Five Go On a New Year’s Adventure

Five Go On a New Year’s Adventure

As a writer, I usually find that life provides me with all the inspiration I need. New Year’s Eve was no exception …

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It is time to get the train to Milton Keynes for New Year’s Eve with Uncle Quentin and Aunt Fanny.

“Have you got everything children?” asks Mother.

“Yes I think so,” replies Georgie, the eldest daughter, and contrary to literary expectation, the Sensible One.

“Would you like to have a name for this adventure?” asks Georgie. “You must be bored of ‘Mother’ after 20 or so books.”

“Oh darling! That would be super. Any ideas?” replies Mother.

“Maman! Nobody says ‘super’ anymore. That’s really old-fashioned,” exclaims Anne, the younger daughter.

Mother frowns. “Well what should I say then, I’m really out-of-touch as I’ve lived in France so long?”

Anne smooths her chestnut hair back into its bun. ” Well David says people his age describe things that are really great as “sick”. But I don’t understand. Les Anglais sont fous!” she replies reverting to her native French.

Mother ‘s eyebrows shoot up. “Really! Well they must be crazy. Come on then, what names do you like?”

“I like flower names,” says Georgie. “How about Rose? That’s really pretty.”

“Rose it is then,” says Mother happily

Four suitcases and four bulging backpacks are lined up in their grandparents’ hall. They are staying several days and have Christmas presents to deliver too, which they have brought all the way from their house in deepest rural France.

“Let’s go then,” says Rose, picking up the bag with the sandwiches and ginger beer and leading the way down the village street to the tiny station.

Her three children, Georgie, Anne and Little Timmy follow. They are excited at the prospect of seeing their cousins Julian and David, as they haven’t met up since Fanny brought them out for a visit in May. (Are you wondering what’s happened to Dick? Just remember it’s 2018…)

Fanny’s friend Darrell will also be there and her daughter Felicity who they haven’t seen since that crazy week in Wales two and a half years earlier. Felicity is now a demi-god, in other words A Teen, and Georgie and Anne are hoping for some make-up tips and a go on that most hallowed of objects: The Mobile.

Rose has decreed that such gadgets are bad for children and so far they haven’t managed to persuade her otherwise. Fanny admires her sister Rose’s principles and wishes she had stuck to her guns as The Rot has definitely taken root in her house.

Darrell is far too mature for her old Mallory Towers chum’s japes now she has reached her half century and accepted Fanny’s invitation a fortnight ago to join the fun and games in Milton Keynes. She does wish that dear Fanny would stop winding her up at every opportunity about How Old She Is though. What fun she will have in 18 months when it is Fanny’s turn!

“Fanny is allowing us to stay up until midnight and drink champagne,” Anne says as they board the slow train chugging its way through the Kent countryside and up to London. “What fun we are going to have.”

“And there will be fireworks!” exclaims Little Timmy bouncing in his seat.

“Mother, how tall is Julian now?” asks Georgie.

“I don’t know exactly,” Rose replies, “But Fanny says he is much taller than her and he has a very deep voice.” Julian is also A Teen and has grown so much in the last year he is always wearing trousers that are too short for him and being clumsy.

“He must be huge!” thinks Little Timmy. He can’t really understand how Julian can be so large and still be a child. As long as his cousin plays with him though, that’s all that matters. Timmy can’t wait to use Julian and David’s vast collection of nerf guns so he can terrorise his sisters even more. As the youngest and a boy, it is his solemn duty.

Little Timmy is also looking forward to seeing his aunt and uncle’s dogs, Callum and Princess Penny. After all in these adventures he usually is a dog, so he has a special affinity towards them and is going to make sure they have lots of kisses and cuddles.

Cal & Pen nose to nose

Princess Penny & Callum

“Now children, the train takes an hour to get to London. What are you going to do?” enquires Rose.

“Let’s play cards,” says Georgie getting a pack out.

