The joy of flash fiction

Recently I have discovered the genre of flash fiction. I particularly like the category of creative non-fiction, where you re-imagine an actual event. Usually you have a tight word count, say 500 words, and at first I found this really difficult but now I like the challenge and I think it’s improving my writing and editing skills. Why use 5 words when 1 will do?

Here is a story I wrote today about that moment 30 years ago when Mum and Dad took me to Liverpool University, said goodbye and left me in my room all alone…

Liverpool's famous waterfront skyline

Ilona

On an overcast October day, there is an unusual amount of activity in Chapel Street because it’s time for my parents to take me to university.

Liverpool will be my home for the next three years, while I study geography and prehistoric archaeology. A large, bustling, grimy city, it couldn’t be more different to the reserved village I grew up in, where there is one bus on a Sunday and even the neighbourhood cats have nothing to do.

I prepare myself for this adventure eagerly, going into town to buy some new clothes: denim jacket, jeans, a couple of stretchy mini-skirts and some red leather ankle boots. Then I childishly label all my new stationery and books with my name and room number and get my hair cut.

Dad gives me his late mother’s trunk. Light brown, with bands of reinforcing leather, it’s slightly squashed at one end where it was stored upright in Maggie’s garden shed for decades, and covered in labels from long ago trips to European destinations. I love it instantly and fill it with my clothes and bedding. A new kettle and mug set that work colleagues have given me are also packed, along with my books and rickety bike. I’m ready.

We climb into the blue and white camper van and set off along the motorway. Arriving at the leafy campus hours later, the first thing Dad does is haul a yellow box of apples out of his van that came from work and look for someone to give them to. Spotting a second year student called Jez, he walks over and asks if he’d like them.

Jez is unfazed by this unexpected question and accepts Dad’s gift, saying “Yeah they’ll eat,” while I cringe and avert my eyes.

My room is on the top floor and we struggle up several flights of stairs with my luggage. Single bed, desk, chair and sink make up its utilitarian furnishings and the walls are scuffed. But the sun shines through the double doors which look out onto the leafy quad and it quickly becomes home.

Mum and I unpack and then she keeps asking me if she can do anything else. I say no repeatedly and finally realise that she doesn’t want to leave.

“I think it’s time you left. Supper will be on soon and I need to go to the dining hall,” I say impatiently.

We hug. Mum sheds some tears, Dad looks sad and then they’re gone.

Feeling tense and wanting to get the first hurdle over, I persuade myself to go downstairs. “Come on! You’ve been desperate to leave home for months. This is your chance to start again,” I tell myself.

I brush my hair, grab my handbag and lock my door. As I make my way to the stairs, another door opens and a slim blonde girl walks out. We exchange hesitant glances and then introduce ourselves. Her name is Ilona and she becomes my first friend.

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”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ode to Liverpool Part Two: The Smithdown Road

After an eventful holiday in Canada in the summer of ’88, I packed up all my stuff again, loaded it into Dad’s VW van and we set off on the long drive north. This year I was sharing a flat in Langdale Road with two friends, Luke and Sara. We were living off the Smithdown Road where most students were to be found. It was a typical inner city area; once full of middle class families, by the 80s many of the houses were run down bedsits and all of the local residents, be they white, black or Asian, were poor. Burglary and petty crime was rife as a result. There were streets and streets of red brick terraced houses with small back yards and on the main road shops of every description, cafes, bookies, pubs and an endless stream of buses and black cabs.

Smithdown Road bustled with life at all hours of the day and night. I fell asleep to the chatter of people talking in the street, the laughter of friends leaving the pub, the squeal of the buses braking once they reached the bus stop, police sirens, dogs barking, arguments and the occasional fist fight. It was not uncommon to see people stoned on drugs, insensible from too much alcohol or women touting for business in the evenings, especially at the top end of Smithdown Road near the university. A far cry from the sheltered life I’d come from but one which I took in my stride; never once did I feel unsafe but then I didn’t take silly risks as some other students did. I also enjoyed talking to the people who lived and worked on the Smithdown Road because on the whole they were always cheerful and friendly. Despite the fact that for many of them life was a daily struggle they didn’t complain but just got on with it, helped by large doses of Liverpool’s uniquely black humour.

I lived in a large double-fronted Victorian terrace which had been split into two flats and we had the top one. Looking back, the rooms today would seem rather spartan but as a student in the 80s it was what you got. Mine was a large, high ceilinged room, with cheap wallpaper and a worn brown carpet, whose only source of heating was a gas fire (hey central heating was a luxury for students in those days). A bed, a desk, a chair, a chest of drawers and a wardrobe completed the furnishings. In one corner I placed my grandmother’s trunk, put a pretty scarf over it and used it to house my portable tape player, tapes and make up. On the walls Suzanne Vega and Peter Gabriel competed with more arty posters and a large university calendar; photos of friends and I partying and gig tickets were also stuck up, making the room uniquely mine. And let’s not forget my ancient bike, with its shopping basket propped up in one corner.

Downstairs lived a group of friends who were studying at the local college. Clare, a drama student who was always the life and soul of the party, dark haired, lusty Fernando from Spain and his girlfriend Liz, who were very much “in luurve”. They were fun and easy going and we quickly got to know one another. Remember Sinead O’ Connor’s smash hit “Nothing Compares 2 U”? One of my strongest memories of Clare was her impromptu performance of this in her room. We were both mesmerized but doubled over with laughter at the same time. I hope she’s still out there acting /singing somewhere, she certainly had the talent for it. She also came with us to one of the university balls that year and had far too much to drink. Sara and I got her home in a taxi, took off her beautiful red dress and put her into bed, careful to lie her on her side in case she was sick (which she was). She was really grateful in the morning that we’d taken care of her. Now, that’s what I call friends!

