24: A Death In The Family

133 Commercial Road – No longer Residential

They cremated Uncle Fitrambler, on a cold windy Friday in early March. Grey clouds haunted the skies threatening, at some point to rain.
There are only three males left with the Fitrambler name now. My father, Cousin Fitrambler, (Uncle Fitrambler’s son) and me. All of Dad’s brothers and sisters are now gone, he’s the only one left.

I am older than my sister and therefore the chances are she will bury me rather than me burying her. I selfishly have to admit I prefer it that way.

It was all of six years since I last visited the Crematorium. Not too surprising, after all it’s not on my list of ‘good days out in Swindon’, nor most people’s, I suppose. Although it’s a funny old world so there might be some out there who would rate it highly in the ‘fun things to do’ category. The last visit was in 2006 when Nicechap, a good friend of mine was cremated there.

Nothing changed much about the surroundings. You can see a lot of the countryside as you get out of the car. Green fields and a few trees, but with a blemish of a large warehouse complex, an industrial estate some mile or so away, but visible. It seemed to ruin things, put out the natural balance of the landscape.
Being a little higher up, I felt a cooler wind than the one blowing when I left home. It was about ten past eleven and I wished I had brought a coat, but my it was still on a peg at home, where I left it in my haste to get going.

Like Uncle Fitrambler, Mum and Dad were brought up in Swindon. Dad is nearly eighty now and Mum is younger – it does not befit a gentleman to reveal the age of a lady, even one’s mother. They no longer live in Swindon, having moved to Plymouth in 1999, where my sister lives. Caslindy brought them up. She moved to Plymouth after her marriage back in April 1984. Caslindy had to work the next day so the family were only up for the day.

I liked Uncle Fitrambler, liked him a lot. It has been just over a year since I wrote about him on this blog.

Uncle Fitrambler would often visit me on a Sunday because that would the time he was most likely to catch me in. He would never stay long and in all the visits he made to my house in the twenty-six years since I have live there, he only accepted a cup of tea once. Maybe that says something about my tea? He was never much of a conversationalist, mostly said the same things on every visit, the most important of which, in his view, was news on my mother and father. And of course there was what, if he had been a comedian, could be called his catchphrase, “There’s nobody about”; which referred to the fact he had outlived all of his friends and most of his family.

The longest visit I can recall was some ten years ago, that visit was just over half an hour and I had got him onto the subject of the past. Now I wish I had made more notes of what he said. I may have learnt a little more about the Fitrambler side of the family from a different perspective. The trouble is we often think there’s more time than there is…

There were many aunts and uncles on both sides of the family. Some I liked, some I would say I was quite indifferent about.

However, of all them, Uncle Fitrambler was the one who I always had contact with throughout my life.

Although I would not remember the occasion I first met Uncle Fitrambler at number 113 Commercial Road. This would have been in November 1957, a few days after I was born.

The place where I first lived is now Lloyds TSB, having been knocked down and rebuilt. But in1957, like most properties in Commercial Road, it was residential. Living there then, besides Uncle Fitrambler and myself were Mum, Dad, Gran and Gramp. Like a lot of sons and Caslindydaughters of that era, living at home until you married (and quite often afterwards) was quite common. Buying a house of your own then was rare for the majority.

One of the stories I have been told relates to a time when Uncle Fitrambler returned from the pub. He was not drunk but certainly under the influence – something I would learn a great deal about. He leaned over the pram to look at his nephew. Unfortunately, the pram tipped up and I went out.

Dad was not all that happy and once I was back, safely in the pram, Dad made his feeling know. Uncle Fitrambler felt really guilty and would not go to bed until be was positive I was alright.

I sometimes wonder if the beer I may have smelt on Uncle Fitrambler’s breath and the sensation of falling all those years ago helped me associate falling over and alcohol together; and as such accepted it quite philosophically in later years.

We moved on to Ripon Way, Park South when I was around two years old. It was then that I can recall early memories of Uncle Jim. I remember him as a quiet man who spent a lot of time behind a newspaper. So many memories buried in my head I cannot retrieve, but I do remember we had a wall paper in a blue, which was rather like small tiles and there was a patch where Uncle Fitrambler’s head rested when he sat at the kitchen table, where the Brylcream he wore in those days, stained. I can never ever remember his hair being anything other than neat and in place.

Good hair and lots of it have always been a Fitrambler trait.

When I was just passed five, the trio of Gran, Gramp and Uncle Jim left Ripon Way for a place of their own in Harding Street – no longer there but built over with pubs, hotels a car park etc, as was John Street and Shepherd Street. There Gran, Gramp and Uncle Fitrambler lived for many years until Uncle Fitrambler got married.