After a brief negotiation, the children decide on a game and Rose gets out her book with a sigh of relief.

***

Rose is worried about negotiating the Underground with the children and all their luggage but everything goes smoothly and they arrive at Euston for the next stage of their journey. They decide to get an inter-city train going to Manchester as the first stop is Milton Keynes and the journey will be short.

After a tedious 30-minute delay, the train pulls out of the station and the children settle down to another game of cards.

***

The train arrives at Milton Keynes and some passengers begin to get off. But Rose is engrossed in her book and at first doesn’t realise what is happening. When she does, it is nearly too late and panic sets in.

“Quick children, we’ve arrived. Grab your cases and get off the train!” she shrieks.

She hurries towards the exit just as the door is closing and rams her case in the gap to stop it. A guard gives her a disapproving look but she ignores him.

Everyone gets off and Rose turns to go up the stairs.

“Mother, where is Little Timmy?” asks Georgie worriedly.

Rose looks around wildly and to her horror realises he is still on the train.

“Timmy, get off the train now!” she yells at him.

Little Timmy leaps off the train just as the doors are closing for the second time. Seeing he is trying not to cry, Rose gives him a big hug.

“Timmy where is your bag with your robot in?” Anne asks earnestly.

“I don’t know,” says Little Timmy his bottom lip trembling.

Rose realises with a sinking feeling that he has left it on the train, which has disappeared into the distance.

Hearing the consternation in the children’s voices, the guard turns to Rose and says rather archly, “What’s the matter? Have you left someone else on the train?”

Rose resists the urge to give him the finger and instead paints on a smile and says it is only a bag this time.

Poor Timmy is forlorn. Mother spent all morning constructing the robot for him and now he has left it on the train. He wipes away a tear and follows everyone up the stairs.

There is Quentin at the barrier and Rose explains about the lost present and asks if he thinks they can get it back. Quentin points her in the direction of one of the station staff who kindly says he radio the guard on the train and ask him to look for it and return it to Milton Keynes station so Rose can collect it. All they can do is hope for the best.

***

Soon they arrive at Quentin and Fanny’s house. The children greet one another joyously and decide that what they need to do right now is have a riotous game of Forty Forty In, followed by Sardines. After all, the grown-ups won’t mind and it would be simply rude not to in such a large house. They pound upstairs with the dogs bouncing after them barking excitedly.

Thoroughly traumatised by the events at the station, Quentin retreats to his favourite chair in the living room. He decides this is to be a Three Screen Night and promptly switches on the TV, opens his laptop and turns on his mobile. Fanny wisely says nothing and gives him a bottle of his favourite cider. It is New Year’s Eve after all and she has the company of two women who love to chat.

She returns to the kitchen where Darrell and Rose are already deep in conversation.

Giving her younger sister a hug, she offers her a glass of wine.

“Yes I think I need one after that,” says Rose accepting a large one gratefully.

Darrell, Fanny and Rose settle round the kitchen table for a good chinwag and the conversation grows steadily louder and the laughter more frequent as everyone relaxes.

The peace is rudely shattered by Little Timmy’s cries from upstairs and Rose climbs up to the attic to investigate.

Shortly afterwards, she arrives in the kitchen clutching two cream duvet covers.

“I’m afraid Little Timmy got Princess Penny too excited and she peed all over the beds,” she says apologetically.

“Never mind,” replies Fanny more brightly than she feels and puts them straight in the washing machine. She prises Quentin out of his chair and commands him to find two fresh covers. He gets up obediently and heads upstairs followed by Rose who is hoping to get the stains out of the duvets with some wet wipes.

“Fat chance” thinks Fanny.

Sure enough, Quentin comes back down with them and shows her the bright yellow stains.

“Just add it to the pile,” instructs Fanny. Sure she has nothing better to do on New Year’s Eve than wash piles of pee-sodden items. It’s not like this is supposed to be a party or anything!

