The following event occurred in a primary school in Somerset in 1979.
The girl involved had suffered brain-damage a few years prior to this as a result of swallowing a marble which had blocked her trachea. She was removed from conventional education for a number of years to be given specialist help but then returned to her original school. Despite her reduced mental capacity she was as much a part of our class as anyone else and she and her family were close friends of my own.
We are talking to our teacher I am in trouble for some mildly attention-seeking disruptive behaviour a few moments earlier while Karen is excited beyond words because her daddy is waiting for her downstairs.
“Miss.. Miss…my dad’s here, my dad’s here..”
“Karen, I’m talking to Simon, please don’t interrupt, just wait a minute!”
I look at Karen to pull a ‘just wait a minute face’, Karen smiles back at me, she spent a lot of her time smiling at people, I guess she enjoyed seeing them smile back.
I’m now smiling at her, she’s smiling at me and neither of us is paying the teacher any attention, kids eh?
And then that childhood innocence is lost forever.
My friend’s eyes roll upwards, the pupils disappear, there is just the milky white sclera remaining as she, like a puppet released from its strings, crumples to the floor and starts to shake, twitch and then, becomes motionless.
There’s a momentary silence that would shame the most remote celestial star
“Simon, quick, fetch the headmaster….run..NOW, run, run run!”
The teacher gives unrehearsed instructions to the rest of the children now all standing in silence in the classroom as I barrel down the stairs and sprint toward the headmaster’s office. As I depart, I hear a girl scream, a boy starts sobbing uncontrollably as they begin to file out of the classroom towards the assembly hall.
Karen’s dad had arrived minutes earlier to collect her and take her to get her hair done, we attend a Catholic school and she was due to be confirmed the following day. As I stagger along the suddenly, seemingly endless main corridor I see him waiting in reception.
“Uncle Dick….it’s Karen, she’s….she’s…dead”.
I shout that at him, I don’t mean to shout, I don’t mean to say the word dead either, but the world has just changed forever, which is a long time when you’re a kid. Until that morning, life is mostly about playground games of kick the can and kiss-chase, Airfix models, jumpers for goalposts and the utter conviction that girls are to be avoided at all costs out of school hours. Life is a childhood with the safety of a stable home complete with mum, dad and big sister.
Life is now something else altogether, on some level, I’ve been dragged towards unwelcome adulthood. I don’t realise this of course, any more than I actually know for certain that someone has just died or understand why I’ve just bellowed this awful news to her father.
The headmaster hears my shout and comes stampeding from his office to find me and Karen’s dad standing in a momentary, uncomprehending silence, staring at each other.
I unintentionally shout again.
“She’s just…. died upstairs in our classroom…I, I, I…”
‘Uncle’ Dick sprints towards the stairs that lead to the classroom, the headmaster showing him the way, two grown men, suddenly, both looking as frightened as children themselves.
The kids in my class are 10/11 years old, this is our final year of catholic primary school, first Holy Communion, Confirmation, kick the can and not being chased at kiss chase are part of this life, like it or not. The death of a child, a close family friend to boot, should not be, but now it is and of course, there is no ‘like it or not’ option.
The assembly hall fills up with bewildered uncomprehending children as an ambulance crew wheels a gurney past us towards the classroom. We are all told to not look, we all look. Those kids not already crying now do so. Almost all of them anyway, even the class bully from the Oldmixon Estate begins to sob helplessly.
I don’t, I can’t, all I can hear is a cold, unknown voice from somewhere I know not where.
“Don’t cry Simon, don’t cry”
Maybe it’s the newly-arrived ‘adult’ in me, the ‘man’ that if at all possible I would never want to be, but suddenly seem to have no choice but to be?
“Don’t cry Simon, be a man.”
Maybe in Weston-Super-Mare in 1979, expressing ‘feelings’ was still not on the ‘menu’, unlike the then, seemingly ubiquitous Findus frozen savoury pancakes and Breville toasted sandwich makers that had clearly been invented to incinerate our taste-buds and tongues? I don’t recall ‘doing’ feelings in my house; my taste-buds however, have sadly never recovered.
I don’t know why ‘we’ didn’t ‘do’ feelings in public or private; both my parents had experienced the horrors of WW2 in their formative years. Maybe they’d had enough of outward displays of emotion, or perhaps, possibly even more commonplace, the opposite by 1945? Maybe the war had somehow entrenched the British ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude so deeply as to negate the whole concept of ‘feelings’ entirely?
