When I ‘completed the set’, I found there is no single solution to the worst life can throw at you
Joel Golby Sat 2 Feb 2019
‘I have now spent more of my life without a father than with,’ says Joel Golby.
My parents are dead and now I don’t know where to spend Christmas. Like, can I go to Dad’s? No. Dad’s is out because Dad now resides on a golf course in Wolverhampton, a golf course that has no official idea about this because when we sprinkled him – a grey, dreary day in February 2004, the first of his birthdays without him – the family neglected entirely to go through any legitimate ash-sprinkling channels, which is why we had to take two cars and sneak down this side road and park nearby, hop through thick grass on a hill, then crouch among thin, leafless trees, passing around the big ice-cream tub that had Dad in it, sprinkling that, and so of course he went everywhere, big billowing clouds of Dad all around us, sticking to boots and trousers, clots of grey Dad on the ground. So: can’t go there.
Mum’s is out, because Mum is a slick of grey dust long since lost to the waves, who was last seen being poured into a shallow hole on a beach in Filey in Yorkshire in 2014. This is another thing they never tell you about death: how, logistically, getting rid of two-and-a-half kilos of ground Mum is a nightmare. Firstly, it is never in an urn: the crematorium presents it to you in a practical-looking if grey-around-the-edges plastic tub, with a plastic bag inside it as rudimentary spill insurance. Then you have to get the old band together again, ie get all the family to one chosen place to reverently pour dust on the ground. My sister did the hard work of organising this one, and we spent two hours in Filey slowly walking down to the beach, digging a small hole, dumping the ashes, finding a bin for the ashes “urn”, then fish and chips and home. Trying to think if I had an emotion that day. Don’t think I had an emotion.
So anyway, yeah: Christmas is tricky.
My parents are dead and my dad died when I was 15 and my mum followed suit 10 years later. I had “completed the set” by the age of 25, and they managed to split up somewhere in the midst of my childhood, too: they never married but they argued like they had, separating when I was 13. “I am an orphan!” I would say to people, as a joke, and they would say: “You’re not an orphan, don’t be sil–” then realise that, yes, actually, I am, and just because I’m not some grubby-faced Oliver-style orphan, flat cap and itchy tweed asking a man for oats, doesn’t mean I’m not an orphan.
I’m an orphan. Look it up. I am the dictionary definition of an orphan.
It’s my turn – my sister did this when my dad died – to call everyone and tell them Mum is dead
My parents were old when they had me – Dad, who already had my sister from another marriage, was 42; Mum, a first-timer at 38 – but still, when you sign up to push a baby out of your body and nurture it to adulthood, you are, in my opinion, signing an invisible contract: I am going to live long enough to see this one through so it can learn to live without me before it has to. It would have been nice for someone to teach me how to shave, or what an Isa is, or how many carbohydrates I should be eating (not that many!) before they died.
My parents are dead and my sister has gone back to London for the weekend and so I am left, alone here in Chesterfield, with the echoing floors and the still-bristling ashtrays and my mum’s phonebook, carefully handwritten and overwritten, years of house moves and name changes and marriages and divorce, with the names and numbers of all her families and friends. Mum had cancer, so we sort of knew this was coming, just not when. And it’s my turn – my sister did this when my dad died – to call everyone and tell them she is dead.
The first person I call is my mum’s best friend, Teresa, the best woman in the world, the woman who even now sends me Christmas cards with “NOT 2B OPENED B4 24/12/2017” written on them, and she is driving when she picks up, it sounds like, on the hands-free, and briefly she is pleased to hear from me, because I’ve literally never phoned her in my life. “Oh hi,” she says, and, “How are you?” and then I have to tell her, and the words feel dry in my mouth because I haven’t ever said them yet. “Terri,” I say. “It’s mum. She’s dead.” And Terri goes: “No, no.”
That’s all I remember: “No, no.” Sometimes when I try to sleep I can still hear it exactly how she said it: “No, no.” With her voice breaking halfway through. And there was a pause, and she said, “I’ll have to call you back,” and I said yes, and then I sort of sat there, holding the phone, just sitting in the armchair, looking.
And that is definitely the worst thing I’ve had to do in my entire life.
And for the rest of the friends we just announce it via a Facebook status, because who can do that, really? Who can do that to themselves?