***

Despite imbibing several glasses of wine, the women manage to put all the party food successfully on the table and the children descend and devour large quantities of it and pull all the party poppers. The floor is littered with brightly coloured stars but Fanny is surprised to find that her neat freak tendencies have been dulled by the alcohol and for once has no urge to brush them up, thinking instead that they look really pretty.

Quentin decides it is time for the children to Calm Down and suggests they watch a film together. He patiently finds one they all agree on and then continues watching YouTube and playing Clash of Clans on his mobile.

Grateful for the peace, Fanny pours herself another glass of red wine and then promptly knocks it all over the tablecloth and down the wall.

“Shit!” she giggles drunkenly and shoves a dog towel underneath to soak it up.

She realises she is in no fit state to change the cloth and leaves it for the morning. Besides, the dirty washing pile barely fits in the utility room anymore and is sneaking into the kitchen. What is the point in adding to it?

Rose and Darrell obliging clean the floor and the three women decide they should have a game of Scrabble.

***

The board is laid and the friends choose their tiles. Fanny puts hers on the rack and dissolves into giggles. She has managed to pick up 6 vowels and an L.

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Fanny’s disastrous Scrabble tiles

Now Darrell happens to be a Demon Scrabble Player and after losing countless times, Fanny thinks it is time to even up the odds. She glances over and sees that Darrell has the Q, Z, V, Y, two other consonants and one vowel.

“That is so typical,” she thinks.

It would be rude to take the highest scoring tiles, so she takes the V and Y before Darrell can stop her and gives her an E and U instead.

“Look, I’ll take these tiles and I’ll give you these instead,” says Fanny naughtily.

“I don’t really want an E can I have an A?” asks Darrell meekly, so shocked by her friend’s behaviour she can’t think of a suitable retort.

Fanny obliges and play begins.

Despite playing well and scoring 51 on a triple word score, Fanny still loses. She would have come even further behind but Darrell has been undone by the superior racks with their pegs for scoring like cribbage. She keeps moving the units peg forward instead of the twenties and has therefore lost a great deal of points.

Fanny can’t help but wind her up about this and vaguely wonders what form Darrell’s revenge will take.

At long last midnight arrives, the champagne corks pop and they all look at the fireworks out of the bedroom windows. Very soon after that everyone is asleep.

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***

Well not quite everyone. Fanny is still awake because Quentin is lying flat on his back and snoring loudly as if his life depended on it.

“Fuck!” mumbles Fanny under her breath.

She tries to get him to turn over. No luck. Resisting the urge to slap him, she strokes his face instead. He barely pauses for breath.

Gloomily Fanny runs through her options. Usually she would retreat to the peace of the spare room but Rose is using it and Little Timmy is asleep on the floor on a futon.

The office then? Nope. Georgie and Anne are occupying both beds.

David is sleeping in his bedroom and so is Julian, with the addition of Felicity who is curled up on a futon on his floor.

The playroom is also out of bounds because Darrell is in there on her blow-up bed.

Fanny contemplates the sofa but instantly dismisses the idea. Nobody ever sleeps comfortably on one and anyway she has completely run out of covers thanks to Princess Penny.

Cursing, she stomps angrily to the bathroom and shoves some toilet roll in both ears. It dulls the sound just enough so she can fall asleep.

***

The next morning, after everyone has eaten breakfast and drunk too much coffee, the grown-ups decide they should get some fresh air and take the dogs for a walk.

Trying to organise six children to get dressed and ready, never mind persuading them to come along is too much to contemplate, especially for Fanny, who is still hungover.  Instead, The Teens are given strict instructions about looking after the younger ones.

“Where shall we go?” says Quentin.

“The farmhouse,” replies Fanny firmly.

“Are you sure it isn’t too muddy?” asks Quentin doubtfully.

“I went up there the other day, it was fine,” Fanny says reassuringly.

