewarned that the hotel had a dubious reputation. I never look at Trip Advisor but Carly and my mate Pat McMahon had both checked it out and both had cracked up, Pat laughing his head off! Carly wailing “Didn't you check this out dad!?”
“Can't be that bloody bad” I had said. The owner was an alcoholic by all accounts, pissed up at breakfast every morning, she was insulting, the hotel was dirty. My answer to Carly and Pat was the same. “Well I'm only staying there for four nights and I'm not living in the bloody place.”
Knackered and hungry, I just wanted to get checked in and sorted so I could go out for a pint and a bite to eat. A young guy was on the desk. “Ah you must be Mr. Smith?” he announced. Did I detect a hint of impatience? Was he waiting up for me or something? I looked at him; “yes” I replied and asked; “don't you have any taxis in this place?”
“Yes” he said without lifting his head up from the paperwork he was sorting.
“Well I've just walked all the way from the station and I didn't see one!”
“Oh, we do”
It was clear this conversation was going nowhere, so I left it there. He picked a key up and showed me all the way to the top of the building, up four flights of stairs. Must be packed I figured. No, I was wrong again. Turns out I was the only one there! And they shove me up in the attic!
The room was tiny but adequate. The single bed squeezed in under the window, looking out over the rooftops which was covered in bird shit. It was still pissing down.
‘I've come all the way for this’ crossed my mind. I had a quick wash to freshen up and went out. Looked around the seafront for a while, took some photos of various things, the Lighthouse, Lifeboat Shed, usual mundane things and went and treated myself to a fish supper from the wonderfully named Rock and Sole Fish Bar. Sitting on a bench opposite to enjoy my dinner I was immediately set upon by a hungry seagull. “F—- off!” I shouted. If anyone walking nearby had witnessed this they’d have thought I was a vagrant or a nutter but the gull didn’t bat an eyelid. Whatever, it was getting fuck all.
Two pints in the adjacent Blue Anchor pub to wash my fish supper down and I was ready for bed, which was quite comfortable as it happened. I drifted off into the land of nod, thinking; ‘tomorrow should be a better day. Pat and his wife Yvonne are coming down on their Trike from Bude to meet up before heading home to Corby. It’ll be nice to have some company..’.
It would also be Sue's birthday. She would have been 63.
I woke up to find the weather was still glum, still raining. I was thinking about Sue. A lovely birthday message from her friend Gill on Facebook saddened me but I was determined not to be morose today. I’m forever been told; “Sue wouldn’t want you to be sad, she’d want you to get on with your life”. Of course I knew she would but it was still too early and raw.
I dressed and went down for breakfast, somewhat apprehensive. Where was the dreaded landlady? Was she going to be lying on the floor in a state of undress with a glass of wine in her hand, paralytic? Cursing everyone that came in looking for something to eat? Well, surprise, surprise, there was no sign of her. In fact there was no sign of anyone except a couple of young girls looking bored and hanging around in the kitchen sitting on worktops waiting for someone to come in. The dining area was laid out nice, it was clean, Good Morning television was on. ‘Take a seat Clive’ I said to myself, ‘take your pick’. One of the girls came out and asked me if I wanted a cup of tea first, followed by a Full English. “Sounds good” I said and she trundled off looking pleased to have something to do. Meantime I was waiting to hear some expletives, some crashing of crockery, maybe even a song. Perhaps the landlady's on a bender I guessed, or can't get out of her bed. Felt a bit disappointed to tell you the truth. I was looking forward to meeting this lady, warts and all. Think I could have taken to her.
Breakfast was served and it was lovely. I don't normally bother with this but I figured that if I was going to spend the best part of my time roaming around in the fresh air, it’d be best to fill the engine up, as they say.