“Don’t cry Simon, just don’t.”
So I didn’t.
I am not huddled with the rest of my friends as they cling to each other sobbing, I am standing by the door to the hall, leaving me in some sort of physical and emotional no-man’s land because the headmaster needs me to explain what has occurred upstairs to one of the ambulance crew prior to them driving to the hospital. In essence, I’m required to be a ‘grown-up’, as I try to tell the medic what I’ve witnessed. In reality I am a ten year old boy who has absolutely no idea what to do say or feel because all I can hear is the collective sobbing of a room full of children being drowned out by the voice in my head that belongs to nobody I know, getting louder and louder.
“Don’t cry Simon, be a man, don’t cry Simon, be a man.”
The ambulance crew ghost past us with a sheet covering Karen’s body, her father is clinging onto the gurney. He is not crying, he looks way beyond that particular demonstration of grief already as he momentarily stares at me and I see the eyes of adulthood attempting to hold back an ocean of tears.
“Don’t cry Simon…it’s going to be ok.”
He was a squadron-leader in the RAF, a hero, just like my dad, so if he’s not crying, I shan’t either.
I’m a 10 year old man now; people need me to not cry right?
The ambulance departs, teachers console children, phone calls have been made to parents as those who live close are already arriving to collect their own kids and intuitively hug them that little bit closer as they escort them to the safety of their own homes.
I don’t know why, but it’s not until almost the entire hall has emptied of distraught children that it occurs to me that I am free to collect my bike from the playground and ride the short distance along Walliscote Road to my home.
Nobody asks me to stay, nobody tells me to leave I just stand at the doorway to the hall saying “It’s going to be alright” to my classmates as they are scooped up by their respective parents and removed from the scene of that afternoons tragic events.
“I’m going home now Mr Dempsey, it’s going to be alright isn’t it?”
The headmaster pats me on the head,
“Go home Simon, well done on being so helpful.”
I done nothing, other than not cry, how that has been helpful to anyone I will never know? But as I clamber onto my Raleigh Chopper and begin to pedal like a maniac along Walliscote Road, it seems that I’ve somehow, done the ‘right thing’, at least as far as the headmaster is concerned.
I throw my bike into the back door of our house to be greeted by my mum asking why I am home early, as I look up at her, finally and without any restraint, the tears come.
“Mum, mum, it’s Karen, she’s died, Uncle Dick was there, I tried to help, but I couldn’t do anything mum, she’s died.”
I have no real recollection of the rest of that awful day, I know my mum and dad made a call to Karen’s house, but my ‘inner’ man has clearly now deserted me and made way for the unbridled tears of a distraught little boy who lies on his bed sobbing hysterically as his mum tried her best to console him.
“Don’t cry Simon, it will be alright.”
“OK mum, I’ll try not to, I promise I’ll try.”
It was soon explained to all concerned, that Karen had experienced some kind of fatal seizure and had passed away, probably instantly, but no amount of consolatory sermons over the next few days from the school or local priest, that she was now ‘in heaven’, seemed to make that days tragic events any less devastating, at least not to me. Surely nobody wanted her to be in ‘heaven’? We wanted her in our classroom.
At this particular juncture in my childhood, I was already showing an early tendency to pass on the ‘religious stuff’ and devote more time to the ‘kiss chase’ way of life, regardless of what the school or indeed anyone thought best. I’d already figured out that life was not fair.
By 1979,( I was 11) 3 of my 4 grandparents were dead, I had no recollection of either of my father’s parents, nor my mums mother, her father, was the only grandparent I knew as he’d come to live with us a few years previously. My mum’s mother had committed suicide with sleeping tablets and alcohol in the early 70’s, a fate that also took my dad’s sister, my auntie Betty from us a few years afterwards. My sister and I had been very close to her, she had no children of her own, so she doted on us and spoiled us rotten. I wasn’t told she took her own life until years after the event, not indeed did I know my mother’s mum had ended her own life in a similar fashion.
May 1979; Mrs Thatcher arrives at Downing Street for the first time, quoting St Francis of Assisi,
“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony, where there is error, may we bring truth, where there is doubt, may we bring faith and where there is despair, may we bring hope.”
My dad died in November of that year, so neither Mrs Thatcher, nor the man from Assisi, were going to be able to deliver on that promise as far as I or indeed, (for completely different reasons), huge sections of the British public were concerned.
November 11th 1979.
My daddy, a pilot during WW2, my hero, (your hero too) died from a heart-attack aged 57.