They  put on their wellies, wrap themselves in coats, hats and scarves and set off, Callum and Princess Penny pulling eagerly at their leads. After ten minutes, they arrive at the track on the edge of the woods: it has disappeared under a sea of mud.

“Bugger, this was a mistake,” thinks Fanny but it is too late to turn back now.

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The muddy track

They flounder along the muddy track sliding all over the place, stumble along the edge of an uneven field and through the abandoned farmhouse gate which leads to many more fields and some woods. Thankfully the going gets easier and Fanny breathes a sigh of relief: the worst part is over.

She doesn’t notice the rain beginning to fall or the massive black cloud heading rapidly towards them because she is too busy chatting to Darrell and Rose. Quentin is striding ahead as he always does and is soon out of earshot.

By the time they get to the grassy path that heads in the direction of home, it is raining hard and the wind is flinging it in their faces.

Fanny yells at Quentin and indicates that the women are going to loop back home. He raises his thumb and disappears into the distance, Callum and Princess Penny trotting alongside him.

“I can’t believe he’s going on,” says Fanny. “Let’s get home girls.”

As they head along the hedgerow, the weather gets worse. Hail stings their faces as they battle against the wind, getting wetter and wetter by the second.

Once they reach the edge of the wood, they have a choice: to climb steeply up the big cornfield to the track or head into the woods and wind their way around the edge and end up on the same path.

They decide to go through the woods, as it will be far less muddy and maybe give them a bit of shelter. By now everyone is cold. Their trousers are clinging to their legs making them cold and uncomfortable. Hair that isn’t under a hat is stuck to their cheeks and the rain is starting to seep through their coats.

Rose leads the way and silence falls as the three women concentrate on negotiating the maze of brambles and fallen branches that litter the floor of the wood. After 15 minutes of concerted effort they finally push through the trees and onto the track.

“Thank God we haven’t got the kids with us,” says Darrell. “Can you imagine the complaints?”

“We’d never hear the end of it,” Fanny says, laughing slightly hysterically.

“Mine would have moaned all the way round!” Rose exclaims.

Glad to be back on flat ground the friends walk quickly towards home.

When they are almost back, Fanny rings Julian and tells him they are all soaking wet and the children must help on their return by providing dry clothes and hot drinks. Julian promises to organise them and Fanny, Darrell and Rose are cheered by the thought of sitting by the fire and drying off.

Just as the women approach the house, they are astonished to see Quentin’s red raincoat disappearing through the door.

“How the hell did he beat us to it?” asks Darrell. “He went a much longer route than us!”

“You know he walks twice as fast as everyone else,” Fanny replies.

“Even so…” says Darrell shaking her head.

The children rush to the door with towels to wrap around the dogs and dry trousers and socks for their mothers. The women strip right there in the hall they are so chilled and the children obligingly drape all the wet clothes over the radiators and on the backs of chairs.

Nobody thought to ask Quentin if he wanted dry clothes, so he slopes upstairs to change and gets his revenge by dumping all his wet stuff in the washing basket where it ferments merrily for a few days.

David proudly makes four cups of coffee for the grown-ups and pokes his tongue out at Julian because he told everyone his brother had no idea how to make it, in that supercilious tone that teenagers worldwide have perfected

***

After the women spend a couple of hours of relaxing in front of the fire, thawing out their legs and feet, Darrell rouses herself and announces that she really ought to drive home as she has the dreaded work the next day.

Fanny and Rose are downcast until they remember that somehow in all the mayhem last night, they got out their diaries and agreed that in August, Fanny, Darrell and the children would take the train all the way down to Rose’s house in the south of France for a week.

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View from Rose’s village

“Hurrah!” they cry. “We’ll have another week of jolly japes and unexpected mishaps.”

“Sunshine and swimming!”

“Canoeing down the river!”

“Olives at the market and walking up Les Trois Becs!”

“Card games and Scrabble!”

“Lots of wine!”

But we promise not leave anyone on the train!

