One way or another today has included a lot of death. I spent much of it in Guildford, the town where I was born, and where I lived throughout my teenage years.
The main purpose of my visit was to see the dentist for my six month check up (all good). I was early and looked at my ‘phone. There was a message that made me gasp, notification of the death of Ernie, a really lovely man I used to see often during the course of my work. I made a note of the funeral arrangements in my diary. His partner Paul must be devastated. They were together for nearly sixty years. Throughout my appointment I was remembering his kindness, the way he used to call me Mate.
As I was leaving the dental practice an elderly gentlemen was making a follow up appointment. When I heard his name my ears pricked up and I turned to look at him. It was an unusual name and one I recognised, though I did not recognise the man. He was our family GP for some years. More grist to the memories mill.
Then it was a trip to the museum, a place where I spent some time almost every Saturday until I was around twelve. I walked there via the Castle Grounds where I used to walk my grandparents’ dog. I’m sure some of my DNA has entered the soil there.
Last summer I bequeathed some of my primary school uniform to the museum. I mentioned to the collections officer that I also had my Brownie uniform. He later contacted me to say that the museum would like to have it in the collection. I emailed him to say I wouldn’t be in Guildford for some time, but that I’d get in touch when I was next going to be there. Which I did. No response, but I guessed he was busy.
When I asked at reception if he was there the woman was visibly taken aback. I’m afraid he’s no longer here, she said, what was it about?
I explained and she seemed to feel I needed some explanation for the officer’s absence. He died, she said.
It was my turn to be taken aback. Surely he was quite young, I answered.
Yes, she said. Then hesitated, it wasn’t an illness or anything like that.
He took his own life, I said, more as a statement than a question.
She nodded. I miss him, she said, and we looked at each other in silence for a few moments.
The hardest funeral I have ever attended was that of a girl I had taught who killed herself a few years later when she was a university student.
The receptionist lifted the’phone and called the other collections officer and I noticed a book for sale about my secondary school. I opened it and found myself looking at the familiar faces of women who taught me decades ago. The fond memories of one ex pupil a few years above me didn’t quite tally with my own.
I think it was as I left the museum and walked along Quarry Street (home to the dental practice we went to when I was small, the pub I used to go to as a teenager, the shop where I bought my garndfather’s newspaper on Saturdays) that the James Taylor soundtrack kicked in. Despite listening to the soundtrack of Hamilton in preparation for seeing the show in a week or so, it’s James Taylor’s voice singing from his first album that is playing in my head.
So I was humming it to myself as I walked down the High Street, crossed over Friary Bridge and began the steep climb up The Mount.
Guildford is full of hills and The Mount’s incline is impressive. There’s a cemetery at the top. I’m not sure how horse drawn hearses managed the journey to and from.
My goal was my Great Grandmother’s grave. I had the section details and the plot number. It was quite easy to find, but there was no memorial anymore. I believe one of my great aunts is buried in the same grave, but I don’t know where her husband’s body lies. It’s strange looking at a depression in the ground and knowing someone who shares my DNA is buried eight feet beneath the surface.
Today happens to be the anniversary of Great Grandmother’s death in 1944, and Saturday will be the anniversary of her funeral and interment. I never knew her, though I have photos of her as a teenager and as an old woman, as well the knee desk she was given for her twenty-first birthday and the letter she wrote to her son, my grandfather, when my father was born; a letter in which she gets my grandmother’s name wrong and talks about this new born baby having violin lessons.
My father cordially disliked her; her love of cats gave him an antipathy to them, so you will understand trips to her grave were not part of my growing up. Yet somehow I found that depression in the ground quite moving. More moving I think than a headstone would have been.
I walked back down the hill in thoughtful mode, still singing James Taylor songs.