Those trio of streets were, I have since found, named after the man who owned the fields on which they were built, his name John Shepherd Harding.
I have always thought that they left Ripon Way because there was to be another Fitrambler, this time of the female variety entering number 3 Ripon way; my sister. So room was needed. I moved out of my parents bedroom and into the room that Gran and Gramp had used, and the third bedroom – called a box-room – would be where Caslindy would live once she grew to the appropriate age.

My second residence where I spent my childhood with friends like Velocipede.

It was a little while after they left, while experiencing my first year at infants school I was also going through a first wave of bullying; something that would follow me throughout my years at infants and junior school.

I remember confessing this to my father one night just before lights out in my bedroom. It was then I heard a story that my father has repeated many times over the years about Uncle Fitrambler.

“He was bullied at school, as well,” Dad told me.

I raised a suspicious eyebrow. It seemed to me at the time an unlikely coincidence.

“Yes, by a bloke who was a lot bigger than him. Used to get on at him all the time.”

I frowned, being bigger than Uncle Fitrambler was obviously a lot less embarrassing than being bullied by a midget…

“Your Uncle would come home crying and your Gran got fed up with it. She said to him the only way to deal with a bully was to fight them, stand up to them…”

I continued to listen, although I was not sure I liked the way the conversation was going.

“So, she said, if you don’t fight him then I’ll hit you..”

I considered my own situation. Was Dad suggesting that if I didn’t stand up and fight my bullies he would belt me one. Oh, tip top. A belting at school and a belting at home. Life is so sweet…

Dad went on: “So, Gran took Your Uncle to the bully’s house and spoke to the bully’s mother. She said your son has been bullying my son. Well, let ‘em sort it out now. Uncle Fitrambler wasn’t keen…”

Nor would I bloody be, I thought. I never was told how much bigger the bloke was who was bullying Uncle Fitrambler, but the two that were giving me problems were nearly six inches taller than me.

“But she made them face off against each other…Your Uncle was scared but he did beat him…”
When the bullying got to me, Dad would often tell that story. Fortunately, he didn’t do what Gran did and get me to face down my bullies. Uncle Fitrambler only had one bullying him, the tally in my life by aged six was up to half a dozen. It would not be so much a showdown to sort it out as a fully-fledged fight contest. I was not sure I would get passed the first round, so to speak. My opponents were also two years older than me, which is quite an age gap for a six year old.

I might just have a chance against eight year olds now, but would not necessarily put any money on it…

Uncle Fitrambler, prior to being called up into the army, was in the Home Guard. Although he was about seventeen at the time, he was in no way like a real life version of Private Pike from Dad’s Army.

Fortunately to my way of thinking World War II was over by the time he was of age. However he did do national service, where he learnt to box, and did quite well at it. A complete turn around from the bullying days.

Some years later my father, Aunty Oxford were preparing the room above The Fountain pub (now called the Pig On The Hill) for her wedding reception. They were taking some stuff out of the room and downstairs when they heard music. The piano was being played. Dad and Aunty Oxford were a little surprised as there was no one up there except Uncle Fitrambler…

When they went back upstairs it was Uncle Fitrambler who was playing the piano. Neither Dad nor Aunty Oxford knew he could play the piano. It was something he learnt to do in the army. I have since found out that Cousin Fitrambler, his son, never knew about his father being able to play.

Uncle Fitrambler managed to remain single for forty-odd years before he met Aunty Fitrambler. Shortly after that, Cousin Fitrambler was born. I have few memories of Cousin Fitrambler, despite living a couple of streets from him in the past twenty-six years.

On his many visits Uncle Fitrambler suggested Cousin Fitrambler and I should go for a drink together. I was not sure if Cousin Fitrambler or I would have much in common but I was willing to give it a go, despite him being about fourteen years between us. It never seemed to happen though. I have since found out that Cousin Fitrambler heard the same suggestion from his father but was also of the opinion we would not have all that much in common…

Funnily enough, it was a little after Aunty Fitrambler died that Cousin Fitrambler and I began to talk. All the times I used to go round there in the last few years and the odd occasions in decades past, Cousin Fitrambler was not in, always somewhere else.

It was in the last twenty years that Uncle Fitrambler used what I always termed his ‘catch-phrase’ – ‘there’s nobody about, nobody about any more’. It referred to the fact that he had outlived his friends and nearly all of his family.

His visits became less regular and the ability to walk well, becoming a shuffle. He had really begun to show his age, but he never gave in…

All these thoughts went through my head as we waited by the car until about fifteen minutes before the funeral was about to start.

As we approached the driveway near to the entrance, we saw another couple of cars pull up. It was ten minutes before the appointed time, or was it? I suddenly began to doubt myself. What if Uncle Fitrambler was inside and they were half way through the ceremony?

I did not fancy explaining that to my father, so casually, hands in pockets, I checked the roster. Panic over, I had got the time right. I relaxed a little.
Caslindy said: “Would you prefer to be buried or cremated.”