My parents are dead and I am drunk, so much drunker than everyone else around me, so drunk for a Wednesday, and it’s so obvious, being that drunk, such an obvious way of coping, but here I am. My sister is in London still, and all my mates are at work and so it’s just me, in the house, going crazy at the way this place seems to have deformed and changed in the time I’ve been here. The very shape of the rooms seems different, too quiet, and I’m bored and still not dressed and, long story short, lunch is one ham and coleslaw bap, one small bag of Mini Cheddars, and a fantastic amount of beer and bourbon drunk alone. I have just discovered the boilermaker – a bottle of American beer chased with a greasy shot of bourbon – and have decided it is fantastic. When, that evening, I arrive at the Wetherspoons we all go to, everyone is there slowly sipping their first pints and someone turns to me with a note of surprise in their voice and says: “Joel, you’re so drunk.”
And I say: “Hell f**k sh*t f**k yeah, I’m drunk!” And I order another two boilermakers. And I would say this activity continues for roughly three more years.
My parents are dead and I don’t know what my dad’s face looks like any more. I know what my mum’s face looks like: I can look directly in a mirror for that, imagine myself with a grey, chin-length bob and a fag on the go, yelling at the tennis, by which I mean to say I have my mother’s exact face. But his face… not so much.
I have now spent more of my life without a father than with. And those memories are becoming blurry now – the things he did, the way his voice sounded, gentle but melodic, sort of, the way he smelled so bad because he was a smoker, and the way the car smelled so, so bad because he was a smoker, and all the smoke – but his face. His face. I just can’t picture it.
Sometimes I go to my sister’s house and buried among knick-knacks there’s a perfectly sharp photo portrait of my dad, the one I took when I was about eight, when, after school, I went with him to the local college nearby, where he knew the photography lecturer, who let him use the dark room; and there, in the empty hours of the evening, he’d sit and make a shallow pool of chemicals slowly splash, and, alchemy-like, black-and-white photos would emerge; and I would spend most of these times bored out of my mind, until, once, he set the camera up for me – steadied it on the tripod, gauged the aperture and ISO, stood me on a box and trailed a shutter release wire down to me, then sat in front of the camera, click. And then he went to the back and developed it: the last photo of him taken.
I’m getting to the age where my friends’ parents are dying, too, and I feel I should know what to say to them. I never really do
My parents are dead and all I can think back to is the Christmas I figured Santa wasn’t real. I’m at the train station with my dad, hands in our pockets, waiting on Christmas Eve for my sister. She’s been off living in London, and my dad is making small talk, asking me what I want for Christmas. He was always very clear-eyed, when my sister was coming to stay: rare, half-yearly trips, just a weekend here or there, and he would always be on his A-game for it, make sure he was sober and sparkling. He nestles in near and says, “And so, what do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas?”
“I don’t really know,” I say.
“What if he bought you a camera?” my dad asks. And I say – and this haunts me, every time I think of it, in the many years since; if I could take back one moment and swallow it away, push it all in my mouth like a piece of paper and chomp it down and swallow it, take it all back, I would, but I am stuck with the scar instead – I go: “Ugh. No.”
And my dad turns to look away and says, “OK.”
And so of course the next day I open a carefully wrapped shoebox with, inside it, a small, pristine, secondhand camera. And the note from Santa is in my dad’s handwriting. And he says he hopes I like my present. And that is how I learned that Santa wasn’t real.
(I just wanted a Mega Drive, that’s all. I just wanted a Mega Drive.)
My parents are dead, or at least my dad is, and my mum and I don’t really talk much any more, but whenever I see her she demands I play Scrabble with her, because she is very good at Scrabble and enjoys beating me at it a lot.
I do not have the exact statistics to hand, but her unbeaten run at Scrabble goes back at least 15 years, because my mum is the kind of Scrabble dickhead who plays “XI” in the corner on a triple word score three moves from the end, conjuring 48 points out of thin air, and also a lot of the times we played I was a literal child, but whatever.
The point is, I am 21 now and have a degree and I have won by 12 points, and this information has shocked her to the core. “No,” she says, touching each tile, counting and recounting the entire board, top to bottom. “No, it’s not possible.” And she looks up at me across the table – and I remember that the only other board game we have played together was the night my dad died, when we just stayed up in silence playing cards, until the cold part of the night turned something blue then grey then red as the sun came up in the morning, and she said, “Well,” and, “I guess we best get on with it,” and she rang work to tell them she wouldn’t be in today, and rang school to say I wouldn’t be coming in today and didn’t know when I would be in ever again (it would be six weeks until I went back there) – she looks up at me and goes, “You cheated. You must have cheated.” And the torch is passed between the generations. And I am the family champion of Scrabble now.