Living independently meant managing my money, paying my share of the bills, food shopping, cooking and going to the launderette. Luckily for me, budgeting was something that I found easy. I was always careful with my pocket money when I lived at home and it’s a habit that has stayed with me; if I can’t afford it, I won’t buy it. As 80s students I think our whole attitude towards money was different to today’s young people. The point was to live off your grant / parental supplement and make it last. I can remember friends towards the end of term budgeting down to the last penny so that they had enough for the train fare home and many of them had part time jobs to boost their income. Getting into debt was the last thing that most of us were prepared to do and if a grant payment was late it would cause a major headache. Now the only way most students can go to university is to have a student loan and I feel sorry for them being saddled with so much debt so young; it just doesn’t seem right. We also spent less money because we weren’t so materialistic back then; there was far less stuff that we just had to have. Owning a Walkman was the height of sophistication and if you needed to make a phone call you either used the phone box or the landline in the house. Nobody had a mobile phone and all these other electronic gadgets that our kids are desperate to have didn’t exist then. Come to think of it, I didn’t have a TV for the first two years at University and didn’t miss it; that would be unthinkable these days!

Despite growing up with a father who is an excellent cook, I only knew the basics by the time I left home and my repertoire was small. I learnt more from other people; by watching my flatmates, I quickly learnt how to make a variety of stir fries and pasta dishes, staples of the student diet, unless we couldn’t be bothered, in which case beans on toast would do! Going to the launderette was also a weekly chore. I don’t remember any of my friends having a washing machine in their digs; like central heating, it was a luxury we did without.  I would sit there with a book or a magazine while my clothes went round and round and often munch a bar of chocolate too. True to stereotype, far more girls went to the launderette than the boys. Many of them would recycle their dirty clothes until the end of term and then take the whole lot home for their mothers to wash. If they did venture into the launderette they would try and ram about a month’s worth of dirty washing into the machine at once, never had the correct coins to operate the machine or know what cycle to put the machine on. I hope my boys are more self sufficient by the time they leave home!

Apart from learning to live independently, student life was on the whole very much like the previous year. Getting the bus into University in the morning, lectures, lunch, more lectures, home again, cook some dinner, studying and lots of going out, either to the pub, a nightclub or a party at someone’s house. Before writing this post, I got out my photo albums of University and laughed out loud at the pictures of the seemingly endless parties that I went too; lots of fancy dress ones, including the Rocky Horror show, University balls, Christmas parties and house parties. During that year, we were dancing to Milli Vanilli (yes, I know, they turned out to be fakes), Bobby Brown, Paula Abdul and the Fine Young Cannibals. Lets not forget Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and “The Living Years” by Mike and Mechanics either; two of my favourites at the time and now I’m reliving them with my choir, Rock Chorus, all this time later. Life was lived for the moment, with very little thought given to how much studying we should really be doing and what we were going to do after University.

So what happened that year apart from the partying? Lunching with an old university friend a couple of weeks ago, we both agreed that our time in Liverpool was so long ago, that it appeared to us as a series of Kodak moments, snapshots in time, whose order we struggled to remember. One event that I will never ever forget was when we heard on the radio about the disaster unfolding at Hillsborough. It being the weekend, most of us were in the house, when one of the girls in the downstairs flat called up to say had we heard the news about people being hurt at a football match. Her voice was choked with tears as one of her friends was there; we comforted her inadequately, the harsh reality of life interrupting our cosy student existence. Later we learnt that 96 people had died, 40% of them a similar age to us. What a pointless waste of life and a tragedy for all those families affected. It is those left behind who have the harder deal, trying to carry on with a life forever diminished by what happened.

There are still people in Liverpool who won’t buy The Sun and I can’t say I blame them after their denigration of the Liverpool supporters as drunk and out of control. A made up story that had little basis in reality. What we have learnt recently about the policing failures and the lack of co-ordination with the emergency services and then the massive cover up saddens me and I think there is still a great deal we don’t know about what happened that day and I wonder if we ever will.

What also marks that year out is that both of my flatmates lost their mothers. First of all Luke’s mum died of cancer. Returning after the Christmas break Sara and I saw Luke coming up the stairs to his room, his eyes red from crying. When we asked him what was wrong, he dissolved into tears and told us his mum had died. We were shocked as we didn’t know she’d been ill but also uncomfortable as we didn’t know what to say. Now, experience has taught me that there is nothing you can say to someone who is bereaved that will really help, you can only offer sympathy.

Then a few months later, Sara’s mum died suddenly and unexpectedly from a brain tumor, not even knowing she was ill. Again, I remember struggling to say or do the right thing and feeling upset; another tragedy had intruded into my carefree existence.  At 19 you think your parents will live forever, they aren’t supposed to die at a time when you need them the most, and when they have only lived half their lives.

Six months before I started University in 1987 my grandmother died. By 1989 the estate had been settled and I got an unexpected phone call from my parents in the spring. They had decided to invest some of the inheritance in property and I was instructed to go out and find a house for them to buy that I could then live in and rent out the rest of the rooms. I felt very hesitant. Be a landlady to my friends? Own a house and be responsible for finding tenants? Make sure the bills were paid? It all seemed far too grown up and responsible. Being the dutiful, elder daughter that I am though, I let myself be persuaded and soon found myself tramping round the streets off Smithdown Road looking at houses the estate agent had suggested. By the end of my second year, I found myself the part owner of a large terraced house in Borrowdale Road, life was to change yet again and set me along an altogether more grown up path.