7: The Mortality Syndrome

Most of the time you drift through life not thinking about it much, least of all when you’re a kiddiewink. It’s something that happens to other people. It’s way too far off to really think about, is something that the older people amongst you talk about – with the exception, perhaps, of a very, very young Gloom-Laden.

I’m talking about the arrival of Mr Death!

How morbid you may think. Indeed, very morbid and something most of us don’t like to talk about or acknowledge. I’m not all that comfortable writing about it. But sometimes you’ve just got to get over the fears.

Most of my childhood – outside of school – was made up of playing games and having fun. Mr Death never featured in this all that much and if he did, then it was never in a serious way. But he’s there, constantly, looking at his named egg-timers, (if one goes with the Discworld theory of Death) the one that counts down to your death, waiting for the correct moment to take you.

The First Discworld Novel

In those childhood days I was blessed – or cursed – with an active imagination. To be honest, I don’t think it’s left me. My best friend Velocipede and I were into all the science fiction games of the 1960s era and Gerry Anderson programs were at their height.
Some days it would be Fireball XL5 or Stingray, others it would be Dr Who.

During those times my mind dealt with all sorts of mythological ideas brought up by what I watched. Comic books, both of the English and American also played their part.

Spider Man was a firm favourite with me ever since Velocipede gave me a cover less copy of The Amazing Spider Man annual # 1. It contained two reprints of Spider Man #11 & #12.

Spider Man: Never did get bitten by a radioactive Spider..

In other words I was immersed in fantasy. It was often commented on by adults that I suffered from too active an imagination. I created quite a few games and was often generous enough to allow the few friends I had to join in with these games.

Probably My Favourite Doctor of them all...

I was told that around this time I had an imaginary friend as well. He was a rather strange chap whom I only ever managed to see when I was in the toilet. His name was George Cleever. Maybe I suffered chronic loneliness when in the toilet – although that would be hard to imagine because I’ve never suffered it anytime or anywhere else then or since. But it was around the time I was 11 months old, for a year or so.

I don’t know what happened to George Cleever, although lurking around toilets with children who are not blood related would take quite a bit of explaining, especially when an unsatisfactory account could lead to some time at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, so to speak.

Fireball Comic Strip.

No matter, George moved on, possibly getting a healthier habit than hanging around toilets, and I got into a much healthier habit of talking to people who I could see.

At the dreaded school, I tended to do as little as I could get away with and happily though little of the future and indeed Mr Death play little part in my daily thoughts.

The nearest this old but well-established gentleman came into my thoughts was when a school friend and I chatted about ghosts. Did we believe in them? Did they believe in us? If they did exist did they go to Ghost school? And once Ghost school finished did they work for a living? On the latter point we decided they must do because there must be numerous opportunities in the haunting business as few seemed to be seen down the Labour Exchange – now called Job Centres – in those days.

For some morbid reason we came up with the idea that whichever of us died first, he would come back and haunt the other and spill the beans, so to speak, on the afterlife. A year or so later this friend and I parted company and I haven’t seen him since. He hasn’t died, at least not to my knowledge, but if he has then he hasn’t come back to confirm a ghostly afterlife. Or if he has then he’s probably the only Ghost to suffer from Laryngitis!

I also worked around the idea that when or if (oh yes, ‘if’ came into it, because I plan to live forever…so far so good!) I died then I’d probably come back as someone else. That thought always pleased me, somewhat. However, when I turned it over in my head, the thought I might come back as ‘something’ else kicked in and that was a little disturbing. I did suppose if it was a fly I wouldn’t have to endure being a fly for long, they live about a day. Ah, but what if I kept coming back as a fly, like being stuck in some sort of fly loop…(don’t you just hate it when that happens?).

My first real concerns about my mortality came during the late sixties. There was a TV series running then that I really liked called The Avengers. In an episode called ‘The Gravediggers’. Mrs Peel is buried alive in a coffin. All of a sudden the realisation hit me that one day I’d be in one of those. OK. But I’d be dead, not alive, and it would be legitimate and not a me trying to uncover a plot by a nasty villain. Not OK.

The more I thought about it, no more playing games, no more chances to see Daddy, Mummy, Grampy, Granny and Uncle Fitrambler. No more chances to see all four of my friends…(Yes, I do have friends, and despite the cries of ‘you need to get out more’, I get out).

Thinking of those things I did the only thing a right-minded eight year old could do. I began crying. This of course attracted the attention of my parents who did their best to comfort me. But unfortunately it was a stark reality that they could do little about.

“I know,” Daddy Fitrambler comforted, “but there’s nothing you can do about it…try not to worry about it…”

Yeah right! Thanks, Dad, that’s really helped!

This wasn’t the kiss it better and it all goes away type answer I was looking for. I was on my own for this one!

Days passed, the episode of The Avengers was confined to the furthest reaches of my memory and gradually I stopped thinking about it. I temporarily put Mr Death to one side.

Man-appeal - M-apeal = Emma Peel

The next time I was to suddenly begin to think about my mortality again was six years later when I was a teenager. It was some six to twelve months after Neatentidy and I became friends.

One of the things he and I did to supplement our pocket-money was deliver leaflets. I think we got £2 a thousand at the beginning. We split this 50/50. Often these leaflets (junk mail, yes, I know, I was one of the annoying people behind these things) would be delivered of an evening. Quite often during the winter months the evenings were dark.

