I went to my uncle Ken’s funeral this morning and I can’t get to grips with how I feel about his death. He could be such a curmudgeonly old git, and yet I couldn’t help liking him. Strictly speaking he was my husband’s uncle, and he lived, almost right up until the moment that he died, in the tiny little terraced house where he was born. He was a twin, but his brother died at birth, and I will never forget being shown the little faded note that his mother had been given about what to do with the baby’s body. ‘Put it in a clean cardboard box, and leave it outside the door of the cemetery superintendent, so that it can be disposed of.’ This was in the 1920s, but still, pretty shaky stuff. Ken’s mum always excused his bad tempers on account of the fact that he was ‘missing his twin’.
He grew up into quite a good looking lad, rollicking through the town where we still live, loud, cheerful and always down the pub until chucking-out time. I suppose he was a lot like Robert Newton, the thirties film star who played Long John Silver. Then war came and Ken was put in the pay corps and sent to India, where he remembered guarding piles of food at the docks, while being watched by starving kids. He was sent back to England when he got dysentery.
As the years went by it got to be just him and his mum at home, and there were occasions when he bullied her, and others when he would walk for miles in the spring, and pick bunches of violets to bring home to her. And then she died, and he stopped going to work; he just stayed in the house, unless my mother in law went round to clean, in which case he would leg it over the back wall.
He got better, with a bit of family help, although his brothers and sisters sigh at the memory of him coming for Christmas. ‘He never wanted to go home,’ my father in law said. ‘We were all nodding off at midnight and he’d be all for having another drink and a song.’
He never married, never had children, although none of his nieces and nephews, including our kids, ever left him without some money pressed into their hands. But, as he got older he got more and more unsociable. He wouldn’t go out; he hoarded stuff; he wouldn’t let one of his brothers into the house. Mostly he just wouldn’t answer the door unless it was my father in law, or the lady over the road who did his laundry. In the end, his life telescoped down into a single room with a bed and a chair. He wouldn’t have a TV or a radio – ‘bloody rubbish’.
He was a sick man and, although he had carers, he had to be taken to hospital in August. When my father in law went to see him he had turned to face the wall. My father in law said, ‘When are you coming home, then, Ken?’ He had to bend down to get the whispered reply. ‘Never. I’m never going home.’ Ken died about two weeks later.
We were a small bunch who went to see him off this morning. At the start of the service there was a recording of All things bright and beautiful. ‘He loved that song’, his cleaner, Ann, said. ‘We used to sing it together, especially when his room was a right tip.’
So there you are, he was a difficult, generous, sociable, grumpy old bugger, who caused quite a bit of upset for his family one way or another. One of his nephews, not without humour, remarked, ‘I expect he’ll be making trouble Up There now.’ I hope he is.