I cried, I cried until there were no more tears to cry then I became hysterical and somehow found more tears as our family home, once again was cloaked with loss. I only stopped crying when the family doctor decided I’d become hysterical to the point I needed sedation and prescribed a tablet of some kind.
Tablet administered, tears stop as sedation arrives and yeah, I have a ‘theory’ about that which may go so way to explain a little about what remains in this piece, but we’ll get to that shortly.
I don’t know why, but now there was no more ‘voice’ saying ‘don’t cry’ as my mum, sister and I shed our tears collectively, without restraint, until the next tablet was administered to me that is. Mum took me to see my dad, I remember holding on to her hand as we both kissed him goodbye as he lay in his coffin in the chapel of rest. My mum became hysterical as she kissed his pallid face, so i thought best not cry to show her I was a ‘man’ and could look after her, the notion of which had been given to me by a male family friend earlier that day.
“Your dad’s gone now Simon, you’re going to have to be the man of the house”
Right you are then.
The voice was back.
I didn’t attend his funeral, but instead was returned to my boarding school within a week of his passing and trust me, crying or any other display of emotion was definitely not a wise move, so the tears and hurt were hidden. There was no ‘counselling’ on offer from the Catholic Church who presided over my boarding school, quite the opposite in fact. Within a week of being returned to their ‘care’, I found myself being whipped with 6 strokes of a riding crop for having the audacity to leave supper before prayers had been said. I was also subjected to regular sexual abuse from the headmaster of the school until he was ‘removed’ by his seniors, only to be sent to another of their ‘institutions’ I might add, where he was eventually arrested for the serious sexual assault of a 14yr old boy. I digress…
Less than two years after my dad’s death, my grandfather also died. I have no idea why or even how I found myself alone with his body in the care-home he’d been living in prior to his death, but again, a dead person and me, no mum this time. I kissed him goodbye too crying as I did so, until a nurse entered the room, then I stopped.
As for my theory about ‘medication and ‘feelings’?
I started using Heroin in 1989 and didn’t manage to shake off the shackles of addiction until 2006. People died, lots of people died, some I was close to, others I only vaguely knew from hours spent shooting up in crack-houses or standing with them in a collective ,
“Where the fuck is this cunt?”
outside a phone-box waiting for a dealer to turn up at some point between that start of that ill-fated opiated romance and the brutal wreckage that soon ensured and continued for so many years. I attended funerals, way too many funerals, the only ones I have managed to cry at, came after I got clean, make of that what you will.
Getting clean and remaining part of a ‘recovery’ community brings with it the joy of seeing people turn their lives from utter despair to the possibilities that abound when that negative junkie energy is coerced into a more positive way of life. It also brings with it the regular news that another of our number hasn’t survived. I’d guess that if pushed I could name over 40 people, mostly younger than 50 years of age who have succumbed to alcohol and drug addiction. Our joy and our grief is often what bind our ‘recovery’ communities together, we know death, we know about cheating death too.
Maybe with the advent of social-media, we in the ‘recovery’ world hear about the passing of our fellows, perhaps more readily than we might previously. Of course we don’t have the monopoly on grief, tragedy and loss, but where most people might afford themselves the filter of alcohol, or indeed other mood-altering substances to help ‘cope’ with their emotions when there is a death, this is not a choice, or not a choice we wish to take up, in such situations.
I guess it’s fair to say that for someone who, for whatever reason didn’t/couldn’t allow himself the luxury of tears for such a long time, I now have nearly 12 years of unbroken ‘sobriety’ during which time, sleeping aside, I’ve chosen to experience and demonstrate the whole range of human emotions that come with experiencing death on a regular basis. I’ve cried way too much for others, perhaps, not enough for myself just yet, but I’m getting there.
Boys don’t cry?
This one does and happily so.
And so, wherever possible, after all this death, it is crucial we try and celebrate life too, at 11 years clean, I wrote this song for my daughter, because after, just like they say in the film,
“You either get busy living, or you get busy dying”
I’ve seen enough of the latter, to last me a lifetime, so here’s to the future eh?
And greetings of the season to you all.
Simon Mason is the author of the acclaimed memoir,
Too High, Too Far, Too Soon (Mainstream 2013).
He also regularly appears in a one-man theatrical adaptation of the book and is currently the songwriter for his new band, Hightown Pirates, who have just released their critically acclaimed debut album, Dry and High (4*s Q magazine)