There are times when I feel unutterably alone – when all I need is my mum’s roast, or to drive around in my dad’s smoky old Volvo
My parents are dead and forms; forms, forms; forms, forms, forms. There is a form to declare death and you have to pay for each printout, which means you have to predict exactly how many corporations and banks and agencies are going to ask for certified proof of death and then pre-emptively pay £12 for them to have it, and we umm and ahh and ask for four (you need two, at most: if you take anything from this, just know that everywhere takes photocopies, and save yourself £24). Then you have to, as in our case where there is no will, jump through the various hoops to invoke probate, a sort of de facto all-of-this-dead-person’s-shit-now-belongs-by-blood-to-you ritual where I have to go to a local family court, get knife-searched on the way in, then swear godlessly on a sign of the cross to say that I am the one true heir to a £90,000 terrace house near Sheffield, nobody else may make claim on my land. The government sends me a letter to tell them they overpaid my mother’s pension, ie made payment into her account exactly once post-death, and now they would like that money back: I tear the paper up and scatter it into the bin.
I am warned that people might wheedle out like cockroaches from beneath the family fridge – someone, somewhere, some distant cousin, might try to make a claim on what thin gruel there is left – and to be prepared for it. They mean legally, but I want it in blood: I am angry, so angry, I am ready to meet anyone head on, if anyone even steps up to me and tells me they want a penny of what’s mine I will tear at them until they are just a mashed pile of red. I want somebody to take this out on, I need it.
My parents are dead and it’s a year or so later and everyone thinks that I’m fine, including me. I’m cat-sitting for my sister – the cats are brothers, Boz and Jez, big beefy thickset tabbies with loud mouths who lean into tickles ear-first, great cats, wonderful boys, starting to creak a little as we’ve had them since I was 11 but otherwise great, good boys. But now there’s something wrong with Boz: he’s thin when he used to be plush, he’s quiet when he used to be loud, he keeps coming up to me, shaking and feeble, just leaning on me with all the little weight that he has. Boz has been my best little mate since he was six months old, and now I look into his huge orange eyes and I know that he is dying. Moww, he says, and I say moww back, and I cry, and cry and cry and cry, and kiss his little head, and cry and cry and cry, and I’m crying now, and I cry and cry and cry and cry, and I suppose that’s when it hits me most of all.
My parents are dead and I’m starting to get to the age where my friends’ parents are dying, too, and I feel I should know what to say to them. And I never really do: instances of grief, I have found, are unique, two never coming in the same shape, and they can be piercing and hard-edged and they can be like passing through deep, dark treacle or they can be like a long, slow-passing cloud. There is no one single catch-all solution to dealing with the worst life has to throw at you.
But what I do always say is: oh man, this is going to suck. And I always say: you need two fewer death certificates than you think you need.
And I say: at one point you are going to become keenly aware that everyone is judging you for the way you outwardly behave when someone close to you dies, and I need to tell you that that is a nonsense. You are going to feel a dirty little feeling of guilt. If there’s a long illness involved, there might be this horrible, metallic-tasting feeling of relief, one too hard and real for you to admit to yourself is there. You will do weird things and behave weirdly and not even know it is happening. There’s no right way of dealing with it but there are a thousand differently angled wrong ways. You’ll cycle through all of them.
I have just had my fourth Christmas without parental guidance now, and I suppose I am OK. There are still times when I feel unutterably alone – times when all I need is my mum’s roast, or a voice that knows me on the other end of a phone to tell me things will be all right again, or what I need to do to make things all right; times when I’d give anything to go for one pint with my dad, or drive around in his smoky old Volvo listening to Fleetwood Mac. It’s weird what you miss: every holiday we had, when I was a kid, was foreshadowed on the morning of travel by my dad getting the shits – every single time, without fail – and our journey to Cleethorpes or Scarborough or Whitby or Filey would be delayed by Dad, in the bathroom, making the air sharp and sour, groaning through the door, and Mum, on her 10th or 11th furious cigarette, hissing: “Every. Bloody. Time. Tony! Every. Fucking. Time,” through her teeth, and I don’t know. Holidays don’t seem the same without this consistent element of intestinal chaos beforehand.
I picked up his camera, recently. I turn 30 this year, and I think a lot of people my age and of my generation get this delayed obsession with film – the gauzy, blurry, physical quality of it, more a frozen moment in time, somehow, than anything digital – and I asked my sister to dig out his old Nikon. It was curious, looking into that bag, reminding myself of a time left behind me: an old emergency pack of Rizlas, the gnarled old piece of tights he used as a lens cleaner. The bag smelled of him. I held the camera up to my face, put my eye where his eye had been, nestled my nose where, years before, he would have squashed his. Click. You wonder what they would make of you, now. Click. How they might be proud of what you’ve become. Click.