Grandpa Fred: 110 today

Grandpa Fred: 110 today

Thinking of my lovely Grandpa, Fred, who was born on this day in 1907. He was a real looker when he was young, slim with blonde wavy hair and a great smile. He came from Devon and met my granny, Molly, when they were both at teacher training college in Lampeter, Wales. When they were courting, he rode around on a big motorbike with Granny in a side car.

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Fred and Molly’s wedding. 27th December 1934 in Pembroke Dock

I learnt recently that he wouldn’t let Molly learn to drive cos he thought that was a man’s job and she was furious with him! They used to go dancing and won lots of competitions; cigarettes for him and silk stockings for her. I remember when I was a teenager, Fred disparaging discos for the very good reason that you couldn’t, “grab the girl you liked and hold her close like I used to!” Quite right.

When I asked him once why he trained to be a teacher, he told me that growing up where he did he had two choices: to be a farmer or to be a teacher, and he had no interest in farming, so he went to teaching training college. Once he qualified he took a job in Sheffield during the 1930s and it became his home for the rest of his life. He taught maths at a large secondary school, Jordanstone, was a keen bridge player and had a fine tenor voice.

My uncle, John, was born in 1937, and mum came some years later in 1944. Between them they gave Molly and Fred four granddaughters.

My sister and I stayed with Granny and Grandpa a lot growing up as Mum and Dad both worked, so they would often have us during the half-term holidays. And our families were often in Wales together at Easter or at Christmas, in the house in Laws Street, which was then lived in by Granny’s sister, Lil. My sister and I played on the same beaches which my boys do now and slept in the same attic bedroom, with the sun streaming through the Velux windows far too early in the morning. We’d splash Grandpa down by the waves and he would soak us in return, while Granny looked on with an indulgent smile and then he’d buy us an ice-cream if the van was there; our little dog, Lucy, begging for a share.

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Me aged 4 in the garden in Hemper Lane, Sheffield

sharing a joke with grandpa

Here we are toasting Grandpa’s birthday at my parents’ house. About 1980. Grandpa has obviously just cracked a joke which has creased me up because I can’t stop laughing and he’s wearing a special birthday hat my sister made for him.

Fred had a wonderful sense of humour all his life. I clearly remember him playing jokes on me throughout my childhood and roaring with laughter. One of the funniest times was when we were celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary in 1984; I would’ve been 15. The whole family went out for a meal in a smart hotel in Sheffield and were seated round a highly polished wooden table. Being a well brought up girl I asked him politely to pass me the salt. Instead of passing it though, a devilish twinkle lit up his eye and taking aim he slid it expertly across the table and taken aback I just managed to catch it before it tumbled onto the floor!

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Me (15), my sister (13) and my parents at the Golden Wedding anniversary meal

Well after that ice breaker, everything that could be slid across that table was and it’s a miracle nothing got broken. The men, vying to be the best, of course and everyone laughing as we all reverted to junior school children for the evening.

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Family photo taken on their 50th wedding anniversary. Back row Eira, Mum, Granny, Grandpa, Uncle John, front row my cousins Helen and Kate, my sister,Henrietta, Me and our dog Lucy, and Eira’s dad in the armchair .

G & G on their 50th wedding anniversary

Granny & Grandpa. That’s how I remember Grandpa in particular; with a naughty grin on his face!

He was a generous man too. Never letting anyone else pay when we went out to eat, even if it was quite obviously our turn.

One of his pleasures in life was gardening; he had a big vegetable plot at the back of his garden where he cultivated many different plants and he would brew his own wine too. It was pretty good.

Fred used to come with us on our six-week summer holidays to France.  Molly came out once, when my parents first purchased the house and was so horrified by having to pretty much camp in a ruin (the house hadn’t been lived in for 40 years), that she never came back. Fred was game though and every year after he’d taken Molly to stay with her sister in Pembroke Dock, he’d drive to our house and then get a lift down to St. Sauveur in our camper van. Mum let him have the passenger seat and she sat on a little seat that Dad fashioned for her out of wood wedged in between the two front seats.