A text message informed me that Pat and Yvonne were arriving after lunch, they were going to stay overnight in an establishment called the James Luny House. Yes you read that right, what a name! I decided to spend this first morning taking a good look around the town and harbour. An ‘easy’ type day after yesterday’s excursion. I was keen to walk the coastal path to Dawlish but was dismayed to find it closed due to the recent storms that obliterated this part of the south coast. Not totally unexpected as the coastline and scenic railway had been decimated in February and was only now showing signs of recovery. A workforce was carrying out repair work as I approached. Nonetheless I walked as far as I could and had a chat with the site manager. Interesting and informative it was. “I’ll have to come back next year then” I said to him. “Yes, afraid so unless you’re around here in about a month”. I wouldn’t be though, pity. I headed into town after this, only small but with plenty of shops, including charity and junk outlets which I love to rummage around in. I bought a half pint Heineken glass jug emblazoned with its colourful logo. Only £1.25p. I have a collection of half pint glasses at home that I’ve nicked from pubs over the years. I don't like pint pots in the house. Think they look vulgar.
With camera in hand I headed in the direction of the Shaldon to Teignmouth Road Bridge. On the way passing the local rugby club ground which was interesting as it was right next to the railway line and also the sea. How many balls to do they lose during a game I wondered? A big hoof by a full back would surely see the ball flying over the fence and into the harbour.
Crossing the bridge I received another phone call from Danny. “Where are you?” he asked, “It sounds noisy”.
“What?” I replied, “I can't hear you”.
The traffic was constant walking over that bridge and it was noisy. “I’m walking across the sea” I said. That would throw him I thought! Dan laughed and said “Oh, right I’ll get to the point then” and then attempted to explain that he had booked a couple of single rooms in Llanberis, North Wales for an adventure of climbing up Snowdon in June. “Is that OK?” This all sounded like an excerpt from the TV programme An Idiot Abroad! “Yea, whatever Dan, good stuff”
I couldn't tell if he had heard me or not, the wind and the traffic noise was quite intense. Another burst of cackle and Dan signed off, I could hear him chuckling; “Good, enjoy the rest of the week, see you soon”.
Time was getting on and instead of taking the roadway back into town which was hilly I decided to take the overgrown looking pathway running parallel to the railway line. Big mistake! Brambles were overhanging everywhere, snagging me at every opportunity, the path was mostly submerged with puddles from the recent inclement weather and I ended up bogging. ‘This was a bright idea’ I said to myself. My shoes were manky, jeans wet, splashed with mud. Emerging out of this quagmire I happened to pass the place where Pat and Yvonne were due to stay. I couldn't resist sending them a text. ‘I’ve found the Luny house Pat’. Thought that was quite amusing but I've always been one to laugh at my own wit.
The Luny House was owned by a retired Rear Admiral or Squadron Leader or something, ‘very posh’ Pat later told me, ‘bit well-to-do’.
The Lady of the House knew all about the establishment I was staying in; “Oh, yes, she's a barrister, and an alcoholic”.
Well, there you go; it takes all sorts don’t it. Although I still hadn’t seen her, I’d been back inside a couple of times since breakfast and the hotel still appeared to be bereft of life.
Meeting up with Pat and Yvonne we headed for a pub and chewed the fat for a couple of hours, talking about Sue which was nice, talking about a proposed show I was due to make with Pat on Corby Radio, talking about the future prospects of Corby Town F.C.
With it being miserable, grey and still drizzling, it was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon in a cozy, friendly little Inn. The ale was going down well too, enough to dull the senses a tad and cause Pat to crack his head on a solid wooden toilet door! ‘Bar steward!’ he exclaimed rubbing his head, “I’m going to complain, feel the lump on my head!” Sympathy was in short supply as me and Yvonne just laughed and said; “it was nothing to do with the beer then?”
At that we called it a day and went back to our respective hotels to rest, wash and prepare ourselves for the night, a meal and some more refreshment.
It was nice having good company on such a poignant day.
Pat and Yvonne were heading home next morning whilst I was going to begin my adventure in earnest. I was ready to make Looe and Polperro my first trip.