“Neither right now, despite the cold,” I retorted.

“I mean when you die.”

I felt Caslindy was being a little morbid; I suppose we were at the right place for it.

Moving the subject on, I brought our group around to Mum’s dad’s funeral. I was fond of Mum’s Dad, he was a really decent chap. But both Dad and I still have the memories of standing at the graveside, watching as they tried to lower a coffin into a grave that was not quite wide enough!

It was not funny. Dad and I knew it was not funny. It was not the right thing to do laugh during a funeral. Dad and I stood there trying not to laugh although I suspect from the back the shoulders could be seen twitching up and down and I certainly was in pain trying to pinch my lips together as tightly as possible. Caslindy and Mum maintained a better level of dignity than the male Fitramblers’.

Dad and I were just about getting ourselves under control when one of the chaps at the side of the grave tried to tap the coffin in with his foot, discretely.
Tears went down my cheeks but unfortunately not of the kind that they should have been! Our shoulders started to go again…

Back in the present I felt that little sister and Mum still were not amused, not really. I could not blame them..

Several groups of people began coming from the car park and out of the car (hearse) which pulled up earlier, Cousin Fitrambler got out. If I had not known better, then I would have though I was looking at a much younger Uncle Fitrambler, a lot of the characteristics were there…

We all exchanged a few words whereby Cousin Fitrambler thanked us for coming. There seemed quite a few others there. I would later find out that these were neighbours of Uncle Fitrambler. We went inside and took our place on the family side of the benches, on the right.

It looked the same, like everything, including the walls, were made out of wood. Not too reassuring if the coffin burner went rogue…

I did not listen too much to the woman who spoke about Uncle Fitrambler, his life and the son he left behind. I was too busy thinking about the man himself, what he meant to me and the memories we had created.

Quite a few people filed up to the coffin afterwards, Cousin Fitrambler first, then a couple from Aunty Fitrambler’s side. Dad went up to the coffee of his brother, I hung back until he, my sister and everyone else had left. Unlike everyone else I needed to pay my last respects alone.

I walked up to the coffin, touched it lightly, trying not to think too much about what was to happen to it once I left.

I just about managed to say:

“There really isn’t anyone about now, Uncle, nobody at all…”

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10 comments on “24: A Death In The Family

  1. Would that I could join you around the pub table, GloomLaden, but my doctor tells me it’s not wise to mix alcohol with the cocktail of drugs I have to take to ease the pain in my back. In any case, I believe we may have thrashed out the subject many times before – although I can’t remember exactly where and when – without reaching any conclusions. Perhaps the Regular Reader, The Deaf Bloke and The Other Deaf Bloke might join you to provide some fresh ideas, although I suspect they will all be out enjoying the community spirit of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations tomorrow. In an unselfconscious manner, of course.

  2. Blameworthy, I think the pubs of Purton and late period British Rail Swindon really did have a sense of community that has gone because I was there – or in the case of British Rail thereabouts – to see it. What both communities had in common with Laurie Lee’s Wessex was a total lack of self consciousness. That has gone from life now and is (if he’ll forgive my assuming so) the reason the Regular Reader doesn’t go out much. Let’s get round a pub table with all due spped to thrash this out fully – Fitrambler and Regular Reader included, of course!

  3. I think those magical worlds of which you dream may have only existed in the minds of onlookers, or those who heard about them second hand. Would your father have felt that sense of belonging, which you long for, in the pubs of Purton? Did those British Rail employees really feel part of a greater whole during their working lives? Or is it all just an illusion conjured up in our imaginations, fuelled by nostalgia? Does anyone ever feel a sense of really belonging to anything, as we bolt headlong towards the crematorium?

    I often long to have been part of Hardy’s Wessex or Laurie Lee’s Slad Valley, but they, too, are purely a work of the imagination. Hardy was merely an observer of a way of life, not a participant, and Laurie Lee wrote about his childhood experiences many years later in the comfort of his London home, which he arrived at via Spain. The reality becomes strangely distorted the older we get, and the more time we spend dwelling on the past as a way of escaping from an unfulfilling present and a terrifying future.

    In any case, Gloomers, we are as guilty as anyone else. We should be sharing our thoughts in a proper conversation, hunched over a pub table, with pints of strong, rough cider clenched in our sweaty paws. Instead we hijack someone else’s blog and sit, isolated, at our computers in order to avoid the effort required for genuine social interaction and communication. The regular reader should join us instead of sitting at home, alone, drinking that cheap supermarket beer to escape the obligation of buying a round at pub prices.

    I have just, in the last three days, read two excellent elegiac novels. Written by Tim Pears and based in the Shropshire hills on the Welsh borders, they describe a world of lost content to which the narrator longs to return. But, of course, he can’t, because it’s gone.

