The Last Man Standing.

My dad and his close friends used to call themselves ‘The Vagabonds’. Dad acted as an informal social secretary, organising games of golf, trips, days out, and the like. The years rolled by, as they do, and in time The Vagabonds passed away one by one. My dad was the last man standing.

Then, on the 20th of October, he passed away too.

Though it was very sad to realise that there would be none of his friends standing beside us at his funeral to bid him goodbye, it comforted me to tell myself that they would be waiting to welcome him through the Pearly Gates, hopefully with a single-malt whiskey or a good bottle of port.

Freddie and his Grandad were very close, very important to each other. Dad, of course, was brought up at a time when people with Down’s Syndrome were put into institutions and were not allowed to be part of the community, and so he held some very old-fashioned notions about what having Down’s Syndrome meant. After Freddie was born, though, Dad very quickly learnt that everything he ever thought he knew about the condition was wrong. He embraced the new knowledge eagerly, happy to discover that his grandson’s future was not a bleak one, as he might once have imagined. He always saw Freddie as a little boy, first and foremost, and while he loved all his grandchildren dearly, Freddie had a particular place in dad’s heart. He called him ‘sunshine’.

We have told Freddie that Grandad has died. He cried bitterly: we were all crying. He said ‘like on Ethel and Ernest’ (a Raymond Briggs book in which the eponymous characters both pass away at the end, the animated film of which he has watched many times). But I am not sure exactly what Freddie understands by the word ‘dead’. I am not sure he grasps that it is a permanent state.

We have not said grandad has ‘gone to heaven’ as going somewhere suggests the possibility of coming back; my mum did say it, though, and Freddie asked her what country heaven is in. For now, we are watching and listening — time will tell us what Freddie understands and what he needs to know. I have in the house a book about life cycles, that talks ( in a poetic and beautifully illustrated way) about birth, growing and learning, and death, and about the processes of decomposition that a creature’s body undergoes following death, but I had not got around to showing him this yet. As so often in life, events have overtaken us, and I am not sure that now is the right time.

Dad was a stickler for old-fashioned good manners and consideration for others, and, with typical considerateness, he died on a day when not only was Freddie’s school closed, meaning that I didn’t have to fit a lengthy school run in with all the other tasks that suddenly landed in my lap, but when my daughter was on leave from work and able to run me up to Mum’s house, and be there to hold her while I broke the news in person.

Mum has a habit of squirrelling away any bits of money left over from her housekeeping at the end of each week, towards birthdays and Christmases, the proverbial rainy day and the sad inevitability of funeral expenses. She told us she thought she had just about enough stashed in various hiding places to pay for dad’s funeral. We were horrified that she had so much cash in the house, and my lovely little daughter said that when her boyfriend finished work they’d come back, cook tea for her, help her count the money (as her eyesight is poor even with her glasses on, due to double vision and excess tear production), and then bring it back to our house for safekeeping until they could take it to the bank — there are more of us to defend it and the place has to be like Fort Knox to keep Freddie safe.

It turned out there was three times as much as my mum thought. It was conveyed to our house in a Supermarket produce bag and hidden under the bed. My Lord and Master said that it looked like we’d done over a Sub Post Office.

There is a technique used by writers to bring a bit of light relief when their narrative has been filled with tension or pathos over a sustained period — they cut the poor, battered reader a break by introducing a slightly comic scene, and I think perhaps I needed some of this, because, callous as it may sound, I found myself chuckling at the thought of being a fly on the wall when my lovely daughter took her grandma into town to deposit the money. A very slight young woman and a rather dotty old lady walking into a bank with nearly nine grand in used notes stuffed into a Sainsbury’s bag? That’s the plot of a David Walliams book, that is. And, don’t forget, they were wearing masks 🙂 In my day you only wore a mask in the bank if you were making an impromptu withdrawal from everyone else’s account using a sawn-off. Is it wrong to be nostalgic for those days? Probably very.

‘What’s she going to tell them?’ Her Loveliness fretted later as we were loading the dishwasher. ‘I knew my husband was going to die and I forgot I had a bank account?’

‘Hmmm,’ I replied. ‘I think you might get into less trouble if you just tell them you held up a small Sub Post Office.’

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