Monday, 15 July 2013

Lazy Sunday afternoon memories

As half-prophesied in my last entry, I made the journey over to Kenilworth on Sunday.  I spent quite a few moments in the peace and tranquillity of the cemetery, but then, realizing I had almost forty minutes' wait for the bus home (it's only an hourly service now on a Sunday) I thought I'd spend some time looking around the town.  Although I'd passed through on my travels from time to time over the years, I hadn't spent any real time there, so in the warmth of a lovely sunny afternoon it was pleasant and quite nostalgic wandering round, casting my mind back to when I used to lived there.

In the light of all the recent attention paid to the impending demise of high street shopping as we know it, Kenilworth seems to be surviving remarkably well.  I only noticed two empty shops, and neither of those were actually boarded up or derelict.  One I remembered as the former Co-op food hall - which had at some point been converted into an Co-op electrical store before closing altogether.  Conspicuous by their absence were pound-shops and mobile phone shops, but it did seem to me that there were more coffee shops/cafes than I remembered there being back in the 1960s.  As was to be expected, many of the shops in the main street (Warwick Road & The Square) had changed hands - Woollies is now a Robert Dyas - but I was impressed to see that Moores the "gentleman's outfitters" is still going strong and looking outwardly the same as it did in my youth.  I don't mean that unkindly, for despite its staid label, I remember at the height of the flower-power era buying a gorgeous psychedelic pink shirt and matching kipper tie complete with hipster flares there!

Not all the shops I remembered from my youth have survived, of course: further down the street, a branch of Sainsburys occupies I think the spot where A H Spicer, the builder/decorator, stood.  My parents used to get all our paint, wallpaper and decorating stuff there.  Duggins the quaint little record shop is no more, and the other record shop I used to patronize - Shears (on the corner of Queens Road), who sold TVs and radios as well on their ground floor  - is now a pizza takeaway.  In fact I think there may not be any record shops left in Kenilworth now, for Discotrak which had opened in the then 'new' Abbey End shopping development seems to be one of the ubiquitous coffee shops.

Talisman Square, the main 'precinct', was built during the time we lived there: it's now fortunately in the throes of being given a face-lift as although quite a modern style of architecture in its day, its distinctive 60s-style "concrete jungle" look has fallen out of favour in recent years.  Rather surprisingly, the little bookshop which I remember opened in the late 1960s is still thriving there, having evidently at least for the moment succeeded in fending off the mighty power of Amazon.  Making my way through and out towards the famous 'Clock', I passed what used to be Bishops (the first supermarket I think to open up in Kenilworth, subsequently Budgens, and now a branch of Wilkinson).  Back in the main street, almost opposite Lloyds TSB, another of the old shops has survived - the picture shop where my parents had an oil painting which they'd bought framed.  Forty years later, it now hangs on my living-room wall.

And of course the library - where I worked back in 1968 when it was new, in my first job before going off to college!  It was closed, so I didn't go in, but now reincarnated as a computerized Council one-stop shop it's I imagine a far cry from my days of checking books in and out manually across the counter!

And so, with more than maybe just a slight tinge of wistfulness, I boarded the bus for the half-hour journey home.               

Thursday, 11 July 2013

In memoriam

Today marks the 25th anniversary of my mother's death.  It may seem a little morbid to want to write about it, but I guess that's as good a way as any of marking the occasion.  It was a Monday morning: I'd gone off to work as usual, totally unaware of what was to come.  For although I'd known she'd been ill over the weekend, I hadn't realized she was virtually on her deathbed.  My boss was very understanding and sympathetic and in a bit of a daze I was soon on my way over to the house - the same house in Kenilworth where I'd grown up as a teenager.  My father ushered me into the front room, which they'd converted into a bedroom to say my goodbyes.