  4. Fitrambler’s latest tale also serves to remind me of how the Swindon he (and, perhaps you, Blameworthy) grew up in has largely gone. The idea of Commercial Road as a residential area, for example, is quite alien to me. A little like those aged former residents of Beijing who can’t go home because almost the entire city has been rebuilt in the past 10 years, there’s no real going back except in memory. All our worlds shrink with the passage of time, though I’ve never felt as connected to Swindon as those in Uncle Fitrambler’s generation seem to have done. Will my loss be the less because my world is smaller? Since I am still living in the house I grew up in, you could argue I don’t yet know the feeling of unattainable heritage. But the worlds I should like to have belonged to have all gone – the world of Purton pub life in the 1970s and 80s, the workers paradise of late period British Rail, Fleet Street and literary London. Now we all drink at home, work at jobs that boil down to answering the phone and dickering with spreadsheets, consume novels as if they were text messages and reduce social interaction to Facebook updates.

  5. The car park is only just around the corner from the Wyche Inn; it’s a long, long climb to the Beacon from there. The view from the car park is merely that of other pensioners unsuccessfully attempting to stand upright, having emerged from their vehicles. Many people these days seem to use those disgusting portable barbecues. I wonder if it’s possible to purchase a larger version which could be used for cremation purposes. I grant you it would require an awful lot of charcoal to generate the heat needed to reduce a corpse to a pile of ash – perhaps a gas-powered portable crematorium, purchased from B&Q, would be a wise investment, worth handing down to your children – but what better way to spend a warm afternoon in the hills? It would only remain to scatter your loved-ones remains as far up the path from the car park as one could manage, and then back to the car for the gentle return drive over the Cotswolds, perhaps stopping for tea and scones at Stow-on-the-Wold.

    Anyone who uses a barbecue to prepare ‘food’ deserves to burn in hell.

  6. All right,Blameworthy, I concede you couldn’t drive her to the top of the beacon, But I sem to recall a car park thereabouts – the sort where coachloads of pensioners stop to glimpse the view they won’t see come their scattering.

  7. But she will be there in spirit, GloomLaden. Which is why I intend to keep the lid firmly sealed on the jar to prevent her enjoying the spectacle of my undignified ascent to the summit. I have no doubt that the ignominy of being scattered will be more than compensated for by the opportunity to witness the suffering of the scatterer.

    Driving up the Beacon while she is still alive hadn’t occurred to me. What sort of vehicle do you suggest?

  8. I thought you were dead, Blameworthy: Robert Robinson still is. Anyway, I do not care whether I am buried or cremated or what happens to my ashes if I am cremated. Mrs Blameworthy needs to reflect on the fact that she won’t be there to appreicate the Worcestershire Beacon because she will be dead. She should get someone to drive her there while she is alive so she can appreciate it rather than suffering the ignomony of a lot of ash scattering mourners relishing the view while she can’t. Except, obviously, that she can’t appreciate the ignomony for the same reason.

  9. I was disappointed that Fitrambler could only make light of his sister’s enquiry regarding his choice of cremation or burial. I have no doubt it’s a question which has crossed most people’s minds when contemplating their own demise. Although the rational mind tells us that it makes no difference, there is something rather too final about the body being incinerated and reduced to a small pile of ashes. Perhaps a long, slow decay in a comfortably padded casket is preferable; finally making the most of the peace and quiet as the worms gorge on what remains of our flesh. A veritable feast for the little wriggly earth dwellers in Fitrambler’s case.

    There is also the question of location. Crematoriums are usually rather soulless, clinical places, lacking the atmosphere and character of a nice country churchyard with, perhaps, a cosy village alehouse just through the lychgate on the other side of a Cotswold dry stone wall. Cremation also raises the additional thorny issue of where you would want your ashes to be scattered. Mrs.Blameworthy favours the Worcestershire Beacon at the very top of the Malvern Hills because, she says, there is such a lovely view up there which she has not had the benefit of in recent living years owing to her inability to walk across anything but the flattest of landscapes.

    The temptation to take the easy option of a swift burial at the bottom of the garden, in the box left over following her recent purchase of a new washing machine – in between pruning the shrubs and patching up a hole in the fence – would be tempered by the certain knowledge that she would come back to haunt me if I was to fail in my duty to carry out her wishes. That’s always assuming I survive to carry out the task. I’m sure there are those who would prefer to see me cremated immediately rather than hang around twiddling their thumbs until I finally lose the will to continue with this monotonous existence and succumb to a fatal lack of enthusiasm.

    So, come on Fitrambler; let’s have your thoughts on the subject. After all, it won’t be long now.

  10. A good and fitting post, Fitrambler. I should just point out that, morbid as I am, I am not the kind of ghoul who enjoys going to funerals. I’ve been to too many for that to be the case.

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