Fred would get stuck in with the renovation and help to plaster, paint, mix cement or whatever else was required. Whenever the heat was getting to him, he’d mix in a little salt with his water and re-hydrate himself. He even came canoeing with us on several occasions down the Drome. And in the evenings he enjoyed the company of whichever family was staying with us and the riotous meals with 10 or more of us seated on the church pews in the kitchen.

He died a week after my cousin, Kate, got married and five months before my own wedding. It fell to my soon to be father-in-law Joe to give me the news as Betty and I returned from wedding dress shopping. Obviously I wept for him. He was the only grandpa I had growing up and a good one.

Happy birthday Fred xxx

For the Love of a Dog

A friend of mine lost her beloved dog yesterday.

“Why are animals such an important part of our lives?” she asked me.

“They become part of the family, give us unconditional love and de-stress us,” I replied.

I got to thinking about the death of my little dog nearly three years ago and sat down and wrote something about it. 

********

You lie on your bed sleeping peacefully, wrapped in a blanket for warmth, only your little black and grey head peeping out. The door bells rings and I answer with a heavy heart; it’s better you don’t know that these are your last moments on earth.

The final two years of your life have been hard as you’ve slowly declined and we’ve become your carers, nursing you from this day to the next. One afternoon, not long after Christmas, you started being sick and kept falling over. I thought you’d had a stroke but no it was vestibular syndrome, which affects your balance. Once you’d recovered, your little grizzled head had a slight tilt to it but otherwise no-one could tell you’d been ill.

I asked the vet straight out what your prognosis was; it’s better to know the truth about such things, even if they’re hard to hear. He was direct, “eventually it will kill her, from now on it’s about her quality of life.” It was sobering news.

Long walks were replaced with short ones and then disappeared altogether as your arthritis got worse and worse and you panted in pain. We visited the vet again and he adjusted your medication. Your circulation became poor and you would often shiver uncontrollably. When that happened I’d wrap you in a blanket and sit you on my lap until you stopped.

The next symptom of increasing age was senility: always a very clean dog, you started forgetting that you had to go outside to go to the toilet and would poo on the floor instead. If I told you off you just looked bemused, so after the first few times, I just quietly cleaned up the mess and worried that it would get worse.

Of course it did and after several stressful weeks of you weeing everywhere we started putting dog nappies on you and I moved your bed downstairs into the kitchen, where the tiled floor was much easier to clean than carpet.

And all the while vestibular syndrome lurked in the background, waiting to pounce whenever it had the opportunity. You had frequent mini episodes and with every one declined that little bit more. Sometimes, you would fall over flat on your side and I would pick you up and cradle you until you could stand again. One attack left you with the inability to walk straight; instead you had a strange crab-like gait from then on.

Visits to the vet became more and more frequent as I agonised over your quality of life and wondered whether I was being cruel or kind. Dogs are far more stoic than humans and despite all you medical problems you still enjoyed a little sniff round the garden and a cuddle on the sofa and two years after the first vestibular attack you were still with us.

But one morning you couldn’t get out of bed; during the night, one of your back legs had become paralyzed. It hung uselessly at a strange angle and you couldn’t stand up. My husband and I looked at one another: enough was enough. “I’ll call the vet,” I said sadly “and ask him to come over.”

So this morning, two vets in maroon uniform have come quietly to our house to end your suffering. I move your bed into the living room and keep you comfortable. We all sit round stroking you while the vet inserts a needle into you paw. Within seconds the chemicals have stopped your heart and you’re no more.

“She’s gone,” the vet says solemnly checking for a pulse. My eldest son bursts into tears and I wrap him in my arms, my tears mingling with his. The vet picks you up, your little head flopping peacefully out of the blanket, and leaves. Tension and worry swap places with sadness and relief.