It was the first time I'd ever seen a dead person.  She seemed very peaceful and I half expected her to wake up suddenly and ask "You got here, then...What took you so long?" or something similar.  I touched her gently almost as if try and to rouse her but realizing I couldn't (or shouldn't try), I whispered a few prayers and kissed her for the last time.  I remember not really wanting to leave her, but my father was waiting just outside the door and the undertakers would soon be arriving.

The funeral, I soon found out, was booked for noon on the Friday. She'd had the foresight to write her will sometime previously, appointing my father and sister as executors, so they handled all the funeral arrangements as well as all the paperwork connected with the probate: each day the two of them went off to take care of everything, while it fell to my lot to make sure the house was clean and tidy in preparation.  Not that it was dirty: my mother had always been extremely houseproud but in her final years her failing health had taken its toll as far as the chores were concerned.  I shall never forget how I struggled constantly to hold back the tears: although I'd left home fifteen years previously, everything was still pretty much as I'd remembered it and I only had to touch an ornament or a piece of furniture, or look at the surroundings, for childhood memories of things we'd done together to come flooding back.  At night, I slept in the same bedroom I'd had when I was seventeen, just after my sister had left home.  It was quite surreal, and almost as if the whole of my adult life hadn't happened.

My sister had asked me to stay over and keep father company for the week, and I was wondering what the two of us were going to do in the evenings.  But he seemed content to just sit and talk - or rather he talked and I listened, adding 'yes' and 'no' in what I hoped were the right places.  He'd always been something of a story-teller: some of the stories I'd heard before, others were not so familiar, but a common thread was how vivid his memories were of things which had happened long before I was born.  Occasionally he'd pause, or his voice would falter and his eyes seemed to mist over, as something would perhaps suddenly remind him of the present and of what had happened - but then he'd look up as if to say "Now where was I?" - and carry on from where he'd left off.  Looking back on it now, I daresay he was just trying to get things straight in his mind, much I was doing too, although with considerably less success.  It was on the Wednesday evening I think that he told me the story of how he and my mother had first met.  It was the way he told it as much as anything that gave me an inkling of how much he was already starting to miss her.  

Eventually Friday arrived - the day of the funeral.  I remember my father going out to mow the back lawn while we were waiting for the hearse to arrive, which struck me as bizarre, but I guess it was just his way of taking his mind off things.  Other than that, it all passed in something of a blur.  A Church service followed by a cremation was apparently what my mother had said she wanted: even though I'd never known her ever go to Church, they'd got married in Church so maybe she thought it was 'never too late'?  Back at the house, my father "entertained" those of our friends and relatives who'd come to the funeral whilst, not being one to socialize a lot at the best of times (and this was hardly one of them), I mostly busied myself in the kitchen looking after the supply of food, drink and clean plates.

I'm not sure whether it had been something my mother had asked for or not, but my father arranged for her ashes to be interred in Kenilworth Cemetery - in a double plot which would also accommodate his when his time came.  This couldn't be completed until the following Monday, so I spent an unspeakably awful weekend with an eerie sense of 'unfinished business' hanging over me.  The interment ceremony was for just the close family: the vicar did the customary prayers and as I threw a handful of soil down onto the small wooden box containing the ashes, I was struck by an inconsolable sense of loss.

My mother was gone: the thing I'd feared most in my childhood - the stuff of which periodic nightmares had been made - had finally happened, and nothing was ever going to be the same again.  It was the first time I'd lost a close relative, and my mother had always been the one in the family I was closest to.  I still find it difficult to put into words how guilty I felt, all the "if only"s - and how I'd never in my wildest imagination anticipated the emotional turmoil I would go through in the weeks and months that would follow.  I knelt by her grave each week and prayed for forgiveness.  Eventually of course over the passage of time it's gradually healed just as everyone says it does.  I don't visit the grave regularly any more, and haven't done for many years, basically because I suppose haven't felt the need to.

But I still miss her and the same mixed emotions which have prompted me to write this long and probably rather rambling entry will, I sense, result in my re-visiting her final resting place once again.