For some reason I cannot recollect, Mr Death was back in my thoughts and the dark nights made it easy to dwell without some sort of distraction.

Not Available in my Teenager Days.

I didn’t go in for an awful lot of music then. It was also the case that walkman’s, personal stereos, iPods and the like were not around and wouldn’t enter my life until the mid to late eighties. The nearest you got to personal music devices were radios, mono, which you held to your ear or held while listening through one earpiece.

What I did was use my of cassette player. It was chunky but not overly chunky that it couldn’t go in the bag with my leaflets. As I have said, I wasn’t into music in great quantities but had recorded on cassettes a lot of Morecambe and Wise shows.

So, I played these cassettes while on the leaflets rounds and they helped me not to dwell of thoughts of death.

What must have gone through the minds of the owners of the houses I delivered to I can’t say, but it must have been irritating to hear loud laughter tracks get louder and then fade…

From my point of view it kept Mr Death out of my thoughts, so I wasn’t too concerned about the noise to others; although to be fair I didn’t have it up that loudly really, not by today’s standards…

However, those youthful thoughts about Mr Death paled into insignificance some 33 years later when I really had cause to concern myself with the activities of Mr Death and whose door he might knock on next…

Death In Discworld

2: Last Man Standing

“There’s nobody about these days,” said Uncle Fitrambler as he settled himself on my settee.

It was a Sunday morning, the weather pretty good considering what has been dished out since Christmas. I was thinking of a good walk or cycle ride after lunch while the weather was behaving.

Uncle Fitrambler usually arrives on Sunday mornings, it’s often part of his routine for the day, once he’s helped his wife with the shopping. I think it’s because it’s the one time in the week he’s a good chance of catching me in.

“No, there’s nobody about these days…” Uncle Fitrambler repeated.

I agree. He’s actually right, because as far as he’s concerned, there isn’t anyone about.

Perhaps I’d better explain. Uncle Fitrambler is 84. He lives in a nearby street to me, no more than a five minute walk; or probably ten for him these days. He’s my father’s – that’s Daddy Fitrambler – brother.

It will come as no surprise that I’ve known Uncle Fitrambler since I was born. He, my Gran and Gramp, Mum and Dad, lived together in a house in Park South for about five years. Uncle Fitrambler and I got on quite well, more so than most of my uncles. He’s always liked to keep in touch. Like me, he’s always quite enjoyed a good walk.

When he talks of nobody being about, which he’s done for many years now, I feel more in tune with him and have begun to form an empathy with that phrase; one he’s so often used in the last ten years or more.

You see, Uncle Fitrambler has outlived all his friends and most of his brothers and sisters. It’s a side-effect of survival. It’s something most of us don’t think about most of the time, but obviously the longer you live the more it happens. (Ten green bottles, anyone?)

The reason I feel more in tune with this phrase nowadays is because several friends of mine have died in recent years, most of which have been younger than me. I’m only in my fifties, two didn’t quite get that far, a third at least was approaching 80; which was something of a fuller life.
Life goes on, we are told, but it doesn’t make it any easier to accept the deaths of those you are close to.

It makes you think of the ones who are left and you can’t help but wonder how many of them you’ll see off before you yourself are burned or buried?

One such friend was only 47 when he died, another no more than 51. Then there have been nearly half a dozen work colleagues who haven’t been much older than me before entering what could be termed ‘The Undiscovered Country!’

Before I can be accused of entering Gloom-Laden’s territory, I can report that after my latest check up – and not including ‘the cough’, which seemed to turn me into a pub carpet inspector – I seem to be fairly healthy. The cough and weather has slowed me down, but now a change in weather and the cough easing off I’m getting a lot more exercise again. Getting the Fit back into Fitrambler, so to speak, before age gets too firm a hold. Plenty of long walks left in me yet, I hope.

Velocipede remarked once – while I was enjoying a pint of beloved Entire Stout in the Glue Pot – that he didn’t mind the numerical advancement each additional year brought, but disliked the fact it seemed to bring with it failing parts. Being an extremely keen cyclist and collector of bikes, ‘parts failing’ seemed to be a reasonable analogy.

Still, unlike poor Uncle Fitrambler, I get about very easily, with, I might say a bounce in the old stride. These days he shuffles a lot more, looks more drawn in the face, still got a fairly good head of hair, greying but still with a lot of its original colour. But he doesn’t give up. He’s got a bus pass, but walks most places, usually alone, as Auntie Fitrambler is not as keen on Shanks’s Pony as he is.

Uncle Fitrambler isn’t much of a conversationalist really. He never has been, and the ground covered in our meetings is more or less the same.

You see, he likes to check to see if I’m alright, even though, really, it should be the other way around.

Within ten minutes Uncle Fitrambler and I have finished our somewhat ritualistic chat and he’s ready to shuffle off again. I’ve offered him a cup of tea, but he always refuses. Well, once he accepted but never since. Perhaps that’s a subtle critique of my tea.

“There’s nobody about, not like there use to be. All gone…” he tells me one final time as he walks to the front door.

I sympathise again and think, I’m around; and I’m thirty-two years younger than you, so hopefully, there’ll still be somebody about for a long time when you venture out…