We let the puppy out of the kitchen, put on some shoes and take him for a walk in the woods. Your long life with us is finally over but ours must continue.

 

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Beautiful Sophie who lived until she was 16

Farewell Grandpa Joe

Fourteen years ago today, my father-in-law Joe suffered a painful and sudden death and left a hole in our lives that has never quite been filled. Kind and generous, with a wicked Liverpool sense of fun, he is still much missed. Dying before he was even old enough to get his OAP bus pass, he wasn’t there at the birth of his two grandsons. By the time I got pregnant with my eldest, we’d scattered his ashes three months previously. Every time they have a birthday, I feel a twinge of sadness that he isn’t there to celebrate with us.

The youngest of five children from a poor Irish Catholic family, Joe grew up in Cherry Tree Lane in Liverpool and followed his elder brothers into the Fire Brigade. A Union man and a Labour Party member all his adult life, Joe rose to become Assistant Deputy Chief of Merseyside Fire Brigade and was well liked among his colleagues. His natural intelligence and quick thinking more than made up for the poor education he’d received and there were many who appreciated his loyalty, straight talking and refusal to engage in underhand tactics to advance his career.

He welcomed me wholeheartedly into the Killoran family from the very first time I came over to his house for Sunday lunch nearly 25 years ago and we quickly became close. I spent most weekends at Joe and Betty’s house before I got married and we’d sit and talk for hours about all sorts of things. He rapidly became the person I asked first whenever I needed any advice.

In the beginning, I was bewildered by the Liverpool humour of my prospective parents-in-law and would just sit quietly listening to them banter with John, not knowing how to respond and often not appreciating being the target of their good-natured jokes. But after a while I began to enjoy their unique black humour and learned how to dish it out too. I spent many an evening laughing with them over a glass of wine; now those days are sadly long gone.

Joe was always generous with his time and really went out of his way to help people, a quality he demonstrated time and time again in the 11 years I knew him. After I’d finally finished my Masters course at Liverpool University in 1993, I started looking around for jobs and happened to apply for one in Nantwich. At the time I had an ancient red VW Beetle and decided to take myself to the interview along the M6, the first time I’d ever taken that route since passing my driving test. Dressed in a light green suit and thoroughly enjoying my independence, I set off one sunny spring morning, excited at the new direction my life might take.

The motorway was crowded with lorries as is often the case. Feeling impatient as two of them tried ineptly to overtake one another, slowing down all the traffic behind, I boldly moved out into the outside line, determined to get past the moving roadblock. Just as I was getting up speed, thick, black smoke began pouring out of the engine and the car sounded very sick.

Reacting quickly, I moved over into the inside lane and tried not to panic when I realised that the car wasn’t going to go much further. Looking at the road signs I saw that Sandbach Services at junction 17 was coming up.

“Good, if I can get there, I can phone for help” I thought relieved. The car came to a halt on the hard shoulder about 100 yards from the slip road and refused to move any more. I got out and walked the rest of the way.

I called Joe from a payphone at Sandbach and explained what had happened; he’d taken early retirement at 55 and I was counting on him being at home. “I’ll come and get you and take you to your interview,” he said without a moment’s hesitation “then we’ll work out what to do about the car.” He broke the speed limit all the way, even through the roadworks, as he was worried about me being stranded and alone.

I walked back to the Beetle thankful that it was a warm day and sat up high on the bank out of the way of the traffic, waiting for my rescuer. Lorry drivers beeped me and some made lewd gestures; I ignored them and hoped Joe was making good time, for it was a good hour’s drive from his home to Sandbach. When I told him later about the horn blowing he was incensed: “I bet some of them have daughters your age at home” he fumed.

Eventually he arrived and we managed to drive the Beetle very slowly up to the services. We left it in the car park, jumped into Joe’s Passat and set off for Nantwich. In the end, I didn’t get the job but it was the most relaxed interview I’ve ever done. After breaking down on my own on a busy M6, I felt that nothing else could possibly go wrong and talking to a few people seemed easy in comparison.

Joe was the person who helped me organise our wedding too. He drove me around to look at different venues and helped me choose flowers, stationery and dinner menus. Together we discussed the guest list and what John and I might like as presents. All of this took up a great deal of his time but he never once complained or asked if anyone else could step in.

***

In April 2002, we received a phone call from Betty to say that Joe was ill and had been admitted to hospital. John immediately took the week off work and went to Whiston Hospital in Liverpool to see him. I’d started my first course of IVF treatment a couple of weeks previously, which meant frequent visits to London, so I didn’t go with him. Neither of us realised the seriousness of the situation, believing John would be back home in a couple of days.

A few days later John phoned me: “My Dad only has a short time to live, you better get up here quick” he said. Joe had been diagnosed with advanced pulmonary fibrosis, probably as a consequence of asbestos exposure when he was a fireman, and there was nothing they could do for him.

I was stunned by the news. You don’t expect to lose one of your parents-in-law in your mid-thirties just when your life is becoming successful and you have hopes of starting your own family. What on earth would I say to John? How would I comfort him and his mum? I had no idea.

I spent a painful two days with Joe in the hospital watching his life ebb away and making small talk with various relatives; all of us feeling helpless but wanting to be there. He was unable to breath on his own by that stage and had a machine to do it for him. It was hard to see a once strong, vibrant man reduced to such a state.

Eventually one of the doctors decided that Joe’s suffering had to end and came to speak to John and Betty about turning the machine off. They agreed with the doctor and followed him to Joe’s bed, both in tears. I sat in the waiting room listening to their distress, sad that I couldn’t be there at the end but understanding their need for privacy.

A short while later, needing to say goodbye to Joe, I told his relatives that I was going to his bedside. John’s Aunty Pat, said gently, “It’s not very nice you know Becky”.

“I’ll be OK”, I said and got up and walked down the ward nervously.

The ghostly white man that lay in the bed, his faced bruised where the mask had been, looked so unlike Joe that I was shocked. I think it’s important to say goodbye to people though, and although that sight cost me a lot of sleepless nights, I’m glad I had my private moment with him.

The funeral a few weeks later was very emotional. The crematorium was packed with family and friends and many of Joe’s work colleagues stood at the back when the seats ran out. The Fire Brigade become your family and Joe had earned the respect of everyone he worked with over his 40 year career and they all wanted to wish him farewell. John gave a warm tribute to his dad, making us laugh despite our sorrow and we sang a couple of hymns and listened to other people remembering him.

At the end of the service John, Betty and I filed out first, as is the custom, accepting the condolences of the guests as we walked down the aisle. As the doors opened an unexpected sight greeted us: parked outside was a fire engine and a full honour guard. This was the ultimate tribute to a man who’d given his life (and his health) to the service. Emotions that had carefully been kept in check ran over.

***

It’s very easy to eulogize the dead; we are reluctant to say bad things about them because it seems disrespectful. Joe was a husband, a father, a friend and a fireman. He could be quick tempered and bloody minded and wasn’t always the easiest person to live with but he was also funny, very generous and straight as an arrow.

Looking back, I can see that in our early relationship he was also my mentor. I was only 22 when I met him; very young for my age and unsure what I wanted to do with my life. I wasn’t very street wise still, had far less self confidence than I do now and struggled with making decisions. As he was very easy to talk to and always had time to listen, we naturally fell into the role of teacher/student and we both enjoyed it and benefited from it. If he was alive now, I know that we’d still be close because we had a great deal of respect for one another, despite our very different backgrounds and experience.

***

Not long ago we were sitting at the table having dinner and discussing what the boys were learning in maths class.

Daniel looked at Joe and asked “What’s 500 x 3?”

Without a second’s hesitation Joe quipped, “the limit to your intelligence.”

We all erupted into laughter and I smiled to myself and thought “Grandpa Joe, you live on”.